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.
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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!

Friday, October 20, 2017

Metroid Prime - Thoughts


[contains minor spoilers]

Back in 2001, I thought it was impossible to render Super Metroid properly into the 3D world. Super Mario 64 & Ocarina of Time turned out to be superb games—don't get me wrong—but they faced inherently different hurdles than those intended for Nintendo's shoulder pad-clad bounty hunter. Super Metroid was fast, fluid, and moody, placing a massive emphasis on exploration and atmosphere, featuring both fantastical creatures and labyrinthine locations. When Metroid Prime was described as a "First Person Adventure Game", I imagine that I must've guffawed heartily at reading that, confident that the developers behind Turok were on the verge of ruining one of my favorite franchises.

Evidently, that was probably the most wrong I've been regarding a video game in my entire life. Not only is Metroid Prime a masterpiece of video game design, but it is the perfect rendition of Super Metroid into the third dimension. It takes an appropriate amount of nods from its predecessors while simultaneously carving its own bold path, framing the world of Metroid through an immersive first person perspective. Retro Studios understood what made the world of Super Metroid tick: they nailed the combat, scaled gaining power through items appropriately, and captured the feeling of being isolated on a gorgeous alien planet—even the music and sound effects were on point! Against all odds, Metroid Prime became the best single player experience you can have on the Gamecube, bar none.


I feel bad for constantly comparing Metroid Prime to Super Metroid, but the way Prime directly honors its forebearer without copying it is worth inspection. Both games open the same way, thrusting Samus onto a derelict space station that closes out with a timed escape section. But the experiences are largely dissimilar—Super's vessel is a brief sprint and faux-boss fight, while Prime's frigate is significantly larger and alludes to the story to come. Aboard the desolate space pirate facility you'll learn the fundamentals of both combat and scanning, the latter of which is the most inventive addition Prime contributes to the Metroid universe.

I heap massive amounts of praise on the Souls series for its environmental storytelling, but Metroid Prime is one of the earliest 3D pioneers of the style (to my knowledge). The plot in Prime aims to be so unobtrusive that it's practically tucked away—hell, you'll only encounter 2-3 lore entries regarding its titular antagonist. But if you seek this information out, you'll be well-rewarded with a fairly interesting story that's more about the methodology of the space pirates than the history of Phazon. There's so many quirky details that help to distinguish the pirates apart from other intergalactic menaces, from the way they meticulously log the successes of their brutal Phazon experiments, to the human-like errors they constantly make (eg keeping the local fauna as pets and teasing captive metroids). They're both alarmingly competent and hilariously buffoonish, being able to replicate Samus's weaponry in one experiment but fatally crushing their Morph Ball test subjects in another. The way they blatantly disregard life all for the sake of research and progress is a fascinating quality to add to a group of enemies that previously had no traits besides being "evil".

The scanning system is the most novel idea in Metroid Prime because it allows the player to dive into the lore and biology of the world according to their whim. You can scan the local flora to discover that some of it has evolved to produce a volatile chemical in order to ward off animals, or you can just shoot the glowing sac and observe it exploding without ever understand why it does that. Metroid Prime provides plenty of reasons for its silly and archaic game design (like that most technology is manually activated in order to avoid the dangers of a network-wide security hack), a touch I personally love. Being able to research the wildlife and uncover the lore of the Chozo without having the game relay this information in a mandatory cutscene places the power of discovery into the hands of the player, which is what Metroid has always been about.

This is primarily why I say that Metroid Prime understands what made Super Metroid special: Retro Studios knew to put exploration front and center, relegating combat off to the side. The combat (and challenge) of the game is still important—and there's some pretty fun fights to be had—but the priority was on immersing the player in a living, breathing world with its own culture, identity, and history. Most of the non-space pirate foes aren't all that dangerous, but they're far more unique and interesting—creatures like the Plazmite, Triclops, and Jelzap are creative in a way that humanoid enemies can't be. Of course, a huge reason for why the world of Tallon IV is so compelling is that the art direction is impeccable; I'd contest that the visual style of Metroid Prime is just as memorable as its highly lauded soundtrack. Seriously, go check out the concept art for some really stellar sketches.


