Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Five 2016 Games I Enjoyed in 2016 - Opinion

Go play SOMA. And go play Ori and the Blind Forest while you're at it too. I got around to those games this year and really wanted to give them a shout-out, especially since they would've both been on last year's top five list had I played them in 2015. God damn those are some amazing experiences.
Downwell is a ton of fun too.

Anyway, another year gone by means it's time to write about some games I'd like to showcase. Like with last year, there's a surplus of worthy stuff to talk about, meaning that I'm sure to have missed playing a game that deserved to be on this list (Owlboy or Oxenfree perhaps?). Also a minor note, but I've changed the "Worst Game I Completed This Year" category to "Awful Game I Played This Year", mainly as a semantic point—I would rather reserve the "worst" modifier for games that truly deserve it, whereas grouping Fahrenheit and Imagine Me together under the "awful" category feels more appropriate. Keep in mind that the order down below 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. Now... behold!


5 - INSIDE
There is something very wrong with Inside—the developers Playdead know it, and fully expect the player to come to this conclusion. From the unnatural atmosphere that pervades the game to the downright bizarre complexes you explore, Inside does its best to keep you on your toes and desperately hoping for a way out of its concrete hellhole. While it obviously continues building off of Limbo's foundation, Inside feels less like a flash game and more like an independent art film, especially as you draw close to its turbulent finale. It's not quite a horror game, nor solely a platformer, or even a puzzler; rather, Inside is a brilliant amalgam of panicky, flailing parts.


4 - DARK SOULS 3
More Dark Souls! Despite wherever I place the SoulsBorne entries on my lists, they're always going to be the games that get the most play time out of me. Whether it be for the ambiance, the lore, the combat, or the jolly cooperation, each Dark Souls title continues to provide an experience that's like no other (and those that imitate or claim influence never truly reach its soaring heights). True, Dark Souls 3 doesn't stray far from the formula that made the very first game memorable, but it's yet another successful, gripping entry in a series that should've grown stale by now. From the swift, brutal swordplay against hollowed monstrosities, to the captivating wonder of exploring the desolate streets of chilly Irithyll for the first time, there's plenty to love about Dark Souls 3, and I suspect my adoration for it will only grow over time.


3 - THE WITNESS
Out of every game released this year, nothing feels more fulfilling and complete than The Witness. It might be easy to let this quaint title slip by when looking at 2016 in review, but Jonathan Blow's sophomore effort was an utterly captivating experience that had me and thousands of others seeing lines and circles everywhere we went. Not only is it a vivid, visual masterpiece, but the game strikes a delicate balance between ingenuity and brain-teasing, being trickier than something like Portal but not as impenetrable as, say, Stephen's Sausage Roll. The Witness is structured around attaining clarity, allowing each player to progress through its gorgeous island at their own pace, ultimately culminating in a wild and mentally exhausting gauntlet that tests if you've mastered what you've learned. The Witness—simply put—is incredible, and it's honestly the title that's most deserving of the "game of the year" accolade.


2 - HYPER LIGHT DRIFTER...


... AND DOOM
What? Am I not allowed two #2s?

Hyper Light Drifter and Doom scratch the same insatiable itch for me—they're games that are interesting in their own right, but their phenomenal gameplay is what takes them above and beyond. My experience paths for each are likewise similar: I beat them on normal and then immediately started a hard playthrough for both. I did a no upgrade run for both. I did a 100% run for both (and did not enjoy doing it for either—seriously, don't waste your time). I could write for pages about why each one deserves this spot over the other, as each game's amazing highs come with their own baffling lows. In spite of the flaws present in Hyper Light Drifter and Doom, they're mechanically the best games I played this year—hands down. If you enjoy sharp, nimble combat that prioritizes impromptu planning via adaptive threat assessment, then boy, have I got two titillating titles for you to play.


1 - THUMPER
Thumper is the definitive dark horse entry this year, blindsiding me a few days after its release and consuming a lot of my free time. Whereas my relationship with all of the previous entries on this list is more akin to a romance, I was a beleaguered slave to Thumper, enthralled by its angry rhythms and unrelenting speed. I once thought Level 5 was my limit but I continued to climb up Thumper's cruel rungs, eventually finishing the game and then replaying it in order to S rank every stage. Now the Plus campaign is the next frigid, belligerent peak I must climb to, a sped-up permadeath mode which is dead set on bursting my beetle into red sparks and iron ash should my fingers dawdle but for a moment. Compared to the other games on this list I can see that Thumper is far more of an acquired taste, but that does not dissuade me from admitting that this abstract tour through rhythm hell has pounded its way into my heart.

