Sunday, February 26, 2017
There aren't a lot of games that have animal companions. It's kind of a strange fact if you think about it—a huge number of people have experience with rearing or at least taking care of a pet, but our nonhuman buddies are often neglected, sidelined, or forgotten in video games. I mean, quantifiably there's Dogmeat, Epona, and... various pokemon? Hell I'm almost tempted to say I can name more pivotal robot characters than animal ones! I don't bring this up to specifically disparage the state of pets in the video game industry, but rather as a way to emphasize just how utterly unique The Last Guardian feels. Gone are waypoints, HUD elements, skill trees, and upgrades; The Last Guardian is a subdued journey about you and your feathered friend seeking freedom together, learning to rely on one another in order to escape the confines of a beautiful—and unbelievably cruel—stone sanctuary.
There is a slight addendum to my claim about The Last Guardian's uniqueness—the game alarmingly resembles Team Ico's debut, Ico. Both games share similar tribal worlds, earthen fortress settings, restrained soundtracks, and muted stories. This isn't even taking the gameplay into account, which, in spite of the size disparity of Trico and Yorda, is heavily dependent on environmental puzzles and finding ways to safely scale gargantuan buildings. From mood alone I would argue that The Last Guardian is as much as a spiritual successor to Ico as Demon's Souls is to Dark Souls. In case you're wondering why I'm harping on their similarities so much, it's predominantly because your feelings on one game will likely predict your feelings on the other.
For instance, I greatly appreciate Ico, but man, do I not enjoy playing it. The same is true here; controlling the boy in The Last Guardian is like piloting a drunken, magnetized child at times, especially when the action gets frantic. In some ways it can aid the authenticity of the gameplay—the "scripted" sequences that would feel safe in something like Uncharted are far more real and prone to error here, every jump resulting in an unknown outcome (more than once the game went into epic slow motion during a leap that nevertheless lead to my death). But whenever you miscalculate your fiddly jump trajectory or inexplicably find yourself glued to Trico despite hammering the cross button, frustration will start to build and your tolerance for the game's wonkiness can quickly drop. I still firmly believe The Last Guardian is worth experiencing in spite of its faults, it's just that as a video game it's a pretty rough product (the framerate goes on a pretty wild roller coaster ride). I liken it best to an art film like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, where I'm left breathless by its brilliant style, but find it hard to claim that my overall experience resembled anything "fun".
But The Last Guardian doesn't need to be fun to be good—in fact, the tone throughout the majority of the game is decidedly un-fun; in spite of the bright, friendly mood the game projects, The Last Guardian is actually one of the darkest, most melancholy games I think I've ever played. It may not be immediately apparent during its introduction, but a huge amount of the game is spent helplessly watching your innocent companion get stabbed with spears, fall off of buildings, and fight against its bestial instincts. Rather than being placed in the shoes of the muscle-bound hero that's determined to save his (typically female) partner, The Last Guardian's child is a feeble bystander to many of the horrific events that play out, only able to console the beleaguered beast with soft words and gentle rubs after the action has subsided. And in typical Team Ico fashion, the game gets resoundingly brutal at the end; expect to clutch your pet close after the credits roll.
The big reason the game is so proficient at evoking pathos is due to how realistic the mythical monster feels. The animations string together to form a very smooth and very lifelike creature; Trico hops like a bird, moans like a dog, and is often obstinate like a cat. It's kind of a stroke of genius to portray your ally as a clueless pet, because it narratively masks any AI pathing discrepancies you'll notice when trying to lure Trico from one place to the next. Frustrated that your pal refuses to stand on its hind legs to boost you up to a nearby window? Well you shouldn't expect a wild animal to follow all your orders on the first day it meets you! Don't get me wrong—you'll still get vexed when Trico doesn't do what you want it to do—but this explanation is a useful way to get you to treat your companion less like a faulty string of algorithms and more like a clumsy, silly, gentle friend.
Spending time in the more quiet moments of the game with Trico is where the The Last Guardian really shines, especially when you're in one of the game's many stunning outdoor environments. Coincidentally though, this is typically when you're interacting with it the least. Besides the mechanical problems with your player character, I don't really have a lot of love or appreciation for the puzzles here either—nearly every challenge exists to obfuscate your progression. Puzzles by definition serve that very purpose, but the quandaries here are more naked and blunt, like looking for a ladder out of reach or finding a ledge for Trico to jump to. There are definitely some inventive solutions to uncover along the way, as well as some pretty wild predicaments you'll find yourself uncomfortably thrust into, but the game isn't quite as mentally stimulating as I was hoping it would be (which I admit can be a tall order—hell, I managed to find Portal 2 disappointing).
