Prey

There is a neatness to Prey that is really impressive. The opening is a masterpiece in itself, immediately drawing you into the rude awakening and throws you the first surprise just after the short opening. Plenty of games have used amnesia and in medias res for openings, and Prey did hint about it in the trailers, but it does not dwell on it. Rather than dwell on the mysteries of what happened, Prey reveals what happened fairly quickly and makes the quest all about figuring out why. I’m not usually swayed by moral ambiguity in videogame stories, but Prey delivers just enough background to keep it interesting without revealing so much that the answers become obvious. Whatever shortcomings the game has otherwise, the story will happily compensate for.

Not that there’s a lot of shortcomings, mind. Prey controls well, gives you a reasonable amount of freedom in choosing your own path and rewards caution and attentiveness. If anything, the game contains remarkably little actual character progression for a game with so much exploration, the lack of resources make sure even early game enemies never stop being an annoyance and the constant respawning makes backtracking an adventure in itself. It feels like an intended nod to System Shock, but it makes exploration tedious and since the game is always very clear on what will advance the story it almost feels like it is punishing you for being thorough.

Still, it’s not that Prey ever gets bad, only occasionally slightly repetitive. And that can itself be chalked up to ludonarrative dissonance at worst. Prey really is a neat game.

Posted on Jul 27/17 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »

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Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky the 3rd

Trails 3 feels like fanservice – a way to expand on the stories and backstories of the characters in the first two chapters without having to produce too much new content or influence the world in any significant way. Gameplay-wise it is about as good as the previous games – functional, but not deep or innovative – and it offers a good slew of long flashbacks that are essentially hour-long cutscenes that do nothing but give you exposition on the character backgrounds. Building a game that’s specifically targeted only to the big fans of the previous games is a bit of a gamble though, so it’s nice to see them catering to their community at least.

One interesting part is that while the story doesn’t take center stage, it is in many ways a better story than the first couple of games offered. The main character Kevin has many more things going on than most of the other cast combined, and even though the game is about him overcoming his internal struggles he never comes off as a weak or unlikable character before working through them. It is an uncharacteristically human portrayal that shows that even characters that seem to have it together can have inner demons, and even though there are a bit too much magical mystery in his background story for it to become intriguing the resolution leads to more subtle and mature changes in his manners. It could well have been a bigger part of the game, but on the other hand it is difficult to say if it had worked as well had it been fleshed out more.

I have grown somewhat fond of the Trails series at this point, but after spending 130+ hours in the games it is difficult to tell how much of that is due to quality and how much is Stockholm syndrome. The series starts out with a cast of characters that are mostly comic relief goons or tortured loners with a dark past, but fleshes them all out during the game – I don’t know if this makes them better characters or if I’ve just gotten used to them. There is something to be said for knowing your form, and if you know the reader or player is going to be engaged for a considerable amount of time you can allow yourself to have characters that are initially unlikable – I think there are games that take advantage of this better than the Trails series, but if anything Trails in the Sky 3 shows that banking on familiarity is not necessarily a bad thing.

Posted on Jul 16/17 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »

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NieR: Automata

Deliberately breaking the fourth wall and integrating the tropes and support mechanics of games is becoming so common these days that there’s plenty of material to compare just that element to. OneShot was built around the concept and executed it remarkably well. Undertale used it for narrative purposes but left the game mechanics of its JRPG – bullet hell – hybrid more or less intact. To be fair, NieR Automata seems to mostly use the same system as the original NieR which came out before those games, but it still feels like it detracts more than it adds. To its credit, NieR’s handling of the fourth-wall-breaking moment doesn’t detract from its story (like I would argue is the case with Metal Gear Solid), but it also doesn’t add so much that it excuses the inconvenience added. In short, NieR does not autosave but includes a Dark Souls-like system where death simply means you need to retreive your body – they then remove this system as a plot device and suddenly you’re punished for not saving manually.

That’s not all there is to NieR, though, and the game it is based on is a very enjoyable action romp that switches between 3D movement, top-down arena shooting and sidescrolling action – it is mostly seamless, but ultimately does not add a lot. The action is solid and the dodge and combo mechanics together with the wide variety of customization options keep every fight interesting. You can cheese a lot of encounters by keeping a safe distance and shooting, but mixing different approaches is a much faster approach and the game includes enough challenges where speed is of the essence to keep it varied. In terms of the larger scope of the game, it contains your garden variety sandbox quests and is slightly too much on the filler side of content, but at least the game doesn’t really prod you to complete things and the exposition you get from doing it is usually interesting.

