Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) - Thoughts

[preamble begins]

The undying fervor for the Sonic franchise is perhaps gaming's greatest enigma. Rare few properties receive the same unbreakable support that the blue hedgehog is showered with, a fact which becomes considerably more perplexing when you account for the series' poor track record. It's a franchise with a prolific resume wherein every title feels like a second chance, and every step forward finds itself countered by a baffling step backwards. Sonic's legacy is one of clarifications and conjunctions—its difficult to talk about its games without needing to address a bevy of complaints, all of which will be defended by someone somewhere. It almost prides itself on how often it can let down its fans, a bullish sentiment which suffers no consequences because the good will garnered by the kinda fun titles will always outweigh the sloppy, unrefined, and often painful design of its numerous lesser entries.

The Sonic franchise is a Lovecraftian abomination for kids—it is one that is simultaneously steeped in boundless optimism and multifaceted madness. To that end, I'd argue that its most ardent fans aren't merely just supporters of the series, but thralls of nostalgia to the community and culture that surrounds it. The blood sacrifices from their wallets keep its decrepit blue heart beating while the world looks on in awe, wondering why their own beloved 90s anthropomorphic icon died—and yet Sonic somehow continues to shuffle on. But none should yearn for Sonic's fate, for he is eternally doomed to wander a limbo of ambivalent feelings, perilous platforming, and troubled fanart.

As you may have guessed, my relationship with the Sonic series is one that's been dominated by disappointment. I want to clarify beforehand that I actually liked a lot of the games growing up, and always held a special sort of reverence for the speedy scamp. Despite being a Nintendo-consoles-only kid, there was a magical quality to the Sega Genesis that always made me savor the brief occasions I got to play it at a BJs kiosk or friend's house. I was envious of Genesis owners, having to make do with PC ports that frequently crashed (Sonic CD) or were downright subpar entries (Sonic 3D Blast). But my prayers were answered in 2002 thanks to the Sonic Mega Collection for Gamecube, which allowed me to finally sit down and play through the series' revered roots for the first time at my own pace. So know that my disdain doesn't stem from a fanboy vendetta or aversion to gloved mammals—it's the unyielding death spiral of quality that continues to vex me.

[preamble ends]

There's no hyperbole in claiming that the 3.5 Sonic platformers on Genesis remain the best in the series. After all, this was when Sonic was at his simplest and most formative, exposing a number of young minds to the inchoate concept of speedrunning. The first entry in the series is the roughest of the 16-bit era, as evidenced by its slower levels and lack of a spin dash. But at its core, Sonic the Hedgehog is a solid game that leaves plenty of room to build off of its noteworthy blueprint.

What's kind of interesting about Sonic the Hedgehog—and is also a trait that will almost entirely define Sonic CD—is the focus on platforming. Nowadays we rightfully correlate Sonic with speed, but the hedgehog's inception was a decidedly more cautious outing, where "going fast" was only viable roughly half of the time. The way the game breaks up its pacing by zone works adequately well in isolation, but compared to what the series would eventually become, it's hard to deny that Sonic the Hedgehog is... kind of obnoxious. The sweet satisfaction that comes from blazing through a level can only be found in Green Hill Zone; a considerable portion of Sonic's first adventure is designed to impede your momentum as much as possible.

The amount of speed bumps Sonic the Hedgehog uses wasn't really apparently to me until I replayed through it looking for them—and there's a lot. Marble Zone is full of spike lifts and slow block riding sections, enemies like Orbinaut and Bomb are nettlesome time-wasters meant to punish you for rolling, and Scrap Brain Zone is chock-full of rude pitfalls thanks to the strict timing of its bridges and platforms. This isn't even touching the molasses-like mess of Labyrinth Zone, where the notorious oxygen timer is a lesser threat compared to wading past spike traps while your acceleration is hamstrung. To safely reach the credits you have to constantly play the game at a snail's pace, tapping the right button in one second bursts just to make sure you can spot an upcoming enemy or hazard. Often when it looks like you can go fast, it's a trap; in Star Light Zone Act 1, if you take the lower path and roll into a ball, the road will maliciously fling you off into a pit.

This isn't to say that constant obstacles are an atrocious design choice—it's just that they don't play to Sonic's strengths. I think there's a time and place for momentum-based platforming challenges (I kind of like Labyrinth Zone in a masochistic way) but there's no comfortable balance between the mindless gratification of holding right and nervously inching your way forward. Placing Green Hill Zone first was a smart move because of how smooth, fun, and friendly it plays compared to the rest of the game; the verdant introduction gives the impression that Sonic has always been about speed and not strictly platforming. Yet if you jump ahead to the latter half of the game, it'll suddenly feel like every act is doing all it can to rob you of rings.

Brushing aside the lack of speed, the rest of Sonic the Hedgehog is alright. The colorful visuals and hip music are its best assets and would continue to be the only two features that remained consistent across most of the series. The bonus stage is uh... wonky and awkward, but the Sonic games rarely have good bonus stages anyway, and at least this one isn't too vexing. I like the idea of requiring the player to be holding 50 rings to access it, but I'm less keen on how continues are gated behind the bonus stage. A lot of 1-up/Continue systems can make or break platformers, and had Sonic's system been a little more lenient, perhaps I could more easily forgive it for its rudeness.

