Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Five 2015 Games I Enjoyed in 2015 - Opinion

This year in games was really tense for me—the games have been great but I've been desperately shoving everything I've been wanting to play into these last few months. So unlike last year, there's a whole lot of potential contenders that could've been on here if I had a little more time to play them this month rather than next (SOMA, Pillars of Eternity, Her Story, Ori and the Blind Forest, Downwell, Witcher 3... the list goes on). Yet just as with last year's list, know that the order is relatively loose and subject to change, and above all else, that numerical list-making is a largely fatuous pleasantry that shouldn't be the end-all-be-all of opinions. On with the show!

Axiom Verge may be easy to dismiss merely by judging it on face-value (another 8-bit Metroidvania?), but like with my #1 Game I Enjoyed, there's a lot more to it than that. Tom Happ's game revels in its foreign atmosphere, possibly being the best 2D game about an alien world since Super Metroid. Controls are smooth, the weapons are varied, and the locales are both eerie and inviting. Plus, the lab coat is the best power-up I've had the chance to fiddle with all year. It's not too often you get to play something this immaculately designed.

Wowsers! Who would've thought a game about two gal-pals hanging out and dealing with school drama would've been so fascinating? Of course Life is Strange is more than just he-said she-said hearsay—it's more about the nature of friendship and whether or not you can fix mistakes. There's more to the characters than you can glean at first glance and the gentle art style fits the game's highschool hipster theme like a glove. It's an evocative, colorful tale that's a must-play if you have a soft spot for nostalgia, mystery, and regret.

There's a reason the background for my blog comes from The Beginner's Guide—it's a stellar, deep, and ponderous game. It feels uncomfortably personal, like looking back through someone's Facebook posts and analyzing every argument they've had... without any of their consent. Despite its movie-length brevity there's a lot of material presented here that you can mull over, and even if you're not into the haughty intellectual commentary regarding author-player relationships, The Beginner's Guide remains an interesting (and troubling) game about video game development and validation.

There are a handful of franchises that could become yearly sequels that I'd never tire of, and the Souls games definitely fit in this category. While not strictly a Souls game, Miyazaki's indelible touch is nevertheless present in Bloodborne, soaking through its tattered cloth and into the beastly hide that lies below. Its world is bleak and the combat is fierce; there's really nothing more I could want out of this Lovecraftian nightmare (outside of build variety). And out of all the games on this list, Bloodborne is the one that's going to get the most playtime from me—the only reason it's not higher is that the franchise formula isn't entirely fresh, but it's still a hell of a lot of fun to play.

Undertale deserves all the LOVE love it gets. It's a truly remarkable, impactful tale that captures the whimsy of going on a silly adventure and making new friends. But it's not entirely innocent; Undertale asks you just how far you're willing to go to treat its charming characters as lines of code, forcing you to confront your willingness to empathize with something that's not entirely real. It's an extremely funny, sharp game that takes you on a roller coaster of emotions, utilizing some meta-concepts unique solely to gaming. Not only is it my favorite game this year, but it's also the most meaningful game I've played in a long time.


Deus Ex is kinda light-hearted and wacky, but it's pretty entertaining. I spent a lot of time talking about how wild the game is in my blog post (the Illuminati is in it for goodness sake), but I failed to mention just how reinvigorating it was to play an oldschool FPS that doesn't hold your hand and demands that you explore its world thoroughly. There's a multitude of ways to tackle each area and the pace of the game flows nicely from one set-piece to the next, providing plenty of playtime over a variety of different settings. I think it's a far cry from being the best PC game of all time, but it remains fun to play through even today.

Deus Ex obviously deserves a spot for its greatness, but Dracula X also needs to be recognized for being a really excellent Castlevania game. Pit against Rondo of Blood, it's nigh-unanimous that people prefer the original version of the game, but Dracula X remains competent and fun. While Rondo has better paths and sleeker presentation, I actually prefer Dracula X's level design, visuals, and final boss more. It feels more like the true sequel to Castlevania III instead of a strange offshoot of the formula (Super Castlevania IV, Bloodlines), retaining the classic level of punishing difficulty the franchise was known for. Like Dark Souls II, it gets disparaged too often amongst fans; it's likely my favorite fourth generation Castlevania game.

I would have loved to say I didn't finish a bad game this year and have this section turn into a discussion of whether I found Hotline Miami 2, The Evil Within, or Okami more disappointing (they're good!—just disappointing), but Imagine Me takes the cake for being my gameplay nadir. It feels like an early access game most of the time, being unfulfilling and imbalanced, except... ya know, this is the final product. I wouldn't exactly compare it to the travesty that was Fahrenheit (though being able to look back on it, that game is growing on me akin to Wiseau's The Room), but there's still plenty in Imagine Me that makes it contemptible. There's far worse on Steam, but Imagine Me remains a poor game through and through.

In theory, I adore Super Mario Maker. The game gives fans the job of being a level designer, learning the ins and outs of the mechanics and gameplay systems. It's one of those brilliant ideas where you wonder "why didn't they make this sooner?" However, it can be crushing to spend hours pouring over the layout and design of your stage, just to have it receive a 10% clear rating and one star. Even when I set about making more simple and friendly levels, the gate for being able to upload new levels is extremely low for someone with no designated followers, and I burned out on the game when I reached my limit. It's a shame, because I really like making 4-level "world" sets, but Super Mario Maker promotes brief ingenuity over a more classic-play experience. It's a fun game for sure, but unless you have the opportunity to watch someone run through your levels, it can be surprisingly lonesome.

Fallout 4 let me down. The spotty dialogue, general jank, and perforated story came together to create an experience that felt mostly like more Fallout 3. I enjoyed Fallout 3! But when I play the sequel to a 50 hour game, I expect those new 50 hours to offer something different. The addition of settlement building is super cool and the gunplay is worlds better, but there just weren't enough positives to outweigh the negatives. Honestly I walked away from it a bit drained, wondering why I didn't just play Wasteland 2 instead.

Other images obtained from:,,

Monday, December 7, 2015

Deus Ex - Thoughts

[contains spoilers]

Every now and then you may hear this sentiment: "I wish I could forget all about [certain piece of media] so I could experience it all over again." In that sense, there's an ironic fortune than one cannot appreciate when touching a revered classic for the very first time. Deus Ex is one of those well-regarded masterpieces that I had played a bit of as a teen, but never completed: the game felt clunky and aimless, while the gunplay was lackluster and getting spotted meant instant-death. I mean sure, having branching power-ups is cool and all, but this was no Half-Life... were my thoughts at the time.