This video right here (played by yours truly) really says all I need to say about why I think Thumper is the most energetic, insane, and amazing game of 2016.

HONORABLE MENTIONS


GREAT GAME I PLAYED THIS YEAR - MONSTER HUNTER 4 ULTIMATE
Monster Hunter is a franchise that's very special to me. It's extremely slow, very archaic, and astoundingly obtuse; a lot of people get turned off from the franchise when first jumping in, and for good reason! But when you find yourself getting into it, man does nothing feel better than a long, tense, nail-biting hunt. This year I finally climbed through Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate's G Rank with a good friend of mine and had a blast doing so, finding the two-man (+ two-cat) operation to be the perfect level of difficulty for us. We had to use our wits and best items to topple our gargantuan adversaries (I feared that we would never get through the nightmarish Stygian Zinogre & Chaotic Gore Magala duo), and the amount of time (and focus!) I put into this title easily dwarfs all the other games I've played this year. Though I had already fallen in love with the series at Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, MH4U found me spiraling deeper down the sword-sharpening-wyvern-toppling rabbit hole, and I could not be more grateful for the time I've spent with it.


AWFUL GAME I PLAYED THIS YEAR - EXTERMINATION
You know you've done something wrong when in a year where I wrote about No Man's Sky, Mighty No. 9, and an LJN game, you still manage to come out on bottom. SWERY's Extermination is a woefully abysmal and dull game to play, that yearns to be a combination of Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil but ends up insulting both. It's generally uninteresting, botches its ideas, is narratively boring, and has a shockingly—shockingly—terrible final boss. Aside from the phenomenally cheesy voice acting, the less said about Extermination, the better.


WHAT'S MISSING? - UNCHARTED 4
Besides the lack of a critical denouement between the major themes existing in the game, I didn't even find myself floored with the gameplay in Uncharted 4. Yes, it's one of the most beautiful games I've ever played and the production values on display here are jaw-droppingly spectacular... but at the end of the day, Uncharted 4 isn't a title that grips me. There isn't an inventive mechanic or section of the game that begs my attention; Uncharted 4 is a breathtaking blockbuster that derives more joy from showcasing its polish than offering the player something interesting that couldn't be found in previous titles. I don't feel particularly offended or perturbed if anyone shrugs Dark Souls 3 off as yet more Dark Souls, but by that same token I find it difficult to call Uncharted 4 anything more than "just another Uncharted". And since I vastly prefer Berserk to Indiana Jones, Naughty Dog had a scant chance of creating a game that could compete with my favorites this year.

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Other images obtained from: amazon.com, gaminghistory101, iansteffen.com

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages/Seasons - Thoughts


I vividly remember the astronomical levels of hype I had for The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Seasons on the eve of their release. Having played and adored Link's Awakening to death, I was understandably stoked for two more games being released in its style, developed in part by Capcom no less (who, at the time, could do absolutely no wrong in my eyes). I bought Oracle of Ages while my brother purchased Oracle of Seasons, and though he didn't get much play time out of his game I obsessively played both of our copies, completing them each four times over a period of a few years. While I ardently enjoyed the Oracle twins I have some kinda spotty memories of both entries looking back on them; I remember the entirety of Link's Awakening like the back of my hand, while the Oracle games are more like a hazy dream I can only recall bits of pieces of. Yearning for more clarity, I decided to replay the games once more, wondering how well they stand compared to their wizened monochrome ancestor.


As a minor aside, I'm grouping both games into one entry because for the most part, the titles are pretty similar. Though they feature different dungeons, items, and stories, their mold most closely resembles Link's Awakening, rarely straying far from its take on the traditional Zelda formula (a huge amount of sprites and tunes are taken directly from Awakening, after all). That's not to say the two titles are indecipherable from one another, but it's probably best for me to compile my thoughts into one big text dump rather than rob the second entry of any pertinent notes I'll make here.

Both Ages and Seasons are relatively meaty adventures for a handheld device. Not only are the dungeons bigger and more complex, but the intermittent journey you go on to reach your next dungeon can be pretty lengthy as well (Tokay Island in Ages is the best example of this). Whereas Link's Awakening feels compact and humble, the multiple means of traversing the overworlds in both Oracle games provide them with a grander sense of scale and exploration, even if at times it feels like unnecessary padding (something that I've become less and less tolerant of as I've gotten older). There's a host of minigames to play, NPCs to chat with, and some utterly pointless rings to collect; there are things to fault the games for but lack of content is not one of them.

