Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Cuphead - Thoughts


Treasure—one of gaming's most unique and creative developers—may be essentially derelict nowadays, but Studio MDHR is proudly carrying the torch with their stunning debut, Cuphead. The brief trailer snippet of it from Microsoft's E3 2014 press conference was a surprise highlight of the show, and from that moment on the Moldenhauer brothers had a lot of eyes on them. This is important to mention because there was significant pressure for Cuphead to be good. And not just for the game to look good—it had that ever since its reveal—but for the game to play well and be fun too. After all, there's nothing quite as tragic as a game that's all style but no substance.

Not only did Studio MDHR deliver with aplomb, but they're successfully reintroducing gamers to what made so many platformers in the 90's great: smooth controls and hilarious creativity.


I brought up the high expectations for Cuphead because there were a lot of ways the game could've failed. Naturally there's a number of ways any game can fail, but when you label yourself as a "run and gun boss rush platformer", there's a few critical questions you have to be wary of: how do you avoid the game feeling too short? How do you keep the gameplay fresh? How do you make every boss distinct? And perhaps most importantly—how do you find the sweet spot in difficulty? I suspect that folks that watch game trailers don't often wonder, "Gee I hope this won't be too hard", but Cuphead seemed to have the Souls effect, where myriads of gamers were hesitant of its perceived difficulty.

Fortunately, Studio MDHR had spent so much time in development that the game is practically flawless. All of the questions above have been suitably answered: Cuphead lands in that comfortable "not too long, not too short" Goldilocks zone. The gameplay is refreshingly split up between overworld exploration, bosses of the platforming & shmup variety, and a handful of run and gun stages. The bosses are distinct via their memorable attacks, sharp visuals, and zany themes. And the difficulty is on point—it's hard enough to make you sweat, but never give up. I cannot emphasize how amazing it is that the developers got everything right in this game; the stars above had perfectly aligned to give us an amazing experience where you shoot a tangerine genie that wears magic lamps for shoes.


I would be sorely remiss if I didn't mention how wonderfully demented the animation in Cuphead is. The way the animation team stuck to the tropes, shapes, and motion of cartoons in the 1930's is brilliant; fighting a boss that can transform into an airplane mid-battle or turn their teeth into the bars of a prison cell is an utter delight to behold. The style is both wacky and imaginative, providing unexpected gameplay twists that will often make you laugh—usually right before you die.

And the music! How often do you hear a big jazz band play for the entire soundtrack? What's even crazier is that the quick pace and explosive energy of the music fits like a glove, keeping you on your toes as trumpets blare during tense moments. The sound effects are likewise a perfect addition, giving flavor to bosses through silly dialogue and slide whistles. The sheer amount of focus and effort put into making Cuphead properly honor old timey cartoons is breathtaking; the production quality displayed here is on par with AAA games.

I've been so enthralled with the aesthetics of Cuphead that I forgot to mention that the gameplay is really fun too. The Treasure comparison in the first paragraph isn't merely for show—the game takes its most obvious cues from Gunstar Heroes, from customizing your weapon load-outs to the outlandish multi-transformation bosses. But the way the game comes together gives it its own unique identity, especially in regards to the fairly tricky jump-parry mechanic. And there's more to Cuphead than its exquisite bosses (though they clearly steal the show); there's nutty Inkwell inhabitants to chat with and side-scrolling stages to stomp through. Throw in a repertoire of purchasable abilities, Expert mode, and a tough-as-nails ranking system, and Cuphead's $20 price tag suddenly turns into a bargain deal.


The only downside I can think of to Cuphead is that it isn't too accommodating for players unaccustomed to 2D platformers. It's a kind of merciless experience that some will be afraid to touch, but I 'd contest that the brevity of the battles turns failure into little more than a minuscule hurdle. If you can stomach memorizing a couple boss patterns, you're bound to have a swell time. Cuphead is a dream-come-true for everyone that mourns Treasure's inactivity; it's charming, challenging, and a straight-up hoot—don't you dare skip out on the star indie game of 2017.
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Title obtained from: xbox.com

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Satellite Reign - Thoughts


I nearly stopped playing Satellite Reign out of sheer frustration in its opening hours. My brother and I picked the game up from Steam on a whim as we were looking for a new co-op experience to blast through, reasonably excited for our new purchase. The main reason we grabbed is that Satellite Reign looked damn impressive coming from an unknown indie studio, plus I can't think of anyone that would find a Syndicate-inspired, open-world, cyberpunk multiplayer game unappealing. That's why we were blindsided by the gauntlet of difficulties that awaited us, suddenly thrown headfirst into a pool of mechanics we were unprepared to grapple with. It was difficult uncovering precisely how the game wanted us to play it, but I must admit that once we overcame that obnoxious hurdle, we actually had a lot of fun.



