Monday, July 19, 2021

Frogger (1997) - Thoughts


It's always interesting to return to a game that you haven't played since your childhood. Before you develop qualitative reasonings behind "good" vs "bad", games are simply games: digital challenges you're meant to overcome. Sure, some of them are harder than others, but you don't yet have a nuanced understanding to differentiate between a carefully curated difficulty and a RNG-based one. Generally, stuff you can beat is fair, and whatever you can't beat is unfair. Later on you might return to realize that what you thought was impossible or unfair is actually wisely balanced, and what you thought was fair—just because you could beat it—may be far from what you'd label as "good."

Enter Frogger, the rad 1997 reboot of the old arcade game. I'm not quite sure when I got it on PC, but I was at least 10 or 11 years old—and Frogger was tough. It wasn't tough like Doom 2 on Nightmare or the Starcraft campaign, but it was challenging enough to stump me... primarily because I didn't know how to rotate the camera. I returned a few years later to it and beat it, cementing it as one of my favorite platformers that wasn't a 2D sidescroller. My fondness for it was such that every time I saw the cover image, my heart would soar and I would think, "Man, I should play that again." Now at over double the age I beat it at, I've returned to complete Frogger once more...

... and uh, let's just say I am ambivalent.


First off, I love how this game looks. It's bright, peppy, and always vivid, even in dark or murky areas like the caves and sewers. Every locale feels distinct, housing unique platforms and foes, though all either does is follow a predetermined loop around the stage. Still, as a big fan Super Mario Bros 3 and Mega Man, the focus on strongly-themed zones is right up my alley, and in a way Frogger might've helped shaped that. I also like how quick and snappy the green amphibian feels, allowing you to effortlessly zip past enemies if you see a gap in their pathing. For a game that looks so kid-friendly, you might be surprised at how fast you can move—and how fast you'll need to move.

That's because Frogger is ruthlessly challenging. The game takes roughly 8-10 hours to beat, though a single stage's playtime rarely runs over five minutes. With only 28 stages total that means there's about 6-8 hours that you're going to spend dying over and over and OVER. Deaths will come suddenly and without mercy; should the faintest sliver of Frogger's hitbox brush against an enemy's leg, that frog's as dead as roadkill. If there's another thing I can commend the game for, it's that the starting arcade-throwback zone is the perfect indicator of how mean-spirit the game will soon become.

A big part of Frogger's difficulty lies in the fact that the game is unabashedly oldschool, valuing your patience for trail and error far more than quick reflexes or clever thinking. Every level has five frogs you'll need to rescue strewn somewhere across it, and while you can get a handful of them without foreknowledge, expect to discover most while making a suicidal dash through the stage. You'll be hemmed in by three aspects that make the world of Frogger a menace to explore: a strict timer, asynchronous patterns, and a camera that's glued to your slimy back.


The timer is the most threatening aspect that, ironically, won't actually kill you most of the time. It can be absurdly tight on some stages, pressuring you to barrel through the level without delay—and as you can imagine, this will often send you straight into the jaws of doom. Yet while I can appreciate a game with a no-nonsense timer, the asynchronous patterns are a massive headache to deal with. Crisscrossing foes or parallel platforms fall in and out of sync as stages drag on, and neither dying nor rescuing a frog will reset them. On a decent number of levels this is somewhat manageable, but when your path narrows down to a one-way road, expect an unavoidable death to pop up most of the time.

Adding salt to this wound is the camera, which will zoom in and out whenever it pleases. Sometimes you'll be riding a single-space platform, unable to see where you're going—and Frogger isn't shy about tossing you off a cliff. Other times you'll be trekking down that dreaded one-way road, unable to observe if the crisscrossing enemies are in sync until it's too late and you're sandwiched. The stage that exemplifies this problem the most is Big Boulder Alley, a monstrous experience that took me a good two hours to finally beat, requiring a level of memorization and planning that would make Battletoads jealous. Seriously, a full day later and I still remember it clearly: go east, hop over two bugs, north, hop over one bug, east, then south, double hop two bugs, double hop two bugs, east two spaces, hop, east two spaces, hop, north, hop two bugs, north until wall. That's only half of the path to a single frog and a fraction of a second worth of delay will ruin the entire run.

The cherry on top of this devil's dessert is that there's no "retry" option when you pause the game; as you die, your muscle memory becomes useless as the entire level is out of sync. For the easier levels this doesn't pose a problem, but there's a number of difficult levels where you absolutely can't see what's coming up ahead of you (Retro Level 5, Frogger Goes Skiing, Resevoir Frogs), making it feel like you're playing blindfolded. And on top of this you're booted straight to the main menu whenever you game over, despite that the game uses a level select system that can take you right back to where you were. Why no "retry stage" options? What was the reasoning here? At times Frogger just feels plain mean-spirited for the sake of it, as if it's harkening back to the arcade days where the layman was given no quarter (or rather, gave all their quarters, ba-dum-tss)


In the I end, I still enjoyed my time with Frogger. The game is embedded so firmly in my nostalgia center that I could never hate it. But the simple premise and warm colors belie a game with an unaccommodating design, one that really needed to use the brake pedal more often. At times it's interestingly and fairly designed—the final level is a well-balanced obstacle course—but Frogger's worst offenders drag the game down considerably, reverting you back to a red-faced child about to toss their controller. On one hand I'm impressed that I managed to conquer Frogger at a young age, but on the other I can see why it fell through the cracks and was forgotten post-adolescence.