On the topic of narrative, NieR Automata has plenty of twists and it walks a fine line between not being too obvious about them (at least not all of them) but still have them make sense – this is extra impressive considering it ties into the established lore of the previous games and I managed to pick up on that without playing them. It also has overly earnest anime characters that fall apart in theatrical ways, tolerance of that seems to be highly personal but it ruined a lot of it for me. Overall, the thing the game most suffers for is being open – there are a lot of invisible walls and really shaky platforming involved – but there is a solid action game there with an interesting story.

Also, Sunset – it was released more than two years ago now, but I am lazy.

I feel like Tale of Tales bit off just a little bit more than they could chew with this game – the concept is neat and the way the communication progresses between the two main characters is unique, but a lot of the story and player agency gets lost due to the restrictive mechanics obfuscating what is actually going on in the world outside and what choices you are actually making. The game barely uses the time limit so I feel like ditching that and adding more explanation to some of the critical steps would be an improvement, but the limited interactions and presentation make it hard to sell the story and some pretty glaring visual and continuity bugs take you out of the experience.

Despite this, Sunset is a pretty neat walking simulator, but it feels like it should have been better.

Posted on Jun 27/17 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »

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E3 2017

Kind of late to the party, admittedly, as E3 was more than a week ago now. I’m not really interested in publicly musing about the announcements themselves – all of them are online for anyone to see and make up their own mind about.

The show itself has always been a weird thing – a joint press event for the gaming media from before when the individual publishers had enough pull to get any attention, it fell off the map when the publishers did get big enough to put on their own shows. It then came back, and it’s never been entirely clear why – it seems some big actors agreed with this and simply neglected to have any E3 presence whatsoever. Last year had EA drop out and hold their own event open to their fans, this left the show floors fairly empty and in 2017 E3 was opened to the public. To be fair, it was kind of always open to the public if you had a thousand dollars and could be bothered to set up a blog, but this year the pretense was dropped and the price was dropped to something more akin to what you’d pay to attend a convention.

That said, I like E3. For all of its superficial glamour and questionable marketing practices, it was always a good time to walk around and get some hands-on time with the upcoming selection of games. It was something of a limited preview and I never understood why I got invited in the first place – to some extent neither did others, and a lot of E3 remains hidden behind closed doors, available only to the media. It used to be that even if the bigger games had long lines if you wanted to try, there were always free stations for some of the less highly publicized stuff you could try at any time. Not so this year, as the amount of people guaranteed that no game could be played if you weren’t prepared to wait for an hour.

So I kind of miss what E3 was, but I know full well it made no sense for it to remain exclusive.

 

Posted on Jun 26/17 by Saint and filed under Gaming culture | No Comments »

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Mass Effect Andromeda

With so many games adopting sandbox qualities, figuring out just what parts of a game to actually experience becomes a skill in itself. In the ideal case the core gameplay is so good that even completing mundane tasks is rewarding for a very long time, but it is starting to seem like there is an increasingly long tail of content where developer resources are diminishing as the potential players do. Horizon balanced this very well with a good number of side content that was done before you got tired of outsmarting robot dinosaurs. Mass Effect Andromeda has a little too many things going on for its own good.

Mass Effect has always been light on the main story and heavy on the optional content, but it feels like the line between the high-tier content intended for everyone to play through and the things specifically for the completionists is getting blurred. It is still fundamentally a roleplaying game and it will pester you to do favors for everyone you meet – as most of the smaller sidequests involve hopping back and forth between planets and occasionally shooting some cannon fodder, it becomes boring pretty quickly.

Still, Mass Effect is helpful enough to sort the quests you receive roughly into categories of production quality so you can skip out on the less enticing content, and like the previous games it is light enough on punishment that you are encouraged to live with your decisions rather than load an earlier save and try to optimize your route. And the main quest manages to feel like a fresh direction for Mass Effect that goes to really interesting places.

There’s a really great game in there, but there’s also a lot of decent to mediocre game on top of it. Which is a weird thing to complain about, I guess, that the core game is so good that you wish the clearly labeled filler parts were just as enjoyable.

Posted on Jun 01/17 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »

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Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SC

Were it not for the package deal, I am not sure I would have played the second chapter of Trails in the Sky. It sits in a difficult position being mechanically little more than an expansion to the first chapter, but longer by a good amount. Now, I like it a lot better than I liked the first game but to some extent this might be due to growing familiar – a sort of completionist Stockholm-syndrome, if you will. SC does not add any mechanics that notably make the combat deeper, and it looks more or less the same with more than half of the areas being lifted straight from the prequel.

The big shift is in the story though – SC abandons the pretense of intrigue and goes straight for the lost ancient civilization and the superpowered Illuminati investigating it – this brings it closer to Grandia in terms of tone. The first chapter made the mistake of trying to tell a mundane story with characters that weren’t serious, so whatever believability the narrative got from being down-to-earth was lost to over-earnest campy characters. SC goes all-in with the fantastical and is the more coherent and better game for it – it’s still annoying to see characters exchanging platitudes about love and friendship every few minutes but the impending destruction of the world doesn’t suffer much from being unrealistic. And speaking of the characters, while most are still laughably sincere anime clichees, SC does also have some genuine growth in a few characters and unlike most JRPGs they go a long way to explain just why a teenage girl becomes entrusted with saving the world.