Perhaps the most repellent part about Satellite Reign is that it's clearly designed for four players. And not in a Left 4 Dead sort of way where you're handicapped by having AI squadmates on your team—each of the four character classes have to be divvied up among all available players. This means that on a 2-player team you're likely to split the duties, each person commandeering two separate characters that are armed with their own gear, stats, and abilities. Since Satellite Reign's default mode of play is real time (there's an option to add pauses, but it can't be changed once you've begun your campaign), this means that you'll be clumsily juggling over a dozen skills in combat, losing track of cooldowns almost as fast as your soldiers lose their health. And when you're not awkwardly attempting to swap to another weapon mid-battle (there's no hotkey for that, for some bizarre reason), you'll be bumbling your way through massive enemy bases, praying for your characters not to get caught should you separate them for scouting.

And get caught you shall! Over and over and over! The enemies in Satellite Reign have some insanely sharp eyes, able waltz their way on screen and immediately spot your characters should you leave them out of cover for a few seconds. At all times you have to be cognizant of multiple patrols throughout the entire base, as they can often get the drop on you while you're busy looking elsewhere (again, I'm not exaggerating when I claim they can see you across the entire screen). It doesn't help that the minimap contains no vision cones and that your enemies are quick to spontaneously pull a 180° turn, a single shot from their rifle able to call all nearby guards to your position. And once you've been alerted it takes a long while for the heat to die down, all enemies in the base scouring every corner for your position, an already dire situation if you only had to control one character. I freely admit I'm not great (or even good) at stealth games, but Satellite Reign's stealth is so utterly, bafflingly demanding that it requires nearly omniscient foresight and ninja reflexes in order to ghost your way through a base.


Luckily, one need not play the game as a pacifist, because abusing enemy AI is what turns the game into a fun endeavor. As I mentioned, my brother and I struggled for hours during the first sector of the campaign, unable to do any missions because we were woefully under-equipped and didn't have a grasp on the game's mechanics yet. Every time we tried to play cautiously and sneak our way through a base, enemy patrols would zip by and spot us. Whenever a firefight would break out we had problems taking down one foe with our starting equipment—let alone a dozen when backup would inevitably get called. Thankfully, I discovered a neat little exploit that made the game far more bearable: performing executions mid-battle.

How executions work in Satellite Reign is that if you alt click a person while they're turned away, your character will take out their gun and pause for a second to perform a one hit kill—no matter the amount of health, armor, or shield bars they have; as long as your opponent is a humanoid, they will go down instantly. A little experimenting led me to discover that positioning both your characters on either side of an enemy and telling them both to execute the unlucky dolt will ensure one of them gets the execution off, a tactic that is infinitely repeatable provided your characters aren't gunned down during the act. It looks dumb in motion and it feels really dumb to pull off, but I'd be damned if I didn't confess that it made the game bearable.

Once my brother and I were able to start clearing out bases and leveling up, we actually started playing Satellite Reign the way it was meant to be played. We discovered the importance of research and could afford it with a stable income. We began scouring base layouts for the quickest way to our mission goal. We were finally able to avoid detection—well, whenever I didn't get overzealous with the executions (it wasn't often). Once we equipped our units with cloaking devices we really began to snowball, finally able to successfully retreat if one of us got spotted. Eventually by the end of the game we had enough health/armor/shields to tank our way through most encounters if we really wanted to. But I have to give credit where credit is due—after initially lambasting the game we were forced to plan and prioritize in order to survive Satellite Reign, enthusiastically discussing the next step of our infiltration while knee-deep inside hostile territory.


