Thursday, January 31, 2019

Far Cry 5 - Thoughts


[contains minor spoilers]

Far Cry 5 is my least favorite Far Cry experience to date. And as someone that loooooved the third and fourth entries in the series, this was a challenging conclusion to reach. For a while, I just didn't believe it. I wondered if I was overanalyzing the game, or unfairly comparing it to its predecessors, or perhaps I was always sitting down to play it while in a foul mood. But after finishing the campaign twice, all roads loop back to this dour epiphany: Far Cry 5 has exhausted what made the series exciting for me.


A major part of that is honestly due to fatigue—Far Cry really hasn't changed the much since the third game. Sure, the newest installment gives you allies and lets you progress through its narrative in any order you want, but beyond that? Everything else is vividly familiar. There are outposts to infiltrate, side-missions that prioritize action over caution, cutscenes where villains drill their worldview into you, perk trees to navigate, and a plethora of collectibles to gather. There's barely a noticeable change in the weaponry or enemies either; every aspect remains proudly Far Cry, right down to the game's narrative rebuking you with "what if YOU'RE the bad guy?!"

In a way, it's very comforting. There are still hundreds of delightful moments that will sneak up on you, like say, a boat ramming into you while you're fishing, or a panicking pedestrian slipping into a vehicle you've rigged to explode. Those unscripted bits never failed to put a smile on my face, but Far Cry 5 tries to up the ante by flooding the world map with patrolling goons. Whenever you snipe an enemy driver with your bow, you'll barely have time to savor that unlikely headshot, as more enemies are always close behind. And antagonizing the regional leaders just makes the game worse, as limitless aircraft get called in to deal with you—and I have no damn clue how someone could enjoy fighting over a dozen planes with a measly assault rifle.

Due to the bolstered number of enemy vehicles, I had to keep a rocket launcher with me for a majority of the game, which only left me with two primary weapons to switch between—a significant step down from Far Cry 3's four weapon slots. While dealing with the increased enemy forces was a huge source of sourness, what also dampened my enthusiasm was the lack of intrigue into the world. Part of this may be due to the fact that Hope County is a less exotic locale to pick, but I also didn't feel any particular attachment to the companions or NPCs (besides the animals). And don't get me wrong, the visuals are downright breathtaking at times (especially when the sunlight drips through the trees), but the "wow" factor that carried the other games just wasn't here.


Which finally brings me to the narrative. On its surface, Far Cry 5 looks primed to sink its fangs into the rural American culture, ready to offer a scathing critique on the influence of religion in the region. Except that it doesn't really do that. And nor does it offer any kind of in-depth critique on the lifestyles of a Northwestern American. If anything, the game is strangely patriotic, content to paint Hope County as a land filled with hardworking, meat-loving Americans that merely want to see the red-white-and-blue fluttering high in the sky. Sure, you encounter some crass personalities (like Hurk Drubman Sr.), but almost everyone acts as a kind of caricature of an American persona, rather than an incisive target of satire. And seeing as the series has always been eager to paint your allies as both incompetent and monstrous, its bizarre that Far Cry 5 completely shies away from this approach.

Even the game's central antagonists did little to mesmerize me. Joseph Seed is an admittedly fresh take on the "madman that speaks the truth" trope that the series is known for, but his stoic, calm demeanor belies the shallowness of his words. I mean sure, Far Cry 5 does build up to a nice twist at its close, but the game barely says anything about the central force in the land: Project at Eden's Gate. The PEGgies are not that creepy, nor are they sympathetic, and their propensity for brainwashing makes them less interesting than mere mercenaries. The performances for each of the major villains is excellent, but the material itself leaves you with very little to ponder—like with the Americana aspect of the game, the use of a Christian cult felt superficial and absentminded. It's almost as though Ubisoft sought not to step on any sensitive toes, so they opted to use a cartoonishly evil cult in an exaggerated, toothless depiction of rural America.