So that's why it was important for me to revisit it in 2015 and go beyond the first few NYC missions; I needed to understand what made Ion Storm's dystopian cyber-future special and why people would give their left arm just to play it all over again with a fresh set of eyes.

Alright, so Deus Ex is goofy. It has a really solid foundation that actively encourages you to play to your skills, meaning that you should pick a few traits and hone those. Whereas in my first playthrough as an adolescent I went into areas with guns blazing, I decided to go for the stealthy takedown approach this time, utilizing the police baton and dart gun. Since I wanted to bring down my foes with melee combat as fast as possible, I focused on upgrading my hand-to-hand training first, and then pumped points into other abilities to help me navigate around the world (lockpicking, electronics, hacking). I tried my best to commit to a non-lethal playstyle, but the game pushed back hard against me—how are you supposed to tranq a cyborg?! So, being a stealth-amateur, I had to abandon my pacifist ways at the ocean base and unleash the might of the Dragon Claw laser sword.

Where the game gets silly is mostly during the spontaneous little moments you don't expect. The first explosive LAM I used destroyed a door and the unconscious body of a guard through a solid wall, thus ending my no-kill run quite early. When you use gas grenades on enemies, any damage you do to them will break them out of their "wiping face" animation cycle and allow them to shoot at you for a split second, before they realize their eyes hurt and return to rubbing. At Versalife I (in plain sight mind you) freed a bum and some dinosaurs from their cages, and while everyone in the entire facility panicked I stole a handful of augmentation enhancements. In Paris I asked a hobo for directions, thinking I had dodged the nearby patrolling guards, but mid-conversation a cyborg ran up to me with his guns primed, forcing me to panic-click through the rest of the dialogue before dying swiftly thereafter. And I shall never forget the glorious duel I had with the game's major antagonist Walton Simons, where I paused the game, activated my augmentations, and... defeated him in a single attack. Whose augs are outdated now?!

Oh, and you end up joining the Illuminati and fighting Roswell-looking aliens (which may or may not be enhanced apes) in Area 51.

And the stun prod animation is hilarious.

This is not to undermine the game's accomplishments—rather, they compliment them. Deus Ex is hailed as a pioneer of player choice, and nothing makes that more evident than when you're brushing up against its systems in a unique way (like with my Versalife experience). And the non-emergent aspects of the game that are comical—like the Chinese & French voice acting—don't necessarily interrupt the flow of gameplay or break the immersion either. The game is wacky at times, but you can still approach it with a serious demeanor and easily get invested in its cyber-conspiracies. It was cool that the story revolved around a world already knee-deep in augmentations, and I thought its portrayal of how the shift to industry left multitudes of the poor behind to rot was brilliant. The dialogue was also great for the gamut of topics that get covered, though occasionally weird in its delivery and brevity.

If there is one thing I can grill the game for, it's that the augmentations are bound to the horrendous function keys. I know this is before the days of weapon wheels and the like, but having to reach for F3 to dampen damage in the heat of battle never worked out in my favor; the amount damage enemies can do to you in this game is pretty insane, so being nimble on your powers is a must. While you can pause and activate your upgrades independently, this slows the gameplay down considerably and makes what should be a central mechanic to the game a chore. On the flipside, I did enjoy how useful these powers were and that the game forces you to choose between two distinct abilities for each body part.

Something else that surprised me was that the game isn't as open as I thought it was—there's only about 2-3 "routes" for each area. It's not really a grievance per se, but I didn't have the inclination to try and run through the game with a different "build" when I finished, especially since I thoroughly explored every map during my playthrough. Thankfully, the staggering amount of missions and places you'll visit provide a great sense of variation, and even as a linearly-crafted story, it remains thoroughly engaging all the way to the end. My favorite moment was in the chapel, where I read about Gunther crying all alone in the basement and festering in his anger towards me for the murder of Agent Navarre (it was self-defense!)—I actually pitied the poor lug. I mean I still wound up killing him (it was self-defense!), but it served as an effective, emotional story beat that made me detest MJ12 that much more.

While debating philosophy with the bartender you see in the screen above, I came upon the realization that Deus Ex really was doing something really unique at the time. What I failed to appreciate as a teenager wasn't just how robust and customizable the mechanics were, but how adventurous the game's spirit was. Nowadays it's easy to get spoiled by the saturation of RPG systems in FPSs and stories about government conspiracies centered on technological advancement, but it was a novel combination back in 2000 before the likes of Morrowind or Metal Gear Solid 2 were known. In that sense, that's why the droll moments of the game only add to its charm and luster—few other games were brave enough to attempt something as wild as this. And not only did Deus Ex pull it off, but its legacy can still be appreciated (and enjoyed!) by today's standards as well.

... So now with the original under my belt, Invisible War has to naturally follow, right?

Monday, November 30, 2015

Undertale - Thoughts

[contains spoilers]

It was an accident.

I mean, the game did instruct me on the right course of action, but I didn't want things to turn out this way—I was just trying to get Toriel down to low health so I could spare her. That's how I thought battles were supposed to go after all: just weaken them, and then let them flee. But then a sudden flash—a crit!?—and she was dead. Guilt dampened my mood as I marched forward, a flower lying in wait to taunt me with his grim face for what I've done. So instead of letting this misdeed persist, I reset.

And the game knew. Flowey mocked me for that as well, knowing that I had abused the ability to save. He warned me that he wanted that power back, and that's when I knew Toby Fox's Undertale certainly wasn't like any other "RPG" I had played before.

Well, that last statement isn't entirely true—Undertale is clearly inspired by Earthbound. From the quirky humor to the grim, 4th-wall breaking finale, Undertale takes many nods from the Nintendo classic... but never copies it. Sure, there's an emphasis on family and laughs, but the game treads its own ground by addressing what it means "kill" in an RPG. That concept is not a unique one to games, but tying certain aspects that are exclusive to the medium—like "leveling up", "saving", and "determination" (ie the will to keep playing a game)—so naturally into the narrative is a feat that has rarely been seen before. Undertale and The Beginner's Guide are the only titles released this year (that I've experienced) where their story cannot be separated from their gameplay by any means.

