Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Satellite Reign - Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Nioh - Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 29, 2017

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker - Thoughts

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is a delightful pleasantry. It's a simple game that's not too short and too long, nor too difficult or too easy. It's a "middle of the road" type of game that's not ambitious enough to gain traction through word of mouth, but is an excellent experience for anyone that enjoys perspective puzzles. Speaking as one of those people, I had a gay old time spelunking with the miniature mushroom man and his fungi crew, the colorful visuals and cheerful atmosphere worth the price of admission alone. While I wasn't challenged by the puzzles as much as I usually prefer to be (barring one notable endgame exception), Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker still managed to charm me in its own humble little way.

Like many others, I was a bit surprised that Nintendo EAD Tokyo would go about creating a full-fledged experience from what seemed to be a suitable one-off minigame in Super Mario 3D World. I really enjoyed the Captain Toad segments that were in there but I wasn't begging for more of them. Well, that is, until Treasure Tracker was revealed during E3 2014 and I realized, "hey, you know what, I would play more of those levels." It took me a bit of time to get around to playing it (I didn't own a copy until this year), but it was just the thing I needed between the more grueling endeavors of surviving Nioh and Resident Evil VII.

Far and away the most wonderful aspect about Captain Toad is how homely the levels feel. Among my most cherished toys when I was a kid were the Mighty Max playsets, miniature stages that could unfold in the palm of your hand. My passion for those teeny toys signaled the start of my preference for tight and condensed spaces, whether it be in my art, Doom maps, or even my own room. Because of this, I personally saw Captain Toad as a collection of aesthetic wonderlands, each floating block its own quaint adventure to embark on. I utterly love the diorama-style presentation of each stage, the player constantly needing to rotate the camera to uncover secret coins and hideaways. Even if the puzzles in a particular stage were fairly boring, I nevertheless enjoyed looking around the area and soaking in its simplistic architecture, getting lost in the look and feel of each bite-sized world.

It might seem like there's not a whole lot you can do with a character that can't jump or use abilities, but Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker has a surprising amount of variety embedded in it stages. For some you'll need to fiddle with the Wii U pad to move blocky platforms or rotate structures, while in others you'll have to speed across crumbling bridges or maneuver clones through a maze. In all honesty the gimmicks here aren't too different from those in Super Mario 3D World—a hefty majority of them are ripped straight from there—but the lack of special suits and a jump button change how you interact with these systems, slowing down the gameplay so that it becomes more cerebral than reflexive. This makes the game feel different even though you've already jumped across beep blocks and traveled through translucent pipes; Treasure Tracker takes the familiar and introduces it to you all over again with great success.

For me, the game is at its most compelling in the smaller stages where the camera remains static on the y-axis. Having the ability to see the entire play area and being tasked with completing it through mainly camera manipulation speaks wonders of the level design, showing how efficient Nintendo is at managing their real estate. Levels like "Pop-up Prairie", "Windup Stairs", "Up 'n' Down Terrace", "Double Cherry Spires", and "Trick-Track Hall" were among my favorites for their excellent use of space—had I been eight years old, I would've undoubtedly fantasized about physically owning a playset of them. On the other hand, Captain Toad awkwardly stumbles whenever it forces the player to engage in more physically demanding & timed tasks, given that the plucky little fellow isn't as satisfying as Mario to control. The turnip-tossing on-rails sections and the "Mummy-Me Maze" were among the worst offenders, neither of which play to the game's strengths (The "Mummy-Me Maze" would be alright if the darn mummy had a constant walk speed).

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is like a breath of fresh air—it doesn't really do anything substantial, but it sure feels nice. It contains that timeless, inimitable Nintendo polish that makes the game look and feel so fantastically splendid, designed for both children and adults in mind. I'm not head over heels for the game, but I can't deny that I was in a happy mood whenever I played it. And you know what? I bet that's all Nintendo was aiming for.

Images obtained from: target.com, cultofmac.com, gamespot.com, technobuffalo.com

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

Zelda is back baby!

Well actually, for many fans of the series, Zelda never left. Similar to the Super Mario games, The Legend of Zelda franchise is one that's never really fallen from grace—the most it has done is momentarily waver in quality at the high end of the spectrum. Sure, you'll find plenty of people that detest Skyward Sword and Phantom Hourglass with a fiery passion, but all of the games have been well produced and meticulously designed, making it difficult to fault them for more than just their shortcomings. There are no embarrassing blemishes on the series like Final Fantasy XIII, Mega Man X6, or Metroid: Other M; The Legend of Zelda has been a dependable name ever since its humble debut back in 1986.

But it was about damn time the series got more experimental. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild eschews with the traditional Zelda formula and places the player in the director's chair, allowing them to explore according to their whims. So many people have become enraptured by Breath of the Wild that the game has been talked about to death, igniting a heated discussion over the usefulness of Metacritic craze and flooding YouTube with a bazillion Let's Plays. Therefore it's unlikely I have anything groundbreaking to add to the general consensus, but I'll try my best to go beyond claiming "It's really good!"

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild succeeds on the most basic level as a video game because it never stops asking the player, "hey, what's over there?" A lot of open world games technically do this, but Breath of the Wild is a wildly different beast; being able to climb anything and everything is completely unique, brilliant mechanic. And notice that I said "climb" and not "hookshot to"—Breath of the Wild makes you earn your pioneering badge by forcing you to manually scale every landmark, which means you'll be surveying the world constantly for vertical routes. My favorite adventuring experience was attempting to shimmy up a thin wooden windmill located at the bottom of a seemingly inescapable gorge. My stamina was barely upgraded so halfway I up I had to chug my last remaining stamina potion and fidget atop a metal nut until I was ready to climb again. It was brutal—and felt clunky—but it was so satisfying when I finally reached the top, even though it didn't really lead me anywhere. My goal was to mount that windmill, and by god I did it.