Thankfully, countering the Continue drought is the hilariously generous ring system—which is kinda crazy to consider that it's still around. I've never been a fan of the ring system myself: it's both too punishing and too lenient. Losing all of your rings for taking a single hit when you're hoping to get to the special stages or gather 1-Ups is disheartening, while on the flip-side it's super easy to scoop up at least one ring afterwards. This also makes boss fights oscillate wildly in difficulty, since attacks on the sides of the screen are way more dangerous than those in the center. Sonic the Hedgehog at least accounts for this fact in its boss fights by either letting you only hit Robotnik at the edges or routinely denying space, which is surprising given that the series completely abandons trying to adjust for this later on.

Kind of like the franchise itself, I have a lot of conflicting feelings for Sonic the Hedgehog. There are times where I find myself thinking "oh man this is kinda neat"—like with some of the alternate routes through slower zones—and then I find myself ducking underwater for an Orbinaut's tortoiselike projectiles to pass by, wondering "was Sonic doomed to mediocrity from the very beginning?" The answer, of course, is no: there's a lot of novel ideas present in Sonic that hadn't been done until the blue blur sprinted onto the scene, and unlike a lot of other Sonic games down the line, the first entry is a must-play for people seeking to understand Sonic. It might be kind of clunky in retrospect, but Sonic nevertheless owes its legacy to the strength of its Genesis debut.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Five Games I Enjoyed in 2017 - Opinion

2017 was brutal for the wallets of many video game enthusiasts. Just look at what we were hammered with in the first quarter: Resident Evil, Yakuza, Horizon, NieR, Nioh, Zelda... and this is all before Persona even landed! The latter half of the year was no slouch either, with many indie games stepping up to bat amidst the bigger budget experiences. This was a year of multiple titanic titles duking it out for Top 10 lists... and a year where I kinda gave-up halfway through. Not because I got bored of gaming, oh no!—I just fell behind and failed to catch up. Because of that, it's important to note that there's a whole swathe of contenders that could've been on this list, but aren't, simply due to a lack of time (chief among these being Wolfenstein II, Hollow Knight, NieR... and like, a dozen others).

Now then, on with the accolades!

As a big fan of Treasure games, this was one of the best purchases I've made this year. Besides its hypnotizing 1920's cartoon aesthetic, Cuphead also boasts some heart-pounding boss-battling action that's as likely to make you laugh as it is to outright kill you. Although it seems like the game revels in its classic-style difficulty, it's actually fairly well balanced, offering the player a menagerie of abilities to see them through to the end. No attack feels too cheap and no challenge is too great to surmount; stick with Cuphead, and you'll be rewarded in spades. It's the bee's knees baby.

Breath of the Wild is perhaps the only game on this list that has shifted wildly throughout my Top 5, finding itself both at #1 and #5 depending on the day of the week. I think it and Playerunknown's Battlegrounds are the two most revolutionary games of the year, both of which are totally deserving of the heaps of praise they receive. Breath of the Wild in particular had people re-examining the importance of player interaction, and how meaningful experiences can arise from seemingly random events. Everyone that has played the game has a silly story to tell, whether it be battling your stamina bar to climb a mountain, humorously blowing yourself off said mountain, or discovering a surpising factoid (wait you can ride BEARS?) Somehow, in 2017Zelda has managed to emerge as the crowning video game achievement of the year, and we are all better for having played it.

3 - NIOH
It wouldn't be a Top 5 list without Dark Souls a Dark Souls-like! This year Team Ninja bestowed upon us a combat system with limitless depth in the shape of Nioh. The learning curve is steep and horrifying, but becoming privy to the ways of the Ki Pulse is its own reward—well, that, and you'll become the herald of death. Whereas Breath of the Wild excels at giving you a playground to fool around in, Nioh's heart and soul is its combat, providing swordplay so damn satisfying it rivals—and arguably dominates—the Souls games themselves. Though it falls short in a few areas (it definitely needed less inventory management and more enemy types), the amount of heart-pounding duels you'll have in Nioh are well worth suffering its flaws—as well as a few hundred deaths.

For the most part, Persona 5 is actually my favorite game this year. It has a lot of qualities that I find simply irresistible: catchy music, stylish visuals, challenging combat, and meaningful decisions. I would sometimes spend up to half an hour combing through the sundry skills of my personas, weighing the pros and cons of merging my carefully cultivated deities—and I loved every second of it. True, the game does go on for far too long, and the story misses the mark a few too many times, but I applaud Persona 5 for its boldness and bravery; it has a fairly unconventional plot that's especially pertinent in today's political climate, given its themes on systemic power abuse. All it really needed was an editor to trim the story—everything else is so phenomenally delectable that I finished Persona 5 feeling sated, elated, and eagerly looking forward to my next MegaTen dish.

Horizon Zero Dawn floored me. Given the developers pedigree and the fatigue of traversing yet another third-person shoot-'n-collectathon open-world game, I did not expect Horizon to dazzle—well, beyond its beautiful robot designs. But the more time I spent with it, the more time I spent thinking about it, and the more I wanted to return to its world. From its well-written quests to its nail-biting hunts, I rarely felt like I was wasting time, or that I wanted my experience to be over. Guerrilla Games has constructed such a polished, immaculate single player experience that—like with The Last of Us—there could be almost no other winner this year. Horizon nearly has it all: a breathtaking world, a compelling plot, and even a glamorous fashion sense for its various tribes. In a year among giants, Horizon Zero Dawn somehow manages to stand tall.


