AtheistPreacher

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My one big problem with the upcoming RE4 Remake

In two words: knife durability.

I already didn’t this mechanic in the RE2 remake, but bringing it into RE4 is manifestly more egregious because it fundamentally clashes with the gameplay loop and mechanics in a way that it didn’t in RE2. My aim here is to explain why that’s the case.

But first let’s look at how knives worked in the other RE games and the changes in the design that happened.

Early RE

The design intent of the knife in the early RE games was very straightforward: it was a weapon of last resort. It assured that you always had some offensive potential even if you’d used up all your ammo, though it was generally an extraordinarily weak/bad option. And it was often dangerous to use for ammo conservation even on downed enemies (remember those RE1 zombies biting your feet after you’d shot them?).

Then something interesting happened. The first RE Remake—the 2002 one on the Gamecube—introduced daggers, which had a distinct function from the knife. While the knife was still your unbreakable option of last resort, the daggers basically functioned as one-time get-out-of-jail-free cards. They were defense items that could be used to stab and escape from an enemy that grabbed you.

Which was, well, fine. These type of defensive daggers had never been a thing in the RE games, but they didn’t really affect the core gameplay aside from making things a little more lenient on the player.

The RE4 revolution

RE4 was released three years later (2005) and fundamentally changed a lot of elements of RE’s design. It was no longer a horror game with some action sprinkled in, but rather fundamentally an action game with horror themes. Where before enemies had solely been obstacles—there was no real benefit to killing them, and so simply avoiding/running past them was a perfectly fine option—they now dropped loot in the form of ammo or money, which could be spent with the famed RE4 merchant to upgrade your weapons. It was a game about killing zombies rather than one about just surviving them.

This being the case, the meta-game of RE4 became all about killing as many enemies as you could as ammo-efficiently as possible, and it gave you great tools to do that, of which the knife was a big part. The dagger idea from the RE1 remake had been abandoned, but on the other hand, the knife had never been more useful/viable.

Shooting or knifing an enemy in the head or lower legs would lead to a stagger that allowed you to unleash powerful kicking or grabbing animations, during which you were invincible to enemy attacks. Rather than gunning an enemy to death, you could often kill them by firing a single bullet to the head, round-house kicking them, and then slashing them with the knife on the ground until they were dead. Bullets used: one. Extra ammo could be saved for especially hairy encounters or sold to the merchant for faster upgrading of your weapons.

You could even control crowds this way, to an extent. A single staggered zombie would allow you to unleash that invincible kick animation on a large group in front of you and down them all. It wasn’t always feasible to knife them all in situations like this; sometimes a grenade was a better follow-up, or there were simply too many enemies to possibly down all at once. But the combat fundamentally revolved around trying to control your space, grouping enemies up so you could damage multiple at a time, and dispatching them all as efficiently as you could.

The knife’s big change

There were a lot of RE games released between RE4 and the end of the 2010’s, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll skip ahead to key entry for the point I’m trying to make.

The RE2 remake (2019), released seventeen years after the RE1 remake and fourteen years after RE4, essentially combined the knife and dagger from the RE1 remake into a single item. It could be used as a melee weapon or as a defensive escape-from-a-grab item, but either way it had a durability meter, and that meter just didn’t last very long.

While I never liked the idea that the knife could no longer be used as an ammo conservation method, or that you could theoretically be stuck with too little ammo to kill one of the game’s bosses, the (somewhat) saving grace of the knife now being a breakable/finite combat item was that the RE2 remake had made something of a return to a focus on survival rather than action. Enemies did not drop loot, and while there were gun upgrades, these were found in the world rather than bought from a merchant. In short, the best way to conserve ammo was simply to avoid enemies altogether.

This design intent was epitomized by the imposing Mr. X. In an action game, something like Mr. X just comes of as unfair and annoying. But for a horror game, he makes perfect sense: you’re not supposed to engage in combat with him, you’re supposed to just run.

Regardless, since killing enemies wasn’t actually incentivized, beyond making it less annoying to retrace your steps—something you did often in RE2—the fact that you had no indestructible knife as a weapon of last resort and ammo conservation tool didn’t matter too much.

The next major entries in the series—the RE3 remake and RE8—returned to an infinite-durability knife, and RE8 even introduced the powerful Karambit knife to make melee-only runs more viable. Still, in neither game was the knife as core to the gameplay as it had been in RE4, since they didn’t contain the same easy stagger animations with invincible follow-up kicks that created prime opportunities to employ your knife.

Knife durability in the RE4 remake

Of course it’s important to say that the RE4 remake isn’t out yet and won’t be for another five months, and things could still change. But hands-on preview coverage confirms that knives function as they did in the RE2 remake—they break rather quickly and aren’t intended to function as they did in the original game. No longer is the core combat loop centered around staggering a zombie, kicking him down (possibly along with the group surrounding him), and following with knife strikes.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but if the intent is to capture the spirit of the original, I’d argue that adding durability to the knife is a fundamental misstep. Frequent use of the knife was so core to RE4’s combat that taking it away feels very, very wrong. I always killed every enemy I could in my many RE4 playthroughs because the loot gained from doing so always outweighed the resources spent killing them if you could doing it efficiently, particularly with the unbreakable knife.

In the remake it seems apparent that there is no longer any “free lunch” to be had even with skilled play: one way or another, you’re going to need to spend X amount of finite ammo—whether it’s bullets or some of your knife’s durability—to down any opponent, because you have no attack that doesn’t consume something, aside from those kicks, which themselves can only be initiated by a resource-spending attack.

Taking away your one unlimited attack option fundamentally changes the game feel, because adding knife durability has a domino effect that reverberates through the entire combat loop. E.g., if you can’t knife them while they’re down, then those invincible melee kicks become less useful by proxy: since the kicks will tend to disperse/de-bunch large groups, you’ll likely be better off with a shotgun blast or grenade after grouping them rather than a roundhouse kick.

Might anything mitigate this change?

There are a few potential saving graces to this situation.

First, as already mentioned, the game isn’t out yet and there’s always the possibility that they’ll reverse themselves and remove knife durability as a concept—though it seems unlikely this late in development, especially since the knife has been given powerful new abilities to compensate for being breakable, such as parrying chainsaw attacks and instant finishes of downed zombies. They would have to reverse a lot of work to make the change.

