Sunday, November 5, 2023

Super Mario Bros. Wonder

I enjoyed the original New Super Mario Bros. because there hadn't been a new 2D Mario in awhile and frankly I just kind of unironically like bland 2D platformers (I really like Giana Sisters DS). After that, I pretty much fell off every sequel- partially because the emphasis on co-op made levels just feel too big in single player, and beyond that they had just become too bland. There was no sense of place or journey to it- things that Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World had excelled at with wild new things in every world. Even 3d Marios like 3d World/Land fell into similar issues, often not even caring enough to stick to a level theme within a world. Nintendo's own lower profile platformers like Donkey Kong Country Returns put them to shame in production values too, with details like having platforms actually connect to things. Super Mario Bros. Wonder is seemingly an attempt to correct this longstanding issue, proudly showing off the game existing in a new kingdom with new Wonder Flower collectables that suddenly change levels in dramatic ways- living pipes, stampeding rhinoes demolishing the stage, and more! But does it actually succeed?

The wonder flower system itself is certainly the highlight. Tons of platformers have stages with gameplay-altering gimmicks or straight up minigames that deviate from the core platforming. What Super Mario Bros. Wonder does is set up suspense (at some point there will always be a wonder flower) and payoff (wow this wonder flower turned the game into an overhead game). Time and time again I found myself surprised by getting into the groove of a level before remembering: "oh man I wonder what the flower is gonna do here". For something so simple, it works surprisingly well.

What's less effective are the wonder effects themselves. While there are plenty of good ones, there are just as many whatever ones. For as hard as the game wants you to think it's crazy and wild, it's actually pretty conservative with the range on display. Worse, the game recycles a lot of them. I'm not against the recycling itself, if anything I find it disappointing when a game lets a mechanic go underused, but it often fails to escalate the effect when it does. Yeah, turning into a blob that sticks to walls is cool, but you aren't making me do anything new with it the fourth time you've given it to me so now it just feels like a letdown.

On the aesthetic side, character animations have undergone a dramatic improvement. They actually have personality now- Mario breaks out into the Mario 3 running pose, elephants get stuck in pipes, hands stick out to catch wayward hats, etc. Really the level of detail is phenomenal: characters and enemies track each other with their eyes, change facial expression when near enemies, enemies bump into each other in cute ways, etc. It's a dramatic improvement from the stilted New Super Mario Bros. games, and it adds a ton. Less successful is the world which sticks to the New Super Mario Bros. style of squeaky plasticy clean dirt and grass. It has a soulless corporate CG vibe to it, but there are enough added details and layers to things that it took awhile to really set in. I found myself simultaneously impressed and disgusted by the game's visuals in a way few games manage.

The other big success of the game is how it approaches difficulty. Recent Mario platformers have fallen into making the main levels dead easy and then slapping on a post-game with hard as nails levels. I absolutely despise this approach because straight-line difficulty curves are boring- they don't create stress with difficult sections and then release with easier sections. Instead they feel like having two games that aren't quite right: a boring easy game, and then a game of unrelenting difficulty. Super Mario Bros. Wonder fixes this by mixing those former post-game levels throughout the entire game. Even better, it hides those harder stages making thorough exploration feel rewarding (which itself is impressive- often times exploration just rewards you with making the game easier which is backwards, people who are invested enough to explore are probably seeking an escalation). While I do wish they had more hard levels overall, the mix was fantastic- after dealing with the hard stages, the easy stages felt like an enjoyable break.

There are few more details I can touch on briefly. They shake up the overworld formula a tad which was nice, but rarely impressed (a free roaming desert full of secrets was the highlight). Badges let you augment your move set with things like Luigi's jump or adding a simple grappling hook, which is nice but underwhelming by virtue of being optional and numerous (I opted for the secret alert badge because frankly the game is overloaded with worthless secrets that just give you meaningless coins, so having something tell me whether a secret was worth my time was nice even if I'd usually hate such an item). And for some reason they injected a bunch of story into each world and it's all bland and has way too many text boxes. Oh, and they added talking flowers throughout the levels that react to how you're playing. I liked them. Sometimes they're even funny. Mostly they're just tutorially/hinty. Kind of reminded me of early CD games scrambling to find uses for the tech. Charming.

So overall Super Mario Bros. Wonder is a good game, but also faintly disappointing. It's basically what I wanted from the New Super Mario Bros. sequels to begin with: well-crafted generic platformers. Yet the way it promises to go crazy and wild while only occasionally going hard, on top of the years of bland games in the series makes it feel a bit like a broken promise. Should you play it? Yeah, if you like 2D platformers.

Friday, July 21, 2023

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

Direct sequels are rare in the world of games. You always want the sequel to sell more copies than the original game, so limiting the audience to people who already played and beat the first forty hour game is an intuitively poor choice (having to watch a few two hour movies is generally less of an ask). I suppose when you sell thirty million copies the rules start to change a bit, and thus we get a direct sequel to 2017's Breath of the Wild with The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. The result is a bit mixed. Recycling the world allows them to do things like have a parallel sky world with aircraft and a seamless transition to the ground in a way that feels better with an old world than it would with a new world (skipping over everything in a new world would be weird). On the other hand, the familiar old world robs a great deal of the feeling of discovery/journey that was in the original- especially the towns, which are all carry-overs from the original albeit with some changes.

What fares the worst is actually the "story". Consider The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, which was also built by recycling its prequel's assets. By using familiar faces but having them behave just differently enough, it created a subtle feeling of something being off in a way you could never do with a standalone game. In Tears of the Kingdom some time has passed, people and places have changed a little, youngsters are peacefully ascending into power over their elders, but ultimately no characters or places have transformed in a shocking way that you aren't just going to revert at the end of their quest. Breath of the Wild didn't necessarily have too many interesting characters so much as it had interesting cultures to learn about, so without any changes to the status quo you're pretty much left with nothing. Having seen games like Dragon Quest VII do so much narrative with how places can change within the same game, it's really a shame to see them do so little with it here given the rare opportunity of a direct sequel.

The main plot is a little more interesting in some ways, particularly the way it weaves with the present day in ways that can change your perception of things depending on what order you find things, but doesn't really commit to its big moment so even that feels pretty shallow. This also feels like the least interesting interpretation of Ganondorf as a character, having neither the justification of Ocarina of Time nor the weary old man of The Wind Waker. I suppose the take is just him being in his "prime" and most machiavellian but... eh.  It makes me wonder why they even brought him back instead of giving us someone new (wait he was in Twilight Princess too huh? Pretty boring there as well I suppose. Honestly I don't know why I even went down this Ganondorf hole because it's kind of just Wind Waker where he's actually interesting now that I think about it so I probably shouldn't even hold it against this game. Boy Wind Waker sure was a good game. Yes, even the treasure hunting segments. Especially the treasure hunting segments, that's just more reason to go sailing. What were we talking about again?)

 As a game, though, it does manage to make the most of the recycling. By being able to focus almost entirely on content, they basically created three distinct open worlds instead of just one (almost like they had a bunch of prototypes already and just threw them in a pot together). This is basically its secret sauce in staying entertaining throughout: when you're not feeling like doing one type of open world, you can jump over to a different one that you're in the mood for. The rewards and types of activities in each become clear enough that you can easily chart a path to your preferences- often getting distracted on the way there just like the original. The rewards themselves are also handled a bit better than the original game- even if you find armor with duplicate functionality, having a distinct look feels like something even if the level of fan service is a bit much. I hit 100hrs in Breath of the Wild before getting exhausted enough to beat it, while Tears of the Kingdom took me 160hrs to reach that exhaustion. Even at the end I wasn't even disgusted at the thought of playing more so much as I simply wanted to do something else after months of playing the same game (there's a distinction that I may be failing to communicate here).

This strength of choose your own variety is also a bit of a weakness. The heavily expanded world size, despite including a lot of things from the first game, also feels far more stretched for visual variety than the original game. The sky world pretty much only has one visual look to it, and other new areas are only a little bit better (to be fair: despite only having a few looks, caves have a staggering amount of geometry variety compared to similar open world games- they absolutely made the right choice in focus here). Worse, knowing what each place generally contains dampens the sense of discovery a little bit compared to how you could stumble into entirely unique one-off game rules in Breath of the Wild. The shrines have less variety (because certain types ended up elsewhere in the world this time) so you have a decent idea of what you're getting into with each one. The simplest way to describe it is just that Breath of the Wild has higher highs, but Tears of the Kingdom has a much more consistently high level of enjoyment- which of those is actually better will depend on you as a person.