This inextricable link may appear subtle at first because of how innocuous the game seems. When you start off, you'll notice that the visuals are very... strange. While character models in shops are well animated, characters out in the world can range from "silly" to "downright ugly". There's a sterile, flat look to the combat that breaks the mold for the final encounters, but for the most part the enemies and attacks remain plain. It's obvious that the visuals are the game's low point—they're not offensive by any means, but they won't win any accolades.

Everything else in Undertale is absolutely captivating. The music bristles with energy and emotion, punctuating silly scenes with "Dogsong", invigorating the player with "ASGORE", and submerging you in a tidal wave of emotion with the title track. There's a huge amount of flexibility in the game's score, and I'd argue that it's one of the most memorable OSTs you'll hear all year. Seriously, how can you listen to this and not immediately hear that character's low-toned voice prattling off in your head?

The surprising variety of tunes are a herald of just how diverse Undertale is too. There's a lot of monster debating and bullet dodging to be had, but the ways in which these are constantly changed up leave the game feeling fresh over its six-hour journey. Areas don't drag on for too long, jokes don't overstay their welcome (besides the reoccurring anime ones), and the game always tries its best to entertain you, whether it be cooking with your mortal enemy or stumbling into an impromptu Final Fantasy VI opera.

Perhaps best of all is that the game is sharp with its humor too—it's witty without ever having to rely on base humor or forced "lol random!" jokes. It anticipates what the player is likely to do and plays with those expectations, constantly surprising you with tidbits you weren't expecting or completely forgot about (like the reuse of the tile "puzzle", meeting the rest of Snowdrake's family, and Napstablook coming to your rescue). The "dates" you go on in the game are some of my favorite moments, due to the sheer stupidity of the situations you'll find yourself in when making new friends.

As much as the game makes you laugh, there are plenty of shadows lurking underneath all the smiles. In a kind of twisted way, the characters are purposely lovable and goofy in order to illustrate just what a emotionless monster you'd have to be to attempt a genocide run. And this is where the story connects to the gameplay in an extraordinary way: do you attempt to level up by inflict harm on Undertale's naive populace, or brave fighting difficult enemies with a meager amount of HP? And if you do desire to level up, just how far are you willing to go?

The first time I played through the game I killed a couple of monsters (just enough to get me to 40 HP) and realized how strange it is that our first instinct upon entering a gaming space is to think about what to kill and destroy, rather than whom we'll meet and befriend. And I don't mean this in a "we should have more games with nonviolent options" way (though those are always welcome)—it's more about how peculiar it is that when approached with the option to be violent, players can and will be. This is especially true where saving and loading are concerned, as there's some kind of weird enjoyment to be had in playing with a system's boundaries (I can't be the only one that reloaded my game in Mass Effect to see what would happen if I shot Wrex). By extension, Flowey mirrors the player's gruesome curiosity during his final battle—which is extremely terrifying, by the way—showing you how deranged one can become when given the ability to exploit a given instance with unlimited power (which is further supported by his genocide route dialogue). It's horrible to see it given form within the context of the game, but difficult to recognize and parse when we're the ones behind the wheel.

I didn't fully understand the game's message the first time I played it, because... well, I killed Flowey. I thought Asgore deserved some retribution for what happened to him! Naturally I felt guilt for my impulsive decision while I was undertaking the Pacifist route. Having the game's outcome change so dynamically for that path was something I wasn't expecting too, and only further emphasized just how wondrously Undertale is designed. The true final battle is a bittersweet event that I'll have to discuss another time, but safe to say it's my favorite moment out of the whole game. And on top of that there's the Genocide route and its implications, which I didn't have the nerve to carry out myself (I watched it on youtube, shamefully). The way that vile path harangues you for your actions is great—it constantly asks if filling imaginary bars for the sake of "completion" is better than hurting the imaginary friends you were once happy to spend time with. It's kind of eerie to think that to some people it actually is, and I'm almost tempted to say that it says something about them.


Like the Last of UsUndertale is a game that gets a lot of love and high praise for a damn good reason. Its memetic influence may grate on people, especially as it continues to garner attention and rise in popularity, but the game was crafted with a wholesome spirit, one that desires nothing more than to tell an endearing tale. It's an extremely sentimental, honest, and imaginative experience that can only be told as a video game, using the strengths of the medium to drive home its thoughtful points. Undertale is an indie gem that will stand the test of time, because it—like its player—has heart.

Images obtained from:

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Axiom Verge - Thoughts

Axiom Verge is a very competent Metroidvania, quite possibly the best (non-Castlevania) one I've played since Shadow Complex. Looking at screenshots you may be fooled into thinking it's some kooky NES Metroid ripoff—the end-screen doors, power-up pedestals, blocky health bar, etc. are all obvious nods towards Samus Aran's original interstellar quest. But Axiom Verge easily comes into its own as the game progresses, establishing a story and weapon system that is unique to its brand of run 'n gun gameplay. The hypnotic opening beat of the first area sets the mood of your strange journey to come; Sudra is an alien world where only those willing to fight survive.

The emphasis of the setting being an alien world cannot be understated—the atmosphere is unnerving and strange. Colors and corridors are unnatural, your enemies even more-so, and the various bosses you encounter are massive and mutated. Some of the outdoor environments feel the most comforting because of how closely they tend to resemble Earth in their familiarity, while indoor corridors with their grotesque, throbbing interiors make the player feel outright terrified. It's easy to say that the designer Tom Happ was inspired by Geiger, but rather than mimic his style outright, he fuses it into the world... it's sort of like exploring Contra's final stage if it wasn't so blatantly based off of Alien.

Speaking of Contra, the gunplay is far more important in Axiom Verge than many of its brethren. The sheer quantity of armaments you obtain echo this; rather than stack your upgrades as in Metroid, your bullets merely change property and you can flip through their variations on the fly. A lot of them are surprisingly useful, as you will need to adjust your attack based on your enemy's position, health, number, and speed. The main blaster is the MVP of the game, but plenty of other styles have their situational advantages from time to time. It's a bit of a shame that some cool weapons come near the end of the game, but I was also glad that continuing to explore Sudra's hidden caverns was a worthwhile endeavor.

