Sunday Summaries 07/02/2016: Grim Fandango & Bloodborne

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Posted by Mento (4218 posts) -

I've been falling way behind on the video game schedule I set up at the start of this year. Something about playing a series of huge open-world games consecutively is giving me a weird feeling of anxiety. It's hard to explain where it comes from; after all, video games don't generally cause anxiety unless you're trying to elude a lamprey horror in Amnesia: The Dark Descent or in the midst of some similarly harrowing survival horror experience. I think it ties into a game's sense of immersion: to me I'm not just tossing in a new piece of media and taking it easy, but embarking on a journey to a new destination that will end up taking a week or more of my time. Like standing in an airport check-in line, there's always some trepidation along with the excitement when giving over a fraction of your life - no matter how small in the grand scheme of things - to explore something unfamiliar and different. Maybe that speaks to two particular psychological quirks of mine: that I'm such a homebody who has a general unease about being anywhere unfamiliar, and that I always feel compelled to complete every new game I start unless it really disagrees with me. Still, this leads to occasions when I badly want to start a new game of some considerable length - say, an RPG or an open-world game, which are the majority of the AAA games I seem to play these days - yet will spend a few hours or even days procrastinating with other interests before committing to that playthrough. It's a terrible habit.

No Caption Provided

There was another distracting factor this week, and one that I definitely didn't anticipate ahead of time: Alex Hirsch's Gravity Falls. I treat new TV shows the same way I do with games when it comes to noting down what I could potentially be interested in watching/playing: I learn just enough about it to know whether or not it's something I should pursue, and then I completely ignore everything else about it until I'm ready to consume. I either want it to be as much of a surprise as possible or I don't have the necessary level of engagement to care enough. So when I went into Gravity Falls, I was blindsided by a lot of wonderful discoveries: that it would eventually have the heavy involvement of Matt Chapman, one of the brothers behind the Homestar Runner phenomenon (Gravity Falls also has a strong theme of sibling creative teams, as Hirsch himself is a fraternal twin); that season two not only quickly fixed long-standing narrative problems with the first, like a teenage crush that was destined to go nowhere, but also elevates its storytelling and humor to the extent that I'd have zero problem calling Gravity Falls one of my favorite cartoon shows ever; and that it gets really dark towards its conclusion. Almost to the point where I sort of wonder if Disney didn't axe it because it was starting to become a little too much for its tween audience, raised as they are on brightly-colored, obnoxious live-action shows and Goof Troop reruns. (Though, hey, I like Goof Troop plenty. Its SNES game was unexpectedly great.)

That subversive edginess doesn't get any more apparent than with the massive three-part finale the showrunners created to see out the show once they knew the cancellation was coming. Gravity Falls takes place over one amazing Summer in the titular location: a sleepy Oregon town that is (not-so-)secretly a hotspot of paranormal activity as well as a place where children eventually learn to grow up and leave their innocence behind (where have I heard all this before?). The once-eternal Summer of the show finally threatens to end, and just so coincides with the birthday of the twin protagonists: their thirteenth, in fact, with all its promises of puberty, teenage awkwardness and the Darwinian fight for survival that is the modern high school experience. In a moment of weakness when faced with this encroaching deadline for their childhoods, the town is inadvertently handed over to the interdimensional trickster Bill Cipher - a recurring villain in the series and easily its most sinister, despite looking like the Eye of Providence with a top hat and a chipper disposition. What transpires is perhaps some of the most messed up imagery I've seen in any animated fiction, let alone one ostensibly created for children. The new universe that results is downright terrifying. I made a comparison on Twitter between it and Berserk's the Eclipse: the tragic and insane final act of The Golden Age Arc. Reason and rationality have flown the coop, like so many cuckoos, and the world becomes an apocalyptic chaotic maelstrom that quickly petrifies and/or breaks the minds of the majority of Gravity Falls's Simpsons-esque populace of humorous eccentrics. It's rough viewing, especially if you've gotten attached to these ancillary characters, but the amount of creativity on display is nothing short of incredible. The most spectacular aspect is that it still somehow maintains the show's exceptional level of humor too: a giant monstrous head attached to an arm roams the streets looking for people to eat, but is voiced with a comically desperate passive-aggressiveness by none other than Louis CK.

Anyway, I'm on tenterhooks waiting for the one hour series finale that is due to air on the 15th of this month - some three months after the previous episode, and almost four years after the show debuted in the Summer of 2012. I can't say enough good things about Gravity Falls - not since Disney's Adventures of the Gummi Bears have I been so invested and impressed by a Disney cartoon show's sense of scale and detailed mythos - and it's a shame that it had to end after only two seasons. At least, unlike many shows, it gets to go out in style.

New Games!

It promises to be a hot time, whatever it is.
It promises to be a hot time, whatever it is.

This week will finally answer the most pressing of questions: What is Rugby Challenge 3? Some sort of rugby game, possibly? Or maybe there's something going on under its innocuous surface that promises to shake the very foundations of what we understand about contact sports that Americans don't play. Also, yeah, I guess Firewatch also comes out this week. My walking simulator consumption has slowed from a jog to a gait in recent years, though I'm still curious enough about Firewatch and the upcoming Tacoma that I hope to limber up in time for a leisurely stroll through more examples of this particular new strain of adventure gaming. Obviously, as a narrative-based game, I'm going to try to avoid hearing as much about it as possible. That became hard to do with The Witness, because folk can't seem to stop talking about all the new lines they've been drawing on podcasts, but hopefully Firewatch won't engender quite so many nigh-inescapable discussions. This is what spoilercasts and written essays are for, after all.

Unravel looks to be another adorable knitting-based 2D platformer that I'll have to wrap around a growing ball of yarn along with Kirby's Epic Yarn and Yoshi's Woolly World and I Am a Teacher: Super Mario no Sweater (maybe not that last one). The backlog is real: I'll have saved nine before I ever see a stitch in time. Assassin's Creed Chronicles: Russia is the third of those 2D Assassin's Creed games, and coming so soon after Assassin's Creed Chronicles: India. For a series that favors a methodical and well-paced approach in its gameplay, Ubisoft sure is happy to churn them out as rapidly as possible. Arslan: The Warriors of Legend is yet another Musou game based on a licensed property that isn't related to the Three Kingdoms Era; I think Omega Force is catching up with Traveller's Tales and Telltale Games in the sheer amount of very disparate universes they've managed to squeeze into their preferred, incredibly specific gameplay mold.

Wiki!

Where can I get some Moai head butlers?
Where can I get some Moai head butlers?

I'm happy to announce that we now have full pages for every PC Engine game released in 1990! Well, at least all the HuCard ones. The Wiki Project came to a close this week with the final fifteen games of that year, six of which completely lacked pages: ZAP's Burning Angels, a girly anime vert shoot 'em up reminiscent of Dirty Pair; Arc System Works's Zipang, a Solomon's Key-esque puzzle game based on the same wacky Japanese movie that would also inspire the equally daft NES game Kabuki: Quantum Fighter; Media Rings's Spin Pair, a falling blocks puzzle game with some Pac-Attack style mechanics; Taito's Champion Wrestler, which is precisely what it sounds like though hardly a (title) match for the Fire ProWrestling game that came out the previous year; Mutech's Toy Shop Boys, a vert shoot 'em up with flying kids that has nothing to do with these guys as far as I can tell; and Red Company's Makai Prince Dorabocchan, the predecessor of the underrated SNES game The Twisted Tales of Spike McFang.

Of the other nine, we have PC Engine ports of Sega Arcade games Thunder Blade, Twin Hawk (Daisenpuu) and OutRun; the RPG sequel Momotaro Densetsu II from Hudson; Masaya's Wallaby!!, a goofy racing game where rabbits ride around on marsupials (it's not like cartoons; there's usually more mucus); the badass Irem horizontal shoot 'em up Saint Dragon, with the titular cyborg dragon burninating the post-apocalyptic countryside; and we also saw two Alice in Wonderland games released only days apart: Namco's Marchen Maze and FACE's Fushigi no Yume no Alice (the latter of which I covered a few years back for Octurbo). But wait, let's not forget FACE's Cross Wiber: the sci-fi tokusatsu sequel to Cyber Cross. What's a Wiber? Good question! For windscreens, maybe?

Next Wiki Project is a minor one: some housekeeping with pages for the earliest SNES games. I often go back to projects I completed years ago to ensure that my present standards of wiki etiquette retroactively apply. I've completed a rudimentary check on the Super Nintendo's 1990 releases - at nine games, it was hardly a grandiose task - and I'll check as far as the end of 1992 before I move onto another similar but far more involved mini-project with NES games of 1986. After that? It's time for Super '95: some 400+ SNES/SFC game pages to keep me busy for a very long while.

Grim Fandango Remastered!

Didn't play any more of Tim Schafer's reap-and-click adventure game after this Comic Commish went up. I sort of hate that I've never completed Grim Fandango: partly because it's such an institution and a major milestone in the adventure game genre, but mostly because I hate the feeling that I stopped playing a game just before it started to get good. That isn't to denigrate the type of person who would abandon a game like Final Fantasy XIII or The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword because it has such a glacial start - it's very hard for any of us to justify spending more of our time on something that has yet to stop tutorializing the player after the length of a feature film has passed - but it factors into that niggling feeling that I'm missing something more significant by not just riding out a rough start.

To reap, perchance to dream of beating this game one day.
To reap, perchance to dream of beating this game one day.

The most pertinent issue I have with the game is not one that I expect will disappear after playing it more: the lousy user interface and user friendliness. I wrote a little while back that the worse thing a game can do is waste someone's time: either figuratively (albeit subjectively) through bad content, or literally through forcing them to jump through hoops or take the longest route possible to their next objective. Grim Fandango's torpid movement speed even when running, its lack of fast travel maps and the amount of time it takes to cycle through one's inventory to find the right item all contribute towards a sluggish experience. That isn't to say an adventure game can't take the scenic route: the aforementioned walking simulators are all about setting a sedate mood through which to properly immerse and ingratiate a player into those worlds, and even a standard point-and-click adventure game might choose to double-down on NPC dialogue and flowery background descriptions to the extent that you might spend twenty hours playing it yet only needed to solve a handful of inventory puzzles to reach its conclusion. That's not what I perceive to be timewasting, because that is time spent well (again, subjectively speaking) setting a scene and guiding the player to a deeper level of emotional involvement with the game. Conversely, spending a minute to pick out a fire extinguisher from my Lazy Susan of an inventory system is not time spent well.

Bloodborne!

Giant Bomb has many prodigious artistic talents at its beck and call, yet I am not one of those. This visual representation of the current status of me and my huntress protagonist Violetta might be crude, but I feel it properly encapsulates the Bloodborne experience I've had so far:

No Caption Provided

So yeah, what Bloodborne does in its early game - because, strangely enough, I don't have much to say about anything after these early areas - is similar to what Demon's Souls did: holds hostage the player's capability to improve themselves stats-wise until a certain milestone has been met. In Demon's Souls's case, it was a baptism of fire that would more or less go on to define the series, forcing the player to pass through the opening area and fight the first boss before they were allowed to level up or partake in any of the game's branching paths. Bloodborne's similar: without spoiling myself too much, I need a certain resource to wake up the NPC that allows you to level, and I can't get that resource without first discovering the location of the first boss. It does afford me an opportunity to get to grips with Bloodborne's handful of innovations, at least of the ones I encounter this early.

The most significant departure is, of course, the lack of a shield or effective tanking strategies. I've always played the Souls games with a certain degree of reckless "offense-first" abandon. Like Jeff Gerstmann himself has said numerous times in the past: blocking is boring. Instead, it's all about dodging blows and properly playing the spacing game to keep an opponent swinging at thin air until you can close the distance with an attack of your own. Another aspect of this new system is the wonderful way you can recover some of your lost health by immediately switching to the offensive and retaliating against the foe that caused you harm: a take on that old "a hair of the demon werewolf that bit you" chestnut. It recalls to me the way that EarthBound would dole out damage over time rather than instantaneously, and how the player could exploit that if they were quick-witted enough. You might suffer a mortal blow in that game, but you could still finish the battle before the HP counter had completely emptied for a last-minute rescue.

The only other difference I've found is in the game's terminology, which is frequently the most obtuse part of any Souls game. Souls are now "blood echoes", the dexterity stat is now the "skill" stat (and some other magic-based stats have also shifted, like "blood tinge"), "Insight" is a rough equivalent to the valuable Humanity, and of course there's a whole new glossary of terms related to the lore surrounding Yharnam, the vaguely 18th century European setting of Bloodborne. The present big McGuffin I'm chasing after is something called Paleblood, about which I have some nebulous idea of where it is from a few agoraphobic NPCs, but... well, there's the matter of that hump to get past first. I expect to be writing more about my Bloodborne adventures in later Sunday Summaries, if not in its own separate article or two further down the road.

For now though, I should probably bring this to a close. I suspect Bloodborne will dominate the week to come, so look forward to more of that. I'm only a year behind everyone else, so be patient with regards to spoilers and advice and the like. I'll be fine. Probably. These darn wolves, though.

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#1 Posted by Darth_Navster (883 posts) -

Your first bit about giving over a fraction of your life to try something new and the resulting trepidation really resonated with me. I try to be experimental with what games or media I check out but I'm often hesitant to roll the dice on my precious free time. Sometimes it pays off, like when I downloaded Rogue Legacy on a whim and played that non-stop for a week, but other times it can leave me annoyed, such as when I wasted an evening trying to wrap my head around the appeal of Grow Home. Such is the life of an adult geek I suppose.

Also, Gravity Falls is truly great and I credit my wife with forcing me to watch the show. Sometimes it's good to get that nudge from someone you trust to break you out of your desire for "comfort media".

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