Tuesday, June 27, 2017
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
[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 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.