There's a dramatic irony in the fact that what led me to the Far Cry series was its innovative and multiplicitous approach to combat. I thought it was so cool how you could go in with guns blazing, or sneak through a facility planting bombs, or snipe your opposition from a far-off mountain ledge. But after liberating what must be over 100 bases by now, the Far Cry series has begun to feel formulaic. I know to take out the snipers first, then silently take down the heavies, and to throw remote explosives onto any enemy reinforcements that show up. The action is still fun, but each stronghold offensive felt more and more like I was checking items off a list, instead of proving my guerrilla mastery. And compounded by the lack of a strong central plot, I don't know if this fault lies squarely on Far Cry 5's shoulders, or if I'm simply yearning for something new.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Hitman 2: Silent Assassin - Thoughts


Well, I tried.

I tried to be stealthy.

And sometimes, I'd succeed! Every now and then I'd throw on a doctor's coat and slip by some guards, or poison a meal and quietly creep back to the exit. Those were some of my proudest moments. But for most of its missions, Hitman 2: Silent Assassin set up brick walls. Sometimes it was a stubborn guard that refused to turn around. Occasionally I didn't cover my tracks well enough. But what I fell prey to nine times out of ten, was Silent Assassin's finicky alert mechanic. And once I was discovered, only one method was left to my disposal: reload, and shoot that person in the head.


Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I have to clarify that Hitman 2: Silent Assassin is leagues ahead its predecessor in almost every way. There's more levels, more weapons, a greater variety of locations, and—shockingly!—intended methods of assassination that are easily deduced! Wow! No longer are you left running around a vast, empty military base, wondering how to silently subdue a coked-up maniac; now you can see your target playing golf on a balcony whilst spotting a sniper rifle in the garage and put two and two together. Being able to solve missions without a guide not only makes Silent Assassin a lot more playable, but also pretty dang fun... welllll, at times. More on that later.

One of the best additions to Silent Assassin is the inclusion of mid-level saves, rather than checkpoints. And since I was playing on the lowest difficulty this time, I got a whopping seven saves per mission (hey, in my defense it's labeled "Normal"!) What this does is drastically cut down on the repetition and trial and error, as you no longer have to ponder "can I walk with this gun out?" or "am I allowed in this room?" under the fear of jeopardizing your last five minutes of progress. I could've finished Codename 47 in a fraction of the time that I did, if only I could've saved before doodoo (inevitably) hit the fan.

Hitman 2: Silent Assassin offsets this boon, however, by being a stricter game. Gone is the unnatural ability to hover behind a guard and effortlessly strangle him when there's no one else around. Instead, you have to stealthy approach your target at a tortoise-like speed, meaning that you can only strangle (or temporarily KO) guards if they're stationary. Running too is a major red flag to others—especially when you're in uniform—meaning that the ability to save is counterbalanced by your painful, glacial crawl past guards. And like with Codename 47, it's hard to tell exactly what guards can and cannot see, although this is a minor problem compared to Silent Assassin's clever—yet confusing—new feature.



I can at least commend Silent Assassin on introducing alerts based off of proximity, since it makes a lot of sense; a bald dude following behind an armed guard a hair's breadth away definitely seems suspicious. But the alert meter is extremely vague, as its throbbing red state can mean someone is merely suspicious of your actions, or they're about to expose you by perforating you with lead. This reduces Silent Assassin to a bizarre coin flip in every instance where you slowly saunter past a guard, the meter unable to tell you when the switch from curious to violent is going to occur. Most of the time it's not too bad—all you really have to do is just keep walking—but if the guard stops in mid patrol or blocks a doorway you're heading towards, this can result in a bungled operation.