Being excited to tell a small, pointless, yet awesome tales like that is perhaps Breath of the Wild's greatest strength. Since the game hands the player the reigns once they glide off the Great Plateau, everyone learns the game in their own way, whether it be by traipsing towards a tower in the distance or skipping off to find adventure on their own. I began by exploring the southeast region, struggling to cope with the copious rainfall and getting struck by lightning while climbing trees. It was here I learned how to use Cryonics to make a stairway up waterfalls, blown away that I had discovered a gameplay mechanic that the game in no way pestered me about how to perform. Deciding to push Breath of the Wild to its limits, I charted course for Hyrule Castle, determined to see how the game would gate me from reaching Ganon.

Yet despite all odds, I did it! Well, I reached him anyway—obviously with my puny arsenal I wasn't going to stand a chance. But the cool part was pushing myself to my limits, trying to find ways to avoid the turrets while making decent headway into the defiled castle. What helped me succeed was—to my delight!—the Cryonic's waterfall ability, the ice pillars forming makeshift cover from turrets as I hopped up each block to reach the castle's pinnacle. Honestly that was probably my favorite experience with the game, as it taught me just what Breath of the Wild was trying to accomplish as a game, and it was where I was tested the most (well, that, or my first Major Feat of Strength).

The rest of the time I had with the game was fantastic as well. I got to slowly learn the world piece by piece, discover which recipes gave the most hearts, and figure out which weapons I liked (those elemental spears—oh baby) and loathed (slow weapons booooo!). I initially thought the low durability on the weapons would drive me nuts but I really enjoyed having to swap my equipment depending on my enemy and situation, though I was considerably less enthusiastic about the paltry amount Link could carry (I had to constantly ditch my dupes). The shrines scattered about provide some nice puzzles and I was pleased with the spacial awareness required in each of the Divine Beast dungeons. The scope of the world and the amount of side quests to engage in is staggering even by Zelda standards, and I'm extremely pleased that, like Horizon, this is a game that stands tall on its own two legs without the need for DLC or a sequel to polish its mistakes.


I weep over the lack of proper dungeons in this game. Don't get me wrong—I think the Divine Beasts are cool and creative—but they're essentially extended shrines, only testing your combat prowess when they conclude with one of four disappointingly similar bosses. There's no grand adventure like Hyrule Castle that lets you carve your own path through the dungeon while avoiding difficult enemies; each Divine Beast contains a handful of guardians to fight and only one solution to each of its five node puzzles. Again, I think these dungeons are pretty good for what they are, but The Legend of Zelda series is the only one I can come to for that sweet sweet "map->compass->dungeon item->big key->dungeon boss" gameplay loop Nintendo has peerlessly perfected. Being bereft of that—as well as any sort of gameplay challenge that would test my equipment & consumables—ultimately meant I was let down.

There are some other unfortunate blemishes on the game I can't ignore, like the abysmal frame rate for the Wii U version of the game. Also considering how long the game is, I desperately hoped for more enemy variation than I got (I've murdered countless Lizalfoses and never want to fight them again), and once you've collected every type of weapon the treasure chests you stumble upon start to lose their luster. At one point I realized I wasn't going to finish all of the shrines in the game simply because I felt that my time with it had come to a close; my journey was finally complete. There's a part of me that wants to go back and keep playing the game—the feeling you get when climbing stuff you aren't supposed to is addicting—but I also need more of an incentive beyond seeing overfamiliar content recycled and reoriented.

I must note that these grievances truly underscore the copious amount of personal experiences Breath of the Wild offers. The first dozen or so hours are among the best since everything is fresh, funny, and new; you'll stumble upon hundreds of humorous little moments, like chasing after an apple rolling down a hill or witnessing angry bees butchering bokoblins. There are some breathtaking sights to behold, like the first time you spot an ancient dragon or when you finally arrive to the gorgeously rendered Zora's Domain. The story and score are neither here nor there—I like the way in which some citizens remember Link and the Hyrule Castle theme has an epic feel to it—but they are both secondary to the pedestrian joy of wandering around Hyrule with no particular destination in mind. Plus it's also nice for the first time in decades to play a Zelda game that is unafraid to kill the player.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the change the Zelda series needed. Even though I lament the loss of the classic dungeon-spelunking item-collecting gameplay, I can't ignore how great it feels to sit down with the game and simply goBreath of the Wild is simultaneously a serene and invigorating experience, recapturing the same emotions that made the original NES game so magical, long after we've grown up and gotten used to what a Zelda game was supposed to be. To evoke that childhood wonder; to rekindle the desire to mess around in sprawling virtual playgrounds; Breath of the Wild is not only a fresh breath for the series, but it is perhaps the perfect distillation of the word "adventure".

Images obtained from: zelda.com, pvplive.net, destructoid.com, zeldadungeon.net

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Final Fantasy II (Dawn of Souls) - Thoughts

My thoughts last week on Final Fantasy I in Dawn of Souls were not generous to say the least—I concluded the entry by declaring, "your time will be better spent on nearly any other entry in the series." Well, Final Fantasy II is not one of those entries. Despite being notable for its unique "stats level up depending on how much you use them" gameplay, Final Fantasy II is the poster child for "mechanics that work better on paper than in practice". The first time I played through it, it was decisively the worst Final Fantasy game I had ever played, and time has not altered my opinion; upon replay, Final Fantasy II is, to put it bluntly, a busted-ass game.

So let's dive right into the combat system: in Final Fantasy II, your core stats, magic, and weapon proficiency is increased depending on if it's "activated" in battle. So casting ice magic will raise the "Blizzard" meter by some amount, attacking with an axe will raise the "Axe" meter by some amount, and even getting walloped with a mighty blow has the chance to increase your max HP. This sounds like a novel idea that lets you customize your characters in a more nuanced way than even the job system, but you'll slowly come to realize you don't have much control over what gets changed and when (other than the spells, that is). Sometimes your whole party with suffer the same amount of damage but only certain characters' HP will increase, or everyone will cast the same level spell but the MP max raises for one of them, or everyone will attack with their weapons but only some weapons will continue to level while others remain stagnant.

