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 »

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More catchup

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.

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

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The Last Guardian

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.

Posted on Feb 14/17 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »

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Steam catchup

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.

Posted on Jan 31/17 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »

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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.

Posted on Jan 22/17 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »

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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.

Posted on Jan 21/17 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »