Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Banjo-Tooie - Thoughts

Banjo-Kazooie is one of the best collection-focused platformers of the fifth console generation, so naturally an amped-up sequel that's nearly twice as large as the original would be better, right?

Unfortunately, no. While it may not match Donkey Kong 64's insane penchant for collectables, the detrimental symptoms are noticeably present here. It's not an awful game—its bombastic size and scope made it a worthwhile purchase back in '00—but it feels more taxing than its predecessor, requiring a greater effort from the player to solve it. In some respect I suppose it's the ideal sequel to Banjo-Kazooie, but what is lost in the process is the lackadaisical ease of simply "havin' a fun time"; Banjo-Tooie is geared more towards hunting than exploration.

The opening cutscene alone is a good indicator of the length of this game, clocking in at over ten minutes before you can start playing. The story maintains the same bubbly Rare quality, returning its colorful cast to the spotlight with some great new debuts, accompanied by some hilariously dark moments that the narrative brushes over (dead jinjos and children, good lord). I take no qualms here with the plot or writing however—all my concern is rooted in the gameplay and design.

To wit, there's too much laborious backtracking. No longer can you set aside an evening to check off one of the game's eight worlds from your list; each setting is tightly tied to another, requiring you to come back later when you've amassed additional abilities or unlocked new shortcuts. While it provides some mystery to each location, it can be confusing trying to figure out whether or not you've met the requirements to obtain a certain jiggy or frankly haven't found the solution yet. I didn't walk away from each play session feeling like I had accomplished something, but was instead constantly asking "there's still more to do here?!"

The backtracking issue is one that's rooted at the core of the Metroidvania genre—so I really can't fault it all that much—but what compounds this problem are the numerous methods of travel. This is an aspect that augured the coming of Donkey Kong 64; in Banjo-Kazooie you only had the titular heroes and a Mumbo transformation as vehicles of exploration, but here you have Banjo, Kazooie, Banjo & Kazooie, a Wumba transformation, and Mumbo to contend with. This means that you'll be exploring the same tract of land multiple times over to collect a single jiggy. Perhaps the most flagrant example of this is the Styracosaurus quest: you run into them as Banjo & Kazooie, return as Banjo, head to the train station, turn back into Banjo & Kazooie, then go to Mumbo at the Isle o' Hags, return as Mumbo to the train, turn back into Banjo & Kazooie, return the train back to Terrydactyland, and you still have to return to the family as Mumbo later. And that's not even the entire quest to obtain a single collectible out of a potential 90. I killed myself in this game countless times just so I could skip having to reunite the bird and bear.

Where I found myself pleased with Banjo-Tooie was when it closely resembled Banjo-Kazooie's design. Exploring the ill-lit rafters in Glitter Gulch Mine, burning the behinds of the Rocknuts in Terrydactyland, and outsmarting Mr. Fit in Cloud Cuckooland were all stand-out moments between the frequent back-and-forth-ing that was required (getting to Mr. Fit in particular was a hassle). I think the first-person segments and various egg types are excellent improvements to the game, and though it may not seem like it, I do appreciate what Banjo and Kazooie individually bring to the gameplay this time around. I'm miffed that the music note hunts have been neutered (they used to provide you with something to do while traversing the landscape), but for the most parts these changes at least make the moment-to-moment gameplay a little more interesting.

To reiterate, I don't think the game is terrible as much as it's just not fun when you're forced to do a ton of leg work. Grunty Industries is the greatest offender of this, having some really clever ideas in it (using batteries to power doors, the service lift can only be used by the dishwasher) inside a gargantuan layout that's chock-full of dead ends and questionable design choices (why give me the Snooze Pack ability next to a place where I need the Sack Pack? Is it really necessary to place Weldar's jiggy two rooms over? Why can't the Split-up pad on the first floor be closer to the Waste Disposal entrance?) I thought Click Clock Wood was arduous to finish at 1.5 hours long, but this level took twice as long as that, not to mention how the N64's single digit frame rate was doing my playtime no favors either.

Banjo-Tooie is a good example of why bigger isn't always better. True, it's packed with neat secrets and tricky sections that require some tinkering, its worlds and solutions cleverly interwoven together... yet this expansion stands at odds to the indelible charm of the original game, Banjo-Kazooie's smaller worlds acting more like a playground than a set of puzzles. Whereas the first game invited you on a delightful excursion, Banjo-Tooie asks quite a bit more from the player—whether or not that's your cup of tea is up to you I suppose.