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Images obtained from: arcadingonline.com, myabandonware.com

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Monster Hunter - Thoughts


In preparation of Monster Hunter Rise's release, I thought it was a good idea to slowly chip away at the granddaddy of the series: Monster Hunter on the PS2. And with no uncertainty do these next words come: don't play this game. You might flinch at that statement, thinking the worst the game has to offer is that it's outdated or visually unappealing, but it goes so much deeper than that. The first Monster Hunter was an online game meant to be played with friends, where rote hunts and boring load times were counterbalanced by idle banter. Without that, you are left with a raw, brutish solo experience that I'd be surprised if anyone—even diehard fans of the series—can stick with past the opening hours.

And it's not that Monster Hunter is too difficult or awkward to play—it's that it has a soul-crushing grind for gear.


There are two aspects that Monster Hunter can laud over its successors, the first being its originality. Monster Hunter established  almost all of the series' staples, whether it's the core gameplay, resource gathering, item crafting, weapon trees, armor trees, enemies, setting, story structure—you name it. Even the weird way the game separates online and offline quests traces its roots to this humble title, with the exception that you can't even enter the hub without a network adapter installed (which is no big loss since the servers are dead anyway.) Monster Hunter is kind of like Pokemon in that the first entry laid the foundation for every other title going forward, even though many of its designs nowadays could be considered tedious and punishingly draconic.

The only other thing Monster Hunter excels at is that it makes you work hard for your victories. There's no expedition hunts, no lock on, no palico buddies, no farm—not even a goddamn canteen to stuff your face at at. All you get are two expensive stores with pitiful stocks and a box with two pages of inventory. Every potion you consume needs to be manually crafted from ingredients found out in the wild, the nodes often blending in with their surroundings (good luck spotting mushrooms.) Combat can't be won by roll spamming or button mashing (er, analog mashing, as attacks are mapped to the right stick of all things) since your character's movements are as slow as molasses in the dead of winter. Plus monsters not only hit hard but have some crazy hitboxes attached to their body, dishing out near-instantaneous hip checks and tail spins that'll wreck you if you're anywhere near them. I used to think folks online were joking about Yian Kut-Ku being their first roadblock, but hoo boy, that fight against him in the jungle biome can really test your patience (as well as vision—why are there so many damn trees?!)

The neat thing about this is that you're forced to engage with all of Monster Hunter's systems on a conscious level. Unlike modern Monster Hunter titles where you can luck into a new piece of equipment after a single hunt, here you'll be spending a lot of time grinding out low rank gear in order to survive. Ingredients are no longer something that you'll mindless gather either; you'll beeline out of your way during hunts to visit honey, mushroom, and ore deposits, possibly restarting the hunt if the hauls are poor. And monsters being no joke makes preparing before a hunt paramount, as every second Plesioth spends in the water inches you that much closer to the dreaded time-out. There's no other game in the series that forces you to be as "ready" as the original Monster Hunter—but this compliment is tainted with a poisonous consequence...

... You have to do a lot of mindless grinding.


Before I begin, let me just say that I have nearly 1000 cumulative hours spread across four (now five!) games in the series, and it's become one of my all-time favorites. Therefore my frustration with Monster Hunter on the PS2 likely doesn't come from a disdain for the franchise, nor confusion as to why its mechanics work the way they do. I've endured the egg deliveries, I've withstood the Khezu roar-spam, and I no longer groan at being paralyzed by vespoids while mining. I appreciate the series for its eccentricity and stubbornness, and sympathize with fans that gripe about how the modern games have been streamlined, such as with the removal of paintballs and allowing you to switch gear mid-hunt. As Monster Hunter has becoming more accommodating, it's chiseled down its barrier to entry, losing some of the grit and workmanship that was required to get into it—two aspects that could make even mundane hunts rewarding.

But the first Monster Hunter game is terrible. I could go on about the pathetic monster roster, the lack of quest variety, how imprecise it feels to attack with the right analog stick, and how vexing Velocipreys are (JUST LET ME CARVE), but what broke my back was the process of making gear. You start the game with a sword & shield and no armor, making finding new gear a top priority. But the economy in Monster Hunter is brutal: you receive about 300-800 zenny per quest, yet armor costs anywhere from 1500-3000 per part. Plus every piece of equipment requires you to mine for ore, but iron pickaxes cost 160 zenny and can snap after a single use, so you'll be digging through your box often for monster parts to sell. But that's not the worst part, oh no—it's the damn machalite ore.

This garbage mineral is found only in area 5 of the starting zone, despite there being ore deposits in areas 6 and 11. Worse yet is that the node has roughly a 10-15% chance to drop machalite when mined, and nodes can not only exhaust after a single use but also stay depleted for the entire hunt! And even worse is that there's no ore gathering quests, meaning the quickest and most efficient way to farm machalite is to start a Velocidrome quest, run to area 5, pray for a single drop, and then hunt the Velocidrome! I must've run through this hunt a hundred or so times; I acquired over 100,000 zenny from selling nothing other than Velocidrome scales and fangs—but I still didn't have all the ore I needed!


