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PUBG 2023; The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Another eventful PUBG: Battlegrounds season has come to an end and what a tumultuous year it's been for its eSports branch, in particular. For one, the unification of the regular game and eSports settings means that maps are now more varied, both in their pool as well as in the things inside of them. Sandstorms on Miramar and blizzards in the snowy Vikendi tear through the landscape, as players now also need to look to the skies for parachutes and mortars, among others. There's an actual friggin' polar bear in a competitive game. And it's getting kills!

M1ME, with no cares left to give, announces his next move shirtless
M1ME, with no cares left to give, announces his next move shirtless

If that's not enough, publisher Krafton also outlined a global partner program; picking a few organizations to collaborate with in each region. These squads receive automatic invites and more. This decision left unsigned teams and snubbed orgs in an awkward spot, leading to a pretty large retreat from several household names. Competitors that did remain were making wild bets with roster changes all year long. Yet, the biggest upset happened in a North American partner team. M1ME, a support player for the Soniqs who just won a global level event, was dropped for Kickstart, the star fragger from Luminosity Gaming (LG). Many felt that the former Soniqs veteran got a bum deal and an immediate revenge story emerged when LG decided that they would do a switcheroo, picking up M1ME for the open spot that Kickstart left them. With both teams going to the PUBG Global Championship (PGC) 2023, we'd all get to see who the better player is. Spoiler: It was always going to be M1ME, because star power doesn't beat work ethics. Kickstart absolutely pulled their weight too, however.

As every year, PGC is the culmination of the sport, bringing the very best together for a weeks-long tournament, filled with incredible gameplay. We had a player jump out of a window with a panzerfaust rocket launcher, to nuke an entire team out of a car. One of my favorite teams, the Vietnamese boys of Cerberus eSports, managed to win with just one player getting 11 kills; wiping multiple teams on his own. Aixleft, a star player in China, put his team on his back the entire event, racking up more than twice the impact of any of his teammates. Like I said before, PUBG eSports is the best and you should watch it.

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There was, unfortunately, one incredibly sour footnote that soiled the unabated good times at the tournament this time around. Since you won't hear about it on any fancy journalism blogs or curated websites about supposed "video games," I will be the one to tell you about one of the largest pieces of drama that you didn't know happened this year! For that, we need a brief history lesson.

There is a European team called Question Mark (QM). This team, operated by their captain named Adouzie, is what's known as an open team. Until recently, the unsigned squad had to go through qualifying rounds like any player off the streets. For two years, PGC 2021 and 2022, they managed to rally from that tough spot all the way to the main event, by the skin of their teeth. If there's one thing these boys are known for, it's fighting until the last second. This year, the team added a longtime veteran of the game and former Natus Vincere player, Bestoloch, who brought some serious firepower to the team. Along with an upcoming crack shot in F1lfirst, QM made PGC 2023 a lot easier this year. This was their year!

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Now, Question Mark is good, but they're probably not winning the event. We should set that perspective here. They barely pass through to their winner's bracket, which is better than losing, but they then fall down into the Last Chance qualification. In Last Chance, the top 8 teams squeak through to the grand finals, the big cheese, the one and all. That's where the majority of the $2 million prize pool is had. If you go home early, your year ends with a pittance, especially if you didn't get a big payday at one of only a few other major events that year. Four players and a coach living off twenty grand or so for several months is just not getting you very far. A lot of smaller teams combine a day job with a competing schedule. Not to mention that QM is a Russian roster and therefore has to deal with their country's tensions, as well as being ineligible to be called up for the Nations Cup. Russia, an otherwise dominant force in PUBG, no longer gets awarded a chance to compete, for very obvious reasons.