About halfway through the game is when these stats will start to seriously snowball. The token woman of my group tended to avoid damage early on so I gave her agility-based equipment, leading her to eventually have an agility stat of 88—her bulky ally just below her finished the game with 5 agility. Fortunately he was getting punched so frequently that his HP skyrocketed to 8000 by the journey's end. I did grind a bit in the game, but it was only in the first half to boost my spells, since using them at their first few levels means they miss a lot (and are utterly useless in battle). Due to how slow the spells level and how boring combat in general is, it really doesn't make any sense to equip more than two spells per party member, especially since using your best spell will continue to improve it. Therefore you don't even get the excitement in Final Fantasy I of arriving to a new town to learn a new set of spells; once a character becomes adept at casting Thunder and Berserk, they're going to be casting those two spells for the rest of their life.

With your character stats being all over the place, battles run the gamut from pathetically easy to shockingly cruel. A lot of RPGs suffer this problem, but Final Fantasy II dials this up to eleven, constantly throwing you against enemies that do no damage or those that do a third of your health. And I'm not joking either!—I wrote down that in the final dungeon there's a spell-caster that can bombard your whole party for 30 damage, compared to a vampire lady that does 2400 lifesteal damage. Both magic attacks and lifesteal in this game are broken for two different reasons, the former rarely doing more damage than physical attacks (barring a few elementally-weak enemies), while the latter is based off of max HP, meaning the stronger your characters are the more vitality the enemy can sap. Enemies thankfully use more debuffs this time around, though they tend to miss more than they hit (and even something as simple as poison only does single-digit damage per turn, independent of max HP).

To add insult to injury, your fourth party slot is reserved for a rotating cast of characters. All these guests really do is soak up stats that the other members could use (since even suffering damage is a good thing in his game), so I decided on this playthrough to immediately execute them and lug their recumbent corpse around. Perhaps that's part of the reason why my party got so strong, but it didn't mean all that much since lifesteal and the mass confuse spell brought my squad to its knees (a party of imps—imps!—is one of the hardest encounters in the game!) Ironically the bosses are among the easiest foes to fight, constantly dealing pitiful damage and biting the dust in a handful of turns. Even without the Blood Sword, I obliterated the final boss in four turns—four! And guess what the most devastating move he had was? Lifesteal!

Oh and the curing—the curing. Cure is an awful spell in this game because it heals by such a paltry amount at low levels that you'll need to blow through all of your MP to get your party back to tip-top shape. And the more you use it, the more it levels up, so the more MP it requires! But the only way to get more MP is to use magic in battle, so you have to start blowing through your MP in order to increase its max amount, which is dangerous in a dungeon when you need your MP to cast Cure! To make matters worse the dungeons in this game are arduously long, labyrinthian, and full of "trap doors" that send you to an empty rectangular room cursed with a god-awful encounter rate (it's like 2-3 steps). Sometimes it's better to use the Warp or Teleport spells if you get low on MP halfway through a area, but those spells don't even work in all of the dungeons! I'm downright baffled at who was green lighting all of these design choices!

Besides the ludicrously imbalanced gameplay, there's not much to talk about since Final Fantasy II is pretty bland in general. The coolest thing it does is introduce a vocabulary system, where you can learn specific concepts and ask them to the important NPCs. Unfortunately this isn't used a whole lot, and NPCs don't talk about anything other than the words you're supposed to use on them. Besides that, it takes too long to get an airship, there's too much backtracking to Altair to advance the plot, your core party is as boring as a plank of wood, and the story is only marginally better than Final Fantasy I. There's also an epilogue section added to the Dawn of Souls version of the game, but it requires you to play more Final Fantasy II—and I believe I've suffered enough.

Final Fantasy II is absolutely shameless about wasting your time. It squanders the ambitious design it aims for and crumples beneath its own weight, unable to find any solid gameplay mechanics to stand on. It's slow, grindy, and uninteresting; Final Fantasy II isn't just the nadir of the series, it's perhaps the worst RPGs I've played in my entire life. It was an experience I desperately wanted to be over as soon as possible, and one that I will never subject myself to ever again.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Final Fantasy I (Dawn of Souls) - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

Like with a lot of entertainment media, going back to a storied franchise's humble roots can be a difficult thing to do. The Final Fantasy series is one that's loved and adored by millions, but only a small fraction of those players are likely to have completed the original NES title. I, admittedly, am not one of them—even though my brother had a copy of the game growing up, I wouldn't really start to get into RPGs until the PS2/Gamecube era, and by then the last thing I wanted to do was trudge through an archaic NES RPG. Luckily for myself (and many others) Square Enix remade the first and second Final Fantasy titles and packaged them together in a single GBA cart, dubbed Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls. With updated graphics, streamlined gameplay, and an enhanced story, players could finally reach the end in less than half the time it took to complete the original. While I greatly appreciated the changes the first time I played through the remake, my most recent playthrough saw a lot more... turbulence.

The Dawn of Souls edition of Final Fantasy I is torn between two eras. It proudly retains the flavor of the original game's world, staying loyal to its structure, dungeons, enemies, and equipment. Besides the graphics and music, the area that receives the most robust change is the gameplay: the level cap is doubled, additional healing items have been added, and potentially irksome spells-per-day system has been replaced (there's also four bonus dungeons, but I'll cover those later). On paper, this sounds like a fair balance, offering the player a chance to explore the classic world of Final Fantasy I while removing a lot of unfriendly burdens. But once you clear the Marsh Cave, you'll realize that all these changes have made the experience far too easy and, by default, boring.

Here are three aspects that outright neuter the Final Fantasy I experience:

1) Items are cheap
2) The encounter rate is high
3) You can save anywhere

In conjunction, these ensure that the player is well-stocked on healing aids, always properly leveled, and never in danger of losing any progress. For example: got a battle with a Fiend coming up? Chuck ethers at your mages, save, and proceed to steamroll the poor sap. Since the mechanics of the original game aren't all that complex, fights are pretty easy to find the optimal solution to. This causes a lot of battles to blend together into the same mindless "mash A to win" marathons, especially since every monster dies in one hit from your strongest team member anyway. Even the fearsome Fiends fall prey to this tactic, their combat repertoire a pitiable mess since few use any sort of unique spells or status debuffs.