Returning to the Super Metroid comparison, Prime adheres to its basic world structure (five large interlocking areas) but mixes up the general theming, discarding the underwater and vegetative zones for some wasteland ruins and a frozen canyon. There are similar beats here and there but for the most part Metroid Prime operates according to its own rule book; one of my favorite sections in the game is the underwater journey through the crashed frigate from the opening act, harkening back to the Wrecked Ship in Super Metroid but replacing "dread" with "tranquility". There are moments that are meant to invoke Super Metroid (the Lower Norfair melody, power bombing the cracked tunnel, using the grapple beam on a Glider), but they act more like classic call-backs rather than aped design tropes. For instance, power bombing the tunnel rewards you with a completely new ice+missile combo attack rather than allowing you to traverse into a new area. Likewise, you only need to use the grapple beam on a Glider for an optional missile expansion—never to complete the game.

For all the merits I could heap onto Metroid Prime's design (trust me, I could go on for a while), I have to discuss the three shortcomings I feel the game has. The first is that most missile expansion & energy tank puzzles are relatively simplistic, but this complaint is somewhat excusable considering Metroid Prime is the franchise's first foray into 3D. My second grievance is a bit more particular: enemies on Hard have too much health. I appreciate the amount of damage they deal to Samus, but the tankiness of the later foes and bosses reveal the weaknesses of the combat, namely that there's not a lot of variety—all of the beam troopers act the same way and most of the endgame bosses prefer to spam the "expanding ground ring" attack (which is a cinch to jump over). This isn't an egregious problem on Normal, but Metroidvanias thrive in their Hard modes, forcing you to scavenge for every little pick-up in order to gain an edge in combat.

My third point of contention—and the most serious one—is that collecting the Chozo Artifacts is a bore. They might be interesting to sniff out on a first playthrough but there's no optimal path to acquiring all of them outside of abusing glitches. The biggest offender is Phendrana Drifts: all three of its Chozo Artifacts are scattered in entirely different locations, each requiring the final beam in order to obtain. Had the player been given the opportunity to nab them over the course of the main adventure (like the Chozo Artifacts in Magmoor Caverns) I would rescind my complaint, but this backtracking unnecessarily pads out the length of the game, especially considering that you do enough backtracking as-is to get the regular power-ups. Artifact collecting a boring endeavor that shouldn't be compulsory—leave the repetitive backtracking for the completionists.

This comes as such a major disappointment to me because—similar to Wind Waker—some of the game's strongest moments come at the end. The final area is unnerving in that special way only Metroid can be, and the final boss is my favorite in the entire series. Gating such a spectacular climax behind a ho-hum scavenger hunt is nothing less than tragic, but I suppose a silver lining is that exploring the world is rarely boring. Part of this is due to how every room feels necessary and purposeful, but I think an even better reason is that Samus is just plain fun to control. Her speed and jump height feel perfectly tailored for the Tallon IV sojourn, and the platforming and morph ball sections rarely become annoying. The sublime quality of the controls really caps off what a fantastic game Metroid Prime is; every aspect has been expertly honed in order to craft a truly unforgettable adventure.


As I was replaying Metroid Prime, I found myself repeatedly exclaiming, "this is a really cool idea!" It's a game that continued to surprise me even on my sixth playthrough, new details and clever design decisions awaiting around every corner. Had obtaining the Chozo Artifacts been more streamlined (or made so you only needed 3/4ths of them), the case could be made that this is the definitive Metroid experience. Unfortunately, Super Metroid is a high bar to pass (did I mention it's my favorite game of all time?) so Metroid Prime has to settle for being the "astoundingly good with exceptional design" runner-up. I have my doubts that the Metroid franchise can reach these astronomical heights again, but hey—I've been wrong before.
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Images obtained from: metroid.retropixels.net, Giantbomb.com

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Cuphead - Thoughts


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Satellite Reign - Thoughts


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



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

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


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

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

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


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

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard - Thoughts


[contains minor spoilers]

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Nioh - Thoughts


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


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

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

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


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

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


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