To upgrade my hammer to its final level, I had to mine a whopping 85 machalite ore, of which I reckon I had a 50/50 chance of obtaining 1 per Velocidrome hunt. Considering that the hunt takes roughly five minutes, this totals to 10 hours of grinding, which checks out: I reached the Rathalos by hour 27 of my playthrough, and managed to best him around around hour 36. Luckily I used audiobooks to numb my sorrow, but I can't express how absolutely dull this entire process was. I wasn't playing Monster Hunter anymore—I was struggling with a fickle one-armed bandit that paid out with 6 machalite ore only once and 0 machalite dozens and dozens of times.

And I know what you're thinking: "Why did you need the best hammer to beat Rathalos? Why not get better armor? Or mine in a different area? Or just play better?" Alas, I seriously tried all three avenues. The best armor I could get with fire resist was the Yian Kut-Ku set—which I made. While the desert and jungle locales had machalite nodes (only one each AFAIK), the former required farming piscine livers (nooo thank you) and the latter had you gathering 10 mushrooms in vespoid-infested areas. Lastly, I gave the Rathalos about three admirable attempts, all of which took over thirty minutes and ended in crushing defeat. After besting him I think I could've done it with the penultimate hammer upgrade, but knowing I had a goddamn Plesioth ahead of me, I figured it was better to do my grinding now rather than later. And thank god I did because that Plesioth hunt was absurdly dull, repetitive, and long—timing out there would've put me in a straight jacket.

What really rubs me the wrong way is that Monster Hunter didn't need to be like this. It could've had a mineral gathering quest, or let the player go on expeditions, or allow nodes to replenish, or add a Rathian (or Basarios) hunt before the Rathalos hunt so you could craft better armor—all of which future titles would do! Even something simple like giving the player invulnerability frames while they're on the ground can make a huge difference in a fight, as the game loves to combo you to death in a corner and there's nothing you can do about it (getting up is automatically done for you!) I know a lot of this is me looking backwards and struggling to see what the first Monster Hunter did right instead of wrong, but what it did wrong is in the meat of its gameplay, present at every moment you're in control. It's baffling to me that the game managed to take off in Japan considering how janky, agitating, and obstinate the first entry is. Was the online that good? Was the concept that novel that it helped folks overlook how shamelessly repetitive the game is?

And god, there are so many other parts of Monster Hunter that grate on me. Why are quests randomly unavailable? Why does the cooking minigame have such tight timing?  Why make all the starting weapons so expensive? Why do I have to personally bring my materials to the blacksmith for crafting when they know how much of a material I have? Why end the village questline on a Monoblos hunt instead of one of the three elder dragons? Why is the egg delivery the only quest that's thirty minutes? Why make the fish wyverns spend 90% of their time not on land? Why make bullfangos? Why infinitely spawn monsters in some zones but not others? Why do some quests get hot/cold drinks in the supply box but not others? And why the hell doesn't the game let you know that you can't capture an enrage monster? Oh don't worry—you can still put them to sleep inside of the goddamn trap, but as long as they're enraged the hunt doesn't complete! I failed to capture a Rathalos twice due to this, wracking my brain as his sleeping face poked partway out of the pitfall trap, mocking me. I only found out that it's impossible to capture enraged monsters from reading youtube comments in broken english, which is where my tolerance for the game had truly reached its end.


I was excited to sit down and play the original Monster Hunter, to discover where the series had started and learn how much it had grown. Plus it would give me some fun bragging rights—lots of people may have played through Freedom, but how many reached the credits of the original PS2 game? Unfortunately, there's no bragging rights to be found here; pouring hours into the game will only yield what I'd honestly describe as a miserable experience. I could only recommend Monster Hunter to veterans of the series that not only have an unshakable love for it, but also find old bad games to be better than new good games. The progenitor of the Monster Hunter franchise may boast a promising premise, but it lacks quantity as well as quality, doling out 1 minute of fun for every 10 minutes of suffering. 

And it's only mediocre fun, at that.
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Images obtained from: amazon.com, neoseeker.com, Amazon.com

Monday, April 19, 2021

Anthem - Thoughts


What is Anthem? And what does it want to be?

To anyone that's played a modicum of Destiny, the answer is simple: Destiny. Some may argue that it's an inflammatory comparison, that not "every shooter with a GaaS model is Destiny!" but there's no use denying it. Anthem was designed as EA's multiplayer, always-online looter-shooter, the perfect rival to Bungie's baby. Yet in a way, there is more—so much more—to Anthem than that. There's a big sci-fi fantasy world, and awesome mech suits, and flying, and a combo system, and a bunch of other elements that shuffle off the Destiny comparisons. But Anthem isn't really any of those things either. 

No, it's something worse; Anthem is something that no game wants to be...


For the most part, Anthem is fully playable, as well as fully enjoyable. As of April 2021 (the month I played it), you can jump in with squadmates, pick a class, blast through story missions and strongholds, and find plenty of gear for your javelin. All of Anthem's features exist in theory, but after playing for a dozen hours, they'll all feel a little... off. The biggest issue is that since the game is no longer actively supported, its player base is dying. You'll get stuck in matchmaking to end up with nobody, and then forcibly assigned partners in spaces where you don't want them—specifically freeplay mode, aka "just run around and collect stuff". And similar to Destiny, Anthem's more difficult, late-game content is nearly impossible to get through solo, which drives the nail further into the coffin.

