I've been playing a lot of PS3 lately, specifically making my way through the Ratchet & Clank series but not just that, and I think the games hold up extremely well. I don't mind playing games in 720p and while modern games have more refined controls and other conveniences (like better checkpointing) they really don't feel that different from 7th gen games. I compare something like Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction to modern releases and while the game looks a little soft in places and has camera troubles it holds up pretty well overall. Then you think about games that were released 13 years before R&CF:ToD and you're looking at the SNES. It was the same amount of time between Donkey Kong Country and Tools of Destruction as between Tools of Destruction and today. The pace of game innovation has really slowed down.
On the other hand, while the games still feel relatively modern, using the PS3 interface feels like traveling back to another, much clunkier, time. Set aside the controller, which is bad but was really designed in 1999 not 2006, the ribbon menu system is not nearly as snappy or refined as it is on the PS4. It lacks some basic conveniences we take for granted these days like the ability to suspend games temporarily (sorely missed) and to take screenshots (it would be nice.) If you want to sync your trophies to your online profile it's a lengthy process that generally crashes the trophy system if you have a lot of games. Nothing feels reliable and everything lags.
Even worse is trying to manage your digital games, which can be kind of a nightmare. I wanted to download Ratchet: Deadlocked HD from the PSN store (don't judge me, you've done worse) and it was almost impossible to find it. The game is still for sale but apparently I got a free copy when I bought Full Frontal Assault. This meant that I could look the game up on the store but I could not purchase or download it, and because I got it free I didn't have an email receipt telling me when I got it. I ended up having to scroll through my massive download list on the store to find it, which took like 20 minutes because the download list itself is sluggish and unstable. Everything about that process is a pain and there have been times in the past when the store crashed a lot or booted you off PSN (thankfully it seems more stable these days.)
People are still playing these games. The Truetrophies.com site tracks when members win various trophies, and even on something as obscure as the HD re-release of Ratchet: Deadlocked, people have won the first trophy in the game most days this month. That's just among that site's relatively small userbase (about 75,000 people) so there are probably multiple people downloading that game every day from PSN. It shouldn't be that much of a pain.
Something people don't talk about when they talk about backwards compatibility is not just the ability to play old games that you already bought and are still fun, which is great and important, but also the ability to play them on newer hardware with all the bells and whistles. Xbox 360 games often look and run better on the Xbox One X than they do on original hardware, but even if they don't they're much easier to manage (if they're digital copies). The built in cloud saving functions work better and preserve your saves and make them portable better. The Xbox One controller is better than the 360 pad, so you get that as well (you can use a Dual Shock 4 with the PS3 but there are compatibility issues.) Console interfaces have come a longer way than game design in many ways, including built in streaming and much better digital management, and it would be nice to be able to take advantage of that.
One of the nice things that GoG does when it makes older games work on modern PCs is remove a lot of the pain that went along with getting old games to run on PC. You don't need to worry about IRQ ports or Soundblaster drivers, the games mostly just work, and within a much better environment than those clunky old OSs. For pre-seventh gen consoles that didn't matter very much because they had extremely limited operating systems and you almost always just booted to the game disc unless you needed to manage your memory card. But the PS3 era changed that, with digital game libraries and installations of even disc-based games, and those old archaic systems are a pain to use now. Hopefully the PS5 will be an equal leap over the PS4 in terms of operating system functionality with more reliable suspend features and even better streaming/sharing functions. It would be great to be able to take advantage of those features on older games. And that's before we even talk about how nice it would be to be able to pack up my PS3 and not give real estate to it. The games are still good. It's the system that feels old.
Arkham Origins is far from a flawless game. Putting technical issues aside for a moment (though we’ll get back to them shortly) it is a lesser game than Asylum and City in almost every way. Its open world lacks Asylum’s tight design and Metroidvania feel while also lacking City’s visually distinctive and memorable locations. Its story is simple and straightforward, relying on tricks we’ve already seen and offering nothing particularly new or interesting.
The gameplay is fine but is just a rehash of prior Batman titles. The only “innovation” it brings is the shock gloves, which serve mostly to break the balance of the Batman series’ already kind of shallow combat. Why bother learning the various counters and moves when you can just charge up the gloves and hammer on attack and counter to knock everyone down? Especially disappointing is the lack of Riddler trophies, replaced by much less interesting datapacks that you just pick up in the open world, and network nodes that you hit with batarangs (though a couple require very simple puzzles to access.) Obviously constructing hundreds of puzzles requires a lot of development resources, but those puzzles made the open world much more interesting and gave you stuff to do, and scattering busy work collectibles throughout the environment is not a replacement in any way. The boss fights range from frustratingly obtuse to mediocre at best, often feeling like something you’d see at the beginning of the 7th generation rather than its end. There’s nothing even approximating the Mr. Freeze battle from City. The final battle in particular just feels hastily constructed and confusing, though also kind of easy because of how much health you have at that point.
And then there are the technical problems. The game runs very badly, at least on PS3. It looks decent for a late 7th generation game when it’s standing still but there are relatively frequent frame rate drops to what seems like the mid-teens, commands that don’t come out properly (I know I countered attacks that hit me) and all kinds of other problems including frame tearing and audio hitching. I had to go back and watch one short cut scene on Youtube because the game put the camera behind a wall for it, and that was far from my only collision detection issue. This is a game that clearly needed a lot more polish before it was ready for prime time. Even worse, there are apparently still progression blocking bugs in the game that weren’t squashed because the developers were instead focused on DLC. The fact that the game shipped with numerous progression bugs and then never even finished patching them out despite being from a major publisher with plenty of resources is just plain unacceptable. It deserved every bit of the criticism it got on launch and remains a major black eye for Warner Brothers’ games division, which often seems more focused on selling people additional content than giving gamers good value for the base game, though this is the worst offender. I am in no way excusing the buggy mess this game launched as or remains.
All that being said, while it’s a lesser game than Asylum or City, taken on its own merits as a game it’s not bad. The environments can’t match up to City or Asylum’s, but there’s some interesting stuff there nonetheless and some of the missions outside the open world are really well designed, while the open world portion is compact enough that it isn’t too much of a pain to traverse. The hotel mission is a particular highlight and a truly solid section of the game, and the bridge part has its moments too. The plot is extremely predictable but the script and voice acting are pretty good, if you can put aside the fact that Batman comes off as an entitled jerk (which is something that Alfred comments on so it appears to have been intentional.) Some people have complained that the plot doesn’t really fit in with the other Arkham games, and doesn’t really make sense in a number of ways, and these complaints are thoroughly justified, but the story is really just an excuse to serve up some super villains to fight and some stakes for Batman’s quest, and it functions for those purposes. The music is the same movie-score type orchestral stuff that the rest of the series has and does the job of putting the player in a Batman kind of mood. The gameplay doesn’t innovate but doesn’t have to. It has that tried and true Batman combat and stealth, with enough traversal, puzzle solving, and investigation segments to keep things from getting too stale as you alternate pounding thugs in the face from hanging them from those familiar Batman perches (not all of which are gargoyles now.) There are equipment and skill upgrade systems to keep dripping out new toys for you to play with, and a challenge system that gives you special perks for doing simple tasks like finishing a stealth encounter without being seen. That old Batman formula still works fine, even in 2020, let alone in 2013 when the game was released. I’d say that without technical issues it would be a 7 or 7.5 out of 10 game. A solid, but unspectacular, title, and still pretty decent for a licensed game, given the standards established throughout the years.
As for the Cold, Cold, Heart DLC campaign whose development held up the patching of the game…it’s pretty good. It’s substantial, coming in at something like 3-4 hours, and is focused more on unique new areas than the open world (though it does use a small part of the game’s open world map.) The story is a solid take on the Mr. Freeze character, pun intended, and it has a couple new mechanics in the form of frozen vantage points and stalactites you can drop on enemies during stealth sections. The final battle against Freeze is, again, not nearly as good as City’s but the overall package is far better than City’s Harley’s Revenge DLC, and basically on par, hour for hour, with the main game, which is something a lot of DLC packs struggle with. The lack of a substantial open world or an XP/equipment progression system (all your bat toys except the goo grenade are unlocked from the beginning) really brings home how much these Arkham games are just evolutions of the old Beat ‘Em Up formula, and that’s fine by me. $10 for 3-4 hours of brawling action and a well-made, if pedestrian, Mr. Freeze story seems like a reasonable deal. I should note here that I actually paid $10 for the “complete” version of the game on one of those massive PS3 blowout sales on PSN towards the beginning of the PS4 era, so I do understand that if someone paid $60 for this as a new release and had to deal with all the technical issues at launch they might justifiably have a more negative opinion than I do. I’m evaluating the game as it is now, not in the context of release where it was a giant dumpster fire for a number of reasons. I also think that the rest of the season pass content seems light, and Cold Cold Heart is probably not worth $20. Finally, I obviously didn’t play the multiplayer so can’t comment on that.
Arkham Origins is not a game that’s so bad it needs to be forgotten or discarded, and there have been worse games remastered for the 8th generation. It also is a game that could benefit hugely from a remaster because the original version is so shoddy. WB should have gone back and cleaned up the game breaking bugs in the original release and then put out a version with a steady frame rate on consoles and all those other issues fixed, and they had an opportunity to do so with the Return to Arkham collection, which instead smoothed things out on two games that were pretty good to begin with, ignoring the game that needed the most work. Obviously Asylum and City are the far better games, and Origins is the one to skip if you’re going to skip one, but as someone who enjoys playing through a whole series, warts and all, I would have loved a better version of this lesser title, which is not so bad that it deserves to be buried. There are lots of series that include their lesser games in their remaster collections.
I understand that main series developer Rocksteady seems kind of annoyed that WB farmed out their formula to another developer who did what they view as a subpar job on it, and want to claim that there is only a trilogy of Batman games (Asylum, City, and Knight) but that seems kind of petty to me. It’s not like they created the Batman character and adding Origins to Return to Arkham would have given that collection a bit more value, especially considering that the remasters weren’t that great to begin with.
Regardless, I think Origins is still worth playing for Batman fans and fans of the Arkham series if you can get it cheap. Is it a great game? No. Is it a technical mess? Yes. But there’s a fair amount of fun to be had here, with some above average high points. Removed from the clusterf*** of its release and mostly patched up it serves as an okay action adventure title from an era that did those games pretty well. I just wish WB had taken the time to put together a definitive version for the current batch of consoles I’ve played and enjoyed much worse titles, and Origins doesn’t deserve to be buried or wiped from the series history books.
The original Final Fantasy VII was a milestone game for me. It was the biggest game in the world when it was released in 1997, setting my school ablaze with rumors of its production values and 4 disc length and it was hyped on the back of its breathtaking cinematics, which promised a whole new level of fidelity in gaming. It was the reason I got a PlayStation despite being a primarily PC gamer growing up, and though no game could ever live up to the level of hype it had, it came damn close. I loved almost everything about it, from its cyberpunk aesthetic to its wild inventiveness to its epic scope. It wasn’t perfect, of course. The script and characters could have been stronger, especially with the flawed English translation. It was full of minigames, many of which were shallow and/or bad. While I liked big chunks of the game after you leave Midgar it failed to maintain the propulsive plot or focus and became more of a big meandering mess, with somewhat confusing objectives and lots of obscure secrets if you wanted to get the full party and have the full experience.