Images obtained from:  smashcustommusic.com, giantbomb.com

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Hyper Light Drifter - Thoughts

The Legend of Zelda is the first game that came to mind while playing Hyper Light Drifter. And not the series either—the purposefully obscure NES classic. Both games whisk the player off into a mysterious land that is shockingly cruel beneath its neon exterior, their labyrinthian overworlds concealing dungeons full of traps and animalistic foes. Your wonder is often superseded by your apprehension as you explore each ruined locale, your hand rarely far from your blade. It's the first time in a long while that a game perfectly hits the mark in both presentation and gameplay, marrying the two aspects together to form a jaw-dropping adventure that is a delight to play. Hyper Light Drifter is such a fantastic experience that I nearly played through it five times before pulling myself away to write this entry—I really, really love this game.

Part of the reason why my ardor flares so brightly for this title is because it's clearly made by artists. The world is gorgeous, colors are vibrant, characters are elegant, animations are maddeningly fluid, and every corner of this pixelated playground is handled with delicate care. Since the game is bereft of text, most of the storytelling comes through portraits and environmental set pieces, allowing the player a loose grasp on the surprisingly adult (ie brutal) narrative. That's why it's essential to have artists at the helm for this endeavor, as fleshing out the setting and adding life to its inhabitants comes across more as a labors of love than a mechanical task. Even if you decry pixel art for being nothing more than nostalgic pandering, it's extremely difficult to see Hyper Light Drifter in motion and write it off as nothing special.

Where the game obviously splits from the NES Zelda quite is in the combat. While the latter has kludgy swordplay, Hyper Light Drifter acts more like a top-down Mega Man Zero—which is probably another reason why I'm enamored by it so much. For those that don't know why that's so impressive, what Heart Machine nailed here is arguably the most important aspect for any action game to get right:

The speed.

Attacks are swift and instant, providing incredible feedback as you slice your enemies to ribbons. The sword doesn't do anything more than a standard 3-hit combo, but like Mega Man Zero, the beauty is in the sheer simplicity of the controls. Since there's no elaborate move-sets you're given the chance to immediately connect and react to the combat, keeping it fresh thanks to how fast the encounters play out (the awesome enemy variety also helps). And just when you get a handle on how quickly you can do damage, you'll be able to purchase your first set of upgrades which blow the doors wide open on the gameplay. The chain dash greatly improves mobility, the charge blade dispatches unruly foes with aplomb, the reflective blade neuters snipers, the grenades allow you to swiftly handle minion hordes, etc. On top of all of this you have an arsenal of guns at your fingertips that allow you to play safely from a distance but require melee attacks to recharge, giving encounters a dance-like rhythm as you engage and escape from your opponents.

What I profusely enjoy about this style of gameplay is that it's all about tactical micro-decisions. Each moment-to-moment reaction is peppered with a hint of strategy, offering a copious amount of options to perform in an exceedingly small time frame. From start to finish, Hyper Light Drifter submerges itself in this style of play—a truth that becomes all the more apparent in NG+ (where you die in two hits). No power-up or gun feels useless since each enhancement provides a new dimension to your responses that have their own benefits and risks. And even when the combat isn't keeping you on your toes, it still feels marvelous to traverse the precarious levels and sniff out some well-hidden secrets. Rarely have games been able to go from dire, blood-pumping encounters to quiet, introspective exploration as effortlessly as Hyper Light Drifter does—further evoking the Zelda comparison.

The biggest knock against the game I can come up with is that trying to 100% it is a straight-up chore. While the in-game map is difficult to parse at first, the greatest sin it commits is not revealing any gearbits, keys, or monuments you've collected, meaning you have to keep a mental note of where you've been and what you've grabbed. I had to use an incomplete Steam guide for assistance, and even then it was hard remembering which bits I'd picked up and which I hadn't. On top of that there's a host of other vexing issues too: occasional inputs get eaten, certain combat scenarios are busted when revisiting them from the wrong direction, cutscenes can't be skipped, dashes may miss their intended landmass, the Northern boss is a bit too insane, hard-earned outfits don't convey their respective effects, and the "gearbit becoming whole!" animation should in no way freeze the gameplay (it ruins the pacing!)

These problems range from mildly annoying to arguably detrimental, so it's not hard for me to see why other people may be turned off from playing. I've also seen many claim that Hyper Light Drifter is overly difficult, which is something I think is only true when you get checkpointed with no health left. Personally though, the game shines when it's being harsh, especially when you're pressured to play flawlessly or get sent back to a distant checkpoint. Right about when you pick up the chain dash is when the game hopefully clicks with you, but I in no way will fault someone if they were hoping for it to be a little more relaxing and a lot less demanding. Thankfully, I'm happily sated with the utilization of both of those aspects here.