If, in a single dungeon, you consistently have one enemy that hits you for 30 damage and another one that hits you for 2500, you are playing a bad RPG. Final Fantasy II aims to stand apart from other role-playing games with its unique leveling mechanic, but by "standing apart" it opts to sit on a stool facing the corner of the room, a "dunce" cap placed squarely upon its crown. It's slow, tediously long, and downright broken; Final Fantasy II is failure in video game form. Play it once if you have to, but never return—don't make the same mistake I did.

(which also conveniently serves as...)
Cutting Resident Evil VII from my Top 5 list was a painful process. There are a lot of reasons why it's a Game of the Year contender: from successfully rebooting the franchise, to being really creepy and unsettling, to the gorgeously decrepit bayou locale—RE VII has a lot going for it. Had there been greater enemy variety and a better introduction, RE VII could easily oust Cuphead from my list above. The game certainly deserves merit alone for successfully steering the franchise in the right direction after the miserable experience of Resident Evil 6, but unfortunately it'll have to settle for the #6 spot.

It's a damn fine game nevertheless—one certainly worthy of the franchise's namesake.

I got into Super Mario Odyssey really late this year, but I'm currently sitting on top of ~600 moons, so I reckon I've experienced most of what the title has to offer. And it's been a lot of fun! Nintendo remains unparalleled are creating worlds full of uninhibited joy, and nothing exemplifies this better than the colorful kingdoms of Odyssey. The entire journey is a really upbeat, smooth, and relaxing experience... which consequently means it lacks a bite to its difficulty. I love the game's atmosphere and style, but I prefer more level-oriented challenges from the Mario games, something which Odyssey lacks compared to Galaxy and 3D World. Still, it's a blast to play, and is a great counterpoint to the tougher endeavors I've endured this year.

Other images obtained from: wccftech.com, gamespot.com, iansteffen.com, theverge.com, gamerant.com

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Persona 5 - Thoughts

The best thing about the Persona series is that it's an amalgamation of great ideas: it's one part dungeon crawler, one part visual novel, one part management sim, and one part animal breeder. These parts don't operate in isolation either; the bonds you form with friends boost the power of the personas you merge, and the personas you merge can make dungeon crawling significantly easier. The Persona games—at least the last three—are fairly long too (+80 hours), meaning that you'll have to carefully balance all of these aspects together if you want to see the story through. This is especially true given the difficulty of the series, where exploiting weaknesses allows you (or your opponents) to strike again, often dealing a killing blow.

Persona 5 proudly continues in the tradition of its ancestors. It's the biggest, most stylish entry into the franchise yet, and the standalone story makes it a fantastic entry point for fans new to the universe. I played a good chunk of Persona 3 years ago, but this is the first Persona I've played to completion, and I'm already hungry for more. Not necessarily more Persona 5 per se—my stomach is still distended from the wealth of content I chewed through—but the Persona formula in general has the most delicious loop I've experienced in a long while, and it's safe to say I've become a fan of the series.

There's such an enormous breadth of content to discuss here that in no way can I possibly do justice to the number of intriguing threads Persona 5 holds. Somewhat unexpectedly, I going to heap praise first and foremost on how stupid-good the UI looks. It's easy to view HUDs as a means of conveying information instead of a framing device, but Persona 5 flaunts its style constantly, invigorating your indomitable spirit through the vibrant colors and animations in its menu. It's a good thing the UI is sexy as all get out too, since you'll be interacting with it constantly over the hefty adventure. A couple improvements could be made to streamline the menus further—like offering a quick way to peek at the abilities of your allies' personas—but I'm so damned charmed by the game's aesthetic that any inconveniences are easily overlooked.

This holds true for the music as well; a number of tunes will see exhaustive use throughout your journey, but the soundtrack is so vivacious and passionate that it's hard to get sick of any of the tracks. No matter how many times I heard Layer Cake, Blooming Villain, or Mementos, I was helplessly tapping my foot as soon as the music kicked in. Even the battle theme Last Surprise—which will play thousands of times mind you—continues to thrill every time the chorus takes off, especially whenever it coincides with you mopping up your opposition. While we tend to think of story and stat progression as the central staples of an RPG, I'd contest that the soundtrack can be just as important; part of the reason why classic JRPGs are remembered so fondly is because how quickly hearing a melody can immediately transport you to its world.

The UI, animations, music, and general mood of the game are all critical because of how much they distinguish Persona from its contemporaries. Similar to Earthbound, there's very little like it out there, even if it has commonplace themes like "fighting against authority" and "realizing the power of friendship". Persona 5 isn't really a revolutionary game but it's certainly a rebellious one, changing up a number of familiar RPG aspects in order to get you out of your comfort zone. Mana-recovery items cannot be bought, witnessing every social link cutscene is nigh-impossible without a guide, and there's a deadline to each major objective. In both its style and structure it engages the player, inviting them in with a luscious style and then dragging them forward, whether they want to move at that pace or not.