What lay beyond our initial hardships in Satellite Reign was indeed a fun experience, but it's important to note that it wasn't the polished type of fun. Too often our characters got stuck inside geometry, we routinely cried foul on the patrol routes of guards, and combat generally remained a cacophonous chore. Beyond the execution spamming (which works on the last boss, by the way!) we found a couple of other ways to take advantage of the game's programming, like spamming the Soldier's "Draw Fire" ability to distract every enemy while your allies mop up the opposition from behind, or continuously lobbing EMP grenades to keep guards stunned. It's a game that's fairly rude at the start because the tutorial does a horrendous job at preparing you for the road ahead, and I maintain that it's a pain in the ass to have to control more than one character. However, the game's presentation is stellar and I fully believe it to be a worthwhile purchase in the end. If you and three other chums are looking for something a little more tactical to play, Satellite Reign might just be your cup of tea.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard - Thoughts


[contains minor spoilers]

If you would've told me a year ago that Resident Evil would return to its horror roots with its seventh installment, I would've called you a dirty rotten liar. I loathed Resident Evil 6 with an unenviable passion and found no solace in speculating the future of the franchise—it was clear that Capcom wanted their once fearful zombie series to be as loud, dumb, and bombastic as possible. And don't get me wrong—I really did enjoy Resident Evil 4 and 5, but survival horror they ain't, and RE6 only seemed to spell certain doom for the next installment. Perhaps in another timeline we would've received Umbrella Corps as the next official RE game, but thankfully in our universe we've been given a glorious marriage between the old and the new: Resident Evil 7: Biohazard.


Before I begin, I have to point out that the game is bookended by some pretty awful sections. The intro is too slow, linear, and derivative, resembling much better horror media while simultaneously hamming it up to high hell. Meanwhile the end of the game ditches the typical exploration-survival-puzzle loop and becomes a tepid gray gauntlet of enemies that you've already fought before. Neither of these parts particularly ruin the experience, but they stick out like a sore thumb once you've finished, especially the bizarre intro. I can see a lot of people liking how off-the-wall it gets, but I've always appreciated Resident Evil for the game aspect of it, rather than the bonkers presentation.

Thankfully, by the time you step foot into the Baker estate's foyer, it'll feel like home. Boiled down, RE 7 is a more compact and condensed version of the original, hitting a lot of similar notes in its own gruesome way. Instead of zombies you have the molded, instead of being out in the midwestern wilderness you're in the thick of a swampy southern bayou, and instead of wielding a shotgun and grenade launcher you utilize a... well, shotgun and grenade launcher. But the way RE 7 clings to tradition is endearing rather than tiresome; it's been so long since we've gotten to explore a creaky old wooden house that it practically feels like a brave new direction for the series.

And in some regard, it certainly is a new direction: the first person perspective is something that's not nearly as jarring as I thought it was going to be. Plenty of folks disparage the tank controls in the original games but they helped to keep the gameplay tense and uncomfortable, allowing the zombies to be a threat despite their leisurely walk speed. And the first person perspective works as a direct analog to that—your sprint speed is significantly slower than other FPSs and not being able to see what's behind/to the sides of your character creates a ton of tension when you're fleeing from a foe. More than once I made a mad dash for a door with an inhuman gurgling echoing in my headphones, my heart racing as I dove into a safe room (and on one occasion, was pursued up some stairs I wasn't expecting the enemy to climb). The gameplay can still be awkward at times (like trying to shoot a darting mosquito), but it's a good kind of awkward, one that remains subservient to the game's horror.


I mentioned previously that Resident Evil 7 felt like a condensed version of the original, and this is a facet that has its own pros and cons. The minimization of each area means you'll get to know every layout intimately—so you're never lost or left wondering where the next puzzle key is—but on the other hand, it does make the RE 7 feel less like a full-fledged adventure and more like an extended introduction. At first the Baker estate appears to be a massive complex but in reality it's a modest little playground, boasting 1-2 routes to each room. You won't need a plan of attack for going back to a locked room since the smaller square footing means far less enemies, but thankfully the game is packed with a lot of good surprises and jump scares, never outstaying its welcome even by its combat-oriented end. Although there's a part of me that wishes it was longer or that certain sections were more fleshed out, what's here is great and absolutely worth a playthrough for survival horror fans.

I'm not going to talk at length about the story mainly because I think the Resident Evil lore is mostly rubbish, and I largely enjoy the moment-to-moment spooky bits (like reading Lisa Trevor's diary) over learning the internal politics of Umbrella. The main villains of Resident Evil 7 is both corny and nonsensical, each of them running the gamut of different horror tropes (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Saw). Individual fights against them are fun however they're never really interesting to listen to, and the plot doesn't really have any clear direction until its final act. The main protagonists aren't anything special either—if anything, they're less remarkable than the dysfunctional Baker family. Again, there are bits and beats I enjoy (like the "Happy Birthday" tape), but the overall feel, look, and sound of Resident Evil 7 is what kept me coming back to it, rather than learning about the Bakers' backstories.