That pretty well sums it up, but there's a whole lot of smaller points to talk about as well:

  • They try to force more player creativity in combat by introducing common enemies with enormous amounts of HP after so many hours, but I don't feel like it completely works. Yes, I figured out a lot of new ways to kill things quicker, but they all took resources so my brain was often still stingy with it. Punishing players by making things take longer just doesn't feel great compared to having actual danger. Combat is absolutely the thing I got sick of fastest.
  • As cool as the weapon fusion system sounds on paper, by the end it mostly ends up as a pretty boring weapon crafting system. I actually think I prefer Breath of the Wild's system better for forcing more variety on me and less menu busywork (was also more satisfying to mark good weapons on the map and retrieve them when needed), but I have heard haters of that system actually prefer this one?
  • It's a good thing they waited until right before release to show that building stuff was the main feature of the game, 'cause my Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts addled brain would have been royally disappointed by how much simpler vehicles are here. I didn't have time to build expectations so in the end I accept that building stuff is mostly just a cool little physics puzzle thing with some combat options on the side. It's neat, but I never actually built any crazy combat mechs like I expected to- building limitations and the resource costs  triggered the never-use-an-elixir part of my brain, though I was at least willing to use some convenience stuff.
  • Unlocking Zonai parts was really cool and basically makes the Breath of the Wild formula feel more like a traditional Zelda (really it kind of feels like "oops all items"), in combination with the main quest and dungeons continuing to be pretty on point.
  • I sometimes feel like some of these complaints might not be the game's fault so much as a failure of my own creativity to do something cooler with the systems in place. Not really sure since I refused to watch any videos of people doing cool stuff, as I consider knowledge itself to be power and thus a spoiler in these two games.
  • Even though one of my only complaints with Breath of the Wild was that there weren't any caves, now that they literally added caves to that world I'm not sure it actually satisfied me. It's probably due to being the same world, but Elden Ring has much more satisfying caves to spot with your vision- Tears relies a little too heavily on hint mechanics to get to them (likely the downside of reusing the same world). I was also hoping for the caves to be more like having multiple Hyrule Castles from the original, but they're generally closer to the micro-dungeon shrines of that game.
  • Horses are even more pointless than before. What a remarkable vestigial element.
  • The final battle is still comically easy if you've prepared, though elements of it are a bit better than the original game. I get why they do it, but I sure wish they'd add some obscure true super final boss or something at least to give more reasons to power up harder.
  • I am haunted by how much of the game is still left and whether any of those things are really cool stuff. Did I miss a new Eventide Isle? Probably not, yet still my mind churns at the possibility. Beating the game has only given me a shred of peace.

So should you play Tears of the Kingdom? If you liked Breath of the Wild, then absolutely- there still aren't that many games in the "open world you explore with your eyes instead of minimap icons" genre so really what else are you going to play if you want more? If you didn't like it, maybe try it, but I wouldn't expect much to have changed for you.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Mega Man Legends

Mega Man Legends exists alongside Half-Life and Shenmue as those series with fanbases eternally waiting for a conclusion and probably never getting one. It's hard to say which one suffers the most. Half-Life with a developer with piles of cash and willing writers who just doesn't do it because they don't think they have anything innovative to do (or it just isn't another infinite money machine), Shenmue that had its chance but ended with a deluded director deciding to continue to stretch it out instead of just giving an ending, or Mega Man Legends with its cliffhanger ending that is probably permanently torpedoed out of spite for a creator leaving the company. I have no idea, I just didn't know how to start this review.

Really looks like a dungeon crawl from a distance

  For years I thought Mega Man Legends was some kind of vaguely actiony but grid-based dungeon crawler, based on screenshots in magazines depicting very blocky dungeons. I though it looked cool but, you know, sometimes it takes decades to get around to a game. It turns out it's actually a third-person shooter rpg with a mix of dungeons and action set pieces. It's also wrapped in the bluest skies of low poly anime aesthetics, depicting a flooded world dotted by ancient ruins that sky faring treasure hunters plunder for the only remaining batteries in the world. The bulk of the story is actually just Mega Man and a group of pirates fighting to get the motherload of batteries located on one such island. And it uh. It pretty much doesn't progress past that until the very end, which reveals a bit about the world while teasing a sequel. How foreboding.

The happiest warzone
For whatever reason I don't really associate PS1 era RPGs with third person 3d. Most games gravitated towards pre-rendered backgrounds, and the few actual 3d ones still tended towards some flavor of overhead or isometric. So in that regard I find it to be a real novelty, maybe even more so today since the choice makes it much closer to the modern reality of every other single player game being an action RPG hybrid of some sort. But it's also a third person game released before Ocarina of Time, so that means it controls like garbage. While it does feature a lock on system, it also doesn't let you move while locked on- that just controls where you're aiming. This results in some awkward start/stop gameplay where you move, stop to shoot until the enemy's bullets (or body) is about to hit you, and then move again. Yet for as bad as it is, what makes it remain playable is that the developers also understood how clunky it is. Most enemy attacks are designed around the start/stop, and the game plays a warning sound any time you're near an enemy to minimize getting hit from unknown enemies while slowly swinging the camera around. Even the final boss that moves around a whole lot more, resulting in having to dodge off-camera attacks, does at least have smart sound design where you can hear the current attack even if you can't see it. In a weird way I actually found it quite refreshing because no one builds action games like this now that camera and targeting controls are a solved problem. They're bad controls, but good designers managed to make them work (with some terrible boss exceptions and don't get me started on the impossibly awkward L1/R1+X dodge roll).

Bit of a lack of confidence when you have to tell players how to fight a boss.
 The bulk of the game alternates between dungeons and set piece action segments. The latter involves a variety of situations- shooting at an airship while ontop of one, defending a town being destroyed by tanks, shooting at boats while ontop of a boat, fighting a giant robot in a city, general boss fights, etc. They're conceptually fun, but are also the place where the controls are at their worst fighting wide open spaces and having to aim at things. The dungeons meanwhile are quite streamlined with minimal branching paths and few puzzles, focusing more on the resource management of not exhausting too much health before reaching the end. While visually blocky and repetitive, I found them to be the better part of the game since they have a decent amount of enemy variety, traps, and just enough navigational complexity to be satisfying to explore without being easy to get lost in. Plus the constrained areas worked well with the limited lock-on targeting. 

There wasn't the budget to animate a kiss with a random NPC.
 The one really clever bit of the dungeons is that they're secretly one big dungeon- as you get upgrades you find ways to shatter the barriers between them, letting you metroidvania poke your way into new parts. Doing so is rarely required for the main progression as it's more of an optional way to find new weapons and an excuse to grind more money for the game's wonderfully stingy economy. That said, while I was thrilled by this system at first, by the end of the game I really couldn't be bothered to scour the remaining areas. The game's map system doesn't allow viewing any area other than your current area (and every dungeon consists of multiple areas), so finding the final secrets becomes a real chore.

Fighting a giant robot in a destructible city where you can jump onto the building's roofs still feels kind of next gen.
Between the two main action bits you can go to the town to buy upgrades, develop new subweapons from junk you found, donate to the museum, and do some pretty basic sidequests. There are things to appreciate here, but it really feels like they were struggling between trying to make a 3d town feel appropriately scaled while also not having enough stuff to put in it. The solution they landed on was to simply allow talking to NPCs by knocking on doors, while major public buildings (bank/police station/library/etc) can be entered to find the sparse number of side quests in the game. The end result is mostly an empty chore to walk around with suboptimal fast travel options, but it's not a complete bust as a break from the action.