Another, stronger possibility is that the game will contain an unlockable infinite-durability knife. That’s because the RE2 remake did this exact thing: an infinite-durability knife could be obtained by finding and destroying all the Mr. Racoon toys found throughout the game. So I wouldn’t be surprised if this game did something similar. Again, though, the new more powerful knife will function very differently than the original RE4 knife did.

The other thing is simply that the original RE4 remains one of the greatest video games ever made, and has aged better than any other entry in the series. So if the RE4 remake’s combat ends up being unsatisfactory in this way or any other way, well, you can always simply return to the original, because it remains a great game, and the recently completed fan HD remaster of the PC version means it now looks better than it ever has. This fact alone makes the addition of the knife durability mechanic sting less.

Closing thoughts

All of that said, I still can’t help but be disappointed. There were always going to be changes in the remake’s gameplay, and from the beginning I was doubtful that the remake team would fully grasp everything that made the original such a classic, because so much of RE4’s magic was in the interplay of some fairly specific gameplay design elements. And while the remake team seems—from the early footage and hands-on-impression articles—to have done most of the other stuff pretty well, adding knife durability feels a bit like removing that one crucial gear that brings the rest of the machine grinding to a halt. It may still be a good game considered in isolation, but with this one core change it feels like the remake is abandoning a crucial part of what made the original what it was, and that the development team has, indeed, failed to fully grasp the game they are remaking.

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The Good, the Inexplicable, and the Lazy

Recently released for PS4, PS5, and PC (Epic), the “2D Souls-like” Salt and Sacrifice is a game I really wanted to like. And for the most part, I do like it. I’ve logged a little over 44 hours on it so far, and mostly enjoyed myself. But there’s no denying that the game has problems. Its tight and well-executed core gameplay is marred by some bizarre design decisions, and by a bunch of minor UI annoyances that in aggregate become a major gripe.

Background

Ska Studios was founded in 2007 by James Silva, who is basically a one-man video game-developing machine, and absolutely one of my favorite indie devs.

His games first came to my attention when I was visiting my brother and tried a bit of The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile (2011). It was a 2D action game with tight controls and great-feeling combat that I immediately fell in love with.

This game rules. Also, it’s now on Steam for $10. You should play it. Just sayin’.
This game rules. Also, it’s now on Steam for $10. You should play it. Just sayin’.

And besides the wonderful core combat, one other thing that I remember really impressing me about that game was how it handled difficulty: rather than just scaling up enemy health and damage, increasing the difficulty level would completely change your encounters, e.g., replacing the standard enemies with baddies that would normally only appear later in the game. Most devs simply don’t go to the effort of really customizing their difficulty settings that way. It showed me that the game was really full of a lot of thought and care.

After releasing Charlie Murder in 2013, Silva began work in earnest on Salt and Sanctuary. It had started as something of an experiment or even a joke: what would a 2D Souls-like with Dishwasher combat look like? Silva futzed around with the idea and circulated the results around to his friends. Everyone liked it so much that he decided to actually go ahead and make a full game out of it.

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Salt and Sanctuary benefited from enormously fortunate release timing. It came out on March 15, 2016... just nine days before Dark Souls 3. Since it was billed specifically as a 2D Souls-like, it immediately found a large audience of Souls fans who were frothing at the mouth waiting for the next entry in From Software’s venerable series and needed something to tide themselves over.

The other thing you have to realize is that at the time there just weren’t that many Souls-likes out there, or at least not good ones. Deck13 had taken a swing with Lords of the Fallen in 2014, which was honestly pretty terrible (their follow-up, The Surge, was much better, but wouldn’t be released for another year). Nioh was still a year away. So was Hollow Knight.

Lords of the Fallen was about the best we had in 2016 for non-From Software Souls-likes, and it was... pretty bad.
Lords of the Fallen was about the best we had in 2016 for non-From Software Souls-likes, and it was... pretty bad.

Between those two factors, Salt and Sanctuary was a critical and commercial success. Minor gripes aside, Silva had built a Souls-like that was actually good, something that arguably no one else had managed yet.

But though Ska Studios had been releasing a game almost every year since 2009, it took six years for the follow-up to Salt and Sanctuary to appear. It found a very different sort of market filled to the brim with games aping the Souls formula, not to mention tepid release timing (at best). New releases are arguably still being consumed by the monster that is Elden Ring, which has held on to the top of sales charts with an iron grip since its release in late February.

The Good...

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The first way in which Salt and Sacrifice succeeds is that James Silva remains really fucking good at designing and executing compelling 2D combat. If you’ve played any of his previous games, there’s not really much more I need to say about it. The controls are fast and responsive, with a high skill ceiling and some stylish flair here and there. Speaking to this last, attacking in mid-air with a melee weapon will keep you suspended there for the duration of your combo—something which occasionally still throws me off, but shows the game’s roots in the high-flying, wire-fu inspired combat of Dishwasher.

There’s also about a dozen weapon types to try out, though the game’s systems don’t really encourage you to do so (more on this later). And even beyond weapon types, Silva has ripped another page out of the Dark Souls playbook and added weapon arts, so that most of them have some sort of magic spell attached, further differentiating things (some weapons have as many as three different spells on them, executed by holding L2 and hitting either the square, triangle, or circle button).

Another place where the game shines is level design. Rather than one large interconnected world, there are instead five fairly large zones to warp to, not unlike the archstones of Demon’s Souls. Each one is interesting to explore, with lots of shortcuts to unlock and secrets to find. The game does employ some Metroidvania-like elements to keep you locked out of little pieces of levels. E.g., a grappling hook will allow you to reach some previously unreachable areas, and likewise with a glider that will let you ride wind currents/updrafts.

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For the most part the platforming aspects feel pretty good, though one thing I could never get over is that running before you leap does not increase the distance jumped at all, which just seems wrong. You get exactly the same horizontal distance jumped from a walk as you do out of a run, so the latter ends up feeling like the jump is inexplicably killing your momentum.