Since I never really dabbled in Anthem's lategame content, I can't speak to how satisfying it is once it's been mastered. But I didn't have the drive or desire to do so either; finishing the main story and strongholds were all I really cared about, and in that regard Anthem manages to impress roughly 10-20% of the time. I think it has a decently strong start and that the javelin suits are well designed and varied, but after a couple hours Anthem is stuck spinning its wheels in the mud. Its singular overworld feels subdued and samey, its mission variety sorely lacking, and most of enemies are forgettable. Even worse is that killing said enemies lacks fanfare, so you're never really sure if a target you've attacked is dead or close to it. Destiny comparisons may get overwrought by the end of this entry, but if enemy death animations is something Bungie got right, then Anthem shows how to make it feel "wrong."


The biggest piece of praise I can heap on Anthem is how short your ability cooldowns are, allowing you to use your coolest skills multiple times over a single encounter. And unlike Destiny, these aren't just flavored variations of "grenade" or "melee strike"—each suit has multiple abilities that vie for the left and right bumper slots, as well as several armor components that can enhance your damage. While this all sounds cool, Anthem inexplicably commits a "looter" sin by locking your loadout for any mission you undertake. So you can't quickly compare weapons or even see what loot you've acquired until you return back to base, which entails a hefty load screen and pointless "XP acquired" ceremony. To anyone that thinks traveling to the Tower in Destiny is a painstaking process, imagine having to go there every time you wanted to equip a single piece of gear.

Being able to wield nifty javelin abilities unfortunately comes with a dark side: your firearms stink. As the interceptor class, I had the most fun chucking high damage glaives and spamming melee to cleave through multiple opponents. When I couldn't do either I was left to rely on my weapons, which were frequently changing as I was leveling up. Sometimes I would find a good shotgun, and then a terrible shotgun, and then a terrible pistol, and then a mediocre rifle. Sometimes the game would hand me a weapon that, despite being higher level than everything else, did less damage than a single tap of my melee button. The firearms often felt lacking, partially due to the javelin abilities outshining them, but also because you can find a dull, gray, slow-reloading sniper rifle in almost every other shooter on the market.

Flying around in Anthem is another one of the game's strengths, though it comes with its own nonsensical drawback in the form of an overheat meter. Denying the player the ability to fly/float makes sense in some encounters and settings, but the gradually-building overheat meter makes little sense as a mechanic, since all you have to do is land for a brief two seconds to deplete it. That means your exploration will be repeatedly interrupted by a need to stop for an insignificant amount of time, which can wear on you akin to fishing pennies out of your wallet. Flying straight downwards can help cool your jets, but it's not nearly as effective as just landing for two seconds and then taking off again. Smarter game designers might find ways to make this mechanic interesting, but Anthem leaves it as an irritating afterthought.


Besides the snazzy javelin skills and free roam flying, there isn't really much else Anthem offers the player. You'd think with the narrative pedigree behind BioWare that Anthem's story would at least be compelling, but like Destiny it's just kind of... there. Characters exist to funnel you into repeatable missions, the game's vague terminology never receives any clarity, and the decisions you make result in arbitrary faction rep and nothing else. At times you can see BioWare's trademark charm in the captivating facial animations, but for the most part Anthem is an entirely forgettable affair with an entirely predictable story. It's something one might've predicted coming out of Guerilla Games pre-Horizon, not BioWare post-Mass Effect.

There's a host of other issues surrounding the game, including the more damning mission-breaking bugs, latency affecting combat, and frequent crashes, but nothing vexed me more than the infuriating "treasure hunting" halfway through the story. At this point Anthem is trying to familiarize players with its world, tasking them with a list of objectives to complete, one of which is to find 15 treasure chests. But these secretive caches are not easy to find, and are prone to already being opened by other players in freeplay mode, which—need I remind you—cannot be played solo. So your best bet is to do world events over and over, which gets old fast. Again, I understand the intention here, but the quest could've worked as a mere 5 quests, instead of bloating your playtime by two hours with the most boring content in the game.

See, this is the problem with Anthem in a nutshell: it's good enough that I can't imagine anyone hating the game, but it has so many issues that I can't imagine anyone actively wanting to play it. Maybe I'm being too harsh, my judgment clouded by the fact that EA has abandoned the title, but I'm not sure having a stable community would change my opinion. I think Anthem is decent enough but (for the third time this entry) largely forgettable, being brought down by a host of little issues that culminate into one big "I can't believe this is what BioWare spent their time making." It's fluid and flashy but ultimately hollow, requiring too much grinding for too little content; the first few hours after you get your javelin are where Anthem is at its best, and that might honestly be all you need to play if you're interested.


So, have you figured out the answer to "What is Anthem?" There's a clue at the very top of this post: it's the logo picture I used.