In the opening hours I was ready to write Resident Evil 7: Biohazard off as a fluke that fans were partial to only because they hadn't played other horror games. After climbing past the lunatic heights of battling a car doing donuts in a garage, RE 7 finally clicked with me just as anxiety was bubbling in my stomach. Did I have enough ammo? Should I combine all my chem fluid now or save some for later? Is it worth it to head back into the house to scavenge around for the antique coins? Even while writing this, I felt trepidation and dread thinking back to certain moments, RE 7 finally accomplishing what every game post REmake had failed to do: fill me with fear via gameplay. It certainly was an awesome ride while it lasted.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Nioh - Thoughts


Nioh is a Souls-like—there's no point in attempting to deny that. From the Action RPG similarities (third person camera, equip load affecting stamina, leveling up by choosing which stats to increase) to the shared level design choices (ladder shortcuts, respawning enemies, stages ending in a boss fight with a big health bar at the bottom of the screen), right down to how you have to do a corpse run to pick up your sou—er, amrita. But the similarities to Souls end there, as Team Ninja forges their own path via their sublime combat system. As crazy as it sounds, Bloodborne's action doesn't even come close to the amount of intricacy, nuance, and depth present in Nioh's swordplay. If there's one reason to don the samurai armor and purge Japan of its oni infestation, it's to experience the best third-person combat this generation.


The most unique aspect about Nioh's gameplay isn't its low/mid/high stance weapon juggling, but the Ki Pulse: an instantaneous maneuver that lets you regain stamina lost. It sounds like pretty unremarkable on paper until you start playing the game and realize how quickly you run out of stamina, as well as how terrifyingly ferocious you become once you really nail down the Ki Pulse mechanic. Having to keep an eye on both your health bar & stamina bar in the heat of combat (as well as the enemy's health & stamina) adds a whole new dimension to the swordplay, especially when you're tasked mid-combo to expel the Yokai Realm (an AoE curse that saps your stamina recovery) with a well-timed Ki Pulse. Throw in two magic systems and a massive amount of skills for each of Nioh's five weapons, and you have a game you'll continue to learn new things about long after the credits roll.

But you better hope you get a grasp on Nioh's mechanics quickly because enemies come at you fast and full of fury, cutting you to bits in a handful of hits. When I say it's easy to die in Nioh, I mean it's really easy to die in Nioh—not even the Souls games are this merciless! Bosses in particular can require a high skill bar to topple, as a tense fight with any of them can be concluded in seconds should you get hit with a nasty debuff or lose all your stamina, reducing you to a panting, vulnerable target. I struggled a lot in this game, but it was never an angry or frustrating struggle; a lot of the battles in Nioh were simply puzzles I had yet to solve, where any mistakes I made were usually punished with a swift death. At the start of the journey I was a flimsy, unrefined steel that was suddenly thrust into a forge of hellfire, time eventually purging me of my impulsive button-mashing tendencies. I still die every now and then in the game (again, it's really easy to die), but man did I love how Nioh continued to push me to play better, even near its end.

Nioh is difficult—make no mistake about that—but it's never unfair. Shortcuts are always nearby, enemies can frequently be fought one-by-one, and you never feel like you need more levels or a better weapon in order to overcome a fearsome boss. That's not to say that you won't need to equip better stuff however—Nioh is frequently overburdened by its inventory management, requiring you to scour through your list of gear every two stages or so. Deliberating between which equipment to keep or toss is surprisingly confusing for how relatively naked the game is in the grand scheme of things; whether you equip a "Mid Attack Break +7.2%" katana or "Strong Attack Ki Damage +6.8%" blade doesn't really matter since failing to dodge a single grab is liable to end your run. Plus you'll continue to find better and better gear as you press onwards, meaning that 99% of the loot you pick up before the final level is going to end up in the rubbish bin.


For as obnoxious as the inventory management can become, I would contest that Nioh's greatest failing is its lack of enemy & stage variety. When you first start the game, it feels awesome to come across so many mythological Japanese monsters, but around halfway through the journey you'll have seen all that Nioh has to offer (barring the bosses). This isn't a terrible thing in and of itself since all of the enemies are fun to fight, but Nioh is a reaaallly long game with a heap of side content to explore, meaning you'll eventually know every enemy like the back of your hand. Areas in the side quests are also reused frequently, which can feel quite disheartening, especially since any shortcuts you unlock in the main levels are impermanent (even if you merely replay said level). Throw in the fact that there's not a whole lot of build variety in Nioh (you can learn each of the game's five weapons over its duration), and one playthrough will probably be enough to sate your samurai bloodlust.