Probably the most unexpected aspect of the core gameplay in Salt and Sacrifice in relation to its predecessor is just how much Monster Hunter DNA it has. Though there are a few stand-alone, single-fight bosses, most of the “boss” encounters in Salt and Sacrifice are “mages,” which can be continually re-hunted. This is, in fact, basically the game’s central story conceit, that you have committed some crime and have been sentenced to hunt mages for the remainder of your days. And just like Monster Hunter, you can keep hunting mages in order to gain crafting materials, so that you can then make a funny hat out of their skin (or weapons, or rings or amulets, or other armor, etc).

Whoda thunk that James Silva’s latest effort would borrow so much from Monster Hunter?
Whoda thunk that James Silva’s latest effort would borrow so much from Monster Hunter?

It's in the context of these mage hunts that the game being split into discreet zones makes more sense. Hunting a mage consists of finding it, doing enough damage to it to make it run away, and then following it throughout the level to finally deliver the finishing blow. If you’re “tracking” a particular mage, an ethereal sort of trail will point the direction you need to go. But there will usually be other mages on the level, any of which you can follow and kill, though all but your target you’ll have to find without the benefit of tracking.

A neat aspect of the game is that the mages are hostile to one another, and to any other random mobs on the level. I’ve seen as many as four mages on-screen at once. It’s fun to sit back and watch them pound on each other (not unlike Monster Hunter’s “turf wars”), with any luck dispatching each other’s summoned minions for you. After they’ve beat each other up a bit, you can swoop in and finish the job.

There’s also full online multiplayer support this time around. Salt and Sanctuary only had local couch coop, but this one has the full shebang of online connectivity. But I can’t really tell you much about that because I’ve played the entire game on my own, offline. All I can say from looking at some reviews is that it seems to work fine and can be pretty fun to play through with a friend.

...the Inexplicable...

But for all that its core gameplay remains compelling and fun, there are some core design decisions in Salt and Sacrifice that just don’t make much sense, garnering little benefit while actively hurting the player experience.

The first of these is one I’ve already alluded to: the skill tree. Unlike its explicit inspiration—From Software’s Souls games—Salt and Sacrifice employs a skill tree to level up (think Path of Exile, though not that ridiculously large). The key thing to realize here is that the skill tree is not only the source of random stat nodes (e.g., a node might give you a point in strength or dex), but also the source of unlocking the ability to use a weapon type at all.

Each weapon within a type is ranked from class 0 to class 5. Any character can use a class 0 weapon, but for ranks 1–5, you need to unlock the appropriate node on the skill tree in order to use the weapon. The effect of this is that experimenting with different weapons is actively discouraged.

E.g., I started out with a Sage character, who uses staves by default. I was interested in at least trying spears and glaives, but I would have had to sink levels into unlocking the right nodes to do so (and in fact, there are no class 0 glaives in the game!). Those were levels I needed not only to get staves to class 5, but also to get my light armor to class 5 (yes, you also need skill nodes to wear armor) and to boost core stats, like health and mana. The end result was that I never experimented with other weapon types, even though I wanted to. I find it hard to justify this as a design decision.

Another frankly bizarre design choice, given how much the game leans on a Monster Hunter-like concept of re-hunting mages over and over, is that there’s very little scope for actually targeting a mage you want to hunt. Each mage gets two missions in which you’re targeting them (a “named” and “nameless” version, in the game’s parlance), complete with the previously described tracking mechanism. But once you complete those two hunts, you can’t do them again. That means that if you need materials from some particular mage, you either have to head out into the world and simply hope to run into the right one (there are about 20 of them), or await the daily reset of randomized mage hunts that happens at midnight GMT... and in that case, even if you do get an instance of the one you’re looking for, it can once again only be done once.

I really don’t get this. Imagine a Monster Hunter game in which you can’t pick which monster you’re fighting. It’s just... bizarre.

Lastly, here’s one everyone hates: your health and mana potions are not bottomless. Like Bloodborne or Demon’s Souls, you have to gather or buy these sort of restorative consumables, putting you in a position where you can run out over many attempts fighting a difficult boss/mage. Even From Software stopped doing this, because literally no one enjoys sitting around farming for potions. It made me use them less than I wanted to, simply because I didn’t want to be put in a position of needing to waste time farming the damned things.

...and the Lazy.

And then there are all the little UI annoyances that simply seem to reflect a lack of any careful thought or simple laziness, like Silva put something together early on that worked, but was not ideal, and never bothered to go back and refine it in any way.

One simple example is that at the title screen, the top and always default option is “New Game,” while “Continue” is the second option, despite the fact that 95% of the time you’ll be continuing your game rather than starting a brand new one. I can’t tell you the number of times that I hit “New Game” by accident on startup. It’s a small thing, but it’s emblematic of the lack of thought that was put into this kind of thing throughout the game.

Another thing is the display for the skill tree. Check out the screenshot below.

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Why exactly are you forced to view this giant skill tree through a tiny, claustrophobic little box that takes up less than a quarter of your screen’s real estate? I have no idea! And while the “zoom” option will zoom out, it won’t increase the amount of area on the screen that the skill tree is covering, just make all the icons so tiny that you can’t actually read them.

And then there’s the fact that there is no way at all to sort your items and equipment. The stuff in your inventory is not organized alphabetically, or by order of discovery, or by weapon type, or by any other criteria that I can discern. I can only surmise that it’s sorted by some sort of hidden item number.

Even the equipment box is little help in keeping your equipment organized. Because I knew that I was somewhat locked into staves due to the game’s skill tree system, I started putting weapons of all other weapon types in my stash, which at least made it easier to hide the irrelevant options when equipping things. But when you go to the screen to upgrade equipment, all the stuff you’ve stored away in your box shows up again anyway, so that it’s hard to get a handle on the ones you care about in a sea of stuff you’re trying to ignore.

I’ll mention one other thing that grinds my gears. Not only is there “salt” in this game, which is used exclusively to level up, but also “silver,” which is used to buy consumables and some armor and weapons from various NPCs. Salt behaves just likes souls do in the Souls games: die and you’ll have to reach your bloodstain to reclaim it. But silver is different: it is halved every time you die, and there is no recovering it... meaning that you can go from 1,600 silver to 100 in just four deaths.