True—I could've chosen the vibrant, official logo from Bioware for the Anthem titlecard... but I didn't. That's because the logo you see up above is the same as the one you see in game; this is what Bioware presents their pet project as. It's partially finished, hidden behind patches and faulty wires, with the promise of "fun stuff coming soon!" somewhere off in the distance. You can hop in your mech suit and enjoy what's there, but it won't last; slowly Anthem will eat at you, and you'll be left wondering what there is to do or why you're even still playing. The half-built logo foretells what you'll come to learn, sourly, in due time: Anthem is a competent mess, despite desperately not wanting to be one.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Fire Emblem: Three Houses - Thoughts


[contains minor spoilers]

It didn't take long for me to conclude that Fire Emblem: Three Houses is my favorite in the franchise. I'm admittedly not too well-versed in the series—I've only played four out of its staggering sixteen entries—but Three Houses makes an impressive argument that I'm not sure the other games could beat. Every Fire Emblem since the NES debut has generally followed the same formula: take control a ragtag band of heroes as you fight back against an evil empire, with the infamous catch that any hero that falls in battle is gone for good. And while Three Houses very much keeps this premise alive, the way it goes about executing it makes the game the most approachable—and complex!—Fire Emblem to date.


The biggest (and most contentious) upheaval Fire Emblem: Three Houses brings to the series is a Persona-styled "Free Time" system that rules gameplay between battles. During Free Time, you'll complete miscellaneous chores around the school that can give your units extra stats and gear—which might sound minor, but will end up occupying half of your total playtime. This probably sounds boring to those that haven't played Persona or Animal Crossing, but there's a trove of satisfaction found in gradually improving your students and picking out which duties are important for you. While some chores inevitably become rote (prepare to hear the same lunch conversations over and over), your leisure time in Three Houses rarely feels slow or meaningless. If anything, "Free Time" adds more weight to the end-of-month battles, as those are where your fruits of your labor will (hopefully) pay off.

It's easy to look at how "modernized" the series has become and assume combat has gotten gentler, but Three Houses refutes that sentiment wholeheartedly. The game not only presents a stiff challenge (on Hard) but also hands the players plenty of tools to customize their army, adding multiple layers to your preparation. Along with the typical weapon loadout, there are equippable items, battalions, gambits, combat arts, adjutants, crests, and a class system where any character can promote into a class of their choosing—provided they meet certain requirements. Having skipped the series from the Wii release and onwards, you can imagine how robust Three Houses felt for me, especially considering that Fire Emblem's age-old gameplay pillar of "who fights whom?" isn't really lacking. Throw in some unique map gimmicks and gargantuan monsters that require team-wide coordination, and I'd contest that Three Houses emerges as the most strategic game in the franchise.

If that seems daunting to newcomers, note that Fire Emblem: Three Houses includes some much-needed accessibility options—namely the rewind mechanic and the ability to disable permadeath. Both aren't new to this entry but they're welcome improvements that can win over curious onlookers, as well as being completely optional features which hardcore vets can ignore. I personally think permadeath makes Fire Emblem a better, more memorable series, but I recognize that some folks might just want to hang out with their anime friends and forego the gut-wrenching panic that enemy crits induce. Admittedly, I found myself occasionally using the rewind mechanic to undo poorly thought-out moves too. In my defense the game is long enough without having to restart battles from scratch!


If there's something Fire Emblem: Three Houses struggles with, it's its visuals. Character portraits and their models are gorgeous, but the entire backdrop to the game—textures, locales, lighting—feel dated, if not lacking. At times it comes across as a remaster of a 3DS game, marred by too much empty space and a strict adherence to orthogonal angles. These issues don't really develop into nuisances however; Three Houses' visuals simply aren't impressive, and that's the worst part about them. Thankfully, the tremendous score more than makes up for the mediocre graphics, and the voice acting is top notch, especially for a dubbed game.

To tie this (mostly) masterful package together is a cast of lovable characters that will entangle you in some difficult decisions. As mentioned before, Fire Emblem games have always been about fighting oppressive, cartoonishly-evil empires, but Three Houses adds a beautiful twist to this formula. At the start of the game you'll pick one of three cliques to support, and then the other two are cruelly (but logically) morphed into your antagonists. Smartly, it waits to twist this knife until at least a third of the way through the story, letting you grow attached to each of the students in the opening hours before revealing what side of the war they're fighting on. It hurts having to dispatch of some of them, because you've talked with them, spent time with them, and come to understand they're not terrible people—they're just a roadblock on the path to justice.

Foes becoming friends is an old trick in the Fire Emblem playbook, which is what helps makes the inverse feel that much more surprising. On top of that, the schism between the titular three houses is due to ideology and methodology, instead of base desires or naked greed. Three Houses is surprisingly nuanced, laden with pained history that will have you arguing with real-life friends and strangers whether or not your house was justified in their actions. And the brilliant part is that no matter which path you choose, your perspective will always be that of the hero and liberator. Three Houses echoes that history is written by the victors, and that the larger the revolution, the larger the cost.