The repetitive combat creates a surprisingly aggravating experience when combined with the unchanged maze-like layouts of the original Final Fantasy I dungeons. That game had sprawling underground complexes that were risky to explore due to your limited spell charges, but with infinite heals and an atrocious encounter rate, you'll find yourself sighing and groaning as you run into yet another dead end or open a treasure box with a scant 500 gil inside. The final dungeon in particular is a monotonous slog, lacking any kind of danger whatsoever since you'll likely be packing 99 hi-potions, ethers, and phoenix downs. Note that I'm not declaring the NES version to be better; I simply find that the changes to the gameplay to stand at odds with the plodding dungeon design and encounter design of the original.

Something I find inexcusable in both versions of Final Fantasy I is the long-winded trading quest after Astos. It's essentially a massive waste of time through areas you've already explored, which may have originally offered a chance to give the player more XP and gil, but provides nothing of value here. You deliver the crystal ball to Matoya, then sail across the sea to wake the elf prince up, then back to Cornelia, then over to the dwarves to deliver the explosives, then back to your ship to sail through a single patch of sea. To make matters worse, the vampire-cleansing Earth Cave quest is also a blatant waste of time that occurs right after the trading quest! Had the player been given a chance to buy the Exit or Teleport spells maybe I could excuse its existence, but those are saved for the class upgrades, which occur after you've already explored the dungeons you have to backtrack your way out of.

For all the flak I give it, Dawn of Souls at least introduces four bonus dungeons that are capped by four vicious boss fights each. And even though these fights are the most engaging parts of the game, Dawn of Souls manages to fumble this by forcing you to replay the dungeon if you want to fight more than one bosses. The bonus dungeons are just as dull as the regular ones too, and the fact that the floors are randomly arranged means that some runs of it will be more of a headache than others (that purple forest is torture). I tried to explore them during this playthrough but was tired of the game rudely bloating my play time, opting to head into the final dungeon and finish this adventure instead.

For what it's worth, my battle against Chaos was pretty spectacular, especially since I refused to use ethers while I was knee-deep in the Chaos Shrine, hoping it would make my struggle more tense and momentous. The mechanics of the Chaos fght itself isn't all that complex—Chaos tends to only throw out physically damaging attacks—but at least having to juggle restorative spells with replenishing my mages' MP added a dimension of strategy to the scuffle. At the end only my Grand Master Bric survived, a mere 180 health left in his worn, shaken body. So was it worth eight hours to play for that amazing, succulent victory?

Not really.

Final Fantasy I in Dawn of Souls offers a crooked glimpse into the appeal of the original, not only showing the faults of the NES title but creating a few of its own in the process. These problems were fairly glaring during my time with it: without limited spells dungeons become a cinch, the battle tactics of the monsters you'll face are woefully outdated (my mages didn't get silenced once!), and progress through the game is purposely obfuscated at times. I feel that the game is serviceable if you feel you need to play something resembling the original game, the prettier palette and faster gameplay a definite improvement. Outside of historic curiosity though, your time will be better spent on nearly any other entry in the series.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Accepting that I Will Die Before I Finish All of the Games I Own - Opinion

Revisiting Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls on the GBA has resurfaced a morbid thought I've had for some time now: "I'm never going to finish all these games". Since gaming is my primary hobby, I've accumulated a lot of cartridges and discs over the years, so much so that I've currently run out of boxes to stuff them into. Yet as I grow older and look back on a number of titles—like the NES version of Final Fantasy I for instance—I've recognized that there really is no point in it being there. I mean, Square's roleplaying swan song looks nice as a collector's item sandwiched between Fester's Quest and Fire 'n Ice, but why am I keeping it if I'm never going to play it? And it's not that I necessarily don't want to either; it's just that there are so many other games in my mental queue ahead of Final Fantasy that I'm honestly going to die before I get around to even starting it.

Ever since I was a kid, I took immense pride in finishing a game, despite that I almost always used Game Genie to accomplish the feat. Before I knew how to properly spell I had my mom assist me in writing down the titles of games I had conquered, creating a very small but empowering list of virtual achievements. It wasn't something I'd openly brag about at school (at least not that I can consciously remember); I simply made the list to remind myself of the places I've explored in the 8-bit realm. As I grew older and gaming expanded, I couldn't maintain my humble little list, but the burning desire to "complete" games and other pieces of media stuck with me throughout my adolescence and into my adulthood.

I make no attempt to proselytize or defend the value of judging media based upon whether or not it's been "beaten"; in many ways, this line of thinking is a shallow way to reflect upon an experience, akin to keeping notches on your bedpost for every person you've slept with. But it is what it is—my completionist methodology strongly influenced my preference to consume media that has a terminable end, pushing me away from simulation & multiplayer games, as well as long-running TV shows & comic books. I've slowly learned to appreciate the merits of perpetual art (I'm part of a comic book podcast after all), but my fondness lies first and foremost with products I can essentially "cross off a list" when I'm done.

That's why as long a game had end credits that could be reached, it was my goal to reach them. Even lesser known and mediocre titles like Magic Boy for DOS and Spy Hunter for Gamecube were given a fair shake in my hands, due to my juvenile delusion that all games were created equal and fair (developers are smart people so they make smart design decisions, right?). I eventually had to acknowledge that I probably won't beat every game made in history of the medium, but I was certain that I could finish all of the games I at least owned, even if they seemed insurmountable at the time. And thinking about that filled me with a flurry of excitement—there were so many worlds, characters, and gameplay systems left to explore!

Nowadays, as I slowly approach the age of 30, that endeavor feels more bleak than bright. It's not because I feel "too old" or I've come to hate playing video games or anything, but there are some titles I simply don't want to spend more time on than I already have. Part of the reason I started this blog was to jot down concrete thoughts on nearly every game I played so I'd have a handy place to direct people to if they wanted my opinions on a certain title. But when I think about replaying certain games for a review—like Kingdom Hearts or the Gears of War series—there's a part of me that feels my time would be better spent elsewhere, especially as I search for a way to bring in a stable income. And if I feel that way about games I've already played, then what about those that I've yet to touch? Am I always going to look at titles like the Xenosaga trilogy, Septerra Core, and Holy Diver as time-sinks I'm more than happy to procrastinate playing until it's too late?

