Tuesday, August 23, 2016

No Man's Sky - Thoughts

Forget the promises.

Forget the ambiguous interviews, bald-faced deceptions, and misled hype. These issues are no doubt problematic for the future of Sean Murray and Hello Games, but what I want to talk about is the naked beast that rests beneath it all. Behind the mask of this recent consumer frustration is what I would dare call a pitiful game. Forget what it aimed to be and what it may yet become some distant day—playing the No Man's Sky as it currently stands is a chore. I don't fault other players for finding enjoyment in it—tastes are subjective and all that—but a deep game it certainly is not. If you reap no pleasure from its repetitive structure and inventory masochism, then nothing but disappointment shall inevitably await you.

To better articulate the conclusion I've reached, I'm going to walk you through my (very brief) experience of No Man's Sky. The tutorial was a straight-up mess for me, because as awesome as it is to plop the player immediately down into the game world, there's very little direction or proper tutelage on what the player is supposed to be looking for or doing. Sure, I have a crashed ship there, but what are all these things on the ship? What is this laser module I crafted for my multitool? Which elements are more important than others? What does it mean to transfer materials from player to ship? Add to that the constantly decreasing life gauge from the toxic atmosphere, and my introduction to No Man's Sky felt more like a trial by fire than anything.

Not that its hands-off approach was a terrible thing, mind you. Like many players, I feel the game is at its strongest during its first few hours, where everything is captivating because it's new. Roaming the untapped surface of your first planet and feasting your eyes upon the spectacular (and bizarre) randomly generated creatures can be quite thrilling, especially if your home is thriving and verdant. Mine was not however, and wanting to get off of that putrid rock as fast as I could, I made a beeline for completing my ship ASAP. To its credit, the game does occasionally pulse a mission objective at the bottom right of the screen, but it was often interrupted by (paraphrased) "YOU HAVE PRE-ORDER CONTENT TO REDEEM!", forcing me to swap out my ship for the shiny preorder one in order to assuage its nagging.

Launching into space and yearning to leave that hellhole behind, I warp jumped to the next system and began engaging with my favorite part of the game: rigorously naming everything. Having a penchant for nonsensical words (my preferred moniker is dobu gabu maru after all), I dubbed my solar system "Kah Nim Thursh" and set about designating every planet a type of "Kah"—like "Sunburst Kah" or "Drygreen Kah". As each celestial body was a slight variant of a desert biome, I had a challenging (but entertaining) time thinking up alternate names to things like the pale, carbon-rich "Flatbone" and rotund, rocky "Stiffstone". It didn't feel like I was making active progress through the game but it at least felt like these planets were found and claimed by me, their names to endure until the last light in the universe dies out (or the servers go down).

But therein lies the rub—nothing you do in No Man's Sky really matters. Since there's no multiplayer there's no camaraderie or stake in claiming planets for you or your friends. While you can "upload" your findings, there's no communal drive that pushes the game forward, thus no reason to designate something by other than its RNG name. The planets are so large that finding outposts feels trivial, and the weird, tiny steps you take towards advancing the story are so microscopic that stumbling upon a Knowledge Stone felt as fulfilling as finding a generic rock. Combine this with a stupefying amount of patronizing congratulatory screens that take you out of gameplay (like "CONGRATULATIONS ON WALKING 5000 UNITS"/"TALKING TO 3 ALIENS!"), and it feels like your actions in this game may as well be devoid of intention, the design lauding you for simply messing about on its worlds.

This isn't to say I require a guiding hand in all my video games; Minecraft is one of my favorite games because it virtually simulates playing with Legos in a unique and dazzling way. Beyond that though, Minecraft also has an impressive gameplay loop between mining, crafting, and building that keeps you motivated enough to finish each personal objective (like say, creating a fortress in the sky). Even if No Man's Sky was just as "pointless" as Minecraft, it remains inferior because the ancillary elements are wholly uninteresting. Shooting feels poor and awkward, space mining is laughably shallow, planet mining is painstakingly grindy, and the fact that the same space station, outposts, and basic elements await you in every solar systems robs the player of any kind of intrigue or danger. At the very core of No Man's Sky exists only a loathsome inventory management simulator, something that is both awkward yet necessary to interact with in order to progress, and will have you shaking in disbelief at how dumb it can be (I need four inventory slots open to craft the ingredients for one ship part even though I have all the raw materials to make it already? Why? Why? Why?!!!)