There's a lot of clunkiness to The Last Guardian that clearly distinguishes it as a game caught between generations. It's a title I wouldn't advise to anyone that looks down upon "walking sims" or "video game stories" with scorn, as I would hesitate to call any of its gameplay engaging in and of itself. But The Last Guardian isn't (and needn't be) entirely concerned with the moment-to-moment details of its mechanics; Team Ico's laconic masterpiece knows precisely what it wants to do and executes on its premise flawlessly. It's a game with tremendous heart, passion, and vision; The Last Guardian might not be an enthralling video game, but it stands tall as a gorgeously crafted piece of art that will rend your heart to ribbons.
Images obtained from: wikipedia.org, segmentnext.com, gametransfers.com, playstationlifestyle.net
Saturday, February 18, 2017
[contains minor spoilers]
Exceedingly rare is it for the newest entry in a franchise to not only properly honor its inspirations, but to also outclass them with such finesse that it practically stands in a league of its own. There are very few games capable of this feat—I think Mega Man 9/10 and Gradius V arguably achieve this—but there is no greater disparity between the quality of the old entries and the new as there is with Ultimate Ghosts 'n Goblins and its ancestors. Ultimate G'nG is the game that I always wanted the series to be: quick, bright, fun, with the right amount of challenge...
... At least, that's what I thought after I had finished the first stage. Having finally reached the true ending, I must confess that I was utterly incorrect; Ultimate Ghosts 'n Goblins is the most bloodthirsty, cruel, and violently unfun game of the bunch.
The weird thing is that it's not the hardest entry in the series—that honor still belongs Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts, mainly due to its monstrous final stage. However what makes Ultimate G'nG so much more horrifying is that instead of having to resume from a checkpoint after you die, you restart right where you were slain, provided you have the extra lives to do so. "How does this make the game bad then?" I can hear you naively cluck, not realizing that the designers account for this new checkpoint system and absolutely flood the stages with enemies and hazards, every single screen a multi-pronged attack on poor Arthur. Prepare to be bombarded by nimble foes from several directions while you wait for slow moving platforms to ferry you across bottomless chasms, death a more likely outcome than any other game in the franchise. It's less of a test of endurance like the previous games were and more a cavalcade of bullshit you're forced to wade through, eating loss after loss as you struggle to reach the next stage. Most levels aren't too grueling to survive, but the back-to-back brutality of Stage 2-2 and 3-1 will most assuredly have you empathizing with my plight.
Oh but this isn't the worst part of Ultimate G'nG—oh no, not by a long shot. That only comes after you finish the game and are forced to go back to the beginning to replay it again. "Oh but that's what the other games did!" You brazenly bleat, without understanding that you have to pick up 22 rings randomly scattered throughout the game to reach the last boss. And when I say "random" I mean random: the rings are not hinted at, they're not shown on the map, and the game refuses to tell you anything other than the total amount you have. Did you acquire 21 rings but don't know what stage to visit for that final elusive one? Tough luck, you'll just have keep exploring until you spot it near some bottomless pit or free it from one of the game's many tombstones!
And yet, somehow, it gets worse—after crushing the faux-final boss, you're sent back again to pick up 11 more rings, 5 of which are obtainable only after collecting all of the red chests in every stage. "That does sound pretty bad..." I catch you murmuring, despite that you cannot truly grasp the overwhelming amount of misery this task burdens you with. To open a red chest, you have to touch a minuscule, invisible tag somewhere on the level that will then cause the red chest to appear so you can open it. With the rings you could at least see where they are; to activate the chests you'll have to dive into pits, enemies, and traps, and I assure you I'm not exaggerating—the tags actually are located near the bottom of pits and inside enemy spawn points! It's just such an insane, dolorous, time-wasting requirement that it drains any and all enjoyment you'll feel for the game. I've had to put up with a lot of odious design in plenty of video games before (triforce hunting anyone?), but this might just take the cake.
