Monday, November 30, 2015

Undertale - Thoughts

[contains spoilers]

It was an accident.

I mean, the game did instruct me on the right course of action, but I didn't want things to turn out this way—I was just trying to get Toriel down to low health so I could spare her. That's how I thought battles were supposed to go after all: just weaken them, and then let them flee. But then a sudden flash—a crit!?—and she was dead. Guilt dampened my mood as I marched forward, a flower lying in wait to taunt me with his grim face for what I've done. So instead of letting this misdeed persist, I reset.

And the game knew. Flowey mocked me for that as well, knowing that I had abused the ability to save. He warned me that he wanted that power back, and that's when I knew Toby Fox's Undertale certainly wasn't like any other "RPG" I had played before.

Well, that last statement isn't entirely true—Undertale is clearly inspired by Earthbound. From the quirky humor to the grim, 4th-wall breaking finale, Undertale takes many nods from the Nintendo classic... but never copies it. Sure, there's an emphasis on family and laughs, but the game treads its own ground by addressing what it means "kill" in an RPG. That concept is not a unique one to games, but tying certain aspects that are exclusive to the medium—like "leveling up", "saving", and "determination" (ie the will to keep playing a game)—so naturally into the narrative is a feat that has rarely been seen before. Undertale and The Beginner's Guide are the only titles released this year (that I've experienced) where their story cannot be separated from their gameplay by any means.

This inextricable link may appear subtle at first because of how innocuous the game seems. When you start off, you'll notice that the visuals are very... strange. While character models in shops are well animated, characters out in the world can range from "silly" to "downright ugly". There's a sterile, flat look to the combat that breaks the mold for the final encounters, but for the most part the enemies and attacks remain plain. It's obvious that the visuals are the game's low point—they're not offensive by any means, but they won't win any accolades.

Everything else in Undertale is absolutely captivating. The music bristles with energy and emotion, punctuating silly scenes with "Dogsong", invigorating the player with "ASGORE", and submerging you in a tidal wave of emotion with the title track. There's a huge amount of flexibility in the game's score, and I'd argue that it's one of the most memorable OSTs you'll hear all year. Seriously, how can you listen to this and not immediately hear that character's low-toned voice prattling off in your head?

The surprising variety of tunes are a herald of just how diverse Undertale is too. There's a lot of monster debating and bullet dodging to be had, but the ways in which these are constantly changed up leave the game feeling fresh over its six-hour journey. Areas don't drag on for too long, jokes don't overstay their welcome (besides the reoccurring anime ones), and the game always tries its best to entertain you, whether it be cooking with your mortal enemy or stumbling into an impromptu Final Fantasy VI opera.

Perhaps best of all is that the game is sharp with its humor too—it's witty without ever having to rely on base humor or forced "lol random!" jokes. It anticipates what the player is likely to do and plays with those expectations, constantly surprising you with tidbits you weren't expecting or completely forgot about (like the reuse of the tile "puzzle", meeting the rest of Snowdrake's family, and Napstablook coming to your rescue). The "dates" you go on in the game are some of my favorite moments, due to the sheer stupidity of the situations you'll find yourself in when making new friends.

As much as the game makes you laugh, there are plenty of shadows lurking underneath all the smiles. In a kind of twisted way, the characters are purposely lovable and goofy in order to illustrate just what a emotionless monster you'd have to be to attempt a genocide run. And this is where the story connects to the gameplay in an extraordinary way: do you attempt to level up by inflict harm on Undertale's naive populace, or brave fighting difficult enemies with a meager amount of HP? And if you do desire to level up, just how far are you willing to go?

