Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Divinity: Original Sin - Thoughts

Divinity: Original Sin is a game about casting magic. People might claim that there's a story in the game, or that there's a large number of quests and puzzles to complete, or that you can get a skill that lets you talk to animals—but these are all distractions. Divinity exists to ask a single question of you: what spell do you use next? It might seem boring to repeatedly badger the player with such a simple inquiry—especially over the game's 50 hour runtime—but this question is the cornerstone of every role playing combat system. And as Larian Studios demonstrates, when you decide to make it your focus, you can produce a gameplay system that's deep, flexible, and spectacular.

I need to explain that when I say Divinity: Original Sin is all about its magic, this is both true and not true. Yeah, there's a narrative you can follow with plenty of locales and characters and sardonic quips, but it's not exceptional by any means. The world in Divinity is best described as goofy—it's rarely ashamed to poke fun at itself and skews more towards humor than grittiness with its writing. There are grim sections to the game but these are often counterbalanced by bouts of weirdness and silliness; Divinity's world feels like fan-fantasy, made by folks that adore Tolkien but prefer not being so self-serious. That, and there's rarely anything that breaks out of the stereotypical fantasy mold. Orcs are orcs and humans are humans—I think the goblin design is the only thing that struck me as particularly uncanny.

The puzzles and quest design on the other hand are a really mixed bag. There's a lot of sections in the game that are cool and well-done, but when you get stuck at a puzzle, prepare to bang your head against a wall over and over. The quest log becomes a mess of unhelpful text and it can be difficult trying to figure out how to accomplish your objective. It doesn't help that online guides are fairly inconsistent too, sometimes providing vague or conflicting information. I was able to beat it—thankfully—but there were a handful of rough patches that deterred my enjoyment (the stealth sections were a major drag).

To Divinity's credit, its boldness is admirable. It tries its damnedest to offer the player multiple avenues to solve problems, allowing them to attack, barter, or search their way into a solution. I also like the unconventional design of some of the puzzles, like the one that required you to balance weights via various knickknacks in your inventory. When Divinity works it works well, but when it doesn't you're often left confused and annoyed. The end of the game in particular gets very constrictive, requiring precise answers to its puzzles and punishing you should you choose to ignore the perception stat (which is largely useless for the majority of the game).

But ah, once you enter into combat, oh what a glorious landscape of death and destruction you'll weave! Divinity's four elements have the ability to affect the landscape, transforming the grassy earth into a sea of fire or a lake of ice. This, combined with the massive slew of buffs and debuffs, is what makes combat so immensely satisfying to partake in. Though you start with a meager list of abilities in the beginning, by mid-game you'll have a vast repertoire of spells to sift through, trying to consider whether it'd be better to summon a minion, stun an opponent, or lob an elemental grenade (the correct answer is "summon a minion"—ABS: Always Be Summoning!) There are eight schools of "magic" a character can learn from, each containing around fifteen spells, and most of these abilities will see a healthy amount of use on the battlefield. What's cool too is that you can decide whether you want to go "deep" or "broad" with each school, letting you build a battle-mage or necromantic-thief if you so wish.

The core problems a lot of RPGs face is how do you avoid the player playing in a "loop"—that is to say, how do you discourage them from making the same decision for every encounter? Divinity solves this by not only making every battle unique, but cleverly balancing its abilities such that you never feel there's an "optimal" way to handle each scuffle. So let's say you're fighting a troll, and it used its first turn to close in on your warrior and fortify itself, granting it additional armor. With a four person squad, you have a lot of different options to consider*: do you try and lower the trolls armor? Haste your wizard so they can fling numerous immobilizing attacks at it? Improve your warrior's damage & accuracy so they can tear through the heightened defenses? Or maybe you teleport your warrior backwards and create a field of oil, so the troll will waste his turn trudging through it, only to eat a fireball next turn, which will subsequently set the oil ablaze? All of these are equally viable solutions on paper, but it varies depending on unit positioning, turn order, and the gear they have equipped. Rarely will you find yourself wading into a brawl you've accurately foreseen the outcome to—expect some craziness every encounter.