This predicament reminds me of a poignant existential truth (that I can't quite remember the origin of): throughout your life, there exists an unrealized instance with every single person you know in which you will say "goodbye" to them for the last time. Since everybody passes away, we might say "I love you" to a person without fully comprehending that it might be the very last time we'd say so. In the same way (though obviously less emotionally damaging), there exists one last time that we engage with every piece of media, whether we know it or not. As a kid I was stoked to play through all the Zelda and Mario games biennially—now as I finish up The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I'm painfully cognizant that I'll only ever replay the entire Zelda series maybe one or two more times in my life. All of my experiences with each piece of media have a finite end, and as I grow older I'll become more and more aware of each one.

Part of the good news is that this revelation isn't one that fills me with overwhelming dread (that moment came about while I was in college). No, this is the slow ebbing of childhood optimism and wonder; the acceptance of another naive dream crushed beneath the weight of time and mortality. It's the start of skepticism towards the games I place on my wishlist and the gradual acceptance that there's no real reason to keep over half of the games I own. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing either—like with my "completion" habit, it simply is, and I'm learning to accept it day by day. I may not be able to complete every game I own (I'm sorry Final Fantasy on NES—we never even got to have our final "goodbye"), but as long as I'm spending my time on the things I feel are most important, I'm sure my inner child won't mind too much.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Horizon Zero Dawn - Thoughts

Horizon Zero Dawn is perhaps the stupidest name for one of the coolest new IPs to come out this generation. It's a title so vague and meaningless that you could swap the nouns around and it would still produce the same word salad. Know what's a more fitting appellation? Posthistoric Robopocalypse: Rise of the Bowwoman. I wouldn't dare say that's a good name, but it most accurately represents what Horizon succeeds in doing—throwing the player into a tribal world overrun with robotic animals while also providing them the means to eventually overcome it. Across the +30 hour journey, you'll learn how to scavenge for parts, craft a multitude of ammo types, and hunt majestic machinations, until you become the master of this lawless domain. And by god, it is a gorgeous, brilliant, phenomenal experience that has (figuratively) blown my pants off.

The most unimaginative stunt that Horizon pulls is that it unabashedly copies from Ubisoft's open-world playbook. There's settlements to liberate, goodies to collect, raw materials to gather, side quests to stumble upon, and a nifty little skill tree to fill out, which all feels familiar if you've played any of the newer Far Cry titles. Luckily it's a solid blueprint to copy from, providing the player with dozens of hours of content to explore without going too far overboard (the icon-littered map may look crazy but your points of interest are relatively few). Had I not played and fallen in love with Far Cry 3 years prior I would've been head over heels for Horizon, but being able to recognize the tropes and gameplay loops of the open-world genre kept my enthusiasm mostly grounded.

Yet despite how familiar the structure of the world felt, it was the world itself that left me breathless. From the colorful, jaw-dropping vistas to the individual fibers of the robo-fauna's muscles, Horizon's resplendent landscapes exudes both majesty and marvel. The cybernetic critters don't feel strangely conspicuous or anachronistic, thanks in part to their elegant, animalian design, as well as the reverence Horizon's denizens show towards them. The way each tribe uses robotic components as decorative ornaments looks bizarre at first, but you slowly grow acclimated to it, eventually commending NPCs and their splendiferous headdresses (well, if you're me that is). There's a curious sense of fashion to Horizon's world that is one part ancient and one part sci-fi, two polar qualities that are never at odds as you venture from place to place, culture to culture.

Speaking of, each tribe comes with their own history, belief, and political clout in the world, leading the small state-sized landmass to feel like its own Mass Effect universe. True, you can identify archetypal fantasy civilizations in each culture (the Carja are patriarchal imperials, the Banuk are mountain mystics, and the Oseram are straight-up dwarves), but the way they're fleshed out adds some variations to each formula. Whereas collecting lore in a lot of other games tends to add personal/micro detail to the world, Horizon's scrolls act more like historical accounts of one culture's depictions of another, subject to whatever fallacies that may entail. And the quality of writing isn't merely just present in the plethora of text files—side quests routinely provide more of an incentive beyond "go fetch this thing because I said so". Perhaps you'll be looking for a lost lover that's been enlisted with the Shadow Carja, or needing to decide whether a mentally troubled man is a danger to his tribe, or infiltrating a deranged bomb expert's trap-laden valley. Even if a lot of the decisions you make don't have a massive impact on Horizon's world, the fact that you feel like an important player and actively want to learn more is enough to keep you poking around for hours on end.

One of Horizon Zero Dawn's most impressive feats (of which there are many) is that it makes the main mission as important and interesting as all of the side ones. This is no simple task; Bethesda games are rightly lambasted for having underwhelming main missions despite open world RPGs being their expertise. Guerilla Games skirts this issue by pumping their central plot full of fascinating tidbits and lore, prompting the player to push onwards in order to uncover more juicy details (and perhaps save the world in the process). I won't spoil any of it, but the fact that Horizon takes time to convincingly explain why there are robotic dinosaurs prowling the land is something I totally wasn't expecting. Honestly, this is probably the most intriguing AAA plot I've played this generation.

