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Sonic Mania Review: Redemption

Sonic_Mania_(artwork)

Copyright SEGA

There shouldn’t have been any reason to worry.  Sonic Mania was being headed by the guys who did the great Sonic CD, Sonic 1 and Sonic 2 ports over the past six years, which were easily the best Sonic games coming out, but I was still worried.  I like a lot of Sonic games, but let’s be honest, there hasn’t been anything like Sonic Mania for decades.  Whether this is the best Sonic game ever made might take a few years to decide, but this is definitely the best one since Sonic 3 and Knuckles, and I’m a guy who says Sonic Adventure was the right direction for the series, and could work if SEGA gave the game to people who know what they’re doing.  There is nothing like Sonic Mania, but I hope to be proven false and that this is the herald of a new renaissance for the franchise, because if any series needed redemption, it’s this one.

Sonic Mania happens sometime after Sonic 3, with Sonic and Tails picking up weird energy readings coming from Angel Island.  The duo head over to the island to find Dr. Robotnik excavating a powerful gem, called the Phantom Ruby, and they, as well as a nearby just chilling Knuckles, wind up getting transported through time and space and have to stop Robotnik and his new group of Egg Robos, the Hardboiled Heavies.  Sonic and his friends jump through a bunch of old and new zones to stop Eggman from taking over the world.

The first thing about Sonic Mania is that it looks great.  It has some of the best sprite work I’ve ever seen, with everything running at a crisp and fluid 60 frames per second.  No Sonic game, ever, has looked this good, thanks to the best art direction the series has ever seen.  Some of the last couple of mainline Sonic games (not Sonic Boom) have had some great graphics, they have nothing on how good these levels look.  Inspirations from Sonic CD, Sonic Triple Trouble, Sonic 3 and a bunch of top tier ROM hacks from around the Sonic fan community created some gorgeous levels, all highlighted with a bright, color palette, giving a wide variety to each level.  This is a game that looks like it pushes my PS4 to the limit because of how well it pops on a 4k TV.  Sonic and crew each have a bunch of brand new animations, as well as more added to their existing ones, to make their movements look more real and natural.  It’s not quite up to the level of playing that opening from Sonic CD, but it’s the closest we have ever gotten.

Thankfully, too, the game plays like a dream.  It’s the best handling Sonic game, ever.  No slowdown, no frame dips, each character moving with no delay acting right as they should.  The Genesis/Mega Drive games had great controls, using momentum physics to propel Sonic through the roller coaster levels, and they felt great, but Sonic Mania feels even better.  Sonic reacts faster, moves faster and has some new moves to gain speed and momentum like never before, as do Tails and Knuckles.  The game basically has the same controls as the old Genesis/Mega Drive games, but does them even better, not just because of the smooth frame rate, but because the controls have been tightened and given much better tuning than it’s ever had.  The developers took 23 years of complaints about the minor control issues with Sonic games and took all of that time to playtest them so the game feel was almost pitch perfect.  There are still some issues with edges, and Sonic still has a bit of an issue turning around, but those are minor.

Of course, Sonic games live and die on how well mapped out the levels are, and that is a place where Sonic Mania shines.  It doesn’t have the best levels ever, or at least the best collection of levels, but the game makes do with what it has.  There are 12 zones, two acts each, with 4 of them being completely new and the rest being remixed versions of games from the first four Sonic games.  For the most part, the full speed slope followed by a bed of spikes unless the player already knows to jump kind of death trap that plagues the early Sonic games has been excised.  There are a few instances of cheap shots, but most of those are in the more exploratory platform sections, and less when Sonic and co. are busting out at full speed.  Those full speed into harm traps exist, sure, and are more common later in the game, but for the most part, the player can breathe a sigh of relief when they hit a high speed section.

Each zone feels new, even the 8 old ones.  It’s a little disheartening to know that most of the game is a remix of the old games, but each zone is changed and altered so much, it feels less like a mix tape or greatest hits collection, and almost feels like a new level.  Maps are different, enemies are new or placed in new locations and gimmicks are either altered, stolen from other zones/games or even created whole cloth.  Most of the time, this works quite well, such as mixing in elements from every “first Sonic level” into Green Hill Zone, or adding the darkness making the level more dangerous element from Sandopolis into Oil Ocean.  Sometimes, though, it gets in the way, such as the Marble Garden stuff added to Stardust Speedway Act 1, which slows down the gameflow more often than it should.  The new levels are all a lot of fun, adding in completely new elements the series has never seen before, or building on top of old ones.  Studiopolis might be the weakest in actual design, borrowing more of the negative elements from the casino levels than is good, but, conceptually, it’s such a new idea.  Plus, it added one of my favorite bosses in the game, so credit where credit is due.

Special stages return, which is probably the most controversial element of the game.  They’re hidden around zones like in Sonic 3 and Knuckles, generally behind breakable walls or secret doors, in giant gold rings.  They play as a sort of combination of Sonic CD’s, Sonic Heroes’s and Knuckles’ Chaotix’s special stages, and beating all of them unlocks Super Sonic (or Tails or Knuckles) and a final zone to give a bit of closure to the story.  Personally, I found them to be a lot of fun, but they’re also challenging in that same way special stages always are, and getting the last few emeralds after beating the game to unlock that final ending can feel like grinding, and no one wants to grind in a Sonic game.  Except on rails.

Super Sonic/Tails/Knuckles is a great reward, but it also unlocks a final level, called the Egg Reverie Zone, which is basically the same Super Sonic fights the final boss stage we’ve seen in every Sonic game since the Doomsday Zone.  Much like all of the others, it’s not nearly as cool as the Doomsday Zone, and is actually sort of difficult, and there’s an unskippable cutscene that plays every time Sonic dies.  I wasn’t a fan.

Ultimately, it’s a great Sonic game.  In addition to being a lot of fun, and just generally being the best Sonic game maybe to ever come out, and proof that Takhshi Iizuka should never be allowed to make a Sonic game, it’s also got a bunch of cool unlockables, like Puyo Puyo that players can play with local multiplayer, a sound test for the so awesome music (which is amazing, like, crazy good.  Sonic CD JP soundtrack good) and the ability to have Knuckles follow the player around like Tails does, no matter who the playable character is, even Knuckles.  Yes, this game allows for Knuckles and Knuckles.  That’s worth the money right there.  Seriously, it even has its own joke ending for beating it.

Level Thoughts part 2: The Negative Aspects

Last time, I went into detail about how some of the ways level in RPGs can be used in a positive manner, and how they can be used to enhance the experience of playing an RPG, and I used tabletop RPGs as one example.  This time, I’ll be exploring the negative aspects of how they can be used in RPGs.  As I said in the last entry, I’m not going to try and approach anything in bad faith, although I do have my own biases and that can come into play, so keep that in mind while reading.

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The genesis of this discussion.  Copyright CD Projeket Red

In the Witcher III, Geralt, a veteran monster slayer travels around a big, possibly overlarge, world where he takes jobs to kill monsters.  It’s a lot of fun, but one thing that really gets in the way is how it uses a level system in order to divide up where the player can travel.  Ostensibly, the level system is there to make sure Geralt doesn’t get access to too powerful loot too early, and that early, low level monsters remain a challenge until they can be outclassed.  I can understand this, since a lot of RPGs use this element to great success, but the reason it’s an issue in Witcher III when it’s not in, say, Final Fantasy VII, is because all level equates to, as far as monsters are concerned, are numbers.  How much damage, how much HP, how much damage it ignores, etc.  A level 5 gryphon has the same abilities will have the same abilities as level 10 one.  In fact, a gryphon is similar in abilities to several other monsters, differing from, say a wyvern, by one or two abilities.

Level means little to Geralt beyond numbers, but because how big these differences in numbers between levels can be, it means that Geralt can’t just wander around, pick up a random monster contract and hope to complete it if the contract is several levels higher than Geralt.  It’s not a guarantee, I’ve personally killed monsters outside of my level range, but mostly by spending several minutes dodging and getting in a couple of hits when I can.  It’s not impossible, but it’s tedious and it makes the combat less engaging than it already is.  Even a single screw up would get me killed, and it wasn’t enjoyable.  Most of the time, if I ran into a higher level monster, I’d just run, maybe come back later.  Of course, by the time I got high enough level to fight them, I’d tear them apart, since I was either way over leveled or the mechanics were so simple and their numbers were so low, they no longer mattered.

Open world games aren’t the only RPGs to show the issues with levels, but they seem to have the biggest problems with the level system.  There have been tons of attempts at trying to find a solution to this problem, most notably by making the game level with the PC.  Obviously, this makes leveling seem superflous, and while some Elder Scrolls games have tried to make higher level monsters more complex than lower level ones, leveling just seemed pointless, or detrimental in the case of Oblivion or Final Fantasy VIII (although VIII’s issue with leveling was different and more complex than I’ll get into here).  The best open world games seemed to have removed it entirely.  Consider Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which doesn’t use a level system, or at least a very simple one, but allows Link to wander the entire world without issue.  It’s possible to even engage Calamity Ganon at the beginning of the game, even if not awakening the Divine Beasts makes the fight much harder, and that difficulty isn’t just “extra damage.”  Yes, as Link becomes more powerful, more powerful monsters begin to appear, but they also become more complex, and thanks to an engaging, if easy to work, combat system, it’s possible to take on a lynel naked with three hearts without it being too tedious.  Part of this is because of really well done balance of HP and damage, but also it’s got a combat system that works as well.