Not only that, but like with Codename 47, what sets people off can be downright unpredictable. Jog for a brief second and a civilian might scamper away to warn a guard, or walk into a back room and men will suddenly open fire, or try to change costumes after being discovered and the guards will somehow manage to see through your disguise. But if you embrace your inner-psychopath and slaughter all the guards one by one, occasionally they'll run past you and not think twice... even as you're standing on the corpses of their kin. There were so many instances of confusion and befuddlement in my playthrough: being seen despite crouching behind cover, getting spotted by snipers despite my camouflage, not getting caught despite wearing a unique lieutenant's uniform, alarming a civilian because I occupied the bathroom stall they frequent (seriously??? You're going to rat me out for that?!!!) When the game works it works well, but a lot of the time it feels like you're one suspicious glance away from being assassinated yourself.

Early on, I realized that shooting people in the back of the head with a silenced pistol was the path of least resistance (thanks Normal mode). And though I tried my best to ghost my way through facilities and spare my enemies, Silent Assassin was quick to punish me if I made the briefest miscalculation (eg "I'm pretty sure it's safe to run now"). Add to this the fact that not only is anesthesia stringently temporary, but the hardest missions are arguably in the first third of the game, Russia & Japan being a long, demanding, and painful combination. I was thankfully able to finish the game with my stealth meter above aggression meter, but I was irked by what this game forced me to do at times. Somewhere in Japan there's a castle full of dead ninjas, and I'm not proud of it.



Hitman 2: Silent Assassin finally gave me a glimpse into what the Hitman franchise is supposed to be. There are moments of brilliance sprinkled throughout it—like dropping a smoke bomb down a laundry chute and then disguising yourself as a firefighter to go "investigate" the source—but like its predecessor, the game is hamstrung by its imprecision. It still feels like luck is too influential on your success or failure—or maybe not luck per se, but unknown variables that you have to puzzle out yourself through saving and restarting (anyone that's played the last mission will know exactly what I mean). At the end of the day your meticulously plans can easily be quashed by some capricious—and often stupid—variables being rolled behind your back

At least you can try to be stealthy, I guess.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Momodora III - Thoughts


After finishing Momodora II, I was prepared for more Metroidvania-style action, wondering what Momodora III would add to the formula. I found the answer to be quite surprising: nothing. Because Momodora III really isn't a Metroidvania per se; it has more in common with the arcade roots of the first Momodora of all things. It's crazy, right? I mean, how many series look backwards for inspiration, especially when they seem to be heading in the right direction? But rdein has learned a lot since his first title, as Momodora III proves itself to be the first game worthy of a playthrough.


That's not to say I didn't like or enjoy the first two games—they were charming and pleasant experiences that reminded me somewhat of when I used to savor playing Flash games on Newgrounds. But I left those games feeling that their diminutive size was more of a detriment than an appeal, as there really wasn't much that I could latch onto or discuss. I've recently discovered that I was more or less wrong about that; it wasn't the size of the games that failed to enthuse me, but the content of the games themselves.

What made me come to this realization is that Momodora III is as short as the other titles (~1 hour), but it doesn't feel like it's lacking anything. The game bounces you between a handful of worlds, letting you meet some cute girls and pick up a smattering of power-ups. Structurally this sounds very similar to II, but the vividness and variety of the locales feels so much more robust. Being able to equip three different items and having each zone conclude with a boss fight gives Momodora a momentum it had been previously missing. And rdein makes sure to pepper the land with curious oddities, hiding away secret power-ups within walls and having NPCs to mysteriously vanish, making the player wonder if they missed something earlier within the level. The other games had a touch of this esoteric flavor, but it's felt here most of all.


I have to openly admit that part of the reason why I prefer Momodora III to its predecessors is because... well, of the lack of a ceiling. I's downward delve felt too repetitive by the end and II's setting variety was rather superficial in hindsight, basically having the player move through some caves or... caves with a sky background. Momodora III still has some underground outings, but it also offers the player a lush grassland, violet garden, and riverside cityscape. I'm a huge sucker for stage variety, and III keeps its levels short enough that you never feel like rdein overuses certain gimmicks, traps, or enemies. The final area in particular is my favorite for both its mood and visuals, capping off the adventure quite nicely. And the final boss is no pushover, which is a nice change from the previous two entries.