So essentially, if you play it a lot, you'll realize Nioh is lacking in variety—not a bad "greatest failing" to have, honestly! Thankfully it doesn't share Breath of the Wild or Skyrim's Achilles heel of core mechanics failing to sustain their wealth of content, since Nioh is built from the ground up with a rock-solid foundation. I might wish some bosses had popped up more frequently, or that there was more to the Twilight Missions other than "more oni!", but every battle is brutal and fulfilling; every demon slain is its own conquered hurdle. Trying to learn the delicate flow to each weapon and their special abilities is a joy that's found only in the best character action games, and fitting this luscious gameplay to a Dark Souls-esque mold produced an experience I was absolutely smitten by. Despite whatever failings Nioh had (speaking of, I forgot to mention that the story is bafflingly atrocious), whenever I think back to the game I think not of its flaws or shortcomings, but of deftly dancing around a foe, recovering my stamina just in the nick of time, and cutting their head clean off their shoulders. I likely performed over a thousand decapitations, but not once did that maneuver ever become tiresome—I earned every violent victory.


Nioh renewed my faith in Team Ninja; I doubted that they had the mastery to create their own successful Souls-like, and I was dead wrong. Like Doom last year, Nioh was the game I never wanted to stop playing, simply based on its combat alone. And like Doom, there's plenty of legitimate complaints to be had that—upon reflection—crumble underneath the relentless gameplay. Mechanically, Nioh is a cruel wet dream, demanding a ton of effort from the player but rewarding them in spades, should they choose to walk the arduous path of the samurai. It might be a long and difficult road to travel, but just as practice breeds perfection, Nioh ultimately begets a satisfied gamer.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker - Thoughts


Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is a delightful pleasantry. It's a simple game that's not too short and too long, nor too difficult or too easy. It's a "middle of the road" type of game that's not ambitious enough to gain traction through word of mouth, but is an excellent experience for anyone that enjoys perspective puzzles. Speaking as one of those people, I had a gay old time spelunking with the miniature mushroom man and his fungi crew, the colorful visuals and cheerful atmosphere worth the price of admission alone. While I wasn't challenged by the puzzles as much as I usually prefer to be (barring one notable endgame exception), Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker still managed to charm me in its own humble little way.


Like many others, I was a bit surprised that Nintendo EAD Tokyo would go about creating a full-fledged experience from what seemed to be a suitable one-off minigame in Super Mario 3D World. I really enjoyed the Captain Toad segments that were in there but I wasn't begging for more of them. Well, that is, until Treasure Tracker was revealed during E3 2014 and I realized, "hey, you know what, I would play more of those levels." It took me a bit of time to get around to playing it (I didn't own a copy until this year), but it was just the thing I needed between the more grueling endeavors of surviving Nioh and Resident Evil VII.

Far and away the most wonderful aspect about Captain Toad is how homely the levels feel. Among my most cherished toys when I was a kid were the Mighty Max playsets, miniature stages that could unfold in the palm of your hand. My passion for those teeny toys signaled the start of my preference for tight and condensed spaces, whether it be in my art, Doom maps, or even my own room. Because of this, I personally saw Captain Toad as a collection of aesthetic wonderlands, each floating block its own quaint adventure to embark on. I utterly love the diorama-style presentation of each stage, the player constantly needing to rotate the camera to uncover secret coins and hideaways. Even if the puzzles in a particular stage were fairly boring, I nevertheless enjoyed looking around the area and soaking in its simplistic architecture, getting lost in the look and feel of each bite-sized world.


It might seem like there's not a whole lot you can do with a character that can't jump or use abilities, but Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker has a surprising amount of variety embedded in it stages. For some you'll need to fiddle with the Wii U pad to move blocky platforms or rotate structures, while in others you'll have to speed across crumbling bridges or maneuver clones through a maze. In all honesty the gimmicks here aren't too different from those in Super Mario 3D World—a hefty majority of them are ripped straight from there—but the lack of special suits and a jump button change how you interact with these systems, slowing down the gameplay so that it becomes more cerebral than reflexive. This makes the game feel different even though you've already jumped across beep blocks and traveled through translucent pipes; Treasure Tracker takes the familiar and introduces it to you all over again with great success.