Fire Emblem: Three Houses knocks it out of the park on almost every front. Besides the visuals, the only other quibble I can think of is that some of the Battalion gambits are too powerful, as they can quickly change the tide of battle for both you and your enemies. But at least that ends up becoming a tactical consideration, just like picking your weapons or choosing which characters get to deliver the killing blow. Three Houses makes the series more personable with the "Free Time" system, as well as more approachable with the rewind ability. And series vets need not worry as the game doubles down on tough decisions you'll have, both on the battlefield and off. It is the best of both worlds; it is the best Fire Emblem game ever made; it has the best narrative Nintendo will (likely) ever produce.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Into the Breach - Thoughts

 
Into the Breach is a paradox. And no, not a time-travelling one; Subset Games' sophomore effort is a perfect experience that's dogged by its perfection. It sounds nonsensical, but hear me out: you know how there's some games you love but probably won't ever play again? Usually they require too much of a time investment (World of Warcraft) or offer the greatest value on your first experience (Undertale), but either way you're not compelled to return. To have this happen with a procedurally generated game—one that's designed for repeated playthroughs—typically forewarns of a broken system, lack of variety, or crushing length. Into the Breach has none of those, but is instead so beautifully balanced that finally figuring out how to play it eliminates your need to.


The premise for Into the Breach is phenomenal: ginormous bugs are attacking Earth, and the only way to stop them is by using equally ginormous robots (that uh, also travel through time). While it sounds like the perfect pitch for an EDF clone, Into the Breach plays closer to a game like chess, prioritizing positional advantages and impactful moves. Each battle opens by showing you how the bugs plan to attack, and you must counter them for four or five turns, whereupon the pests will retreat. The catch is that more bugs will emerge out of the ground every turn, so you must keenly balance offense with defense, eliminating major threats while finding ways to deny their reinforcements.

After a few runs you'll see that the chess comparison isn't just for show: turns are porcelain-delicate, with one wrong move sending you spiraling into defeat. Eventually, you'll shift your thinking from "how do I kill these bugs" to "how do I kill them as efficiently as possible", scouring the battlefield for a better move than the one you have. You'll learn to create two results from a single action, visualize the HP of your mechs as an expendable resource, and finally, reach the epiphany that your objective is simply to stop the bugs, not kill them. To help you on this journey are different mech squads that can be unlocked over time, expanding not only your toolkit, but also the way you approach problem solving. While there are a ton of intricate systems you'll have to adapt to, don't let that discourage you—you can succeed on your very first run so long as you use your brain.

This brings us to Into the Breach's biggest draw, as well as the Achilles' heel of its replayability: semi-perfect information. Most of the game's randomness is dealt with before and after a battle, when you're choosing assignments to take, opening time pods, and purchasing items from a shop. Though enemy reinforcements are somewhat unpredictable, you won't be overwhelmed with more than you can handle—and even if that does happen, it's usually because you made a dumb mistake somewhere (like foolishly going to the island with the spider boss). The only hard dice rolling the game does is actually in your favor, in the form of a "grid defense" that has a low (but appreciable) percent chance for buildings to avoid taking damage. Into the Breach is so meticulously balanced that any team you pick is guaranteed to net you a four-island victory on Hard, provided you know how to correctly react to the RNG you're given.


That might sound obvious to roguelite players, but Into the Breach isn't nearly as susceptible to faulty reactions or lethal saving throws; all pertinent information is given to you, so there's always a salvageable move somewhere. That's not to say you will never lose, but that your losses will make perfect sense in hindsight. Besides resignations from chasing achievements, I only had three serious defeats on Hard mode that I can recall: one for choosing poor weapons for the final fight, another for letting the spider boss grow out of control, and the last for picking a custom squad that lacked "push" potential. While it might be tempting to blame the "grid defense" for failing me, the truth is that I could've rectified all three runs had I made better choices along the journey.

And therein lies the rub; Into the Breach is a majestic Rubik's Cube of options, where fun is found in discerning a method by which to solve it, rather than physically completing the task. The game can still entertain in a meditative way, similar to daily chess and sudoku puzzles, but absent is the nail-biting thrill found in an FTL run, where you're anxiously scouring the sector map for a repair station. And sometimes, it's nice to play a game that's devoid of RNG-failure, where messy fights won't leave you bruised or bitter. Sure, frustration tends to play an element (my artillery got webbed AGAIN?!) but your quest to 100% the game will see you achieving a zen state, fear and doubt leaving the equation. You'll understand that every map is solvable, every pilot useful, and that you've won run before launching out of the hangar. In being so well-balanced, Into the Breach effectively solves itself, and then asks you whether or not you can replicate its solution.

However, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that there is an absurdly difficult optional challenge: take no building damage over the entire run. While it is doable, it requires a level of transcendence that I probably won't be able to reach, demanding intimate knowledge of every weapon, map, and even the enemy AI. I've gotten somewhat close at times but I always make a mistake somewhere, given that 2+ hours is a long time to play a game flawlessly. And while I appreciate the existence of that challenge, it conversely creates disappointment; there's nothing to test your mettle between the extremes of "no damage taken" and "Hard mode." The closest thing I can think of is selecting a "Random Squad" as your team, which will hand you occasionally tricky combinations (three science vessels?!) Yet one or two store visits will usually round out your arsenal—if you haven't crashed and burned before getting to that point. I think more modes could go a long way towards spicing things up, but as it currently stands, knowing the game "well enough" works somewhat to its detriment.