Now, there is in fact a way around this. One NPC will sell “bags of silver” at a 20% markup. E.g., you can buy a bag of 1,000 silver for 1,200. These “bags” behave like portable souls in the Souls games: you keep them even when you die. For this reason, after every hunt you should really be spending all your silver, either on items you want, or “banking” it with these slightly marked-up bags... but the game doesn’t tell you that. I literally played about twenty hours of the game before I realized this was happening, and hence had lost basically all my silver through the first half of my playtime. Not only does this seem like an unnecessarily cruel sort of system, but the importance of this buying bags of silver mechanic just isn’t made nearly as plain to the player as it should be. Given how quickly and easily you can end up losing all your money, it isn't a mechanic the game should allow you to miss.

Conclusion

Salt and Sacrifice is an enjoyable game to play, but in 2022, it is no longer a novelty: Souls-likes have become a cottage industry, and it takes a lot more these days to stand out from the crowd. Salt and Sacrifice, I’m sorry to say, simply doesn’t stand out. I mean, it’s fine. It’s a 7/10 sort of game. For twenty bucks, you could do a lot worse. If you enjoy Souls-like games generally, and James Silva’s previous efforts specifically, you’ll probably still dig it.

But where The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile left me impressed with the care and thought that was put into its design, Salt and Sacrifice at times left me feeling like there was little thought involved at all, that old systems had inexplicably been carried forward without any awareness of how the genre has evolved or any careful examination as to how it all fit together, like an early access title that had “version 1.0” slapped on it before it was really done. And that feeling of being plagued by poor design decisions and design oversights is what makes Salt and Sacrifice merely a good game, rather than a great one.

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Putting the “lite” in “Roguelite”

Rogue Legacy 2 has just hit version 1.0, and I knew I wanted to post something about it for the release. I’m not sure I would call what follows a “review,” if only because I love this game so much that I find it hard to be all that objective about it (for the record: I’ve logged 174 hours on the early access version of the game). But hopefully someone out there will find it informative and be encouraged to give it a shot.

Background: RL1 and RL2 early access

In the lead-up to RL2’s 1.0 release, I noticed some people claiming that the first Rogue Legacy actually *invented* the Roguelite genre when it was released in 2013. Strictly speaking, I don’t think this is actually true, as the “lite” elements of Roguelites had been around for some time, even if in a somewhat embryonic and diffuse form compared to the fairly distinct genre we see today. However, it appears that Cellar Door Games may, in fact, have been the first game developer to coin the term.

RL1’s Steam page description
RL1’s Steam page description

Regardless, what is not in dispute is that the original Rogue Legacy helped to define and popularize the “lite” elements in Roguelites. By putting a heavy focus on upgrading your character between runs, it injected an element of character-building power fantasy into the more established Roguelike genre, which eschewed permanent upgrades in favor of a uniform starting point for each run.

I liked RL1 a lot. I logged 40.7 hours on it on Steam, maxing out the upgrades and clearing multiple NG+ cycles, and also bought the game on Playstation. In 2013, it really was something new. Games like Dead Cells and Hades were not yet a thought. I just knew that I really enjoyed the idea of continuing to power up my character on the way to finally clearing the game. It was fun to keep starting new runs knowing that I was not only getting better at playing the game myself, but was also entering with a continually more capable character.

Fast-forward to August 2020, when Cellar Door Games released an early build of Rogue Legacy 2 on Steam Early Access. The global pandemic had properly begun about five months earlier; weird to think that the game’s entire front-facing development cycle took place during COVID. Anyway, GB did an “Unfinished” and other games press did their own coverage.

This was the extent of the castle upgrades in the initial early access release of RL2. Not awesome!
This was the extent of the castle upgrades in the initial early access release of RL2. Not awesome!

Though the core gameplay felt pretty good even at this early stage, the game at this point was, quite honestly, very content-light and thin. It had only one “biome,” a small and uninteresting bunch of upgrades, few classes, and (to the best of my recollection) no completed bosses to fight. There are some early access games that are first released at a point where they’re already worth their asking price; RL2 was not one of them. At the initial early access price of $15.99 (which has since increased to reflect a more complete product—it’s now $24.99), you were investing on the promise of the game rather than what was actually there. I think I’d go so far as to say that Cellar Door Games probably made a mistake by releasing it as early as they did; the game might have earned better word of mouth if they had waited a few more months.

But as time went by and regular large content updates happened, the game rather quickly surpassed its predecessor in virtually every way imaginable. Let’s talk about how, shall we?

Character classes

Classes are way more differentiated this time around
Classes are way more differentiated this time around

In RL1, classes seemed like a big part of the game, but in retrospect, they just weren’t all that well-differentiated. All carried the same basic sword melee weapon, and while each had a special ability, the differences were mainly in the stats; some had more HP but less mana, others had a high chance to critically strike but had low base attack power, etc. After a while a few classes seemed to simply surpass others, and runs could start to feel pretty same-y.

The big thing that RL2 does to improve on the class system is that it gives each class an entirely unique starting weapon, along with other special properties and abilities unique to that class. Sure, there’s still the basic knight with the same sword from RL1. But now there’s also:

  • Valkyries (my personal favorite), whose spears can be aimed up or down in addition to forward, and can be quickly twirled to reflect incoming projectiles;
  • Barbarians, who use huge axes for massive damage and can also yell to temporarily freeze enemies in place;
  • Rangers, who use a bow that can be aimed in any direction, and can create platforms (on a short cooldown) to fire from wherever they wish;
  • Bards, who play lutes that send out musical notes a short distance away that float in place, dealing periodic damage to enemies in range;
  • Boxers, who build combos with quick punches that increase in damage with every hit.

And that’s just five of the fifteen classes. Each one has a unique playstyle, rather than simply being a different balance of core stats. The effect is, of course, that RL2 is much, much more replayable than RL1 ever was, simply due to the sheer variety of gameplay styles on offer.

Emphasis on the “lite”

RL2 is also just a much bigger game than its predecessor in just about every way you can conceive of. In addition to having more classes that are more meaningful in their differences, it has six “biomes,” each with its own boss, next to the original’s four, more weapons and armor to buy and upgrade, more “runes” to unlock that do things like add lifesteal to your attacks or give you more dashes or jumps (you can eventually jump some ridiculous number of times, something like twelve(!) before hitting the ground), more permanent “castle” upgrades to buy, and even a special currency that will allow you to keep upgrading your stats beyond their normal limits.

That's better!
That's better!

The fact that this game just has so many friggin’ permanent upgrades to buy is why, as I noted at the outset, I put 174 hours into the early access version of the game and reached the pre-release cap of NG+30. Yes, you read that correctly. NG+30. And I still have stuff to upgrade. Moreover, in late November I did some calculations that suggest to me that the 1.0 release may allow you to go all the way to NG+100 if you’d like (obviously I can’t confirm this at the moment, ask me again in a few months XD). Considering each run will usually take multiple hours to complete, that is an awful lot of game.

Maybe that simply sounds exhausting to you, and you’d prefer to just clear the game once or twice and move on. Which is fine! But if you’re the kind of person who likes to keep seeing the numbers go up, then I don’t think you need to worry that you’re going to eventually run out of upgrades to buy. The vast majority of players will have moved on to another game long before they’re in danger of maxing everything out. Hence one of the other problems I ran into with RL1—that I had bought all the upgrades and had achieved basically all there was to achieve in forty hours—really isn’t an issue with the sequel.

Play it your way (especially with regard to difficulty)

I could tell you that RL2 has no formal difficult settings, and while that would technically be true, it’s also grossly disingenuous. The truth is that RL2 has all sorts of granular settings that let you play the game the way you want to play it, to get the experience you want to have.

The most obvious of these is the “House Rules.” These are settings that will let you:

  • Increase (up to 200%) or decrease (down to 50%) enemy health;
  • Increase (up to 200%) or decrease (down to 50%) enemy damage;
  • Slow down time while aiming projectiles (like spells, arrows, or bullets);
  • Enable flight;
  • Disable enemy contact damage.
Look, I’m bad at this game, I just want to see the numbers go up, OK?
Look, I’m bad at this game, I just want to see the numbers go up, OK?

Enabling any or all of these options will not disable achievements or progression. In fact, there’s even an achievement for altering the House Rules for the first time. So if you’re someone who worries that the game’s difficulty is going to be a little too brutal for you, well, worry not. You can make it as easy (or as difficult) as you’d like.

And these are far from the only options that alter the difficulty and experience of a run.

  • You can add “burdens” that do things like increase enemy projectile speed, or give enemies life steal, or make the world bigger, or make hazards/spikes deal more damage.
  • You can toggle on “Prime” versions of bosses that have new tricks up their sleeves; the first boss, for instance, goes from firing straight-shot projectiles to projectiles that home in on you.
  • Character “traits,” randomized upon picking a new character/heir after dying (another returning feature from RL1), will do all sorts of wacky things, with the more negative ones balanced by giving you a gold bonus—stuff like turning the screen upside down, or making the screen temporarily go black every time you take damage, or turning you into a “pacifist” that cannot directly attack enemies at all.
Wait, I’ve changed my mind. Let’s make the game harder in some interesting ways.
Wait, I’ve changed my mind. Let’s make the game harder in some interesting ways.

And there are other game mechanics that I haven’t even mentioned yet, there’s just too much to talk about with this game, and I don’t have all day to write this thing. One other important mechanic: the relic/resolve system, which allows you to pick up powerful relics each run (they are lost upon death) at the cost of maximum health, depending on how high your “resolve” is. These do things like add a fire damage-over-time to your attacks, to changing your one big jump into three smaller ones, to adding more time to your invincibility window after taking damage, and even more esoteric things.

What a sequel should be

All in all, RL2 basically just completely blows RL1 out of the water. The amazing thing is that this really isn’t a knock on the first game so much as it is a glowing endorsement of the sequel, which truly seems to have surpassed and enlarged upon its predecessor in every way that matters. Hell, I didn’t even talk at all about the overhauled “2.5D” art style, which is pretty gorgeous. Nor did I really spend any time spelling out the simple fact that the controls and movement/core gameplay feel tight and precise and just plain good all-around. Better than merely good, really. And though I’m not going to talk any more about that, it’s only because such things are so hard to define and describe, anyway. You’ll just have to give it a whirl and test out the game feel for yourself (and meanwhile we’ll all leave Jeff G to test the mouth feel).

I saw in a recent article that one of RL1’s original two developers has said that he no longer bothers playing the first game at all anymore, and it’s easy to see why. Once you start playing RL2, it’s hard to go back. The Roguelite genre has really exploded and gone some places in nine years, and Cellar Door Games has risen to the task of creating a game that can compete with the best examples of the genre. I only hope the game finds the audience it deserves.

The game’s on sale for 20% off ($19.99) on Steam through May 9. If you’ve ever liked a Roguelite before, I think I can pretty safely say that this one is going to be money well-spent.

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Fan-made HD remaster of Resident Evil 4 now completed after eight years

Possibly the most impressive fan remaster of a video game to date?

Way back in February 2014, two RE4 superfans—Albert Marin and Cris Morales—officially began work on their ambitious RE4 re-texture project, making their first blog post about their intentions. It was originally meant to be purely an HD texture pack.

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But in the course of eight years—in which Albert and Cris toiled away for more than 13,000 hours on the project and spent around $15,000 of their own money (this was later made up by around $16,000 worth of donations) for hardware, software, textures, programming support, and travel—the visual overhaul came to include not only textures, but 3D edits, lighting, UI, collision detection, cinematics, and fixes for long-standing bugs introduced into the game’s many ports. The final result is a stunning remaster of a classic game that touches every aspect of its visuals. If there is a more impressive fan-made remaster of a video game, I do not know it. Below is the official release trailer.

One thing that stood out about this project immediately was that Albert was determined to locate as many of the original source locations for the game’s textures as possible. He began doing research as early as 2008 into where Capcom had done their source photography. Luckily, about half of these locations ended up being in his home country of Spain (which is where the game itself is set), while most of the rest were in Wales. He would spend about $1,200 travelling to eight source locations in Europe.

Albert Marin standing in front of an archway in Raglan Castle in Wales. A shot of RE4’s village church, which was based on this castle, is on left.
Albert Marin standing in front of an archway in Raglan Castle in Wales. A shot of RE4’s village church, which was based on this castle, is on left.

But how he located all this stuff, I have no idea. He even found a random chunk of rock in Segovia that was used for one of the game’s mine sections:

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Further, a lot of RE4’s textures actually came from multiple sources, such as this door, which borrowed elements from Seville, London, and Rome:

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Or how about these doors from Seville and Toledo?

