Thursday, November 29, 2018

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves - Thoughts

[contains spoilers]

I spent a lot of time grousing over Uncharted: Drake's Fortune's missteps. I thought the story was lacking, the game wasn't adventurous enough, and that the combat frequently became an uncompromising chore. I considered that perhaps my criticisms were too scathing, but after finishing Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, I feel that my grievances were well placed; the second Uncharted outing is everything I wanted from the first. And it is a beeeaaauuuutiful game. Like, good lord.

Almost every aspect of the game has been improved, the most notable of which being the combat and locales. And honestly, those two are really all Uncharted needed; allowing the player to engage in exciting gunplay throughout diverse and gorgeous settings is what makes this game a joy from start to finish. For the most part, Among Thieves does everything in its power to make sure the player is having fun. It offers many short, exploratory breaths between its more action-packed sequences, and whenever one setting starts to drag, the weather will drastically change or the scenery will wipe from a jungle to a ruined Nepali city. Though Uncharted 2 cannot boast about its puzzles (positioning the hands of the statue was the only thing "aha!" worthy), the lack of head-scratchers is permissible because the adventure does its damnedest to stay compelling over the 10 hour journey.

This is because Uncharted 2 realized what it is Nathan Drake excels at. The game starts by thrusting you into a tense, unbelievable train-crash scenario and then slings you through space and time, weaving a tale of heroism tinged by revenge. The plot is... nothing I'd actually write home about—honestly most of the Uncharted narratives blur together into this "isn't adventuring fun?"-sorta haze—but what Among Thieves offers over Drake's Fortune is characters other than Elena to get invested in. Flynn is fun (for the most part—his servile attitude feels contradictory), Chloe is captivating, and Lazarevic proves it's better to be campy than forgettable. I mean seriously, who was the old man in the first game again?

Since the adventure is a decent chunk longer than its predecessor, moments where the player can chill out and absorb their surroundings are more plentiful. The "look for the right path to traverse" sections have a bit more meat to them, breaking up a lot of the monotonous combat that plagued Drake's Fortune. And even when there are long stints of drawn-out combat, you're often inserted into these fantastic open arenas that allow you to be fairly mobile, where you can conquer your enemies with whatever weapons you prefer. Sadly, as the game goes on it relies more on narrow hallway encounters, with the train chapters being among the worst offenders (it sure is a jaw-dropping set piece though).

I think now is a good time to acknowledge that I don't... really... care for Uncharted's combat. I think it's fine: it feels fluid, is rife with cool animations, and is rewarding when you bring your A-game. But when you're suffering death after death due to a hot start (or you're staring one too many times down the barrel of a heavily-armored soldier), the recurring thought that's likely to bubble up is "god damn these guys have a lot of health". And I get that enemy tankiness is a design by necessity—an Uncharted where foes fall in one shot is bound to be disappointingly short—but it doesn't change the fact that I don't look forward to combat due to how much of a grind it can be. When I started the series, I tried my best to go for strategic headshots, but by the end of Uncharted 3 I was just pumping magazine after magazine into the granite chests of my enemies. The gunplay plays well, but isn't immensely gratifying (for me).

I bring this up because a mainstay of Uncharted 2 is its combat. I enjoyed blasting fools and participating in scripted sequences, but wasn't something I actively looked forward to; my heart was captivated by puzzles and alluring locales and secret treasures tucked away—things that reasonably dwindle as the game got closer and closer to its rambunctious climax. Therefore it's kind of weird to look back on Uncharted 2, as I can acknowledge its greatness and technical prowess, but the final taste it leaves me with is a "I'm glad that's over". Not in a Hitman: Codename 47 way where I'm pleading to be released from torment, but in a more subdued, grateful way... like reaching the very cusp of concluding that the game is too long and repetitive for its own good.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is still an impressive title nearly a decade later. It knows first and foremost how to entertain, keeping your eyes and hands delighted throughout its colorful campaign. It's an astonishing improvement over the first in almost every way: mo-cap, scenery, combat, story—you name it. I may not be a big fan of the series, but I can appreciate the level of effort Naughty Dog has poured into building one of gaming's premier action platformers. It's hard not to stand in awe of Among Thieves.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Torchlight - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

For me, Torchlight was at its best in its opening hours. I had recently finished getting another character to level 70 in Diablo 3 and wanted to sample a Diablo 2-esque experience for comparison. I could've just played Diablo 2 again, but I was in the mood for something more bite-sized and different. Torchlight fit that bill nicely, so I went into it wanting to build a beefy dual-wielding fighter that dominates his foes through left clicks alone. My plans had to change the deeper I went underground, which slowly began to remind me of why I tend to stay away from Diablo clones in general: monotonous grind.

I have a soft spot for the first Diablo's atmosphere, having played the demo of it a ton as a kid, and Torchlight pulls on the same strings. Which makes sense, given that Runic Games was formed by the creators of Diablo, and they roped in Matt Uelmen, the moody master composer of the Diablo series. Though the game looks more like World of Warcraft than Blizzard's dark demon slaying series, everything else reeks of the first Diablo. You have three classes to choose from, a captivatingly eerie town theme, and NPCs in need of saving from subterranean spooks. Throw on top of that various Diablo staples like gems, gear sets, health & mana globes, and blue & red scrolls, and you have yourself a game that knows its target audience and isn't afraid to appeal to them.

Torchlight is an ambitious title for a new studio to create, but it isn't ambitious in and of itself. There are no twists and turns to be found in its story or gameplay, and the whole experience is meant to last 10-12 hours. Which is fine—after all, if the formula works you don't need to change things—except that I had my Diablo fill around hour 5. By then I had mapped out my intended path through the skill tree, figured out what magical skills to keep, and was thoughtlessly left-clicking my way to the end. And since the game lets you buy potions to your hearts content, the dungeon couldn't set any challenge upon me that I was unable to heal through.

Well, until the end.

I simultaneously admire and feel vexed by games that have difficulty spikes in their final act. Since I'm a challenge-oriented player, I prefer experiences that put up a fight rather than those that let me coast to the credits. But being roadblocked during a game I desperately want to finish (in order to take it off of my "to play" list) is a frustration too bitter to savor. And boy, does Torchlight put up one hell of a fight!