Tabletop RPGs, too, sometimes work well without levels, although many claim they don’t need it and it pretty much destroys the game’s balance or work.  Games where combat is the main focus of the rules, even in games where they claim combat isn’t the main focus, tend to need levels in order to determine what works and what doesn’t for the game.  On the other hand, consider Fate, which doesn’t utilize levels or high numbers.  There is advancement, yes, but specific and individual advancement of different abilities.  While Fate does have combat, and it can be very good and complex combat, Fate is primarily focused on characters and who they are.  It’s a very robust RPG with complex mechanics and cool utilization of character and roleplay in order to facilitate play and it doesn’t need levels to be engaging.  If it had levels, it would get in the way of how to play the game, since it’s primary mechanics are “aspects,” which are elements of the characters, both positive and negative.  They can be elements of personality, beliefs, weaknesses, specialized training, special equipment, dependents, allies, enemies and many other things, but the important thing is that you have all of them from the beginning.  At no point does the player “level up” and gain more aspects.  It would hurt the game, because everyone is supposed to be able to engage with the game at the same level.  Even in places where you can “level up” are still given out to whole parties, not individual players, so when characters bring up their skills or gain new stunts, it’s with the whole group.

The big issue is that levels work when they’re to make sure novice players aren’t thrown against more complex characters, but they don’t work when they’re just there to use big numbers.  That’s what makes the game boring.

Level Thoughts part 1: The positives of levels in RPGs

I’ve been playing RPGs for a really, really long time.  Seriously, I got into D&D 21 years ago, and while my first time playing a video game RPG was technically in 1991 with Final Fantasy IV, I really got into them with Shining Force II and Phantasy Star IV in the mid-90s when I was in elementary school.  I’m a bit on the old side, I guess, at least compared to some gamers, or maybe I’ve been around a while, so I’ve played a lot of games, but I love RPGs.  That’s not to say RPGs are great, and I’ll admit, I’ve played a few RPGs because that’s the sort of fantasy I want to see, and that’s the only way to experience it, even if that RPG is kind of shit.  Seriously, I love the idea of Wild Arms, but if someone wrote a really damn good fantasy western, and not a shitty horror one that tries to white wash the Confederacy like Deadlands, I’d probably never even look at Wild Arms again (actually, I still don’t really look at Wild Arms that much to begin with).  While I love RPGs, they have a lot of issues, and lately, I’ve been thinking of what really works for RPGs, and whether or not some of their more traditional elements should be excised, or at least examined.

tiamat

Pictured: the dream?

The first thing I really want to look at is levels, and not just because I want to change Jobs on Final Fantasy XIV and don’t want to level them to 60 before finishing Heavensward content.  It’s a thought I’ve been having for a really long time, and while a lot of it is sort of related to Massive Multiplayer RPGs and the use of a level cap, which artificially and detrimentally lengthens a game more and more over time, there’s also the question of whether or not level systems work for every single RPG.  Now, before we get into the meat of the discussion, it’s important to note that I tend to not consider any mechanic inherently bad, except maybe save deleting, so I’m not trying to come at this discussion in bad faith.  Also, I’m not sure any real conclusion will come from this, so this might just peter out in the end, which, should make sense, as there is still a lot that needs to figure out vis a vis game design.

So, first, I understand where levels come from.  I’ve played table top RPGs for a really long time, and levels do a really good job of organizing things in a way to make the game playable.  Because of the somewhat “naturalistic” feel some gamers think table top RPGs have, a lot of games either try to do away with, or obscure, use of level systems, with very mixed success.  Games that are more like Dungeons and Dragons, or at least be more combat focused mechanically (regardless of what the rulebook actually says about the system), tend to work better utilizing some sort of level or rank based system in order to give a baseline for the players and the GMs in order to make sure that everyone knows what’s to be expected.  Some people who play a table top RPG may balk at D&D assigning levels to a certain monster because it detracts from a “living world” or some other argument I don’t believe and will probably not engage in good faith, so I’m dropping the discussion here, but I’ve found that it’s good to get a good handle on what is supposed to be a challenge for each tier of play and level of power.  After all, a party with access to Fireball is a very different party from one that has access to Meteor Swarm.  Especially since table top RPGs have a high level of abstraction and most elements of combat and gameplay are resolved through die rolls and elements of chance.  A big problem in table top design right now is to try and figure out more “skill-based” and less “chance-based” resolution, but since so much of that kind of game is abstracted, it’s a very hard problem to even approach, let alone solve.

