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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.

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.

Strangely Underrated: Mass Effect Andromeda Review

Let’s start by getting everything out of the way.  Mass Effect Andromeda is a good game.  It’s a solid successor to the original trilogy, and while it doesn’t always do things right, neither did the original game.  In a lot of ways, Andromeda is Bioware at its finest and the game feels like it’s the best thing they’ve ever produced.  Other times, it really feels like Bioware at its most Bioware, relying too heavily on their own tropes, animations and concepts that don’t always pan out.  Ultimately, the game is good much more often than it is bad, and even when it’s bad, it’s more disappointing than anything else.  What it really comes down to is a game with a lot of expectation, and meeting it most of the time.

Mass_Effect_Andromeda_cover

Copyright Bioware and Electronic Arts

Mass Effect Andromeda picks up a little bit more than 600 years after the original trilogy, with a group of arks having been sent to the Andromeda galaxy (some 2.5 million light years away in real life) for the purposes of science and exploration.  To the characters, the game picks up in between parts 2 and 3 of the last game, meaning that while the players know that the arks were probably sent to hide humanity (and the asari, krogan, salarains and turians) from the Reapers, the characters actually don’t.  Once they drop out of faster than light travel and begin to defrost the people in cryo stasis, the Andromeda Initiative, the organization the player works for, find that all of the potential colony worlds are a bust due to some sort of dark matter interference.  Combine this with an ancient race of robots, alien invaders that don’t come from the Milky Way Galaxy and the indigenous people caught in between, there’s a lot going on here and a lot of things for the writers to play with.

Unfortunately, the main story is mostly about the main character fighting off the invaders as the new “Pathfinder” with a super AI and advanced combat abilities.  It’s not that it’s a bad story, nor does it ignore the ideas of immigration and colonization, and the good and the bad that comes from it, but it’s a little disappointing that the story is a fairly typical hero’s journey, with all of the more interesting ideas being used as little more than set dressing.  The game introduces a lot of ideas, themes and concepts, mostly dealing with what it takes to start from scratch further away from anyone else in the universe they know than anyone has ever been, but not all of them are followed up on.  Further, a lot of the new ideas for this galaxy, introduced to make the galaxy seem different and alien from our own, don’t get enough development and are not fleshed out enough.  Much like with the first game in the series, the game ends with more questions than answers.  Then, with the game being a new IP and sequels pitched right from the beginning, it felt like a mystery waiting to be solved.  Here, as an established game, with a lot of uncertainty about the direction of the series, they feel more like storylines unresolved.

The worst offender is the Remnant, technology left behind by someone, so mysterious that even the native Angara don’t know where it came from or who made it.  All that’s left is mysterious, advanced terraforming technology, which serves as the main mechanic for the game, and their robot guardians.  Who or what the Remnant are is a main element of the story, and while some parts of it do get answered, the resolution leaves the story hanging and uncertain as to what the developments actually meant.  There’s a great reveal at the end of the game, which has huge ramifications for the newer setting, but the game does nothing with it.

Mechanically, the game is mostly solid.  It plays nice, handles well, and it’s good to have a vehicle that is actually fun to drive.  Planet maps that aren’t all mountain ranges also helps, as well as the six wheel drive function.  The Nomad is much better than the Mako or the Hammerhead, and the planets, while fewer in number than in the first Mass Effect, serve as nice RPG maps, with tons of interesting quests (a step up from Dragon Age Inquisition) and lots to see.  Plus, they’re actually designed with the Nomad in mind, making it less of a chore to get around.

Combat, too, is a refined and improved version of Mass Effect 3’s combat system.  The ability to change powers at will more than makes up for the smaller power suite given to Ryder, and while changing classes at will doesn’t quite work out like they intended, a little bit of tweaking and balancing will do a lot to fix everything.  Plus, the fact that Ryder can specialize into anything makes for some really interesting builds, although, balance is still a problem here.  Adding the jump jets and more advanced AI makes the fights a lot more dynamic than just grabbing cover and pulling out the biggest sniper rifle, especially when taking into account the several new and old weapons, each with their own kind of firing system.

The weapons, however, are also an example of the RPG elements getting in the way of game.  Weapons have to be researched and crafted, using resources, because it’s an RPG and of course we have to have a crafting system.  Because research points are scarce, it’s difficult to branch out and buy new weapons, especially late in the game, because every level of firearm needs to be leveled up, then built, separately.  Every 10 levels, each weapon needs to get more powerful, and the game doesn’t do it automatically, so the player needs to spend and increasing number of research points to buy the next level of gun, then spend more resources to build it.  Fortunately, it’s possible to deconstruct the old weapon to get some of the resources back, but it’s still a lot of steps with a lot of moving parts.  Since research points are limited, it’s generally not worth branching out in a save file, because if you’re at level 30, all of your guns need to be level 5, and you can’t just research the level 5 blueprint of a new weapon, you have to research 1-4 first (although you don’t have to build them).  Also, while it’s really cool each weapon has its own unique firing system, the game doesn’t really explain what that is, having to make due with some hard to read stats (which can be somewhat conflicting and are terribly balanced) and a couple of sentences of description.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the graphics, most of which has been fixed with a patch.  Yes, the game has poor animations and there’s a lot of Bioware talking head syndrome, but a lot of it is fixed and the problems weren’t quite as bad as initial reports made them out to be, at least on the PC.  The bigger issue is that Bioware is reusing animations from Dragon Age Inquisition instead of coming up with new ones.

There’s a lot to criticize, and I know I spent a lot of time sounding like I’m trashing it, but these don’t completely diminish the enjoyment of the game.  There are lots of issues, but it’s fun, it’s enjoyable, and it feels like actually exploring a new galaxy.  The game needs work for the sequel, but it’s got a lot of heart and it’s definitely worth the trip.

Best in the World: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Review

BreathoftheWildFinalCover

Copyright Nintendo

Over the course of the past few months, I’ve been updating my “Top 10 games of all time” and while that’s an article for another time, something struck me.  In the past two years, I’ve added two new games to that list from the past two years.  Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain and Dark Souls 3 are easily some of my favorite games of all time, and are only getting better as time goes on (even if I don’t like leveling a pyromancer).  What’s really crazy, is that it’s march, and I’ve added another game to the list for the third year in a row.  The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild isn’t just the best Zelda game since Link to the Past, nor is it the future of Zelda titles, but it’s the future of open world titles.

This Zelda opens up 100 years after Ganon has already defeated Link and Zelda, with Hyrule in decay and all of the realm’s champions presumed dead.  That same Link, having spent 100 years being magically rejuvenated, awakes after hearing Zelda’s voice and embarks to finish what he started 100 years ago.  However, this Hyrule is different, unlike any other Hyrule we’ve seen before.  It’s not just big, it’s huge, and as soon as Link walks out of the Shrine of Resurrection, it is his to explore.

Breath of the Wild completely remakes the entire open world genre.  While other games with an open world follow Skyrim’s model, the previous title holder of “re inventor of open world genre,” Breath of the Wild does its own thing.  The world truly is open right at the start of the game.  Sure, there’s a bit of a tutorial area, but that tutorial area is so large, it’s hard not to see at as a big, open world.  There’s so much to do, see and experiment with right in the tutorial zone, that it makes many other games in the genre seem restricted.  Need to cross a ravine?  Cut down a tree.  Need to get to a shrine at the top of the mountain?  Climb it.  See a bunch of enemies that will overwhelm you in a fight?  Set the grass on fire or push a boulder on them.  Then, once the full world opens up, it’s completely up to the player to what they want to do.

Other Zelda games tend have the illusion of openness, allowing the player to tackle some of the dungeons in a less than optimal order.  The last Zelda game, A Link Between Worlds, made it so each section of the game could be completed how the player wants.  Here, Link doesn’t even have to complete the dungeons and can charge headlong against Ganon right at the start of the game.  It’s not optimal, but it’s a possibility, and the main dungeons, too, can be approached in any order.  Nintendo does have a recommended order, but that’s just the easiest order.  I didn’t even follow that order.  Even then, there are so many ways to approach even getting to those places, that it’s insane.  It’s not because the combat system is deep, or because there’s a big world, like many other open world games, but it does one thing differently than anything else: it totally revolutionizes movement by adding climbing.

Climbing isn’t new to open world games, hell every Assassins Creed game is based around it, but Breath of the Wild lets the player climb literally everything, which allows them to go anywhere at any time, and go do anything.  Consider trying to get to the top of the Throat of the World in Skyrim.  There’s a long, winding staircase, which is cool and has tones of lore connected to it, but it also takes forever.  In Breath of the Wild, if I want to get to the top of the mountain, I’m just going to climb it.  Then, instead of fast traveling to the bottom, I’ve got a paraglider, so I’ll just fly down.  That’s so much cooler than having to walk down when I can just jump.

For all the gushing I’m doing, the game isn’t perfect.  There aren’t enough dungeons, and thanks to the completely open world aspect of the game, Nintendo is still trying to figure out what they want to do in regards to dungeons.  Each of the four big dungeons is generally made up of one gimmick, and it’s a cool gimmick that uses a lot of spatial awareness that hasn’t otherwise been used in the series, but it’s still sort of the same thing done over and over again.  The game tries to use the 120 shrines, which vary in size and approach, to make up the difference, but it’s not quite the same.  A lot of them are hard to find, there are seriously way too many of them, and the reward is visually cool (a 3D representation of the outfit Link wore in the original Legend of Zelda), but is mechanically inferior to pretty much everything else in the game.

There is the other elephant in the room, as well, the fragility of the weapons.  Normally, I find weapon breakage to be a stupid, pointless mechanic, but here, Nintendo has mostly made it work.  This is because there are a wide variety of weapons, across three categories, each doing various amounts and types of damage, with elemental strengths and weaknesses thrown in for good measure.  It’s rare that Link will be without a weapon, and scavenging them up does fit in with the game’s thematics, but the weapons are seriously way too fragile.  Honestly, there’s probably no good fix for this, either, since anything short of indestructible would probably not be enough.  On one hand, it is cool to switch between weapons, but it would be better if the difference between weapon groups wasn’t just based on a trade off between damage and speed of attacks.  Maybe if there was an actual reason to use a club over a sword, or if a spear could pierce armor.  That would be an improvement over what we have been given.  At least, however, the elemental damages do something different.

I was tempted to just start the review by saying “It’s the best since Link to the Past, end of review,” because it honestly feels that way.  However, there is so much that this game does right, and a few rough edges that need to be smoothed over.  Zelda games and open world games really needed a kick in the ass, and I’m hoping that everyone will see this as the right place to build from.

It should be better: Uncharted 4 Review

Uncharted_4_box_artwork

Image copyright Sony and Naughty Dog

This is something of a difficult review to write.  Not because it’s taken me by surprise, but because it’s not going to make a lot of sense.  Uncharted 4 features by far the best writing in the series and solves several huge problems with combat that’s plagued the series since the beginning, and it’s also by far the worst in the series.  Ultimately, it’s boring, frustrating, lacks any real challenge and by this point, feels rote and unnecessary.

Uncharted 4 follows Nathan Drake as he’s pulled into one more adventure after supposedly retiring for good.  This time, the perpetrator, introduced via flashbacks at the beginning of the game, is Nathan’s long lost, and never previously mentioned, brother Sam.  Thought dead while trying to find the treasure of Henry Avery, Sam was locked in a South American prison for 15 years, only recently escaping in order to recapture the treasure.  In over his head, and indebted to a drug lord for half of Avery’s treasure, valued at $400 million, Nathan has to help his brother get out of trouble, while dodging the mercenary company Shoreline and their former partner on the Avery heist, Rafe Adler.

There’s a lot to this plot, but, ultimately, it’s not really about the treasure or the adventure, it’s all about Nathan, and what his life is supposed to be.  Can he actually be happy living in a house with Elena and not globetrotting the world, getting into gunfights?  Is Drake doomed to a life of loneliness, dying alone in an empty house?  It’s an interesting character study, which leads to some of the best character moments in the series, not just between Nathan and Elena, but Nathan and newcomer Sam.  Everyone, even Sully, gets a lot of character development throughout the game, with all of them asking difficult questions about who they are and what they want out of life.

Surprisingly, the game does a good job of answering these questions in ways that work within the world, and not in a condescending, Hollywood type of way.  Things aren’t wrapped up in a pretty bow at the end of the game, but the characters deal with tough questions about who they are, and come away stronger in a way you don’t see in a lot of mainstream entertainment.  Not to spoil too much, but the issue isn’t about whether or not Nathan should live domestically with Elena (since she wants adventure just as much as he does, it turns out), but how to do that in a way where their relationship isn’t torn apart, and they don’t wind up getting shot at every time they show up somewhere.

This is something of the problem.  The writing is fantastic.  It’s leaps and bounds beyond anything Naughty Dog has ever done, and really, most game or even movie studios do for a piece of media about action set pieces.  The cut scenes look beautiful, they’re so well acted, the animators definitely deserve some sort of award and the cinematography is more than serviceable.  It’s also the only thing that kept me playing through the game.

So, most of the game is just more Uncharted, and it’s not very good Uncharted at that.  Platforming, solving puzzles, climbing on giant stuff, it’s all the same stuff that’s been in every version of the game, but this time, it just feels lazy.  There’s no challenge to this version of the platforming, all of the puzzles are easy enough that I could almost sleep through them, and they honestly just feel like huge breaks between cut scenes.  Engagement in the platforming sections are limited.  Like I said, there’s no challenge.  Uncharted games have always made it clear where to go and what to do, and that’s not really an issue I have, it’s that there’s nothing different.  Even with the grappling hook and rope mechanic, it doesn’t do anything different or interesting.

At least, until the gunplay starts.  Combat is where this game shines, because for the firs time in series history, it combines the Gears of War-inspired cover based shooting with actual platforming.  The bad guys flank Drake, use the terrain and come in from different directions to encourage moving from one place to the next, always trying to climb, jump and run around the opponents.  The platforming and movement is further incentiveized by being able to jump on opponents, taking them out instantly (technically, it’s a flying tackle, followed by a punch and the player has to jump from a higher area, so it’s not exactly Mario style jumping, but it’s close) or using the rope to swing into an unsuspecting mercenary and take them out with a single blow.  It makes combat fun and dynamic, and manages to marry the platforming and combat elements of the game in ways that the series has never managed to do, nor has its imitators, like the new Tomb Raiders.

At the same time, though, combat is frustrating.  In all seriousness, I actually died more times beating Uncharted 4 than I did playing Dark Souls III.  The game isn’t challenging, it’s just cheap.  Most enemies, unless taken down by a flying tackle or a stealth kill, take almost as many shots as Nathan does to put down, and combat always sees Nathan outnumbered about 10 to 1.  Combat is exhausting, and many combat sequences go on for multiple sections of the map, making it impossible to find a place to breathe in between them.  It’s also so frustrating to deal with.  Enemies always have the tactical advantage, whether it’s with gear or terrain, and that’s not counting the advantage of being outnumbered.  Nearly every gun fight, from the time they’re introduced, features at least one sniper (generally two) and a guy with a high powered weapon and heavy, heavy armor.  Armor guys take more shots to kill than Nathan, are generally only stunned by grenades and generally kill him faster since they have shotguns or miniguns.  Snipers are at least fragile, but they’re always far away, always guarded, and can kill Nathan faster than anything else in the game.

Here’s the thing, it looks great, it plays great and it’s got a great story.  Unfortunately, it’s just not that fun to play.  Yes, gunplay finally manages to put in the platforming, that’s wonderful, Naughty Dog finally caught up to themselves in 2003 with Jak II, but there’s a lack of engagement in the gameplay that just has been growing ever since Among Thieves came out.  In a lot of ways, this would have been so much better as a film.

Bayonetta 2 Review: I don’t have a title

It's not sexy.  Seriously, I don't get the appeal.

There’s nothing empowering about Bayonetta. It’s a go to defense for people who want to defend the game for being sexist or exploitative to point out that Bayonetta is an incredibly powerful wizard and kicks all sorts of ass, she’s this empowering character, and since I never played the original game, I could only shrug my shoulders. Playing Bayonetta 2, though, has told me that there really isn’t a lot to say about this game that’s progressive, whether I’m talking about the portrayal of women in video games, or about the spectacle bralwer genre. It’s not that it’s terrible or anything, in fact it’s a quite solid game, but it’s hard for it to live up to other games in the genre.

The story here is mostly an excuse to have Bayonetta murder a bunch of angels and demons. Her friend gets killed due to a summon going wrong, so she has to go to Hell to rescue her. Along the way, she gets mixed up with something about a god of chaos and eventually, she has to murder that too. The story isn’t that good, which is fine, but there is disproportionally large emphasis on it, especially early on, and it’s at BlazBlue levels of craziness. It’s not that it’s complex, it’s just the storytelling is marred by drowning the player in jargon that it makes it difficult to care about what’s going on.

Still, story isn’t why anyone would show up to a spectacle brawler, so a stupid, over silly anime style story is totally fine here. Especially since the game itself is a lot of fun. Level design is serviceable, like everything else in the genre, being a series of flat planes and corridors to bring Bayonetta from one fight to the next. Sure, there are a couple of platforming and running sections to break things up, but these are definitely the exception. In fact, complex level design might actually be a detriment here, since it just means there would be more time in between fights, and fights are the whole reason to be here.

There’s a lot of cool stuff going on in this game as far as combat goes. It’s very easy to string together combos, the dodge-to-bullet-time mechanic, or Witch Time, does a good job of allowing the player to balance offense and defense (although the lack of a dodge cancel is kind of annoying) and Bayonetta moves very smoothly. It also helps that there are a lot of really cool and varied enemies in thie game. If there is one thing this has over, say, the Devil May Cry series, is that each enemy is unique and there are a lot of them. This isn’t like DMC 3 where every level is littered with the same scythe wielding demon to act as foot soldiers to get in Bayonetta’s way. No, instead, much like every other brawler Platinum puts out, each encounter is its own unique and interesting fight. It reminds me of Platinum’s last game, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance in that each fight stands on its own, and means the player is going to need to take a different set of tactics for each fight.

Or, rather, it does in theory. Bayonetta has a lot of moves, more than anyone in the genre, except maybe Dante in Devil May Cry, and while the loading screen said I used all of them at least once, I’m pretty sure I relied on the triple punch, triple kick combo throughout most of the game, since it was the most powerful. That was, if I was even paying attention to what buttons I was pressing. I was able to get through most of the fights by dodging to activate Witch Time, and then I just hammered on the punch and kick buttons, mostly at random. If the bad guys flew away from me, I’d shoot them, but for the most part, I would just punch or kick at random, and react to what the enimes did.

Perhaps things change in higher difficulties, but I get the feeling that the Witch Time mechanic is the most important element of the game, since most of the game revolves around that. It’s the fastest way for Bayonetta to recharge her magic to get her super attacks and power ups, it slows down time to increase the length of combos and it increases the score faster. Also, most of the monsters and bosses have their attacks are balanced around the player’s mastery of the Witch Time mechanic. The better the player is at reading the different attacks, the more success they will have at the game. The game does a good job of giving monsters with huge wind ups at the beginning of the game, with the window for dodging narrowing as the player goes through the game. It is a very cool mechanic, but some monsters are more difficult to read than others, and not really in a good way. A lot of later foes, and several of the bosses (especially the final boss) seem to have a lot of fake wind ups in their attacks. Also, a few enemies have some bullshit counter attacks that have extremely narrow dodge windows and almost no wind up for them.

One thing this game does great is scope. It’s a bunch of crazy, over-the-top anime style bullshit where the player summons random demons and beats the hell out of giant angels, or other demons, or Bayonetta flies through space fighting gods. There’s also that time where I surfed on a destroyed piece of building on a waterspout and then murdered some sort of coatal dragon angel thing.

Bayonetta 2 is a lot of fun, but it’s not as deep as some of other games in the genre. Still, it’s fun enough that the lack of depth doesn’t matter too much. It is unfortunate that the character design goes for this very off-putting form of “sexy” and the combat is more focused on dodging, but, well, those are minor blips. It’s a fun diversion and definitely worth exploring for its secrets.