The first time I played through the game I killed a couple of monsters (just enough to get me to 40 HP) and realized how strange it is that our first instinct upon entering a gaming space is to think about what to kill and destroy, rather than whom we'll meet and befriend. And I don't mean this in a "we should have more games with nonviolent options" way (though those are always welcome)—it's more about how peculiar it is that when approached with the option to be violent, players can and will be. This is especially true where saving and loading are concerned, as there's some kind of weird enjoyment to be had in playing with a system's boundaries (I can't be the only one that reloaded my game in Mass Effect to see what would happen if I shot Wrex). By extension, Flowey mirrors the player's gruesome curiosity during his final battle—which is extremely terrifying, by the way—showing you how deranged one can become when given the ability to exploit a given instance with unlimited power (which is further supported by his genocide route dialogue). It's horrible to see it given form within the context of the game, but difficult to recognize and parse when we're the ones behind the wheel.

I didn't fully understand the game's message the first time I played it, because... well, I killed Flowey. I thought Asgore deserved some retribution for what happened to him! Naturally I felt guilt for my impulsive decision while I was undertaking the Pacifist route. Having the game's outcome change so dynamically for that path was something I wasn't expecting too, and only further emphasized just how wondrously Undertale is designed. The true final battle is a bittersweet event that I'll have to discuss another time, but safe to say it's my favorite moment out of the whole game. And on top of that there's the Genocide route and its implications, which I didn't have the nerve to carry out myself (I watched it on youtube, shamefully). The way that vile path harangues you for your actions is great—it constantly asks if filling imaginary bars for the sake of "completion" is better than hurting the imaginary friends you were once happy to spend time with. It's kind of eerie to think that to some people it actually is, and I'm almost tempted to say that it says something about them.


Like the Last of UsUndertale is a game that gets a lot of love and high praise for a damn good reason. Its memetic influence may grate on people, especially as it continues to garner attention and rise in popularity, but the game was crafted with a wholesome spirit, one that desires nothing more than to tell an endearing tale. It's an extremely sentimental, honest, and imaginative experience that can only be told as a video game, using the strengths of the medium to drive home its thoughtful points. Undertale is an indie gem that will stand the test of time, because it—like its player—has heart.

Images obtained from:

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Axiom Verge - Thoughts

Axiom Verge is a very competent Metroidvania, quite possibly the best (non-Castlevania) one I've played since Shadow Complex. Looking at screenshots you may be fooled into thinking it's some kooky NES Metroid ripoff—the end-screen doors, power-up pedestals, blocky health bar, etc. are all obvious nods towards Samus Aran's original interstellar quest. But Axiom Verge easily comes into its own as the game progresses, establishing a story and weapon system that is unique to its brand of run 'n gun gameplay. The hypnotic opening beat of the first area sets the mood of your strange journey to come; Sudra is an alien world where only those willing to fight survive.

The emphasis of the setting being an alien world cannot be understated—the atmosphere is unnerving and strange. Colors and corridors are unnatural, your enemies even more-so, and the various bosses you encounter are massive and mutated. Some of the outdoor environments feel the most comforting because of how closely they tend to resemble Earth in their familiarity, while indoor corridors with their grotesque, throbbing interiors make the player feel outright terrified. It's easy to say that the designer Tom Happ was inspired by Geiger, but rather than mimic his style outright, he fuses it into the world... it's sort of like exploring Contra's final stage if it wasn't so blatantly based off of Alien.

Speaking of Contra, the gunplay is far more important in Axiom Verge than many of its brethren. The sheer quantity of armaments you obtain echo this; rather than stack your upgrades as in Metroid, your bullets merely change property and you can flip through their variations on the fly. A lot of them are surprisingly useful, as you will need to adjust your attack based on your enemy's position, health, number, and speed. The main blaster is the MVP of the game, but plenty of other styles have their situational advantages from time to time. It's a bit of a shame that some cool weapons come near the end of the game, but I was also glad that continuing to explore Sudra's hidden caverns was a worthwhile endeavor.

