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!

Monday, October 29, 2018

Momodora II - Thoughts

There's a small, quiet quaintness to Momodora II that I... well, had been expecting, having played the first Momodora only a day prior. Like its humble predecessor, Momodora II is a cute, free, pixel-based platformer that can be completed in a single sitting, but there's a big difference this time around—the world has opened up! No longer will you find yourself hopping down ledges you can no longer climb back up, or missing collectible goodies—the world is your oyster!... even if that oyster is fairly small.

One of my favorite things in gaming is to see how a series changes from title to title, especially when it's being guided by a single author. Larger companies can tend to produce sequels that feel rote, predictable, and incremental, whereas the lone indie developer can (ostensibly) play with the formula however they wish. That's why Momodora's foray into the Metroidvania genre was kinda interesting, since it's structurally different and yet very recognizable—there's a noticeable through line from the arcadeyness of the first to the gentle exploration of the second. Whereas Castlevania experienced a staggering sideways leap from Rondo to Symphony, Momodora I to II feels like a very natural, forward progression for the series, almost as if rdein had been planning this since the beginning.

A lot of aspects have been improved: ranged attacks now run on a resource, there's more variety in the settings (every background isn't just rocks, hooray!), and the palette is much more pleasant. I appreciate the inclusion of an automap and adore that health upgrades come in the form of "love letters" (d'aww). The only drawbacks I can think of are that there are less weapons, the game is surprisingly easy despite being melee focused, and the soundtrack is lacking the engrossing melodies of the first Momodora. For some, the drawbacks will be worth it, especially since Momodora II feels significantly less like a Cave Story fan project and more like its own thing. Lastly, what continues to impress me the most about rdein—besides cobbling this together with the help of only a few friends—is his precious monster design. Despite foregoing the eyeball motif for the enemies, there's still a lot of cuties, like the foxes with their little lanterns and maids that sweep up skull-shaped dust clouds. It's probably what I'm looking forward to seeing the most with the other games in the series!

Though I enjoyed Momodora II for what it was, I don't have a strong preference for one game in the series over another. The first scratches a nice basic platforming itch, while the second is a delectable exploration-focused experience. The rub—at least for me—is that both games are content being appetizers, offering at most a 1.5 hour break for you to get lost in their bite-sized worlds. They're still fun and well made, but I couldn't help but want more rather than different coming off of the first Momodora—perhaps third time's a charm?

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune - Thoughts

[contains spoilers]

"Greatness, from small beginnings" is the Latin phrased etched onto the ring that Nathan Drake keeps tied around his neck, and it's kind of amazing how fitting the adage is for the Uncharted series. Granted, Naughty Dog was far from being considered "small" in 2007, but Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is most definitely a humble outing compared to the ambitious heights its younger siblings would reach. It's also a... much worse game too. Yet there are glimmers of good ideas shining through the bedrock—it's just that you have to shoot like a bazillion guys to get to it.

Of the good ideas, two that Drake's Fortune possesses immediately spring to mind: technical verisimilitude and cinematic cutscenes. Both of these have been handily outdone by a sundry of contemporary titles, but I remember being fairly impressed with Drake's Fortune back in the day, particularly with the lush and dense greenery of Chapter 2. Likewise the dialogue, voice acting, and mocap has a very natural and cinematic feel to it. Sure, it's a bit jittery and exaggerated (no doubt due to Naughty Dog coming off fresh from the Jak series), but it doesn't take away from the simple fact that the game is nice to look at.

Unfortunately, "nice to look at" is where my plaudits end, as Drake's Fortune is hamstrung by how utterly restrictive the game is. Occasionally the game will attempt to mask it's linear nature, but the disguise is paper thin; most of the time you'll wander through corridor after corridor, shooting wave after wave of faceless baddies. There's nothing inherently wrong with this kind of structure—Vanquish is my favorite TPS and that game is corridor city—but Uncharted is at its strongest when it's adventurous like Indiana Jones, not oppressively violent like Rambo.

And the sense of adventure in Drake's Fortune is... fairly tame. It boasts a total of two similar islands for the player to explore, alternating between verdant exteriors and drab interiors. There's actually a wide range of settings the player gets to explore (monastery, city, cavern, nazi facility), but the restrained color palette and similarities between areas gives the impression that the player really isn't journeying all that much. I always feel that it's a bit unfair to compare entries in a series to those that come later, but it's impossible not to come out of Drake's Fortune underwhelmed after experiencing the world-hopping travelogue of... well, any of game in the franchise.

The combat stinks to high hell too. Enemies robotically pour into an area and can perform impossible maneuvers, like firing at you as they simultaneously move from cover away from you. There were multiple instances where I thought I had the drop on a foe, just for them to spin around like a sentry turret and 1-shot me with a shotgun or pistol. The variability in enemy accuracy and damage was all over the place on Hard, especially in encounters where you start by taking damage before you can even get into cover (like the aggravating final Chapter). I rarely felt I had any agency in turning the tide of battle; I was often pinned to a single piece of cover, tasked with dispatching a foe quickly or consuming a hail of bullets. There was no advanced planning or skillful flanking involved—if I lived I lived, if I died I died, and there wasn't really much I could do to tilt fate other than firing faster. And since combat takes up most of the game, Drake's Fortune can drag on and on.

The last thing I want to mention is that although I appreciate how the player is dropped into the game without narration, there are a number of story beats that fall flat because you haven't had time to invest yourself into the characters. Namely, the way Drake's Fortune plays around with Sully as a potential turncoat is... strange, because we've only traveled with him for a handful of chapters—there's no sense of betrayal if we barely know the guy! Likewise, all three of the villains feel as though they've manifested themselves out of thin air, and any betrayal and bickering that emerges elicits less of a "holy cow!" and more of an "... alright." Really, the only thing that still held up story-wise was Elena: she's confident, sassy, and fun to hang out with. Oh, and the line delivery on some of the jokes is fantastic too.

Throughout my revisit of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, only one section tickled my fancy: the labyrinthine vault with its myriad of false pathways. While running around and looking for ledges to grab onto, it struck me how infrequently the game lets you soak in a locale without the fear of getting murdered. There's like, the opening bit with Sully and... that's it? Most of the time you're just running to and fro, doing some mild platforming as a bridge between exhausting, drawn-out combat scenarios. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is by no means a bad game, but the journey is a lot more rocky than it initially lets on.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Octopath Traveler - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

I was very impressed by Octopath Traveler. No, scratch that—I still am. In spite of all of its shortcomings, there's just something about it that warms the heart and rekindles my love for turn-based JRPGs. There are a lot of reasons for this: the enticing visuals, the monumental soundtrack, the sterling localization, the humble sidequests... but most of all, standing atop Octopath's accomplishments, is the fantastic battle system. I cannot stress how gratifying it feels to win a tense and arduous battle in this game, all thanks to your team composition, wise item use, and cunning forethought. Like Persona, Octopath Traveler has the perfect blend of depth and danger—mechanics-focused RPG fans need to experience this game.

But—and this is important—Octopath Traveler is mired in shortcomings. For me, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, but there are definitely a number of things that can grate on the player over the 80 hour journey. Most obviously, Octopath is unapologetically repetitive: every dungeon follows the same formula, every main quest is structurally identical, and every town is built off of a single blueprint. There some minor tweaks here and there, but Octopath's design brush is monochromatic; best brace for bare-bones, naked tedium if you're considering jumping in.