Two problems exacerbated my struggle: I barely did any sidequests and I was playing on hard. But neither really stymied my progress—I just had to keep my ring finger on the potion button in case I got surrounded. This all changed once I got to the final area, where a number of foes hammer you with elemental attacks. And since I was playing a strictly melee-focused class, it's not like kiting my opponents was a viable option. This turned the final few hours of the game into an arduous crawl as I repeatedly died over and over whenever I had to face more than two dragons or dark zealots at a time. And I died a ton; I was slain around a dozen times before Torchlight's final floors, while the Dark Palace alone racked up over a hundred deaths.

So what was I supposed to do? Despite dumping a lot of points into defense, there was no way I could affect my elemental resistances (which is what I was dying to) outside of slotting +2/4 resistance gems into my gear—and for reference, I had 94 lightning resist and was still losing half my health to undodgeable lighting beams. And since there's no way to respec my build there was only one option: grind. Grind a whole lot. Just get enough health that I can survive two poison bolt barrages instead of one. Would that have been fun though? I was very rarely finding new gear in the final ten floors of the game that was better than the legendary equipment I had on, and grinding was a chore since my character approached all enemy types the same way. When the final boss finally fell, I was elated, not just because I had finished a mindless twenty minute melee against him, but also because I could wipe my hands of the game. Without a second thought I retired my character, permanently shelving them because I was so done with this journey.

My gripes with Torchlight are more of a universal problem with the genre its rooted in than a denouncement of the game itself. For what it's worth, I approve of what Torchlight offers: it's a well built game with a lot of depth and great music, acting as a delectable lunch to Diablo 2's gargantuan dinner. The only thing you could argue it's truly lacking is a multiplayer component. But Torchlight revels in its repetitiveness, which is something I barely have any patience for if I'm not enthralled by the core gameplay. I went into Torchlight wanting a nostalgic flashback, yet emerged out the other end realizing that I was actually looking for something more.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Hitman: Codename 47 - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

Hitman: Codename 47 is an imprecise and cruel relic of the past. The one good kernel it possesses—namely, killing your targets in stealthy and creative ways—is relegated to the backseat, in favor of its chaotic combat system. While great ideas have sprouted from this wretched soil, the original game seeks only to belabor you with aggravating tasks and singular routes through levels. Hitman: Codename 47 wants one thing and one thing only from you: copious amounts of blood spilt.

I'm going to immediately cast a shadow over my entire opinion by confessing that impatience is a significant vice of mine. The only stealth games I had growing up were Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes and Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, and I found the latter to be such a chore that I could only make it a few missions in. It's a flaw that I try to stay cognizant of when playing a franchise like Deus Ex, where I know ghosting my way through an area often provides a more rewarding play experience. And I'm tempted to say that Hitman: Codename 47 showcases the worst the stealth genre has to offer, except that statement isn't true—Codename 47 barely resembles a stealth game at all.

Sure, there's a couple of sneaky instances sprinkled throughout the game. There's a mission where you can bomb a car full of triad and another where you can give a man a heart attack in the sauna, but that's about where your guile ends. Every other mission you're going to be strangling a dozen men to death or just blasting your way to the end, hoping that the game's capricious damage system does 2% of your health instead of the full 100% (which will happen a lot). Codename 47 is not merciful with its restarts either; on the missions where you can continue after death, it'll sometimes drop you next to a pissed-off guard, and you'll be dead again before you can tell where the bullets are coming from.

The wild damage probability coupled with scant pathways through a level already makes for a vexing combination, but what really pushes the game over the edge is how opaque and utterly confusing its detection system is. In isolation the system works: if you kill a man, hide his body, and steal his clothes, you effectively become him. But if a civilian catches you in the act or combat breaks out, good luck trying to figure out how to get the goons off your trail! Some guards remain stoic while others open fire immediately, and if an enemy is alerted they will instinctively home in on your position. No matter how often I switched clothes after a scuffle I'd still get discovered, and it's better to have a weapon in your hands for retaliation, rather than trusting that a snooping guard won't fill your unarmed ass with lead. Speaking of weapons, having certain firearms equipped work for some disguises, but good look figuring that out on your own!

While Codename 47's level design is largely nothing to write home about, there's two really egregious missions that solidified my revulsion for this game: the boat level and the entire Colombia section.

The boat level perfectly exemplifies the contradictory nature of Codename 47. In it, there's 3 gates you have to pass through in order to get to said boat to assassinate your target. Any suspicion by the guards raises the alarm, and soon your target begins his Olympian sprint to his escape vehicle (I never found a way not to trigger this, and always had to kill him as he was running). Getting found out before stepping onto the boat spells certain doom, so what you have to do is steal a guard's outfit and then go past each of the gate's checkpoints. Sounds easy, right?

The problem is that the guards don't let you through the checkpoint, even when you're disguised in an outfit that covers your face! This means your only solution is to snipe every single enemy... but guess what?—if one enemy witnesses this they'll run and tell the boss and you run out of sniper rifle ammo halfway through the level! So after an hour of trying, struggling, and failing, I found out what you're supposed to do is latch yourself onto the back of a patrolling guard and just follow him until he passes through a checkpoint. But make sure you don't get too close and trigger the "you don't belong here!" warning first, or the guards will shoot you should you try this method out.

If that sounds bad, the entire Colombia section is the hideous nadir of this game. On paper, it sounds interesting: go assassinate a drug lord in the jungle, with the catch that you can't restock your ammo or buy weapons between sections of the mission.  However, when you sit down to play it you quickly realize the jungle is massive and empty, taking a handful of boring minutes to run to your objectives. Plus well-armed foes can spot you off in the distance before they're even visible in the far-off fog! This is a nightmare combination where as soon as you're discovered, you're likely to get killed before spotting your assailant and a restart will teleport you back to the beginning of your 1 mile jog. And you have to kill enemies in these missions, so snooping your way through this is a no-go (three men that don't move guard a prisoner on a bridge).