The final feature of Divinity that I think really sells it is that you can play through the entire campaign cooperatively. It's fun not only to have someone to chat with, but to also have a second layer of unpredictability to the combat, requiring you to adjust your playstyle around your partner's actions. For instance, my brother controlled a ranger and a tank while I helmed two different wizards, forcing me to juggle between attacking and strengthening his characters depending on their position. Occasionally our tactics led to some impromptu-hilarity, like when we were surrounded by goblins and I asked him to "forgive me" right before throwing a friendly-fire shrapnel grenade at the feet of our characters (pictured below). There's also a cool mechanic where you can disagree with a player's choice and play a game of rock-paper-scissors to overrule them, though it gets old pretty fast.

Divinity: Original Sin is one of many examples of why CRPGs are far from dead. If you're like me, you might be put-off from the idea of playing an RPG in spite of its story, but Divinity's combat is something that should not be missed. It constantly challenges you to think wisely, pushing you to question the spells you've picked for grimoire and weighing the risk of one attack versus another. Could charming the boss's minion change the tide of battle? What about hasting your tank, even though it'll set them on fire? Should you fire that explosive arrow into cluster of bleeding zombies, which will do extra AoE damage but then obscure your ranger's vision with a cloud of smoke? The limitless paths each battle can take is what kept me coming back to Divinity, and what I will remember it fondest for.

*Just kidding—Always Be Summoning!

Friday, October 20, 2017

Metroid Prime - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

Back in 2001, I thought it was impossible to render Super Metroid properly into the 3D world. Super Mario 64 & Ocarina of Time turned out to be superb games—don't get me wrong—but they faced inherently different hurdles than those intended for Nintendo's shoulder pad-clad bounty hunter. Super Metroid was fast, fluid, and moody, placing a massive emphasis on exploration and atmosphere, featuring both fantastical creatures and labyrinthine locations. When Metroid Prime was described as a "First Person Adventure Game", I imagine that I must've guffawed heartily at reading that, confident that the developers behind Turok were on the verge of ruining one of my favorite franchises.

Evidently, that was probably the most wrong I've been regarding a video game in my entire life. Not only is Metroid Prime a masterpiece of video game design, but it is the perfect rendition of Super Metroid into the third dimension. It takes an appropriate amount of nods from its predecessors while simultaneously carving its own bold path, framing the world of Metroid through an immersive first person perspective. Retro Studios understood what made the world of Super Metroid tick: they nailed the combat, scaled gaining power through items appropriately, and captured the feeling of being isolated on a gorgeous alien planet—even the music and sound effects were on point! Against all odds, Metroid Prime became the best single player experience you can have on the Gamecube, bar none.

I feel bad for constantly comparing Metroid Prime to Super Metroid, but the way Prime directly honors its forebearer without copying it is worth inspection. Both games open the same way, thrusting Samus onto a derelict space station that closes out with a timed escape section. But the experiences are largely dissimilar—Super's vessel is a brief sprint and faux-boss fight, while Prime's frigate is significantly larger and alludes to the story to come. Aboard the desolate space pirate facility you'll learn the fundamentals of both combat and scanning, the latter of which is the most inventive addition Prime contributes to the Metroid universe.

I heap massive amounts of praise on the Souls series for its environmental storytelling, but Metroid Prime is one of the earliest 3D pioneers of the style (to my knowledge). The plot in Prime aims to be so unobtrusive that it's practically tucked away—hell, you'll only encounter 2-3 lore entries regarding its titular antagonist. But if you seek this information out, you'll be well-rewarded with a fairly interesting story that's more about the methodology of the space pirates than the history of Phazon. There's so many quirky details that help to distinguish the pirates apart from other intergalactic menaces, from the way they meticulously log the successes of their brutal Phazon experiments, to the human-like errors they constantly make (eg keeping the local fauna as pets and teasing captive metroids). They're both alarmingly competent and hilariously buffoonish, being able to replicate Samus's weaponry in one experiment but fatally crushing their Morph Ball test subjects in another. The way they blatantly disregard life all for the sake of research and progress is a fascinating quality to add to a group of enemies that previously had no traits besides being "evil".

The scanning system is the most novel idea in Metroid Prime because it allows the player to dive into the lore and biology of the world according to their whim. You can scan the local flora to discover that some of it has evolved to produce a volatile chemical in order to ward off animals, or you can just shoot the glowing sac and observe it exploding without ever understand why it does that. Metroid Prime provides plenty of reasons for its silly and archaic game design (like that most technology is manually activated in order to avoid the dangers of a network-wide security hack), a touch I personally love. Being able to research the wildlife and uncover the lore of the Chozo without having the game relay this information in a mandatory cutscene places the power of discovery into the hands of the player, which is what Metroid has always been about.