Feel free to fault the games for a lack of personality though. Besides a few items and Subrosia, the Oracle games don't really bring a whole lot of new material to the table. A big part of it is that they share a bit too much DNA with Link's Awakening—the overworld themes being exactly the same is a really unfortunate oversight. The plot of both games are your typical fare of "evil person desires chaos, chosen hero must defeat them" with little to no poignant insight into the denizens of each land. The Oracle games take on a decidedly lighter, more formal tone than Link's Awakening; you're here to save the world, not to listen to sad backstories. And to be fair—that's okay! Majora's Mask and Link's Awakening are the only Zelda games that dive into malaise affairs, but the problem is that every other Zelda title in comparison has something going for it; the Oracle games really don't amount to much more than "don't you wish that Game Boy game you liked so much was longer?"


Since my original journey through the duology began with Ages, this time I decided to swap the order around and start with the action-oriented Seasons—and by "action-oriented", I mean many of the rooms in dungeons will simply require you to vanquish your enemies in order to unlock progression. The original Legend of Zelda throwbacks are a cool touch, especially since the bosses get a considerable face-lift. The dungeons themselves are inferior to their Ages counterparts however, as many of them lack individuality that separates them from the last (barring Level 8 and its latent gimmick). The overworld is a bit more fun to traverse since you don't have to deal with the brief but extremely repetitive time travelling cutscene, and I feel the magnetic gloves rival the mermaid suit in ingenuity (both items are a great addition to Link's repertoire). Subrosia is a bit cumbersome to navigate but as I stated above, it provides some much needed individuality to Seasons.

Ages remains my favorite though, largely thanks to the more cerebral puzzles it offers. The tile treading and colored cube challenges are extremely satisfying problems to solve, and a majority of the dungeons attempt to have a central conceit for you to tackle. The game peaks at the brilliant Level 7, which is basically "the Water Temple part two"—a phrase that would strike fear into most but is a delicious task to undertake for the intrepid. I'm also a lot more fond of the final boss fight in Ages, as it feels more like a traditional Zelda battle compared to its slightly unfair brethren in Seasons. I generally find the content in the overworld to be more interesting as well, except for the never-ending Goron section at the top right of the map.

There's a bunch of linked goodies that the player can tap into if they possess both Oracle titles, but having gone through the games so much in the past I opted to skip out on most of it this time. I did transfer my save data over and give the optional dungeons a go, which I enjoyed considerably since those weren't as strongly embedded into my memory as the main campaign. The password trading and ring transfer stuff is neat but ultimately strikes me as shallow, barely adding anything to the game besides more menial tasks to undertake for completionist's sake. In a way I'm kinda glad that the third game in the Oracle series was scrapped, as these two titles offer more than enough roughage for any Zelda fan to digest.


The most damning praise I can offer the Oracle games is that they feel like expansions to Link's Awakening. They're full of competent ideas, shiny new items, and plenty of cool areas to explore, and yet they don't feel quite as "must play" as Link's Awakening does. I applaud the work Nintendo and Capcom put into the titles, but I suppose my honeymoon phase with these games has ended; it was honestly kinda difficult to write this entry because there wasn't a lot of material I felt required elucidation. They're fun Game Boy games that don't really amount to anything more than just that—fun Game Boy games.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Final Fantasy XV - Thoughts


[contains minor spoilers]


To better or for worse, no two Final Fantasy games are alike. Similar in ways sure, but for the most part (especially after the SNES era) each title has been wildly differen from another, only finding common ground in their nomenclature. Final Fantasy XV is perhaps one of the boldest departures from its predecessors, introducing both character action combat and a grand open world into its traditional JRPG structure. It's adventurous, has a ton of style, and is an absoluuuuuute messssssss. I can understand why plenty of people are singing its praises—there's definitely no game is quite like it!—but holy cow does it wear the proof of its troubled development like a badge of honor.


I want to preface the discussion of the story by admitting that I like how it ends. Despite what you may think at the onset of the journey, FFXV strives for ambitious heights with its characters, and the final chapter alone nearly justifies the bizarre "boy band road trip" premise. The problem, however, is the manner in which is told. Characters disappear offscreen to do god knows what (or flat-out die) and rarely are there attempts to inform the player why events are unfolding the way they are. A lot of spectacle is put into the summon battles but there's no explanation given as to what you're trying to accomplish (am I here to kill them or enlist their help?) and throughout the story you'll find yourself constantly questioning character motives (are we really going to help the Empire explore this dungeon guys? Really?)