The Colombia saga climaxes in a military base infiltration, where you'll face off against a Scarface-wannabe and blow up a drug lab. It sounds like there's a lot of opportunities for cool things to happen, right?—except there's not. The entire compound is gated, and the only way in is via the front entrance (and you always start at the back, which is great). Not only that, but the boss faces the doorway into the office, meaning you have to fight him (and the guards outside of his room) every time. And later when you have to stealthily blow up a drug lab, you'll be barred from using the two ramps that lead down into it, leaving your only recourse to be stirring up a violent bloodbath. There's ways to mitigate both of these sections, like assassinating the drug lord with a sniper rifle obtained from the first mission and using an officer's uniform to bypass the drug lab guards, but the game does a poor job at telegraphing this. The drug lab in particular strikes me as really rude, as even with the right uniform the guards will still tell you're not authorized to enter, but they won't shoot at you if you disobey them. Having not known that, I did it the hard way, having to run to the airport hanger under the dangerous gaze of a dozen watchtowers. This mission was an unrelenting nightmare to complete.

To grasp at the depths of my despair, know that I had already written a paragraph about how clumsy a particular mission was and had to delete it to make room for all the hogwash above. And I've already covered like, a third of the entire game! Rarely do I not find something to like—or at least appreciate—about the first entry in a series. Most long-running franchises have at least something worthwhile that planted the seeds of its future success, or a case to be made as to why it deserves a sequel. Hitman: Codename 47 buries that beneath so much mindless gunfire, so many forced routes (I didn't even talk about how rigid the first half of the Lee Hong mission was), and so much bullshit detection that at the end of the day, the only case it's made is that it deserves not to be played.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon

[contains minor spoilers]

Inti Creates's output can vary wildly from game to game, making them a difficult developer for me to articulate my feelings on. I love love love their Mega Man games (9 is my favorite in the series), but found myself disappointed by the Gunvolt duology, and left sadly lukewarm on a title that I should by all accounts love: Blaster Master Zero. That's why upon hearing that Inti Creates was developing a retro classicvania prequel to Igarashi's Bloodstained, I wasn't champing at the bit to play it—for all I knew, it could be another lackluster platformer like Mighty Gunvolt.

It wasn't though; Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is the best Castlevania knock-off I've ever played.

Granted, there aren't a lot of classicvania games that I know of—there's like, 8-Eyes, Holy Diver, Curse of Issyos, and... that's it? Maaaaybe Volgarr the Viking? So perhaps a more glowing appraisal would be to say that Bloodstained is in the running for being one of the best Castlevania games. And I don't make that statement lightly—to me, Castlevania is perhaps the strongest non-Nintendo franchise out there (well, that's older than the Xbox 360). I should confess that a big reason for this is because I'm irresistibly drawn towards platformers more than any other genre, but nevertheless, I've yet to find a (non-Nintendo) platforming series with better level design across the board.

Coupled with the rocky history of modern Inti Creates, you can imagine my surprise when Curse of the Moon demonstrably proved that it understood what made Castlevania tick. There's multiple characters with distinct playstyles, powerful subweapons, optional shortcuts, stages dripping in atmosphere, and even the option to turn off mid-air direction changes. The caveat here is that Curse understands Castlevania primarily because... it is Castlevania, at least to some extent. There are lamps that drop hearts, angled stairways, a dagger-chucking lady with a whip, and certain enemies feel lifted from an abandoned Castlevania project—I mean c'mon, there's even a hallway with medusa heads and axe armors!

But the similarities never become grating largely because there are so few Castlevania-likes out there. The aforementioned Stage 5 tribute comes off as endearing and respectful too, a nod to its forebearers without being a soulless reproduction. Curse of the Moon seeks more to use the Castlevania blueprint as a springboard for its own clever ideas, like how it spreads Simon Belmont's subweapon repertoire across multiple characters, or how it swaps out the bone pillar for an archer that quickly fires three arrows. In fact the entire project is a delectable mix of reverence and ambition, feeling less like a bonus reward for kickstarters and more like the vampire-slaying dream project of someone at Inti Creates.

There's a lot that I admire about the design of this game, so I'll try to keep it brief. The most overarcing piece of praise I can offer is that the game lets playstyle dictate difficulty. Though I personally feel the game is still too easy for its own good (Shovel Knight is harder), there are ways to hamper yourself on a playthrough, like refusing to use certain weapons, taking the main route through a stage, or skipping out on recruitable characters. Trying to get through the game with solely Zangetsu and his starting loadout is a fitting task for Castlevania veterans, so it's cool that the difficulty of the game can range wildly between "anyone can do this" to "enjoy restarting half the level if you get hit four times!"

While Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon has a really solid first playthrough, there's also two additional NG+ modes that add some neat tweaks, the most welcome being a new final stage & boss. The game looks great, with backgrounds being rarely cluttered or overdone (the foreground of Stage 6 is pretty ugly but I think that's by intention). The music is absolutely fantastic and has some phenomenally uplifting tunes that you can't help but nod your head to. There's some great gameplay sections that boast both smart enemy placement and a clever platforming challenge—Stage 7 in particular bursting with these devious designs (love that bouncing sprite enemy!) Lastly, not only are the characters extremely well balanced, but switching between them is instantaneous, so you're motivated to try each one out and discover how best to use them. And game over only occurs when you've lost all four, so even when your main damage dealer bites the dust, you still have a chance to pull off a heroic upset.

The single complaint I have to levy against Curse of the Moon is that the bosses lean too much on memorization rather than reflex. "Bosses" can feel like a silly thing to focus on in video games sometimes, but in more simple challenge-oriented games, they can often be the piece de resistance that pushes the player's limits, tasking them to out-think and outmaneuver a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Curse doesn't really aim for that however, even on its hardest difficulty; nearly every boss has a repeatable pattern you can learn which will allow you to defeat them without taking a single hit. Castlevania bosses aren't super intricate, but the randomness of their attack patterns coupled with the inflexible controls made for stressful duels that were a blast to scrape by on the skin of your teeth. Outside of a 1-2 fights in this game, the luster of perilous combat is unfortunately lost once you remember what your foe will do next.

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is the real deal. It has a retro playstyle and feel, but is not held down by the archaic philosophy of its forefathers—it plays like a new Castelvania without being as mercilessly punishing. The attacks feel great, the enemies are creative, the music is energizing, and there's a variety of ways to make it through the game, whether it be in the stage itself or by bypassing (or murdering) one of your allies. It's a short game too, which should satisfy the desires of anyone that's nostalgic for the 8-bit aesthetics but doesn't have the time to spend suffering through trial and error. It pleases me to end to see Inti Creates do justice not only to Mega Man, but Castlevania as well—bravo!