However, the weapons you gather pale in comparison to certain powerups you obtain, which cement Axiom Verge as "not another mere Metroid clone". While the Address Disruptor—which takes the concept of "glitches" from the NES era and giving them a ludonarrative purpose—is the frontrunner for the game's innovation, the Lab Coat and its iterations are my personal favorite. Once you master the Lab Coat and where to spot its "application" in the world, it changes how you see secrets and is a ton of fun use. I'd go as far as to argue that it's the best traversal mechanic added to a 2D game since the dash in Mega Man X. The remote drone also deserves some kudos for how clever it's used throughout the game as well, especially once you gain its essential upgrade.

At first I felt Axiom Verge would've been better off with less story (like Lords of the Fallen), as what was written felt somewhat generic and intrusive. However there was a lot more depth to the plot than I initially saw as I trudged deeper into Sudra's labyrinthian core. What started as a simple "turn back on the machines and kill the nasty bad guy" became a far more complex web, riddled with mysteries about Sudra's culture and purpose, going as far as to discuss the nature of algorithmic consciousness. The plot itself is a bit too dense for me to personally unravel, but it's interesting enough that anyone looking to decrypt the history of this foreign civilization will have their hands full. That, and the story doesn't quite unfold as you might expect, which is a pleasant (welcome) surprise.

At times the enemy placement can feel all over the place (climbing up the cliffs of Kur multiple times is quite tedious), but since the game is hinged on being strange, its questionable placement is admittedly thematically consistent. But what I can't overlook is how the game botches the last boss fight. Simply put, it's a chaotic, nonsensical mess where random health drops dictate the pace of the fight, making its climactic finale an utter chore (at least it was for me on Hard). What makes this especially egregious is just how solid the rest of the game is in executing on its mechanics and gameplay—it's like eating a scrumptious seven course meal just to receive freezer burnt store-brand sherbet as your dessert. The last level also doesn't feel all that crazy or tense compared to the rest of the game, but that's merely a nitpick compared to the final encounter.

Axiom Verge hits on nearly every mark: its visuals, story, music, atmosphere, and sense of progression are all fantastic. It's one of the few games that almost feels like it wasn't designed by a human: the warped world, enigmatic Rusalka, and foes clad in an organic carapace will make you eager to return home. But the longer you stay in this world, the more you will grow to understand its underlying laws—and how to break them. Axiom Verge is a must-play for those looking for a classic—yet evolved—Metroid game.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood - Thoughts

There's been a lot of games released last year that have been given life again in 2015. Dark Souls II saw an upgrade in Scholar of the First Sin (which allowed me to experience its exquisite DLC kingdoms), Shovel Knight got its Plague of Shadows addition, and even Destiny saw a face lift with The Taken King. The only one I feel like (briefly) covering is Wolfenstein's standalone expansion, The Old Blood. Here we head back in time to storm the eponymous Castle Wolfenstein; jumping back into BJ's shoes for some bombastic shootouts made me realize why it's one of my favorite FPSs of all time.

Gone from The New Order is its emotional story-driven pacing—BJ is given a job to do and spends little time futzing about. Where the original game had an ebb and flow to its narrative, The Old Blood is predominantly anchored to action, featuring a huge amount of open playgrounds for you to sneak and/or shoot through. There are some clever alternative scenarios here and there, like the stealthy opening and tense moments where you're deprived of your weapons, but for the most part the sound of muzzle fire will be the score to your slaughter symphony. The action takes a questionable turn at the second act of the game, where combat becomes a bit slower and less frantic, but the first act (and its climax) provide unabashed Wolfenstein mayhem. Dual wielding auto-shotguns and watching my foes turn into crimson mist has been the most fun I've had with a gun since using the alternate fire on Half-Life 2's pulse rifle.

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood has one goal—take The New Order's scrumptious gameplay and serve it to you on bigger and more elaborate dishes. My only disappointment is that it feels hollow without BJ's chatter, the experience not nearly as impactful as its predecessor (the "inhale" stuff and Rudi's tirade during his fight were the only evocative parts to me). However the game doesn't seek to replace The New Order but rather expand it, offering more situations to try out your improv firearm skills and crack some Nazi skulls. It's fun and bloody excursion that continues to showcase MachineGames' mastery.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Evil Within - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

Trapped somewhere between Silent Hill and Resident Evil lurks The Evil Within. It's a game that feels very torn on what it wants to be, featuring dozens of high action set-pieces confusingly combined with ammo starvation and psychological ruses. Many contest that these elements form a cohesive and varied experience, but the game felt like it had split personalities for me: too often it left me warm and then cold. Despite whatever gripes I may have, it is competently put together and has some really clever ideas implemented into it—it just wasn't to my tastes, unfortunately.

The best thing the game has going for it is tension. In The Evil Within, you almost never feel safe—either your health is low, your ammo is dry, or you have a boss that can instantly kill you breathing down your neck. This isn't a game like Resident Evil where you can easily end up with a stash of green herbs and magnum shells to steamroll the end of the campaign with; at all times, The Evil Within is out to drain you of your munitions and make you fight to get them back. It's definitely a cool motif that you don't see in a lot of games these days—even in The Last of Us I had enough ammo stockpiled to feel comfortable, while here I rarely had more than what was loaded into my guns.

But the way the game goes about draining your ammo is obnoxious. There are segments where you're locked in a room and must fight off waves of enemies, and these occur semi-frequently. The stealthy playground chapters of the game (3, 13) are among my favorite because it's the game at its best—giving you a wide variety of tools but few instances to use them, forcing you to use your wits and make hard choices on when to expend your bullets & bolts. The singular room skirmishes are none of that: they're more twitchy than strategic, where whatever weapon has the most ammo dominates the field, and staying mobile is your top priority. Then you have sections like the one on top of the bus in Chapter 12, where you're just standing around shooting at guys with guns and dynamite, praying the wonky pistol accuracy doesn't screw you over.

Speaking of the dynamite, the instant death attacks in the game are also vexing. I do agree that they add to the tension (Laura in particular is probably the most menacing creature), but they're also so sudden that they teach you very little. For instance, in the chapter where Ruvik chases you, it's a terrifying reveal that works well within the framework of the game—but Ruvik himself is not fun. He teleports around and since your perspective is limited you can easily lose track of him and get killed instantly. When I tried to hide he found me (and killed me), so I resorted to just standing in the corner of a room and juking him as soon as he got close. This boiled our encounter down to a very simple tactic, and whenever an ominous tone would augur his arrival I felt like sighing out of frustration, solely because I didn't want to lose my precious progress. Again, it is tension, but it's not fun when it happens to you enough times that the fear factor is drained and all you're left with is the agitation of starting over.