(EDIT: Just kidding I forgot La Mulana exists)
What frustrates me to no end is that Ultimate G'nG is, at its core, the best Ghosts 'n Goblins game in the series. The introduction I wrote above was not a red herring; Ultimate G'nG feels phenomenal to play, bringing back the fiery arcade action that was present in the Genesis title. It looks great in motion on the PSP (with fairly stable frame rate to boot!), and despite the stupidly high frequency and durability of some of its enemies, the stages are cleverly crafted and contain some neat tricks. The ghostly hay castle at the end of Stage 2-2 is both terrifying and alluring, an other-worldly setting that's exactly what I want out of a G'nG game. The bosses are all excellently designed as well, once again following in Ghouls 'n Ghosts' footsteps of prioritizing sharp reactions over mashing the attack button as fast as you can. I cannot stress enough how promising this game starts, before it begins to vindictively claw at your good will and drag you into hell with its obnoxious ring collecting.
This vile little title gets me so fired up that I forgot to mention that it shifts genres from action platformer to a metroidvania, now allowing you to revisit older stages to pick up spells and abilities you may have missed. While it's an interesting addition (it's pretty nice to be able to choose which spells to use for a particularly tough sections of a stage), the game absolutely stumbles with this, making poor decision after poor decision. For instance, you can only save the game after you finish a stage, meaning that any goodies you find in a level will require you to reach the end to keep them. That, or you can simply use a warp staff to go to the Red Witch's Lair and finish Stage 1-1 in a matter of seconds, which is something you're going to be doing constantly, especially when you're on the hunt for the red chests. Oh, but if you accidentally pick up a terrible weapon you get to hold onto that even if you restart a stage! Speaking of, why can't you collect weapons and swap them on the fly? And why in god's name do the warp staffs disappear in the second playthrough? You're already forcing me to replay through the game to collect all the rings, you don't need to make me jump into a pit again to pick up the Stage 4 warp staff!
I have so many minor grievances that I don't even know when to stop complaining. An interesting addition to the overall game is the dragon shield, a tool that effectively lets you fly for a limited time. I both love it and hate it: love it because it lets the player skip so many awful parts in the levels (like the ghost platforms in Stage 2-2 [why does dying reset your position and force you to ride them all over again?! Why?!]), but I hate it because it outright kills the "platforming" part of the game the series is known for. You never have to double jump again as long as you have the ability to fly over all obstacles, but try and use the dragon shield like a shield and it'll likely shatter, forcing you to find another one somewhere in the world. Shield durability is another absurd inclusion because you always use it when you duck, which means you're always putting your dragon shield at risk every time you try to avoid an enemy overhead. And it's not that hard to find a new one either—it's just extremely inconvenient.
You know, that's actually a good way to sum up a lot of design decisions in Ultimate G'nG—arbitrarily inconvenient. Like, why do the loading screens of secret areas double as stage checkpoints? Where is the challenge in the final boss rush if the game checkpoints you after every boss? Why do I have to mash the d-pad every time one of those accursed flying fish latch onto me? Why can't I use magic without my armor? Why do the transformations last so goddamn long?! It's like there was no rhyme or reason to the myriad of bad ideas here—the developers simply threw everything they could into the game and hoped it all worked out for the best. The one—one—thing I will acknowledge that could reverse my low opinion of this game is a playthrough of Ultimate Ghosts 'n Goblins Kai, a Japan-only release that rebalanced the game to be more like the traditional titles... but seeing as I only have the vanilla version in my library, that will have to wait for another day.
The Ghosts 'n Goblins titles are exemplary at showcasing why awful game design can ruin excellent gameplay systems. Each of them have their own strengths and weaknesses, by and large being decent platformers that can be fun to overcome depending on your tolerance for pain. Oddly it's the newest entry that's the most sadistic, Ultimate Ghosts 'n Goblins' stupendous controls and presentation strangled by a legion of incomprehensible (and downright spiteful) design decisions. Ultimate Ghosts 'n Goblins is—as corny as it sounds—the ultimate disappointment.
Images obtained from: gamefaqs.com, playstation.com, gearlive.com
Tuesday, February 7, 2017
Just like Metroid, Star Fox is a franchise where the one thing the fans desire most is a sequel with classic design sensibilities: no cutscene-laden story, no gimmicks, no slew of bonus modes—just basic but engaging arcadey corridor shooting. And similar to Metroid, Star Fox is a franchise that is overtly content to ignore these pleas, instead focusing on brainstorming new ideas that might reinvigorate the series. Star Fox Zero is the newest game in a franchise now synonymous with disappointment, the sleek on-rails sections weighed down by motion controls, plodding vehicles, and a universe too familiar to feel remarkable. I understand wanting to reach a broader audience with a storied, established Nintendo IP, but uhhh...
... how hard is it to make another good Star Fox game?
