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.
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.
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.
I suppose playing less Destiny frees me up to play other games every now and then.
Alwa’s Awakening is a solid game supposedly inspired by Battlekid – I haven’t really played that but I have played more than my fair share of challenging platformers, and this is really nice. It’s far from the first game to only show you one screen at a time, but it uses the format really well to create distinct room-sized challenges. It has some frustrating checkpoint placement and challenges that seem to be more about trolling the player than providing interesting gameplay, but overall it is a very well crafted experience with interesting opportunities for sequence breaking and not too obscure secrets.
Shantae – Half-Genie Hero, the first Shantae started as a straight-up Metroidvania and the series has pretty much been moving away from that since. Well, the second one was much like the first but the third abandoned much of the open-world exploration for gimmicks and this fourth throws it out altogether and just has some five levels that you’re meant to replay over and over until you find everything. Structurally, it’s closer to some of the later Megaman games where some levels have some gimmick gameplay or autoscroller element to mix it up a bit. Art-wise it’s as beautiful as ever and the tone flips between self-referentially silly and oddly earnest just like in the prior games, but it’s a bit difficult to see if Wayforward intends for Shantae to have a gameplay identity and if so what that is.
BOOR is a short story-based platformer with some light puzzles and some not-quite-so-light reflex challenges – it is occasionally trolling with its interleaving finicky challenges with drawn-out ones with no checkpoints in between, and the bosses are all endurance fights that last longer than necessary but it is overall a nice-looking game that sets the mood really well and usually keeps the challenge level reasonable.
The Last Guardian sometimes feels surprisingly straightforward for a game in development for so long – it is essentially the maneuvering around a large creature from Shadow of the Colossus combined with the puzzle-solving area traversal and escort mechanics of Ico. Aesthetically it is very close to both of them. Now, obviously there are major technical difficulties in creating a digital creature that is not only believable, but also plays nice with all of the game’s other mechanics – and there’s no mean feat that team Ico did it as well as they did.
Much like their other two games, the Last Guardian is unapologetic about hitting the emotional target before anything else – considering that the emotional target in this case is cooperating with a creature that doesn’t quite understand you and doesn’t always like you this will occasionally make for some interesting gameplay. Trico will rarely do exactly what you want him to do in a given situation, and it is never quite clear why he is able to squeeze into some spaces, reach to certain platforms or jump over certain chasms but not others. Even though the game is very linear and fairly simple it often becomes problematic to figure out where to go next, and the solution is frequently leading Trico around the room until he reacts to something.
Now, the interesting part is that it feels believable – Tricos animation and behavior never fails to sell his personality. Even when he started to backtrack or repeat himself he always did so in a plausible manner. If his artificial intelligence fails, it just looks like he got distracted by something offscreen. If you’re having trouble figuring out where to go next, the alien wonder of the world you’re in helps sell the feeling that the main character doesn’t know what’s going on either.
It’s still frustrating, but it’s difficult to chalk it up to the game not being intuitive enough. And I’ll take a game that dares to try something difficult and fails any day.
I had planned on playing these games over the holiday, but technical difficulties and social obligations got in the way. Ah well.
OneShot feels like it’s the game that inspired Undertale at first, what with its rpgmaker origins and fourth-wall-breaking metanarrative, but that’s about where the similarities end. Where Undertale is a – at least in form – traditional JRPG where the backstory is still central and enemy encounters are random (albeit bullet hell avoidance fights instead of turn-based stat management), OneShot is a more traditional puzzle game and the metanarrative is the backstory. It’s clever and heartwarming in its own way.
Orwell probably has more in common with a swath of games I have not played, but it felt like a combination of Ace Attorney and Her Story to me. It’s neat, kind of clever and with an intriguing mystery – although I can’t shake the feeling that it would have been so much better if the central concept of the story had been more believable. It also forces your hand a bit too much to leave any lasting impression, but it has a lot of heart and well-written characters.