Despite the playful exterior, Persona 5 is a relatively no-nonsense game. This is most easily observed in its combat, where some bad RNG can cause you to lose up to an hour of progress (which yeah, happened to me in Palace 5). Because of this you'll want to mitigate that risk as much as possible, which is where all of the meaningful choices in the game come from. Should you befriend the person that helps your back-up party members gain EXP? Or what about the girl that allows everyone in your party to successfully retreat? How about your close friends, who will gain a chance to save you from a fatal attack? You'll also have to balance these bonuses with your own personal preference for these characters too—getting more ammo for your gun could be useful, but dang, isn't it more fun to see what wacky antics Yusuke will get into next?

The importance of the choices you make also carry over into the combat as well, where having an enemy's weakness will make or break an encounter. And when you square off against the boss fights in the game (all of which are spectacular by the way), you'll have to resort to buffs and debuffs to stand a chance. This means balancing your party's powers with your own persona repertoire, trying to figure out what your weaknesses are and how to cover them. Is it better to keep out a persona that nullifies physical attacks or switch over to one that has your best abilities (Matarukaja, Marakunda)? If you're low on SP and not near a save room, do you use an item, push on without magic, or retreat? And if you get surrounded and battered, do you risk it all on an insta-kill attack or try to recover? Add in limited skill slots that force you to decide what will or won't carry over with every persona merge, and Persona 5 becomes a game that will always keep you on your toes... well, as long as you don't seek to purposely game it (I'm looking at you, SP Adhesive).

With so many aspects of the game bewitching me, you might wonder, "Well, was there anything you disliked?" And this is where we get into Persona 5's rub: the story. More specifically: the dialogue. There is a laborious amount of text in this game. And while I'm fine if the dialogue is filled with witty candor or clever insights, a considerable amount of it is unnecessary repetition. Like, you'll have an event happen that day and your group will conclude "we should probably deal with X next" and then immediately after that scene you'll get a text chain along the lines of "we need to hurry and deal with X!" The amount of times characters repeat objects or whinge about an upcoming enemy starts to sap the excitement out of playing the game, especially since a lot of dialogue is used for observation instead of character building.

I know it might seem ironic to complain about the amount of text in a dialogue-focused RPG, but this game is 100 hours long—cuts can be made somewhere! Not only that, but the story has a tendency to feel unfocused and scattershot (in some part due to the direct translation). You'll have characters endure sexual harassment and then proceed to get gawked at by friends, or villains will wildly oscillate between being flawed humans and one-dimensional charlatans, or events will dominate the dialogue of bystanders and then evaporate without a trace a week later. There's such little room for fascinating side stories to develop—like the school stalker and her crush—because the plot often dominates all of the dialogue with its relatively one-dimensional perspective.

But I still greatly appreciate what's at the heart of this story. At times it feels like Persona 5 is very predictable, but it throws a few fascinating curve balls at you now and then. That, and I appreciated a lot of the down time in the social links, as those moments often did more to build character motivations than many (many) of the plot-centric cutscenes did. I like Persona 5's cast (sans Haru), and its themes, and message about society as a whole—there's just a considerable amount of questionable material to critique. Had the narrative been aimed more at "adults" rather than the "highschoolers" you control, I suspect a strong polemic against Japanese society could've arisen from it. As it stands now, the idea is there... it's just wrapped in a lot of stereotypical anime tropes.

My disappointment in Persona 5's story barely dents the enthusiasm I feel towards it weeks after finishing the game. It was such a robust—and often intimidating—experience that I'm glad I made my way through it, and look forward to whatever direction the series takes from here. I can understand why a lot of fans get consumed with discussing the franchise too; after spending roughly a year playing the fifth entry, the world and its cast feel so familiar that it manifests in my memory as a warm second home of sorts. While there was great comfort to be found in the mundane daily activities, it was the risky palace infiltrations that got my blood pounding—and the combination of those two sensations is one I'll be savoring for a long time to come.

Images obtained from: killboretime.com, dualshockers.com, theverge.com, rpgsite.net

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Metroid: Samus Returns - Thoughts

I feel bad for developer MercurySteam.

It's not hard to surpass Metroid II: Return of Samus—the Game Boy entry is claustrophobic, confusing, and very repetitive. Applying typical Metroid tropes to it would work wonders, which is what Another Metroid 2 Remake did... almost a full year before Metroid: Samus Returns was even announced. Nintendo hitting AM2R with a DMCA notice only made Samus Returns look like a big bully in comparison too, even through MercurySteam had little to do with it. Add in a trailer full of zoom-ins, sprites swapped out for polygons, and a developer ludography that—while great—leaves fans with plenty of reservations, and you're left with the sinking feeling that Samus Returns is going to be the final nail in the blonde bounty hunter's coffin.

Thankfully, this is not the case; Metroid: Samus Returns is an excellent, modern companion piece that works with AM2R, not against it.