It feels a bit too long still, and I am not sure if the quality increase in SC is enough to warrant a recommendation after the long build-up in the first game. Still, it’s always nice to see a series improving.

Posted on May 29/17 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »

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Horizon Zero Dawn

I did say that I wasn’t going to delve into any more long-form games for a while, but I ended up needing something to focus on and take my mind off of other things. Normally I would just play more Destiny, but the Age of Triumph had been out for almost a month, I had finished the last list of tasks the game was going to give me, and Horizon came warmly recommended.

To get the obvious out of the way, Horizon has received acclaim not for being particularly original but a very well crafted sandbox, and it is hard not to agree with that. None of the elements feel particularly fresh or executed in especially interesting ways, even, but it’s polished to a mirror shine and playing Horizon is a joy. Sandbox games, Lifestyle games and more or less any game with large amounts of content quickly get repetitive missions as the structure makes itself increasingly clear, so the core gameplay has to be good enough that you do not mind. Much like in Destiny, moving around and fighting in the world of Horizon is amazing – you always have interesting options as for how to proceed and you are never stuck in a sticky situation.

It is a bit of a shame that the upgrade tree is so short and that there are no really high-level challenges in the game, and there are a few other small caveats I had with it but honestly it is hard to say much about a game that is so polished and yet playing it kind of safe. Still, well worth playing. Also…

Little Nightmares

One of my favorite scenes in Pan’s Labyrinth is the one were Ofelia is hiding in the office, even with the fantastical elements in the movie this realistic scene is set up to be the belly of the whale-moment and the buildup makes it incredibly tense. I thought about that scene a lot when playing Little Nightmares, it tries to invoke a similar sense of suspense and horror but somewhat shifty precision on the collision on the side of the enemies and a complete lack of explanation of what makes your hiding place successful makes failure very likely. This failure kind of ruins the mood – Little Nightmares is beautiful and unnerving and you instinctively want to hide from the horrors it throws at you even before you can judge their intent, but failing and restarting takes a lot of that suspense right out.

There are certainly ways around this – a couple of things Little Nightmares could be doing better is gently nudge the player away from making silly mistakes like falling off ledges and give them more breathing room while caught in a chase scene – but it seems inherently problematic to make a work that revels in fear of the unknown when there is no penalty for exploring that unknown. And I am wondering what the point of a game like Little Nightmares is when that is gone, its puzzles are mostly hidden-object style finding the one thing in the room you need to interact with, or using trial-and-error to find the correct path that will get you through a room quickly enough. It really is fantastically beautiful and heavily atmospheric, but the tuning of the gameplay works against it. INSIDE and Alan Wake placed the dread in the long-term quest rather than in the immediate threat which I feel made them more successful, but I am wondering if there is a way to do the kind of thing Little Nightmares wants to do without sacrificing either gameplay or gravitas.

Posted on May 07/17 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »

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Yet more games

After FFXV and Hollow Knight, I kind of don’t want to delve into any more lengthy games so Horizon, Mass Effect, Nier, Zelda and Persona 5 will have to wait – I do think they’ll be great, but I’m not really liking the trend where games take at least forty hours to get to some meaningful conclusion. Still, a couple of games I finished recently;

Legend of Heroes – Trails in the Sky

Trails in the Sky is a passable JRPG that feels uninspired on so many levels. All of the characters and story events are anime tropes without unique qualities, the battle system borrows ideas from better games but does not have the depth to make fighting interesting and the presentation is polished but forgettable – even the achievements feel lazily tacked on. It’s not a horrible game by any means, it just feels like a me-too product for fans starved of traditional JRPGs.

The obvious influence is Grandia – both in the perspective and battle system – but Trails in the sky makes the mistake of trying to tell a political story with the same tone as a slice-of-life highschool anime. It does not have the sense of adventure that Grandia had to make the exploration itself enticing, and it does not have the gravitas of games like Suikoden that would be needed to tell a dramatic story. The irony, of course, is that Grandia turned its story about a child’s longing for adventure into a bigger world-spanning event and all of its characters had real development as the story progressed, whereas Trails in the Sky is content rehashing ideas from your average cheap 90s anime.

Many of the mistakes Legend of Heroes makes are common for JRPGs and there’s a ring of familiarity to it that makes it hard to pass off since we are kind of starved for JRPGs, it’s just sad that with such high production values they went with something so safe. Final Fantasy might not always have all good ideas, but at least it always feels fresh.