Lastly, I suppose I should mention something about the gameplay, eh? As demonstrated by my enthusiasm, Horizon's world-building is undeniably its premier attraction, but the gameplay is no slouch either. There's a variety of weapons to use (each with their unique ammo types) and every enemy you face has weak zones to target, ensuring a combat depth that goes beyond "just shoot them in the head". However the more time you spend playing the game the more you have to acknowledge the its eccentricities: for instance, Horizon pegs itself as an RPG but the only way to increase damage is to find and equip damage modules, which is quite unintuitive at first (upgrading only gives you more ammo types). Some enemies are also too mobile for you to reliably hit their weak points, causing endgame battles to ultimately favor blast damage arms (tripcaster, shadow sling). The melee combat feels pretty loose and shoddy—I'm not asking for God of War combos but there's really only two "branches" of slow attacks the player can perform, leading to a lot of senseless button mashing. Oh—slightly unrelated—but gathering health for the health pouch is a chore (the gain you get per herb really needs to be doubled)

I call these eccentricities and not faults because for the most part, the combat works as intended. Once you learn to utilize the roll and its i-frames, facing off against Horizon's fiercest predators can be extremely thrilling, whether it be the ice-spitting Snapmaw or the boulder-manipulating Behemoth. The mighty Stormbird in particular is a feast for the eyes and thumbs; its devastating lightning and dive attacks serve as a suitable test for your dexterity; tying the colossal foe down a challenge for your aim. I didn't even mind grappling with Horizon's few humanoid foes, the base infiltrations a fun endeavor that I always somehow managed to mess up (got close to ghosting a couple of them!) The game is lenient enough that you never have to be on your A-game even on Hard, but it demands that you respect its robotic inhabitants, quick to remind you that their serrated iron teeth can tear you limb from limb. You'll achieve a sense of pride in slowly working your way up the food chain, toppling each unique metal monstrosity one by one, until you become the most dangerous predator around.

Horizon Zero Dawn isn't perfect, but at no point did I ever find myself chiding the game for its shortcomings. Every time I played it I was excited; every story beat I reached surprised me; every battle I fought engaged me. Horizon didn't feel like a product churned out to appeal to a specific "hardcore" market—it was a game crafted with great care that sought to captivate as much as it wanted to entertain. With its lush world, compelling story, and flexible combat, this debut has earned itself the honor of being the strongest title the PS4 currently possesses. What Guerilla Games has pulled off is an extremely commendable feat; the worst part about having to write this entry is accepting that my time with Horizon is over.

Bravo Bowwoman, bravo.

Images obtained from: youtube.com, iansteffen.com

Friday, March 31, 2017

Blaster Master Zero - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

So... what was Inti Creates and Sunsoft's goal when they set out to make Blaster Master Zero? I'm hesitant to call it a "re-imagining" because Zero contains enough new ideas to feel like a fully fledged sequel to the NES classic, but at the same time it rigorously sticks to old layouts, visuals, and enemies. I definitely had a fun time overall—Inti Creates has yet to disappoint me with their (non-Mighty) 2D efforts—but it left me puzzled as to its purpose. I couldn't help but feel that if it had made up its mind on whether it wants to be a sequel or a remake, my adoration for it would soar past what I can only deem as "nostalgic tepidity".

On all fronts, Blaster Master Zero absolutely nails the presentation. Old areas and enemies are lovingly updated into HD, and the new backgrounds, obstacles, and bosses fit in perfectly with the old crew. The soundtrack utilizes the classic Sunsoft sample channel from the NES, and while it doesn't hit the astral heights of the original OST, there's a handful of worthy tunes that are excellent additions and always a joy to hear. Sound effects are delightfully crunchy and the animations are both flashy and smooth, especially in regards to SOPHIA's devastating final ability. While I had a lot of fun with Blaster Master Overdrive, it doesn't quite capture the look, feel, or tunes of the franchise as perfectly as Zero does.

Even though I dislike how the game is caught somewhere between a sequel and remake, I do respect the care the Zero team put into recreating each level. A number of areas have been more or less translated directly from their original incarnations (Area 1, 8), while others got considerable gameplay tweaks and face-lifts (Area 2, 4, 6, 7) and a few underwent a complete redesign (Area 3, 5). Every stage feels like it properly honors  its original analog, while at the same time trying to do something a little different or new (like adding conveyor belts to the on-foot segments of Area 3). It's both interesting and surprising to run through each level and see what's different versus what's stayed the same (Level 2 is perhaps the only one that feels too different, due to the completely new setting).

Blaster Master Zero falls flat on its face in regards to difficulty, however. Completing the original is an absolutely brutal endeavor to undertake (even with the pause glitch!), while Zero barely puts up a fight the entire game. This is due more to overarching game design than it is the fault of any particular level; health & ammo pick-ups are plentiful and Jason's fully powered-up rifle is insanely strong (rapid fire? Check. Wide shot? Check. Pierces walls? Check.) Limited continues are discarded in favor of a generous checkpoint system, and the game embraces modern Metroidvania design, letting you collate a number of health-ups and shiny new weapons to steamroll through foes with. The lack of difficulty isn't necessarily an egregious mark of shame the game bears, but it is disappointing to play something with Blaster Master in the name when it doesn't bite back—at least chew on my arm a little bit!

The level design feels like a bit of missed opportunity, too. I liked the numerous gimmicks added to the on-foot sections, but the design often doesn't go far enough to make gameplay interesting. For instance, the rising goo section of Area 2 is a cool obstacle but at no point does it feel like it meshes with the gameplay to offer an interesting combat puzzle—most of the time you simply wait for the goo to recede and trudge forward. The same thing happens with the rushing water segments in Area 4 and the moving lifts in Area 5; the game is packed with a whole lot of waiting that gives you absolutely nothing to do but wait. The in-vehicle stages thankfully fair somewhat better in this regard, though your armaments are still strong enough to neutralize most of the enemy placement. The two levels I enjoyed the most were Area 6 and 7, the former for its awesome crystal-ejecting proximity mines that destroy fragile footing, and the latter for its tricky stealth segments, rewarding you for patient play but allowing you to sprint to the next screen should you get caught.

It's cool stuff like that that I wish I saw more of: designs and additions not beholden to the blueprints of the original stages. Blaster Master Zero could've handily stood on its own merits but since it attaches so much of itself to the NES title, I feel like comparisons are unfortunately inevitable. Had your arsenal been powered down to force you to switch weapons more, the level design made meaner to punish sloppy play, and the stages taken on drastically different themes to make the game feel inspired by the original instead of eager to please it, this could've easily stood shoulder to shoulder with the first. Perhaps the Zero shouldn't have aimed to bank so hard on nostalgia or perhaps the game simply needed to include a hard mode—either way, it certainly feels like it's lacking something.