I tried to keep my pessimism in check while playing, but my space sojourn had swiftly reached its end when I unfortunately became a permanent resident in "Kah Nim Thursh". You see, since I switched to the preorder ship I accidentally skipped the steps required to obtain the warp drive recipe by jumping to a new solar system, meaning I was SOL unless I could find antimatter somewhere (a necessary ingredient used to travel to a new system which I couldn't manually craft [and I had already bought & used the one in the space station]). I had switched ships again in the new solar system before I discovered this error, and despite my attempt to locate my abandoned preorder ship so I could use its remaining fuel to jump back to my starting galaxy, there was no way to place markers or survey the topography of a planet to find where I had discarded the vessel. Having to choose between restarting the game or forging ahead in hopes that I stumble upon more antimatter, I opted instead to simply abandon the game altogether. There, in "Kah Nim Thursh", my lone space ranger had met his end, the tutorial bubble endlessly suggesting I jump to another system with a ship that was incapable of doing so...

... It was a very fitting way to close out my time with No Man's Sky.

No Man's Sky may put up a strong argument if it was a $20 Early Access title, but its a poor purchase as a released, retail product. Besides getting irrecoverably stuck in it, there was no reason for anyone to visit my "Kahs" and no structures worth seeing that couldn't be seen elsewhere—hell I couldn't even notify people where I was stranded. Each planet contained nothing more than useless, randomly generated materials for me to abscond away with, or psudeo-Spore fauna I could shoot when I got bored of watching them trot in circles. No planet felt like home, no solar system felt necessary, and all I really cared about at the end was mindlessly scouring the surface for inventory upgrades that would allow me to play the game longer. No Man's Sky's true objective wasn't hidden out among the flickering stars, but rather surreptitiously concealed inwards, nestled at the bottom of my stupid, tiny backpack. I walk away from it feeling that despite all the seething rage Mighty No. 9 received at its release, Inafune's effort was at least fun to play.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Shantae - Thoughts

It was hard putting my finger on what exactly I didn't like about Shantae. Since the original Game Boy Color cart is ludicrously expensive, I downloaded the game on my 3DS when it hit the Virtual Console store and only got around to finishing it recently. I played it in chunks that were months apart mainly because the game repeatedly failed to grab me; I kept trying to convince myself to keep playing, that it wasn't a wasted purchase. Finally, after trudging through it, I can conclude that while Shantae looks absolutely stunning, what lurks beneath its polished exterior is a game that excels at nothing.

My main gripe is that Shantae doesn't feel good to play. The half-genie's attack is short and ineffectual, forcing her to pause and stand in place as she whips her hair, freezing the combat and any reaction you might make. This wouldn't be too problematic if enemies took 1-2 hits to defeat, but every single baddie has a ton of health, especially when the sun goes down and their vitality is doubled. You'll soon learn that the best strategy is to simply flee from the lengthy encounters, which becomes frustrating since the cramped GBC screen means you have to react fast to avoid damage. I eventually felt comfortable with the game when I had accumulated five heart containers, merely because I could tank my way through any area at full speed.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that you can buy a wide range of items to help you tackle your foes, but I found equipping and using these to be more of a hassle than simply leaping over the fleshy obstacles. Avoiding so many enemies also meant that I lacked the funds to purchase attack upgrades (as I was spending all my money on health potions and spinning balls), so I have no idea if those would've helped or not—I didn't want to grind on enemies to find out either (900 gems? Getouttahere!) The only enemies I couldn't skip were the bosses, and they were more or less a mixed bag: some were too easy, some were too hard, none of them really memorable.

To its credit, Shantae looks phenomenal. WayForward (to me) is synonymous with "excellent animation, iffy gameplay" and Shantae is undoubtedly the poster child for their ludography. Jammed in here are elaborately animated sprites, a variety of amazing dances, the aforementioned day & night cycles for every area, and more colorful enemies than you can shake a stick at. The care and attention put into the presentation makes the gameplay that much more disappointing, because you feel the game should play better than it does.

Besides the kinetic parts of Shantae, the design also comes into doubt frequently too. Shantae can pick up animal transformations in each of the game's four dungeons, which is a neat spin on the classic Zelda formula, except that they take abundantly long to switch between. I like the idea behind dancing to transform, but if I knocked Link's Awakening for its cumbersome item-swapping, Shantae receives the same complaint tenfold. The dungeons themselves aren't that interesting either, punishing you with frequent dead ends and containing highly repetitive puzzles that as soon as you've solved once, you've solved a hundred times. Warping between towns is also locked behind hidden collectibles which cripples exploration, since you're pushed to finish the dungeons before exploring each new area—a "better" solution to this would be to have the town warps unlock when you arrive, and use the collectibles towards upgrading your attacks.

I'm not averse to trying out the other titles in the series—in fact, I'm interested in seeing what Shantae's sequels expand on. But the first entry honestly feels like a rough draft, containing too many glaring errors (poor combat, so-so puzzles, terrible world hopping) in spite of its careful construction. The half-genie hero is a lovable character and I think I can understand her appeal, but this is a far cry from being one of the Game Boy's premier platformers. Thus far, you've failed to impress me Shantae.