 Misc Notes:

  • Game has a lot of weirdly ambitious bits to it. There's a single fight where buildings in the town can get destroyed. They stay destroyed until you donate enough money to repair them, and the repairs seem to take time.
  • There's also a bomb threat side quest that can get buildings blown up again, forcing you to rebuild.
  • And there's a morality system where you can take money for yourself instead of giving it back along with a few other actions that can make yourself look evil. I didn't mess with it, but the game only vaguely mentions it as an option in the library.
  • I despise games that do the "items/money spill out of enemies" thing because it just creates a chore out of a desire for visual splendor, but to this game's credit money despawns so fast and you can have so much range that it can occasionally tempt you into dangerous situations before it despawns. So good on it for at least using the system to interesting effect

Things to ask a dancing monkey.
  • There are like a billion subweapons you can get, but you can only change them in town so I barely got to use half of them (more so from some of them being required to unlock areas, making you afraid to switch off). 
  • Money is the primary way to progress your stats, and the game does a surprisingly good job being stingy enough with it that you constantly want more. I've played so many games lately with economies you can break long before the halfway point that it was quite delightful to reach the final boss without being able to afford everything, even when doing lots of optional stuff (indeed that morality system actually makes some sense here in that being the good guy gets you way less money rather than banal equality). That said the subweapon upgrade system might be a bit too much, as they cost ridiculous amounts and I could barely touch them while still getting armor/health upgrades (and considering how hard switching is, investing in them was hardly tempting). I ended up grinding money for maybe 15-30mins to round out my upgrades for the big ol' difficulty spike final boss (even the health potion system, while instant, is limited enough to not break the game balance like a whole lot of modern action rpgs).

One of the more interesting credits in a game
 So should you play Mega Man Legends? Yeah, probably, it's a delightful time and only takes like 12 hours to beat. It's a little disappointing how little the relationship between Mega Man and the pirates evolves despite how many voiced cutscenes they devote to it, but whatever they're cartoon villains that never learn. Provided you can see the charm in awkward early 3d controls and can stomach a big empty town, it's a good time.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Pikmin 3

 The original Pikmin was something more than the sum of its parts. It had a certain thematic cohesion where the premise of being stranded on an alien planet and needing collect the pieces of your ship in 30 days or you'd die meshed perfectly with the light RTS gameplay of learning to be more and more efficient with your time. In conjunction with the logs at the end of each day, and only your Pikmin as friends, you started to feel like you really were stranded on a planet. Pikmin 2 removed the time limit and I skipped it because I just didn't see the point- the individual pieces of the game like combat were fine, but they only really came together when the player was compelled to be efficient. Pikmin 3 marked the return to the time limit so I was pretty excited.

Rather than a hard 30 day limit, it introduces the concept of juice- every day on the planet consumes 1 juice and finding fruit (of which there are a finite amount) adds more juice to your reserves. I imagine the intention was to make the time limit feel less negative to people who are afraid of time limits. In practice there is so much fruit that it actually just undermines the tension completely. The original game was also a paper tiger in this regard, you'd have to be remarkably terrible to get anywhere near the time limit even on your first playthrough, but it still had enough unknowns that I felt pressured most of the way through. In Pikmin 3 it takes very little time to get a juice surplus and you will find yourself pretty much constantly getting +3 days almost every day such that there just isn't any tension. After cleaning up the game for 100% fruit I had like 40 remaining when I beat the final boss, and even before that I probably had a 20 surplus when reaching the final boss. The game does introduce one curveball to the system in the middle of the game which was appreciated, but still not enough.

It's kind of unfortunate too because the game also introduces so many more options for being efficient. You have 3 characters to direct pikmin with and are able to swap between them at any time. You can also use the touch screen to command them to move places while you're doing other things. You could really do some work with these new tools, but I only used them out of occasional convenience because there just wasn't any pressure. It also dissuades you from it in the early game because there are numerous puzzles requiring one commander to throw another one up inaccessible cliffs- so even if you wanted to be an efficiency machine, it might bite you later when the game requires the commanders to be together.

The controls are also frankly a mess. You can throw/gather pikmin using the gamepad's analog stick, or its touch pad, or the wiimote's sensor, or the wiimote's wiimotion+ gyro. Every option has drawbacks. Using the pure gamepad is awkward because a lot of targets (especially flying) are a nightmare to target. Using the touchpad is awkward because you have to re-center it frequently. The wiimote is the best way to play the game, but it offers no way to use the map on the TV so you'll have to awkwardly swap between it and the gamepad. I ended up using the wiimote for bosses, and the pure gamepad for exploration. It was not ideal. Even the touch screen map itself is lacking- there's no zoom options (because your cursor is linked showing the area itself on the TV which is kind of necessary since the map itself makes terrain indistinct), and there's no quick way to direct your commanders- you have to switch, scroll to where you want them to go, lock it in, then switch back. Given the touch screen I expected to be able to direct them by just dragging on the commander or something. I expected this to be one of the few games to justify the wiiu's gamepad, but I ended up wishing that I had the Switch version that lets you use the map on the TV (even if gyro aiming is probably a little worse than a wiimote pointer).

So should you play Pikmin 3? Even though this review consists entirely of gripes, I'd still say I had a pretty good time. It's a strange hybrid of RTS and adventure that is very light, but also enjoyable since there's not much like it (or possibly because a short game is incredible after playing so many 200hr monsters). I didn't really go into it, but the game has far more elaborate boss encounters than the original that often mix exploration/puzzles and battle in clever ways (though the final one is more annoying than anything). There's still a tinge of sadness since it could have been so much more if the developers were a little less afraid of hurting players (maybe the Switch version's hard modes even fix this). It's certainly not a must play, but if you see it for cheap go for it? Certainly play the original game instead if you haven't.

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Xenoblade 3

The original Xenoblade came as quite the surprise to me, even with the preceding years of fans yelling at Nintendo to release it in America. It felt like the first advancement in Japanese RPGs in quite some time, since the PS3 generation raised the requirements so high that Japanese developers struggled to put anything out at all. At most you had Final Fantasy XIII with very pretty graphics and one hell of a battle system, but struggling to have any vision since most of Square-Enix's directorial talent had left either from failed movies or getting worked to death. Or you had something like Tales of Vesperia which was well-crafted, but extremely traditional and anime. Xenoblade, even though it was on the Wii, comparatively blew the doors down with an enormous world scale that resembled a linear MMO more than anything (with accompanying fast travel that was borderline instant), a bold level of quality of life that let players die with no penalty (yet also using that to drop level 80 monsters in early game areas or having spider bosses climb out of pits to get the drop on you), surprisingly well crafted in-game cinematics, and took Final Fantasy XII's offline MMO combat idea and made it actually work by making player movement and positioning actually matter with just a generally more active approach to it. While you can poke flaws at it in retrospect, it was a hell of a surprise coming from a game that wasn't really on my radar at all.

Now we're 4 games deep into the franchise. Xenoblade X kept up the experimentation by introducing an open world that actually required you to engage with optional content to be powerful enough to deal with the main story content (much to reviewer's despair and my delight), while Xenoblade 2 rolled back the innovation in favor of refining the formula- adding timing-based attack inputs, ramping up the action cutscene budget, and making the character models more appealing if also a bit more generically anime. That left me wondering where Xenoblade 3 would end up going and the answer is, for better or worse, even more refining and ramping up the budgetary scale?

Xenoblade 2 was extremely shonen. I'm talking boy meets mysterious girl who go on an adventure to find some magical place with some magical artifact (well I guess the artifact is also the girl in this case). I'm talking boy accidentally falls on girl's boobies and gets yelled at for it. I'm talking cutscene after cutscene of the heroes getting their ass beat followed by getting angry from some emotional revelation and overcoming it with their newfound power. I didn't entirely hate it (those fight scenes have some legit well done anime fight choreography), but with it being the series first actual bonafide financial success I was worried it was going to go down the path of big booby babes forevermore.

Xenoblade 3 might be some flavor of anime plot, but it sure didn't continue going down that route. Instead we have a bleak setting where child soldiers who can only live for 10 years are locked into an infinite war where neither side can ever win. There's a certain emphasis on mourning, with the protagonist being an off-seer who plays on his flute to see the dead off. Elements even start to resemble parts of Xenogears (though I don't know enough to substantially comment on that). The main cast don't entirely rely on likable one-note anime tropes either- compare Lanz to his Xenoblade 1 counterpart of Reyn for example: Reyn is the rock-solid upbeat meathead best friend archetype from start to finish. Lanz looks like that, but he's actually more of an arrogant dick that's somewhat dimwitted but is aware of it and his respect can be earned. I'm not an English major so I'm mangling my descriptions here. The point is that the game tries to have more depth with its main characters, containing tons of flashbacks fleshing them out. That's commendable. But it also didn't really work for me. I didn't particularly like or dislike anyone, and the flashbacks did not force me to re-evaluate the characters like a good season 1 Lost flashback, so much as just going, "oh. ok".