Despite these flaws, the game holds a special emotional place in my heart and I never planned to go back to it. I don’t tend to replay old 40 hour games anyway, and there’s no way Final Fantasy VII could hold up to my nostalgia, especially with how messy the actual story and characterizations are. I didn’t want an FF VII remake for similar reasons, but once I saw the image of Cloud and his giant sword in an 8th generation Midgar I knew I’d have to play it. The pull to see what could be done with it and modern technology was just too strong (and I’m sure Square Enix was counting on that.) I’ve now reached the credits, had about a month to digest it and…overall I had a fantastic time. It’s one of my favorite gaming experiences of the generation even if I’m not sure how good a game it is. Final Fantasy VII Remake is so soaked in nostalgia and familiarity with the source material that I can’t separate it from my feelings about the original. Would I like this game as much if it didn’t star Cloud, Tifa, Barret and the rest? I’m not sure. I’m not even sure I care. But the game managed to reach me in a way I didn’t expect, even if it, again, couldn’t live up to its own hype.
Final Fantasy VII Remake starts off perfectly, with a mission to destroy one of Midgar’s 8 mako reactors. You’re shoved right into the boots of emo-mercenary Cloud Strife as he accompanies gruff rebel leader Barret Wallace and some comedic relief side characters in their mission. Cloud has agreed to do this ostensibly for money but it soon becomes clear that he’s also doing it at the behest of a childhood friend who he cares about. While the plot and many of the story beats are ripped right from the original game, immediately there’s a coherency and depth of characterization that wasn’t there in ‘97. This is a modern game not just in how it looks and plays but in its understanding of storytelling and character. Cloud is an actual character this time, not just a cypher who does whatever the scene needs, and while he starts off as a moody jerk he does open up over the course of the game. Voice acting and careful facial animation help tremendously in delivering nuance and hesitation where the original game’s written script simply couldn’t, making this Cloud much more human than the first version.
In addition to its improved character and story chops, the game also improves on its predecessor by moving in real time, with a well-designed battle system that splits the difference between action and turn-based, giving you direct control of any party member you choose during fights but also letting you issue commands for magic or abilities to that character or others as the active time battle gauge fills. It makes combat feel visceral and exciting, and adds a lot more skill into things like blocking and dodging at the right time, while also adding the menu driven layer of magic and special actions over the top to give it just enough traditional JRPG flavor. The original FF VII’s menu driven fighting could get tedious, with waits for gauges to fill only made worse by frustrating loading times. None of that plagues the remake. Obviously fights take place in the main environments instead of separate screens so there’s no loading, and the first few hours of the game are drenched in atmosphere and action as you complete your mission.
The Remake expands on much of what was in the original, with a lot more dialogue, more expansive locations that feel like they’re situated in an actual city, and a lot more stuff to do in its Midgar locations. This isn’t surprising given that the game took me 40 hours to beat and only focuses on the Midgar arc, while the original took me 45-50, of which 5-10 took place in Midgar, but I enjoyed the ways the new game was able to slow down and take time with its locations and characters, fleshing them out and expanding them while staying true to not just the original vision from the first game but the idealized vision I had in my head. They found the core of what was there in 1997 and from those blueprints they built more expansive and better realized versions worthy of 2020. In many ways it’s a remarkable achievement, not just for how good it is but for how bad it’s not and how many pitfalls it avoids.
Unfortunately FF VII Remake can’t maintain the impact of its first few hours, and as the game continues it shows a lot of flaws. While Midgar is much expanded from its original form, it feels very small for a 2020 game location. We’re used to huge open worlds with sprawling cities where you can go anywhere and do anything, and FF VII Remake’s Midgar is very much a constrained world, not only featuring only a mere handful of locations, but small, linear, and constrained locations at that. I never expected Midgar to offer the freedom of the world map from the original, or even a modern open world game like Spider-Man or Infamous, but the actual size of what’s there in the connected portions is pretty disappointing.
A lot of dust has been kicked up online about the inconsistencies of the objects and texture works in FFVIIR and it’s also well-deserved. There are parts of the game that look as good as any game I’ve ever played, and I’d say its cinematics are among the best of any game, which is important because a large part of FF VII’s original appeal was those gorgeous cinematics, on whose back the game was sold. Cloud looks like an absolute badass doing incredibly intricate motorcycle stunts and daring last minute rescues of falling comrades, and there are a metric ton of cut scenes that really sweep you up in the story and action. On the other hand there are places where I genuinely wondered if they had re-used a texture from the original game, and many of the skyboxes and ground textures viewed from on high just look atrocious, like grainy pixelated messes. My nostalgia did not extend back to PlayStation era texture work, but here we are regardless.
Similarly, the new game features a bunch of minigames and interactive segments that have the same simplicity of the PS1 originals, back when developers were still trying to figure out how to make games work in 3D and what you could do with environments in RPGs. FFVIIR has a lot of “puzzles” that involve finding the only interactable object in the environment and pressing the button or pulling the switch. It has traversal segments that involve pressing forward on a sequence of blue arrows, or navigating a character hand over hand across some monkey bars while dialog plays. There’s even an (optional) 59 flight staircase, though that features some pretty amusing character bits, but literally no gameplay but navigating your character up flight after flight of stairs. I did have a little nostalgia for these things, which feel like intentional nods to the old game, but their simplicity wore on me after a while and I wished that they had been fleshed out in some way with actual puzzles or some kind of interesting control scheme.
That fun, fast, combat from the early game also bogs down as you get further in, mostly because unlike many games and RPGs in particular where your characters feel stronger as they go along, in FFVIIR you often start to be overmatched and legitimately threatened in a way you weren’t earlier. I didn’t wipe a lot; this is not a difficult game, but there were lots of later fights that took me a long time and required I actually use some of the ethers and other items I’d been saving up all game (I ended the adventure with plenty, but as a dedicated RPG hoarder I was surprised to find them necessary.) Bosses and even normal enemies also toss your party around a lot, both with frustrating status effects like time stops and toad curses, and just from massive sweeping attacks that stun lock you and/or send you sprawling. You get interrupted a lot in late FFVIIR, and it impacts the fun because much of combat ends up revolving around finding a character who has almost a full bar of ATB, taking control of them to charge it faster, and then healing whoever’s in trouble. The AI controlled characters are not very effective fighters and while they are often okay at defense, they suck at avoiding big area attacks, which means you’re constantly having to keep everyone’s health up and make sure they’re properly shielded etc… It becomes less about action and more about management, which leans into the RPG aspect, but is also less fun, especially because it takes a long time for your non-active characters to charge up their ATB bars, so often you are forced to control someone you might not want to just to raise her ATB gauge so you can cast a spell or use an ability you need. Meanwhile you hope that Cloud or whoever else isn’t getting destroyed by the enemy or moving totally out of position (especially frustrating for Aerith, who can create magical objects in the battlefield that buff or protect a character, only to have the AI totally ignore them and run to the opposite side of the fight when they should be standing behind the shield.) It’s worth noting that you never get to pick your party in FF VII Remake, except in some optional combat challenges. The game always gives you a party of 1 to 3 characters of its choosing, and sometimes does a switch and throws you immediately into combat, which can be frustrating if it suddenly removes the primary healer from the party and doesn’t give you a chance to shuffle materia before the next fight.
As you can see I have a long list of complaints, and it’s not even exhausted. The last quarter or so of the game involves one long mission where you encounter only a few new NPCs of note and spend an enormous amount of time traipsing around the game’s most visually boring dungeon without any of the fun world-building that the first parts have. There are a lot of areas that get re-used for multiple battles, like a little dirt enclosure near Aerith’s house that exists only so you can fight a series of encounters there at various points. The ending involves a series of crescendos to the point where once you reach the final fight you feel drained and just want to finish because there have been so…many…bosses in a row that you’re just exhausted. Aerith’s voice actress is not up to the standards of the rest of the cast and the character suffers as a result (though I have always been team Tifa. Team Tifa for life!)
But despite all this I really liked the game. I didn’t love the back end quite as much as I did the opening hours, but I did the vast majority of the side quests, messed around with optional combat challenges, had genuine moments of emotional reaction to some of the characters, and really enjoyed spending time back in this world. It’s a better game than FF VII in a lot of ways. The relationships make sense, the new battle system is a lot of fun, and the music is…the music is outstanding. There are remixed old songs, new songs, songs that are pure fan service, and they are almost all tremendous. Very few games are worth playing for the OST alone, but FFVIIR comes very close.
But beyond the good and bad of what’s actually in the game, I think my feelings were ultimately defined by my nostalgia for the source material. The Remake did enough to tap into those old emotions and to make me care about these characters again. It’s not just that the new version of Barret is a likable hothead whose constant anger and black-and-white thinking is softened by his love for his daughter and his friends, it’s that he’s Barret…an old friend from my past. Aerith’s clunky voice acting didn’t matter so much because it was just nice to spend time with her again, and to get to know her a little better in the extended sequences and material (not to mention her expanded friendship with Tifa, which is a delight.) Tifa is an incredible character in the remake, but I can’t be objective on Tifa anyway, I was always going to love her unless they totally botched the character, and they didn’t. She’s always been the best. Even Cloud’s petulance and lame false bravado comes off as less annoying than it might because as a teenager I related to his identity crisis, and I still can, even though I probably wouldn’t like him if he was a character I first encountered as an adult.
FF VII Remake uses nostalgia to smooth the rough edges of what is ultimately a very uneven package. It sometimes feels like an unfinished game (I didn’t hit any bugs but some of those textures and skyboxes are very rough, and there are lots of areas that seem hastily put together under budget constraints.) That’s not even addressing the elephant in the room, which is that the story literally isn’t finished because it’s only the first third or so. The game spends a lot more time digging into Shinra and making it a more impressive antagonist but it doesn’t know what to do with Sephiroth, whose sense of menace seems to rely on the player knowing a lot more about him than this game is willing to show and who is both a major focus of some key cut scenes and also completely absent from the screen for long stretches, to the point where I could imagine new players being very confused as to what his exact role is. I feel like Sephiroth’s place in the game would seem totally out of place for someone who didn’t know the outlines of what happened in the original. FF VII Remake also ends with a climax but without anything close to a resolution, and if you hadn’t played the first one and seen the whole story you might feel shortchanged. But I didn’t.
I did something with FFVIIR that I haven’t done in a very long time. I stayed up all night playing it. I found myself glued to the screen and the controller as the hours flew by and suddenly it was 2 AM, so I went out and did my shopping for the week (it was a great opportunity to practice social distancing by hitting the 24 hour market when it was empty) and then came back and played until about 3 PM or so, when I finally collapsed. I think I put something like 15 hours into the game in a 20 hour period, and that’s not something I can do anymore as an adult. I wouldn’t have been able to if adult life were anything like normal at the moment. But for those 20 hours, full of sugary cereal, Doritos, pizza, and Final Fantasy VII I was 15 again. I wasn’t stuck in a seemingly endless quarantine dealing with the uncertainties of 2020. It was 1997 again and I was Cloud and his friends trying to stop Shinra and track down Sephiroth and save the world. I was transported through video games and nostalgia not just back to a game world of my youth but to feeling young again, and totally invested in a game. Ultimately I didn’t save the world, and staying up all night at 38 is very different from doing so at 15 (same with eating too many Doritos to be honest) so I’m not sure I’ll ever do it again, but nostalgia and FF VIIR got me there, and for that alone I have to appreciate it despite all its flaws.