Momodora III is a small, quaint, fun game—like the others—but it's also pretty satisfying. You'll face a decent amount of challenge on hard but it's nothing hair-pulling, which makes it a good fit for anyone that likes some action in their platformers. It was a bit odd emerging from this experience not yearning for more, but I don't think that speaks ill of Momodora III. If anything, I think it's a sign of III's success over its older siblings: it's the one title that holistically emerges as a game rather than an experiment.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves - Thoughts


[contains spoilers]

I spent a lot of time grousing over Uncharted: Drake's Fortune's missteps. I thought the story was lacking, the game wasn't adventurous enough, and that the combat frequently became an uncompromising chore. I considered that perhaps my criticisms were too scathing, but after finishing Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, I feel that my grievances were well placed; the second Uncharted outing is everything I wanted from the first. And it is a beeeaaauuuutiful game. Like, good lord.


Almost every aspect of the game has been improved, the most notable of which being the combat and locales. And honestly, those two are really all Uncharted needed; allowing the player to engage in exciting gunplay throughout diverse and gorgeous settings is what makes this game a joy from start to finish. For the most part, Among Thieves does everything in its power to make sure the player is having fun. It offers many short, exploratory breaths between its more action-packed sequences, and whenever one setting starts to drag, the weather will drastically change or the scenery will wipe from a jungle to a ruined Nepali city. Though Uncharted 2 cannot boast about its puzzles (positioning the hands of the statue was the only thing "aha!" worthy), the lack of head-scratchers is permissible because the adventure does its damnedest to stay compelling over the 10 hour journey.

This is because Uncharted 2 realized what it is Nathan Drake excels at. The game starts by thrusting you into a tense, unbelievable train-crash scenario and then slings you through space and time, weaving a tale of heroism tinged by revenge. The plot is... nothing I'd actually write home about—honestly most of the Uncharted narratives blur together into this "isn't adventuring fun?"-sorta haze—but what Among Thieves offers over Drake's Fortune is characters other than Elena to get invested in. Flynn is fun (for the most part—his servile attitude feels contradictory), Chloe is captivating, and Lazarevic proves it's better to be campy than forgettable. I mean seriously, who was the old man in the first game again?


Since the adventure is a decent chunk longer than its predecessor, moments where the player can chill out and absorb their surroundings are more plentiful. The "look for the right path to traverse" sections have a bit more meat to them, breaking up a lot of the monotonous combat that plagued Drake's Fortune. And even when there are long stints of drawn-out combat, you're often inserted into these fantastic open arenas that allow you to be fairly mobile, where you can conquer your enemies with whatever weapons you prefer. Sadly, as the game goes on it relies more on narrow hallway encounters, with the train chapters being among the worst offenders (it sure is a jaw-dropping set piece though).

I think now is a good time to acknowledge that I don't... really... care for Uncharted's combat. I think it's fine: it feels fluid, is rife with cool animations, and is rewarding when you bring your A-game. But when you're suffering death after death due to a hot start (or you're staring one too many times down the barrel of a heavily-armored soldier), the recurring thought that's likely to bubble up is "god damn these guys have a lot of health". And I get that enemy tankiness is a design by necessity—an Uncharted where foes fall in one shot is bound to be disappointingly short—but it doesn't change the fact that I don't look forward to combat due to how much of a grind it can be. When I started the series, I tried my best to go for strategic headshots, but by the end of Uncharted 3 I was just pumping magazine after magazine into the granite chests of my enemies. The gunplay plays well, but isn't immensely gratifying (for me).

I bring this up because a mainstay of Uncharted 2 is its combat. I enjoyed blasting fools and participating in scripted sequences, but wasn't something I actively looked forward to; my heart was captivated by puzzles and alluring locales and secret treasures tucked away—things that reasonably dwindle as the game got closer and closer to its rambunctious climax. Therefore it's kind of weird to look back on Uncharted 2, as I can acknowledge its greatness and technical prowess, but the final taste it leaves me with is a "I'm glad that's over". Not in a Hitman: Codename 47 way where I'm pleading to be released from torment, but in a more subdued, grateful way... like reaching the very cusp of concluding that the game is too long and repetitive for its own good.


Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is still an impressive title nearly a decade later. It knows first and foremost how to entertain, keeping your eyes and hands delighted throughout its colorful campaign. It's an astonishing improvement over the first in almost every way: mo-cap, scenery, combat, story—you name it. I may not be a big fan of the series, but I can appreciate the level of effort Naughty Dog has poured into building one of gaming's premier action platformers. It's hard not to stand in awe of Among Thieves.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Torchlight - Thoughts


[contains minor spoilers]

For me, Torchlight was at its best in its opening hours. I had recently finished getting another character to level 70 in Diablo 3 and wanted to sample a Diablo 2-esque experience for comparison. I could've just played Diablo 2 again, but I was in the mood for something more bite-sized and different. Torchlight fit that bill nicely, so I went into it wanting to build a beefy dual-wielding fighter that dominates his foes through left clicks alone. My plans had to change the deeper I went underground, which slowly began to remind me of why I tend to stay away from Diablo clones in general: monotonous grind.


I have a soft spot for the first Diablo's atmosphere, having played the demo of it a ton as a kid, and Torchlight pulls on the same strings. Which makes sense, given that Runic Games was formed by the creators of Diablo, and they roped in Matt Uelmen, the moody master composer of the Diablo series. Though the game looks more like World of Warcraft than Blizzard's dark demon slaying series, everything else reeks of the first Diablo. You have three classes to choose from, a captivatingly eerie town theme, and NPCs in need of saving from subterranean spooks. Throw on top of that various Diablo staples like gems, gear sets, health & mana globes, and blue & red scrolls, and you have yourself a game that knows its target audience and isn't afraid to appeal to them.

Torchlight is an ambitious title for a new studio to create, but it isn't ambitious in and of itself. There are no twists and turns to be found in its story or gameplay, and the whole experience is meant to last 10-12 hours. Which is fine—after all, if the formula works you don't need to change things—except that I had my Diablo fill around hour 5. By then I had mapped out my intended path through the skill tree, figured out what magical skills to keep, and was thoughtlessly left-clicking my way to the end. And since the game lets you buy potions to your hearts content, the dungeon couldn't set any challenge upon me that I was unable to heal through.

Well, until the end.


I simultaneously admire and feel vexed by games that have difficulty spikes in their final act. Since I'm a challenge-oriented player, I prefer experiences that put up a fight rather than those that let me coast to the credits. But being roadblocked during a game I desperately want to finish (in order to take it off of my "to play" list) is a frustration too bitter to savor. And boy, does Torchlight put up one hell of a fight!

Two problems exacerbated my struggle: I barely did any sidequests and I was playing on hard. But neither really stymied my progress—I just had to keep my ring finger on the potion button in case I got surrounded. This all changed once I got to the final area, where a number of foes hammer you with elemental attacks. And since I was playing a strictly melee-focused class, it's not like kiting my opponents was a viable option. This turned the final few hours of the game into an arduous crawl as I repeatedly died over and over whenever I had to face more than two dragons or dark zealots at a time. And I died a ton; I was slain around a dozen times before Torchlight's final floors, while the Dark Palace alone racked up over a hundred deaths.

So what was I supposed to do? Despite dumping a lot of points into defense, there was no way I could affect my elemental resistances (which is what I was dying to) outside of slotting +2/4 resistance gems into my gear—and for reference, I had 94 lightning resist and was still losing half my health to undodgeable lighting beams. And since there's no way to respec my build there was only one option: grind. Grind a whole lot. Just get enough health that I can survive two poison bolt barrages instead of one. Would that have been fun though? I was very rarely finding new gear in the final ten floors of the game that was better than the legendary equipment I had on, and grinding was a chore since my character approached all enemy types the same way. When the final boss finally fell, I was elated, not just because I had finished a mindless twenty minute melee against him, but also because I could wipe my hands of the game. Without a second thought I retired my character, permanently shelving them because I was so done with this journey.


My gripes with Torchlight are more of a universal problem with the genre its rooted in than a denouncement of the game itself. For what it's worth, I approve of what Torchlight offers: it's a well built game with a lot of depth and great music, acting as a delectable lunch to Diablo 2's gargantuan dinner. The only thing you could argue it's truly lacking is a multiplayer component. But Torchlight revels in its repetitiveness, which is something I barely have any patience for if I'm not enthralled by the core gameplay. I went into Torchlight wanting a nostalgic flashback, yet emerged out the other end realizing that I was actually looking for something more.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Hitman: Codename 47 - Thoughts


[contains minor spoilers]

Hitman: Codename 47 is an imprecise and cruel relic of the past. The one good kernel it possesses—namely, killing your targets in stealthy and creative ways—is relegated to the backseat, in favor of its chaotic combat system. While great ideas have sprouted from this wretched soil, the original game seeks only to belabor you with aggravating tasks and singular routes through levels. Hitman: Codename 47 wants one thing and one thing only from you: copious amounts of blood spilt.


I'm going to immediately cast a shadow over my entire opinion by confessing that impatience is a significant vice of mine. The only stealth games I had growing up were Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes and Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, and I found the latter to be such a chore that I could only make it a few missions in. It's a flaw that I try to stay cognizant of when playing a franchise like Deus Ex, where I know ghosting my way through an area often provides a more rewarding play experience. And I'm tempted to say that Hitman: Codename 47 showcases the worst the stealth genre has to offer, except that statement isn't true—Codename 47 barely resembles a stealth game at all.

Sure, there's a couple of  sneaky instances sprinkled throughout the game. There's a mission where you can bomb a car full of triad and another where you can give a man a heart attack in the sauna, but that's about where your guile ends. Every other mission you're going to be strangling a dozen men to death or just blasting your way to the end, hoping that the game's capricious damage system does 2% of your health instead of the full 100% (which will happen a lot). Codename 47 is not merciful with its restarts either; on the missions where you can continue after death, it'll sometimes drop you next to a pissed-off guard, and you'll be dead again before you can tell where the bullets are coming from.

The wild damage probability coupled with scant pathways through a level already makes for a vexing combination, but what really pushes the game over the edge is how opaque and utterly confusing its detection system is. In isolation the system works: if you kill a man, hide his body, and steal his clothes, you effectively become him. But if a civilian catches you in the act or combat breaks out, good luck trying to figure out how to get the goons off your trail! Some guards remain stoic while others open fire immediately, and if an enemy is alerted it will instinctively home in on your position. No matter how often I switched clothes after a scuffle I'd still get discovered, and it's better to have a weapon in your hands for retaliation, rather than trusting that a snooping guard won't your unarmed ass with lead. Speaking of weapons, having certain firearms equipped work for some disguises, but good look figuring that out on your own!


While Codename 47's level design is largely nothing to write home about, there's two really egregious missions that solidified my revulsion for this game: the boat level and the entire Colombia section.

The boat level perfectly exemplifies the contradictory nature of Codename 47. In it, there's 3 gates you have to pass through in order to get to said boat to assassinate your target. Any suspicion by the guards raises the alarm, and soon your target begins his Olympian sprint to his escape vehicle (I never found a way not to trigger this, and always had to kill him as he was running). Getting found out before stepping onto the boat spells certain doom, so what you have to do is steal a guard's outfit and then go past each of the gate's checkpoints. Sounds easy, right?