Up until this game, Xenoblade has been stuffed to the brim with sidequests. The cheap kind that mostly revolve around some text boxes at the beginning/end, and just involve killing things or collecting things or getting to a place (with a few more involved ones here and there). I suppose someone must have slipped them a copy of The Witcher 3, because Xenoblade 3 takes a turn into dramatically upping the production value on some them to nearly matching the main story while still having a hell of a lot of them. That sounds great on paper, but in reality the quality of writing tends to take a huge hit. 

Often it's just cruddy writing, but part of the problem is also just the game's commitment to the setting of an infinite child soldier war. People make fun of Japanese RPGs for always having teenage protagonists, but in this case the entire world is literally populated almost exclusively by teenage soldiers. It's exhaustively samey. Even as someone who tends to love deep dives into how an interesting hypothetical world could actually function, it isn't handled that well here. I cannot count the number of quests that boiled down to a villain monologuing about how one aspect of the world functioned, only for the protagonists to get mad about how wrong and evil it is for things to be that way. While the "how it works" aspect was often interesting (though sometimes dumb), the fact that the response to it was always just righteous outrage starts to make it almost feel like parody. Doesn't feel like it really explored the ideas presented.

I think it ultimately just made me appreciate cheap sidequests for the first time. My previous experience with the franchise has always been to do quite a lot of them, but once I started getting tired I'd just pull the plug and finish the main story. This worked quite well- the quests themselves contain enjoyable bits of world building, incentive to explore the world, but also aren't so high quality that I felt bad about skipping them. Xenoblade 3 meanwhile made me play it for way longer than the game itself could hold my interest because it felt wrong to skip such substantial content. The fact that the content in question was sometimes pretty bad made things even worse (compare to The Witcher 3, which while the gameplay runs out of steam almost immediately, at least the sidequest writing manages to be so consistently high quality throughout that I was only kind of grumpy about the whole affair).

On paper this should be the best Xenoblade battle system yet- it involves unlocking tons of classes and by leveling them enough you can then use their abilities on other classes. It even includes a Blue Mage style class that allows unlocking like hundreds of abilities and creating custom versions all 3 roles in the trinity (tank/damage/healing). Having 6 characters instead of 3 allows a lot more creativity in party composition. They finally let you change leaders mid-combat. It still retains Xenoblade 2's addition of timing while having a more understandable version of chain attacks and sort-of giving you more abilities at a time (sort of less too). 

But in practice the nature of having to level up classes to use their cross-class abilities (and the UI making it difficult to see what the cross-class abilities even are without looking up names) just means you have to spend the entire game constantly changing classes across 6 characters to level up all the classes. While in previous games I would happily tweak my party every so often, occasionally changing leaders when things got dull, in this game I pretty much resigned myself to letting the game set up my party instead- there was just too much crap to be changing it every 2 hours or so. Actually executing combat has gotten pretty rote and stale at this point too despite the number of classes. So in the end, despite sinking so many hours into the game, I basically feel like I never actually got around to really getting to play the game (which is to say actually building a party of my own). I suspect if I sat down and did the endgame monsters I would probably find some satisfaction, but I'm kind of too burned out to want to (as is I ran into a couple bosses that demanded tweaking my party, but out leveling them is an equally viable strategy)

Friday, November 4, 2022

King's Field II

 (Note: King's Field has a whole (much simpler) Final Fantasy numbers thing going on where the first game didn't get released in the west. Hence, the game of this review was released as simply King's Field in America)

King's Field II is a first person action dungeon crawler released in 1995 for the PlayStation. Its main claim to fame is that it has no loading screens (outside of death/fast travel), a technical feat that wouldn't really become fashionable until much later (and even today a whole lot of open world games still have load screens between exteriors and interiors). Though I suppose its much bigger claim to fame these days is simply that its spiritual successor Demon's Souls ended up sparking a minor game design revolution and finally launched its developer to mainstream success in the west.

That's a good looking skeleton.

I'm not especially familiar with this particular transitional period of dungeon crawler where action combat was inserted into the labyrinthian worlds of the genre (now free to actually be 3d), until around the 2000's where those massive maze-like worlds largely turned into straight forward corridors with arenas for combat. That makes it a little tough for me to evaluate King's Field II's combat, in that I suspect its contemporaries range between being similarly awkward or basically just bad Doom. You have tank controls and a very slow strafe with the L1/R1 buttons. Your melee and magic attacks have separate stamina bars- your melee allowing attacks with a partial charge while your magic simply cannot be done until fully charged (with stronger spells requiring more downtime). In practice there are about 3 approaches to combat: 

  • Rhythmically going forward/backwards (or strafing left/right for ranged enemies) with melee attacks hoping to beat out the monster's attack spin-up which is random enough that this mostly feels like a crapshoot of trading blows, but is still way better than standing in front of them since their attack speed will quickly overwhelm you. 
  • Awkwardly strafing your way to a monster's behind (since they also have tank controls) which while very wonky (it honestly never would have occurred to me to play like this if the manual didn't tell me to), does basically let you demolish enemies without taking any hits. The caveat is that it's not really viable in tight corridors (you're more likely to get stuck on a wall and have your behind stabbed).
  • Or just playing a very awkward first person shooter with bows/magic. The resources are scarce enough that you don't always get to do this.

 I don't think my words can really convey how awkward and slow it all is (even for someone that loves awkward and slow combat far more than button mashing trash). I would basically compare it to Hydlide or early Ys games: primordial Action RPG combat where the rules hadn't really been written yet, just in 3D this time. I also kind of loved it. The awkwardness allows the RPG elements to shine, making your progression feel compelling instead of overshadowed by skill. Its magic stamina system is a huge improvement over spiritual predecessors like Secret of Mana that fell prey to magic spam dominating its systems. And while the game actively tells you that just running past enemies is an option, I kind of love how running also makes you take more damage making it a slightly riskier maneuver compared to the borderline consequence free running strategies of the Souls games. It does still fall into the classic Action RPG pitfall of letting the player haul around 99 healing herbs (that are pretty cheap too) and use them with zero delay. But since the action is pretty underplayed anyway, that doesn't feel like as much of a mistake here.

Yes, you unlock shortcuts- just like Dark Souls! I think it really gets lost over time how many Souls elements are probably just bog standard dungeon crawler design that everyone forgot because the genre fell off the planet for awhile.

Of course the real star of the show is the aforementioned "open world". It's kind of really great. Dungeon crawlers tend to skew towards maze-ish self-contained-ish dungeon floors (which yes often weave together as well). But the connected world here ends up coming off more like a really well designed Metroid map. There's a sort of "spine" to the world where all the major zones connect that you end up learning to navigate like the back of your hand, while most of the "dungeons" are somewhat self-contained areas. The genius of it is that when you're first exploring the world, it's often not clear what areas even are the "spine" since it also has tons of extraneous dead ends and dungeons and loops and other such junk on it that makes it blend in with the dungeons. Yet once you have learned it, you rarely get lost while traversing it because the game is very strategic with the placement of its limited set of landmarks. While it doesn't have a whole lot of unique statues or whatever to work with, it's very particular about where it uses its textures and signs to guide the player before they even consciously realize it.

Quite a few key areas are denoted by signs or distinct textures compared to the dead end hallways nearby. Not the one pictured though, I just.. I forgot to take a screenshot of any of them ok.

It goes beyond just the design of the "spine", too. The way the game designed its mainline path progression is also kind of beautiful. You tend to find keys or new areas in the middle of dungeons, before you've cleared the entire dungeon. This creates a sort of unease in the player where they have somewhere new to go while also being aware they haven't necessarily cleared out the previous location. It's not uncommon for that new area to actually end up being required to continue with the place where you left off, but sometimes it's just a new optional thing instead. This creates a sense of... I often felt like I was skipping ahead in the main progression, but ended up doing exactly what the main progression actually wanted. It's an exquisite sense of exploration that makes you feel like you're getting away with something when you actually aren't. It really highlights why backtracking is actually cool you losers stop whining about it.

Why did I take so many pictures of skeletons there are other types of enemies in the game.