Video games, however, are not abstract.  What happens on the screen has a 1:1 relationship with what the player is doing.  Even in games with highly choreographed combat and contextual information, like the Batman: Arkham games, there’s still that 1:1 element.  What kind of parry Batman does might change based on his positioning, who he’s fighting and from what direction the enemy is coming, but every time I press Triangle, I know I’m going to parry the nearest attack, and every time I hit Square, I know I’m going to strike at a person in the direction I am pressing the thumb stick (I’ve played every Arkham game on a Playstation).  As such, a lot of the advantages that level systems give are somewhat unneeded.  That’s not to say there aren’t some advantages to a level system, however.  Such as determining character growth, or to ensure difficulty has a gentle slope.  For example, as the player begins to unlock more powerful abilities in INfamous, the game begins to throw more powerful, or more numerous, enemy types at the player.  Diablo games, too, hold off on giving complex or difficult monsters until the players begin to unlock the full suite of their abilities.  The Skeleton King in Diablo III is deliberately a lot less complex than Azmodan or Diablo, since the player has access to fewer abilities when they were expected to fight the Skeleton King (it’s also one of the many reasons why the traditional Diablo approach to difficulty didn’t work for Diablo III, but different article).  So, in a lot of ways, with a good slope and the right gameplay, a level system is a good way for the developer to determine what sort of conflicts the player should engage with, and this works outside of an RPG as well, which is why the system has been adapted so well outside of RPGs.

As there is, there are a lot of positives to utilizing level in RPGs, but it really depends on the contextual arrangement of the game.  However, what happens when the game doesn’t have a lot of context, like in an open world?  Next time, we’ll look at how it can be applied negatively, and how it can have a negative impact on the game, and the mechanical expression of the story.

Game Anatomy: Handsome Jack

Jack_intro

Copyright 2K Games and Gearbox Studios

I’m going to admit, even for the limited definitions I put out for Game Anatomy, Handsome Jack does stretch them, a lot.  Unlike a lot of things I’ve covered in these articles, Handsome Jack is an NPC, and I’m not talking about him as a boss fight at the end of the game.  I mean Handsome Jack, the character, and how he basically makes Borderlands 2 the game that it is, and without him, it is a much lesser game.

First of all, let’s start with the obvious: Handsome Jack is one of the most evil bastards in video games.  A murderous, sociopathic, selfish psychopath, Jack has almost nothing redeemable about him.  Worse, he goes on to declare himself the true hero of the game, and that everyone should bow down and follow him, while doing nothing but murdering people for pretty much no reason.  See, Borderlands 2 takes place on Pandora, a world with tons of bandits, lawlessness and people whose brains have been completely destroyed and mutilated by the world itself.  It’s a really, really awful place, but it’s not without its good people.  There is a civilization here.  Jack, however, wants to kill everyone on the planet and sell it off to rich people across the galaxy (also claim an ancient alien superweapon to continue doing this).  He’s not just a murderous psychopath, he’s the head of a interstellar corporation with a private army and a space station capable of firing on people from orbit.  Not only does he want to kill a bunch of people, calling them all bandits, he can do it and he does.  It’s gentrification literally weaponized.

What makes Jack work, first, is that he acts as a foil to the Vault Hunter.  It doesn’t matter which one, all of them, none of them, whatever, it’s to the player he serves as a foil.  Throughout the whole game, the player goes about murdering pretty much everyone that they meet, taking their stuff and using it to kill more people.  The justification is that those people are bandits or psychos, that they need to be put down for the good of society, and the Vault Hunter, and by definition, the player, sees almost no people aligned with them for the first several hours of the game.  Of course, once the player gets to Sanctuary and links up with Roland, this changes a bit, but it doesn’t change that the player and Jack are, on a superficial level, doing the same thing.  Jack even points this out on multiple occasions, implying that the player should be on Jack’s side, should be helping him, instead of fighting against him.  This of course is ignoring the fact the player signed up with Jack at the beginning, and he tried to kill them, to take responsibility for their actions.

Borderlands 2 is a game where the primary game loop is to kill bad guys, steal their weapons and use those weapons to kill more bad guys.  It’s got some engaging gameplay, if it’s a little simple, and said bad guys have too many hit points, but it’s very similar to a loot of other loot shooters in that regard.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of nuance, either.  The player is going to come in with the assumption that the people they’re shooting are bad, and that the player is playing a good person, just doing what they need to to survive and help out the world.  While this is literally true within the context of the game, Handsome Jack gives it the nuance.  By comparing the player to what Handsome Jack does, we can see that not only are we not just murdering everyone we see (mostly), but we’re not just doing it for selfish reasons.  Except maybe Salvador.

In addition to him acting as a foil, another thing that makes him work, is that he’s an asshole.  He’s pretty much one of the worst villains in video games.  His job is the exact same as Freeza from Dragon Ball Z, in that he kills entire populations of planets and sells them to rich people, but he’s also a man who’s had busloads of refugees murdered (refugees from a town he destroyed), personally had his daughter locked up, personally murdered several innocent people and he buys a living horse made out of diamonds.  Not a statue.  He then calls the player to tell them, then names it Butt Stallion, after the Vault Hunter.  Just to gloat.  Part of the reason Jack works so well as a foil is because he makes it very personal, pretty much for no reason.