The chapters themselves go on a bit of a roller coaster of length and quality, ranging from great to "isn't this over yet?" Chapters 11 and 12 are considered the nadir of the experience, and for good reason—centering the action around fighting zombies with guns is another "tense but not fun" situation. It was a damn shame having to grind through all these guys when the game had recently introduced its coolest and most intimidating enemy yet—Trauma—but only used it for a scant total of three encounters (one of which is stealth-only). This was another case where the game felt like it was artificially inflating the difficulty to increase adrenaline, whereas using more creative scenarios (like those seen in Chapter 10) would've worked wonders.

Gameplay aside, the visuals are utterly fantastic. It does lead to some lag and dropped frames (on my PC at least) but I didn't mind as I was too busy running for my life or staring at some nicely detailed grimy walls. The art direction here is positively captivating, as the Silent Hill-esque deformation of interiors and enemies is both jaw-dropping and revolting. The ruined Krimson City is one of the most impressive landscapes I've seen in a while (probably my favorite thing in the game honestly), and the grotesque, revolting viscera imagery is unapologetically gnarly. The final battle in particular is astoundingly creative... from a visual standpoint at least (playing it was unmitigated dreck).

It's a pity that the story doesn't support this nightmarish dreamscape better. Sure, what's there isn't awful, but it really doesn't lean into its potential either. Ruvik's mind is corrupted beyond repair but other than being the subject of bullying and an unfortunate incident, it doesn't logically lead to the vile imagery you see in Chapter 15. On top of that the protagonists are pretty boring and stale—I can't name a single interesting trait about Kidman—and all the journal entries you collect about Esteban don't lead to anything interesting. Since you're shuffled around to areas and places instantly there's no sense to the progression and it's hard to care about the plot, as the characters are senselessly whisked off to different attractions. The entire game suffers from "why did/didn't Ruvik just do X"; honestly, reducing the story to a quarter of its size would've helped quite a bit.

Coming out of The Evil Within, I felt really torn on it. I thoroughly enjoyed some ideas it had (stealth, ammo starvation, lurid imagery) but found myself detesting other sections (arenas, guys with guns, insta-deaths). You feel on edge while playing the game, partly because you never know what to expect, and partly because you know it doesn't care about playing fair (Oh I'm supposed to kill the Keeper now in Chapter 13? And three dynamite guys in Chapter 5? Really?) To a degree I noticed that a lot of my gripes are minor annoyances, which I can admit is usually the earmark of a decently-made title. The Evil Within is what it is, and I'm glad that it found an audience that appreciates it... but for me, I'll likely slide it next to Halo in my mental archive.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Vlad the Impaler - Thoughts

Vlad the Impaler has a lot going for it. The austere, grayscale art style is what drew me in and the low price point is what prompted me to buy it; I don't have many "choose your own adventure"-type of games in my Steam library and wanted to give this one a shot. What's here is quite competent—though notably flawed—and I can't help but adore Vlad's unabashed charm. Something like The Yawhg is obviously superior, but I'd be lying if I didn't confess that I think Vlad the Impaler is pretty cool too.

As this is a particularly niche game, I'll give a brief rundown of Vlad the Impaler's general flow: the player chooses from one of three classes and is tasked to discover the source of Istanbul's looming evil before the city is consumed by bloodshed and violence in 15 days. Every day you'll choose an action to do in one of six areas you have to investigate, and the outcome of these encounters will either add to your stats or diminish them. Your class will level up based on the general morality of your decisions, and at the end of the game you'll have an epic battle with the Lord of Darkness himself, forced to use your accumulated skills and weapons in order to survive. Sounds interesting, right?

Well, here's the catch—Vlad botches the gameplay part of its execution. While the outcome of each event is predetermined, the pending results are difficult to predict your first time around. For instance, mercy killing tortured prisoners increases your Strength, and saving someone bitten by a ghoul will increase your Charm but decrease your Intelligence. There is a method to the game's madness if you think on its reasoning, but trying to capitalize on your class's highest stats is impossible to do and you're basically forced to roll with whatever stats get the highest by the end of the game. Therefore the different classes and abilities are purely a superfluous coating, completely unnecessary to the central mechanics except for making pivotal decisions.

And those decisions may not always be clear at times. For instance, if you have the choice to "cut an assassin's head off" or "throw a dagger at her", which stats do these use? Strength and Dexterity? Does Agility contribute to either of these? Does casting a spell use my Magic or Intelligence stat? If it uses my Magic, then what is my Intelligence used for? Since the game clarifies nothing, you're left to assume what your stats do, and that can be detrimental to your playthrough—I thought having high Constitution would allow me to use my physique to push an attacker off a roof, but instead I was the one that fell to my death. Fortunately there's not many situations where choosing between your stats means life or death, but at least indicating what they contribute to would be helpful.

Luckily Vlad doesn't need to rely on its gameplay to be enjoyable. The best thing the game has going for it is the clean, evocative art. Each of the game's instances are carefully drawn, aiding the gruesome text written below. Corpses and beasts are exquisitely embellished; Vlad's true form that you'll face for the game's final (and only) battle is probably the most awesome depiction of Dracula I've ever seen, and I say this as a massive Castlevania fan. The music is also moody and helps to establish the tone, though the soundtrack during the investigation section is far too short—it's basically a two minute loop that plays over and over.

The text itself is the meat & potatoes of the game and there's a bit of a quirk to it as well: the grammar. Conjunctions are routinely missing from sentences and occasionally entire words too... I'm quite surprised given the number of people that worked on the game that there wasn't a natively English-speaking editor that flipped through the script, as the game definitely needed one. Beyond that, the plot likes to throw you in medias res a little too often and doesn't have much consistency; all pathways are unlocked by the end of the game, meaning that even if you've never interrogated people that know about the King of the Catacombs or the Ship of the Damned, you can still encounter these phenomena as if you've been tracking them the entire time.