For me, the game is at its most compelling in the smaller stages where the camera remains static on the y-axis. Having the ability to see the entire play area and being tasked with completing it through mainly camera manipulation speaks wonders of the level design, showing how efficient Nintendo is at managing their real estate. Levels like "Pop-up Prairie", "Windup Stairs", "Up 'n' Down Terrace", "Double Cherry Spires", and "Trick-Track Hall" were among my favorites for their excellent use of space—had I been eight years old, I would've undoubtedly fantasized about physically owning a playset of them. On the other hand, Captain Toad awkwardly stumbles whenever it forces the player to engage in more physically demanding & timed tasks, given that the plucky little fellow isn't as satisfying as Mario to control. The turnip-tossing on-rails sections and the "Mummy-Me Maze" were among the worst offenders, neither of which play to the game's strengths (The "Mummy-Me Maze" would be alright if the darn mummy had a constant walk speed).


Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is like a breath of fresh air—it doesn't really do anything substantial, but it sure feels nice. It contains that timeless, inimitable Nintendo polish that makes the game look and feel so fantastically splendid, designed for both children and adults in mind. I'm not head over heels for the game, but I can't deny that I was in a happy mood whenever I played it. And you know what? I bet that's all Nintendo was aiming for.
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Images obtained from: target.com, cultofmac.com, gamespot.com, technobuffalo.com

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild - Thoughts


[contains minor spoilers]


Zelda is back baby!

Well actually, for many fans of the series, Zelda never left. Similar to the Super Mario games, The Legend of Zelda franchise is one that's never really fallen from grace—the worst the series has done is momentarily waver in quality at the high end of the spectrum. Sure, you'll find plenty of people that detest Skyward Sword and Phantom Hourglass with a fiery passion, but all of the games have been well produced and meticulously designed, making it difficult to fault them for more than just their shortcomings. There are no embarrassing blemishes on the series like Final Fantasy XIII, Mega Man X6, or Metroid: Other M; The Legend of Zelda has been a dependable name ever since its humble debut back in 1986.

But it was about damn time the series got more experimental. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild eschews with the traditional Zelda formula and places the player in the director's chair, allowing them to explore according to their whims. So many people have become enraptured by Breath of the Wild that the game has been talked about to death, igniting a heated discussion over the usefulness of Metacritic and flooding YouTube with a bazillion Let's Plays. Therefore it's unlikely I have anything groundbreaking to add to the general consensus, but I'll try my best to go beyond claiming "It's really good!"


The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild succeeds on the most basic level as a video game because it never stops asking the player, "hey, what's over there?" A lot of open world games technically do this, but Breath of the Wild is a wildly different beast; being able to climb anything and everything is completely unique, brilliant mechanic. And notice that I said "climb" and not "hookshot to"—Breath of the Wild makes you earn your pioneering badge by forcing you to manually scale every landmark, which means you'll be surveying the world constantly for vertical routes. My favorite adventuring experience was attempting to shimmy up a thin wooden windmill located at the bottom of a seemingly inescapable gorge. My stamina was barely upgraded so halfway I up I had to chug my last remaining stamina potion and fidget atop a metal nut until I was ready to climb again. It was brutal—and felt clunky—but it was so satisfying when I finally reached the top, even though it didn't really lead me anywhere. My goal was to mount that windmill, and by god I did it.

Being excited to tell a small, pointless, yet awesome tales like that is perhaps Breath of the Wild's greatest strength. Since the game hands the player the reigns once they glide off the Great Plateau, everyone learns the game in their own way, whether it be by traipsing towards a tower in the distance or skipping off to find adventure on their own. I began by exploring the southeast region, struggling to cope with the copious rainfall and getting struck by lightning while climbing trees. It was here I learned how to use Cryonics to make a stairway up waterfalls, blown away that I had discovered a gameplay mechanic that the game in no way pestered me about how to perform. Deciding to push Breath of the Wild to its limits, I charted course for Hyrule Castle, determined to see how the game would gate me from reaching Ganon.

Yet despite all odds, I did it! Well, I reached him anyway—obviously with my puny arsenal I wasn't going to stand a chance. But the cool part was pushing myself to my limits, trying to find ways to avoid the turrets while making decent headway into the defiled castle. What helped me succeed was—to my delight!—the Cryonic's waterfall ability, the ice pillars forming makeshift cover from turrets as I hopped up each block to reach the castle's pinnacle. Honestly that was probably my favorite experience with the game, as it taught me just what Breath of the Wild was trying to accomplish as a game, and it was where I was tested the most (well, that, or my first Major Feat of Strength).