Jack spends most of the game calling the player with a combination of gloating and taunts, often kicking them when they’re down, or blaming them for things he did.  He is hilariously petty and vindictive, at one point eating chips while calling just to prove the Vault Hunter is beneath them.   By doing this, it injects all of the flavor and context the game needs to make the core gameplay loop work, because otherwise, he’s right, you really are a psychopath.  See, one of the problems of a lot of games like Borderlands, and that can be FPS games or loot shooters, is that the player kills a truck ton of people, often for no reason.  The original Borderlands didn’t have Jack, and very early on, it’s hard to tell who the player is supposed to kill and why, and while it does give some context, it’s not the same.

By making it personal, and by acting as a direct foil, we’re able to see the Vault Hunter, who in other games would be a murder hobo, as a hero.  Yes, a lot of people are going to die, and not all of them are people whose brains have been irreparably damaged, and that is sort of weird how many people players kill in a video game, but Jack gives the player something real to fight against.  Give them something legitimate as an enemy, and turns the tables on the assumptions of the game, by making your goal not that different from the villains.  Even the means are the same, but at no point are any of the Vault Hunters murdering innocents.  In fact, because of the damage Jack causes, the Vault Hunter gets to go out of their way to help innocents.  Plus, we get to see how many settlements of “bandits” Jack has wiped out, and see that his destruction has only made Pandora worse, and that’s saying something.

Ending Talk: Final Fantasy XV

Now that it’s officially July, the requisite six months have passed since Final Fantasy XV’s release that I’m willing to discuss spoilers of the game freely.  I know a lot of people haven’t had a chance to play or finish the game, since 2016 and 2017 have been packed to the absolute brim with great game, and that kick ass train doesn’t appear to be stopping any time soon.  So, I will be writing about a lot of very big spoilers about everything regarding this game, other than the DLC (since I haven’t played it, and Ignis’s isn’t out yet) and this is a warning.  That said, I’m not going to get into spoilers until I put the big game cover up as an intro picture, so keep that in mind.

Now, over time, I think a few people have cooled on their approval of the game, and I can definitely see why.  Still, it was a miracle the game came out, and the fact that it was actually as good as it was, and it’s actually pretty good, that’s saying something.  Still, that ending did a lot of damage, and in a lot of different ways, so we’re going to spend the next several hundred words talking about that.  Okay, this is the last warning, unmarked spoilers like crazy coming up.

ff_xv_cover_art

Copyright Square Enix

So, Final Fantasy XV is pretty fun up until about Chapter 13.  Prompto has been knocked off of the train that the boys spend the last main chunk of the game in, and while Noctis and Gladiolus aren’t at each others throats any more, there is still a lot of tension.  It’s a shame that the Niflheim stuff isn’t open world like the Lucis stuff is, because it’s clear that all of that stuff is already made, it’s just the quests don’t work, and the map apparently isn’t done.  People glitch on to it, and there are places to drive, but there isn’t anything great.

Chapter 13, however, turns into one long, slow ass dungeon crawl, which sees the Regalia destroyed (cool), Noctis fight through a really long, solo dungeon that attempts way too many jump scares (lame) and Ignis and Gladiolus just vanish.  They apparently do their own thing, which isn’t that much cooler, but it does allow the player to skip some of the bullshit.  Then it ends with a long boss fight, some revelations, and Noctis vanishing into a crystal.  In the crystal, Bahamut tells him that he has to die to stop the Starscourge, that the Empire of Niflheim has been consumed by the Starscourge and that Ardyn is telling the truth.  Ardyn, before Noctis drops into the crystal, reveals that he’s actually related, distantly, to Noctis, and it sets up the final battle.  It also completely tears the game apart.

First, after building the Emperor up as this ruthless, unyielding bastard becomes, and I’m serious about this, a random boss fight that harries the party after they all meet up for a bit.  Seriously, he’s a boss fight that pretends to be a random enemy for a few bits of the dungeon, but is actually really tough.  It’s dumb.  Plus, thanks to the Starscourge and the daemons (along with Ardyn’s machinations) Niflheim completely falls apart and the people who had been the bad guys literally up until this moment just vanish.  It’s not the worst time that has happened (wait, Golbez is actually Cecil’s brother and we have to go to the moon and get the moon crystals, because this game is too short.  Actually, that’s not the worst, and in context, it’s kind of cool), but it’s still pretty dumb.  One of the reasons XII works so well is that the Archades Empire remains a credible threat throughout, and that since they are the bad guys.  Venat doesn’t just kill of Cidolfus or Vayne and declare himself the big bad or anything.  Hell, Vayne going rogue and merging with Venat is basically their suicide charge, since they’ve already lost and want to make sure no one wins.  It’s cool and it’s effective, and while XV does have the player follow along with Ardyn much more than with the Emperor, the game sets Ardyn up to be the Emperor’s emissary.