Monday, October 29, 2018

Momodora II - Thoughts

There's a small, quiet quaintness to Momodora II that I... well, had been expecting, having played the first Momodora only a day prior. Like its humble predecessor, Momodora II is a cute, free, pixel-based platformer that can be completed in a single sitting, but there's a big difference this time around—the world has opened up! No longer will you find yourself hopping down ledges you can no longer climb back up, or missing collectible goodies—the world is your oyster!... even if that oyster is fairly small.

One of my favorite things in gaming is to see how a series changes from title to title, especially when it's being guided by a single author. Larger companies can tend to produce sequels that feel rote, predictable, and incremental, whereas the lone indie developer can (ostensibly) play with the formula however they wish. That's why Momodora's foray into the Metroidvania genre was kinda interesting, since it's structurally different and yet very recognizable—there's a noticeable through line from the arcadeyness of the first to the gentle exploration of the second. Whereas Castlevania experienced a staggering sideways leap from Rondo to Symphony, Momodora I to II feels like a very natural, forward progression for the series, almost as if rdein had been planning this since the beginning.

A lot of aspects have been improved: ranged attacks now run on a resource, there's more variety in the settings (every background isn't just rocks, hooray!), and the palette is much more pleasant. I appreciate the inclusion of an automap and adore that health upgrades come in the form of "love letters" (d'aww). The only drawbacks I can think of are that there are less weapons, the game is surprisingly easy despite being melee focused, and the soundtrack is lacking the engrossing melodies of the first Momodora. For some, the drawbacks will be worth it, especially since Momodora II feels significantly less like a Cave Story fan project and more like its own thing. Lastly, what continues to impress me the most about rdein—besides cobbling this together with the help of only a few friends—is his precious monster design. Despite foregoing the eyeball motif for the enemies, there's still a lot of cuties, like the foxes with their little lanterns and maids that sweep up skull-shaped dust clouds. It's probably what I'm looking forward to seeing the most with the other games in the series!

Though I enjoyed Momodora II for what it was, I don't have a strong preference for one game in the series over another. The first scratches a nice basic platforming itch, while the second is a delectable exploration-focused experience. The rub—at least for me—is that both games are content being appetizers, offering at most a 1.5 hour break for you to get lost in their bite-sized worlds. They're still fun and well made, but I couldn't help but want more rather than different coming off of the first Momodora—perhaps third time's a charm?

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune - Thoughts

[contains spoilers]

"Greatness, from small beginnings" is the Latin phrased etched onto the ring that Nathan Drake keeps tied around his neck, and it's kind of amazing how fitting the adage is for the Uncharted series. Granted, Naughty Dog was far from being considered "small" in 2007, but Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is most definitely a humble outing compared to the ambitious heights its younger siblings would reach. It's also a... much worse game too. Yet there are glimmers of good ideas shining through the bedrock—it's just that you have to shoot like a bazillion guys to get to it.

Of the good ideas, two that Drake's Fortune possesses immediately spring to mind: technical verisimilitude and cinematic cutscenes. Both of these have been handily outdone by a sundry of contemporary titles, but I remember being fairly impressed with Drake's Fortune back in the day, particularly with the lush and dense greenery of Chapter 2. Likewise the dialogue, voice acting, and mocap has a very natural and cinematic feel to it. Sure, it's a bit jittery and exaggerated (no doubt due to Naughty Dog coming off fresh from the Jak series), but it doesn't take away from the simple fact that the game is nice to look at.

Unfortunately, "nice to look at" is where my plaudits end, as Drake's Fortune is hamstrung by how utterly restrictive the game is. Occasionally the game will attempt to mask it's linear nature, but the disguise is paper thin; most of the time you'll wander through corridor after corridor, shooting wave after wave of faceless baddies. There's nothing inherently wrong with this kind of structure—Vanquish is my favorite TPS and that game is corridor city—but Uncharted is at its strongest when it's adventurous like Indiana Jones, not oppressively violent like Rambo.

And the sense of adventure in Drake's Fortune is... fairly tame. It boasts a total of two similar islands for the player to explore, alternating between verdant exteriors and drab interiors. There's actually a wide range of settings the player gets to explore (monastery, city, cavern, nazi facility), but the restrained color palette and similarities between areas gives the impression that the player really isn't journeying all that much. I always feel that it's a bit unfair to compare entries in a series to those that come later, but it's impossible not to come out of Drake's Fortune underwhelmed after experiencing the world-hopping travelogue of... well, any of game in the franchise.

The combat stinks to high hell too. Enemies robotically pour into an area and can perform impossible maneuvers, like firing at you as they simultaneously move from cover away from you. There were multiple instances where I thought I had the drop on a foe, just for them to spin around like a sentry turret and 1-shot me with a shotgun or pistol. The variability in enemy accuracy and damage was all over the place on Hard, especially in encounters where you start by taking damage before you can even get into cover (like the aggravating final Chapter). I rarely felt I had any agency in turning the tide of battle; I was often pinned to a single piece of cover, tasked with dispatching a foe quickly or consuming a hail of bullets. There was no advanced planning or skillful flanking involved—if I lived I lived, if I died I died, and there wasn't really much I could do to tilt fate other than firing faster. And since combat takes up most of the game, Drake's Fortune can drag on and on.

The last thing I want to mention is that although I appreciate how the player is dropped into the game without narration, there are a number of story beats that fall flat because you haven't had time to invest yourself into the characters. Namely, the way Drake's Fortune plays around with Sully as a potential turncoat is... strange, because we've only traveled with him for a handful of chapters—there's no sense of betrayal if we barely know the guy! Likewise, all three of the villains feel as though they've manifested themselves out of thin air, and any betrayal and bickering that emerges elicits less of a "holy cow!" and more of an "... alright." Really, the only thing that still held up story-wise was Elena: she's confident, sassy, and fun to hang out with. Oh, and the line delivery on some of the jokes is fantastic too.