I hope what I've written isn't misleading—I adore Into the Breach and would rate it at least a 9/10. But... I'm obviously bothered by my lack of need to return to it. Perhaps I'm just judging it too harshly. Most roguelites succumb to mastery eventually, where even difficult games like Nethack, Spelunky and Slay the Spire can yield double digit winstreaks. But personally, I still look at those games and see the ominous possibility of failure looming overhead, heavy as a headsman's ax. Into the Breach on the other hand carries a footnote of failure, one devoid of bad luck, poor response time, and unfair design. If humanity falls to the insect invasion, the most probably reason is that you were simply too impulsive. Into the Breach is a wonderful, enthralling experience while it lasts—but once you can read it like a book, I guess there's little else to do besides shut it and move on.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Dragon Age 2 - Thoughts


[contains minor spoilers]

I spent half of my blog entry on Dragon Age: Origin griping about how difficult the game was, so imagine my surprise when I sauntered into Dragon Age 2 and found it to be even harder. I'm not sure what compelled BioWare to double-down on the unforgiving nature of the series, but double down they did and man oh man did it give me a rough time. My playthrough took nearly sixty hours and I'd say a good twenty of that was spent in menus, meticulously equipping and re-equipping my companions, staring blurry-eyed at their skill trees, hoping to find an OP ability somewhere. But no, Dragon Age 2 told me there would be no easy paths through life, and by the end I've grown to like its tough attitude—and it's not just the gameplay that gets tough.


As damning as this observation is to make, Dragon Age 2 reminds me most of Deus Ex: Invisible War. Both games are competent titles that have gotten bum raps from trying to streamline a beloved older brother. In Dragon Age 2's case, it looks towards Mass Effect 2 for inspiration, narrowing its scope and preferring combat to be flashy rather than mundane. But these changes are taken to their extreme, reducing the world of Thedas to a single city and having every single character—even the mages!—exaggerate their attacks as if they're middle school LARPers.

However, these issues—low locale variety and over-the-top action—are detrimental only on first glance. While Kirkwall undoubtedly would've benefited from more dungeon layouts, trapping you in the city means that you'll grow attached to the solitary setting, gradually learning more of its uncomfortable history with time. And the flashy combat is mechanically a non-issue—you can turn off button mashing in the options and basically play the game like Dragon Age: Origins, auto-attacking enemies and adjusting companion AI to suit your party's needs. For console players, not only does the spell wheel return fully intact, but it now boasts a vital new command: "move here", a tiny feature which quickly becomes an essential part of your arsenal.

Dialogue is unfortunately one aspect that's been definitely downgraded. Folks online cheekily dilute Bioware's dialogue wheel to "good choice, evil choice, sarcastic choice," but Dragon Age 2 is where the meme must've come from, because those are precisely your three options. Sure, occasionally you can lie or let one of your companions handle things, but you're no longer spoiled with the multitude of responses Origins provides, let alone the variety. Most of the choices in this game will result in binary outcomes—and even then, you're lucky if they don't inevitably turn into the same boss fight. The best thing I can say about the dialogue wheel is there's a new "mood" icon in the center of it, although good luck figuring out what "five-pointed star" and "purple diamond" mean.


That's not to say your choices don't matter or that the narrative feels weak however. The story in Dragon Age 2 is solid, but... kind of strange. Whereas most of BioWare's other games provide a central plot looming in the distance (Saren, the Reapers, the Archdemon) Dragon Age 2 doesn't have one. There's an array of offbeat story arcs and shady characters to be on the lookout for, but Hawke has no core motivation beyond a hazy "protect my family" instinct. Dragon Age 2 is a tangle of side quests that may or may not interweave with one another, knotted around three distinct threads that are mostly unrelated from one another. You'll bounce from one story, to another, to another, until eventually the game decides it's finished and rolls credits.

But like I said, this pivot isn't a detrimental move—by removing a titanic evil looming in the distance, Dragon Age 2 instead focuses on the layperson and their individual plight. Rather than deciding the fate of kings and kingdoms, you help folks find their lost shipments, foolhardy sons, and missing wives (or... what's left of them.) In turn, the conflicts in Dragon Age 2 feel more personal, as years down the line you may be forced to deal with the ramifications of your actions, forced to confront—or kill—someone you once aided. And that should scare you because a lot of outcomes in Dragon Age 2 are fairly bleak: by the end, my love dumped me, most of my relatives were dead, and I was morally obligated to execute my best party member. The narrative can certainly get frustrating at times—its overly binary and has no qualms about removing companions key to your party makeup—but it's a frustration that helps keep you on edge. Hard decisions are constantly pushed in your face, making you question whether or not you can survive the outcome.

And that bleakness wouldn't feel as potent if it weren't for the brutal gameplay design. By far the most unforgivable part about the game is that it will drop enemy reinforcements around the perimeter of the area, which has several nasty consequences: new enemies are quick to target squishy characters, area of effect spells have low utility, and you're never really sure when a fight will be winding down or starting up. Since warriors are atrocious at pulling aggro (Taunt has a 20 second cooldown!), your best bet is to spec for offense and learn to identify-then-dispatch of the problem children immediately: mages, horrors, assassins, and venomous spiders. If you don't stay on top of your party's health and positioning, you'll either blow through all your expensive consumables or watch as your ranged characters are downed fight after fight. Origins eventually dropped off in difficulty whereas Dragon Age 2 starts hard and ends hard—and this is without getting into the absurd boss fights (I hope you enjoy fighting 70 adds and navigating rock obstacles!)