I should really emphasize here that the game does a hell of a job managing the complexity of the world with all this going on. It's even fairly generous with limiting monster respawns in a lot of rooms. Yes, since the world is seamless you get a real claustrophobic sense of knowing how far back you started was and a dizzying sense of having no idea where you are anymore. But I never needed to pull out a piece of graph paper and map everything out (you do eventually get in-game maps, but they're only really useful for thoroughly cleaning out dungeons than for actual cross-world navigation). The central spine structure combined with the level designer's supreme restraint with making individual "dungeon" areas small-ish and tending to only be comprised of several dead end hallways and a looping core makes it all mostly manageable while still feeling overwhelming in size. It ain't perfect since I often found myself lost in the tiny-but-maze-like towns that are lacking in distinct landmarking, but it could be way worse.

Golden trees- just like Elden Ring! Also if you sit and wait in front of it for several minutes it gives you an item. No, really. That's the mechanic.

That said, the cost of having really cool stuff to find in exploration also means the game is capable of being a total dick. In my case, I spent the entire game until the final bosses without any free way to restore my MP. Early on the game gives you a choice of fountain to unlock without giving you any information. Naturally, I blindly picked the fountain that recovers status effects instead of MP. You can eventually unlock the other fountain, but since it's an optional hidden thing, I managed to completely miss it until finally asking a guide towards the end of the game when realizing something had to be up. This pretty much changed my entire experience with the game, only using magic when absolutely necessary (as the game is designed with this in mind- there are alternate finite items you can find to restore your MP and I ultimately had a slight excess of them). Meanwhile, lucky players who picked the right fountain could semi-freely use magic for most of the game. That's kind of neat, especially when considering the "playground rumor" social space of the game. It's also kind of terrible. But kind of neat. (similarly, I didn't use the (semi-limited) fast travel system until significantly later in the game than most players could because the error message for using the portal item without enough MP is "nothing happens" rather than "you don't have enough MP, dummy" and explicit descriptions about items is something you have to earn with a hidden NPC or reading the manual, but even the manual/npc don't tell you about the MP requirement).

The squeaky rocking chair is the only noise you hear.

Over the years games have tried to inject a little more realism into their economies with trash vendor items dropped by monsters (ie, wolf pelts) creating gold rather than direct gold drops. King's Field II's economy however is a little more interesting than that: for the majority of the game monsters only really drop 10-40 gold (100 gold at the very late end game). This is only really useful for covering the price of very cheap ~14 gold healing herbs. Tons of useful items cost 6000-8000 gold, upwards to even 22,000. If you want any hope of affording them, you're going to have to sell some items. But almost every item in the game has some use for you: crystals (rare random drop and semi-plentiful static item) can be used to make reusable potion bottles, other crystals that permanently boost magic power, MP recovery items (real important when you're a doofus who doesn't have MP potions), status effect clearing crystals, equipment, etc. At the end of the day duplicate/old equipment and the magic-boosting items end up being your money makers, but the game is dangerously close to having an economy where everything feels like a trade off (doubly so since like 80% of shop items can be found in the dungeon, but you can obtain them way earlier by buying them). It's pretty neat, and also thematic since the game revolves around people being trapped on a poison island being forced to mine said crystals. (the game also seems perfectly happy to let you sell some pretty major key items. No, the NPCs don't seem to sell them back to you either. So if you want to sell your ability to fast travel for some quick cash.. the game is ok with that).

I love that most the NPCs all have unique activity animations like eating or digging.


  • The music is ok. But the relatively small number of tracks means that the low key ambient melodies end up getting worn into the ground and lose all sense of mood.
  • There's more story here than you would expect at first. Both with the history of the island, and the interpersonal relationships of the NPCs. They actually change their text/positions somewhat regularly with the flow of the game, and I ended up confused by a lot of it since I think I missed a lot of out-of-the-way NPCs that I never went back to talk to. I found it mostly to be pretty bland fantasy, but some parts do hit. I particularly dug the optional mirror that told you more explicit backstory about every character/monster.
  • There's also one puzzle that is basically asking you to find a needle in a haystack given the size of the world. Now, the needle is actually in one of the areas you revisit frequently. But even so.. c'mon.
  • One of the plot elements is that the big bad has made the island permanently night. This is almost certainly to deal with draw distance in the game's hand full of outdoors areas, but the game really leans into it by making the parts of town that are allied with the main villain still have daylight. It's a really cool piece of in-world storytelling that lets you know who is and isn't on his good side at a glance.
  • One of the shopkeepers is explicitly allied with the Big Bad (when using the magic mirror on him) while also giving you the best sell prices for goods. I was really hoping all the magic boosting items I was unloading would end up making the final boss harder or something, but I don't think it did. But I appreciate that the game made me think it might.

I often found myself mashing the "Eat Herb" button through traps rather than finding where the off button was hidden. Game design blunder, or multiple viable routes?

So should you play King's Field II? If you have a high tolerance for backtracking and don't need great RPG combat then.. sure, maybe? I had a great time. I don't know that most people will. It actually makes me sad that as game technology has gotten better at big worlds, we aren't really making truly intricate ones like this anymore, instead doing big open empty fields (yes, Souls games make areas visible in the distance.. but that's just visual fluff rather than a navigational nightmare. And while dungeons are intricate, they're self-contained). Although the level design isn't necessarily as great as something like Thief, where the intricate levels were also believable places in addition to being functional levels- this is still ultimately a bunch of dank dungeon corridors. Just really well made ones.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022


I've had a hard time getting into indie games that are trying to be Zelda or Metroid, as even when they're well-made and pretty they tend to be missing a certain something (level design I suspect, they all come off like first draft levels). I can at least say that Tunic did not fall into the pit of me sighing and stopping after a few hours- I played it to the end. It evokes Zelda with the titular outfit of its protagonist, and I suppose it's not a completely inaccurate comparison. Just, like, replace Zelda's combat with something a bit slower (it's trying to be Souls given the in-game references to Dark Souls, but in practice you mostly just mash after seeing an opening- the enemy design is about as mundane as an Ubisoft game) and replace Zelda's eclectic variety of puzzles with one primary puzzle revolving around hiding things behind perspective (you know how old RPGs had you rubbing against walls to find secret doors? It's like that, but actually cool because there are visual cues). 

It also uses the experience of playing a video game in a language you can't read as an intentional mechanic. You see, there's an in-game manual that unlocks as you play. But it's made up of a mix of about 10% English and 90% fictional language. Most the the text in the game itself is also in this language that you can't read. As someone who has dabbled in Japanese-exclusive games it's, uh, pretty authentic (as they also feature confounding random instances of English). This aspect was the main thing that sold me on the game. And while it takes way longer to utilize it than I wanted, it does end up leveraging it to a satisfying degree.

(Minor spoilers for the rest of the review. Though personally I would have been happier with the game if someone told me about it ahead of time so. There's that.)

Like every other indie game on the planet, it does end up taking a bit of a genre shift to something akin to an adventure game. This part is in a lot of ways the best part of the game, but also kind of the worst. Without saying too much, the primary mechanic involved makes it hard to tell whether you executed the solution wrong or straight up had entirely the wrong solution. The execution is also lengthy enough that retrying it is quite annoying. I ended up basically referring to guides to see whether my answer was wrong or my input was wrong, and most of the time it was the input. It smoothed over the experience a lot, but also resulted in me spoiling things for myself at times. I... would probably still recommend doing so, as it's maddening otherwise. 

I somewhat question the shift itself too, since separating it from the rest of the game ends up leaving you with just one flavor of game at a time rather than how genuine Zelda mixes genres to create a balance. It also left me with a very strong longing for the game to do more with the manual gimmick for most of the game, only for it to suddenly become a lot more useful than just "where to go next" at the last moment. To  be fair, the split also allows the game to be way more convenient about traversal once it hits full-on adventure game time so I can't totally fault the structure.

So should you play Tunic? I dunno. I guess if you want an indie action adventure that's just pretty good. It has a some stand out moments, but also has quite a few average elements. Fact of the matter is that we've seen these ideas explored several times by now: Ni No Kuni 1 and Retro Game Challenge among others have explored the game manual renaissance, Fez explored deep secrets inside games, and genre shifting is practically its own genre at this point. Tunic takes some of these further than its peers, and one of the puzzles in it is probably one of the best times I've ever had taking notes in a game. But the good bits have flaws, and it's a tad average on the whole. So I'm left unsure of it, but I guess I'm glad I played it.

Friday, July 8, 2022

Elden Ring

In a few years when you look up Elden Ring in a dictionary it's just going to say "too much of a good thing". It's not even like Dark Souls where you can simply say the last chunk of the game is blatantly unfinished and that's why it's bad. Elden Ring's final dozens of hours are about as well made as the first. But they're also not particularly distinct from the rest of the game, either. So you simply end up tired and exhausted of the formula.