The rest of the time I had with the game was fantastic as well. I got to slowly learn the world piece by piece, discover which recipes gave the most hearts, and figure out which weapons I liked (those elemental spears—oh baby) and loathed (slow weapons booooo!). I initially thought the low durability on the weapons would drive me nuts but I really enjoyed having to swap my equipment depending on my enemy and situation, though I was considerably less enthusiastic about the paltry amount Link could carry (I had to constantly ditch my dupes). The shrines scattered about provide some nice puzzles and I was pleased with the spacial awareness required in each of the Divine Beast dungeons. The scope of the world and the amount of side quests to engage in is staggering even by Zelda standards, and I'm extremely pleased that, like Horizon, this is a game that stands tall on its own two legs without the need for DLC or a sequel to polish its mistakes.

However,

I weep over the lack of proper dungeons in this game. Don't get me wrong—I think the Divine Beasts are cool and creative—but they're essentially extended shrines, only testing your combat prowess when they conclude with one of four disappointingly similar bosses. There's no grand adventure like Hyrule Castle that lets you carve your own path through the dungeon while avoiding difficult enemies; each Divine Beast contains a handful of guardians to fight and only one solution to each of its five node puzzles. Again, I think these dungeons are pretty good for what they are, but The Legend of Zelda series is the only one I can come to for that sweet sweet "map->compass->dungeon item->big key->dungeon boss" gameplay loop Nintendo has peerlessly perfected. Being bereft of that—as well as any sort of gameplay challenge that would test my equipment & consumables—ultimately meant I was let down.

There are some other unfortunate blemishes on the game I can't ignore, like the abysmal frame rate for the Wii U version of the game. Also considering how long the game is, I desperately hoped for more enemy variation than I got (I've murdered countless Lizalfoses and never want to fight them again), and once you've collected every type of weapon the treasure chests you stumble upon start to lose their luster. At one point I realized I wasn't going to finish all of the shrines in the game simply because I felt that my time with it had come to a close; my journey was finally complete. There's a part of me that wants to go back and keep playing the game—the feeling you get when climbing stuff you aren't supposed to is addicting—but I also need more of an incentive beyond seeing overfamiliar content recycled and reoriented.

I must note that these grievances truly underscore the copious amount of personal experiences Breath of the Wild offers. The first dozen or so hours are among the best since everything is fresh, funny, and new; you'll stumble upon hundreds of humorous little moments, like chasing after an apple rolling down a hill or witnessing angry bees butchering bokoblins. There are some breathtaking sights to behold, like the first time you spot an ancient dragon or when you finally arrive to the gorgeously rendered Zora's Domain. The story and score are neither here nor there—I like the way in which some citizens remember Link and the Hyrule Castle theme has an epic feel to it—but they are both secondary to the pedestrian joy of wandering around Hyrule with no particular destination in mind. Plus it's also nice for the first time in decades to play a Zelda game that is unafraid to kill the player.


The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the change the Zelda series needed. Even though I lament the loss of the classic dungeon-spelunking item-collecting gameplay, I can't ignore how great it feels to sit down with the game and simply goBreath of the Wild is simultaneously a serene and invigorating experience, recapturing the same emotions that made the original NES game so magical, long after we've grown up and gotten used to what a Zelda game was supposed to be. To evoke that childhood wonder; to rekindle the desire to mess around in sprawling virtual playgrounds; Breath of the Wild is not only a fresh breath for the series, but it is perhaps the perfect distillation of the word "adventure".
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Images obtained from: zelda.com, pvplive.net, destructoid.com, zeldadungeon.net

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Final Fantasy II (Dawn of Souls) - Thoughts


My thoughts last week on Final Fantasy I in Dawn of Souls were not generous to say the least—I concluded the entry by declaring, "your time will be better spent on nearly any other entry in the series." Well, Final Fantasy II is not one of those entries. Despite being notable for its unique "stats level up depending on how much you use them" gameplay, Final Fantasy II is the poster child for "mechanics that work better on paper than in practice". The first time I played through it, it was decisively the worst Final Fantasy game I had ever played, and time has not altered my opinion; upon replay, Final Fantasy II is, to put it bluntly, a busted-ass game.