Throughout my revisit of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, only one section tickled my fancy: the labyrinthine vault with its myriad of false pathways. While running around and looking for ledges to grab onto, it struck me how infrequently the game lets you soak in a locale without the fear of getting murdered. There's like, the opening bit with Sully and... that's it? Most of the time you're just running to and fro, doing some mild platforming as a bridge between exhausting, drawn-out combat scenarios. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is by no means a bad game, but the journey is a lot more rocky than it initially lets on.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Octopath Traveler - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

I was very impressed by Octopath Traveler. No, scratch that—I still am. In spite of all of its shortcomings, there's just something about it that warms the heart and rekindles my love for turn-based JRPGs. There are a lot of reasons for this: the enticing visuals, the monumental soundtrack, the sterling localization, the humble sidequests... but most of all, standing atop Octopath's accomplishments, is the fantastic battle system. I cannot stress how gratifying it feels to win a tense and arduous battle in this game, all thanks to your team composition, wise item use, and cunning forethought. Like Persona, Octopath Traveler has the perfect blend of depth and danger—mechanics-focused RPG fans need to experience this game.

But—and this is important—Octopath Traveler is mired in shortcomings. For me, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, but there are definitely a number of things that can grate on the player over the 80 hour journey. Most obviously, Octopath is unapologetically repetitive: every dungeon follows the same formula, every main quest is structurally identical, and every town is built off of a single blueprint. There some minor tweaks here and there, but Octopath's design brush is monochromatic; best brace for bare-bones, naked tedium if you're considering jumping in.

While that's bad enough, what also hurts is that Octopath Traveler isn't a game about camaraderie so much as it's just eight individual stories tied together by brief optional conversations. You'd expect from the sweeping, emotional soundtrack that there would be a lot of character bonding, shared secrets, and commiserating over their loses. Moments like these do happen every now and then (in the optional conversations), but relegating the bonding off to the side makes it feel much less important and impactful. Most of the time, it feels as if the characters set off on their own quests and only meet back up occasionally to discuss their progress. You won't get a cutscene of one character comforting another after a devastating loss, or two of them sharing knowing glances before they rush into a treacherous dungeon. The inter-party dynamic feels very static and sadly immune from growth.

The character stories are fairly hit or miss as well, sometimes diving into some really heavy material (Primrose, Alfyn) and at other times completely skirting depth, content to say nothing remarkable (Cyrus, H'aanit). How much you'll enjoy a story can vary from chapter to chapter (Ophelia's Ch. 2 is lackluster filler while the rest of her story is fascinating), and even then, it might vary from scene to scene (and foe to foe!) Some of the stories that don't have anything noteworthy to say—like H'aanit's—can end up surpassing other more ambitious plotlines because they doesn't fumble their message or get overwrought in repetitive dialogue (Therionnnnn!) Rest assured, there's a handful of neat, exciting moments to be had, but they're in the minority; expect a lot of familiar paths to be tread here.

So far, it doesn't seem like the game is any good, does it? Thankfully, the battle system alone propels Octopath Traveler into the stratosphere of quality with its sublime BP system. You see, every turn your allies get one battle point (BP), and can store up to five each in reserve. When they go to make an attack or use a spell, you can expend up to 3 BP to super-boost your attack/spell's efficacy and longevity. On top of this, enemies have their own elemental & weapon weaknesses that can be struck a certain amount of times in order to reduce them into a defenseless state, wherein they take 50% more damage. So what happens is that, like Persona, battles have very clear pathways to success, especially when you try to time your party-wide BP bursts with buffs, debuffs, and shattering the enemy defenses. What strategy you come up with and classes you use can be the difference between an encounter that takes ten rounds to beat, and one that takes two.

The battle system reveals its strengths best when fighting the bosses in the latter half of the game. The first half has you facing off against very simple foes—you know, baddies that poison you, do party-wide attacks, summon minions—but the second half of the game (and the very final boss in particular) can do some gnarly things to stress-test your team composition. Maybe they'll randomize their weaknesses, obscure turn order, remove a party member, or spontaneously decide, "You know what? I'm going to do seven attacks in a row next round—deal with it." Since I tried to keep my party all the same level, and avoided grabbing end-game gear early, and fought all the secret job bosses with only the main eight classes, the struggle in this game was very real and very fun.

I also need to emphatically stress that Octopath's aesthetic is wonderful. It's a visually gorgeous game with plenty of moody environments, and the spritework for the bosses is downright phenomenal—half the fun was learning their mechanics, and the other half was seeing how they'd look. While the script has a tendency to repeat itself, the localization is worthy of heaps of praise, as they really go out of their way to craft some delicate and nuanced prose (it's not too often I encounter words I don't know in a video game!) And the music! The music! There's gentle woodwinds, invigorating guitars, delicate piano ballads, and some of the most jaw-droppingly-good string-focused battle music I've ever heard. The soundtrack is absolutely captivating and worth the price of admission alone.

It's not hard to get tangled up in Octopath Traveler's failures—there's plenty here to hem and haw over. There's a lot of asterisks one has to apply when they talk about how good the game is, but man, besides the stale dungeons and some ambivalent storylines, what Octopath has going for it is great. There were multiple points throughout this game where I realized I was having a better time than I've had with over half of the Final Fantasy franchise, and perhaps had there been a chance to allow the characters grow together, this would be a serious contender for my game of the year. As it is though, I'll just say it's a meaty RPG with amazing sprites, an unmatched battle system, and a soundtrack that's like an aural hug. And that final boss!—I need to end the entry here before I go on for three more paragraphs about how amazing that battle is! Octopath Traveler is a lovely game with a lot of heart... that I just wish had been better.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Momodora - Thoughts

There's a small, quiet quaintness to Momodora that I wasn't really expecting. The first time you play an indie game by an unfamiliar designer, it can run the gamut from lovably peppy (Joakim Sandberg) to oddly fascinating (Jason Rohrer) to downright oblique (Stephen Levelle). On the surface, Momodora is a very clearly a love letter to Cave Story, but after reaching the credits, it... well, is very similar to Cave Story—but focused on a more direct, arcadey experience.

... And that's about all there is to the game.

Which is fine!—short experiences act as nice breathers between larger titles (like say, Octopath Traveler and Wasteland 2). Plus, Momodora's gauntlet of stages & secret treasures were plenty enjoyable on their own. The controls are snappy and J.W. Hendricks' score is both catchy and surprisingly deep (check out Stage 5). The game can be a bit tricky at times with its enemy placement, but it's nothing that a simple retry won't remedy. If there's one thing I feel "iffy" on, it's that I wish the hitbox of the enemies/projectiles/player character were just a few pixels smaller, as I often felt like I was safe from the arc of a boulder's throw... but I clearly wasn't. It's not that big of a deal though—it's a minuscule problem in relation to the size and price of the game (it's free, by the way).

