Monday, January 25, 2016

SOMA - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

To put it simply, SOMA is phenomenal. As a fan of Frictional's past work (Penumbra trilogy, Amnesia: The Dark Descent), I'm stoked that they've outdone themselves for their most recent release, and could not be more impressed—or enraptured!—with SOMA's underwater wasteland. While it does little to expand off of Amnesia's revolutionary gameplay, SOMA's philosophical conundrums will linger with you far longer than its scares ever could. At times you may even find yourself thankful you're not living in a reality so flush with robotics; the concept of "humanity" aggressively dissolves when consciousness can be adapted into ones and zeroes, capable of being uploaded, saved, and duplicated.

The most important thing to note is that SOMA isn't exactly pure horror. It's true that there are malformed monstrosities and scary moments lurking down in the depths, but the game focuses far more on oppression, misfortune, and moral grays. In that sense, horror is far from the main draw; perhaps I can best equate it to how fear works within the more action-packed Dead Space, being a tool of delivery for tense encounters. But whereas Isaac Clarke's battle against the Necromorphs is one of physical apprehension, Simon Jarrett's deep-sea struggle is centered around existential dread.

As soon as you (playing as Simon) get your brain scanned, you're immediately transported to a dilapidated sub-aquatic environment. You'll come across no other autonomous humans (there are plenty of corpses) and the only true ally you have in the game can come off as detached and rude at times (I still really liked her). You'll learn that it's impossible to return to the surface, and the only hope humanity has now is to live on in as pioneers in a digital world. And in order to ensure their survival, you'll have to make sacrifices that will force you to grapple with the very nature of consciousness itself. Nearly everything that happens in SOMA is meant to make you feel uncomfortable in a cerebral way, targeting existential anxiety over the more commonly evoked visceral nausea. And it succeeds very well at this.

That doesn't mean that the game does everything right. The monster encounters stay too close to Amnesia's "patrolling in the darkness" design, and the wounded effect is straight-up headache inducing (it's cool, but detrimental to playing the game!) However I can overlook these gripes thanks to how utterly convincing the game's world is. The sound design is lurid and foreboding, the voice acting is uncanny and human, and the art design put into each of the Pathos II stations (and the abyssal endgame areas) are both haunting and breathtaking. Nearly every step of the way is meant to make you feel lonely, separated from the life you once knew, now stumbling upon the threshold of futility. Even the main plot wraps up in a masterfully bittersweet way, prompting a constant stream of conflicting messages and "what if" scenarios in your head as you contemplate questions rare to the video game form (which is surprising given the AI obsession lately).

The scariest thing for me about going into SOMA blind was how/if Frictional could move forward after Amnesia's success. I'd go as far to argue that Amnesia is one of the greatest horror games of all time, yet still—despite the odds—SOMA has become my favorite title of theirs. It's a fascinating experience, gorgeous in a very cold, calculating way, offering forth a future that makes the modern man tremble in his corporeal form. Perhaps what's even more uncomfortable about it is that the questions it poses have the possibility—some centuries from now—not to be seen as frightening anymore, but rather, merely mundane.

(Had I played SOMA in 2015, it would've easily cracked my top five favorites from that year—hopefully I'll leverage my time better in 2016!)

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Ys: The Oath in Felghana

Originally, I played Ys I & II Chronicles+ in order to prepare myself for Ys: The Oath in Felghana (I know I didn't need to play them in "order", but I figured it gives me a good perspective on the series). But Felghana is a different beast than the bumpin' grind-fest that I & II were. It's faster, prettier, smarter, and way more rock'n'roll. I was glad to finally find myself getting into the series, but many of the questionable Ys eccentricities still remained. So it's fun... but with plenty of exceptions.

The general story follows the mold of innumerable JRPGs at the time, which is a given since Falcom stuck close to the original 1989 material. While it feels like a retread of Ys I & II at times (a cheery town full of upstanding individuals, a faceless evil lurking in the shadows, and a naive girl that gets the cold shoulder from Adol—yet again), the writing is strong enough that I felt engaged whilst stumbling upon every predictable story beat. Though much of it is mostly forgettable, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't charmed by some of the characters, as well as interested in seeing how the main plot resolved itself.

But story has rarely been the main draw of the Ys titles. If anything, the combat usually garners the most attention, and here is no different. Gone is the bump system! In its place are beat-'em-up-esque controls, as Adol can only perform one combo on his colorful foes. This can be mixed up with some magic and aerial attacks, but for the majority of the game you'll be hearing the same six "swoosh"es over and over again as you cut your foes down (and thankfully they drop healing items this time around). It's better than the bump system because it demands more attention than "run into the corner of every enemy", though I do kinda miss the charm of smooshing enemies against a wall while grinding.

Luckily grinding isn't really required in Felghana. The trade-off is that you have to learn boss patterns more intensively, but you can always go decimate scores of baddies for XP if things get too crazy (and like with Ys I & II, one additional level makes a world of difference). I love me some tough bosses, but I didn't find Felghana to be a significant step above Ys II in this department—many of their designs are extremely gaudy and their attacks can be all over the place. Having the ability to jump adds this bizarre layer to the combat space where it can be hard to tell what plane bullets are on and whether jumping is effective during certain attacks or not. The fighting is a magnitude more frantic than it's ever been but it's not necessarily invigorating to play, since you'll have to memorize when/where to attack after many attempts on the same boss (the ice dragon was the worst offender).