Like with Origins, you'll eventually learn to adapt to the game's surprise drops, even if you never become a fan of them. Given that combat is considerably more lethal, you'll be spending even more time combing over your skill trees and equipment perks. Both of these features have been simplified from Origins, but it's a minor thing you'll hardly notice once you accept that you're not in charge of your companions' body armor. In fact I think I like the skill trees in Dragon Age 2 more because they let you spend talent points on modifiers to your existing abilities, which makes up for rotating through a long list of similar-feeling spells. Not a single time did I ever feel like Dragon Age 2 was tactically inferior to Origins; my biggest gripe will forever be that the game needs to take a chill pill when it comes to sending sending enemy reinforcements at you. And that magic resistance is too swingy. Aaand bosses are too tanky.


Going into Dragon Age 2, I was prepared for a neutered experience that was all style and no substance. Instead I got a game that was deep, full of good character moments, and much harder than either Doom Eternal or Sekiro. My experience wasn't all sunshine and smiles of course—the word "frustrating" immediately comes to mind—but I respect the game for challenging me with its narrative, economy, and gameplay. There's plenty of value to be found in Dragon Age 2, but you need to head into it understanding that it has an insatiable (and somewhat unfair) penchant for punishment.

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Images obtained from: microsoft.com, superior-realities, reddit.com, youtube.com

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight - Thoughts


Momodora III was the first entry in the series to feel like a proper game, but rdein's fourth attempt, Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight, makes III look positively childish. Reverie is Momodora but all grown-up and anxiety-riddled, filled with gloomy locations, darker story beats, and a subdued—but fitting—color palette. Gone are the simplistic Cave Story references and chibi girls slapping goofy eyeballs (well, you'll still slap monsters with a leaf, but they'll be of the shadowy and abominable variety.) Your adventure through the City of Karst will be equal parts foreboding and awe-inspiring, unsettling and beautiful; Reverie Under the Moonlight is the elegant culmination of everything rdein has learned thus far.


I'll start by revealing that Reverie is short, but not bite-sized short. I've run through the game multiple times (on increased difficulties) and none of my playthroughs have extended past three hours, with the shortest being just shy of sixty minutes. That's not to say that Reverie feels brief though; you spend a decent amount of time in each location, and just as you start to get a grasp on the enemies and traps in one area, you'll soon venture into another. This keeps Reverie feeling punchy and fresh, maintaining the energetic spirit of the old Momodora titles, but giving you enough time to settle into each zone so that you grow attached to the music and enemies as you search for goodies.

Structurally, Reverie Under the Moonlight returns to the Metroidvania genre, but keeps its levels and boss fights compact, akin to Momodora III. There's health upgrades to collect and various baubles you can equip, which add some minor flair to your combat repertoire. While there are hints of a neat combo system here, given Kaho's well-animated 3-hit chain and enemy flinch states, it's... not very deep. It is, however, quite satisfying, especially with how easily you can mix in powerful ranged attacks. The hardest difficulty requires you to essentially play the game flawlessly, taking nearly zero hits—which would brutal if not for the fact that the bow is your best offensive ability, letting you play cautiously and melt most of the bosses. If you learn to love it, the bow shall reward you well.


Not that most people will be playing the "1-hit kill" mode of course. The default difficulty is well-balanced for your first playthrough, though rdein's difficulty curve will vary from room to room. Some areas will test you with tricky foes and nasty spikes, while other times you'll stroll through a section just to unlock a shortcut and go "wait, that was it?" This is the charm of rdein's games though: you never know what to expect from one screen to the next, whether it be new foes, a new boss, or environmental vignettes.

Speaking of: Reverie, like other Momodora games, has a simple narrative that's cloaked in its own enigmatic history. Unlike Dark Souls however, there aren't easy ways to decipher and unravel it; you're a stranger to Karst and its adjoining lands, encountering and dispatching of characters that have six lines of dialogue or less. I like this approach because it gives precedence to the ambiance of Reverie over its lore, evoking the history of the Queendom in short glimpses, often found in stray details like a burnt painting or broken bird cage. Sure, there are NPCs that will give you a general gist of what's going on, but you'll feel like you're interrupting the lives of most folks you encounter—or what little life they have left.

Lastly, the game is smooth as butter to play. rdein has always nailed player control in the previous titles so this isn't a huge surprise, but coupled with the larger sprites and more detailed backgrounds, it's impossible not to be impressed with the aesthetic Reverie displays. Throw in some melancholic melodies that underpin just how forgone Karst is, and you'll find yourself remembering sections of Reverie more often than in rdein's older games. And maybe that's what strikes me so much about Reverie: it has that ineffable quality where it stays glued to your brain, even after the credits roll.


Even though I enjoyed the previous entry plenty, Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight was so captivating that I immediately started a Hard playthrough upon finishing it—and yet another playthrough after that. It's a greatly enjoyable mini-metroidvania, although using the word "mini-" belies its quality; what it lacks in longevity it makes up for in personality. Reverie feels like a complete package, full of good fights, interesting settings, smooth controls, and some really stunning music. I'd still call Momodora a quaint series, but with Reverie it's no longer as small or quiet as it used to be—and it's all the better for it.