One of the aspects that really stands out to me—besides the intense Cave Story aesthetic—is that Momodora flips its gameplay on its head early on in the adventure. At first you're given a swift-striking leaf to melee enemies with (it's a tremendous weapon!) but soon you'll find both a gun and boomerang, which cements your domination over the entirety of the x-axis. rdein wisely designs around this by placing plenty of nasty projectile-oriented foes above and below you, but it's still weird to go from playing the game somewhat cautiously with a melee weapon to a guns-blazing style where you can obliterate unsuspecting foes through walls. There's multiple weapons you can switch between (as well as unimpressive shield ability), but it doesn't change the game nearly as much as the leaf -> gun transition.

Momodora is a fun excursion for those in need of a platforming appetizer. Though I wasn't motivated to sniff out all the hidden treasures, I was plenty amused by the sharp level design and varied ocular opponents (every enemy is an eyeball of some sort—very cute!) Momodora was nice—tiny, humble, and nice. I'm very interested to see how the series develops from here, given that rdein has shown that he has the chops to make a decent platformer.

Also look at this guy!:

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Mega Man Battle Network - Thoughts

It's somewhat strange that I never got into the Battle Network series. On the surface it ticks off a lot of the boxes I like: strategic action-RPG gameplay, fierce boss battles, and a Mega Man coat of paint—what's not to love?

Well, a dirty secret of mine is that I've always struggled to get into CCGs (collectible card games). There's nothing I hate about them per se, but deck balancing has always felt tedious to keep up with, especially considering that your opening hand is usually random (plus I've always shied away from PvP-centered games). I understand that a lot of enjoyment can be found in carefully hand-crafting your deck so that you get a lot of synergistic combos, but I find myself focusing more on the unpredictable variables; I bemoan not knowing my opponent's hand and detest waiting helplessly for specific cards to show up. But in a lot of ways, Mega Man Battle Network is a really friendly gateway into the CCG domain, especially since its 3x3 movement grid allows the player a lot of freedom from the restraints of the "battle chip" system. The game is still obnoxious in plenty of ways, but it's an admirable first attempt into a fairly untested domain.

I suspect throughout my Battle Network retrospective that I'll be hard pressed to say anything noteworthy about any of games' plots. The grim, nearly nihilistic storyline of Mega Man Zero was extremely my style, which was part of the reason why I veered away from the Battle Network—why would I want to play as some elementary school dweeb when I could slice open an army of robots with a laser sword? Naturally as I've grown older I stopped correlating "violent" with "mature", but the plot of Mega Man Battle Network is straight-up cartoonish: an evil old scientist wants to destroy the world because of a petty grudge, so only a bunch of kids with cool robots in their PDAs can stop him. Like Pokemon, the most interesting bits are the strange comments from nameless NPCs that shed light on the world's bizarre lore, but those instances are usually few and far between. The plot is quite boring, the characters are predictable and goofy, and the themes are as cliche as can be—I'm clearly not the target audience for this game.

There's not much I can complement about the level design either, sadly. I appreciate Battle Network's rigid isometric viewpoint because it often makes the scenery feel more dynamic and lively, but the dungeons are very oldschool in that they're as bland and monotonous as can be. One floor doesn't differentiate itself from the next, and while each dungeon's "gimmick" adds some much-needed variation, trail & error is an inextricable part of most of these gimmicks. The net in particular is a tangled mess of pathways and dead ends, which really begin to grate on you when you're constantly running into low-level foes. You do acquire pass codes that let you skip ahead to areas deeper in the net, but you're still required to traverse a "floor" to access the shortcut, so there's not much time saved there.

I'm hesitant to claim that "a lot of the Battle Network feels designed to waste your time", because I recognize the repetitive and labyrinthine structure of the game is meant to provide the player with plenty of combat experience & loot (as well as make the game harder to beat on a single rent). And for what it's worth, combat is designed to be so fast-paced that it's not that much of a chore to slog through the game's high encounter rate. There's a surprising amount of enemy attacks you'll encounter, and some of the enemy combinations can be downright dastardly, which makes balancing your chip deck an important, necessary, and fascinating part of the game. While at first it feels like not much can be done with a 3x3 player space, Battle Network frequently whips out surprises against the player. The biggest takeaway from my experience is that this system shows a ton of nuance and longevity, which makes me glad that it wasn't merely a one-off.

Because—let's be honest—there's a lot of improvements that Battle Network could make.

Now, not only is it important to keep in mind that I have not played any of the future installments, but that I am also by no means adept at Battle Network's battle system. In fact I kinda stink at it, which is why these issues stuck out to me:

1) The "Add" button is a waste of time. I really like the idea of essentially going into battle defenseless in order to acquire a larger chip hand later, but the bonus chips disappear in one turn! One! I suspect that this is to done to make setting up super powerful combos trickier, but the custom meter builds up so quickly and enemies are so weak that it's frankly better to use the chips you're given rather than wait for better ones. Speaking of...

2) There's way too many chip letters. As far as I can tell there's over a dozen or so, which makes balancing your folder for synergies meaningless unless you grind for specific letters. And the game doesn't even let you see what letters a chip is capable of holding! This led to me just shoving a bunch of the same chip into my folder (since you can bring multiple same-type chips into battle), especially since...

3) Almost nothing is better than sheer offense, and because of this, some chips are going to be tremendously more valuable than others. Case in point: Quake chips and DynaWave! Why ever go for anything else? Either the range is short, the damage is poor, or it's too situational/fiddly to use (Ringzap, Dynamyt, TimeBom, Dash) that you're better off sticking with something simple, direct, and powerful. Don't even get me started on the awful guard and X-Panel abilities; had I encountered more durable foes I would've found the defensive abilities more valuable, but why waste time slotting a RemoBit when I can just flatten fools with 5-panel crushing Quake? And lastly...

4) Let me make multiple chip decks! Seriously!