Sure, Ardyn is supposed to be like Kefka, and he usurps the Emperor, and that’s totally fine, but the rest of Niflheim just falls apart.  Kefka at least kills Vector when he destroys the entire World of Balance, and we, the players see all of that happen.  Ardyn and the Starscourge just basically causes the empire to fall apart before we even arrive in the city.  Worse, the whole game is sort of set up, until around Chapter 13 to be a means of taking down Niflheim.  All four of the boys have a personal stake in doing so, and while the Starsourge is cool, it’s more of a setting back drop.  It’s not important until more than halfway through the game, when Lunafreya gets offed, and it’s barely mentioned as anything before Chapter 9 as anything besides the source of the world’s monsters.  It would be if the moon in VIII suddenly became the bad guy and the source of every problem in the game, and killed Ultimecia.  Or something.  Maybe that did happen.  VIII is a weird ass game.

Anyway, most of that are just quibbles.  The real problem is the rest of the game.  Chapter 14 has Noctis wake up 10 years later, where the sun hasn’t risen since his trip into the crystal, and while it does give one great scene right before the final battle, which is one of my favorite Final Fantasy moments ever (seriously, it made me cry), it also runs into so many problems.  First, of course, it stretches suspension of disbelief, since a decade without sunlight is insane.  Especially since the sun prevents monsters from just crawling out of the ground, and the monsters we see in the World of Ruin are fucking powerful as Hell.  Level 60 and above.  Shit, Demon Wall was there.  Demon Wall is a boss.  Second, it the time difference makes the reunion feel hollow.  There are some implications that the boys knew Noctis would come back, and that they knew because of what happened in the crystal, but the way it’s set up, it’s like he’s only been gone for a few weeks.  It really seems like 10 years is only there because it being a 10 year game was one of the original promises, and to give Talcott some pay off, but Iris could have been the person to pick up Noctis.

Then, of course, we have the final battle.  It’s got a great line (get out of my chair, jester.  The King sits there), but it’s also totally alone.  The game is about the boys and their brotherhood.  It’s why they all, Noctis included, wear Kingsguard uniforms to the final battle.  Even when they fracture, it’s their mutual love and brotherhood that brings them together, and the final scene before going into Insomnia for the last time is all about how they face the final battle together, as brothers.  Also, the very opening of the game is them going up against Ifrit, at the end of the world.  It should be great, but in the end, Noctis and Ardyn have a crazy Dragon Ball Z battle through the air, then Noctis sacrifices himself to end Ardyn’s immortality, and Noctis gets to be with Lunafreya in the afterlife.

Noctis dying, weirdly, becomes the easy way out.  Instead of losing Lunafreya, instead of having to suffer alone on a throne and rebuild a kingdom out of nothing, Noctis gets to have everything.  Sure, he “dies,” but the final scene shows that he gets to be with his love and be married in the afterlife.  He doesn’t have to suffer on earth with his friends, and rebuild a broken world.  Terra doesn’t get to die in Final Fantasy VI when the magic goes away, because she has to be there to raise the children (also because you can potentially beat the game without her, you monster).  She found her place in the world, she got to have her arc, and killing her would be pointless and grim.  Here, it’s sort of the opposite.  It’s a dark game, and in this instance, Noctis gets to die instead of doing the hard work.  It’s a shame.

Still, it’s an otherwise great game.  Probably best to just ignore everything after Chapter 12, though.  Or, at least, Episode Prompto.  I hear that one is pretty good.

Of all the pretentious…:NieR Automata Review

Nier_Automata_Cover_JP

Copyright Platinum Games and Square Enix

I probably should wait a few days before writing this, but I am not happy.  Maybe in a week I’ll have a different review.

I thought the days of pretentious anime games were over.  I’m not sure why, there are always going to be pretentious artists who think that whatever vague, semi-philosophic garbage they can cram into their writing is the most important thing in the world, generally mangling some form of postmodernism into a twisted shape in order to say something stupid.  After all, we did have Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice come out last year.  NieR: Automata, the sequel to 2010’s NieR, which was a spin off of a secret ending of the Drakengard series, is also, once again, a bunch of pretentious crap, info dumped at the end of the game to make a point about a theme that didn’t really exist until the game decided to give it to the player 2/3s of the way into the game.  Combat is pretty fun, though.

NieR: Automata takes place some 9,000 years after the events of the original NieR, with machine lifeforms sent by an alien race having taken over the earth.  Artificially created people known as Androids (despite most of them being female…) fight against the machine lifeforms on Earth, while the last vestiges of humanity control them from a base on the moon.  The player takes on 2B, a combat Androids, and her scouting companion 9S, as they fight to protect mankind and destroy some sort of thing the machine lifeforms create.  The twists and turns on this will get stupid.