The problem is that the guards don't let you through the checkpoint, even when you're disguised in an outfit that covers your face! This means your only solution is to snipe every single enemy... but guess what?—if one enemy witnesses this they'll run and tell the boss and you run out of sniper rifle ammo halfway through the level! So after an hour of trying, struggling, and failing, I found out what you're supposed to do is latch yourself onto the back of a patrolling guard and just follow him until he passes through a checkpoint. But make sure you don't get too close and trigger the "you don't belong here!" warning first, or the guards will shoot you should you try this method out.

If that sounds bad, the entire Colombia section is the hideous nadir of this game. On paper, it sounds interesting: go assassinate a drug lord in the jungle, with the catch that you can't restock your ammo or buy weapons between sections of the mission.  However, when you sit down to play it you quickly realize the jungle is massive and empty, taking a handful of boring minutes to run to your objectives. Plus well-armed foes can spot you off in the distance before they're even visible in the far-off fog! This is a nightmare combination where as soon as you're discovered, you're likely to get killed before spotting your assailant and a restart will teleport you back to the beginning of your 1 mile jog. And you have to kill enemies in these missions, so snooping your way through this is a no-go (three men that don't move guard a prisoner on a bridge).

The Colombia saga climaxes in a military base infiltration, where you'll face off against a Scarface-wannabe and blow up a drug lab. It sounds like there's a lot of opportunities for cool things to happen, right?—except there's not. The entire compound is gated, and the only way in is via the front entrance (and you always start at the back, which is great). Not only that, but the boss faces the doorway into the office, meaning you have to fight him (and the guards outside of his room) every time. And later when you have to stealthily blow up a drug lab, you'll be barred from using the two ramps that lead down into it, leaving your only recourse to be stirring up a violent bloodbath. There's ways to mitigate both of these sections, like assassinating the drug lord with the sniper rifle from the first mission and using an officer's uniform to bypass the drug lab guards, but the game does a poor job at telegraphing this. The drug lab in particular strikes me as really rude, as even with the right uniform the guards will still tell you're not authorized to enter, but they won't shoot at you if you disobey them. Having not known that, I did it the hard way, having to run to the airport hanger under the dangerous gaze of a dozen watchtowers. This mission was an unrelenting nightmare to complete.


To grasp at the depths of my despair, know that I had already written a paragraph about how clumsy a particular mission was and had to delete it to make room for all the hogwash above. And I've already covered like, a third of the entire game! Rarely do I not find something to like—or at least appreciate—about the first entry in a series. Most long-running franchises have at least something worthwhile that planted the seeds of its future success, or a case to be made as to why it deserves a sequel. Hitman: Codename 47 buries that beneath so much mindless gunfire, so many forced routes (I didn't even talk about how rigid the first half of the Lee Hong mission was), and so much bullshit detection that at the end of the day, the only case it's made is that it deserves not to be played.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon


[contains minor spoilers]

Inti Creates's output can vary wildly from game to game, making them a difficult developer for me to articulate my feelings on. I love love love their Mega Man games (9 is my favorite in the series), but found myself disappointed by the Gunvolt duology, and left sadly lukewarm on a title that I should by all accounts love: Blaster Master Zero. That's why upon hearing that Inti Creates was developing a retro classicvania prequel to Igarashi's Bloodstained, I wasn't champing at the bit to play it—for all I knew, it could be another lackluster platformer like Mighty Gunvolt.

It wasn't though; Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is the best Castlevania knock-off I've ever played.


Granted, there aren't a lot of classicvania games that I know of—there's like, 8-Eyes, Holy Diver, Curse of Issyos, and... that's it? Maaaaybe Volgarr the Viking? So perhaps a more glowing appraisal would be to say that Bloodstained is in the running for being one of the best Castlevania games. And I don't make that statement lightly—to me, Castlevania is perhaps the strongest non-Nintendo franchise out there (well, that's older than the Xbox 360). I should confess that a big reason for this is because I'm irresistibly drawn towards platformers more than any other genre, but nevertheless, I've yet to find a (non-Nintendo) platforming series with better level design across the board.