I wanted the introduction to be about how the long wait for a game that actually paid attention to 2017's The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was finally over (as every open world game since has simply ignored it- even games like Horizon: Forbidden West that doesn't even have the excuse of being in development before seeing it- its preceding game literally released along side Zelda. Most developers straight up don't seem to give a shit for whatever reason, or they get confused and think the climbing around was the rad part of Zelda). As sick of it as I am, it's still true. Elden Ring does a pretty good job cleaning up the open world genre's obsession with not letting the player discover anything for themselves by having fairly minimal information. While most landmarks can be identified by visually looking at the map (some of which you only learn to identify with time making even reading the map a bit of an adventure), the game still hides a plethora of secret items, dungeons, and world bosses. Heck, the original release didn't even put NPCs on your map (which I liked but also made the limit of 100 map markers far too harsh for me) and even the size of the world is hidden from you for most of the game. To find them you have to actually look at the actual world. Surprisingly closely at times, often only barely identifying a cave by a flame masked behind tree branches. It's pretty cool, though it dries up a bit near the end as areas start to feel more like palette swaps with few secrets.

The game more or less copies the systems of previous Souls games into an open world (even outside the systems, it also copies a lot of level concepts and monsters almost directly from them as well. There are downsides to this, but it's also really smart in terms of letting them have a higher amount of variety than most open world games by virtue of gluing together several old games. They do a passable job of covering it up with minor tweaks, too. The only problem is the game is still so long that even with gluing multiple games together it ends up with an excessive number of repeat bosses and other monsters). But these systems were built for 40-60 hour long dungeon crawlers. When you try copy them into a 200 hour open world behemoth, they start to crack. While getting a lot of equipment and spells that aren't relevant to your build is annoying in a traditional Souls, it becomes more deflating in Elden Ring when that's your reward for tackling an entire micro dungeon (as opposed to finding a hidden corner). Worse, they carry over the upgrade systems from those games which require using limited items to upgrade equipment. This makes it really hard to even try the new things you're finding. While systems do exist to eventually get infinite amounts of most upgrades, they lag behind in a way that disincentivizes you from ever breaking from what you already have. They mitigate it somewhat by also letting you find things to change your existing weapon's properties, but it still makes all the other stuff you're finding underwhelming. 

Then there are the game's quests. I was initially pretty excited about them, keeping a notepad and screenshot button handy, as warned by the Internet. They more or less directly copy the structure of other Souls game quests: find an NPC at a point and do what's required, then they move on to another point in the world (sometimes with dialog clues as to where), and so on until the end, with no map hints as to where they went. This works well enough in the other games because they have a relatively linear, tight structure (though even then I'd tend to miss some of them, but not so many that I felt like I was missing much). When you transport this into Elden Ring's massive world, with a structure that allows quite a few different orders, with almost no changes it doesn't go so well (to be fair- some quests have optional steps and they do have NPCs shout at you when near a step). They're even worse if you miss a quest step because you end up with a needle in a haystack situation for deriving where the next quest step is in the miles and miles of areas you've already cleared out.

I screwed up almost every quest in the game despite my best attempts at being meticulous. At the end of the game I did end up looking them up out of curiosity. Generally speaking, the bigger side quests were mostly just my own fault for missing hidden areas or not spending enough time roaming around gigantic, empty boss arenas. Some of the smaller side quests involve such a specific order in areas with numerous possible orders of visiting that uh. Yeah good luck with those. I dunno how I feel about it. I still think the quest pointers that dominate games are horrible for games about exploration. And I have friends who missed similar things as me, and I know friends who managed to complete quite a few quests without help, so I can't say they're outright impossible. All I know is that in a game that is so much more about exploration than others in the series, I found it so much more distressing to be missing them than I did in the other games. I don't know the solution to the problem, though. I'm glad they took a swing at doing things the hard way and I hope they find the solution in the future.

There's a lot more that could be talked about such as the nuanced differences in combat (I have forgotten them), boss design / spirit summoning system (bosses are hyper aggressive with a lot of variations in attack patterns such that they feel built to force you to use summons. I found the summon system pretty fun in figuring out the best ones to use against different types of bosses. Then you find the Broken Summon and almost never care again- I was lucky in that I didn't find it until the end of the game, but most people aren't. It's a real shame. The upgrade system also hurts the system by limiting viable ones to experiment with), and how introducing a guest writer for the background story changes the things (more than you might expect at first, but also not that much). I'm just exhausted of it.

So should you play Elden Ring? Yeah probably, it's still one of the best open world games ever made (despite the dour tone of this review, the first 80 hours were incredible and I could not stop playing, and it's basically the RPG I've been yearning for all my life but never got because things like The Elder Scrolls have garbage combat I can't get into or The Witcher 3's non-existence balancing), but also in doing so you're cursing yourself with a game that outlives its welcome without giving you much reason to kick it out. It basically made me hate all video games for a month. I can't even say "oh just skip half the side content" (which is my typical strategy for open world games), because the game mixes in really cool stuff in secret places. That's its greatest strength, but also its greatest weakness.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story

 The murder mystery game genre is one of those weird things that has been incredibly prolific in Japan starting with early PC games and the NES (even launching the creator of Dragon Quest's career), but ended up a virtually unknown, untranslated phenomenon in the west (though we certainly had our own equivalent PC adventure games involving murder). It's a tradition that persists to this day and finally came overseas with less serious, more anime flavored stuff like Danganronpa and Phoenix Wright. But those original games, introduced to me by watching Game Center CX (it's.. a Japanese let's play television show that's been running for 20 years...uh, just watch it, it rules), were deathly serious in nature. And it's that tradition that The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story, a full motion video murder mystery released in 2022, comes from. You play as a mystery writer tasked with figuring out why an unknown skeleton was buried in the Shijima family's estate, quickly spiraling into solving multiple murders spanning one hundred years- including the present day.

My main expectation for this game was mostly just to see some goofy low budget FMV game shenanigans, possibly with a good mystery jammed in there too. That's really most people's expectations for the genre, which exists in the beautifully awkward space of having game developers deal with a low-budget film production (which likely only some of the team has any experience with) while also having to slice things apart to make sense inside a game where dynamic things normally happen like objects moving around. Sometimes you hit a goldmine with games like Contradiction - Spot The Liar!, where the goofiness just enhances an enjoyable little adventure game. Most of the time you just get the goofs. The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story is light on goofs, but surprisingly gave me an actual appreciation for the advantages of the FMV format inside a game for the first time (more on that later).

The game is roughly split into 3 phases for each chapter/mystery. First you watch a lengthy video of the case, leading up to and the immediate aftermath of a murder (occasionally pressing a button to collect clues). The second phase is the hypothesis phase where you place those clues into matching edges on a straight line hex grid. Once matched, the game plays a short 3d scene outlining a possible piece of logic (ie, the murderer had to be a man because of x, the murder weapon had to be y, the motive had to be z, etc). Since the game uses image patterns to match where these go, this phase is more about mulling over the clues and doing a matching minigame than anything else. Some of the pieces are so out of left field that it often adds more noise to solving the case than anything else, but I kind of enjoyed how stupid it was willing to go. The final phase goes back to playing video, but this time interrupted by having to pick the right answer to numerous questions about the mystery. Pick the wrong answer and you get a short scene explaining why you're wrong and also very dumb and get whisked back to the question to try again. A minor stroke of brilliance is that the game also gives you a rating at the end of the case, incentivizing the player to actually think about choices rather than bumbling your way through (though the ratings are purely fluff and easily cheated by replaying, they did end up making me care).

If you've ever watched a mystery show or movie, odds are you've found yourself commenting on who done it with those around you (something so common that tons of shows actively stop and prompt the viewers to pick). The brilliant part of The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story, which I don't know how to feel about since I'm not sure the developers even intended it, is that it taps into that same energy. The majority of mystery games just aren't great for playing with other people, since they're heavily text based and varying reading speeds makes that all kinds of awkward. Even newer stuff with heavy voice acting and cutscenes still tend to be structured as classic inventory puzzles (yeah you can throw around "uhh try using the bone on the dog", but it's kind of weak), roaming between rooms, and conversation trees that are optimized for immersing a single person. But this game is perfectly made for playing with other people: everyone can watch a movie together, and the questions are streamlined so you can debate among yourselves, arguing for specific lines of logic as to which one is correct. You see I didn't actually play this game myself, I just watched it with a group of friends. Even so, arguing and coming to agreement about each piece of evidence basically made me feel like I was playing it. I don't feel like I missed anything, and I think the game was actually a far better experience for it.