Images obtained from: youtube.com, utah3ds.com, engadget.com

Monday, August 8, 2016

Extermination - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

For as close as Dino Crisis stuck to the Resident Evil formula, it remained a memorable (and pretty enjoyable!) game because of it. Mikami's early survival horror style isn't designed for everybody in mind, but the way you're forced to conserve munitions and memorize important intersections is a unique touch that's integral to his design. Survival horror isn't intended to make you feel comfortable—the genre is supposed to stress you out but keep you moving, urging you to learn the intricacies of its mechanics as fast as you can, or doom your save to incompletion.

So what would a bad Resident Evil clone look like? If you've been searching for the answer to this question, look no further than Deep Space's Extermination.

Where to start with this? Swery65 is the brains behind Extermination, which should already provide ample gameplay concerns (I adore Deadly Premonition, but a fun game it is not). Akin to Carpenter's The Thing, the player is whisked off to an Antarctic base that's soon overrun by fleshy alien monstrosities. Despite the Metal Gear Solid 2 resemblance, Extermination most closely mimics Resident Evil, from the limited health pickups, to the constant backtracking, to the scores of notes to read, to the awkward combat, even down to resource-based saves. As you traverse through more of the complex and reunite with former friends, the facility will gradually get more corrupted and new enemies will begin to spawn into old areas... and that's the only commendable idea the game has.

Extermination botches everything else—the combat in particular is an unmitigated chore. You must manually aim to attack your opponents and their weak spots which discourages fighting early on (as it's much easier to run away), and as the game progresses the dollar store abominations gain more and more health. This leaves your gun and its mods feeling greatly ineffectual, especially since the respawning slug enemies are so numerous that it's often more dangerous to fight rather than flee. Add to this the fact that you must stand still to climb over obstacles or enter rooms and you have yourself a recipe for frustration.

To understand why this game can get so aggravating, you must first learn that there's essentially two health systems—your standard physical health percentage, and an infection percentage. Health is easily manageable since you'll come across a lot of pickups, but the infection rate of this game is downright unbalanced. Foes frequently increase the percentage by double digits when you get attacked, and when it reaches 100% you'll start to gradually lose HP (and get stunned when touching water, which is everywhere). Your only hope if that happens is to hobble back to a save room to cleanse yourself, but the much simpler solution is to just restart in order to keep your supplies intact. I know it doesn't sound too bad, but it's absolutely awful considering how often you'll be assaulted by those dastardly slugs. Good luck trying to escape from those slimy bastards too, as I found no reliable method to shake them off before they burst into neon green gas.

The story in Extermination is barely worth mentioning. There's really nothing interesting or unique here outside of the hilariously bad voice acting ("I'll give my LIFE to protect her"). Since the major conflict between the game's central characters happens off screen you're given no means to understand why Andrew is so important to everyone (what kind of guy was he? Why should we care if he died, or if Dennis feels guilty about it?). The most disappointing part about the story is that there's barely any narrative in the notes you find; whereas Resident Evil uses its notes to both provide information and expand its lore, Extermination primarily uses them to give you the most boring, unnecessary instructions possible. Want to read several pages on draining water from the basement of the facility when the solution is right in front of you? What about extensive military orders for characters that get one minute of screen time? How about a three page list of specifications for a 20mm gatling gun? A good indicator of how bungled the narrative delivery in this game is is that only near the end of the story do you discover what the monsters are even called.

Speaking of the end, I cannot understate how stupid the final battle is—it's really, really, really awful. It's only beatable through sheer brute force, as the second and third forms of the boss relentlessly pelt you with damage, meaning that if you have less than 6-8 healing items stocked up you're basically screwed. Despite my playtime being 3.5 hours total, that encounter alone took nearly two hours thanks to the dozens of retries it took me; rarely do I come across a section in a game where it legitimately feels like it wasn't playtested, but lo and behold, Extermination always finds a way to disappoint.

The uncanny similarity between last week's Wolverine and Extermination is that both games punish you for fighting its enemies, but whereas Wolverine is short enough to remain more entertaining than frustrating, Extermination is the exact opposite. Its combat is terrible, its world is boring, its story is barely amusing, and its level design is ultimately shallow (the battery packs are used for what, like four doors?). Every remotely interesting idea gets squished faster than the slugs in this game do—Extermination is arguably survival horror at its worst. Perhaps the only achievement I'll grant it is that—despite its best efforts—the game is at least beatable. Oh, and Roger's death is pretty good too.

Images obtained from: youtube.com, giantbomb.com