Fossil Echo is mostly a precision platformer. Not a spectacular precision platformer – It doesn’t have a very high skill ceiling and doesn’t leave a lot of room for creativity – but a competent one with solid controls and a nice presentation. It is short, a couple of hours at most, but it gets done what it is trying to do without getting repetitive.
Four Sided Fantasy is about as long as Fossil Echo but a puzzle-platformer rather than a reflex challenge. It’s pretty and has a few interesting puzzles, although it doesn’t go too deep into any of its mechanics. Still, it is very pleasurable to play and I can certainly respect going for a shorter game when the cool thing you’re trying to do does not require more.
I first heard about Owlboy back in 2008 – indie gaming had been buzzing loudly for a few years and was just about to hit the mainstream, as such a number of hopeful developers – some who would go on to make it big, some who had already done so – hung out over at the tigforums which is where Snake posted the first pictures of the game-to-be. While this makes for an excellent excuse for parading my indie cred it also serves to highlight the kind of culture Owlboy came from – back then, Steam was a pipe dream for most developers and XNA seemed like the most promising development platform. There wasn’t a lot of games like Owlboy around, and the ones that were competed on production quality.
Owlboy feels like a game that came from that time in many ways. The audiovisual presentation of the game is sublime, and even though pixelart has had at least one original period and a couple of revivals at this point there are few games that utilize it with the mastery Snake brings to Owlboy. The music is great as well, the main theme tying together a large number of tracks that are excellent on their own.
Design-wise, Owlboy occasionally struggles with its legacy. In its effort to show off the large beautiful environments Owlboy can sometimes feel very empty of things to do, and some of the gameplay obstacles take a little longer to push through than what feels convenient. The higher-level systems work flawlessly and the controls are usually free from issues, but you will occasionally hit edge cases where the scope and origins of this project make themselves known. Difficulty curve varies wildly from room to room, and checkpoints are sometimes not as frequent as you might want them to be. Owlboy is a traditional platform game with some insightful design innovations and even more flaws – some which stem directly from the last decade.
It is worth playing for the art and music alone, but it is also an interesting case study of what happens when a development cycle spans eight years, from the middle of one console generation to the next one.
I mentioned last year that 2015 had been rough, this was mostly for professional reasons that I cannot really talk about. Similarly, 2016 has had its fair share of triumphs but overall it’s been very rough – this time for personal reasons that I am not going to go talk about. The uncertainty and change of the industry I am in can be stressful in times like these, but at least I can appreciate that we are constantly delivered new experiences.
One thing that was positive though – we got more work done on Backworlds than we had during either 2014 or 2015 and we’ve set a good pace that make it a joy to work on even through the tough parts. And it doesn’t look like it will be slowing down soon, either, so that’s good. It feels comforting to know that even after so many long hours in the games industry, I can still make and play games just to relax. Speaking of which…
the Witness was a game with many more secrets than I could dive into, but it had a sublime purity of design to it coupled with masterful audiovisual presentation that made it one of the most fulfilling games I have played in a very long time.
Doom dared to be a game from an older time, a game with older values, but without turning itself into a gag. It didn’t quite have the over-the-top setpieces or outrageous weapons of Bulletstorm, but it was a more finely tuned game with bold ideas that came together to form an experience that was greater than the sum of its parts.
Rakuen is a memorable experience that starts slow and shallow – trite, almost – but slowly grows its narrative into something more complex and deeply moving. While it can take a while to let it build the mood it needs, it is a game that exists for its payoff.
Dishonored 2, more than anything, is a game that rewards exploration. Exploration of the areas and their wonderful aesthetics. Exploration of the lore – the letters and notes left behind by the inhabitants, but also the stories the environments tell about them. Exploration of the mechanics and how different powers and tools can be combined for marvelous stunts, and exploration of the spaces and how every room opens a multitude of opportunities for how it is traversed. Much like the first Dishonored, you can choose to kill all enemies, ignore the secrets and reach the end of the story for a rather anticlimactic ending, and just like that one it is a lesser game if you do. On the one hand it seems risky to hide the good parts and I don’t really approve of games that artificially lengthen themselves by forcing you to wring an unspecified amount of content out of them, but on the other hand I’m not sure if it would have been as satisfying if it had been unmissable. And unlike most other games with so much player choice, Dishonored 2 rarely – if ever – sacrifices quality, every optional path is presented with incredible detail and balance.