They say you can’t go home again, and that’s mostly true. But sometimes the stars align and you are able to spend a few dozen hours back in a place you thought you’d never be again, and it feels enough like it did that time to recapture some of the magic. That’s what FF VIIR did for me, and it was worth every penny of the price of admission.
Tonight I finished the main game of Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition, though I haven't played the new epilogue yet, and while I want to write up full thoughts at some point, for now I just want to complain about the end of the game, or really the back third. I think that XBC falls into the incredibly common JRPG trap of starting out telling a personal story about relatable characters and then ending up just describing the mechanics of its world and the philosophies of characters you don't really care about for hours on end as it draws towards its conclusion.
After the introduction of Dunban and his comrades the game really begins with the story of Shulk and his friends coming of age in a small city in the aftermath of a war. Despite XBC having a fascinating and insane world where everyone lives on the surface of this dead titan in the middle of a boundless sea, it starts with a grounded and relatable scenario. The game takes some time with this setting, giving you some menial tasks and quests and letting you get your feet wet with the combat fighting bunnies and caterpillars. Then, after things change for Shulk and his friends, he sets off on a big adventure to explore his world and seek retribution, while also learning about himself and the Monado, the magical blade that's at the center of the game's story.
For the next 35 or so hours you go from fascinating environment to fascinating environment, learning all about Bionis and its inhabitants, seeing all kinds of really cool art assets, listening to some amazing music, and meeting new people along the way. You follow Shulk's quest through its various twists and turns and his growth as a person and a character and then there's a major development and big event that splits up your party for a little while and explores the characters a bit more deeply before they regroup and start back on their path.
You are, at this point, about 60% through the game (My playthrough was about 56 hours and I got to this point ~35 hours in) and have seen the vast majority of what it has to offer. From here the game switches from a nice mix of combat, exploration, and story, to a much grindier and more combat-driven experience that not only has you fighting similar enemies in similar environments for like 10-15 hours, but drastically scales back side quests, characters outside your established party, and even story cut scenes. These things still exist within the game but they are de-emphasized in favor of running through dungeon zone after dungeon zone fighting similar mobs with similar tactics. You stop getting new abilities, you get fewer fresh equipment drops, and everything stagnates. Even worse, the story stops being about Shulk's relationship to his friends and himself and becomes much more about the antagonists and their various incomprehensible plots and ideas, which are explained in excruciating detail over and over. I don't care that Egil is bitter about Zanza's betrayal. I really don't care about Zanza's stupid justifications for his actions or endless speeches about how all life are just insects for him to devour. The game seems to lose all interest in Shulk, leaving a whole lot of questions about him unanswered, and instead focusing on this massive plot and mythology it is spinning out, none of which really means anything. The game started with a plenty interesting premise. It did not need to spend this much time revising that premise into complete and utter nonsense!
Even the music is not as good.
I don't know if they ran out of money to make a game as huge as they wanted to make, or ran out of time or what, but the back third of this game was so grindy and repetitive that I enjoyed it substantially less than the first two thirds. To add insult to injury I actually had to level grind, partially because there were fewer side quests to level up on and partially because some of the late game boss fights are totally unmanageable with the limited tools the game gives you at a lower level, or at least were for me. If I think back on the memorable moments and character developments they almost all happened in the first 30 hours, which is basically the first half of the game.
A lot of games have better first halves than second halves, for a bunch of reasons. Every player is going to see the start of a game so it makes sense to put your best assets there where everyone will experience them. Games naturally get repetitive and grindy over time, at least if they are long enough. It's much easier to start a game in a compelling way than to end it in one. But when a game is as long as Xenoblade Chronicles is, it's unclear to me why they didn't cut a lot of the fat towards the end and focus on making the end areas more varied and interesting, and on the things that made the game great to begin with, instead of what feels like endless padding, incredibly repetitive combat, and a series of false endings. In addition, personal stories are always much more interesting than big philosophical info dumps, but so many JRPGs don't get this. They make you feel like they only had characters to begin with to grab your attention so they could bore you to tears with nonsensical worldbuilding and villains who absolutely never shut up.
I'm frustrated because while I still enjoyed the game overall, I wish it were like 10 hours shorter and more focused, and almost all of that came towards the end. Specially while the climb up Mechonis' leg was kind of interesting, the endless mechon factories and cities were very boring, especially since you just fought the mechon in Sword Valley. Then everything after Egil is just a mess. It almost feels like Bloodstained in terms of its all over the place tone and re-used environments as you jump from the super lame skinny pathways of Bionis' lungs and heart to the weirdly huge castle and cathedral environments on Prison Island. Seriously, why is everything so big in that place? None of the characters even mention the insane proportions! Then the final revelation of the game is just crazy and nonsensical.
I think Xenoblade Chronicles would have been one of my favorite games of all time if it were a 40 hour JRPG instead of a 55 hour one, and that's very frustrating. I think the game loses track of the story it's telling and tells a different story that's frankly not as good. I think it runs out of interesting visual ideas, new enemies, and ways to keep combat fresh and engaging, but keeps going anyway because more is more.
Assassin’s Creed Revelations isn’t a bad game. In some ways it is the best of the first four mainline console entries in the series, with impressive graphics, the best controls of the first two games, and a refinement of all the systems those games have introduced along with some new mechanics (chiefly the bomb crafting) that aren’t incredibly compelling but don’t detract from the experience. The Istanbul setting is impressive and interesting, giving the game a very different feel from the first two Ezio adventures, while not retreading Altair’s adventure either (except for those brief moments when the game literally retreads Altair’s adventure.)
On the other hand, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations feels like a game sewn together from a bunch of different parts. Given the number of studios that worked on it this isn’t surprising; It’s likely that at least some of the teams were off on their own, making independent levels or sections of the game that were put together in the final phase of development. This is not an uncommon way for big companies to make games, but most AAA games do a better job of integrating their parts. The Assassin’s Creed series, on the other hand, seems more prone to showing its seams, possibly because of the quick turnaround between games. That doesn’t mean Revelations is a bad game; it has a lot of interesting and engaging elements, but it isn’t cohesive. Playing through this series back to back has really shown me just how rushed and rough at the edges these games are, and given me a better understanding of both the series fans and detractors. I can appreciate the series’ intricate worlds, sweeping narratives, and good enough mechanics, but I also get frustrated by the paper thin side content, bloated mechanics, and shoddy storytelling and characters. Assassin’s Creed games tend to have peaks and valleys and openly display their rushed development.
AC Revelations opens with Desmond, who has yet another character model that only vaguely looks like the previous ones, stuck in the animus after his mind fragments. There he meets Subject 16, who has been sending him coded messages in the previous games, and tells Desmond he has to put his brain back together before he goes insane and the animus wipes him out. It’s an intriguing premise that the game does almost nothing with, and it serves mostly to introduce Subject 16, a character whose entire arc is that you don’t quite know his motives until the very end. I guess it also saves development time and money on the Desmond sequences, which now feature voice acting from the other characters talking about Desmond but no locations or animation outside the small island Desmond is on, Desmond, and Subject 16. Despite being called Revelations the game does basically nothing to advance the Desmond plot, and while there are some actual playable segments as Desmond they are optional and take the form of 5 first person platforming puzzle levels. In these Desmond recounts his past in voice over while you platform through abstract levels where you can spawn platforms to stand on and have to overcome various obstacles. These levels aren’t that bad; they’re sort of like something you’d find in a decent but forgettable indie game from the late Xbox Live Arcade era, but they’re completely divorced from the main part of the game both in play style and theme. Desmond’s voice over is decently written but tells you almost nothing you didn’t already know about the character and pretty much ignores what’s happened in the series so far, focusing instead on Desmond before Abstergo abducted him. It really feels like something from another game just bolted onto Revelations, and the only reason I can think of for doing it this way is that it was easy to have another studio work on these levels while most of the team worked on the main game.
Ezio’s part of Revelations also starts a little strangely. We’ve flashed forward about 20 years and Ezio is in his 50s, though just as spry as ever, and has come to Altair’s old home base of Masyaf in pursuit of his library, only to find the Templars have gotten there first. The first level then plays out as a long, linear, mission, where Ezio climbs, fights, and stealths his way through Masyaf to try and get back a key to Altair’s library. The gameplay is like the previous Assassin’s Creed games, though with larger characters and better feeling combat, but the linear level design makes it feel almost like a God of War (pre-2018) style linear action game with some stealth elements. It doesn’t really feel like Assassin’s Creed and while I thought it was fine I was wondering whether the game would even have an open world or the mechanics of the previous games.
It does. After the first level Ezio arrives in Constantinople and the game opens up like prior Assassin’s Creed games, with viewpoints to scale, towers to free, assassins to recruit, and all the rest of the trimmings. If Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood felt like it was built out of spare parts left over from AC II, Assassin’s Creed Revelations doesn’t feel at all like the prior two games in the sub series, at least aesthetically. Constantinople is detailed and colorful, with narrow winding streets and minarets towering over the rooftops. We’re clearly far from Venice or Rome and at first it seems like a nice change of pace, as Ezio meets the assassins of his new city and gets caught up in intrigue surrounding the newly formed Ottoman Empire. As the game unfolds, however, it becomes clear that not only is Ezio far from his prior home, he seems to have no interest in it or anyone from there, except for his sister who he writes letters to during loading screens in between the sequences. Anyone hoping for resolution with any of the side characters from the prior two games will get none at all, because Revelations has zero interest in Ezio’s prior adventures. It’s a weird choice for a game that caps off a sub-trilogy, especially considering how Brotherhood relied almost entirely on characters from AC II in filling out Ezio’s cast of allies. In Revelations Ezio has only the Istanbul assassin’s guild, a royal prince he meets randomly on the ship that brings him to the city, and a woman I’ll be talking more about a little later.
Of course Revelations purports to be about more than just Ezio’s story. It also brings back Altair, the protagonist of the first game (and the Bloodlines PSP game.) However, “brings back” is a bit of an overstatement. Instead I would say he makes a few fleeting appearances in short levels set exclusively at Masayf, where we see him at various points during his life, mostly towards the end. I don’t know if the original design document called for more Altair and they ran out of time and money to implement him or what, but these sequences are extremely unsatisfying. They’re short, mechanically boring, and hint at deep changes within Altair that we never experience. Ezio is able to view these sequences by accessing the keys to Altair’s library, showing that animus technology seems to predate Abstergo’s creation of the animus, which doesn’t seem of interest to anybody, and creates a weird memory within a memory situation where you’re playing Desmond remembering Ezio reliving Altair’s memories, which also isn’t of interest to anyone. Regardless, these are only glimpses into Altair’s life, they’re all focused around Masayf, and while in theory seeing Altair with a wife and son would be interesting, the fleeting glimpses offered don’t amount to much and are not fun to play.