Part of the reason why I sympathize with MercurySteam is that for many fans, Samus Returns is inevitably going to be compared to AM2R instead of (the far inferior) Metroid II. Luckily Samus Returns sidesteps this issue by being retaining an identity that's unique to the other two titles. While AM2R looks to Metroid II as a wizened master it must study the blueprints of, Samus Returns treats the Game Boy original more as a reference than a template. Sure, you'll have to hunt 50 metroids in one-on-one duels, and the number of demarcated areas remain the same, but besides that there's not much connective tissue between the titles. Samus Returns has a slew of new mechanics, new enemies to wrangle, and most notably—a massive new world.

Metroid: Samus Returns is unarguably the largest 2D Metroid game to date. It took me nearly ten hours to 100% it, and that was without getting stuck or lost; the amount of land you'll have to traverse is staggering. MercurySteam knew this, so they tweaked Samus to move at a swift pace, but it nevertheless remains a gargantuan game to explore... which is cool! It's nice getting such a huge Metroid experience to sink your teeth into, especially since uncovering the map manually turns you into a one-woman deep-delving pioneer. The problem that comes from this however, is that a lot of the areas feel... samey.

There's not a lot besides background decorations that separate one setting from another. The most interesting "room" I can think of is the one with the crystal structure deep in Area 3; nearly all of the foreground architecture follows strictly to this gray concrete/stone theme. Each area has their own specific color hue, but that's not enough of a differentiator—the geometry and structural design between levels is essentially interchangeable. This is a huge bummer for someone that loves how distinct Maridia feels from Norfair, whereas with Samus Returns it'd be tough to look at a snapshot of a room and determine if it's from Area 2, 3, 4, etc.

The silver lining in the "sameyness between levels" is that it's probably the game's largest fault—everything else is handled with care and precision. Animations are smooth, Samus feels great to control, the parry mechanic is a blast to execute, and the Aeion abilities are fairly good additions. Missile expansions are sneakily hidden away in cramped, snake-like passages, which makes running around looking for secret entrances highly rewarding when you find them. The game is also really combat heavy, forcing you to stop every now and then to parry or dispatch a foe with a beam burst, but if there's one Metroid game you want the developer to nail the combat for, it's Metroid II.

Unlike AM2R, where the fights with the metroids became exhausting and drawn-out, there's a number of ways to subdue a metroid here. The manual aiming allows you to sneak in a couple of missiles on a their vulnerable underbelly, and it's invigorating to stare that energy sucker down right before you parry their ferocious bite. The zeta metroid in particular is an awesome enemy to engage with, having a wide variety of attacks while also not being as obnoxiously protective of its weak-point as the gamma mutation. The larger bosses are few and far between but they're also hell of a lot of fun to fight, really pushing you to be as accurate and responsive as possible. Perhaps what helps tip the game from "good" to "great" for me is that Samus Returns puts up a fight—you feel well-rewarded for finding every upgrade, since you'll routinely expend your energy tanks and missiles trying to survive the nightmarish depths of SR-388.

The core distinction between Metroid: Samus Returns and AM2R is showcased by how each game handles its final area: the latter retains the unsettling, monsterless jaunt to the final facility, while the former pumps that stretch full of enemies and power-ups. The difference here is in the influence of the original, as well as explosiveness—Samus Returns will happily discard the design of Metroid II if it can find a way to entice the play with intense combat or labyrinthine passageways. This may not sound like a design shift that honors the original, but it doesn't need to; AM2R is the devout successor to Metroid II, while Metroid: Samus Returns is its advanced contemporary. Both are directions I appreciate, and both are games worthy of the Metroid moniker.

Kudos on shattering expectations, MercurySteam.

Images obtained from: PureNintendo.com, Nintendojo.com, gamesreviews.com, heypoorplayer.com

Monday, November 27, 2017

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

I couldn't never put my finger on why Metroid Prime 3: Corruption was so... odd to me. I don't think it's because of the shift to Wii-pointer controls, since I think the new control scheme suits the series better than the restrictive Gamecube setup (don't get me wrong—it was great for the time, but it wasn't really satisfying). I don't believe it was the greater emphasis on plot nor the focus on bounty hunters besides Samus either. Something about Corruption just didn't... capture me, despite the game being fairly engrossing and fun, maintaining the longstanding tradition of excellent art, music, and design that the series is known for. Whatever reason there was for Corruption sticking out like a sore thumb eluded me...

... but now, I think I understand why.

The Metroid franchise has always been about exploring strange alien worlds, but nothing feels quite so foreign as the start to Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. Listen to how crazy this is: your ship drops you off on a sci-fi military cruiser and you're greeted by two guards that tell you the captain wants to see you! Was the tutorial guest-designed by Bungie? Not only does the opening to the game feel strange due to the amount of dialogue and friendly NPCs you encounter, but there's a whole second half to the tutorial that's completely linear and profusely combat heavy. Suddenly, Metroid's penchant for loneliness and exploration has vanished, leaving behind an FPS shell that pretends combat and plot are core pillars of the series. In trying to appeal to newcomers, Metroid Prime 3 had succumbed to what fans feared most.