These irritating gripes aside, the game does something tremendous by infusing Lovecraftian dread into its text. Istanbul is a grim, terrible place filled with unspeakable horrors, and almost every adventure in it has a surprising outcome. Underpinning your mission is a sense of futility and disgust, the people of the city either doomed to a sanguinary death or secretly monsters themselves. It feels as though there is no reprieve for the world, try as you might to save it. My absolute favorite encounter is with the lady under the docks, who drags those that kill her worshippers down into the briny depths of the Bosphorous by strands of seaweed being endlessly vomited from their mouth. It is a deliciously dark and horrifying game with a plot that is far more interesting than one might think—the source of Istanbul's evil is both clever and captivating.

Perhaps it's damning praise, but pricing this game so low is an excellent idea. Vlad the Impaler has a fascinating blueprint but it's built on shaky ground, not giving much support to the systems in place. Vlad doesn't have very long legs to support itself, but it doesn't really need to—the eerie atmosphere, tense situations, and enigmatic world benefit most from remaining unknown and uncovered. Trying to optimize a build and earn all of the achievements is sadly counterproductive to the title and only serve to accentuate its flaws; the best way to play Vlad is to go in blind and attempt to see the end before the end sees you.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Lords of the Fallen - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

The Souls titles are undoubtedly my favorite games from the seventh console generation, and one of my favorite series of all time. I adored Demon's Souls when I played it back in 2010, but my true love affair with the series began with Dark Souls, the massively varied fantasy world spurring my interest over its muted and macabre brethren. Therefore you can see how I would approach a non-From Software effort with some trepidation—I've been so groomed on the Japanese titles that it felt weird merely browsing the unfamiliar menus in Lords of the Fallen. Despite that, I wound up completing the campaign and my conclusion for CI Games and Deck13's attempt at making a Souls game is that it turned out... alright.

Perhaps the easiest way for me to write about this is to first talk about the things Lords got right, and then the things it got wrong. One of the benefits of creating a game in the Souls' action/rpg genre is that there's no definitive formula for the games yet, so variations to some core mechanics are a welcome change. Lords isn't afraid to mess around either, as it slows the pace of combat down, eliminates shopkeepers, simplifies spell-casting and ranged attacks, and focuses on three "core" builds. And the change is good!... once you get used to it. I must confess that I grumbled my way through the first hour or so of the game, solely lamenting everything that felt weird (combat is weird! Shields are useless! Bosses can summon minions!) until I found myself getting into the groove of the game.

Right around the point where I jumped into the Keystone Portal is when I finally learned how Lords wanted me to play and respected the game for it. I had been trying to dodge and counter a lot, angry that my character wasn't as nimble as I wanted him to be... before I realized the usefulness of the spells. I would argue the make or break aspect of the game relies on how much you enjoy your handful of spells and their situational applications, as without them fights can seem unfair in medium/heavy armor. However with them, you realize you don't need to be nearly as dexterous or cautious about your stamina/health management; the flow of combat is dictated by which spell you use and finding an ample opportunity to get the cast off. I played as a Cleric, which gave me plenty of options to steamroll through the game as long as my spells went off (thank you regen!).

The best way I can describe the change in combat (and this may be a damning statement to some) is that it followed the same paradigm as 2012's Ninja Gaiden 3. Combat is streamlined as there's a noticeable flow to encounters, medium-low difficulty, and some satisfying action that you never have to think too deeply about. Sure there are some enemies you have to be wary of, but there's nothing demanding like Sen's Fortress or Shrine of Amana here. The bosses deserve a special mention for being pretty fun too—most of them unfortunately have a bit too much health and noticeable "phases" they go through (I groaned every time Annihilator would go into his lighting beam animation), but a couple of them (Champion, Guardian) were worthy opponents, turning our battle into a thrilling death tango.

Despite the generally good time I had, there's still a bunch of things that stick out as erroneous to me. The game is surprisingly short (10 hours) and hosts a meager five areas for you to explore, almost all of them featuring the same color scheme (blues and grays). The areas aren't really too different from one another (besides the Catacombs and its narrow corridors) and there weren't a lot of places where I was "wow'd" by the design. Backtracking is also pretty prevalent despite the brevity of the game, and while I don't mind it in most games, I feel the lack of variety here made traveling through old areas quite dull.

Enemies—while distinct—are also of a similar variety: hulking humanoids with burning skin. There are some exceptions to the rule of course, but most of them looked so similar that I wasn't sure if I was fighting a new variant at times or not. The weapons and armor for the game look really nifty as you collect more of them (the Griffin set is the best), but since you can't upgrade sets (beyond placing runes in them), you're entirely at the whim of find and collecting loot. That may not seem so bad to some, but as a Cleric I only had access to maybe six different Faith-based weapons the entire game, while Strength and Agility builds constantly got different equipment at almost every turn.

Lastly I should briefly mention that the story is far more prominent than in any of the Souls games, yet happens to be entirely insipid. The struggle of choosing between God or Man is an interesting platform to stand on, but the game doesn't seem to do much with it or even attempt to make any of its characters likable. Being given certain choices to make throughout the journey is cool but is hampered by how unremarkable the world feels, and by the time the credits rolled all I felt was indifference looking over my actions. The plot isn't offensive mind you—it's just utterly unambitious.

Make no mistake—Lords of the Fallen is not a Souls substitute. But rather than simply mimic its more successful predecessor, Lords honorable tries to alter the formula in a handful of ways. Some parts are a hit while others are a miss, but at least it felt like a different type of game by the end. While the combat is sluggish and the story is nothing to write home about, if you push past the awkward opening you'll find a pretty fun title you can spend 10 hours on. If nothing else, I'm glad there's another game in this barren genre, even if its quality falls a little by the wayside.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Everybody's Gone to the Rapture - Thoughts

The Chinese Room is a very "love-'em or hate-'em" developer. I'm glad that I fall into the former category and find their stories and theming to be entrancing, as without that draw their games are pretty... lifeless. I'm not saying that their worlds are lifeless (quite the opposite!), but their titles as video games generally don't demand much from the player other than to poke around certain corners. Luckily the overall package more than makes up for the lack of gameplay; Everybody's Gone to the Rapture continues their trend of enveloping you in an enigmatic universe populated with confusing questions, breathtaking vistas, and stellar writing*.