So let's dive right into the combat system: in Final Fantasy II, your core stats, magic, and weapon proficiency is increased depending on if it's "activated" in battle. So casting ice magic will raise the "Blizzard" meter by some amount, attacking with an axe will raise the "Axe" meter by some amount, and even getting walloped with a mighty blow has the chance to increase your max HP. This sounds like a novel idea that lets you customize your characters in a more nuanced way than even the job system, but you'll slowly come to realize you don't have much control over what gets changed and when (other than the spells, that is). Sometimes your whole party with suffer the same amount of damage but only certain characters' HP will increase, or everyone will cast the same level spell but the MP max raises for one of them, or everyone will attack with their weapons but only some weapons will continue to level while others remain stagnant.

About halfway through the game is when these stats will start to seriously snowball. The token woman of my group tended to avoid damage early on so I gave her agility-based equipment, leading her to eventually have an agility stat of 88—her bulky ally just below her finished the game with 5 agility. Fortunately he was getting punched so frequently that his HP skyrocketed to 8000 by the journey's end. I did grind a bit in the game, but it was only in the first half to boost my spells, since using them at their first few levels means they miss a lot (and are utterly useless in battle). Due to how slow the spells level and how boring combat in general is, it really doesn't make any sense to equip more than two spells per party member, especially since using your best spell will continue to improve it. Therefore you don't even get the excitement in Final Fantasy I of arriving to a new town to learn a new set of spells; once a character becomes adept at casting Thunder and Berserk, they're going to be casting those two spells for the rest of their life.

With your character stats being all over the place, battles run the gamut from pathetically easy to shockingly cruel. A lot of RPGs suffer this problem, but Final Fantasy II dials this up to eleven, constantly throwing you against enemies that do no damage or those that do a third of your health. And I'm not joking either!—I wrote down that in the final dungeon there's a spell-caster that can bombard your whole party for 30 damage, compared to a vampire lady that does 2400 lifesteal damage. Both magic attacks and lifesteal in this game are broken for two different reasons, the former rarely doing more damage than physical attacks (barring a few elementally-weak enemies), while the latter is based off of max HP, meaning the stronger your characters are the more vitality the enemy can sap. Enemies thankfully use more debuffs this time around, though they tend to miss more than they hit (and even something as simple as poison only does single-digit damage per turn, independent of max HP).


To add insult to injury, your fourth party slot is reserved for a rotating cast of characters. All these guests really do is soak up stats that the other members could use (since even suffering damage is a good thing in his game), so I decided on this playthrough to immediately execute them and lug their recumbent corpse around. Perhaps that's part of the reason why my party got so strong, but it didn't mean all that much since lifesteal and the mass confuse spell brought my squad to its knees (a party of imps—imps!—is one of the hardest encounters in the game!) Ironically the bosses are among the easiest foes to fight, constantly dealing pitiful damage and biting the dust in a handful of turns. Even without the Blood Sword, I obliterated the final boss in four turns—four! And guess what the most devastating move he had was? Lifesteal!

Oh and the curing—the curing. Cure is an awful spell in this game because it heals by such a paltry amount at low levels that you'll need to blow through all of your MP to get your party back to tip-top shape. And the more you use it, the more it levels up, so the more MP it requires! But the only way to get more MP is to use magic in battle, so you have to start blowing through your MP in order to increase its max amount, which is dangerous in a dungeon when you need your MP to cast Cure! To make matters worse the dungeons in this game are arduously long, labyrinthian, and full of "trap doors" that send you to an empty rectangular room cursed with a god-awful encounter rate (it's like 2-3 steps). Sometimes it's better to use the Warp or Teleport spells if you get low on MP halfway through a area, but those spells don't even work in all of the dungeons! I'm downright baffled at who was green lighting all of these design choices!

Besides the ludicrously imbalanced gameplay, there's not much to talk about since Final Fantasy II is pretty bland in general. The coolest thing it does is introduce a vocabulary system, where you can learn specific concepts and ask them to the important NPCs. Unfortunately this isn't used a whole lot, and NPCs don't talk about anything other than the words you're supposed to use on them. Besides that, it takes too long to get an airship, there's too much backtracking to Altair to advance the plot, your core party is as boring as a plank of wood, and the story is only marginally better than Final Fantasy I. There's also an epilogue section added to the Dawn of Souls version of the game, but it requires you to play more Final Fantasy II—and I believe I've suffered enough.


Final Fantasy II is absolutely shameless about wasting your time. It squanders the ambitious design it aims for and crumples beneath its own weight, unable to find any solid gameplay mechanics to stand on. It's slow, grindy, and uninteresting; Final Fantasy II isn't just the nadir of the series, it's perhaps the worst RPGs I've played in my entire life. It was an experience I desperately wanted to be over as soon as possible, and one that I will never subject myself to ever again.