For me, Hyper Light Drifter is a flawed masterpiece. While at first glance it appears the visuals are the game's strong suit, the gameplay proves to be no slouch either, keeping your tactical responses engaging and interesting. The buttery smooth motions of the Drifter are what made me pick up this title, and the compelling world rife with playful combat is what made me want to stay. I do wish it was better tuned for replays, that the map was more instructive, and that the stupid gearbit animation didn't exist, but all of these issues are easily dwarfed by my awe for this game. It's a euphoric experience that only gets better the more you spend time with it, and it's definitely a title I'm going to soon replay and fall in love with all over again.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Stardew Valley - Thoughts

Throughout gaming's turbulent times, an important outlook to keep is that things don't necessarily get worse as much as they simply change. Old franchises die while new ones flourish, and whenever big-budget games grow stale there's always a new idea found just around the corner. The market evolves as its consumers shift, learn, and grow; though the future of the medium may not resemble the past, it learns from its bygone lessons in order to survive. It's undoubtedly tragic and heartbreaking to say goodbye to an era of gaming you greatly enjoyed, but as long as you know where to look you can spot the fulgent rays of another great title in the making, glittering with the greatness you once knew... well, assuming you're not a stubborn fuddy-duddy.

This ostentatious intro may seem like an odd way to introduce Stardew Valley, but it's part of an ongoing trend of Japanese-inspired, Western-made indie games that prove my point. Out of Mega Man's ashes rose Shovel Knight, from the tomb of Earthbound emerged Undertale, and now from the shell of Harvest Moon hatches Stardew Valley. I suppose the catch here is that Harvest Moon isn't necessarily dead yet, but its once cherished presence has now shrunken into obscurity (did you know there was a mobile game of it released this year?), so ConcernedApe rightfully deserves praise for resurrecting the passion for pixelated farming. It's a warm and fuzzy game that caters to obsessive min-maxers and young minds alike, offering you the chance to become a local resident in a fantastic (and mysterious!) land.

Those familiar with Victor Interactive's farming sim will feel right at home in the rolling hills of Stardew Valley. There's a farm to be cleaned and cultivated, livestock to be housed and groomed, and townspeople to chat with and marry. Thankfully ConcernedApe implements some "newer" systems into the game—crafting, combat, and a fishing minigame—so that it doesn't feel like it's shamelessly retreading the same ground. No matter how you set out to go about your day, there's a trove of options that await you on the horizon.

And I feel that this is the most important aspect Stardew Valley gets right: it keeps you busy. Maybe you'll start off by chopping down some encroaching trees but then! you should use this wood to make a keg oh! you need to smelt an iron ingot to build it but! you're one ore away so you decide to get it from Clint. Since you're in town now, you may as well give a gift to the girl you like oh look! there's a bubbling fishing spot by Clint's house so it's a good time to fish although! you're so close to the mine that you should really see if you can make it down 5 more floors or! you could go forage through the woods or! you could just head inside and rearrange your furniture (you really should talk to Robin about getting a new table [and check by Pierre's for some better wallpaper]). And hey, that's just one day!

If that might seem complicated to you, it really isn't—each of your options come naturally. The game has a simple set of tasks it asks you to complete at first, but for the most part you can proceed at your own pace. So you can stress over utilizing your time efficiently (like me), or simply relax and tackle one set goal per day. One of the most engrossing parts for me was planning out and sectioning off how my field would be utilized come my second Spring. What's great is that a lot of different people can find their own thing to get passionate about in the game, since there's a wide net of activities you can do (and you have to do them all if you want to complete those bundles!)

I enjoyed my time with Stardew Valley, but it's not going to be a favorite of mine this year. True—I did play it compulsively, farming all the way up to the beginning of my 3rd Spring before stopping—but the game filled a particular role for me that I think had been missing for a while: a pleasant time companion ("diversion" also works, but sounds a bit more cold than I intend). Once you've experienced most of the townsfolk's standard dialogue, it's a great game to put on a podcast to or marathon a TV series while playing. It still requires some attention and thought, but there's a lot of dead time where you're walking around, farming in the mine, organizing your boxes, etc. that you can fill with harmless background chatter. Of course, you should still keep the game audible, as the delightful intro tunes that kick-off each day are a joy to hear (my personal favorite is The Sun Can Bend An Orange Sky).

Boiled down, I suppose you can look at Stardew Valley as an elaborate checklist of fun things to do. It's more structured than Minecraft but promotes the same kind of open-ended exploration and freedom of expression with your farm, which honestly feels like the direction Harvest Moon was meant to head in. There's a slight sadness when you realize you've nearly ticked off all the boxes on the checklist, but while in the midst of the game, it certainly is enthralling. You'll find yourself constantly saying "I'll play just one more day" hours before you'll actually stop, and for good reason—Stardew Valley is a lovely plot of land.