As a game, NieR is an interesting hybrid of high octane, Platinum style action games, bullet hell shoot ’em ups reminiscent of Capcom’s old 1940 series and more Western style open world RPGs.  The game manages to seamlessly switch between all of these types more or less on the fly, although being that this is a Platinum game, the high flying combat is the most prominent, and the most well developed.  The game plays a lot like Bayonetta, in that it’s heavily focused on offense, with dodging as the primary form of defense.  Dodge properly, and the player sets up a counter attack that punishes the enemy for massive damage.  Combat isn’t particularly deep, at least when compared to the kings of the stylish action genre, but it is engaging.  Mostly by throwing horde after horde of enemies at the player, and making them relatively easy to tear through, without taking away the challenge.  It’s easy to dodge out of the way of melee attacks, cut through the right particle attack with a katana or jump out of the way of giant laser beams, but because the battlefield can literally be covered with enemies, one dodge could mean falling into the trap of getting pinned up against the wall and murdered by robots.  However, once it’s all said and done, and 2B (or one of the lesser characters the game makes you play later in the game) stands above the corpses of machines, the game delivers on giving the player a feeling of victory in a way most games just can’t hope to pull off.

The other parts of the game are much less developed.  The bullet hell sections are common, and with the way the enemies use ranged attack, is somewhat incorporated into the melee combat.  However, it’s still just pretty standard Gradius or 1940 style shoot ’em up gameplay here, maybe getting as advanced as Einhander.  The bullet hell sections are more distractions to the normal gameplay, to add something when travelling from one story mission to another, or to allow for some bosses to be way outside what 2B and 9S would be able to take care of on their own, despite their own personal combat abilities.  This is cool, but it does make some parts drag at certain points of the game.  Ultimately, however, they are fun, if that’s the sort of gameplay someone likes.  I found it to be a welcome addition, but it’s also something that requires a completely different skill set from the rest of the game, so it’s something that could completely wreck another player’s enjoyment all together, especially when going for the final “True” ending of the game.  The worst part, and perhaps the most trying part of the game, is the attempt at making it more like an open world RPG, and combining both the stylish action and bullet hell elements into that Western style open world sort of gameplay.  Now, if the world was interesting or well laid out, this wouldn’t be a problem, but NieR runs into nearly every large problem that an open world has, without any of the good things.

The only real virtue of the world map of NieR is that it’s small.  This is a good thing, because one of the biggest problems with the game, especially early on before the fast travel locations open up, is that many of the missions, and not just side missions, require the player to navigate the entire map just to get anything done.  A lot of the game is set up as a bunch of fetch quests.  It’s really not until the third playthrough, which honestly is where the actual game kind of starts, before the game actually stops making most of the main story into fetch quests, until the end, when it goes back to having the characters run around the whole map again.  It’s an interesting attempt at an open world, and all of the sins committed are done more out of ignorance rather than any actual bad design, but making it where back tracking to the other side of the overworld map just to progress the story made me put my controller down and find something else to do on more than one occasion.  This was only caused by a side mission once.

Along the way, I also encountered several bugs and smaller technical issues.  Part of this was playing on the PC, where playing in fullscreen mode led to framerate drops during cutscenes and blurry, downscaled graphics.  Also, several times throughout A story, I had several side quests fail to work.  That was annoying.

The worst part, though, is the story.  Not only is it bleak and nihilistic, it’s done in a pretentious, bullshit sort of way, reminding me heavily of Neon Genesis Evangelion.  It tries to make a point about the future or life or something, but since so much is hidden from the player, including the things some of the characters actually know, it’s hard to make heads or tails of what is actually going on.  The game refers to things that the player should probably know, and while some of them are references to NieR or Drakengard, most of them are things that are only revealed during the final ending, if even then.  Several things I only know because I looked them up while I was writing this very thing, but it commits one of the biggest sins of storytelling by holding off until the end to give any revelations at all.  Nearly everything of importance is only revealed at the end, and while some of it is seeded throughout the B and C stories (there’s nothing in A story unless the player already knows what to look for, and even then, it’s not great at foreshadowing), most of it is just an endgame revelation, or it fails at foreshadowing what’s coming up.  There’s a certain amount of “importance” the game thinks it has, and I don’t want to dismiss it by saying it’s a game about sexy robots fighting each other, because importance can come from anywhere, including video games where you play as a sexy robot.  Here, there really is no importance.  It’s just a game about sexy robots that throws in some stuff from philosophy and a few Biblical and classic literature references, hoping that’s all it needs to be deep.  It doesn’t even fail in an interesting way, like Xenosaga did.  It just has these things, with a somewhat bleak and ambiguous story, and acts like that’s all it needs.

That said, the ambiguity of the story did push me to keep playing, but it also caused me to delete my game as soon as I got the final ending, so it’s hard to say if it was worth it.