This is primarily why I say that Metroid Prime understands what made Super Metroid special: Retro Studios knew to put exploration front and center, relegating combat off to the side. The combat (and challenge) of the game is still important—and there's some pretty fun fights to be had—but the priority was on immersing the player in a living, breathing world with its own culture, identity, and history. Most of the non-space pirate foes aren't all that dangerous, but they're far more unique and interesting—creatures like the Plazmite, Triclops, and Jelzap are creative in a way that humanoid enemies can't be. Of course, a huge reason for why the world of Tallon IV is so compelling is that the art direction is impeccable; I'd contest that the visual style of Metroid Prime is just as memorable as its highly lauded soundtrack. Seriously, go check out the concept art for some really stellar sketches.

Returning to the Super Metroid comparison, Prime adheres to its basic world structure (five large interlocking areas) but mixes up the general theming, discarding the underwater and vegetative zones for some wasteland ruins and a frozen canyon. There are similar beats here and there but for the most part Metroid Prime operates according to its own rule book; one of my favorite sections in the game is the underwater journey through the crashed frigate from the opening act, harkening back to the Wrecked Ship in Super Metroid but replacing "dread" with "tranquility". There are moments that are meant to invoke Super Metroid (the Lower Norfair melody, power bombing the cracked tunnel, using the grapple beam on a Glider), but they act more like classic call-backs rather than aped design tropes. For instance, power bombing the tunnel rewards you with a completely new ice+missile combo attack rather than allowing you to traverse into a new area. Likewise, you only need to use the grapple beam on a Glider for an optional missile expansion—never to complete the game.

For all the merits I could heap onto Metroid Prime's design (trust me, I could go on for a while), I have to discuss the three shortcomings I feel the game has. The first is that most missile expansion & energy tank puzzles are relatively simplistic, but this complaint is somewhat excusable considering Metroid Prime is the franchise's first foray into 3D. My second grievance is a bit more particular: enemies on Hard have too much health. I appreciate the amount of damage they deal to Samus, but the tankiness of the later foes and bosses reveal the weaknesses of the combat, namely that there's not a lot of variety—all of the beam troopers act the same way and most of the endgame bosses prefer to spam the "expanding ground ring" attack (which is a cinch to jump over). This isn't an egregious problem on Normal, but Metroidvanias thrive in their Hard modes, forcing you to scavenge for every little pick-up in order to gain an edge in combat.

My third point of contention—and the most serious one—is that collecting the Chozo Artifacts is a bore. They might be interesting to sniff out on a first playthrough but there's no optimal path to acquiring all of them outside of abusing glitches. The biggest offender is Phendrana Drifts: all three of its Chozo Artifacts are scattered in entirely different locations, each requiring the final beam in order to obtain. Had the player been given the opportunity to nab them over the course of the main adventure (like the Chozo Artifacts in Magmoor Caverns) I would rescind my complaint, but this backtracking unnecessarily pads out the length of the game, especially considering that you do enough backtracking as-is to get the regular power-ups. Artifact collecting a boring endeavor that shouldn't be compulsory—leave the repetitive backtracking for the completionists.

This comes as such a major disappointment to me because—similar to Wind Waker—some of the game's strongest moments come at the end. The final area is unnerving in that special way only Metroid can be, and the final boss is my favorite in the entire series (the first form specifically). Gating such a spectacular climax behind a ho-hum scavenger hunt is nothing less than tragic, but I suppose a silver lining is that exploring the world is rarely boring. Part of this is due to how every room feels necessary and purposeful, but I think an even better reason is that Samus is just plain fun to control. Her speed and jump height feel perfectly tailored for the Tallon IV sojourn, and the platforming and morph ball sections rarely become annoying. The sublime quality of the controls really caps off what a fantastic game Metroid Prime is; every aspect has been expertly honed in order to craft a truly unforgettable adventure.

As I was replaying Metroid Prime, I found myself repeatedly exclaiming, "this is a really cool idea!" It's a game that continued to surprise me even on my sixth playthrough, new details and clever design decisions awaiting around every corner. Had obtaining the Chozo Artifacts been more streamlined (or made so you only needed 3/4ths of them), the case could be made that this is the definitive Metroid experience. Unfortunately, Super Metroid is a high bar to pass (did I mention it's my favorite game of all time?) so Metroid Prime has to settle for being the "astoundingly good with exceptional design" runner-up. I have my doubts that the Metroid franchise can reach these astronomical heights again, but hey—I've been wrong before.

Images obtained from: metroid.retropixels.net, Giantbomb.com

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Cuphead - Thoughts

Treasure—one of gaming's most unique and creative developers—may be essentially derelict nowadays, but Studio MDHR is proudly carrying the torch with their stunning debut, Cuphead. The brief trailer snippet of it from Microsoft's E3 2014 press conference was a surprise highlight of the show, and from that moment on the Moldenhauer brothers had a lot of eyes on them. This is important to mention because there was significant pressure for Cuphead to be good. And not just for the game to look good—it had that ever since its reveal—but for the game to play well and be fun too. After all, there's nothing quite as tragic as a game that's all style but no substance.

Not only did Studio MDHR deliver with aplomb, but they're successfully reintroducing gamers to what made so many platformers in the 90's great: smooth controls and hilarious creativity.

I brought up the high expectations for Cuphead because there were a lot of ways the game could've failed. Naturally there's a number of ways any game can fail, but when you label yourself as a "run and gun boss rush platformer", there's a few critical questions you have to be wary of: how do you avoid the game feeling too short? How do you keep the gameplay fresh? How do you make every boss distinct? And perhaps most importantly—how do you find the sweet spot in difficulty? I suspect that folks that watch game trailers don't often wonder, "Gee I hope this won't be too hard", but Cuphead seemed to have the Souls effect, where myriads of gamers were hesitant of its perceived difficulty.

Fortunately, Studio MDHR had spent so much time in development that the game is practically flawless. All of the questions above have been suitably answered: Cuphead lands in that comfortable "not too long, not too short" Goldilocks zone. The gameplay is refreshingly split up between overworld exploration, bosses of the platforming & shmup variety, and a handful of run and gun stages. The bosses are distinct via their memorable attacks, sharp visuals, and zany themes. And the difficulty is on point—it's hard enough to make you sweat, but never give up. I cannot emphasize how amazing it is that the developers got everything right in this game; the stars above had perfectly aligned to give us an amazing experience where you shoot a tangerine genie that wears magic lamps for shoes.

I would be sorely remiss if I didn't mention how wonderfully demented the animation in Cuphead is. The way the animation team stuck to the tropes, shapes, and motion of cartoons in the 1930's is brilliant; fighting a boss that can transform into an airplane mid-battle or turn their teeth into the bars of a prison cell is an utter delight to behold. The style is both wacky and imaginative, providing unexpected gameplay twists that will often make you laugh—usually right before you die.

And the music! How often do you hear a big jazz band play for the entire soundtrack? What's even crazier is that the quick pace and explosive energy of the music fits like a glove, keeping you on your toes as trumpets blare during tense moments. The sound effects are likewise a perfect addition, giving flavor to bosses through silly dialogue and slide whistles. The sheer amount of focus and effort put into making Cuphead properly honor old timey cartoons is breathtaking; the production quality displayed here is on par with AAA games.

I've been so enthralled with the aesthetics of Cuphead that I forgot to mention that the gameplay is really fun too. The Treasure comparison in the first paragraph isn't merely for show—the game takes its most obvious cues from Gunstar Heroes, from customizing your weapon load-outs to the outlandish multi-transformation bosses. But the way the game comes together gives it its own unique identity, especially in regards to the fairly tricky jump-parry mechanic. And there's more to Cuphead than its exquisite bosses (though they clearly steal the show); there's nutty Inkwell inhabitants to chat with and side-scrolling stages to stomp through. Throw in a repertoire of purchasable abilities, Expert mode, and a tough-as-nails ranking system, and Cuphead's $20 price tag suddenly turns into a bargain deal.

The only downside I can think of to Cuphead is that it isn't too accommodating for players unaccustomed to 2D platformers. It's a kind of merciless experience that some will be afraid to touch, but I 'd contest that the brevity of the battles turns failure into little more than a minuscule hurdle. If you can stomach memorizing a couple boss patterns, you're bound to have a swell time. Cuphead is a dream-come-true for everyone that mourns Treasure's inactivity; it's charming, challenging, and a straight-up hoot—don't you dare skip out on the star indie game of 2017.

Title obtained from: xbox.com