Stack all that mental load and now make sure you get that top 8 spot in Last Chance. Good luck! As usual, QM is scrapping up and down the leaderboard for the duration of the bracket. They're not quite in there yet, but they are oh so close. That is, until game 10 of 12, where one of the weirdest things to ever happen in a PUBG tournament happens. The game ends and the broadcast immediately goes to a technical issue break. Normally, these delays only appear before the start of a round, whenever a malfunction happens. Some headphones break, an unexpected Windows update scrambles someone's settings; there's an entire day that got lost in Dubai to equipment just getting fried. It happens. However, viewers quickly pick up that something occurred during that last match. It's so easy to miss, but it's a devastating error. Question Mark, all set to get into the middle of the playing field, suddenly stops existing. Poof, they're out of there.

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After the break, casters quickly mention a technical difficulty and move on, but it's just not so cut and dry. Obviously, QM didn't just decide to give up halfway. What happened was that a power failure in the team's booth took out all four computers in a chain reaction; the worst case scenario possible. The lobby doesn't get a rematch, QM doesn't get compensated by a points average; nothing. The show goes on as if nothing happened. Not only that, but after all 12 rounds, Question Mark missed a spot in the finals by 3 points. Three! You can imagine where everyone thought those few kills may have been found. Everyone is furious, fans and players alike. Even competitors that made it through are upset. They know all too well what the aforementioned stakes are. Your tournament PC's are garbage and they're the ones who get punished for it? Captain Adouzie is inconsolable, stating:

"I can’t sleep today, why our booth?

Bring back 1 year of my life."

What's worse is that Krafton, notoriously bad at community management, responds in the most tacit way possible. A generic mea culpa and promises to do better later aren't helping a team that got robbed right now. Social media is on fire, with pretty much all fingers pointing to the organizers to make it right, but it doesn't happen. The speculation is that if this were to happen to a partner team, instead of some unsigned names, the PUBG gods would've moved mountains. Instead, rather than get a chance at a prize pool of hundreds of thousands, Question Mark goes home for the year with $25000 for their 18th place overall. That check is not nothing, but the air around it stinks to high heaven. If QM hadn't just performed in a previous tournament, taking home six digits with a podium finish, they'd be out of luck. Krafton doesn't even offer any monetary compensation for their catastrophic failure and they can definitely afford it. They got the Squid Game guy coming up in a short movie; they got flaunting money, even if the large majority of it is PUBG Mobile's money.

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The grand finals roll around and the Twitch chat is unreadable. Endless pages spam the team name, as well as question marks. For the longest time, the outgoing support for these poor Russian boys is out in wall-to-wall messages. Every topic of conversation on social media still revolves around what happened. As people lash out, this anger also takes a toll on a few teams in the grand finals that maybe aren't playing their best, until Adouzie asks people to stop harassing others in their name. Three bewildering days of stellar games later, the Koreans of Danawa eSports take home the trophy, after already bagging another controversial win at Nations Cup this year. We don't have time to get into all that, so all that's left to say is that Danawa are now the undeniably best team in the world. Petrichor Road, a team whose player got 38 kills in this bracket by themselves, doesn't get awarded the MVP badge, despite that member having a dozen more frags over any other competitor. Krafton had just one bad decision left, I guess.

At least the future of PUBG is exciting, because you'll never know what the hell is going to happen! I hope to see you there next year.


Please Don't Let Tim Schafer Read This

After watching the huge Double Fine documentary about Psychonauts 2, I wanted to go back and watch the Broken Age one again. My memory no longer exists. I feel like I now have intimate knowledge of the development studio (I don't), especially since both documentaries constantly reference earlier footage. Those callbacks also established a history that I found increasingly bizarre. Yet, no one I've seen online has ever touched on it. Most people rave about how amazing it is to get dozens of hours of in-house footage and stop the train of thought there. To be fair, both documentaries are peerless and that praise is deserved.

There is, still, a vision of a studio you can get from seeing it being documented from its literal inception, which you'd otherwise only get from working there. A lot of times, the argument about criticism around studio culture is that "we're not seeing the full picture." Here, we kinda are getting the full spread of things. With every new scrap of footage and callback, there was a certain sentiment that kept being reaffirmed to me that I just need to get off my chest:

I think Tim Schafer might be a shitty boss?

Look away, Raz
Look away, Raz

You'll be able to use your pitchforks at the end; I understand. For now, let me explain my thought process. I don't mean that Double Fine is the same like the horror stories you hear from working at the nightmare factories of Blizzard or, heaven forbid, Ubisoft. In fact, I mean the literal opposite of that.

Schafer is an idealist, through and through. The man is all vibes and vibes are great. I think everyone would agree that Double Fine might be the best place to work in video games. Hell, there are several times that an employee relocates and Schafer finds a way to keep them on payroll. There are beer parties, free cake; the works. And that's not as in "pizza party" distraction bullshit; raises are included as well. I… It's all in the documentary that you should've watched before getting here.

There is, however, a limit to how much that spirit is benevolent or doesn't flip to being harmful. A lot of Schafer's management style centers around potential, rather than the tangible. There's a lot of wishful thinking of what could be, imagination on where a game will be down the line and a reluctance to look at a deadline realistically. At the same time, not every Double Fine game lives up to that initial dream. Brütal Legend notoriously wasn't what people expected. Broken Age is a pillar of documented compromises. We'll touch on Spacebase later. Massive Chalice, which I love, was criticized for its lack of depth. Rad; well, I think most people forgot it even exists.

The decades of wide eyes, big heart and its resulting development struggles reminded me of the infamous Rock, Paper, Shotgun interview with Peter Molyneux that starts by asking if the studio head is a pathological liar. Go back and read that harrowing interview, please. See how many parallels you'll find.

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There are several times where Schafer laughs that every game they've ever made has been late, over budget, poorly scoped and so on. There's a lot of coping with humor. Psychonauts was so close to going over a cliff that the studio almost crumbled. Amnesia Fortnight, the in-house game jam, was born out of people working on Brütal Legend for so long that they needed to do anything else. Broken Age was first split up, then the second part got pushed back and then it got pushed back even more, as the studio scrambled to find more money than their legendarily successful Kickstarter campaign of over $3 million possessed. From the interview, Molyneux states:

"If you go back and look at every single game I've ever worked on, ever, other than Fable 3, they've all taken longer."

Hell, Molyneux even used Double Fine as a crutch in that same interview. At one point, Schafer shows off his notebook with ideas. In the book are several different pages with hundreds upon hundreds of names, before getting to Broken Age. The process, like every step in the founder's playbook, took ages to get to a conclusion. It takes so long that some episodes feature a mock logo. Perfectionism works great for an end result, but I'd argue that you don't need to write down hundreds of names to come up with something as elegantly simple as Broken Age. It's no Grim Fandango, I get it, but what is?

At the same time, this idealism burns through more good will than I've ever seen. Double Fine, at the time, set a record for Kickstarter successes to fund Broken Age. After that momentum collapsed, Kickstarter became much harder to fund projects. You barely ever hear from a crowdfunding success story anymore. Double Fine made out, but every developer behind them had to live in the wake of its success and the resulting "Kickstarter fatigue" its gold rush instigated.

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Then, there's Spacebase DF-9. After crowdfunding one way for Broken Age, Double Fine shifted to Steam Early Access, which was new at the time. While Spacebase is developed in tandem with Broken Age, it isn't explicitly mentioned in the documentary. Well, the project anonymously shows up once: A "game" gets canceled and twelve people get fired as a result. That game is Spacebase. Double Fine had gotten all the money they were going to get from Early Access and had to make the call to can it. This decision came at the cost of consumer dissatisfaction, but more importantly, the jobs of a dozen people. That's not just under-delivering; it's being plain reckless. The move was aptly criticized by the developers of Project Zomboid, who pointed out that everyone else will suffer, while Double Fine can once more just wash its hands of it all:

Failures tarnish the reputation of the entire model, so a failure (particularly a high-profile failure) is potentially damaging to the very developers who need this model the most.