Game Anatomy: The Plan

DmC_box_art

Copyright Capcom and Ninja Theory

It’s honestly surprising that I’ve never really talked much about this game, although it came out during my hiatus on this blog, so that’s probably why.  DMC: Devil May Cry is a strange beast of a game, and it’s really hard to discuss thanks to all of the baggage the game has accumulated over the past 7 years (or that the last main series game came out almost a decade ago), but ultimately, it’s not really all that bad.  I’m a bit of a strange fan, considering I hated it until the fourth game came out, which totally revised my entire view on the series (except for 2, 2 sucks), but I am a fan of the flashy, stylish, anime as Hell series, and when I got a chance to pick up the game on Playstation Plus, I really enjoyed it.  It’s sort of a better version of the first game, and that’s really good.

Yeah, it has really terrible art direction, bad character designs and the story is terrible even from the perspective of the series, but the action is really good, the platforming is really cool and the level design is the best in the series.  That last one doesn’t sound like much of a barrier, because Devil May Cry level design is terrible, but seriously, it’s really, really good here.  In fact, the levels do a great job of servicing the combat, which is admittedly a downgrade from 3 and 4, because it’s much more than a funnel to take Dante from one fight to the next.  The levels are complex and interesting, breaking into platforming and combat sections in a way that feels natural, and sometimes, if rarely, blending them in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or stupid.  It’s great, and it also allows for encounters that really utilize the weapon switching of the combat.  One level stands above the rest though, and that’s Mission 16: the Plan.

For very stupid plot reasons, Dante and Virgil are raiding the building of the main bad guy, and killing all of his elite troops.  What’s cool, but not what makes the level so good, is that it’s set up in a way so that Dante and Virgil each have their own thing going on, and while the player is Dante, it’s possible to see Virgil’s progress mirroring the player’s own.  It’s not exactly in real time, but it does feel like it’s in real time, the few times you can see Virgil doing his thing.  Also, it solidifies the relationship between the brothers in a way the game hasn’t managed to at this point, which will make their eventual falling out that much stronger at the end of the game.  However, what’s really cool is that the level is set up like a heist movie, with Kat, the kind of boring witch love interest, narrating the entire level.

See, in the cutscene before the level, the player isn’t shown what the plan is, and instead, the level is narrated all the way through by Kat, with commentary by Virgil and Dante, for what the brothers are supposed to do.  Much like the execution scenes at the end of Ocean’s Eleven, Kat explains to Dante and Virgil what they’re supposed to do while they’re doing it, complete with the drawings of her plans being superimposed over the gameplay while its being explained to the player.  What’s really cool about this, other than it being one of the few examples of this in the medium, it also does a good job of explaining to the player where to go and what to do.  Sure, the levels aren’t particularly complex or anything, but it does throw a lot of very, very difficult enemies at you, but it does also have a few places where the player can screw up and wind up having to face a horde of very difficult monsters all at once.

That happened to me.  Kat was specific about not doing something.  I could have avoided it and I wound up dodging into a hole and falling right onto the floor where I shouldn’t have been.  What’s great is is that not only did I get a little scene were Dante chastises himself for being an idiot, it was also something specifically called out to me not to do, I did it, and I got something different happening.  It’s rare that we actually get a chance to see something that interesting in a video game, but to make it in where failure can be well incorporated into the game itself.  It’s very cool.

However, what also really works is the storytelling.  Like I mentioned before, the plot in his game is really bad.  It’s like a bad combination of the worst of White Wolf stuff, and when smug American comic book creators remake manga in order to prove that Japanese comics are stupid and Western comics are inherently superior.  Yes, that’s a thing, and DMC: Devil May Cry is the video game equivalent of that.  It’s disdainful of the source material and goes out of its way to actually insult the previous games, and no, I’m not talking about the infamous mop scene.  It’s a game that takes itself incredibly seriously, so certain it’s the future of the series and so much better than it’s anime bullshit predecessor, but it’s also a game that features abortion via sniper rifle and fighting an demonic Bill O’Reily (which is legitimately the best fight in the series and will be its own Game Anatomy).  However, one of the things that works really well is the relationship between Dante and Virgil, which we never actually get to see in the main series.  The way it becomes strained and fractured, mostly by Virgil’s growing fanaticism, and the brothers slowly switching their views on life and their destiny is really great, plus it’s done very organically, without Virgil suddenly becoming an asshole at the end.  The Mission does a really good job of highlighting all of it, and does a good job of both showing how much the Sons of Sparda care about each other, but also how much their relationship is falling apart.  This level does take place after Virgil shot a pregnant demon in her womb with a sniper rifle.  Jesus, that’s a sentence I’ve written.

By allowing the player to watch Virgil do what he does, and give us a few scenes where Vigil and Dante interact, plus their narration commentary while Kat is detailing the plan (as they’re doing it, I remind) does a lot for characterization without taking control away from the player.  A lot can be said about what you can do with cutscenes, but by just allowing it to work while the player is actually playing the game, that’s pretty cool.