I keep thinking that all developers of stealth games should be forced to play Mark of the Ninja – at the extreme end of selling the idea of being undetectable if you so desire, it offers unparalleled player agency without demanding nearly any skill in return. Dishonored, by comparison, frequently forces you to reload a save because someone happened to spot you from across the room, a stealth takedown wasn’t timed just so or a sleep dart caused an enemy to fall into an abyss and destroy your otherwise murder-less playthrough. It raises some interesting questions though – there are plenty of options for distracting enemies, and even more options for containing a situation where you have already been detected – Dishonored doesn’t aspire to be a pure stealth game as far as the mechanics are concerned, but the disapproving notices you get for being detected and the grading you get after each level strongly tells you that if you were any good at it, you would move through the levels as if no-one ever suspected you were there. The closest analogy is the first Mirror’s Edge, I guess, where the story pushes a barely functional nonlethal path on the player from the get-go. Obviously this is a personal preference thing and I’m certainly more of a completionist than most, but I am wondering if there are ways to sell alternate playstyles that are less obvious. Iji did a pretty good job of hiding its superbly executed pacifist mode, but that’s the only one I can think of that I liked personally.
One of the greater successes of Dishonored 2, though, is that even with all the choice and options given to the player most levels have a very distinct identity with some very unique gameplay opportunities. You can always rely on your staple of violent or stealthy techniques, but using them in different contexts and in tandem with the environment feels very different. Dishonored 2 throws up pretense of being an open world game by having each level start through a different part of the same city, but the missions are wholly unique experiences that the first Dishonored did not deliver on.
I did the quicksave-quickload carousel a bit more than I liked in some places, but Dishonored 2 is definitely a masterfully crafted and immensely well made game.
Mankind Divided fixes a lot of issues that plagued Human Revolution. The opening is decidedly stronger and sets up a mystery that is both more interesting and neater than the one in Human Revolution. It only has the one hub level, but it is a much stronger area than anything Human Revolution had to offer – the solid fashion designs have grown stronger and inspired the world around them to create a place that feels like a very realistic version of what a European city would look like in the setting provided. It is blessedly devoid of ill-fitting comic relief characters and boss fights that require you to use skills you can otherwise ignore.
Sadly, it also gives off some of the sloppy vibe that plagued Human Revolution – a lot of scripts seem malconstructed as conversations are repeated, callouts and button prompts do not work and information that is missing altogether. Those are just the overt things though, there are more subtle issues – animations are sloppy during conversations and do not transition very well, removing a lot of carefully established gravitas from heavy scenes. The game will occasionally task you with transporting unconscious bodies at the mercy of a physics engine that may flip out and throw them far away or so hard into a wall that they die. Navigation often has conflicting controls and enemies, enemies will spot you with little warning and frequently you’re not even informed that you screwed up – in a game that gives you bonuses for maintaining a pacifist, stealthy playstyle this is infuriating to say the least. I found none of the upgrades really offered me new and interesting ways to play, they only made the ways I already played the game less frustrating.
The world is still really well established though, and the story that’s set within it is compelling. The themes of mistrust and discrimination are very relevant and sometimes they become a bit overt, but all of the characters you actually talk to are well developed and relatable – with the rare exception of a few goons, no-one is unambiguously good or bad. It also gets bonus points for doing conversations right, I always felt like I had a good response and the lack of a morality system made it more about establishing character than scoring points – in fact, Deus Ex only makes the narrative difficult when it wants to by making you doubt your allies or forcing you into tough decisions. Whatever other faults the game has, it ties together scenery with characters, background and all other narrative elements.
It was interesting playing this right after Infinite Warfare as it is, in a way, the antithesis of it – a really solid presentation and a mystery to draw you in, but a gameplay that more frequently gets in the way of that than helps it. I really enjoyed the game though, and I am interested in seeing where it goes next.