While the Ezio story is very different from the prior two games, and they’ve clearly changed the graphical style substantially (perhaps a new engine?) the gameplay changes are mostly insignificant. Ezio receives a hookblade after he gets to Istanbul, which allows him to reach out and try to grab ledges and would, in theory, make the free running more interactive but really doesn’t change things much. Horseback riding has been removed from the game and the assassin management minigames have been expanded. Istanbul has towers to capture, just like Rome did, but they no longer feel like the area around them was designed to make an assault interesting and instead feel more like they were placed randomly throughout the city. After a tower is captured and you have leveled up an assassin sufficiently you can assign one of your assassin flunkies to be the leader of that “den” and then do some mastery missions with them to complete the process. This locks the tower from the Templars attempting to recapture it, which is something that apparently can happen in the game but did not once during my playthrough except for the tutorial mission about the mechanics of defending a tower (surprise, it’s a crappy tower defense minigame.) I think it might relate to notoriety, which in this game can only be lowered by bribing heralds or assassinating witnesses (there are no posters to tear down) and which I mostly kept from getting out of control, but I honestly don’t know and don’t really care. The notoriety system is a pain because the game features a shop buying mechanic similar to Brotherhood’s, only buying a shop fills a quarter of your notoriety meter, meaning that if you want to buy shops and build passive income you need to constantly be bribing heralds or finding the very occasional witness to assassinate, and it just adds to the chore-like feeling that the Assassin’s Creed series is infested with. Is it supposed to be a fun mechanic that if I want to buy a shop I also have to find a random herald to bribe? I have no idea how. It just feels like senseless padding.
The missions to lock down the towers are at least interesting in conception, especially because Ezio doesn’t perform the final assassination. Instead his disciples do it. If the game spent more time fleshing out Ezio as the mentor and leader of the assassins it might have something interesting to say.
But it doesn’t. Instead Revelations is a thematic mess. It’s the last Ezio game but shows no interest in the Ezio of the last two games, recasting him as a tired man towards the end of middle age who is ready to put down the wristblade and give up a life of killing. This might be an interesting take if it were connected to what he did in the previous games, but with no returning characters or themes it just feels like a generic “I’m too old for this shit” type character, and I questioned whether the game was designed with Ezio in mind at all. And despite Ezio being tired of killing, he does a hell of a lot of it in this game. He murders people with brutal animations and by the truckload. The game tries to raise some of the moral implications of this by having one of the guys you assassinate be a good guy after all, but all it does is create massive ludonarrative dissonance with the rest of what Ezio does. He starts a riot among poor shopkeepers to create a distraction, causing dozens of them to be killed by the guards. He murders guards by the dozen, even though they aren’t necessarily templars and are sometimes working for his allies. He starts a fire that kills a lot of civilians. Even as he questions his life of violence he’s more violent and brutal than he has ever been before, and with much lower personal stakes.
This extreme violence also damages the other aspect of Ezio’s story, his romance with Sofia, an Italian scholar who helps him find Altair’s keys by translating books. This plot is part of the main story but seems like it might have initially been conceived of as a side activity, since her missions have a different icon on the map than other story missions and feel more like the tombs and dens of the prior two games. Ezio worries about his attachment to Sofia, about her safety if she’s with him, and about what she will think if she knows who he truly is. All his worries come to pass, but she has zero real reaction to the chaos and bloodshed he brings into her life. It’s jarring and weird and again the mechanics undercut the story. Sofia should react with horror at what she sees Ezio do. A smarter game would grapple with this. Revelations just glosses it over.
There are no real revelations in Revelations. The end does offer some additional information about the forerunners and what they were doing, but it’s just more cliffhanger stuff. Altair’s story is a tiny part of the game, Ezio’s tale comes to a conclusion but one that isn’t satisfying because it has no relationship to the prior games in the series, and Desmond’s story is stuck in neutral the whole time. Four games into the series this is how Assassin’s Creed games work, narratively. The modern stuff is an endless soap opera, and the past narratives are never fully satisfying on their own. This would be fine if the gameplay were more engaging, but so much time is spent following people in boring stealth sequences and the mission designs are so mediocre that the games feel unambitious (and are very unpolished.) Revelations maps are fine, though Istanbul can be annoying to navigate with lots of unscalable walls in the middle of the map and the two parts of the city split by a river you need to fast travel or take a boat ride to cross. Missions that take you away from the main Istanbul, whether it’s a brief trip to a smaller open map late in the game or Sofia’s missions taking you to the Uncharted style Den levels create some variety but aren’t as good as similar missions in AC II or Brotherhood. There’s nothing on the level of Leonardo’s weapons or the Assassin’s tombs.
People who’ve played the game might notice that I haven’t even mentioned the game’s biggest gameplay change, the introduction of bombs and crafting. Ezio can craft a bunch of different bombs to distract or kill guards, including effects like smoke and poison or noisemakers etc… In theory this should open up more stealth opportunities, but the environments and missions aren’t well designed for bombs to be useful, and they aren’t necessary to get through the game. It’s the kind of addition that Assassin’s Creed specializes in. A feature for the back of the box without many real gameplay implications.
It may sound like I strongly disliked Assassin’s Creed Revelations, but I didn’t. The game is…fine. I really liked the graphical overhaul. Istanbul is aesthetically interesting and very different from what the game has done before. The story was mediocre but not offensively bad, and the game is relatively short for an Assassin’s Creed game, so it doesn’t outstay it’s welcome. It’s not a bad game, just an unnecessary one, and one with a lot of squandered potential. I will say that the version I played (The Ezio Collection version on an Xbox One X) was a technical mess and crashed on me more than any Xbox game I can remember. I don’t know if that’s unique to this version, but it was pretty frustrating and I thought about stopping the game because of it. It just adds to the overall feeling of being rushed and slapshod.
Four games in the Assassin’s Creed series is just spinning its wheels. Playing all these games within a span of a month is definitely a bad idea, because they don’t really evolve from title to title and the story isn’t compelling enough to keep things interesting. I can understand why fans who played one a year would have had a better experience, but even then I think the series would be much better if it took more time between entries and did more to differentiate them. I really enjoyed the ACII version of Ezio, and the ACB and ACR versions are fine, but he’s not one of my favorite characters in gaming and is nowhere near the level of a Nathan Drake or even Kratos.
It’s frustrating to see the Assassin’s Creed series repeatedly get most of the way to being really good, and be satisfied with that. Ubisoft clearly cared more about pumping these games out than it did about making the franchise great. The culmination of that attitude can be seen even more clearly in Assassin’s Creed III, but it was already pretty evident by Revelations.
I went into Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood thinking it was the last good one before IV, a final really solid game in a franchise that quickly nosedived after. I remember it getting a lot of attention during 2010 game of the year proceedings, a five star review from one Ryan Davis (R.I.P. big fella), and a generally positive reputation among gamers to this day. While in the end I, on balance, enjoyed the game, I thought it was incredibly uneven and a big step back from AC II in a number of areas.
ACB wore on me as I played on, though. I did not end up liking the Rome map nearly as much as the maps in ACII, which were more varied and brighter and more colorful. Rome under the Borgia is an oppressive place, with a depressed populace and lots of death and misery. Much of the city lies in ruins and it didn’t have the impressive buildings of AC II’s Florence and Venice. This might be historically accurate but took away some of the best climbing, though climbing in ACB is also improved in some ways, including having more variety in the visual representation of handholds and often requiring some backtracking and dropping down rather than just having straightforward routes to the top. I also thought that Rome was more of a pain to navigate in the built up areas, with a less intuitive street layout and more annoying rooftops, and it has massive stretches of open rural land where there’s nothing to do but ride your horse and pick up the occasional treasure chest. Thankfully this is the first AC game where horses can be ridden on city streets, and random civilians sometimes have them too, which was another neat addition, and along with the much needed fast travel system within the map (using a set of tunnel entrances throughout the city) helped make navigating the new map not so bad.
My opinion of Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood swung wildly from one pole to the other as I played through its twenty or so hours. I liked the initial segment in Mario’s villa and enjoyed Ezio’s planning for some peace and recreation even as I knew it would never happen (just when he thought he was out…) The cut scenes were more dramatic than they had been in II, with off kilter camera angles and dynamic events, and Mario’s death was more emotional than the deaths of Ezio’s father and brothers in ACII because we’d spent so much time with him in the previous game. I also liked that the game continued to try to establish some gameplay for Desmond, and while I wasn’t wild about Lucy being repurposed yet again from badass mentor to wise-cracking love interest, I like Uncharted and ACB’s off-brand Uncharted vibe worked for me. Setting Desmond and crew set up in the modern day version of the villa strengthened the emotional connection between Desmond and Ezio, and it all seemed to be going somewhere good. Then Ezio got to Rome. I really liked the first couple hours I spent in Rome even though I wasn’t super into the darker tone the game took. The first mission you do upon getting there is killing an executioner who killed a woman unjustly and the quest giver makes sure to tell you that the people who watched her grow up spat in her face as she was dragged to the gallows. That, along with the fact that the civilians in Brotherhood seem generally poorer and less happy than the rather spirited NPCs in Florence and Venice from II set Brotherhood up to be darker game than ACII, which had dark themes but also a spirit of youthful adventure. Brotherhood continues this darkness throughout its run, with Ezio’s best friend Leonardo working for his hated enemies the Borgia and then being kidnapped, and Ezio’s allies on the ropes and at each others’ throats. But despite missing the tone of the prior game, I enjoyed exploring the new map and coming to grips with the new systems, including an expanded loot system, buying and opening shops after you free areas from Borgia control, and, a little later, being able to hire and deploy assassins. I also really liked some of the early missions, with the first lair of the followers of Romulus being a particular favorite, again dipping ACB into off-brand Uncharted territory, and providing a change of pace from the open world just like the tombs did in II.
The issues weren’t restricted to just tone and map, though. The property buying and assassin management stuff becomes more of a chore than a pleasure after a while, with dozens of shops to track down and open if you want to raise your income, and constantly having to find pigeon coops and mess around in menus to level up and upgrade your assassins. There’s less interesting equipment to buy than in ACII (though you do have to buy back some of your equipment from that game, which is…it’s a video game sequel so fine) so the investments feel less meaningful than they did in II, and as far as I could tell there was no real benefit to renovating the landmarks (apparently you get something if you buy them all, which would take a long time.) Liberating the Borgia towers was great, though, and led to some really good random open world encounters, such as when I ran into a captain at the edge of his territory, shot him, got attacked by a huge wave of guards, summoned my assassins and fought through a massive melee to the base of the tower, which I eventually climbed and blew up. That was honestly some of the most thrilling open world gameplay I can remember, and was better than any story mission in the game.
The story missions are another area where the game falls short of its predecessor. ACII didn’t have a great plot but it had fun characters and a light, campy, tone that made it breezy fun most of the time. Brotherhood is more serious and suffers for it. It brings back many of the characters from ACII, but they tend to be more muted and brooding. Machiavelli, who was a minor figure at the end of II, especially if you didn’t play the DLC sequence 13, is now Ezio’s main contact and mission giver. Leonardo is hardly in the game, and is miserably working for the Borgia, only able to meet with Ezio in secret. Caterina shows up long enough to have sex with Ezio, get kidnapped, and then run off back to Forli never to be seen again. Volpe suspects Machiavelli of betrayal and urges Ezio to eliminate him. The Borgia villains are evil, but in a more generic way than the various villains from AC II, all scheming with and against each other to take over Italy and/or kill Ezio. Nobody is particularly likeable and none of the stories are great. Ezio has also changed significantly from his prior incarnation, being presented as a more serious leader type, which is not nearly as fun. He’s still a good character, but not nearly as good as he was in II, and while the liberation of Rome seems like an important theme at times, it’s also something that Ezio doesn’t seem all that interested in compared to his feud with the Borgia and desire to get the apple back. The game wants to be about rebellion but doesn’t spend enough time on the rebellion part for it to really land.