Star Fox Zero isn't without its merits of course, but it boggles my mind how Nintendo simply won't return to the series' roots. The first two games were great because they were solid on-rails shooters that took you across the galaxy, each planet and space sector a new, colorful challenge to survive. And then came Star Fox Adventures... and Star Fox Assault... and Star Fox Command... all of which tried to take a different approach on the Star Fox framework, but ultimately couldn't rise above mediocrity. Each game peaks with the Arwing sections, where you're flying around with Fox & co., gunning down pompous critters that jeer at you with cartoonish temerity—but miscellaneous design decisions overshadow these high times, ultimately burying it beneath a sea of half-baked debris.
Star Fox Zero fares no differently in this regard.
I definitely admire Nintendo's attempt to go back to their roots and recreate Star Fox 64, but this game paradoxically stays too close to it yet at the same time veers too far. Most of the planets, characters, chatter, music, enemies, bosses, and structure is directly modeled after 64, the space-time portals being perhaps the only twist added to the campaign (and they're not even utilized all that much). It can be fun to explore the HD renditions of Corneria and Titania, but there's a prevailing sense of "been here, done that" throughout the entire game. As I stated before, part of the appeal of Star Fox was that every planet was a new horizon you got to zoom through at high speed; Star Fox Zero's lone contribution to the anthropomorphic galaxy is a Halo-esque ring you don't even get to explore properly.
However unfortunate it is that Star Fox Zero opts to copy so much from Star Fox 64's blueprints, nearly everything new Zero brings to the table is categorically worse. The control scheme has been clumsily fitted around gyroscopic aiming which makes no sense—both hands are already going to be busy maneuvering the Arwing so taking time to physically look down at the Wii U pad and pivot your wrists for more precise aiming just flat-out does not work well. I would be perfectly happy to ignore it for most of the game except that camera control is constantly wrestled away from the player on the TV screen, and certain battles are an arduous waste of time if you ignore the manual aiming. During my four hours with the title I kinda got used to it, but I would've been far more satisfied with a traditional control scheme, delegating the Wii U pad to a minimap that I could've ordered my allies on or denoted spots for Great Fox to drop supplies or something (I suspect it would've saved the game some frames it desperately needed too, as Zero runs worse than 64).
Star Fox Zero's worst addition is undoubtedly the Gyrowing, a slow moving copter that drops down a dinky, tethered robot that can hack into terminals—does any of that scream Star Fox to you? I felt like I was losing my mind in Zonness as I was pausing for searchlights to pass, carefully dropping explosive boxes on robots, and hacking into reactor cores. Hacking!! I kept asking myself, "is this really what Star Fox has become? Did anyone actually want this?" It was like playing Call's mission from Mighty No. 9 all over again, except Comcept's slip-up can be explained by their amateur incompetence, whereas Nintendo should've straight-up known better. The Gyrowing is only present in two missions, but its mere inclusion remains a thing of bewilderment. I don't think the walker mode for the Arwing fares significantly better, but at least it resembles Star Fox to a degree.
As if I haven't berated this game enough, the focus on all-range mode segments is another topic of contention. There's literally 0 on-rails bosses! Most of the all-range bosses are a pain in the ass to battle as well, since they're too easy to fly into (Dodora, Attack Carrier), or they have profoundly frustrating attacks (Aquarosa, the final boss), or their weak points are revealed too infrequently (Scrapworm, ATTACK CARRIER). Star Wolf is thankfully always a thrill to dogfight with, but they make up only a handful of encounters out of the entire game. Besides that, I also think there are too few unique stages in the game, and having every path end with the same final three worlds & bosses is a huge bummer. There's a myriad of other small things that bothered me—like why don't I keep laser power-ups between stages, even in Arcade mode?—but I suppose I've spent enough time ragging on this entry; I spew this aggressive vitriol not out of hate, but out of sheer frustration for a series that I dearly wish to love once more.
Star Fox Zero attempts to be some kind of spiritual remake of Star Fox 64, but there's too much residual DNA from the other games for it to remain a pure breed of space shooter. It's a shame too, because as misdirected as Zero is, I think Nintendo gave it their best shot, and due to the way it sold there's not likely to be another Star Fox game with this much commitment and polish for a long while. Perhaps it's for the best though; the premise of Star Fox is perfectly suited for a downloadable title, and should Nintendo remember that on-rails games can be fun without the need for filler or padding, then maybe there's hope for it in the future yet...
... but it's not something I'm going to hold my breath for—I've learned that lesson years ago.
Images obtained from: nintendo.com, meristation.com, VentureBeat.com, metro.co.uk