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After Albert located all this source material and took his own photographs, it was time to start doing the actual modding. This included, of course, re-creating a lot of textures from scratch, in cases where the original was unknown or destroyed (Albert recalls seeing the destruction of a random wall used in the game in his home town of Barcelona).

Their first release came fairly quickly (less than a year later), on Christmas day 2014. It included a re-texturing of only the “Village” portions of the game, i.e., chapters 1 and 2. Even this early release was a massive improvement:

Little did these two intrepid modders know at the time that they would end up returning to this section years later and make it look even better!

Their next release of the “Castle” section (chapters 3 and 4) would not happen for more than two years, in late March 2017. Unlike the original Village release, this one included 3D, lighting, and effects enhancements, things that Albert had learned to do along the way. In an email exchange I had with him, Albert was keen to credit the help of some outside programmers:

I got the help of some programmers who created tools based on info I discovered when hex editing certain files. Without these tools I wouldn’t have been able to edit lights, effects and other files so easily. The programmers also found out how to edit some other files that I had no idea how to even locate (collision data, for example).

All of this led to an even more impressive visual upgrade than the previous one:

It was around this time that Cris was forced to stop active work on the project due to family and work commitments, though he remained administrator of the project’s website. Albert continued on alone.

About a year later, in July 2018, the project’s penultimate release was posted, which not only included the final “Island” section of the game (chapter 5), but further 3D and lighting tweaks to earlier releases (especially the early “Village” release), and also work on the “Separate Ways,” “Assignment Ada,” and “Mercenaries” modes of the game.

This release touched almost every visual aspect of the game, and for someone who is less of perfectionist than Albert is, this might have served quite well as the project’s final release after more than four long years of work. Albert, however, was not content. He knew he could make it look even better with things like edits to enemies and NPCs, further refinements to weapons and items, and fixes to bugs in the PC port.

And so over the next three-and-a-half years, Albert did another complete pass through the game, using everything he had learned during his previous years of work to make it all look as good as he possibly could while staying faithful to the feel of the original... including even remastering the 512×336 cinematics. And besides this, he hired other programmers to do things like fix a bug that removed transparency from the item pickup screen:

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...restore depth-of-field effects that had appeared in the Gamecube and Wii versions, but had been removed from the other ports:

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...and add support for ultrawide resolutions (I'm sure he was thinking of @rorie):

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...plus many more improvements and fixes than is practical to list here.

And now the whole thing is out, and wow, let me tell you, it is pretty friggin’ great!

The thing I particularly appreciate about the work done on this project is that Albert and Cris tried very hard to stay faithful to the feel of the original game with their upgrades. As Albert said previously in interviews:

One of the main goals of this project is to be faithful to the original. And here is where subjectivity plays an important role: Low resolution textures leave a lot to the imagination, and you know... every person’s imagination is different! Sometimes we receive complaints even when we use the exact same texture, but in HD resolutions, because the low-res textures looked like they were dirtier or muddy or something like that. But the HD re-creation looked too clean in comparison, depending on what the person interpreted when looking at the low-res surface. ... [So] we use our aesthetic judgment and try to avoid making anything stand out too much. We try to avoid evoking reactions of “Hey! This is new!”

As a result, playing this remaster makes me feel a bit like I’ve been transported back in time to 2005. I mean, I know in my head that the game has never looked this good. But in my heart, and through the rose-tinted glasses of my memory, I remember RE4 looking amazing back when it first released. And it did! But it was “amazing” for a letterboxed Gamecube game in 2005. This remaster retains all of the original’s feel while creating a whole new level of fidelity.

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Thankfully, this project hasn’t run into the legal problems and cease-and-desist orders that some fan remasters experience. A lot of that probably has to do with the fact that it isn’t a stand-alone product; you need to buy the Steam version of the game for it to work, so ultimately it’s just a massive mod, released for free. Given this, Capcom has given the project their official blessing, probably because they know that it can only help the game’s sales.

Maybe the one pity about this whole project is that it sounds unlikely that Capcom will integrate all these upgrades to future ports of the game. In an email exchange I had with Albert, he cited copyright issues as a major hurdle:

I’m afraid Capcom can’t integrate it because they’d need to be sure each and every texture source image has no copyright problems and this is almost impossible to track for them.

But even if I won’t ever be able to play this remastered version on my Playstation, having it on Steam is pretty good, especially considering that the upcoming Steam Deck should allow for a portable option (pending a compatibility check).

In the meantime, there continue to be persistent rumors about an official RE4 remake in the style of the recent, successful RE2 and RE3 remakes, though it remains unannounced. But Albert isn’t worried that a possible remake would steal the HD project’s thunder:

The remakes are really different games. Even now, the original Resident Evil 2 & 3 receive their own mods and visual improvements (Resident Evil 2 and 3 HD Seamless Project). They are different and complementary experiences. Just think about any Hollywood remake. Most of them don’t hurt the original movie, and they are alternative visions of the older title.

He’s right about that. The long-rumored remake may end up being a good game, but the original isn’t going anywhere. It is remembered too fondly by too many people, myself very much among them. In fact, I would be very surprised indeed if a remake could fully recapture the magic of the original. Some games are greater than the sum of their parts, and this game is surely one of them.

Resident Evil 4 has long held a special place in my heart. Playing it for the first time in 2005, when I was still in college, was practically a religious experience for me. It is easily one of my top five favorite games ever, and it still holds up: it’s one of the very few titles more than fifteen years old that I still go back and play regularly. As such, I’ve been anticipating playing the final version of this lovingly crafted remaster about as much as a brand spanking new triple-A title.

So far, it hasn’t disappointed.

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With many thanks to Albert and Cris for their many years of hard work, there’s never been a better time to play Resident Evil 4. Download the completed mod here:

https://www.re4hd.com/?page_id=9303

Note: All images are courtesy of Albert Marin. My sources were the official project website, a 2018 interview with TooFarGone, a 2021 interview with The Verge, and personal email correspondence with Albert.

P.S. Given all his years of work on this, I’ll forgive Albert for preferring the Blacktail to the Red9, even though the Red9 is objectively the better gun. :-P

EDIT: See the 18th post in this thread for a tour through the new easter egg secret area that the modders added toward the end of the Village section!

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I just got screwed on an elusive target in a pretty hilarious way

My only regret is that I don't have video. I was playing on PS5, which I think even has a function to capture the previous 30 seconds if you're on the ball about it. But the whole thing was so astonishing that it never occurred to me.

I was playing the current double-target on Sapienza. I believe the Congressman target was an old target from the first game, and that the second target was added to spice everything up.

New Target on left, old target on right.
New Target on left, old target on right.

I wanted to use the opportunity to play with one of the game's significant new toys: the Sieker, a gun that fires an emetic dart. I guess this thing actually got introduced in Hitman 2, but that's the one out of the three games that I didn't play all that much (after maxing mastery on every map in the first game and not having it carry over, I didn't feel like doing mastery grinding again, so I pretty much only played all the H2 levels once or twice and then stopped).

Anyway, it seemed to me that the Sieker would be a pretty hack way to get easy Silent Assassin ratings on these missions: just shoot the targets with a dart when everybody's back is turned, then follow them to the bathroom, murder them, hide the body, and Bob's your uncle.

This should simplify my hits!
This should simplify my hits!

So I did some test runs. It took me a bit to figure out that the darts have a big arc on them, so you have to aim above your target in some cases and can't be too far away. But eventually I got to where I was hitting the guy outside a cafe (the new target) consistently while hidden behind stuff. Then I'd follow him and choke him out--without actually killing him, so I could practice on the other guy.

The new target starts off the level hanging out around here.
The new target starts off the level hanging out around here.

Then I did a couple of runs on the Congressman inside the mansion. That wasn't so bad, either. He had a few bodyguards following him around, but all I had to do, again, was wait until everyone's back was to me, then shoot the dart into the Congressman, and once again follow him to bathroom. I did that twice, and finally decided I was good to go for real.

So, I dart guy #1. I follow him to the bathroom, where I choke him out, and then I snap his neck. No going back now. I go and get my mansion guard costume and head to the mansion, to the library room on the first floor where I'd practiced darting the Congressman. I wait a bit.

Here's the library where I was trying to off this jerk.
Here's the library where I was trying to off this jerk.

Finally my target walks in with his bodyguards. After pausing for a moment, he walks further into the room, and his guards start to follow. I'm behind them all. I pull out my Sieker, fire, and hit. I even hear a line of dialogue about needing to go to the bathroom or something like that. But the guy doesn't really pause like they usually do when they get hit with an emetic. He just keeps walking slowly in the direction he'd been going. And then...

He flies up into the sky.

I mean, he just suddenly seemed to rapidly float upwards, through the ceiling. I couldn't see him anywhere. He was just gone. WTF?

Then I notice his guards are moving. Oh, right. They're programmed to follow the guy around wherever he goes. So I decide to follow them, hoping they'll take me to wherever he ended up. That's what I do, and eventually they lead me to the roof of the mansion, just above the spot where my target had flown straight upwards. Then they sit there staring into space, doing nothing.

I waited for a few minutes. Nothing happened. I tried looking up at the sky to see if I could see him stuck way up in space somewhere. No dice. The target menu still read as one killed and one still alive... even though the second target was now completely out of my reach, through no fault of my own.

So in the end, I had to just quit and fail the target. I don't think there was any fixing that. I had locked in the first target, so there's no way to attempt it again. The game screwed me good and proper.

But... eh? I guess I don't really care? I had already gotten enough Silent Assassin ratings on elusive targets in past games to earn me all the rewards I could get from it (not the Suit Only Silent Assassin ones, but the standard SA rating challenges), so it wasn't really for anything other than pride. And I now have a story to tell about a really dumb bug. C'est la vie.

* * * * *

FWIW I did a quick search and came upon this old video of somebody actually engineering 47 flying off the map. Based on how he got this glitch to work, I'm guessing I must have done something similar unintentionally with this NPC--interrupted an action of his at just the wrong time.

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The design schizophrenia of Nioh and my hopes for Nioh 2

I really liked the first Nioh, so much so that I logged 640 hours and 34 minutes playing it. It was a unique combination of combat that split the difference between Ninja Gaiden and From Software's Souls titles, plus a Diablo-like color-coded loot system, all of which are things I like. I've already pre-ordered the special edition of Nioh 2 (out on March 13, about a month away as I write this), and I don't often pre-order games anymore.

But I don't think there's any denying that Nioh had some weirdly inconsistent design, especially when it came to loot. Not only did some of its systems seem to clash internally, but in one case Team Ninja actually tried to fundamentally shift the design with the release of an update/DLC, only to reverse course with a later one. They just couldn't seem to decide whether they wanted Nioh to be a loot game for realsies, or an action game with some loot elements to it.

More loot, more problems

Let's start with this: efficient loot grinding in Nioh. For every loot game out there that you can think of, there are guides that instruct you in the quickest methods to get the best gear. Most loot games share a couple of fundamental design philosophies. First, the way to get better gear should always be primarily to engage in the core combat/gameplay. Second, it shouldn't be too easy to get absolutely optimal gear, otherwise you end the chase/grind prematurely.

Nioh did neither of these things, and the reason was its extremely generous "forging" and "reforging" systems.

Reforging in action.
Reforging in action.

First, almost every piece of equipment in the game could be "forged" at the blacksmith at the highest rarity tier simply by using some materials gotten by breaking down other items (in some cases you need a "Smithing Text," i.e. blueprint for the item). Second, each weapon or armor had something like six randomized properties (max) which each had a randomized numerical value, e.g. Close Combat Damage +10%-25%. "Reforging" allowed you to re-roll each individual property on any given piece of equipment one by one with no limits and no accelerating cost. Coupled with a little save-scumming, it was a fairly simple matter to keep re-rolling one property at a time on a piece of equipment until it was ideal, back up your save, and move on to the next, until you had the ideal piece of equipment.

What this meant was, first, that the end-game player taking the path of least resistance to good equipment spent a lot of time initially in the reforging screen re-rolling properties rather than actually playing the game. Second, it was a relatively quick and simple matter to get absolutely ideal equipment, making subsequent loot drops literally meaningless, because they could never be better than the item you'd spent time crafting. At that point, Nioh basically ceased to be a loot game at all.