Coupled with the rocky history of modern Inti Creates, you can imagine my surprise when Curse of the Moon demonstrably proved that it understood what made Castlevania tick. There's multiple characters with distinct playstyles, powerful subweapons, optional shortcuts, stages dripping in atmosphere, and even the option to turn off mid-air direction changes. The caveat here is that Curse understands Castlevania primarily because... it is Castlevania, at least to some extent. There are lamps that drop hearts, angled stairways, a dagger-chucking lady with a whip, and certain enemies feel lifted from an abandoned Castlevania project—I mean c'mon, there's even a hallway with medusa heads and axe armors!

But the similarities never become grating largely because there are so few Castlevania-likes out there. The aforementioned Stage 5 tribute comes off as endearing and respectful too, a nod to its forebearers without being a soulless reproduction. Curse of the Moon seeks more to use the Castlevania blueprint as a springboard for its own clever ideas, like how it spreads Simon Belmont's subweapon repertoire across multiple characters, or how it swaps out the bone pillar for an archer that quickly fires three arrows. In fact the entire project is a delectable mix of reverence and ambition, feeling less like a bonus reward for kickstarters and more like the vampire-slaying dream project of someone at Inti Creates.


There's a lot that I admire about the design of this game, so I'll try to keep it brief. The most overarcing piece of praise I can offer is that the game lets playstyle dictate difficulty. Though I personally feel the game is still too easy for its own good (Shovel Knight is harder), there are ways to hamper yourself on a playthrough, like refusing to use certain weapons, taking the main route through a stage, or skipping out on recruitable characters. Trying to get through the game with solely Zangetsu and his starting loadout is a fitting task for Castlevania veterans, so it's cool that the difficulty of the game can range wildly between "anyone can do this" to "enjoy restarting half the level if you get hit four times!"

While Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon has a really solid first playthrough, there's also two additional NG+ modes that add some neat tweaks, the most welcome being a new final stage & boss. The game looks great, with backgrounds being rarely cluttered or overdone (the foreground of Stage 6 is pretty ugly but I think that's by intention). The music is absolutely fantastic and has some phenomenally uplifting tunes that you can't help but nod your head to. There's some great gameplay sections that boast both smart enemy placement and a clever platforming challenge—Stage 7 in particular bursting with these devious designs (love that bouncing sprite enemy!) Lastly, not only are the characters extremely well balanced, but switching between them is instantaneous, so you're motivated to try each one out and discover how best to use them. And game over only occurs when you've lost all four, so even when your main damage dealer bites the dust, you still have a chance to pull off a heroic upset.

The single complaint I have to levy against Curse of the Moon is that the bosses lean too much on memorization rather than reflex. "Bosses" can feel like a silly thing to focus on in video games sometimes, but in more simple challenge-oriented games, they can often be the piece de resistance that pushes the player's limits. tasking them to out-think and outmaneuver a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Curse doesn't really aim for that however, even on its hardest difficulty; nearly every boss has a repeatable pattern you can learn which will allow you to defeat them without taking a single hit. Castlevania bosses aren't super intricate, but the randomness of their attack patterns coupled with the inflexible controls made for stressful duels that were a blast to scrape by on the skin of your teeth. Outside of a 1-2 fights in this game, the luster of perilous combat is unfortunately lost once you remember what your foe will do next.


Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is the real deal. It has a retro playstyle and feel, but is not held down by the archaic philosophy of its forefathers—it plays like a new Castelvania without being as mercilessly punishing. The attacks feel great, the enemies are creative, the music is energizing, and there's a variety of ways to make it through the game, whether it be in the stage itself or by bypassing (or murdering) one of your allies. It's a short game too, which should satisfy the desires of anyone that's nostalgic for the 8-bit aesthetics but doesn't have the time to spend suffering through trial and error. It pleases me to end to see Inti Creates do justice not only to Mega Man, but Castlevania as well—bravo!