While that's bad enough, what also hurts is that Octopath Traveler isn't a game about camaraderie so much as it's just eight individual stories tied together by brief optional conversations. You'd expect from the sweeping, emotional soundtrack that there would be a lot of character bonding, shared secrets, and commiserating over their loses. Moments like these do happen every now and then (in the optional conversations), but relegating the bonding off to the side makes it feel much less important and impactful. Most of the time, it feels as if the characters set off on their own quests and only meet back up occasionally to discuss their progress. You won't get a cutscene of one character comforting another after a devastating loss, or two of them sharing knowing glances before they rush into a treacherous dungeon. The inter-party dynamic feels very static and sadly immune from growth.

The character stories are fairly hit or miss as well, sometimes diving into some really heavy material (Primrose, Alfyn) and at other times completely skirting depth, content to say nothing remarkable (Cyrus, H'aanit). How much you'll enjoy a story can vary from chapter to chapter (Ophelia's Ch. 2 is lackluster filler while the rest of her story is fascinating), and even then, it might vary from scene to scene (and foe to foe!) Some of the stories that don't have anything noteworthy to say—like H'aanit's—can end up surpassing other more ambitious plotlines because they doesn't fumble their message or get overwrought in repetitive dialogue (Therionnnnn!) Rest assured, there's a handful of neat, exciting moments to be had, but they're in the minority; expect a lot of familiar paths to be tread here.

So far, it doesn't seem like the game is any good, does it? Thankfully, the battle system alone propels Octopath Traveler into the stratosphere of quality with its sublime BP system. You see, every turn your allies get one battle point (BP), and can store up to five each in reserve. When they go to make an attack or use a spell, you can expend up to 3 BP to super-boost your attack/spell's efficacy and longevity. On top of this, enemies have their own elemental & weapon weaknesses that can be struck a certain amount of times in order to reduce them into a defenseless state, wherein they take 50% more damage. So what happens is that, like Persona, battles have very clear pathways to success, especially when you try to time your party-wide BP bursts with buffs, debuffs, and shattering the enemy defenses. What strategy you come up with and classes you use can be the difference between an encounter that takes ten rounds to beat, and one that takes two.

The battle system reveals its strengths best when fighting the bosses in the latter half of the game. The first half has you facing off against very simple foes—you know, baddies that poison you, do party-wide attacks, summon minions—but the second half of the game (and the very final boss in particular) can do some gnarly things to stress-test your team composition. Maybe they'll randomize their weaknesses, obscure turn order, remove a party member, or spontaneously decide, "You know what? I'm going to do seven attacks in a row next round—deal with it." Since I tried to keep my party all the same level, and avoided grabbing end-game gear early, and fought all the secret job bosses with only the main eight classes, the struggle in this game was very real and very fun.

I also need to emphatically stress that Octopath's aesthetic is wonderful. It's a visually gorgeous game with plenty of moody environments, and the spritework for the bosses is downright phenomenal—half the fun was learning their mechanics, and the other half was seeing how they'd look. While the script has a tendency to repeat itself, the localization is worthy of heaps of praise, as they really go out of their way to craft some delicate and nuanced prose (it's not too often I encounter words I don't know in a video game!) And the music! The music! There's gentle woodwinds, invigorating guitars, delicate piano ballads, and some of the most jaw-droppingly-good string-focused battle music I've ever heard. The soundtrack is absolutely captivating and worth the price of admission alone.

It's not hard to get tangled up in Octopath Traveler's failures—there's plenty here to hem and haw over. There's a lot of asterisks one has to apply when they talk about how good the game is, but man, besides the stale dungeons and some ambivalent storylines, what Octopath has going for it is great. There were multiple points throughout this game where I realized I was having a better time than I've had with over half of the Final Fantasy franchise, and perhaps had there been a chance to allow the characters grow together, this would be a serious contender for my game of the year. As it is though, I'll just say it's a meaty RPG with amazing sprites, an unmatched battle system, and a soundtrack that's like an aural hug. And that final boss!—I need to end the entry here before I go on for three more paragraphs about how amazing that battle is! Octopath Traveler is a lovely game with a lot of heart... that I just wish had been better.