For Psychonauts 2, crowdfunded in yet a new avenue to prevent the previous ties, the company brought in Zak McClendon as a more practical producer, to remedy the game trailing to infinity. Think of him as The Benz. Somewhere over the middle point of development, McClendon is fired for not gelling with the team's creative spirit. The producer mentions that he is seen as a "stepdad" and that he "could" put his foot down on creative decisions to speed up the process, but he didn't want to fall out of step, for what good that eventually does him. The documentary paints Zak's storyline as a villain and, as transparent as the footage gets, the man's exit is shuffled behind closed doors. You see what they want you to see, after all. It really feels like McClendon gets the short end of the stick, as the whole reason they exist is to prevent what will eventually happen to Psychonauts 2 and every other Double Fine game: Everyone is waiting on Schafer to get his head out of the clouds and settle on what actually needs to happen. Schafer is not the one that will budge. That's the perk of being at the top. Eventually, the crowd money evaporates, again, leading the company to get acquired by Microsoft, to once more prevent them from going broke over not getting a product up and ready. That's a pretty crazy turnaround, when you put the firing and the delay side to side.

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Schafer just seems incapable of time and/or resource management, which cuts both ways. At the start of Broken Age, he mentions that it's too early to be thinking of what isn't possible, leaving the game in a fugue state. That stretch lasts for years. For Psychonauts 2, one of the designers mentions that the game is constantly in the last four months of development, for years, which puts people in a near-constant pressure cooker. The same employee gets put through a "trial by fire" when first starting, as admitted by McClendon. The entire level that the designer was asked to create gets scrapped and remade, as do others, while the studio figures out what they want to achieve. Throughout its existence, the sentiment of the studio is that it's always at the precipice of catastrophic closure and it's time to sink or swim. For Psychonauts that execution was avoided with heavy crunch. Broken Age crunched to the point that someone caught pneumonia; eventually signing publisher deals the studio was initially against. Psychonauts 2 solves its issues by becoming part of the Xbox ecosystem.

You'd think that this last, permanent solution would put Double Fine out of its misery, before its string of troubled actions would come to a head, the same way it did for Molyneux. The former Bullfrog founder now makes NFT garbage, by the way. Yet, this is the hurdle that I fell on. I just don't live in this idealistic world. You can only assume Double Fine can now dream endlessly, as it always has, until Microsoft puts its thumb on the studio. The platform holder not only can, but has historically already cut throats, when it comes to their products not meeting expectations.

In 2014, Microsoft made a big deal about announcing the return of their multiplayer game, Phantom Dust. Initially, the remake was going to cost $5 million, but that's before the execs wanted to add a singleplayer campaign and even talked about it being a "JRPG" of sorts. A bloated scope is a universal game dev experience. Only a year later, Phantom Dust was canceled and the studio behind it had to fire everyone. In an interview, one of the developer's employees stated that they asked Microsoft for $2 million more to make what they themselves had pitched, but that the company wouldn't budge and just callously canned everything instead. In the scale of things, $2 million isn't that much, especially for a company that throws around a $68.7 billion acquisition. Hell, it's less than either of Double Fine's crowdfunding efforts. And that's for a game that Microsoft made a big stink about. It would be delusional to think that this crush wouldn't also eventually happen to Double Fine, if they don't rectify decades of indecision.

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Of course, I can only feel this dread because Double Fine allows us to peer behind the curtain to a lot, though not all, of its goings-on. You could read this and think the studio could just as easily rescind this courtesy. I'll refer to the interview one more time. You really should go back to read it all, as it is uncanny in its similarities: Molyneux threatens to no longer talk to the press. The interviewer responds:

There's a massive gap between not overpromising and taking your ball and going home.

To put it bluntly, I think it will be hard for Schafer to come to a realization before it's too late. The man has operated a certain way for decades and even when other employees, like McClendon (but not limited to him) try to shift direction, it isn't the founder that's left holding the bag. Old dogs, new tricks. Additionally, the games that do end up hitting are quickly seen as ends justifying the means. Everyone loves Psychonauts, so the process is all water under the bridge. And, if not, then just leave and work somewhere that isn't all bar crawls and free dinners. Sink or swim. Just like at Blizzard or Ubisoft. Roll with the punches of a tyrant or a lovable goofball that scribbles in a notebook, like a child draws on a school desk, until a deadline forces progress. Work under the sword of Damocles, because that's a poetic endeavor or whatever. I only see a marginal difference there. I see the same quixotic behavior that Molyneux was railed for, except that he didn't make an excellent series of documentaries about it.

I love that the documentaries exist. Unfortunately, as much as Schafer's idealism skews positively, my thoughts point decidedly negative. It would be great if the current world of massive, industry-wide layoffs and economical crises didn't ruin the end of the rainbow for me. I just don't see a lot of scenarios where Schafer's lengthy history of going over budget, over scope and past date doesn't eventually come crashing down and not in the way that makes for a throwaway joke at a later date. You could argue that this time has already occurred for the turnover of employees that are no longer there. Should that happen, there's always more good will to burn. The man is very charismatic; dreamers often are.

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If you are Tim Schafer and you read this: I'm sorry, sir. I do love Double Fine and I think the games are unlike any other. To make matters worse, you just mentioned that going to DICE gave you COVID, despite wearing a mask. My timing is as awful as my train of thought. Get well soon, Tim.

Making games is hard.


GOTY 2022 - Metal Edition

I've already completed my picks for GOTY 2022. I think that you'll find them to be the best choices on this site. All other games are inferior. However, Giant Bomb has surprised us with some list variations this year. So, inspired by the works of Jan and Tam, I will be transforming some games into alternate media as well.

I've picked ten games and paired them with their metal track counterparts. Partially, this comes from hearing this year's discussion around Metal: Hellsinger. A lot of praise went to how solid the soundtrack is, which I couldn't have disagreed with more, as an avid fan of music that is loud as shit. A bunch of tired, generic metal might work well in a video game, where you don't want to engage too closely with the music, but it does not do well for standing on its own. I originally was going to use a more general counterculture method, but I feel that would open games up to a lot of strange interpretations. Is Stray a shoegaze game? Is using a riot grrrl track for River City Girls too cliché? I don't wanna think about that. Likely, people are already going to dissect what constitutes being metal. In broad terms, any of the many subgenres will do, from nu metal to deathcore. If there are vaguely crunching guitars, we're good. I drew the line at the intersection where metalcore becomes more punk than metal. It's still pretty wide.

I should also clarify: These are not my choices. You'll find those picks in the aforementioned list. You'd know that if you read the list. Why didn't you read the list? And so forth and so on.

These games are generally acclaimed releases of 2022 that you could find on most lists. They're from The Game Awards (TGA) method of rounding up nominees. If you've heard of the game, it's on there; whether you think Diablo Immortal was a good mobile game or not. That's an actual TGA nominee, by the way.

I hope you are ready…to rock:

Elden Ring (Wormrot - Weeping Willow)

God of War: Ragnarok (After The Burial - Lost in the Static)

Vampire Survivors (Origin - Antithesis)

Neon White (The Mad Capsule Markets - Restart!)

(Japan tends to take these down, if you're seeing this in the future and the video is missing)

Kirby and the Forgotten Land (Babymetal - iine!)

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 (Maximum the Hormone - Maximum the Hormone)

Immortality (Born from Pain - Immortality)

I know this one is on the nose, but this is a killer song, okay?

Pentiment (Rise and Fall - Forked Tongues)

Tunic (The Ghost Inside - Destined)

Cult of the Lamb (Lamb of God - Laid to Rest)

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2022 Is Finally Another Good Year For GOTY!

At some point, I need to call it, when it comes to playing cool games in 2022. I've used December to hold a mad dash of releases I hadn't played, to potentially put on a list. In just these few weeks, I've played Super Kiwi 64, Immortality, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, Triangle Strategy, Eiyuden Chronicle: Rising and Marvel Snap. That's what I could afford, at least. Except for Triangle Strategy, which skyrocketed to the sole winner of biggest disappointment, most of these games have flirted with being on the final list. Like I said when I trimmed the shortlist here, 2022 has been a really strong year.

In particular, I really appreciate the variety of quality we've received. In most years, a lot of lists tend to homogenize, which makes my choices look like outliers. This year, there are many more genres with stellar drops than ever before. From the spectacle of God of War, to the haunting vibe of Signalis, to the gripping story of Norco. Every creation has a shot of making it on any list.