I will give the game credit however—it can be pretty fun at times. The boss fights being difficult makes them rewarding to topple... well, when you're not frustrated out of your mind at the accuracy and speed of certain attacks. While the enemies aren't all that engaging to fight it's still satisfying to slash them to pieces, and each elemental magic is surprisingly useful (though nothing tops the whirlwind). The music is so over-the-top that it's an absolute blast to listen to as you explore the land; the tenacious fighting spirit of the Valestein Castle's track easily makes it my favorite. Another bonus is that no areas feel like filler, and by the end you'll feel sated from your seven hour sojourn in the troubled lands of Felghana.

I can't say Ys is a favorite of mine yet. It's too RPG-focused to be a purely satisfying action game, but the lack of combat depth doesn't allow it to rival other Action RPG titles. Ys: The Oath in Felghana exists in this strange middle-ground where it doesn't excel at one particular thing, as the boss battles are too disorganized, the story too bland, and jumping still feels weird to me.

However, it's not a bad game. I never got to a point where I felt upset or agitated like I did in Ys I & II, and I never needed to revert to a walkthrough to finish it (other than how to damage the last boss—a minor inconvenience compared to damn Darm Tower). It's a zany ride that offers a solid experience if you're interested in getting lost in a quaint yet nondescript world teetering on the brink of demise, or if you wanna just beat the ever-living snot out of some monsters.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Ys I & II Chronicles+ - Thoughts

 Ys I & II have not held up well.

To be fair they're an ancient piece of Falcom's history that started way back in 1987 on the PC-8801, and the remakes have done their best to try and stay true to the original's framework. However, that doesn't mean Chronicles+ is all that fun to play because of that. My first real foray into the Ys series felt like going back to a time where the wild idea of adventuring in a virtual 2D fantasy world was exciting in and of itself. But having experienced numerous other (more modern) titles, I couldn't help but feel like my time could've been better spent elsewhere.

The Bump system is a good idea—in theory. It boils traditional RPG encounters down to a mere second, since either you bump your foe into oblivion or they counter you. It reminds me of Half-Minute Hero in a way, as it makes grinding significantly more fun than in the original Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Trying to master your approach and angle of attack can feel a bit awkward at first, but it works for the most part in both games. And you better enjoy the Bump system, because it's the only action you can perform for the entirety first game.

The main problem with the combat is that nearly every enemy behaves the same way. Besides speed and durability, each baddie feels like the same creature in a different colored disguise. There's rarely any projectiles to dodge, clever hazards in the dungeons, or challenging gimmicks to any of the enemies—just bump 'em 'til they explode into XP. Ys II attempts to vary up its bestiary, but you can stun-lock most of the enemies before they even get a chance to charge their attack. After a while enemies become nothing more than minor inconveniences, and you begin to understand that what you're actually doing is traversing flat labyrinths for the entirety of the game.

The labyrinths aren't that interesting either. The artwork for the tile set itself is vibrant and gorgeous, but there's no identifiable landmarks or distinguishing feature to each dungeon, so it's easy to lost if you lose your sense of direction. Besides the multitude of dead-ends waiting for you, there's also a boss to cap off each area that will test your mettle... but only in the second game. Ys I has some utterly atrocious bosses—like that accursed bat—so I was real glad to see the series do a 180 and offer up some great fights in Ys II. I'd argue the best part of that game was battling the agile monstrosities, but only when you're of an arbitrarily fitting level. Never have I played an RPG where your level is so essential to overcoming challenges before: the first boss of Ys I absolutely wrecked me until I purchased a new sword and leveled up, and then he was a joke (he died in three hits!)

I didn't like Ys I all that much. It was short, had boring areas to explore, and only Darm Tower at the end of the game was interesting. However that whole structure soured me due to the amount of backtracking required and how vague some of the progression was (use a hammer to break a column to rid a room of poisonous gas?). Ys II fared far better, but it's not a significant step up. Sure, there's more meat and variation to it (you finally get to use spells!) but the aforementioned enemy variety is still lacking and much of the path obfuscation remains. And the final level in this game was even longer and more obnoxious. If I was younger I wouldn't mind these dungeons taking over two hours to complete even with a guide, but currently I have little patience for that type of design.

Finally, the story is... whatever. It's the traditional "silent protagonist rescues girl(s) and saves the world from very evil bad guy", with some prophecy thrown in for good measure. Three things I liked were the Stormwall, the metaphysical division between Ys and Esteria, and the ability well to talk to demons, but the game doesn't do anything interesting with either any of those: the Stormwall exists solely to strand you on the island, citizens in Ys and Esteria act the same, and the demons act just like regular NPCs! Even an idea as interesting as a goddess falling in love with a mortal is kinda brushed aside at the end, as if she was a schoolgirl struggling to admit her crush (which she pretty much was). I admit it is demanding to ask more from a Japanese RPG made in 1987, and to the game's credit its characters are more memorable than many of the genre's kin at the time, but I suppose I just wanted the remake to explore more avenues that the original version opened.

Ys I & II Chronicles+ is an aged relic with a new coat of paint on it. The experience is more palatable with enhanced graphics, rebalancing, and multiple soundtracks, but the archaic details remain. The second game easily trounces the first with its bigger journey, better mechanics, and fantastic bosses, but it still has a long way to go to become something I'll ever play again. I'm not giving up on the series as I'm eagerly looking forward to playing The Oath in Felghana—it's just that the series' origins failed to impress me. Well, at least the games were relatively quick to play through.