I have some other niggling complaints, but I've spent so much of this entry ragging on poor Battle Network that I need to take some time to reiterate that I enjoyed and appreciated what the game brought to the table. It was a bold, new, dangerous direction to take Mega Man, and thankfully it works. Due to the length of the dungeons, Battle Network feels like a complete experience, and the experience is at its best when you're squaring off against its numerous challenging bosses. Suffering a defeat and being forced to sift through your chip folder for a good balance of recovery, utility, and damage chips (ie Quake chips) is a lot of fun. And testing out new chips and contemplating their utility helps to motivate you whenever the story fails to do so.

I feel as though I've been overly critical of Mega Man Battle Network, but I think that's in large part due to my own personal struggle with CCGs. The game didn't really change my thoughts much: I still dislike the RNG of your initial hand, feel that a lot of the chips are either useless or fiddly, and have yet to find a strategy more optimal than prioritizing brute strength. But the groundwork laid here is solid, and I'm definitely intrigued to keep trucking along, wondering if the series will ever fix the "Add" system or condense its plethora of letters. Mega Man Battle Network is an admirable game, and had I played it in my childhood rather than my post-adolescence, perhaps I would be singing a very different tune.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Super Mario Odyssey - Thoughts

Ya know, it was about time Super Mario 64 got another sequel. After the initial foray beyond flatland, the 3D Mario titles have found themselves torn in two directions: large, sandboxy playgrounds or more linear, meticulously crafted environments. From Galaxy onwards, Mario has traditionally been loyal to the latter, with every stage designed primarily for going from point A to point B, where straying off the beaten path will only reward you with small goodies. But now in Super Mario Odyssey, the beaten path is the main course! So let your penchant for goofing take hold, because Odyssey is one hell of an enjoyable (and relaxing) collectathon.

I have to give props first to the programmers that tweaked the way Mario moves and jumps in Odyssey. Like with UI, the controls of a game are supposed to be so second nature that the player isn't supposed to think about them most of the time—a designer needs them to be unobtrusive so as not to distract from the more prominent aspects like art and story. But sometimes the smaller touches can be so profound that they deserve recognition, like in the buttery smooth response of Mario's turning, flipping, and diving. If there was one word to describe how it feels to pilot the stout Italian plumber, it'd be comfortable.

This is important to note because you're going to spend a lot of the game wandering around. A good portion of the levels in Odyssey are fairly open and require a lot of snooping and scrounging to find every moon, which means you'll spend minutes on end jogging from one corner to the other, all while wrangling the camera to spot secrets. It can feel tiresome at times—the first post-game kingdom is a dull snoozefest—but since Mario remains fun to pilot it takes the edge off of the tediousness. Plus looking for where to go next only becomes a problem when you're a good chunk of the way through the game; from the start to the credits, Super Mario Odyssey is jam-packed full of awesome visuals and nifty ideas.

The level of imagination present in each of Odyssey's exotic kingdoms is downright intoxicating. It's hard not to act like some slack-jawed tourist at times, panning the camera around to catch every detail, whether it be reading all the billboards in the Metro Kingdom or doing inventory of all the food present in the Luncheon Kingdom. The art style between worlds aggressively clashes, but this is done purposefully: Odyssey's message is one of unity and of appreciating cultural differences. I'm usually very pro-art cohesion, but this game is just so wacky and amiable that it doesn't bother me to see Mario interacting with gardening robots, dapper men, and poncho-clad chibi skeletons, all within hopping distance of one another. Plus Odyssey remembers to never take itself too seriously—the dialogue, outfits, and quests are all quietly charming, routinely eking small grins the player.

Perhaps the only aspect I take umbrage with is the game's difficulty. About 95% of Odyssey is a cakewalk—moons are fairly easy to get your hands on when you know where they are, and the majority of the "linear platforming level" zones barely do anything to jeopardize your life. It's only at the veeeery end that Super Mario Odyssey ratchets up the intensity to 11, which can feel somewhat out of place in relation to how carefree the rest of the game is. I would've preferred a lot more "highly tricky but not punishing if you lose" challenges sprinkled throughout the adventure. Odyssey has so many low-effort moons that I needed something more to tantalize my masochism.

But the sundry of moons are part of the appeal of the game. Super Mario Odyssey rewards you for being curious as well as aimless, ensuring that you'll walk away from each play session with scores of moons bursting from your pockets. It might feel a bit condescending at times, sure ("you got a moon for looking under the bed!"), but it's a great game to unwind to, letting you play however you see fit. Think you'll get something for stacking nearby goombas? You're right! What about going fishing in the sand? That too! How about jumping down this suspicious-looking hole that's probably a pit? Well, more often than not it is a pit, but sometimes it's not!!! For some, Odyssey's moons felt like artificial validation, but for me they were a neat checklist to kick back and complete, bit by bit.

The big gimmick of Odyssey—invading another creature's body with your soul & mustache—is thankfully one that doesn't dominate the gameplay. I really like that each world has its own particular enemy to inhabit, but the game is at its most pleasant when you're steering Mario around the obstacle course-like nature of the geography. That said, a lot of the transformations are clever and wholly different from one another; my favorites were the uproot, tropical wiggler, and pokio, all for their unique traversal mechanics. The body invasion animation lasts like a third of a second too, which makes alternating between Mario and your target a breeze. Before I played the game I was dreading the use of Odyssey's manipulative Mariohood mechanic, but I walk away humbled and impressed; as arrogant as this sounds, Nintendo rarely disappoints.

Super Mario Odyssey serves as an amazing introduction to the core principles of a Mario title: namely jumping, exploring, and having fun. The gentle difficulty curve of the game isn't to my liking, but I still respect the hell out of it, and every time I sat down to play I found myself enthused to scour yet another land for moons. From the colorful worlds you'll visit to the outlandish outfits you'll don (the wedding dress and pirate garb are smokin' on Mario), the sojourn to Odyssey's quirky universe is one that's well worth it. You'll see a lot of gnarly sights, long jump headfirst into a lot of walls, and find your heart warmed by the good vibes emanating from this lovely, lovely game.

Title screen obtained from:

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) - Thoughts

[preamble begins]

The undying fervor for the Sonic franchise is perhaps gaming's greatest enigma. Rare few properties receive the same unbreakable support that the blue hedgehog is showered with, a fact which becomes considerably more perplexing when you account for the series' poor track record. It's a franchise with a prolific resume wherein every title feels like a second chance, and every step forward finds itself countered by a baffling step backwards. Sonic's legacy is one of clarifications and conjunctions—it's difficult to talk about its games without needing to address a bevy of complaints, all of which will be defended by someone somewhere. It almost prides itself on how often it can let down its fans, a bullish sentiment which suffers no consequences because the goodwill garnered by the kinda fun titles will always outweigh the sloppy, unrefined, and often painful design of its numerous lesser entries.