However, the weapons you gather pale in comparison to certain powerups you obtain, which cement Axiom Verge as "not another mere Metroid clone". While the Address Disruptor—which takes the concept of "glitches" from the NES era and giving them a ludonarrative purpose—is the frontrunner for the game's innovation, the Lab Coat and its iterations are my personal favorite. Once you master the Lab Coat and where to spot its "application" in the world, it changes how you see secrets and is a ton of fun use. I'd go as far as to argue that it's the best traversal mechanic added to a 2D game since the dash in Mega Man X. The remote drone also deserves some kudos for how clever it's used throughout the game as well, especially once you gain its essential upgrade.

At first I felt Axiom Verge would've been better off with less story (like Lords of the Fallen), as what was written felt somewhat generic and intrusive. However there was a lot more depth to the plot than I initially saw as I trudged deeper into Sudra's labyrinthian core. What started as a simple "turn back on the machines and kill the nasty bad guy" became a far more complex web, riddled with mysteries about Sudra's culture and purpose, going as far as to discuss the nature of algorithmic consciousness. The plot itself is a bit too dense for me to personally unravel, but it's interesting enough that anyone looking to decrypt the history of this foreign civilization will have their hands full. That, and the story doesn't quite unfold as you might expect, which is a pleasant (welcome) surprise.

At times the enemy placement can feel all over the place (climbing up the cliffs of Kur multiple times is quite tedious), but since the game is hinged on being strange, its questionable placement is admittedly thematically consistent. But what I can't overlook is how the game botches the last boss fight. Simply put, it's a chaotic, nonsensical mess where random health drops dictate the pace of the fight, making its climactic finale an utter chore (at least it was for me on Hard). What makes this especially egregious is just how solid the rest of the game is in executing on its mechanics and gameplay—it's like eating a scrumptious seven course meal just to receive freezer burnt store-brand sherbet as your dessert. The last level also doesn't feel all that crazy or tense compared to the rest of the game, but that's merely a nitpick compared to the final encounter.

Axiom Verge hits on nearly every mark: its visuals, story, music, atmosphere, and sense of progression are all fantastic. It's one of the few games that almost feels like it wasn't designed by a human: the warped world, enigmatic Rusalka, and foes clad in an organic carapace will make you eager to return home. But the longer you stay in this world, the more you will grow to understand its underlying laws—and how to break them. Axiom Verge is a must-play for those looking for a classic—yet evolved—Metroid game.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood - Thoughts

There's been a lot of games released last year that have been given life again in 2015. Dark Souls II saw an upgrade in Scholar of the First Sin (which allowed me to experience its exquisite DLC kingdoms), Shovel Knight got its Plague of Shadows addition, and even Destiny saw a face lift with The Taken King. The only one I feel like (briefly) covering is Wolfenstein's standalone expansion, The Old Blood. Here we head back in time to storm the eponymous Castle Wolfenstein; jumping back into BJ's shoes for some bombastic shootouts made me realize why it's one of my favorite FPSs of all time.

Gone from The New Order is its emotional story-driven pacing—BJ is given a job to do and spends little time futzing about. Where the original game had an ebb and flow to its narrative, The Old Blood is predominantly anchored to action, featuring a huge amount of open playgrounds for you to sneak and/or shoot through. There are some clever alternative scenarios here and there, like the stealthy opening and tense moments where you're deprived of your weapons, but for the most part the sound of muzzle fire will be the score to your slaughter symphony. The action takes a questionable turn at the second act of the game, where combat becomes a bit slower and less frantic, but the first act (and its climax) provide unabashed Wolfenstein mayhem. Dual wielding auto-shotguns and watching my foes turn into crimson mist has been the most fun I've had with a gun since using the alternate fire on Half-Life 2's pulse rifle.

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood has one goal—take The New Order's scrumptious gameplay and serve it to you on bigger and more elaborate dishes. My only disappointment is that it feels hollow without BJ's chatter, the experience not nearly as impactful as its predecessor (the "inhale" stuff and Rudi's tirade during his fight were the only evocative parts to me). However the game doesn't seek to replace The New Order but rather expand it, offering more situations to try out your improv firearm skills and crack some Nazi skulls. It's fun and bloody excursion that continues to showcase MachineGames' mastery.