... But then you arrive on Bryyo, and suddenly everything feels normal again. Before you lies a bizarre landscape riddled with ancient machinery and aggressive fauna—distinctly Metroidian traits! Prime 3 only goes up from here, offering the player the jaw-dropping wonder of SkyTown, and later the gloomy Pirate Homeworld. The former is one of the most gorgeous areas in the entire series (rivaling Sanctuary Fortress), and the latter has this oppressive infiltration feeling to it, similar to exploring the Phazon Mines—except this time you're delving into a mechanized alien hell. Both areas have a really distinct feel to them whereas Bryyo is just kinda... there? It has some cool lore and differently themed zones, but everything kinda feels like a "been there, done that", while the worlds toward the end of the game—especially the final level in particular—really flex the creative muscles of the art team.

Metroid Prime 3 undoubtedly maintains the great enemy design and architecture of the series—so how the combat hold up? The most accurate way to surmise it is that the actions shifts from combat depth to combat proficiency. No longer are you equipped with multiple beams and missile combos; the brunt of the action is knowing when and where to activate Phazon Mode in order to salvage your energy tanks—even at their partial cost. Instead of having to decide between your ammo and your health like in Prime 2, here your ammo is your health, and I feel it's a step forward as you no longer feel powerless against the bigger foes in the game. This keeps the action at a brisk pace, even on the hardest difficulty.

Unfortunately, this comes at a great cost: triggering Phazon Mode is often the best combat decision to make in almost every encounter. Missiles continue to do pitiful damage, and the Seeker Missile is a poor replacement for the missile combo attacks, due to its long charge time. Combine this with the fact that enemies have the ability to go into a hypermode (and do so often on hard), and the simplest solution becomes pumping them full of phazon, especially since you can reap health from their defeat. This isn't a categorical step down however; there's plenty of smaller enemies to blast with your standard beam cannon, and your foes are far more nimble and engaging than in the previous Prime entries, thanks to being designed for the Wii controls. The bosses provide excellent battles by and large—my only qualm being that Mogenar's shielded weakpoints make the fight an abominable chore.

Okay, so the worlds are great, the combat has its pros and cons, and I'll mention now that the sound, music, and lore roughly retain the same quality. So why would Metroid Prime 3 leave me with such ambivalent feelings the first two times I played through it? The answer to this, as I've discovered, is deceptively simple—so much so, that it feels unfair to fault the game for this one addition.

It's because of Samus's ship.

And it's not because it's often used to justify the backtracking (though that does bother me), nor is it because there are a lot of "Wii gimmicks" in the cockpit (which I actually don't mind). Where the ship and I part ways is that's it's used to ferry you from place to place, thereby breaking up the world into quarantined parts. Bryyo is the worst offender of this, having three distinct areas that are mostly inaccessible from one another, forcing you to return to your vessel and hop around. The ship doubling as a warp-point causes the design to be far more linear too; Bryyo is chock full of straight paths that only serve to connect two rooms, rarely giving you alternate options when you go to backtrack through the game. Elevator loading times were also a necessary evil in the previous entries, but they're nearly tripled here thanks to the amount of traveling you'll do.

This aspect doesn't make or break the game though—all it really does is make Metroid Prime 3 feel... different. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure how any developer would go about making a Metroid title feel cohesive when it's spread over half a dozen different planets. I suspect a single terrestrial setting is something that's core to Metroid's DNA in the same way that wildly diverse lands are core to Mario's. But in any case, it makes the experience feel more artificially segregated, thereby dealing a huge blow to the "isolated immersion" that I love the franchise for. It's easy to become numb to it after a while, but you still spend roughly half the game playing something that just feels... uncomfortably weird. It's almost like Metroid: Streamlined Edition.

The last thing I need to cover is something absolutely worthy of praise: the endgame fetch-quest is optional! Well... not really—you still need to collect 5 of the 9 energy cells to reach the final level, but the fact that you don't need to gather them all is fantastic. Additionally, you can pick all five up without doing any backtracking, which is a huge boon for replays of the game. The GFS Valhalla is also really cool: it's an eerie wreckage infested with phazon monstrosities, where the majority of things to scan are chilling descriptions of how its crewmates died. It was an impressive level when I first played the game, and my adoration for it has only grown since then.

No matter how many times I tried to analyze what Metroid Prime 3 had done "wrong", there was little I could criticize that wasn't also present in other entries. There are exceptions of course—the atypical opening leaves a terrible first impression on Metroid vets, and missiles are not only useless but you can stumble upon their upgrades without looking—but nothing sticks out to me more than the physically separated worlds. It's a complaint I admit holds little weight if one doesn't care for it (I feel the intrusive plot could probably be more nettlesome to certain players), but it deprived Metroid Prime 3 of one of Metroid's cornerstones. Besides that, Prime 3 is a rather fitting closer to the trilogy, offering up a decent challenge along with some of the coolest worlds seen yet (did I mention how much I love the final level?) Retro not only handled the franchise with respect and admiration, but built further upon its foundation and style, leaving an proud, enduring mark that many now see as inextricably tied to the series—including myself.

Well done folks!

Images obtained from: metroid.retropixel.net

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Metroid Prime 2: Echoes - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

The main reason why I don't consider Metroid Prime 2: Echoes superior to the first Prime game is evident from its gimmick: you have to explore every area twice. I find that very few video games justify the use of this mechanic, as it tends to come across more as lackluster padding than a necessary expansion to "original" world (the Silent Hill series being the notable exception). That's not to say any game that uses this concept is automatically bad, but exploring two identical environments makes a playthrough feel significantly longer. Even though Metroid Prime 2 features more interesting abilities, puzzles, and settings than the first, it does not escape the detriment of the "dual worlds", especially considering that it's placed into a franchise teeming with backtracking segments as-is.