The mysteries vary in quality (with one of the early ones going too hard on goofy lateral thinking), but are overall pretty good. Some feature so many gaps in knowledge that solving them tends to feel like taking the test without ever having went to class, but this ends up paying off in the epilogue chapter that hits you with a barrage of reveals, recontextualizations, and fills in every question we had in a satisfying manner. Yeah, there was no way you could have pieced together most of those clues, but they were present just enough to make you feel like you should have.

There's only really two big negatives with the game. One chapter features a hard genre shift into playing more like an adventure game with dopey traditional puzzles. It's awful. And the other issue is that some of the wrong answers have really unsatisfying explanations for why they're wrong (the worst being a character just flat out telling you "no I already checked, there aren't any." despite the hypothesis phase presenting 4 possibilities, some of them plausible, it doesn't go to the effort of explaining why they're wrong). And I suppose a bonus complaint is that I think mystery narratives should generally be entertaining to watch even outside of the mystery, but this thing is so dry that it was primarily just the mystery that I was there for (though some chapters have investigations prior to the main mystery of the chapter that lean into making this work, and the late game has enough stuff layered together that it also works).

So should you play The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story? If you have at least one other person to play it with, can get into murder mysteries, and are a giant weeb then yes absolutely.  I would highly recommend it so long as you know what you're getting into. (I'm deathly serious about playing it with someone else. I'm.. not sure it works otherwise.)

Thursday, December 30, 2021


 DEATHLOOP is the latest entry in the recently burgeoning time loop "genre" of games (which apparently this blog is almost entirely dedicated to covering). It's pretty different from most by having an emphasis on removing the frustrations of the style, while retaining the fantasy. Rather than the typical time loop that operates in real time by having NPCs follow rigid schedules, DEATHLOOP opts for a simpler approach: there are 4 areas and 4 time periods within the loop's day (morning, afternoon, night, etc). Going to an area takes up that time period, but you can spend as much real time within it as you want- the game simply repeats the basic NPC patterns forever until you die or leave (with each time period changing up what's happening in each area). This eliminates a lot of the nuisance in terms of having to stalk a certain NPC for hours or wait around for the right event to start, but it also removes some of the magic that allows for more realized worlds. Whether they did it to streamline or because it was way easier for their existing engine to handle, I ended up liking the distinct approach (though I'd be disappointed if it were the first of its kind).

The game itself is one of those dreadfully diluted first person stealth amalgams: "you can sneak around, but you can also shoot people when that goes wrong!". I'm not a fan of the style because you usually just end up with two weak games, with one of them being the far easier path of least resistance. I also tend to just end up constantly reloading my way through a stealth only play through, cursing at how half my options are dedicated to something I have no plans of doing. In this regard I can give DEATHLOOP some credit: it doesn't let you quicksave at all, instead opting to give you 3 lives each level. For once I actually found myself playing the game as intended: mostly stealthing, but shotgunning my way out of bad situations when necessary. It wasn't bad. I'm actually really happy to see this style of game finally move away from the tension-destroying quicksave of PC gaming's past- even if 3 lives ends up being far too generous.

The game's inventory is also a streamlined time loop system of allowing you to spend a currency to permanently keep any weapon/upgrade/power across multiple loops. The amount you get is so generous that it's extremely unlikely you'll have to face needing to give anything you want up. Worse, the game makes it extremely easy to find good weapons such that you'll spend all of like 20 minutes with the crappy guns that jam. The end result is that after my first full loop, I had most of the same equipment I would take with me to the end of the game (I did get a few upgrades, learned to appreciate some later powers, but ultimately felt like I peaked within a few hours). This is basically the single biggest flaw of the game: it's built to have a progression, but immediately gives you everything. I actually waited a few months to write this review hoping that they'd release a hard mode patch that would fix this. They haven't.

The end goal is basically just Mega Man: kill all the bosses (stealing their powers along the way) in a single day to end the loop. Actually getting their schedules to line up for that requires doing a bunch of investigations and assassinations across multiple loops, resulting in a fairly standard game progression despite the loop structure. It's not bad, and each of the bosses has their own gimmick fight that breaks up the routine of stealthing your way through the grunts. Most of the story just consists of piecing together the boss's personalities, why they built a time loop, and recovering from the protagonist's amnesia. It's all pretty thin and shifting through tape recordings and notebooks is so cliched at this point that it's hard for me to take seriously, but... I did read everything I came across.

The final element is that the game contains a Demon's Souls-style invasion system where another player can enter your single player game to try to stop you from killing a boss. It has a lot of flaws: the netcode doesn't always work well, the invader is at a huge disadvantage of having 1 life vs. 3 (much like the developers shaving the sharp edges off time loops, this is them shaving them off invasions), being the invader is often a very boring looking for a needle in a haystack, etc. Yet the game is definitely better off for having it. The added tension of knowing someone is somewhere just adds a lot, particularly when doing your final run of killing every boss and not wanting someone to stop you part way through. And when the stars align and you have a genuine cat-and-mouse game, it's kinda neat (but mostly you're going to have sniper wars).

So should you play DEATHLOOP? That's actually a difficult question. The completely broken progression system really hurts the game. And even outside that, the game is pretty bare bones for the genre- you don't have all that many options to interact with the world, just the standard throwing rocks and hacking turrets etc. But I did enjoy my time with it. The new style of time loop is fresh despite its simplicity, some of the boss fights are pretty cool (particularly doing them multiple times for upgrades and trying different approaches to mastery), the world is fun to comb through, and the protagonist/antagonist banter was solid enough. Grab it if you're into this kind of thing and can accept a whole lot of missed potential, I guess

Monday, October 18, 2021

Metroid Dread

 Metroid Dread is about the sequel to Metroid Fusion you'd have expected shortly after its release, albeit a decade or two late. Fusion had a heavier emphasis on difficult bosses, and so Dread doubles down on that with even harder bosses that are easily the best in the series. Fusion had a famous chase sequence, and so Dread doubles down on that by making chase sequences a standard mechanic instead of a one-off set piece. While Fusion went overboard on directing the player to avoid tedious backtracking, Dread has a generally more tasteful approach of directing the player primarily through clever level design and careful teleporters, while also giving some opportunities to wander around and get lost that Fusion completely omitted (though it still isn't above plot-locked doors and impossible jumps in its toolkit).

The surprising part is just how damn well executed it is. It's the kind of game where even if you don't love everything it does, it's just done too well to mind it. They added QTEs and an analogue of the much-overused dodge roll to Metroid, but I was ok with it (honestly the "dodge roll" is probably the best new powerup). Yeah, the chase sequences don't really achieve the same horror mood as Fusion because that's what happens when you turn something into a standard mechanic, but they're pretty fun platformer Pac-Man sequences in their own right. As much as I love slow clunky games, Dread's fast fluid movement feels great and also makes perfect sense as a necessity for the chases to function (a contrast to something like Nier Automata that made its combat faster just because it looks cooler and is more popular, but ended up making the bullet hell elements of the original game pointless in the process). 

Of course while it manages to dodge most of my would-be complaints, it does have a few genuine flaws: the music fails to live up to the series standards, the art design is a little generic, the control layout is a tad awkward and heavy on shoulder button modifiers (my old hands literally cannot handle playing this game in portable mode), the load times between areas are really long, and not all the upgrades get that much love. Whatever. None of them add up to much consequence, other than the music.

Let's talk about what does matter: the bosses.Their designs follow a few basic rules that result in really great bosses:

  • Invincibility windows are short and sparse, meaning you can almost always damage the boss.
  • Damage is rarely "hit this specific attack pattern twice", but trends towards "500 damage for this phase any way you can", meaning that you're always making the fight faster the better your offense is.
  • Boss damage tends to be extreme so that when you do get hit, it really hurts. But on the flip side, every attack is very avoidable. Meaning that finishing a fight near death is quite doable, rather than falling into "well this upcoming attack always hits me, so I'm just screwed now".