Night in the Woods

I mostly backed Night in the Woods because of Alec Holowka’s involvement, and it is both a natural progression and much more personal work than his earlier games and kind of unexpected. It is very good, but it is difficult to say why. It also deals with some very dark themes in a very suggestive way, so your mileage may vary.

It is somewhere between a modern-era adventure game and a walking simulator – you have some control over how Mae responds to situations she encounters, but you ultimately can’t change things a lot. The interactive part of the game comes from choosing where to explore and what to see, as well as who to spend your time with – this is actually a morally ambiguous but tough choice most of the time as you have to pick between the old friend who really wants to hang out, the friend who is angry with you but who could really use some support and the kid who reaches out to you but you don’t really know.

Night in the Woods is a quirky game with its cartoony animals and dripping sarcasm, but the inviting facade slowly reveals something very real and very absorbing. There are plenty of games that tackle the tougher parts of growing up, but I don’t know of any other that does it with quite this much finesse.

Posted on Apr 04/17 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »

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Hollow Knight

As Metroidvania games go, Hollow Knight is among the best I’ve played and certainly the best one from the last few years – and I say that as someone who plays a lot of them. It is certainly not the best for everyone – the high difficulty level of the combat and the punishing nature of failure can be a turnoff if you like breezing through games, and the very open approach to progression and lack of direction can be frustrating if you’re more comfortable with linear games. Hollow Knight is a game that rewards mastery and thorough exploration, a game that throws difficult challenges of different types at you and gives you the option to find others that are more suitable for your playstyle so you can better prepare for the ones that are not.

Strictly speaking, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything that’s particularly unique about Hollow Knight – it brings a lot of Dark Souls elements to a Symphony of the Night- style game, but none of the abilities or other mechanics feel particularly game-changing by themselves. The art and story are essentially insect spins on the old “exploring a ruined underground society” trope that is over-represented in the genre. Thinking about it, I’m not sure this is a meaningful complaint though – some Metroidvania games add gimmicks or throw in other genres, but very few introduce changes that truly change the form of the game. And Hollow Knight does everything so, so well – the art, story and characters make every area genuinely inviting to explore, the abilities and vast amounts of different enemies make the combat a pleasure to master and the variety of the areas make exploring optional content a pure joy.

It is unusual for Kickstarter games to be larger than you expected, but Hollow Knight is a massive experience and not one bit of it feels out-of-place. 2017 has opened up to a very strong start for games and it’s not looking like it’s about to let up.

Posted on Mar 20/17 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »

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Final Fantasy XV

It is kind of funny how Final Fantasy – always a game admirably trying to reinvent its own systems – started a departure from the style of having an open overworld with an ultimately linear story with FFX, and then bounced back and forth with FFXII offering a lot of alternative paths and sidequests but FFXIII being almost completely linear to an extent none of the prior games had attempted. Then again, FFX started the trend of spinoff games (arguably this started earlier, but those games either came much later or did not see global recognition until many years after their initial releases), so it is difficult to make any sweeping statements about the series at this point – FFXV started its development life as Final Fantasy Versus XIII and I remember seeing the trailer for it at E3 2006 – guns, enchanted swords and everything. Not sure where I’m getting with this other than saying that Final Fantasy XV is a very open game.

Whether this works is up for debate. The story feels a little bit more personal and more urgent than in FFXII, but it is also more about obscure mysticism than political manipulation. So in that sense it is more difficult to get into – it is hard to feel the gravitas of the events of the early game when you’re essentially running around camping, fishing and taking pictures more than anything else. FFXV is very much a sandbox game with very sandbox-y mechanics, and it tries to combine this with series staples like hidden dungeons and incredibly difficult bosses. It kind of works, but you can feel that it’s something of a first foray into the gametype – the combat system is fast but often lacks the precision of its predecessors, the dungeons and missions frequently force you to re-do traversal puzzles for little reason and you typically spend more time getting to and from the sidequests than you spend actually doing them. This worked well in Grand Theft Auto V since there was a lot of gameplay in driving from point A to point B, but since Final Fantasy does that for you it mostly feels tedious. Interestingly, it goes in the opposite direction of earlier games by being very open for the first two thirds but linear in the last, this doesn’t really work for it either as it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the scope at first and then disappointed that once you’ve gotten used to it there is little more than a drawn-out QTE left.

That said, many elements are good. The art is, much like prior games, brilliant with a distinctive and fantastic style to it. The fighting is varied and, despite moments of drudgery when you’re outmatched, fast-paced and intense. The minigames and progression systems are well executed and the endgame content is tough and gives you reason to learn the systems and go through some of the tougher grinds. It moves even further away from the style of game the series was known for in the 90s, but constant change has always been one of Final Fantasy’s strengths even if the individual entries don’t always resonate with everyone.

Posted on Mar 08/17 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »