Sunday, December 31, 2017

Five Games I Enjoyed in 2017 - Opinion

2017 was brutal for the wallets of many video game enthusiasts. Just look at what we were hammered with in the first quarter: Resident Evil, Yakuza, Horizon, NieR, Nioh, Zelda... and this is all before Persona even landed! The latter half of the year was no slouch either, with many indie games stepping up to bat amidst the bigger budget experiences. This was a year of multiple titanic titles duking it out for Top 10 lists... and a year where I kinda gave-up halfway through. Not because I got bored of gaming, oh no!—I just fell behind and failed to catch up. Because of that, it's important to note that there's a whole swathe of contenders that could've been on this list, but aren't, simply due to a lack of time (chief among these being Wolfenstein II, Hollow Knight, NieR... and like, a dozen others).

Now then, on with the accolades!


5 - CUPHEAD
As a big fan of Treasure games, this was one of the best purchases I've made this year. Besides its hypnotizing 1920's cartoon aesthetic, Cuphead also boasts some heart-pounding boss-battling action that's as likely to make you laugh as it is to outright kill you. Although it seems like the game revels in its classic-style difficulty, it's actually fairly well balanced, offering the player a menagerie of abilities to see them through to the end. No attack feels too cheap and no challenge is too great to surmount; stick with Cuphead, and you'll be rewarded in spades. It's the bee's knees baby.


4 - THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: BREATH OF THE WILD
Breath of the Wild is perhaps the only game on this list that has shifted wildly throughout my Top 5, finding itself both at #1 and #5 depending on the day of the week. I think it and Playerunknown's Battlegrounds are the two most revolutionary games of the year, both of which are totally deserving of the heaps of praise they receive. Breath of the Wild in particular had people re-examining the importance of player interaction, and how meaningful experiences can arise from seemingly random events. Everyone that has played the game has a silly story to tell, whether it be battling your stamina bar to climb a mountain, humorously blowing yourself off said mountain, or discovering a surpising factoid (wait you can ride BEARS?) Somehow, in 2017Zelda has managed to emerge as the crowning video game achievement of the year, and we are all better for having played it.


3 - NIOH
It wouldn't be a Top 5 list without Dark Souls a Dark Souls-like! This year Team Ninja bestowed upon us a combat system with limitless depth in the shape of Nioh. The learning curve is steep and horrifying, but becoming privy to the ways of the Ki Pulse is its own reward—well, that, and you'll become the herald of death. Whereas Breath of the Wild excels at giving you a playground to fool around in, Nioh's heart and soul is its combat, providing swordplay so damn satisfying it rivals—and arguably dominates—the Souls games themselves. Though it falls short in a few areas (it definitely needed less inventory management and more enemy types), the amount of heart-pounding duels you'll have in Nioh are well worth suffering its flaws—as well as a few hundred deaths.


2 - PERSONA 5
For the most part, Persona 5 is actually my favorite game this year. It has a lot of qualities that I find simply irresistible: catchy music, stylish visuals, challenging combat, and meaningful decisions. I would sometimes spend up to half an hour combing through the sundry skills of my personas, weighing the pros and cons of merging my carefully cultivated deities—and I loved every second of it. True, the game does go on for far too long, and the story misses the mark a few too many times, but I applaud Persona 5 for its boldness and bravery; it has a fairly unconventional plot that's especially pertinent in today's political climate, given its themes on systemic power abuse. All it really needed was an editor to trim the story—everything else is so phenomenally delectable that I finished Persona 5 feeling sated, elated, and eagerly looking forward to my next MegaTen dish.


1 - HORIZON ZERO DAWN
Horizon Zero Dawn floored me. Given the developers pedigree and the fatigue of traversing yet another third-person shoot-'n-collectathon open-world game, I did not expect Horizon to dazzle—well, beyond its beautiful robot designs. But the more time I spent with it, the more time I spent thinking about it, and the more I wanted to return to its world. From its well-written quests to its nail-biting hunts, I rarely felt like I was wasting time, or that I wanted my experience to be over. Guerrilla Games has constructed such a polished, immaculate single player experience that—like with The Last of Us—there could be almost no other winner this year. Horizon nearly has it all: a breathtaking world, a compelling plot, and even a glamorous fashion sense for its various tribes. In a year among giants, Horizon Zero Dawn somehow manages to stand tall.

HONORABLE MENTIONS


AWFUL GAME I PLAYED THIS YEAR - FINAL FANTASY II
If, in a single dungeon, you consistently have one enemy that hits you for 30 damage and another one that hits you for 2500, you are playing a bad RPG. Final Fantasy II aims to stand apart from other role-playing games with its unique leveling mechanic, but by "standing apart" it opts to sit on a stool facing the corner of the room, a "dunce" cap placed squarely upon its crown. It's slow, tediously long, and downright broken; Final Fantasy II is failure in video game form. Play it once if you have to, but never return—don't make the same mistake I did.


GREAT GAMES I PLAYED THIS YEAR
(which also conveniently serves as...)
WHAT'S MISSING? - RESIDENT EVIL VII
Cutting Resident Evil VII from my Top 5 list was a painful process. There are a lot of reasons why it's a Game of the Year contender: from successfully rebooting the franchise, to being really creepy and unsettling, to the gorgeously decrepit bayou locale—RE VII has a lot going for it. Had there been greater enemy variety and a better introduction, RE VII could easily oust Cuphead from my list above. The game certainly deserves merit alone for successfully steering the franchise in the right direction after the miserable experience of Resident Evil 6, but unfortunately it'll have to settle for the #6 spot.

It's a damn fine game nevertheless—one certainly worthy of the franchise's namesake.


... AND SUPER MARIO ODYSSEY
I got into Super Mario Odyssey really late this year, but I'm currently sitting on top of ~600 moons, so I reckon I've experienced most of what the title has to offer. And it's been a lot of fun! Nintendo remains unparalleled are creating worlds full of uninhibited joy, and nothing exemplifies this better than the colorful kingdoms of Odyssey. The entire journey is a really upbeat, smooth, and relaxing experience... which consequently means it lacks a bite to its difficulty. I love the game's atmosphere and style, but I prefer more level-oriented challenges from the Mario games, something which Odyssey lacks compared to Galaxy and 3D World. Still, it's a blast to play, and is a great counterpoint to the tougher endeavors I've endured this year.
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Other images obtained from: wccftech.com, gamespot.com, iansteffen.com, theverge.com, gamerant.com

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Persona 5 - Thoughts


The best thing about the Persona series is that it's an amalgamation of great ideas: it's one part dungeon crawler, one part visual novel, one part management sim, and one part animal breeder. These parts don't operate in isolation either; the bonds you form with friends boost the power of the personas you merge, and the personas you merge can make dungeon crawling significantly easier. The Persona games—at least the last three—are fairly long too (+80 hours), meaning that you'll have to carefully balance all of these aspects together if you want to see the story through. This is especially true given the difficulty of the series, where exploiting weaknesses allows you (or your opponents) to strike again, often dealing a killing blow.

Persona 5 proudly continues in the tradition of its ancestors. It's the biggest, most stylish entry into the franchise yet, and the standalone story makes it a fantastic entry point for fans new to the universe. I played a good chunk of Persona 3 years ago, but this is the first Persona I've played to completion, and I'm already hungry for more. Not necessarily more Persona 5 per se—my stomach is still distended from the wealth of content I chewed through—but the Persona formula in general has the most delicious loop I've experienced in a long while, and it's safe to say I've become a fan of the series.


There's such an enormous breadth of content to discuss here that in no way can I possibly do justice to the number of intriguing threads Persona 5 holds. Somewhat unexpectedly, I going to heap praise first and foremost on how stupid-good the UI looks. It's easy to view HUDs as a means of conveying information instead of a framing device, but Persona 5 flaunts its style constantly, invigorating your indomitable spirit through the vibrant colors and animations in its menu. It's a good thing the UI is sexy as all get out too, since you'll be interacting with it constantly over the hefty adventure. A couple improvements could be made to streamline the menus further—like offering a quick way to peek at the abilities of your allies' personas—but I'm so damned charmed by the game's aesthetic that any inconveniences are easily overlooked.

This holds true for the music as well; a number of tunes will see exhaustive use throughout your journey, but the soundtrack is so vivacious and passionate that it's hard to get sick of any of the tracks. No matter how many times I heard Layer Cake, Blooming Villain, or Mementos, I was helplessly tapping my foot as soon as the music kicked in. Even the battle theme Last Surprise—which will play thousands of times mind you—continues to thrill every time the chorus takes off, especially whenever it coincides with you mopping up your opposition. While we tend to think of story and stat progression as the central staples of an RPG, I'd contest that the soundtrack can be just as important; part of the reason why classic JRPGs are remembered so fondly is because how quickly hearing a melody can immediately transport you to its world.