(*for what it is—a bit more on that down below)

I wrote last week about how plot obfuscation in games can be a good thing, and that player comprehension is a key component that ties in with player agency. I mentioned that encountering and ruminating on a story is an essential cornerstone for the walking simulator genre, and this holds mostly true for Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. The modifier "mostly" is used because the game could actually be played for its visuals alone—seriously, it's one of the most beautiful games of the current generation thus far. Yaughton is fascinating in its gorgeous mundanity, whether it be walking through its streets and backyards, exploring the town's accurately rendered houses, or brushing by laundry undulating calmly in the wind. The simplicity of the countryside being paired with meticulously crafted details is a whimsical combination, filling the land with a very real sense of time and place.

This is of course aided by the sprawling landscape design, funneling the player from large area to large area one dialogue event at a time. Sadly it's also a point of grievance for many players, as the roaming hills of Yaughton lend well to directionless wandering—which means you're likely to get lost and miss some story bits. Important events are usually marked by glowing orbs you'll tilt to activate, but it can be easy to miss the incidental triggers that add a bit more life to each of the characters. And since the player's stride is purposely slow, patience is a virtue you must keep in mind as you amble around the open fields, asking yourself if you've missed anything. Thankfully the astounding visuals make backtracking less of a chore as there's always something to gawk at, and as frustrating as it can be sometimes, accidentally stumbling into a forgotten snapshot of somebody's life is central to the game's motivation.

Regarding the characters, the story present in Everybody's Gone to the Rapture revolves primarily around its colorful cast. While a plot exists, it takes a backseat to each of the major characters and their struggles with Yaughton's quarantine—and each other—until the last two chapters. There's a tangled web of names and relationships you'll have to unravel as you explore the town, and while some characters fall by the wayside pretty quickly, it's fun to try and piece together how these country folk lived. It's great that the voice acting is extremely well done too, as it's what you'll identify the townsfolk by for the entire game.

If I must express (untenable) disappointment at something though, it's probably the style of writing used here. You see, what really drew me to Dear Esther and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs was Dan Pinchbeck's abstract prose. The simplest way I've described it before is that he writes poetry for videogames, and I think whether or not you actually enjoy his writing makes little difference—his games have a very distinctive style. It's rare to encounter a video game that forces you to mull over what was just said, or to engage with metaphors in an unorthodox (and fun!) way. Pinchbeck's writing is wonderfully ornate and obtuse, but here... it's a lot more ordinary.

Understand that there's nothing wrong with the writing in and of itself; if anything, I greatly respect Pinchbeck for taking a down-to-Earth approach regarding the dialogue in the game. These humble villagers live a simple life, peppered by mundane interactions with one another—admittedly unbefitting of grandiloquence. It's only at the end of the game that the language starts to become more esoteric as the plot unfolds, which can make figuring out the story quite a conundrum. I don't think it's too difficult to parse however, as purposely muddying certain concepts and truths has been a staple of The Chinese Room's works, and you'll learn to fill certain gaps yourself. I still personally would've preferred a more poetic approach to the entire experience, as just about any other game takes the prosaic approach, but the storytelling here is quite fitting for the tale told.

While I feel that it's my least favorite of The Chinese Room's titles, there's still plenty here to admire and love. I certainly had a good time on my sightseeing tour through Yaughton, and recommend it if you don't mind occasional dilly-dallying. The eerie absence of any tangible human life combined with nature's gentle placidity is a striking combination, and it's one that I feel only a developer this flexible—and peculiar—could pull off.

A job well done guys.

Images obtained from:,,,

Friday, September 18, 2015

Why Dark Souls' plot obfuscation is fantastic - Opinion

[contains minor spoilers]

Gaming is a unique medium in a multitude of regards, but no aspect is more important (and central) to it than player agency. Being able to actively influence a digital world is what has defined gaming for generations, and every title has tackled this in a different way. The range can run the gamut from low-input kinetic novels to sandbox-style open worlds, with the player's interaction swaying between being vastly inconsequential to entirely defining the experience. Player agency is one of the reasons why games that proclaim "your choices matter!" (Mass Effect, Heavy Rain, Life is Strange) can receive both a massive following for their interactions, as well as a lot of criticism for their stumbling.

A facet that's not often discussed at length, but is an important concept regarding player agency nonetheless, is player comprehension. The absence of any meaningful gameplay mechanics is a blemish often tied to the walking simulator genre, but games in that vein (Gone Home, Dear Esther, Passage) are more thoroughly concerned with comprehension over any kind of "fun" variability. For some people the lack of depth and precision regarding player input can be extremely off-putting, however advocators of the genre would likely argue that grappling with the story (or lack thereof) is what makes the experience so invigorating.

Comprehension is expected out of any medium of course, but here the player is given the ability to actively miss opportunities to comprehend. When you read a book or watch a movie, you're often given the same exact experience as anyone else is, only missing out on important events if you're not paying attention or unable to parse certain subtext. Since games allow you to explore a space, you're not only engaging with those factors but you have to manually search for and find the plot in the first place. While it's true that a majority of titles funnel all story events to you directly through cutscenes, the Souls series (including Bloodborne) takes great advantage of the comprehension component: you encounter the plot in medias res and are only nudged towards the conclusion, much of the context scattered along the journey's roadside.

Make no mistake about it—stitching together the plot of the Souls games is a difficult endeavor, as many story threads and specifics are purposely left absent. Summarizing the core events in each game may be simple, but attempting to decipher the motivation and connections of all the characters and areas can become daunting on your lonesome. Yet that's part of the fun—each of the Souls games has a living, frightening world that's filled with absurd characters and unknown wonders. Simply being told whom your enemies are and why you should fight them takes away the opaque shroud of mystery that's so deeply entwined with the allure of the series.

You act as both a pioneer and archeologist, venturing into forbidden depths and scavenging for items that serve as clues about the bygone (or horrifically transformed) civilizations. When you first arrive at the Tower of Latria or Anor Londo, the furthest thing from your mind should be "I understand what's going on"—the Souls games thrive off of your fear and curiosity, propelling you forward so that you may uncover the world's twisted tale. The enemies and architecture are the first thing imprinted on your mind, and as you loot ancient tombs and plunder residential stashes you begin to form a picture of whom resided there and what life was like for them. Often do you realize the legacy and importance of the major players after battling them as a boss, your presence reduced to a veritable wrecking ball directed by each game's puppeteer (Monumental, Frampt, etc.), which greatly adds to the melancholic futility plaguing each world.