Of course most of what I just listed is pretty standard Metroid (aside from extreme damage didn't get introduced until Fusion). The bosses are just plain better designed, with more phases. Carefully done so that earlier parts of the boss often teach you about later parts. As you get upgrades, the bosses change in tandem so they never stagnate (the second half of bosses almost feel like a different game, and even a late game upgrade changes how you use missiles). The added mobility means you get to do a lot more evading, even beautifully weaving the space jump into a lot of fights. Even coming off Fusion, I just didn't expect to love the bosses so much.

So should you play Metroid Dread? If you have even the slightest taste for the genre, then absolutely. It's the kind of game that is so well crafted that it's hard not to enjoy it, and can proudly stand alongside Super Metroid and Metroid Prime 1 (though it'll take time to figure out where exactly next to them, probably underneath).

Monday, August 30, 2021

Dragon Quest IV

 Slightly below Dragon Quest V, this was the game I was most looking forward to getting to. I knew it featured a chapter system where you change protagonists throughout it, the highlight everyone mentions being "that chapter where you run a weapon store". Squaresoft produced a ton of SNES/PS1 era RPGs with the format of multiple protagonists, and they generally yielded some of the more interesting stories as a result of not being stuck with the stock teenage boy protagonist. So I was really curious to see the probable video game origin point of the style, and even more interested in seeing what it looked like when Dragon Quest was actually still innovating instead of its modern form of being unchanging video game comfort food. What I got wasn't entirely what I expected.

Right up there with sequels that start with you losing all your equipment from the previous game for in-universe explanations for mechanics.
Dragon Quest IV is rather different from those Squaresoft RPGs I mentioned in that it sticks to a linear sequence for shifting between protagonists. This results in telling a way more coherent narrative in between character vignettes that builds up a looming threat: Ragnar the town guard uncovers a sinister plot of monsters kidnapping children, tomboy princess Alena's rollicking adventures end in tragedy when the monster's plans advances, Taloon thrives as a weapon merchant in a world preparing for the worst, the fourth chapter is a head on revenge mission against the monsters, and finally ending with the chosen one Hero gathering everyone together to save the day. 

Dungeons are a lot more visually elaborate
The first four chapters are great. It's basically taking a hard look at the world of Dragon Quest and asking what goes on when someone isn't on a world saving adventure. What's life like for a town guard, princess, or a merchant? The chapters aren't just flavored by the story, either. The town guard actually has to investigate around town to solve a mystery (which is a staple for the series, but it integrates perfectly with the smaller scale). The merchant chapter is the most extravagant, as it basically functions like a precursor prototype of a life sim. Push the old man to church every day for gold, operate a bunch of boring menus to sell weapons to adventurers, and then go back home at night and do it all over again. It actually branches out quite a bit with a dungeon sequence, figuring out schemes to buy low and sell high, hiring people to escort you in harder dungeons, etc. It's pretty good, though in true NES fashion it leans a little too hard on grinding money at the end. It almost certainly inspired a few genres, and is kind of crazy to look at today considering how intentionally not experimental Dragon Quest ended up becoming.

I actually really dig how the Taloon chapter melds adventuring into it, and kind of makes me want to see a life sim with more world exploration (but still without combat).
The final chapter is where it's kind of a let down. After building up all these characters, they end up silent after they join your party. Disappointing since the structure makes you think they're going for something, but admittedly not unexpected for the time. It's also really freaking big and long. Like probably three or four times the length of the previous chapters combined? I sort of wish I hadn't skipped playing Dragon Quest III first as the two games are of similar size, but I suspect III works out far better without even playing it (just by knowing it's fairly non-linear out the gate). IV's final chapter is basically structured such that there's a mainline path that directs you to the next location after each step (and often unlocks more chunks of the world), but several parts of the main path also require solving branches that you may or may not have found/done earlier in the game. It's not a terrible structure in itself, but the size of the world makes figuring out some of the branches a real chore (made worse by the world map being huge, sparsely populated with towns/dungeons, and visually indistinct- making it easy to not realize there are certain patches you haven't explored yet. I ended up resorting to the included manual's map, but it felt cheap knowing the Japanese version didn't have a map).

Despite the size, the world is still using the same basic tiles everywhere which makes it pretty easy to miss corners.

The worst part is just that all of your characters (except the protagonist) become locked into being AI controlled. Of course every remake changes this, but I was so deathly curious I had to try it for myself. The result was: it's really boring and hurts the game a lot. There's actually an interview with the developers around the time of release that is a fascinating read. The quotes pretty much straight up admit it was a bit of a failure: "I think we didn’t quite capture that feeling of being a “general” and strategically directing the combat", "The other thing I felt was lacking, was the wagon. You can have up to 10 characters in the wagon, but unfortunately, the game never really requires you to swap them out in any strategic way.", etc. The nicest thing I can say is that I pretty much just held down the fast forward button and mashed attack through every battle and either the AI was good enough to handle it, or the game was easy enough it didn't matter (I did catch it trying to use an instant death spell on the final boss, so...). And while the AI system is far less advanced than something like Final Fantasy XII, it still ends up being the better game just because the dungeons still have distinct tricks, there are overworld discoveries to make, resources still have to be managed (albeit tediously with single target healing), etc- while XII's world is pretty much just empty space. Years later Final Fantasy XIII would end up successfully bringing the "general" battle concept to life, while Dragon Quest pretty much just gave up on it.

The early chapters trick you into thinking you can control everyone, which I guess would be a cool surprise if the AI feature was actually fun.

 Despite all that complaining, the final chapter isn't a total wash. The chosen one premise works better than most thanks to the build-up of the prior chapters (plus having the player enter their name at the start of the game and then not show up for hours and hours is.. beautiful), gathering up all your party members and understanding how each chunk of their adventures actually fits together in a world feels great, seeing how various NPC's lives changed since earlier chapters is great (those lovebirds you saved are married and having a kid, etc- that kind of thing is actually more impactful with less work than something like Final Fantasy II smashing villages left and right), there's actually a fair amount of plot with the main antagonist who ends up as a tragic figure who just wants to bring humanity to extinction because they're jerks (he's not wrong), and it's still pretty good at the general Dragon Quest formula of feeling like a genius when the clues finally start to click together or you figure out the missing piece.

The dungeons feature a variety of gimmicks like dodging boulders, but thankfully never go too far where they become annoying.

So should you play Dragon Quest IV? I dunno, I guess if you want? Certainly not the original version. The high points aren't particularly high any more, other games have since done them better. In other words, it's so close to later entries in the genre that it isn't particularly distinct. It's also bloated as these things usually are, though it thankfully still has tight, compact dungeon design. But in the end it's just... another RPG. With some cool bits that are a fraction of the run time.

They were really stoked they could fit that many NPCs on screen.

 (I don't know where to fit this in the greater review, but I'd also like to note how in love with moving NPCs this game is? They were clearly extremely psyched when they finally had the storage to start including NPC move patterns. They have a bit with an old man who tries to follow you but can't keep up, merchants moving from their wife to the store front, merchants running 4 shops at once, priests tending to their gardens before helping you, meeting other adventuring parties in towns and dungeons, etc. It's neat to see since a ton of later RPGs generally aren't this elaborate with it)

Monsters hate open borders.

Bonus: Series Stuff

On the other hand I feel like this game was a real motherload in terms of like... establishing series stuff? The villain is using "The Secret of Evolution" to make all the monsters and some animals in the world smarter, enough to start talking. I could be wrong, but I don't remember any monsters talking in the earlier games (the Internet is useless at "when did DQ monsters start talking" trivia apparently), but it becomes a series staple from this point forward so it's kind of cool that maybe there's actually a lore reason for talking monsters? Albeit it also creates a Tolkien orc conundrum of it now being way more morally questionable to slay thousands of them, but it's still a cool revelation for someone who's played a fair amount of other Dragon Quest stuff.

Careful what you wish for.

Cities in the sky and bird people are also a bit of a series staple, but later games introduce them so nonchalantly that I always found it weird? It's a common fantasy thing sure, but the rest of Dragon Quest's village style is so intentionally bland that I always found them out of place and kind of sudden. IV is the first introduction of these things, and it at least does it with an appropriate amount of build up- the sky city and its ruler are slowly foreshadowed for a ridiculously long time before you finally meet them. They also form a lot of little backstory for certain parts of the plot. So for the first time they actually feel like they fit in the world to me? Just one of those things where people who grew up with a franchise end up slapping in cameos so casually that they never stop to think about the details?

Seems familiar..