Blaster Master Zero is unquestionably a game for Blaster Master fans. It respects its source of inspiration while building on its foundation, delivering a fun, varied, and solid experience. And yet it really doesn't show much ambition until the very end, content to lay back and stack the firepower in the player's favor, as if its ultimate goal was to bring in new fans. If doing so means that we'll get a sequel I'll retroactively consider this a blessing, but for a game that was supposed to be my dream-team combination (Inti Creates and Sunsoft? YES PLEASE), I can't help but expect just a teeny, tiny bit better from Blaster Master Zero. Maybe someday I'll do a "no power-up" challenge and discover some glittering gold that wasn't there before.

Images obtained from: inticreates.com, youtube.com, dualshockers.com, snailtoothgaming.com

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Contra - Thoughts

Short, sweet, pure, and simple: Contra is a game about few words—all that matters is how quickly you can react to rapidly approaching bullets. It's one of the best games to showcase the merits of the 8-bit era, being easy to pick up but tricky to complete on your first try. Despite the common conception that the Konami Code is required in order to stand a chance, Contra is a surprisingly fair outing, provided you're willing to persevere past your first GAME OVER. With a little bit of patience (plus the Spread Gun by your side), you'll soon transform into a Schwarzenegger-style one-man-army, complete with snarky quips you'll instinctively toss at your television.

Your progression path through Contra isn't as creative as its sequels, but it offers up a solid set of levels. There's a meaty amount of jungle treading, waterfall climbing, snowfield hopping, and industrial hazards to avoid as you blast your way into the (literal) heart of the enemy base. Each level is rigged with various turrets, guards, and runners to slow your sprint through the stages, pushing the player to pay attention to every corner of the screen. What makes each stage design a stroke of genius is that Contra constantly uses verticality, forcing the player along one path while tasking them with being mindful of gunners on the other. This is actually an aspect that's curiously absent from other games in the franchise, and wouldn't appear again until Contra 4 (where it came back with a vengeance).

Where the game stumbles a bit is in the forward-running sequences, though they're not particularly detrimental to the overall experience. I think the best way I can describe them is by spouting a phrase I would've used when I first played it decades ago: they're weird. The gameplay definitely works for the most part—the hitboxes are luckily not as loose as something like Iridion 3D—but it doesn't feel as tight, responsive, or snappy as the rest of the game. That, and the corridors for each facility are completely similar (barring the back wall) so there's not much flavor to these levels outside of the color scheme and boss rooms. However, even these stages adhere to Contra's philosophy of keeping the player on alert, obstacles coming in all shapes and sizes as you focus down the wall's weak points. It's for this reason that they don't feel too out of place or mismatched in this game, despite the glaring perspective change.

Besides the levels requiring both persistence and vigilance to surpass, the power-ups play a pretty significant role in Contra too. A striking design choice that's missing from a lot of modern games nowadays is an intentional imbalancing of weapons: Contra's Spread Gun is far and away the most versatile (and powerful!) ability in the game. The vertical threats in the stage design fold beneath the player when they're granted the ability to attack in an expanding cone, and bosses melt under the shotgun-like blast of the Spread bullets. Couple this with the Rapid Fire pick-up and it becomes fairly easy to make it through the entire game without a death, so long as you remember which traps come next. Compare this to something like the Flame Gun—a weapon with such a low rate of fire that it's almost better to entirely avoid it—and multiple modes of play (and difficulty!) are born from whichever armaments you hold. While it's feasible to finish the game sticking to your standard pea shooter, the sheer might and power of the Spread Gun is one of those lovely little additions that helps Contra stick out amongst its peers.

Perhaps the greatest of Contra's strengths is that it's quick to beat. And by quick, I mean twenty minutes—including deaths! If the game lasted thrice as long I could see its difficulty wearing out the more death-sensitive players (this is actually my main criticism of Hard Corps: Uprising), but the brisk pace of the game aids in enduring its memory, making it an easy title to recommend. It's also one of the reasons why I feel that its difficulty is severely overstated; the time it takes to learn and memorize scores of other NES titles downright eclipses the effort it requires to conquer Contra. I'm not trying to thumb my nose at anyone that has struggled with the game, but Contra definitely could've gone to far darker places if it had any intention of being malicious or time-wasting. It also helps that the final stage feels more like a victory lap than anything, something that the future titles would violently pivot away from.

Lastly, Contra is a fantastic co-op game. Armed with a second player to cover your six, you'll be free to charge forward through the level, effectively doubling the survivability of your squad. And even when one of you falls in combat, Contra's life-stealing system is a clever way to teach trust to young players, allowing them to argue where/when it's appropriate to borrow a player's extra life. It also helps demonstrate that it can be more fun to play together and lose than let one person carry the torch for the sake of winning the game (though I admit I was guilty of convincing my sister of the latter plenty of times). Throw in the fact that there weren't a hell of a lot of simultaneous multiplayer games at the time, and Contra not only stands tall as one of the best action games for the NES, but perhaps its best co-op experience as well.

Contra's difficulty belies its approachability. Beneath the tough, macho veneer is a frantically fun frenzy of bullets, guns, explosions, and shameless Alien ripoffs; I can't fathom how anyone could play the game and outright hate it, unless dying a few times is beyond the pale. It's simple to understand and a joy to play, two qualities which have gradually been lost to gaming as the medium has aged and shed its arcade roots. Contra isn't a leisurely walk through the park but it tends to rewards patience and observation more than it punishes you for not knowing what's coming up next. There's a good reason many look back fondly on Bill & Lance's commando escapade debut—run'n'gun games don't get much more accessible than this.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Silent Hill: Downpour - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

After playing Silent Hill: Downpour, I'm kind of glad the franchise is dead. The quality of the Silent Hill series has been on a downwards trajectory since Origins (some will erroneously claim 4 but that's a different argument for another day), however Downpour is the first title to truly sully the brand. At least with Homecoming you can see that they were earnestly attempting to mimic the greatness of prior entries; Downpour takes the good will of Silent Hill fans and thoroughly crushes it. The momentary glimmers of intrigue fail to outweigh the boorish visuals, thematic bluntness, and despicable combat that await you inside Silent Hill's pitchy swan song.

I'm going to start with the subject that riles me up the most—the monsters. In Silent Hill: Downpour, there's a scant four enemy variants! Only four! Not only that, but three of them are simple humanoids that lack any deformities, gigantism, or grotesqueness that the series is infamous for. I cannot emphasize just how upsetting this is to me; in a franchise full of extremely unnervingfleshy abominations, why is it that Downpour is content to assault the player with this? The final boss of the game is somewhat disturbing but that's the lone exception; Silent Hill Downpour has paradoxically the most boring yet goofiest ensemble of enemies to ever grace a Silent Hill title. Gone are all attempts at subtlety or intricate design made to disgust the player. Scared of mines? Here are some gaunt, hairless trolls! Scared of jail? Here are shirtless prisoners with steel helmets à la Clockwork Orange! Scared of the police? Here is a cop car with barbed wire wrapped around its bumper!

The deliciously rotten mania that pervaded the series is painfully absent here, as Downpour's main character Murphy is as deep as a puddle. The game wants to evoke psychological horror but there's no contextual evidence that Murphy loathed prison or even regretted his jail time. Hell, we're not even given any evidence that his fellow inmates assaulted or scarred him; the only thing they're keen on doing is making dumb remarks before the game even begins. The story attempts to center itself around guilt and regret, two themes which seem apt given Murphy's incarceration, but these topics practically go nowhere outside of a handful of cutscenes. You'll collect scores of documents and complete half a dozen side quests, yet none of these will provide any sort of depth or character to an already paper-thin plot. Most of the notes you collect are rather boring and mundane, failing to color the town of Silent Hill in perverse, weird ways like the other games (they were actually so dull and listless that I couldn't help but think of Extermination as I read them).

The town of Silent Hill itself feels completely abandoned this time around—not eerily abandoned in a way that precisely conveys the unbearable woe at living there, but just... abandoned. Long stretches of silence await you as Murphy ambles through alleyways and treads down vacant streets, momentarily interrupted by enemies that are a cinch to outrun. It may not sound entirely dissimilar from the other games, but I promise that it's a significantly different experience when you play it, one that has left the Silent Hill of yore lame and neutered, now a former shell of its once haunting self. But hey, at least there's sidequests and puzzles to solve around the town!

The handful of houses you can explore for some light puzzle solving is arguably when Downpour is at its best. This isn't because the puzzles are brilliant or novel—I think what's here is pretty good, albeit largely unremarkable—but because any time you have to grapple with the game's terrible combat is when you realize what a mess the gameplay really is. The Silent Hill series has never had good combat, but it was at least tolerable while waiting for the next nightmarish story beat. Downpour on the other hand is too eager to throw the player into gladiatorial scenarios, especially in the game's latter half. Enemies take a pretty hefty beating to put down, your weapons quick to snap against their durable hides whenever they're not constantly blocking, dodging, or scrambling across the ceiling. There's no ebb or flow to the combat; fights are nonsensical and disorganized, highly reminiscent of the worst 2D arcade brawlers.

Outside of the serviceable puzzles and atrocious combat, there's not much left that's able to hold Downpour together. Nearly every item in the world that you come across is a weapon of some kind, and since you can only hold one you rarely feel the need to explore once you settle on something better than a stick. The design of the otherworld has its moments at times, but feels less like the rusted bowels of Hell and more like an Alice in Wonderland spinoff, complete with sideways stairs and kooky clock dials to cross. There's a strange, unexplained void that shows up every now and then to prompt chase sequences, which don't feel like they follow any kind of logic since the void can maneuver through physical barriers (for instance, if you head up a U-shaped flight of stairs it's likely to start sapping your health through the floor below). These sequences feel phenomenally dumb to play, as if an executive from Konami complained that Silent Hill wasn't cinematic enough and needed more scripted sequences and QTEs (which I forgot to mention—there's QTEs!) I found myself murmuring "well at least there are otherworld sections" in defense of this game, which is about the time I realized how low the bar had fallen for the franchise.

Silent Hill: Downpour is what I would best describe as "amateur fan fiction come to life". It tries to tick all of the boxes of what one might imagine Silent Hill to be: a tortured main character, spooky monsters, foggy town, multiple endings—but it lacks the nuance and craft the prior entries had mastered. It doesn't seek to carve its own path but merely vaguely imitate its predecessors, misunderstanding how important the concepts of unease and dread are to the franchise. Downpour is not a disgrace the same way Duke Nukem Forever is, but it's a soulless step down from greatness, a Korn to Silent Hill 2's Nirvana (speaking of, Korn composed the theme song to this game—a fitting union in retrospect!) The best way to describe how abysmal the game is is to walk you through how it squandered a good scare:

Inside of the Silent Hill monastery, there's a theater stage that has a witch's house prop from a Hansel & Gretel play. Inside of the house, there's an old chest that's locked by a puzzle, wherein you're trying to rotate the cubes on a grid until they form the portrait of a young girl sitting on a beach. In the center of the frame is the girl's doll, its smiling grimace squarely positioned on its own cube. After completing the picture I found that the chest still wasn't unlocking, and that's when I realized I had to rotate the head of the girl's doll to its true face. With a trepidatious hand I selected the cube with the doll and slowly spun it... to reveal a part of the girl's body I had placed elsewhere. Turns out what I had actually mistaken was a cube on the girl's left foot for her right foot, and simply needed to rotate that to complete the picture. After grabbing what I needed and leaving, the real "surprise" I received was when the house prop collapsed behind me, revealing that the structure had been two-dimensional the entire time! I couldn't help but chuckle, musing how this revelation was the perfect analogy for this game.

Images obtained from: silenthillmemories.net, gamester81.com, rocketchainsaw.com, silenthill.wikia.com