The UI, animations, music, and general mood of the game are all critical because of how much they distinguish Persona from its contemporaries. Similar to Earthbound, there's very little like it out there, even if it has commonplace themes like "fighting against authority" and "realizing the power of friendship". Persona 5 isn't really a revolutionary game but it's certainly a rebellious one, changing up a number of familiar RPG aspects in order to get you out of your comfort zone. Mana-recovery items cannot be bought, witnessing every social link cutscene is nigh-impossible without a guide, and there's a deadline to each major objective. In both its style and structure it engages the player, inviting them in with a luscious style and then dragging them forward, whether they want to move at that pace or not.

Despite the playful exterior, Persona 5 is a relatively no-nonsense game. This is most easily observed in its combat, where some bad RNG can cause you to lose up to an hour of progress (which yeah, happened to me in Palace 5). Because of this you'll want to mitigate that risk as much as possible, which is where all of the meaningful choices in the game come from. Should you befriend the person that helps your back-up party members gain EXP? Or what about the girl that allows everyone in your party to successfully retreat? How about your close friends, who will gain a chance to save you from a fatal attack? You'll also have to balance these bonuses with your own personal preference for these characters too—getting more ammo for your gun could be useful, but dang, isn't it more fun to see what wacky antics Yusuke will get into next?


The importance of the choices you make also carry over into the combat as well, where having an enemy's weakness will make or break an encounter. And when you square off against the boss fights in the game (all of which are spectacular by the way), you'll have to resort to buffs and debuffs to stand a chance. This means balancing your party's powers with your own persona repertoire, trying to figure out what your weaknesses are and how to cover them. Is it better to keep out a persona that nullifies physical attacks or switch over to one that has your best abilities (Matarukaja, Marakunda)? If you're low on SP and not near a save room, do you use an item, push on without magic, or retreat? And if you get surrounded and battered, do you risk it all on an insta-kill attack or try to recover? Add in limited skill slots that force you to decide what will or won't carry over with every persona merge, and Persona 5 becomes a game that will always keep you on your toes... well, as long as you don't seek to purposely game it (I'm looking at you, SP Adhesive).

With so many aspects of the game bewitching me, you might wonder, "Well, was there anything you disliked?" And this is where we get into Persona 5's rub: the story. More specifically: the dialogue. There is a laborious amount of text in this game. And while I'm fine if the dialogue is filled with witty candor or clever insights, a considerable amount of it is unnecessary repetition. Like, you'll have an event happen that day and your group will conclude "we should probably deal with X next" and then immediately after that scene you'll get a text chain along the lines of "we need to hurry and deal with X!" The amount of times characters repeat objects or whinge about an upcoming enemy starts to sap the excitement out of playing the game, especially since a lot of dialogue is used for observation instead of character building.

I know it might seem ironic to complain about the amount of text in a dialogue-focused RPG, but this game is 100 hours long—cuts can be made somewhere! Not only that, but the story has a tendency to feel unfocused and scattershot (in some part due to the direct translation). You'll have characters endure sexual harassment and then proceed to get gawked at by friends, or villains will wildly oscillate between being flawed humans and one-dimensional charlatans, or events will dominate the dialogue of bystanders and then evaporate without a trace a week later. There's such little room for fascinating side stories to develop—like the school stalker and her crush—because the plot often dominates all of the dialogue with its relatively one-dimensional perspective.

But I still greatly appreciate what's at the heart of this story. At times it feels like Persona 5 is very predictable, but it throws a few fascinating curve balls at you now and then. That, and I appreciated a lot of the down time in the social links, as those moments often did more to build character motivations than many (many) of the plot-centric cutscenes did. I like Persona 5's cast (sans Haru), and its themes, and message about society as a whole—there's just a considerable amount of questionable material to critique. Had the narrative been aimed more at "adults" rather than the "highschoolers" you control, I suspect a strong polemic against Japanese society could've arisen from it. As it stands now, the idea is there... it's just wrapped in a lot of stereotypical anime tropes.


My disappointment in Persona 5's story barely dents the enthusiasm I feel towards it weeks after finishing the game. It was such a robust—and often intimidating—experience that I'm glad I made my way through it, and look forward to whatever direction the series takes from here. I can understand why a lot of fans get consumed with discussing the franchise too; after spending roughly a year playing the fifth entry, the world and its cast feel so familiar that it manifests in my memory as a warm second home of sorts. While there was great comfort to be found in the mundane daily activities, it was the risky palace infiltrations that got my blood pounding—and the combination of those two sensations is one I'll be savoring for a long time to come.
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Images obtained from: killboretime.com, dualshockers.com, theverge.com, rpgsite.net