It's difficult deciding whether or not to air my complaints or compliments first, since a lot of them are inextricably tied together. For instance: the ammo system. Attaching ammunition to opposite beam types strengthens the combat, since you're forced to decide whether you want to endure a long battle at the potential cost of your health, or fight a short battle that quickly depletes your ammunition. Missiles had always served this purpose, but every enemy was weak to them in equal measure; the Dark and Light beams are primarily world specific, forcing you to weight your options before jumping into a trans-dimensional warp-gate. Add in the missile combos for each weapon and you're suddenly looking at a Metroid that's surprisingly resource intensive, and therefore a lot more engaging on the survival front.

Buuuut ammo in Metroid Prime 2 is scarce and unreliable. Beam recharge centers are only available in the dark worlds, and there's a number of bulky enemies that drain your munitions should you choose to fight them. This leads to my second point—foes are too durable. This was a complaint from the first game (and similarly, I'm judging it based off the game's hard mode), but the problem is greatly exasperated here. The Ing are shockingly resilient to the Light Beam and since the missile combos cost so much ammo (it really should've been about 20 missiles & 20 ammo), you're frankly better off skipping a majority of the encounters. The Dark Pirate Commandos are the worst offenders, as without the Dark Beam (which they shouldn't be weak to?), fights against them take so long that the brigands just up and leave after a certain amount of time elapses—but the doors are locked until they decide to do so.

This is a shame since the enemies you'll encounter in Echoes are more diverse and fun than in the original Prime. A number of familiar critters return but there's also plenty of new fauna to interact with, the most interesting of which is saved for the final area of the game. Bosses are also more engaging, utilizing your own power-ups against you in creative ways (the Spider Ball Guardian being my favorite sub-boss). But outside of these titanic tussles, there's not much of a point to challenging the Ing forces. Had larger foes dropped more bountiful caches of ammo & health, maybe I'd be singing a different tune. Luckily, puzzles are much more challenging and extensive in Echoes, so I have no qualms in that department. I also appreciate that the game isn't too taxing to 100% without a guide.

If my entry thus far seems fairly negative, I don't intend it to be; following up on Metroid Prime was going to be a difficult task for Retro Studios, no matter how hard they tried. In a way, I'm kind of glad they aimed to go "bigger and better", as the ambition on display here is commendable. Power-ups like the Echo Visor and Screw Attack are excellent additions—the timing on the shift from first person to third for the Screw Attack is remarkably fluid. Each major area loops around itself quite nicely, allowing the player multiple paths to reach their destination during backtracking. Each setting is simultaneously gorgeous and lonely; Sanctuary Fortress in particular is a breathtaking sight to behold, really drilling home how utterly amazing the art team is. Lastly, the Ing have a menacing and grotesque design, perfectly befitting of their monstrous nature. The aesthetics of the game alone make it worth playing.

Lore-wise, I'm satisfied with what's presented here, though nothing in particular really blew me away. I think part of the problem is that there isn't much of a distinction between entries of the Light and Dark versions of each creature—it would've been interesting to read about how the Ing repurpose certain animals and technology for more than just warfare. I mean, their emphasis on battle accurately conveys the priorities of the Ing, but their civilization has a hierarchical structure that barely gets touched upon, and I feel like more entries could've been written around that. Perhaps I'm a little disappointed because the Ing aren't nearly as fascinating and flawed as the space pirates are... at least uncovering the various ways the Luminoth honorably stood against their hordes was intriguing (as well as tragic). Oh, and I quite like the area names given on the map of the Dark World—what's not to love about "Bitter Well", "Profane Path", or "Doomed Entry"?

Finally, I need to harp on the return of my lest favorite Prime aspect: mandatory endgame item collection. Echoes is ~50% longer than Metroid Prime due to repeated visits you'll undergo to the Dark World, an aspect that gets amplified when you're forced to find the nine Sky Temple keys. You spend enough time in each locale that the requirement to go through them all again just feels like a waste of time, especially considering you've essentially traveled through them twice as is. It doesn't help that the structure of the overworld requires repeated visits to the Great Temple (until the end of the game), and that returning power to each of the energy controllers is dull and uneventful. The interlocking layout cuts down on the tedium, but just barely.

Metroid Prime 2: Echoes is a sturdy sequel that expands on the Prime name in interesting ways. It's unfortunate that the "interesting ways" make the game a mixed bag; none of Echoes' concepts are bad, it's just that the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Nevertheless, I greatly enjoyed my replay of Echoes; sadly, there was just no way to turn off my inner-critic while I played it. If you enjoyed Metroid Prime I see no reason why you won't value and cherish Echoes as well, but prepare to feel fatigued once the journey is over.

Images obtained from: metroid.retropixels.net, Giantbomb.com

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Divinity: Original Sin - Thoughts

Divinity: Original Sin is a game about casting magic. People might claim that there's a story in the game, or that there's a large number of quests and puzzles to complete, or that you can get a skill that lets you talk to animals—but these are all distractions. Divinity exists to ask a single question of you: what spell do you use next? It might seem boring to repeatedly badger the player with such a simple inquiry—especially over the game's 50 hour runtime—but this question is the cornerstone of every role playing combat system. And as Larian Studios demonstrates, when you decide to make it your focus, you can produce a gameplay system that's deep, flexible, and spectacular.

I need to explain that when I say Divinity: Original Sin is all about its magic, this is both true and not true. Yeah, there's a narrative you can follow with plenty of locales and characters and sardonic quips, but it's not exceptional by any means. The world in Divinity is best described as goofy—it's rarely ashamed to poke fun at itself and skews more towards humor than grittiness with its writing. There are grim sections to the game but these are often counterbalanced by bouts of weirdness and silliness; Divinity's world feels like fan-fantasy, made by folks that adore Tolkien but prefer not being so self-serious. That, and there's rarely anything that breaks out of the stereotypical fantasy mold. Orcs are orcs and humans are humans—I think the goblin design is the only thing that struck me as particularly uncanny.

The puzzles and quest design on the other hand are a really mixed bag. There's a lot of sections in the game that are cool and well-done, but when you get stuck at a puzzle, prepare to bang your head against a wall over and over. The quest log becomes a mess of unhelpful text and it can be difficult trying to figure out how to accomplish your objective. It doesn't help that online guides are fairly inconsistent too, sometimes providing vague or conflicting information. I was able to beat it—thankfully—but there were a handful of rough patches that deterred my enjoyment (the stealth sections were a major drag).

To Divinity's credit, its boldness is admirable. It tries its damnedest to offer the player multiple avenues to solve problems, allowing them to attack, barter, or search their way into a solution. I also like the unconventional design of some of the puzzles, like the one that required you to balance weights via various knickknacks in your inventory. When Divinity works it works well, but when it doesn't you're often left confused and annoyed. The end of the game in particular gets very constrictive, requiring precise answers to its puzzles and punishing you should you choose to ignore the perception stat (which is largely useless for the majority of the game).

But ah, once you enter into combat, oh what a glorious landscape of death and destruction you'll weave! Divinity's four elements have the ability to affect the landscape, transforming the grassy earth into a sea of fire or a lake of ice. This, combined with the massive slew of buffs and debuffs, is what makes combat so immensely satisfying to partake in. Though you start with a meager list of abilities in the beginning, by mid-game you'll have a vast repertoire of spells to sift through, trying to consider whether it'd be better to summon a minion, stun an opponent, or lob an elemental grenade (the correct answer is "summon a minion"—ABS: Always Be Summoning!) There are eight schools of "magic" a character can learn from, each containing around fifteen spells, and most of these abilities will see a healthy amount of use on the battlefield. What's cool too is that you can decide whether you want to go "deep" or "broad" with each school, letting you build a battle-mage or necromantic-thief if you so wish.

The core problems a lot of RPGs face is how do you avoid the player playing in a "loop"—that is to say, how do you discourage them from making the same decision for every encounter? Divinity solves this by not only making every battle unique, but cleverly balancing its abilities such that you never feel there's an "optimal" way to handle each scuffle. So let's say you're fighting a troll, and it used its first turn to close in on your warrior and fortify itself, granting it additional armor. With a four person squad, you have a lot of different options to consider*: do you try and lower the trolls armor? Haste your wizard so they can fling numerous immobilizing attacks at it? Improve your warrior's damage & accuracy so they can tear through the heightened defenses? Or maybe you teleport your warrior backwards and create a field of oil, so the troll will waste his turn trudging through it, only to eat a fireball next turn, which will subsequently set the oil ablaze? All of these are equally viable solutions on paper, but it varies depending on unit positioning, turn order, and the gear they have equipped. Rarely will you find yourself wading into a brawl you've accurately foreseen the outcome to—expect some craziness every encounter.

The final feature of Divinity that I think really sells it is that you can play through the entire campaign cooperatively. It's fun not only to have someone to chat with, but to also have a second layer of unpredictability to the combat, requiring you to adjust your playstyle around your partner's actions. For instance, my brother controlled a ranger and a tank while I helmed two different wizards, forcing me to juggle between attacking and strengthening his characters depending on their position. Occasionally our tactics led to some impromptu-hilarity, like when we were surrounded by goblins and I asked him to "forgive me" right before throwing a friendly-fire shrapnel grenade at the feet of our characters (pictured below). There's also a cool mechanic where you can disagree with a player's choice and play a game of rock-paper-scissors to overrule them, though it gets old pretty fast.

Divinity: Original Sin is one of many examples of why CRPGs are far from dead. If you're like me, you might be put-off from the idea of playing an RPG in spite of its story, but Divinity's combat is something that should not be missed. It constantly challenges you to think wisely, pushing you to question the spells you've picked for grimoire and weighing the risk of one attack versus another. Could charming the boss's minion change the tide of battle? What about hasting your tank, even though it'll set them on fire? Should you fire that explosive arrow into cluster of bleeding zombies, which will do extra AoE damage but then obscure your ranger's vision with a cloud of smoke? The limitless paths each battle can take is what kept me coming back to Divinity, and what I will remember it fondest for.

*Just kidding—Always Be Summoning!