Thursday, March 24, 2016

Deus Ex: Invisible War - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

Having played Deus Ex and its sequel Deus Ex: Invisible War relatively close together, one thing is certain—Invisible War gets a bit of a bum rap. Though it's not nearly as inventive as its predecessor, Invisible War makes a valiant effort to stay loyal to the classic Deus Ex formula while also trying to modernize it in some ways. Of course, the parts where it flounders stick out like a sore thumb, but its certainly not a betrayal to its namesake, nor a black mark on the series... it remains a mostly fun—albeit inferior—entry in the franchise.

Is the game a step down from the original? Yes. Streamlining is a common occurrence among renovated sequels/reboots nowadays (largely due to the necessity of being console-friendly), so it's easy to look back and see how evident the signs were in Invisible War: locations are smaller, the game-space is far more restrictive, the inventory has been simplified, and skills have been outright abandoned. Biomods still play a significant role in the game but you're reduced to only having six of them, with a good portion of the enhancements being entirely passive. And on top of that, the game is far easier to blow through since you can dispatch most humanoids with little effort and gather a squadron's worth of medkits, omni-tools, and biomod canisters.

Yet simplification is not always a bad thing. No longer do you have to meddle in bothersome inventory management or hit pause to turn on several of your biomods for a single attack. A denser environment leads to a more meaningful use of space, and a smaller pool of biomods creates tougher choices on how to augment your character (I was torn between high melee damage and stealth optimization). While I enjoy having an assortment of gameplay options available to me, I can also appreciate how Invisible War cuts straight to the point. It may be too harsh of a cut at times—there's fewer NPCs for world-building and every "alternate path" is sadly brief—but for the most part, the direction Ion Storm took here makes sense.

Again, this is not to say I loathed the unrestrictive nature of the first game; the most memorable parts of Deus Ex were where I backed myself into a corner and had to puzzle out how my melee build could survive. By contrast, most of Invisible War's problems were solved by oafishly thwacking someone over the noggin, rendering them unconscious in one or two blows. The game also slips up by making combat against some highly armored enemies mandatory in a couple of sections, forcing me to forego my nonlethal tendencies and utilize explosive ordnance. I may have been disappointed that playing the first game as a pacifist was so difficult, but Invisible War exacerbates this problem to a ludicrous degree. To add to the list of frustrations, the AI is pretty mindless, the combat feels dated, by 2003 standards, and friendlies become aggressive due to strange circumstances (like if you happen upon a random spiderbot). Never would I argue that the gameplay design of this entry trumps the first.

Invisible War is also not as long as its predecessor, clocking out to nearly half of its length. This was somewhat of a blessing since the game didn't have long enough legs to support such a grandiose adventure, though it nevertheless remains an appetizer to Deus Ex's entree. Thankfully the plot was surprisingly robust—I came out satisfied with where the story went and the direction each faction took. True, it's idiotic that Saman was far more shallow and atavistic than he first appeared to be (I thought he'd be more Marx and less Spanish Inquisition), but I felt the direction taken with JC's side was superb, since the Helios merger was clearly a questionable choice. The only downside to the narrative I can think of was that it wasn't well supported with the text found throughout the world (sure did find a lot of coffee books [and yes, I get the metaphor]), yet I still enjoyed the story just as much as the first.

After landing in Cairo, I soon came across a checkpoint in the South Medina. What was striking about this checkpoint wasn't just that the SSC guard was a woman, but on her desk was a picture of her husband, as denoted by the text hovering over it. I thought to myself, "See, this is the kind of creative flair that adds to the world and gives even the lowliest enemy some personality." One mission later, that guard (and only that guard) had been aggro'd for some reason I couldn't comprehend (did the camera above the checkpoint not like me?), so I had to avoid that spot for the rest of the game. I feel this perfectly captured the dualistic nature of Invisible War: on one hand you have a cool follow-up to one of the greatest PC games of yore, but on the other... it sure can be dumb about stuff.

Images obtained from:

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Ori and the Blind Forest - Thoughts

Good lord have mercy, Ori and the Blind Forest is a stunning game. It follows the Rayman Origins school of thought regarding its visuals: high fidelity assets, lavish brush strokes, smooth animation, and rich colors occupying every square inch of the screen. Where it differs from Ubisoft's limbless hero is clearly in its attitude—Rayman wholly embraces the wacky, while Ori is elegant and swells with emotion. The creative talent displayed by Moon Studios' artists and musicians nearly justifies the price point for the game, which makes the excellent gameplay nestled beneath the breathtaking exterior that much more fantastic. Though I don't think its exactly an innovative entry in the Metroidvania genre, I can earnestly state that Ori and the Blind Forest is one of the best platformers to hit the market since Super Meat Boy's debut.

I wouldn't classify the story as "light", but the plot in Ori isn't as heavy as it may seem at first. Like many others, I saw the reveal trailer for the game and thought it would be another slower-paced 2D adventure like Limbo or Valiant Hearts, so imagine my surprise when I heard it was an unapologetic reflex-based platformer! Nevertheless, the story here does pull at the heartstrings, though it's wise enough not to tell its tale in a heavy-handed way, giving the player plenty of control after the prologue. It's a good story too!—rarely do we receive simple, humanless narratives about nature—but Ori is undeniably at its most evocative whenever it lets the art and music flourish together.