It's important to be able to miss details and context because it adds to the mystery of the universe. Whether it be the realization of Yurt's motives or having to decide who dies when Pate and Creighton duel to the death, you're given pivotal moments where your comprehension is tested. The notorious aspect about Dark Souls's ending (besides its brevity) is that you're given a choice—something many players (including myself) weren't aware of the first time. But with enough guidance from Kaathe you'll realize that the Age of Fire isn't meant to go on forever, and it may very well be better for the world to usher in the Age of Dark instead. There are a plethora of these choices sprinkled throughout the world with some outcomes being surreptitiously hidden (like Rhea's fate or the death of Gascoigne's daughters), only adding to the feeling that the world is not only alive but actively hostile towards its own inhabitants. Many games try to convey how dangerous your task is and how frightful its villains are, but the Souls games overwhelmingly succeed at making you dread nearly every step you take, wary that your handful of allies can permanently die if you're not vigilant (RIP my Cathedral Ward friends).

Detractors will argue that sloughing the game's plot onto its item descriptions can be purposely obscure and somewhat archaic, which is an entirely valid point. Similar to how the gameplay punishes those that are impatient, the story mercilessly punishes the unobservant. It's not the ideal way to experience a tale (especially since it's likely you'll have to use wikis for clarity), and it's clear its delivery wouldn't work with many other plots, but the obfuscation is married to the Souls' theme so well that I wouldn't have it any other way. The games are entertaining enough on their own without dipping into the lore, but comprehending the broken world you're trespassing through greatly enriches the experience. The fact that these games are uniquely isolated in this method of storytelling makes me cherish their presence even more, and I eagerly await the unraveling of Dark Souls 3's convoluted plot.

I want more memories like when I was cursed and kept foolishly attempting to explore New Londo Ruins at a low level, all because I heard the passing rumor that a healer was residing there; give me the chance to figure things out and screw up along the way.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Ittle Dew - Thoughts

Ittle Dew wears its inspiration on its sleeve—it's a block-pushing puzzler and it makes no qualms about it. What I didn't expect while playing was the amount of ways you can go about completing the game, and the absurdly adorable charm surrounding it. In this respect Ittle Dew has a lot more heart than you'd expect a Zelda knockoff to have, and it's worth playing as long as you don't mind perhaps the biggest adventure game taboo: missable secrets.

The game is pretty short—my total time was a little over two hours, and there's actually an achievement for finishing the game in under fifteen minutes. Despite its brevity, Ittle Dew explores its mechanics in interesting ways, ultimately giving you a thorough understanding of your inventory. The warp wand in particular feels like an ingenious item Nintendo would create, and combined with the ice wand the game can get real nasty with its puzzles. It's not an overly difficult game however—only one optional room stumped for a good ten minutes—and despite the plethora of ways to explore the castle, it's pretty simple to get to the ending. I'd best describe the game as having a comfortable level of challenge.

One of the strange things about Ittle Dew is that it prioritizes replayability over being able to 100% the game. As stated above, there's missable secrets in the form of optional paths and challenges that you'll be unable to repeat/return to once you find your way back inside the castle. But seeing as there's multiple ways to explore the stronghold and make it to the final boss, you'll be missing some way to go about the game on your first try, so it can't really be faulted for that. If anything, it's just a really unorthodox design decision that perhaps speedrunners are more inclined to enjoy.

Along with puzzles, Ittle Dew also knows how to handle humor (which is a massively uncommon occurrence in a lot of games). The drawings are lively and the writing knows its limitations, remaining kooky and offbeat without becoming annoying. The best example I have of this is during the ice wand dungeon boss's cutscene, where the titular main character has her tongue stuck onto the frozen instrument—no one brings attention to it, it only lasts a few seconds, and is never seen again. That simple gag about Dew's juvenile stupidity is quite refreshing in a community where memes and video game references are quite commonplace, especially among the indie scene. I also quite enjoyed the final boss's reasoning for building his labyrinthian lair.

While there's some combat in Ittle Dew, it's fairly rote outside of battling cacti, so it's not a game that offers much else than block pushing. But the puzzles are certainly creative, and the cartoony art style (and music!) deserves some kudos for being so pleasing to the senses. It's not necessarily a title I'm interested in a sequel for, but I'll definitely keep my eye on the developer Ludosity from now on.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

FRACT OSC - Thoughts

A certain strangeness pervades FRACT OSC. It's not bizarre in the way the desolate, grim landscapes of Kairo are, but it remains a bit of an acquired taste due to its design. Contained within is a robust sequencer that—to use said program to its fullest—requires you to complete the game hidden quite literally beneath it. I'm not entirely sure whether the main draw is the music, puzzles, or the sequencer, but the experience remains a short and entertaining journey that even the non-musically inclined can enjoy (and complete).

FRACT OSC is a very clean looking game. You won't find any ugly textures or questionable character models here as everything possesses a sterilized sheen, allowing you to focus on each object's shape and size. Solid, unembellished colors pulse and throb to the freeform beat of each section, bringing the setting to life after you solve each puzzle. It's a visually pleasing game as long as you dig the minimalist vibe it's going for; even while lost, I still felt intrigued and drawn into the world around me, curious as to what secrets remain hidden beneath its plastic surface.

The puzzles on the other hand are decent; what really makes them engaging is the sporadic music. Slowly piecing together the bass, lead, or synth as you work on the sequencer riddles was a lot of fun, though none of the tunes in the game were particularly captivating—the catharsis came from hearing all of the instruments fuse together as soon as you finished a puzzle. Sadly some of the sequencer bits can be a bit aggravating as you fiddle with each beat individually, unsure of what you're doing wrong, and to my disappointment the game doesn't really prepare you for using the main sequencer located before the game's hub. To be fair though, the game doesn't necessarily need to, but as someone that gets easily confounded by music programs, it was clear that the credits signaled the end of my time with FRACT OSC.

I'd recommend this game to people that are interested in wandering around an alien world littered with strange tunes. It's not a game you play for the music, but rather a curious title where the music is infused into every bit of progress you make. It's likely my favorite first-person puzzle (FPP?) world due to its vibrant style and curious structure, and although the sequencer included isn't for me, it's an awesome addition nevertheless.

FRACT OSC is the kind of strange I wouldn't mind seeing more of.