If the plot and characters are a step back, the main story missions are often flat out bad. I liked some of the early stuff, but by the mid-game point where you have to carry Lucrezia Borgia down to Caterina’s cell to free her, and then carry Caterina out of the castle, I was flat out irritated with the game. Not only did I keep getting lost on the confusingly laid out map, but these missions eliminated much of what makes Assassin’s Creed fun, in favor of watching Ezio walk down hallways carrying women with his ridiculous prancing animation when he’s holding someone. Other missions involving tailing people or infiltrating areas were either flat out buggy or just annoying and unfun. One midgame mission has Ezio dressed up as a guard and carrying a lockbox to a target without knowing the route. Your fellow guards verbally correct you when you go in the wrong direction so you have to navigate by audio cues, with guards saying “isn’t it the other way?” when you go the wrong route and “we’ll be there soon” when you’re going the right way. This is awful and whoever decided it would make a good mission in the middle of a game about stabbing people in the throat should not be designing game missions. In general the game often wants you to approach things in one particular way, and punishes you for deviating, but while that can be okay in the handcrafted areas it is a bad philosophy of mission design for an open world game. Open world games are about improvisation and making your own fun, and when Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood is doing that it’s pretty good, but when you’re following a script in an open world area it feels constraining and frustrating. Sequences 8 and 9 were particular low points for me. I hated everything about Sequence 8, and Sequence 9 was saved only by the fact that it was pretty short and straightforward. I can honestly say that by the end of the game I was not having any fun and thought I might actively dislike ACB as a whole.
But I kept playing after the end because I hadn’t done some of the optional Leonardo and Romulus lair missions, and I found those to be much better than the mainline story stuff. They involve handcrafted Uncharted style locations and some fun sequences like chasing a cardinal through the rafters of a cathedral, or exploring areas outside of Rome where Leonardo’s designs are being tested. Using the Leonardo weapons themselves is pretty bad (except for the tank, which was fun) but the handcrafted levels were well designed and focused on sneaking around and murdering bad guys rather than following Borgia stooges halfway across Rome or random fetch quests. The Leonardo Is Missing DLC was also decently entertaining, though not at the level of the weapons or lairs, and a couple missions where Ezio remembers his old flame Christina and returns to small sections of Florence as young Ezio were short diversions. My post-game experience redeemed the game in my eyes and reminded me of its good aspects despite its terrible main story ending.
On the whole, Brotherhood feels rushed and uneven. The map is not as carefully constructed as II’s were, even though it’s far from bad and the fast travel options are appreciated. Everything feels less hand made. There are still treasure chests throughout the world but there aren’t guarded chests in courtyards anymore, they’re just in random places, often pretty much in the open. Overall the world is just blander and worse, with lots of activities but not as much moment to moment fun. There are some good additions to the gameplay, including the assassin management minigame and the ability to call assassins in to assist Ezio, but they aren’t as fleshed out as they could be. Lots of assets are clearly reused from Assassin’s Creed II, including things like comments from the crowd when they see you climbing about the city. The additions of a crossbow and poison darts mean that Ezio can now kill from a range stealthily, which helps a lot on the rooftops, but it also means that there is less risk/reward to the stealth because you can sneak around and snipe people. The graphics have a kind of PS2 quality to them, at least in some of the geometry, lighting, and camera movement when showing the route the game wants you to take. That’s not to say it looks like a PS2 game; it is clearly from the PS3/360 era, but it doesn’t look as good as II does, at least to me. The music was great though. Best in the series that I’ve played, and among the best open world soundtracks I can remember. I also thought the day night cycle and detail was pretty impressive.
The serious tone of the game is at odds with some of the mechanics, including the fact that while guards will attack your summoned assassins in combat they will otherwise be ignored, even though they fight with guns and smoke bombs. There were several sequences where my assassins were shooting guards around me and fighting with axes in platemail while the target I was following wandered about his business, ignoring them altogether. The game feels stitched together from disparate parts, which is likely how it was developed given Ubisoft’s studio structure and quick timeline, but not enough time was taken to make it all fit properly. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, there are lots of enjoyable parts and even though there’s not a big upgrade over II’s gameplay. But playing it now, especially back to back with the second game, it feels inessential in a way II did not. Ultimately the story of Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood just rehashes the same story that II told, but with worse characters, less interesting locations, and much less impact the second time around. The same could be said for the gameplay. It’s more Ezio in Italy but with a lower budget and a few decent twists in the form of the management elements and assassin summoning. It is the first Assassin’s Creed game that felt B-tier to me.
And now some end-game spoilers:
The levels where you had to use the Apple of Eden all felt broken to me. In the level where you have to defeat Cesare’s bodyguards the apple actually did not work well and one of them was left alive, but I had no means of attack so I had to lure the last guard (who was the only combatant left standing after the fight) to a rooftop and nudge him off twice to finish the mission. Fortunately these levels are short and other than that dumb one they were all easy, but it makes sequence 8 a fractured mess, including weird time skipping and a story that makes no sense. It was by far the worst part of the game and I’m positive they ran out of time. Sequence 9 was also a mess. My armor broke (because of the damage inflicted on me when I used the apple) and there was no place to fix it, which makes it fortunate that the end fight is so easy and bad, but still. The last quarter of this game was horribly rushed and just not at all fun or satisfying. The less said about the final Desmond sequence the better. The parkour stuff was okay but killing Lucy off just to raise the stakes compounded the problems with women that this series has had since its beginning. It’s a baffling decision, especially considered how its handled in later games, and it removed the only interesting character from the Desmond part of the games.
The first Terminator movie is a lean little sci-fi action thriller about a killer robot. It has some cool special effects but it’s really a character driven film about two people on the run from an unstoppable enemy.
The second Terminator film is a better movie in many ways, but is also more of just a big action extravaganza driven by explosions and catch phrases and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie star charisma (Arnold has like 16 lines in the first film.) It’s an all time classic, but it also set the stage for a series of disappointing sequels that lost track of what made both films special and substituted other things for them; sometimes Christian Bale’s angry scowl, sometimes just a cool poster. T2 is amazing, but it also set the table for the franchise’s subsequent problems.
You could say something very similar about Alien and Aliens; and Assassin’s Creed 1 and Assassin’s Creed 2.
My first impression of Assassin’s Creed 2, which I played and beat for the first time over the last few days, was that it seemed on answering every criticism levied against the first game.
Was AC1/Altair too serious for you?
Assassin’s Creed 2 does not take itself seriously. One of the first major NPCs announces himself with “It’s-a me, Mario!” Desmond comments about how nice it is that the animus has subtitles now. The world is bright and colorful and the beggar women who used to whine “You don’t understand, I have nothing” have been replaced by bards who prance around strumming a lute and singing about your exploits. Altair’s replacement, Ezio, is one of the brashest and most fun-loving video game protagonists every written. At one point he kicks people in the face while riding a flying machine created by his best friend, Leonardo Di Vinci. There’s a QTE to hug Leonardo and if you miss the button press he frowns because you left him hanging.
Did you want Desmond to actually do something other than talk to Lucy and skulk around reading email?
AC2 starts with an action packed jail break where it turns out Lucy was an assassin this whole time and she’s going to whisk you away from Vidic to hang out with her band of misfit friends in a sweet cyber loft. There’s very little Desmond in the game overall and the player never, ever, has to make him go to bed (something you did a number of times in AC1, and that is maybe not the most thrilling gameplay objective.) Lucy has blood on her shirt the whole game to show that she’s a cool woman of action and not just some nerdy scientist who is torn between her loyalty to a mentor who saved her and her empathy for her human test subject.
Did you not understand Altair’s background or motivation?
You literally get to see Ezio get born, and his quest is an intensely personal revenge story, with a clear emotional through line.
Were there not enough NPCs in AC1?
Assassin’s Creed 2 is chock full of characters, and they talk, a lot. They’re memorable and fun. While Altair was isolated and hated by most of the people around him, except for a few allies, Ezio is constantly surrounded by friends and liked by basically anyone he is not actively trying to kill. Playing as Altair (and Desmond in AC1) made you feel like a lone assassin whose only allies were his blades (or in Desmond’s case his typing fingers.) Playing as Ezio and Desmond in AC2 makes you feel like part of a team of loyal rebels. It’s a huge change in tone.
Did you dislike the stiff controls/combat?
They’re changed! The game is now much more a standard open world control scheme and the combat, once stiff and demanding, is forgiving and free-flowing. Ezio fights with allies (and can even hire some to assist him) and can stab anyone but a boss in the back for a one hit kill while they’re occupied with his friends. The tense and exciting system of healing from killing bad guys (one of AC1’s best implemented ideas) is replaced with health items and you’ll have lots of them. It’s all a lot smoother but also a lot more like a hundred other games you’ve probably played.
Did you find AC1 too simple and want more systems to play around with?
You get cash every time you finish a mission in AC2 (even if it’s unclear who would be paying you) and if you invest in your uncle’s villa you will have more money than you could need by midgame. You can use the money to upgrade your equipment and buy art work to decorate the villa and change the color of your clothes and partake in all kinds of sidequests and activities. You can hire people to fight alongside you or to distract guards, and you have smoke bombs and poison that makes enemies go insane and even a primitive single-shot gun. After I finished the main game and was cleaning up achievements I learned that the trainer at your villa will teach you new combat moves. There was a whole additional layer to the combat system I never even explored because I didn’t need it and I don’t remember the game even mentioning it. While Altair had simple tools and options, Ezio has a dozen choices for every encounter, all of them viable.
Did you not like the fact that AC1 was an ostensible stealth game where you were constantly under assault by legions of guards who attacked without reason or warning?
AC2 has much improved stealth mechanics that show you when you’re about to be spotted and allow you to blend in with crowds and hide, not just hit A to blend with scholars. Ezio also has more assassination options than Altair and while he can sometimes be found even if he’s blending (if he’s in the stealth area on the minimap) he can also just outrun his pursuers, or leap into the water where it’s comically easy to evade them. The stealth in AC2 is much looser and more forgiving, but also very similar to a lot of other games such as The Saboteur, which came out the same month and is a very similar game in many ways, though both jankier and with more of an independent identity. I would argue that The Saboteur is in some ways more like AC1 than AC2 is.
Did you not like that the collectible flags and templars in AC1 made no sense and had no impact on game or story?
Here are innumerable chests bursting with spendable money scattered over every map, side quests like assassinations and beat up missions that sort of tie into what Ezio is doing, Codex pages to find, glyphs to unravel from a previous user of the animus, and, of course, feathers to bring to your heartbroken and mute mother.
Did you find AC1 too slow and repetitive?
Assassin’s Creed 2 plays like a game on fast forward. Sometimes literally, with lots of time skips over the boring parts in missions and cut scenes. AC1 did this fast forwarding too, but much less frequently. AC2 gleefully cuts between Ezio getting out of a chair to look at something and him standing there examining. No time to watch him walk over to it, gotta go fast!
My more detailed thoughts:
Even a decade later and through the lens of the Ezio collection and its unfortunate faces (overall my experience was fine, though I had some audio bugs and a couple crashes trying to come back from suspend on my Xbox) the game looks great. Florence and Venice are colorful and pretty, the NPCs are charming in attire and animation, and the camera is mostly functional. It can’t be overstated how much better games look when they contain the full spectrum of color, and Assassin’s Creed 2 has opulent gowns and gorgeous murals that really make its world pop. That goes double for the various landmark buildings, all lovingly rendered and very nice to look at. I liked the cities in Assassin’s Creed 1, but AC2 is on a whole different level artistically. The setting was a joy in a totally different way than AC1. While AC1 made me feel immersed in this dangerous version of the holy land, AC2 gives me a cartoon version of renaissance Italy to explore. The boulevards are wider, the guards less aware, but the local color is joyous and there are so many gorgeous details to enjoy. I wouldn’t say it’s immersive in the same way, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun.
The controls feel intuitive, though a little loose. There were moments where I got frustrated with them (more on that later) but overall they were much easier to use than AC1s, sometimes to the point where the game felt too easy, though I prefer too easy to too hard. Ezio will plummet to his death if you’re not careful, and sometimes even if you are, but with less frequency than Altair and more options to correct course by grabbing something while you fall. He can also survive longer drops and is less picky about his handholds or the distance to them.
AC2s stealth system is very user friendly (except when it’s in an instant kill condition), and it’s pretty easy to get away from the guards as long as you’ve upgraded your health a bit and know how to parkour in the game. The system splits the difference between true stealth game and action fest, and I think it does a decent job considering that it’s trying to please two audiences with different preferences.
AC2’s story is a lot of fun. It doesn’t take itself seriously at all, but the writing is light and entertaining and Ezio is an enjoyable cartoon character to spend time with. The Desmond stuff is much more limited and much of it happens in the animus itself, which is a good choice. The story isn’t perfect, but the moment to moment writing is very impressive for 2009. While it’s a fun and frothy tale, I will say that it lacks the tension or atmosphere of doomed menace that AC1 had, and just like the first game it ends on a set of confusing cliffhangers, only even more preposterous.
Assassin’s Creed 2 also has some pretty clear ‘game from 2009’ type problems.
There was a mission about a third of the way through the game where you need to assassinate a target who is high on top of a tower surrounded by other towers and archers. I hated this mission with a passion. Trying to move in between the towers was an incredible pain, mostly because of the controls and not the archers, and Ezio kept jumping off to his death or taking a leap of faith to a hay pile below when I just wanted him to jump down to a rope between two towers. I also fell off the main tower multiple times when fighting on the small catwalk there, once when I took a swing at a guard and Ezio just stepped off the catwalk to his death, and another time after I had actually assassinated the target and I was trying to get away a guard attacked me and I countered…only to have Ezio step off to his death during the counter animation. Most of the time the game was good about not having you step off rooftops during combat, but not always, and I probably had to attempt this mission 8-10 times, angry and cursing the whole way. It was a bizarre difficulty spike in a game that is generally pretty easy. There’s also a particular climbing segment that stymied me for about 30 minutes until I looked up the solution on Youtube, which was to do exactly what I was trying to do but with a slightly different set of control inputs than the game usually requires. These are all 2009-ass game problems, but for a game that has generally aged spectacularly well they were notable for sure.
Assassin’s Creed 2 also has some of the problems that would plague the franchise later in terms of cut and paste content and repetition. Though there’s a lot more variety than Assassin’s Creed 1 had, there’s also just a lot more...stuff. The cities are bigger, the viewpoints take longer to climb, there is equipment to manage, a fortress to upgrade, just a ton to do as you wind your way through a plot that, for all its charm and good writing, repeats both its story beats and activities. Following a bunch of old men while they talk about some random conspiracy against a character you may or may not have seen a couple times five hours ago sounds like fun but...wait no it doesn’t. The game nevertheless has you do it a number of times. Collecting pages of the Assassin’s codex seems like a cool side activity until you learn that it always involves paying courtesans or thieves to distract the guards and just walking in and picking up the page from the middle of a single room. It’s the original pay to win activity (albeit with in-game currency.) Other activities like assassination contracts and collecting glyphs involve a bit more variety and thought, but despite how much I enjoyed my time with AC2 I was starting to run out of steam by the time I hit the middle of the game, and there’s still a ton more to do after that, much of it pretty similar to what has come before. AC1’s repeated rhythms at least had a design/story reason behind them (you are prepping for an assasination, gathering intel etc..) AC2 is much happier to just tell you “collect archer uniforms from these 3 chests. Now go free your comrades from these 3 prison cells.” It’s busy work and while the game isn’t super long for an open world game (about 25-30 hours) it definitely feels padded at times. AC2 keeps introducing new conspirators who are very similar to the old ones. There’s a big bad guy calling the shots the whole time, but you don’t spend a lot of time with him until the end. Also Ezio spends a lot less time talking to the bad guys he kills than Altair does. They’re established through cut scenes, an in-game database, and lots of conversations so it’s not that you don’t know why you’re killing them, but you don’t get to know them as people or hear their perspective in the same way. I kind of missed Altair’s long chats with the deceased.
The Desmond stuff is also still not very compelling. Yes you actually get to do stuff as him this time, as opposed to slouch around and read email, and yes they try to spice things up with sassy sidekick characters, but whenever it pulls you out of the animus the game just drags for the 20 or so minutes it takes for them to get you back in. It’s a small complaint, except that they built this framing device for some reason and they don’t know what to do with it.
Another issue I had with the Ezio collection version is that it makes the DLC unskippable. There are two “restored” chapters between chapter 11 and the end of the game and they are…a very mixed bag and probably should have been left permanently cut. The first one is an attempt at a large-scale battle scene and just does not work as currently implemented, at least in the Ezio collection. There’s no independent AI for soldiers vs guards, so after every battle the guards you were fighting alongside start ‘investigating’ the bodies on the ground from the battle they were just themselves a part of. It’s very very silly. Also it shows the limits of the fighting in AC2. It’s just not a ton of fun. None of it is challenging or interesting, and in fact I ended the final mission of the DLC in about two minutes by approaching from a different angle than the game expected and stealth killing the last bad guy as he started talking to me, which was kind of fun but anti-climactic, but the DLC also feels half-finished in terms of scripting and plotting and it’s an overall mess.
The second piece of DLC involves going back to a new area of Florence (which is very bare bones and uninteresting compared with the rest of the game) to assassinate a few people in pursuit of a dude who appears totally unrelated to the main plot of the game. The missions themselves are better and more interesting. They’re some of the most open-ended assassinations the game has to offer, and my very best moment with the game was during one mission where I had to kill a farmer surrounded by guards without being seen first. I hired some thieves to create a distraction so I could go wait in a pile of hay for the farmer to pass. Then, during a gap in the guard coverage, I jumped out and shot him in the back with my pistol. It was challenging and offered a lot of approaches and I felt smart and skilled for pulling my plan off, which is how an assassination game should make you feel. Figuring out to get on a boat and kill its owner without being seen by the half-dozen guards on the deck was another highlight and actually gave me a reason to use the ledge assassination technique. This DLC also feels pretty bare bones in terms of story and design, but its bigger flaw is that along with the Battle of Forli it totally sidetracks the game and introduces a bunch of new ideas and themes right before the end. If chapter 13 had happened before chapter 8 or something it might even have been a highlight of the game due to the fun assassinations, but placed where it was it completely wrecks the flow of things, and should also have been cut for that reason. It is, however, the closest AC2 gets to showing us what it would have looked like as a true successor to AC1, and for that reason I’m glad I played it. That style of encounter but more fleshed out and better written would have been a fun and interesting game!
In the comments to my blog on AC1 a few people noted that it was their favorite game in the series and they were disappointed that Ubisoft got away from that design philosophy in the subsequent games. I can’t say I agree because I think AC2 is a better, much more accessible, game, and because, to be honest, I’m kind of conventional in my tastes and prefer the open world action of AC2 to the more plodding stealth/assassination simulator that AC1 tried and failed to be. But I understand their perspective, and I do think something unique was lost when the Assassin’s Creed games changed directions, especially so soon after the release of the first one. Characters yell at Ezio when he climbs buildings (though it doesn’t cause guards to attack, unlike the first game, and there’s a repeated bit of ambient dialog about how it’s not illegal) and one of the things someone shouts is that he’s another “capering crusader.” It’s a mildly clever line, but it gets at something true. Ezio feels a lot more like Batman than Altair ever did. Not just the Batman from the Arkham games (Arkham Asylum came out a few months before AC2 so could not have affected development too much) but like a superhero.
And yet…and yet…when playing through it I did feel like there was something lost, and not just because of its constant references to the Eden myth. Assassin’s Creed 1 felt like a mid-budget game with a very clear vision that it did not quite pull off. Assassin’s Creed 2 feels like a well-made blockbuster. It’s fun and exciting while it lasts, but it’s also not that new (especially 11 years after its release) and it compromises its vision repeatedly in order to be more fun. This isn’t a bad thing per se, but it sows the seeds of the franchise’s destruction, and I was left wondering what it would have been like if the second game had followed the blueprint created by the first one instead. But while Assassin’s Creed 2 was ambitious in terms of storytelling, setting, characterization, and aesthetics, it’s much less ambitious when it comes to gameplay. It’s content to just be another, very good, open world game.
I played until 2 AM one night because I just did not want to stop, and I did all the optional assassin tombs and some other activities after I finished the main story, while I normally drop games immediately after I roll credits, so I can easily endorse this one if you’re into open game action. A part of me wishes they had stuck with the original design and tried to polish that up into something special. The other, bigger, part of me just really likes Ezio and his crazy adventures with Leonardo Di Vinci.
I first played Assassin’s Creed in 2008, about six months after its release. I got about a third of the way through the game before abandoning it for Grand Theft Auto IV, a game I absolutely adored and spent a month making my way through. I always intended to get back to Asssassin’s Creed but I found it kind of boring during my first playthrough and was never compelled to go back, even after the sequel was released and got much better reviews. After a time I knew I’d want to replay from the beginning and really didn’t want to do that, so I let it simmer on my backlog, always intending to play it again and quietly collecting its various sequels when they were on deep discount or via PS+ and Games With Gold giveaways.
On January 1, 2020, I woke up with a headache feeling unmotivated and wanting something low key and maybe even a bit boring to kill time until I felt better. Assassin’s Creed seemed perfect, so I started it up again for the first time in over a decade, and I quickly found my rhythm in the game. A few days later I had rolled credits and while I hadn’t experienced any grand revelations from the story or fallen in love with any of the characters, I did have a decently good time and appreciated the game much more the second time around. I think age has blunted many of my criticisms from the first go round. You don’t expect a 2007 game to have great controls or characterization or anything. You cut it more slack than you do a modern game, and giving Assassin’s Creed the benefit of the doubt in those areas allowed its strengths to work much better.
Assassin’s Creed is a pretty simple story of two men. One is Desmond, a modern everydude from the late Bush administration who perpetually wears the same hoodie and jeans and slouches around the facility where he’s being held prisoner and forced to relive the experiences of his ancestor, Altair, a hotshot assassin in the Holy Land during the third crusade. As Desmond you walk around a small environment and chat with the scientists who are guiding him through the experience, one a kind and fetching young woman and the other an arrogant and kind of nasty, though not outright villainous, older middle-aged guy. You really don’t do all that much, other than have a few conversations, read a few boring emails, and get into the animus, a weird machine that lets you access “ancestral memories” stored in your DNA (It’s really dumb but whatever) and records the past through your perspective.
As Altair you actually play the game. At the beginning of the game Altair is kind of an arrogant jerk and gets stripped of his equipment and rank by the boss of the assassin’s guild, and you play him as he earns his way back into the fold by assassinating 9 evil dudes in the cities of Damascus, Acre, and Jerusalem. This is supposed to teach him the importance of the Assassin’s Creed, a set of rules the Assassin’s guild (which hilarious has actual bureaus with its logo in each of the cities) lives by, but which doesn’t really factor into the game much and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for a set of rules for assassins anyway. There are some plot twists and minor side activities (such as killing Templars, finding flags, which characters in the game are obsessed with, and helping citizens being harassed by guards by murdering those guards) but for the most part it’s pretty straight forward and repetitive. You enter a new section of one of the cities, climb a tower to display icons on part of the map, do one of a few repetitive side missions to gather info on your target, then assassinate your target, rinse and repeat.
Assassin’s Creed is a deeply flawed video game. It has clunky controls, with touchy climbing, stiff combat, and jumping that often sends Altair hurtling into the water or off a rooftop instead of to the obvious foothold he was pointed at. The part of its story set in the modern day is boring and doesn’t even come close to resolving, amounting to little more than a trail of breadcrumbs that, as I understand it, never really got paid off. The part of its story set during the crusades is incredibly cliché and predictable, with paper-thin characters and an unlikable protagonist. The combat is outright bad, relying mostly on standing around and waiting to counter attacks by enemies, who have about 6 different attack patterns they utilize one by one as they encircle Altair. The ‘stealth’ is bare-bones at best, relying primarily on just moving very slowly through a world that’s only really fun to traverse at high speeds. The conversations Altair has with the people he assassinates are very weird in context, since he often kills people in open combat while surrounded by a bunch of their guards, who apparently stop attacking long enough for them to chat and then get back to business after the conversation is over. The objectives you do before each assassination are extremely simple and repetitive, often amounting to the flimsiest excuse for video game busywork. The actual assassinations themselves are quick and simplistic, and very easily devolve into just a bunch of open combat against about a dozen guards. The final boss encounter is just kind of weird. The gameplay rewards you get for finishing missions are minor at best after you get the counter move, which is the most important in the game (and is somehow presented as a piece of ‘equipment’ being restored, even though it’s totally unclear how your master could remove or restore a sword fighting skill, or why he’d want to limit you in that way.) Playing as Desmond is slow and boring, with almost nothing to actually do other than read other people’s email. The game is, overall, kind of a mess.
Even more annoying, there are guards and enemies everywhere and if you’re not careful it’s very easy to alert them to your presence, though what actually triggers them is also inconsistent. You can assassinate their friends right next to them without being noticed but if you get too close to them or try to do something they don’t like, like climbing a building or pushing away a beggar who’s harassing you, they attack, alerting their comrades and forcing you to either stand your ground and fight or try to flee and reset their alertness. Neither option is particularly hard, especially later in the game when you’ve gotten more skills and health points, but it can be very annoying because the only really fun thing to do in the game is to parkour and yet the game constantly punishes you for trying it by swarming you with annoying guards. Similarly it gives you a horse to ride in the “kingdom” area connecting your base with the three cities, but asks you to go into super duper slow mode past any guards or they’ll get mad at you for some reason and give chase (The game implies that they recognize Altair from his stupid Assassin outfit, which begs the question of why he wears it given that it’s constantly compromising him and putting him in danger.) This extreme tension between what’s actually entertaining in the game (running and climbing) and what the game seems to want you to do (move very slowly and remain hidden) persists throughout and remains extremely annoying. In addition, Assassin’s Creed has no idea what to do regarding collectibles. It scatters flags throughout all the various open world areas and has 60 identical templars that you can fight if you want to, but you don’t get any real lore or substantial in-game benefit for doing either, which means that the collectibles don’t so much incentivize you to explore the detailed worlds as they add random things to do along the way, grabbing a flag here or killing a templar there if you feel like it. Add that to the mediocre controls and you get a game that often seems to be leaning away from, rather than into its strengths. This was my impression in 2008 as well, so I’m not just looking at it through modern eyes. Assassin’s Creed is clearly a first attempt at a formula that would be improved over the next few iterations, before apparently falling apart and becoming an uneven series during the 2010s.
Yet, despite all this, playing through it in 2020 I actually had a pretty good time. Assassin’s Creed does a lot of things badly, but the thing it does well; creating believable and ancient cities that are fun to explore and exist in, it does better than the vast majority of games on the market even today. Assassin’s Creed is saved by its setting; the three cities of Acre, Jerusalem, and Damascus during the Third Crusade. They are each mini-open world maps, divided into three different quarters that unlock as you progress through the stories, and they are fun to traverse and exist in. Assassin’s Creed’s approximation of street life is very 2007, with repeated character models and simple behaviors, but the streets are densely packed and vibrant, full of guards and merchants and thugs and beggars. At times the game can be incredibly immersive, such as when you are following a target and trying to keep a low profile when a beggar charges at you demanding coins and leaving you trying to get around her without arousing the suspicion of your target or the guards. Taking to the rooftops to get around the winding streets or a guard post can also be fun, as can trying to find your way to one of the many lookout points that populate the map. The longer I spent in the world the more I came to appreciate it, and it was that experience that kept me pulled into the game experience during the ~15 hours it took to complete it. It wasn’t just the detail and care put into each location, but also their manageable sizes, easily traversed in just a few minutes either on ground or rooftop, and the fact that the game is built around trying (and mostly succeeding) to make traversal fun and exciting. Unlike so many huge boring open worlds that you need to spend many minutes just commuting from one objective to another (Watch_Dogs, I’m looking at you) Assassin’s Creed invites you to run, climb, and leap your way through compact areas, stumbling upon details and secrets, between tightly packed objectives as you go about your deadly business. It’s also fun and empowering to kill people with the wrist blades and slip into the crowd. Hearing the guards try to investigate behind you as you walk quietly away gives you a sense of power that the game itself comments on at times. Finding vantage points to synchronize with can make for fun, if sometimes frustrating, climbing puzzles. Assassin’s Creed is also a very easy game. You’ll rarely die and when you do checkpointing is very generous. I can’t remember really getting frustrated by the difficulty, though I was often annoyed at how frequently the guards harass and attack you even when you’re minding your own business. Despite those irritations it’s a fun and easy game to just chill with, pecking away at its quests despite their repetition, and the low-key pleasantness of the moment to moment gameplay allows it to transcend its flaws.
The game also does some relatively fun things with the narrative of the animus, the thing that allows Desmond to relive Altair’s various memories. It’s interesting Altair’s world is filtered through Desmond’s mind and the animus leading to ‘glitches’ and limitations on what Altair can do, and to weird little side issues like the fact that most of the citizens you rescue say one of only a few lines, even though they do so with different voices (presumably because Desmond only remembers the gist of what’s said.) Some of the story beats in the ‘real’ world that tie into this (Desmond is informed that the ‘official’ history of the world isn’t as accurate as he might have thought) are cool too. Overall the story is pretty limited and doesn’t go anywhere, since it’s more interested in laying out bread crumbs than following them but the voice acting is decent and it’s entertaining enough for a video game story circa 2007. In fact the game generally sounds great, with good music and nice street sounds, and the Xbox One X does a good job upscaling the graphics so it looks more like a remaster than a game from 2007, though the washed out color palate of grays and browns does mark it as a game of its particular time (and make it uglier than it has to be.)
I’ve long told myself that one year I will play through the whole mainline Assassin’s Creed series to get the scope of one of videogame’s most sprawling stories and to get to the later games in the series, which have apparently rebounded in quality from the uneven middle chapters like Assassin’s Creed III and Unity. That’s not going to happen. There’s no way I can devote hundreds and hundreds of hours to one series, and I can tell the Assassin’s Creed’s gameplay will grow stale to me if I try to binge too much of it. By the end of the first game I was already feeling a little antsy, eager to get to the end and move on. But I’m intrigued enough by the apparent jump in quality from the first game to the second that I think I’ll try that next, and I do intend to keep chipping away at the series, not because I think there will be some big narrative pay off (I don’t know what happens but I do know it got a negative reception) but because at least the first game had the kind of open world I enjoy, and taught me something about what gets lost in the expansive open worlds we have today. I’m aware that eventually the games get much bigger and emptier, and I’m interested from a design perspective to see how that happens and how a series that started off very uneven but with a lot of promise went awry and then redeemed itself. I don’t know that I’ll finish all the games if they get really bad, but I do know that I’m interested enough to keep going for now. Assassin’s Creed is a relatively small game that started what is arguably gaming’s largest narrative series, and playing through it in 2020 you can definitely see the seeds of that in the first game, from its incredibly open narrative that obviously planned to spawn sequels to its low-key and forgiving gameplay that serves as a good basis for future worlds and adventures without requiring highly tuned level or encounter design. Ubisoft knew what they were doing when they started this franchise, it was only later that they lost the plot.
The puzzle platformer seems like the ‘default’ genre for a lot of indie developers looking to make a project on a tight budget with a small staff. It makes sense, since they can be made with limited numbers of assets and rely more on clever design than complex mechanics that need to be tested over and over and very finely tuned. It means, however, that during the current bloom of indie teams we also have a glut of puzzle platformers. Ever since the first indie puzzle platformer hits, like Braid and Limbo, they’ve been coming in a steady stream. There are dozens upon dozens of them on every system, varying wildly in quality and success. This means that there are a lot of bad or average games in the genre, as inexperienced teams cut their teeth and learn how to actually make a game from scratch, but also that a lot of good games get buried under the heavy hitters.
I’d never even heard of In Between until I stumbled on it during the big Xbox Black Friday sale. I was actually looking for cheap, short, palate cleanser games to play between the larger experiences, since I like to vary genres and styles, and at under $4 and less than 3 hours it seemed perfect, regardless of whether it was going to be actually good or only just okay. It’s hard to get too bored during a 3 hour game unless it’s utterly broken, and I’ve had a good time with short, less-than-amazing games like Ninja Pizza Girl (A slightly janky but charming enough little action platformer) in the past, so I decided to give In Between a try without knowing anything about it except that it was a short puzzle platformer with an appealing art style.
Having played through it under 24 hours I can now say that while In Between isn’t at the level of a Braid or an Inside, it is a cut above most of the recent entries in the genre, even the relatively competent ones like Toby: The Secret Mine. It’s not a game you absolutely have to play, but if you’re looking for a quiet, contemplative, game with some fun puzzles and a really solid narrative and aesthetic it fits the bill quite well.
In Between is a game about dying. Not just game death, with its endless cycles of defeat and respawn followed by triumph, but real, human, death. The protagonist is a father of a young daughter and, despite not smoking, has lung cancer. The game takes him through the various stages of grief, each represented by a different mechanic added to the basic puzzle platformer, while he narrates the story of his life and his feelings about his diagnosis. The actual gameplay is pretty simple. The character can run forwards or back on a 2D plane and the player can also change the orientation of gravity in the stage to either up, down, left, or right on the screen. The character cannot jump or attack or do anything besides run and push the occasional box, but clever and careful design choices mean that the game is never mechanically boring. If your character touches spikes or gets crushed by something falling towards him he dies and starts again from the beginning of the level or a checkpoint. There are switches to trigger and platforms that he can ‘wind’ forward and back, and some other basic hazards and elements of the stages (such as spiky balls that fall up and down as you switch gravity around.) Each of the major “worlds” is themed around a main mechanic like a darkness that encroaches from the left side of the screen unless your character is looking directly at it (in which case it retreats to the edge) or a mirror of your character played on a split screen, who does the opposite of whatever your character does until you can bring the two together and end the stage. The goal of each level is just to get to the end alive, but from these simple elements the game builds a series of interesting and engaging puzzles that kept me involved from the opening to the end credits.
The gameplay is smooth and polished, with things running just a touch faster than I’d like which makes some of the more intricate platforming parts tougher than they maybe need to be (unlike many puzzle platformers this game does require a certain level of reflexes and quick action, though it’s not too tough to navigate.) The puzzles are very well designed. I never got truly stuck, but a lot of them require some lateral thinking and careful planning to navigate. My chief complaint about the game is that the checkpointing can be a little stingy, with at most one checkpoint per level (the game is divided up into about 50 relatively short levels), which meant that if I was having trouble with a later part of a level I often had to play through a bunch of stuff to get back to the point that was vexing me. This got tiresome in levels that required a lot of complex manipulations to advance, but it never got so bad that I wasn’t enjoying myself, and wasn’t a major issue most of the time. It’s a well-made game with good puzzles, and if that’s all you’re looking for then I recommend it on that level.
What makes In Between more than just competent, however, is the narration. Though it’s from a German team it has full English voice acting (German too!) and the voice actor is excellent, with a deep, somber, tone that really conveys the character’s frustration and sadness at his impending death. The writing is very good, especially for game writing, and while the “plot” is nothing special, there’s real emotional heft to what’s going on. The game’s stained glass/comic book aesthetics also match the gameplay and story well, and it all fits together to create this propulsive narrative about a dying man coming to grips with his mortality. There are little memory tears in many levels and when you touch them they reveal some scene from the character’s past and a little detail about something like his relationship with his distant father or the ways he feels like he’s abandoning his wife and daughter. There’s a real feeling of isolation, sadness, and frustration that matches with the player’s own experience running the character through the small levels and dealing with the frustrations of a difficult puzzle or finnicky platforming area. Even retracing your steps over and over to get to a difficult puzzle seems resonant with the game’s themes of frustration and helplessness in the face of an unfair world. The music, which is also excellent though there aren’t many tracks, adds even more to the atmosphere, with beautiful but unsettling themes and string arrangements. Since it’s a contemplative game where you spend a lot of time just looking at a puzzle trying to figure out an approach good music is vital, and In Between has one of the best soundtracks I can remember for a game of this scope. All this creates a package that’s emotionally resonant without being maudlin, and fun despite its serious themes and muted tone. It’s not a game that will thrill you or bring a lot of joy, but it offers the mature pleasures of a piece of media that resonates with the player and brings us into the world of another human being to empathize and feel close, while also being enjoyable just as a puzzle game. It’s the perfect game for a quiet, rainy, afternoon, or a cold, snowy, evening. Games are often described as being “fun” and In Between is that if you like puzzles, but it’s also something perhaps more important. Satisfying.
In Between is not the best puzzle platformer I’ve ever played. It’s not some great achievement in game design that everyone needs to play as soon as possible. It’s just a really solid, well-designed, fun game that was just the right length (there are also some additional challenge levels you can skip at the end of each world if you want a bit more) for what I was personally looking for. The story resonated with me, the aesthetics were great, and the puzzles were at a perfect level to be challenging at times but never really frustrating. It’s the kind of game that’s easy to overlook, but even at the asking price of $12 it’s worth the money and time investment. Indie puzzle platformers sometimes feel more like student projects than games that a consumer would actually want to spend time with, but that’s not the case here. In Between is a game worth finding time for, and the rare game that tackles serious themes in a meaningful and resonant way.
Rise & Shine is an incredibly short game, especially considering the $15 price. I got it for $9, mostly Microsoft Rewards money, and I’m not sure I’d recommend it at that price because it really is 90 minutes long. However, if you can find it for $5 or so what you get is a puzzle platformer with some pretty decent action elements and really nice presentation. It’s far from the best game I’ve ever played but it’s also not quite like anything else I can think of, and that alone makes it worth experiencing.
Rise & Shine is yet another game with a narrative based on the conceit that the characters know they are video game characters. Rise is a young boy on the planet of Gameearth whose father is a famous hero who regularly saves the world. At the beginning of the game he comes into possession of a magic gun, Shine, that not only gives him the ability to defeat the rampaging hordes of NexGen but also infinitely respawn should he happen to die (and while the game has an Ironman mode and can be beaten without dying, I died a lot in my short time with it.) From there he travels through a few standard video game environments including a zombie-infested cave and an RPG town until he defeats the leader of the NexGen forces and saves the day. The game has 14 levels, but calling them levels is perhaps overstating things. They are all bite-sized, consisting of no more than 3-5 combat encounters and puzzles. The game does have some limited replay value in the form of hidden collectibles and a few minigames, but it’s incredibly short and not overly difficult. It also has extremely generous checkpointing, which means that even if you struggle with an area (which I did with a number of them) you can keep playing it over and over until you get past it. I very much appreciated the game not wasting my time by padding itself out, but if I’m going to spend $15 on a game this short then I want to love every second of it, and Rise & Shine just isn’t at that level. It’s merely pretty good.
What is great is the look of Rise & Shine. It has incredibly detailed art work and while it looks a little bit like a Flash game, that aesthetic works within the story. I would say that Rise & Shine in some ways looks like a cartoonier Metal Slug, with a little less detail than that series but a brighter color palette and, of course, much higher definition art. The animation is less impressive, without any of Metal Slug’s amazing multi-part boss destructions and pretty static backgrounds, but the game is self-aware about this and you can’t really expect an indie team to match the work of the titans of 90s 2D arcades. Rise & Shine looks great overall, from its detailed worlds to the way Rise’s blood spurts when he dies (despite the cartoony artwork and child protagonist the game is very violent, with exploding body parts and large spurts of blood.) Rise & Shine also sounds great. There’s even 5.1 separation despite it being a 2D game. I actually set up my new surround sound speakers in between two levels and on the level after they were hooked up I could hear fire cracking behind me as I advanced through a burning city. The music is a little generic but features vocals and good instrumentation (as opposed to the chiptunes you might expect) and would fit in perfectly in a much higher budget game. I enjoyed Rise & Shine’s presentation, with the only fly in the ointment being the comic book style cut scenes, which were fine but nothing special and are not voice acted. Cut scenes are short and the story is clearly not a focus, so it’s really a nit-pick.
So what’s unique about Rise & Shine’s gameplay? Not so much the disparate parts as the way they mix together. Rise & Shine is, at its heart, a puzzle platformer. Shine collects some different ammunition types and other abilities during the brief journey, and figuring out how to use those abilities and ammunition types to overcome obstacles, be they enemies or just puzzles, is the heart of the game. Many of the puzzles involve navigating bullets around obstacles to hit switches, using your gun’s remote control upgrade, while others involve interacting with bits of the environment to get past an obstacle, including a couple that are pretty clever and I won’t spoil here. Puzzle platformers are incredibly common these days, though usually without Rise & Shine’s visual polish, but Rise & Shine also has substantial action elements. Enemy grunts and robotic drones swarm you, and you have to use a basic platforming arsenal (double jump and dash) as well as a dual-stick aiming set-up, to beat them. The game also has cover mechanics, which feel a bit tacked on and more of a jokey reference to a particular character in the game than something substantial, but they work and are needed for certain fights. The interesting thing about Rise & Shine’s combat sequences is that they are also often quite puzzley. Many enemy shots are destructible and figuring out how to blast away the bullets headed towards Rise while also going on offense can be a challenge. Then there are different types of enemies who are vulnerable to different types of shots, and managing switching to the right weapon for the right foe in the midst of frenetic chaos is also a challenge. Finally, in boss levels the game often takes a break from the action to throw a simple puzzle at you, generally navigating a bullet into position to damage a weak spot that’s shielded from Rise. The combination of frantic action and puzzle mechanics isn’t something I’ve seen blended in quite this way, at almost a 1 to 1 ratio but it mostly works and makes for a cohesive game despite smashing together two very different styles. The last game I can think of that did something similar was Super Time Force, another game I really liked, but the puzzles in that game were of the fast paced environmental variety rather than Rise & Shine’s slower paced navigation challenges.
Despite these positives…Rise & Shine is good but not great, and as mentioned is very very short. The puzzles are fine for what they are but are relatively easy and the controls can feel a little finnicky on some of those that require precise timing, meaning that even if they’re easy they may require multiple tries to actually get right. The run and gun action is better, but those sections are extremely short, and the cover based shooting bits can be a little repetitive, with enemies soaking up huge amounts of damage before they finally die. I would have liked longer more free-form levels and a greater emphasis on the run and gun segments, but those are probably much more expensive to produce than the puzzles and it feels like corners were cut to keep the game within its budget. The generous checkpoints avoid frustration but also mean that the game can be breezed through quickly, with even the final big encounter and boss level taking probably all of 10 minutes total, including repeated deaths.
$15 is a lot for a 90-minute game. For $5 more you can get Inside, a game that’s both longer and on a whole different level of quality. You can also get Cuphead, which I have not played but which has much better animation and it looks like more content too. Hollow Knight is only $12, Ori and the Blind Forest is $20, as is Guacamelee 2. Owlboy is $15. I would recommend the aforementioned Super Time Force, featuring much longer levels and a large cast of interesting characters, well before Rise & Shine. The fact is that we are absolutely spoiled for choice when it comes to cheap amazing platformers in the 8th generation, and Rise & Shine, though doing something different and worth a try, just isn’t worth as much as something like Rogue Legacy that will last you a dozen hours of better gameplay. And that’s just focusing on platformers and ignoring other types of indie games like Bastion or Crypt of the Necrodancer. The bar has been set very high for indie games, and something like Rise & Shine just doesn’t offer enough unless you’ve played everything else, or you’re really into games that reference the fact that they’re games. It’s not bad, it’s just overmatched.
All that being said, I don’t regret my time with Rise & Shine. It was fun while it lasted and the unique art style and mashing together of genres made it interesting and memorable. The nice thing about it being short is that if you can get it for cheap it’s a very low commitment. It’s something you can breeze through in one quick session and still have fun. It would be a perfect Gamepass game, or something you might find in a Humble Bundle (I think it’s been a few.) I do think it’s worth a playthrough, just not at the asking price.