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.
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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.

However,

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".
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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 let's 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's 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.