The Sonic franchise is a Lovecraftian abomination for kids—it is one that is simultaneously steeped in boundless optimism and multifaceted madness. To that end, I'd argue that its most ardent fans aren't merely just supporters of the series, but thralls of nostalgia to the community and culture that surrounds it. The blood sacrifices from their wallets keep its decrepit blue heart beating while the world looks on in awe, wondering why their own beloved 90s anthropomorphic icon died—and yet Sonic somehow continues to shuffle on. But none should yearn for Sonic's fate, for he is eternally doomed to wander a limbo of ambivalent feelings, perilous platforming, and troubled fanart.

As you may have guessed, my relationship with the Sonic series is one that's been dominated by disappointment. I want to clarify beforehand that I actually liked a lot of the games growing up, and always held a special sort of reverence for the speedy scamp. Despite being a Nintendo-consoles-only kid, there was a magical quality to the Sega Genesis that always made me savor the brief occasions I got to play it at a BJs kiosk or friend's house. I was envious of Genesis owners, having to make do with PC ports that frequently crashed (Sonic CD) or were downright subpar entries (Sonic 3D Blast). But my prayers were answered in 2002 thanks to the Sonic Mega Collection for Gamecube, which allowed me to finally sit down and play through the series' revered roots for the first time at my own pace. So know that my disdain doesn't stem from a fanboy vendetta or aversion to gloved mammals—it's the unyielding death spiral of quality that continues to vex me.

[preamble ends]

There's no hyperbole in claiming that the 3.5 Sonic platformers on Genesis remain the best in the series. After all, this was when Sonic was at his simplest and most formative, exposing a number of young minds to the inchoate concept of speedrunning. The first entry in the series is the roughest of the 16-bit era, as evidenced by its slower levels and lack of a spin dash. But at its core, Sonic the Hedgehog is a solid game that leaves plenty of room to build off of its noteworthy blueprint.

What's kind of interesting about Sonic the Hedgehog—and is also a trait that will almost entirely define Sonic CD—is the focus on platforming. Nowadays we rightfully correlate Sonic with speed, but the hedgehog's inception was a decidedly more cautious outing, where "going fast" was only viable roughly half of the time. The way the game breaks up its pacing by zone works adequately well in isolation, but compared to what the series would eventually become, it's hard to deny that Sonic the Hedgehog is... kind of obnoxious. The sweet satisfaction that comes from blazing through a level can only be found in Green Hill Zone; a considerable portion of Sonic's first adventure is designed to impede your momentum as much as possible.

The amount of speed bumps Sonic the Hedgehog uses weren't really apparently to me until I replayed through it looking for them—and there's a lot. Marble Zone is full of spike lifts and slow block riding sections, enemies like Orbinaut and Bomb are nettlesome time-wasters meant to punish you for rolling, and Scrap Brain Zone is chock-full of rude pitfalls thanks to the strict timing of its bridges and platforms. This isn't even touching the molasses-like mess of Labyrinth Zone, where the notorious oxygen timer is a lesser threat compared to wading past spike traps while your acceleration is hamstrung. To safely reach the credits you have to constantly play the game at a snail's pace, tapping the right button in one second bursts just to make sure you can spot an upcoming enemy or hazard. Often when it looks like you can go fast, it's a trap; in Star Light Zone Act 1, if you take the lower path and roll into a ball, the road will maliciously fling you off into a pit.

This isn't to say that constant obstacles are an atrocious design choice—it's just that they don't play to Sonic's strengths. I think there's a time and place for momentum-based platforming challenges (I kind of like Labyrinth Zone in a masochistic way) but there's no comfortable balance between the mindless gratification of holding right and nervously inching your way forward. Placing Green Hill Zone first was a smart move because of how smooth, fun, and friendly it plays compared to the rest of the game; the verdant introduction gives the impression that Sonic has always been about speed and not strictly platforming. Yet if you jump ahead to the latter half of the game, it'll suddenly feel like every act is doing all it can to rob you of rings.

Brushing aside the lack of speed, the rest of Sonic the Hedgehog is alright. The colorful visuals and hip music are its best assets and would continue to be the only two features that remained consistent across most of the series. The bonus stage is uh... wonky and awkward, but the Sonic games rarely have good bonus stages anyway, and at least this one isn't too frustrating. I like the idea of requiring the player to be holding 50 rings to access it, but I'm less keen on how 'continues' are gated behind the bonus stage. A lot of 1-up/Continue systems can make or break platformers, and had Sonic's system been a little more lenient, perhaps I could more easily forgive it for its impenetrable rudeness.

Thankfully, countering the Continue drought is the hilariously generous ring system—which is kinda crazy to consider that it's still around. I've never been a fan of the ring system myself: it's both too punishing and too lenient. Losing all of your rings for taking a single hit when you're hoping to get to the special stages or gather 1-Ups is severely disheartening, while on the flip-side it's super easy to scoop up at least one ring afterwards. This also makes boss fights oscillate wildly in difficulty, since attacks on the sides of the screen are way more dangerous than those in the center. Sonic the Hedgehog at least accounts for this fact in its boss fights by either letting you only hit Robotnik at the edges or threatening you by routinely denying space, which is surprising given that the series completely abandons trying to adjust for this later on.

Kind of like the franchise itself, I have a lot of conflicting feelings for Sonic the Hedgehog. There are times where I find myself thinking "oh man this is kinda neat"—like with some of the alternate routes through slower zones—and then I find myself ducking underwater for an Orbinaut's tortoiselike projectiles to pass by, wondering, "Was Sonic doomed to mediocrity from the very beginning?" The answer, of course, is no: there's a lot of novel ideas present in Sonic that hadn't been done until the blue blur sprinted onto the scene, and unlike a lot of other Sonic games down the line, the first entry is a must-play for people seeking to understand Sonic. It might be kind of clunky in retrospect, but Sonic nevertheless owes its legacy to the strength of its Genesis debut.