Honestly, the plot of FFXV is the game's weakest point. Multiple red flags appear early on: the lore of the land is given in the damn tutorial (it's not even accessible from the main menu!), the invasion of your capital city is summarized through movie snippets, nearly nothing is told to you about who/what/where the Empire is, and there's not even a glossary of terms à la FFXIII that you can reference for quick reminders. The game does an atrocious job of introducing you to its core enemies (the first named foe you meet—Loqi—is subsequently killed in the following boss encounter) and the foreign lands you visit in the latter half barely amount to anything more than window dressing along a narrow hallway. The scarcity of reasoning that the plot provides is something I expected from the old Famicom titles, so I can't even begin to articulate how mystifying it is to encounter such obscenely woeful storytelling in 2016. Seriously, when your plot has the same exact "who the hell is Stan" moment from True Detective season two (complete with multiple instances of characters mourning said paper-thin nobody), maybe you shouldn't have left the rough draft phase so early.


The last thing I'm going to rag on is Luna, because she's an affront to the game. Certain scenes in FFXV are among the most honest and heartfelt that the Final Fantasy series has to offer, and it's all thanks to the great chemistry between the core cast. And yet Luna—one of the most pivotal characters to Noctis' development—is a stodgy bore, an old lady in a teenager's body. As a young girl she orates to Noctis the magnitude of his office (because children love talking about stuff like this) and as an adult she barely does anything other than wistfully pine for Noctis in-between sending him dry, emotionless messages via carrier dog. It's bad enough to write a character so hopelessly dull, but even worse to have her play such an integral part of the story despite never even establishing what makes their relationship meaningful. Noctis and Luna are arguably the worst couple in the entire series; the player forms a deeper attachment to Iris during their adventure because she participates in what the game does best: battle, sightsee, and chat.


Where FFXV undoubtedly hits its mark is in the combat; fighting fiendish enemies with your allies at your back is a joy. While your brothers in arms don't have the most sophisticated AI, the battle system is fun enough that you won't really mind if they never seem to get out of the way of AoE attacks (including your own spells). It takes some time to get used to the flow of combat in the game (as you're either holding the auto-dodge button or auto-attack button most of the time), but it provides enough of a spectacle that I was never agitated by some of its jankiness (the camera gets stuck behind shrubbery quite often). Though I wish there was a smidge more monster variety in the game, what's provided here is entertaining enough to last you the 30 hours it takes to complete the main story.

Would that I could say the same about the design of the open world, but as Conan O'Brien so bluntly put it, FFXV's countryside is an "aggressive wasting of our time". I have no qualms with attempting to portray a vast open landscape properly, but with that comes the inevitable tedium of traversing it from end to end multiple times as you undertake one hunt at a time (and can only track a single quest on your minimap). You'll use your royal vehicle to ferry you from town to quest and back again, and after a while a tiny voice will balloon in your head, whispering "it's just not worth it to do all these quests". Even though I enjoyed my time with FFXV's combat, exploring the post-game content was too great of a task for me, due to how cumbersome and draining exploring the world was.

Beyond that, there's a myriad of little designs that I can't believe made it into the final game. For instance: when someone offers you a quest, why do you pick it up/drop it off in a separate but directly adjacent spot to where you talk to them? Why can't you adjust the volume of the song in your car on the fly? Why can't I cook my own meals without resting? How the hell are your friends supposed to avoid getting nuked by the higher tier spells? Why are there no save points mid-dungeon? Why is "slow walk" the standard speed in dungeons? Why are all treasures a minuscule, glittery dot on the ground? When I'm selling treasures, why can't I see how they specifically alter spells so I can keep the quintcast ones? Why don't I get gil from side quests? Why can't you undertake more than one hunt at a time?!

Mind you, I'm not actually as irate at FFXV as the above tirade may suggest. There are still a ton of things I appreciate about it: I love how each day ends by looking at the Prompto's photos, I like the monster designs, the character animations are magnificent, magical explosions have a good weight to them, and gil is actually a rare commodity for once. For as wonky and imperceptible as the combat gets at times (good luck figuring out whom the damage numbers belong to when fighting more than five foes), at the end of the day FFXV is a fun game to play when you're playing it. All of the downtime is a chore though; FFXV is only enjoyable as a whole if you have plenty of time on your hands, or plan on playing only one game this month...


... oh, and, you know, if you're immune to terrible storytelling.


The problems with Final Fantasy XV are manifold to those not drunk with hype. There's no shame in liking it but this is a game riddled with issues in a series typically known for its above-average quality (I didn't even get into the never-ending slog that is Chapter 13!) I don't regret that I played it, but I do feel a pang in my heart for the good that is present here, as it's eternally submerged in a swamp of poor decisions. It took a long time to finally get to FFXV's release, but unfortunately it's going to take even longer for the franchise to catch up to where RPGs are at today.
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Images obtained from: finalfantasy.wikia, youtube.com