Compare this to Diablo 3, which only allows you to re-roll a single property on a piece of equipment, and every time you do it, the cost on the next attempt goes up. Such a system gives you some scope to customize, but keeps you going back to playing the game to get a better item.

Now, to be clear, it isn't inherently bad to have a system where you can simply get ideal equipment and stop needing to improve it. Not every game needs to be a loot game with a never-ending chase for a marginally better weapon and a marginally better hat. There are plenty of action games (like Ninja Gaiden, for one!) that have a discrete number of new weapons or tools or whatever to unlock, and once you have them, all that's left is to keep re-playing the game as long as it amuses you.

But Nioh's implementation of loot was... a little bizarre. It's like they decided at some point in the game's absurdly long and troubled 13-year development cycle (it began development in 2004 and was released in 2017) that players seemed to like color-coded loot nowadays, and maybe they should include that, but didn't really understand the design principles behind modern loot games and just left things kind of conflicted and half-assed, design-wise.

You're right, let's change it... actually, no, wait, let's change it back!

Team Ninja peaked in its design indecisiveness/schizophrenia between the second and third of three DLC expansions. In the second expansion, Defiant Honor, they introduced a whole new tier of equipment: "ethereals," color-coded orange, which were above the previously highest tier of equipment, "divines," color-coded green.

An ethereal weapon. The properties with stars next to them can't be reforged; neither can the randomized set bonus.
An ethereal weapon. The properties with stars next to them can't be reforged; neither can the randomized set bonus.

Ethereals were different because they couldn't be forged, could contain properties that couldn't be reforged, and also had set bonuses that could not be acquired by fighting player "revenants," which was another way that players had been "trading" good equipment back and forth (actually, it's all even more complicated than this, but you get the picture). The clear design intent of ethereals was for Nioh to become more of a "real" loot game, in which you spend less of your time at the blacksmith and more time actually fighting enemies to get better stuff.

Then the third and final DLC came around, Bloodshed's End, which introduced a new system of "defiling" equipment in order to turn non-ethereal items into ethereal ones... essentially reversing the design intent of the previous DLC, and again allowing players to get their ideal equipment fairly easily and quickly.

Difficulty with difficulties

Then there was the structure of Nioh's difficulty levels, and the structure of difficulty per stage/mission within each setting. It is, of course, hardly unusual for action games to have multiple difficulty settings that are meant to be played consecutively (see, again, Ninja Gaiden). Historically, this hasn't been unusual for loot games, either: Diablo 2 had Normal, Nightmare, and Hell, which were meant to played one-after-another, in order to pad out the content before the end game. But while Diablo 3 started this same way, eventually Blizzard jettisoned the idea of multiple story mode playthroughs as too repetitive, and replaced it with end-game "torment levels" meant to extend the loot grind while allowing players to play the content they wanted, rather than the story mode endlessly. Most loot games these days follow this same sort of philosophy, from Borderlands 3 to The Division 2, etc.

Team Ninja didn't seem to get the memo on that. The game started out with two levels of difficulty, meant to be played consecutively, but they added three more, one with each of its three DLCs, meaning that by the end there were five discrete levels of difficulty, all of which had to be played all the way through in order to reach "end game."

Nioh's five difficulty settings
Nioh's five difficulty settings

Moreover, when you did reach the end, there was no mechanic to even out the difficulty of the individual missions/stages in order to make them equally viable end-game content. E.g., each mission had a set enemy level of anywhere between 1 and 1,220, and they stayed that way... meaning that in grinding for the best equipment in end-game, you were stuck playing the few missions in the final act/region that were high-level enough to drop worthwhile stuff, while ignoring most of the rest of the missions, limiting end-game variety (the "Abyss" mode addressed some of this, but had its own problems... I won't get into that here).

Again, the structure of Nioh's difficulty isn't inherently bad, but it doesn't gel particularly well with a loot game. I found the five separate difficulty levels bearable because I was playing them as the DLC came out, months apart. But as a new player, I think I would have been bored silly if I had needed to play the story through five times in a row before I could start to think about finalizing my equipment.

Maybe Nioh 2 will do this stuff better?

In short: Nioh doesn't actually need to be a loot game at all, the gameplay is strong enough that I think it would still be an excellent game even if the color-coded loot aspect of it was stripped out. But if you are going to have a system like that (and Nioh 2 so far looks like it emphasizes loot as much as its predecessor did), it would be nice if some of the other systems design choices complemented it a little better.

Probably my most desired design change in Nioh 2 as far as end-game goes is a final difficulty setting which evens out the levels of all the missions, so that every mission from the first to the last can have both an appropriate level of difficulty and appropriately rewarding loot drops for end-game players. Games like Diablo 3 have been doing this for a long time. It means you can grind on the content you want to grind on, without being restricted to playing the same few stages over and over again because they're the only challenging ones/they're the only ones that reward you with the best equipment.

Ideally, I'd also like to see fewer discrete consecutive difficulty settings. Five is just too many. It splits the playerbase for co-op and gets tedious besides. If the first suggestion above is taken, you can play the story through as many times as you want with an appropriate level of challenge, without being forced to.

Lastly, I'd like to see reforging in particular become more limited, simply so that I can continue to be excited by all that colored loot that keeps dropping, rather than knowing that whatever shiny new item has just dropped can't possibly be better than the one I've already got, because I spent hours save-scumming my current equipment to where nothing else can possibly beat it.

Ironically for me, the concerns I've laid out above are the only things that the preview coverage of Nioh 2 thus far doesn't seem to address. It shows new weapons, new enemies, new environments, and new mechanics, but there has been no information at all about how loot/crafting may have changed, or possible changes to levels of difficulty. I already know I'll like Nioh 2's core gameplay, and don't really need to see any more of it to be convinced that I want to play it. It's some of the systems surrounding it that could use some work. I guess we'll just have to wait and see if any of this has been addressed, or if this second game will stick to the same strangely inconsistent design decisions that the first one did. For me, the gameplay is good enough that it won't be a gamebreaker even if there are no substantial changes made to this stuff, but I sure would be pleased if Team Ninja has spent the past three years gaining a better understanding of how modern loot games work and has become more decisive about implementing supporting mechanics and systems.

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