I really can't understate how majestic the game is in motion, as the orchestral strings swirl in the background, illuminating your perilous journey through paths beset with bramble. At times the soundtrack reminded me of Journey with how impactful its crescendos were, the main theme's recurring motif striking me as a plaintive cry for this ravaged world. There's a dark, somewhat somber beauty in Ori that's fascinating to behold, whether it be in the arduous climb of the Ginso Tree or desolate waste of the Forlorn Ruins. You feel at both in awe of the ancient land and also a little terrified of it, cautious that death could be lurking around every alluring corner.

Ori and the Blind Forest isn't shy to punish either—like with Super Meat Boy, you'll have to think quick on your feet if you hope to make it to the credits. Thankfully you have the brilliant manual checkpoint system from They Bleed Pixels at your fingertips, so you can drop down a momentary save whenever are getting a tad risky. Spending points for perks on a skill tree also provide some nice customization in the face of a mostly-linear game, though they feel like forgettable trinkets in comparison to the stellar abilities you'll find scattered throughout the world.

I greatly adored how the trench coat in Axiom Verge invigorated 2D traversal, so I have to give equal props to the Bash upgrade here. As soon as I began utilizing it did I understand its potential, Ori suddenly going from a "cool and fun" game to an absolutely amazing (and frenetic!) one. While I was a bit lukewarm on the game mechanically at first, by then end I adored using my skills in tandem, excited whenever I had my repertoire tested on the fly. The final challenge in particular was wrought with trial and error, but I faithfully endured Ori's lashings because the game was so fun to play. For as much as I detest the decision to include areas that can't be revisited (meaning it was impossible to 100% the game on my run—a veritable sin for the Metroidvania genre), I actually look forward to replaying the game in the future because I had such a good time with it the first time around.

Where Moon Studios could've taken an easy road and let the visuals be the focal point of their experience, they actually went the full mile and made Ori and the Blind Forest an engaging platformer with some clever mechanics. I stated earlier that I don't think it's entirely innovative—the combat in particular can be downright deplorable thanks to the glare effects on the bullets—but the way it comes together forms such a cohesive whole that I can't help but look on in wonder. Ori is a sharp, energetic, and resplendent entry that knows precisely wants to do, and surpasses those goals with flying colors. I don't think it's a stretch to say it'll be some time before we see a game of its spectacular caliber again.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Ys: Origin - Thoughts

My journey through the world of Ys momentarily ends on Ys: Origin, the modern prequel to the first two Ys books (er, games). Origin takes the Oath in Felghana formula and refines it, hitching the blood-pumping action onto a linear path to reduce backtracking. Gone is the open world and its towns, replaced by more interesting levels, better bosses, and an overall smoother progression. It still remains an eccentric Ys game at heart, with its hard focus on leveling and generally unambitious plot, but I'd contest that it's the best one I've played so far.

Back in Ys I, there's a gargantuan tower that you climb in the latter half of the game that's surprisingly long and full of labyrinthine corridors. Ys: Origin revisits this tower in its entirety, basing the entire narrative around the 25 floor behemoth. Thankfully the game takes ample liberties in re-imagining its rooms, treasures, and gimmicks, providing a completely new experience in a somewhat familiar setting. Perhaps the only thing I miss is visiting towns—for better or worse, the tower is your home now—but at least there's still a colorful cast of NPCs to chat with.

Speaking of, there's a better sense of camaraderie and fealty in Origin compared to the other titles. No longer do you play as the reticent Adol visiting a foreign land; you have the choice between three characters related to Ys in some particular way, each with their own unique storyline. My playthrough delved into the struggles of Yunica, an ax-wielding understudy of the Holy Order bound by duty to locate and rescue the goddesses of Ys. It was refreshing to play a game in this series where you're not some perfect savior that everyone falls in love with, but instead a sheltered local that has her own hurdles to overcome. While the plot follows a pretty unremarkable structure, the NPCs feel like they play a far bigger role and the pacing of the story beats is great, interrupting the game at exactly the right time.

As I said in my Oath in Felghana entry, the story and presentation in this series always takes a backseat to the fast-paced gameplay. The action piggybacks off of Felghana, but the magic is perfectly balanced (I preferred all spells equally) and the enemies have been tremendously improved. Though each area may be somewhat gimmicky, the environmental hazards and enemy combinations completely outclass Felghana, no longer feeling like needless filler before the adrenaline-fueled bosses. Looking back there's still some things the designers could tweak (like mixing more hazards and enemy types together), but what's here is still the best Falcom has offered.

I cannot understate how great the boss fights are either; the jump in boss quality from Felghana to Origin is almost as large as Ys I to Ys II. While I enjoyed only a minority of the bosses in Felghana, Origin knocks it out of the park with nearly every single one. No longer is it difficult to decipher what is happening or how to avoid attacks—within one or two attempts you should be able to devise a strategy for taking down your foe. Every encounter (outside of that goddamn bat again) is fluid and fast paced, demanding that you to learn your opponent's moveset in order to survive. Perhaps the only problem is that since it is a Ys game, grinding one additional level out will decimate a boss, so it can be tricky to find the middle-ground between "overwhelmingly difficult" and "yawn".

Also, have I said how great the magic is? Charge attacks never lose their charm even after the 100th time.

Whereas Ys I & II left me lukewarm by the end, I was thrilled to finish Ys Origin. It avoids so many pitfalls that the previous entries fall into, finally coming together to form a game where I could side with the fanbase's praise. The music is also fantastic and sublime, which is par for the course really, but needs to be stated anyway. I will confess that Origin is great because it stands on the shoulders of its successors—there were multiple points where I thought "oh, this is a cool throwback to Ys I"—but I don't think it diminishes from its own personal accomplishments. If the newer titles in the series are more like this, then it appears I have some games in the future to look forward to.