That's why I'll now present you with the most accurate, objective list of the 10 best games of 2022, curated to perfection. Video games are back, baby!

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10. Fortnite:

Though this is more of a mandatory inclusion, from playing 700 hours in five months, the convergence of interest in Fortnite has been a thrilling experience. The Rocket League update broke the game, as that awful game would do, so my enjoyment has taken a steep downturn since then. Still, it's hard to be disappointed by any state of Fortnite. It may not work now, but in three or four months, we'll get another whole game anyway. Nothing in this content machine is permanent, not even the bad times.

When it was functional and fun, however, it was hard for me to put the game down at all. Who knew that the one thing this game needed was to remove the building? That's like this battle royale's entire hook! Following that up with additions from Dragon Ball is, if nothing else, expert marketing. You could shoot a Kamehameha from your hands, complete with sound effects. That's an extremely satisfying feeling.

The groundswell was so enormous that I even managed to squad up with someone; something I hadn't done in years. It turns out that your fun is exponential when you play together, cementing its place on this list. Fortnite: it's not just for kids.

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9. Arcade Paradise

I'm surprised that this game didn't get more attention, in a year where "simulator" games are so popular. We need to come back to what the term even means anymore, at some point, but that's for another day.

In Arcade Paradise, you manage a business that also has arcade machines with facsimiles of classics. In between your playtime, you'll be tending to maintenance and trying to collect funds, with the goal of getting even more games. There's a subversive angle, as these sims tend to have, but the real power is in the loop. Play a game, do some laundry, play another game, clean up and so on. There's a ticking clock that caps how much you can achieve, which means that you'll often find yourself lost in the moment, while trying to get a high score. Arcade Paradise recreates a microcosm of being enamored with video games and forgetting the world exists. The game creates nostalgia without actually using it, as much. It helps that the scrappy arcade machines it offers are mostly good.

Jan was right; put that on the back of the box
Jan was right; put that on the back of the box

8. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

I know that Giant Bomb has ridiculously arbitrary reasons to what can make a list, but the game was added on Nintendo Switch this year, which is significant enough to me. While daunting, this game has consistently impressed me. How do you even describe this beast? It's an open-ended, narrative driven, whodunnit, tower defense, score attack, role-playing, visual novel game.

After a lengthy prologue, 13 Sentinels drops you into the deep end. There are three sections; one story, one combat and one reference material. The eventual goal is to uncover how the story of 13 Sentinels came to be and it's going to be a wild ride to get there. If only this game had fewer off-putting anime tropes, it would've shot up the list, but the game is such an impressive feat that I was able to look past it. The interlocking systems are a game design masterpiece, even though I've mostly just been getting my mind blown by the story twists. Mark 13 Sentinels down as the most mind-blowing game of 2022. I have no idea how they pulled this one off.

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7. Shin-chan: Me and the Professor on Summer Vacation – The Endless Seven-Day Journey

I trust that most people are, by now, familiar with the season-length videos of Tim Rogers. The creator's latest delves, better than I ever could, into Boku no Natsuyasumi. The game exists in the popular Japanese concept of summer vacations. One of my favorite games is the Nintendo 3DS gem, Attack of the Friday Monsters: A Tokyo Tale.

All that preamble is there to say that this Shin-chan release follows in those footsteps. These slice of life features are hard to mess up, as your main goal is to exist in them. You do morning fitness with your family, eat a nice meal, go out to explore the space around you and go bug hunting. You're just a kid in one of their formative years. Even a little stinker like Shin-chan manages to be endearing in this framing. Once again, this is a game that uses a nostalgic pretense, for something you've never experienced. It's just a nice time.

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6. Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin

From one extreme to the other, Stranger of Paradise is the shit-heel of the year. To me, Final Fantasy is a 90s franchise and this game is as reminiscent of this era as it gets. Every aspect of this action role-playing game (RPG) is over the top; filled with attitude, violent outbursts and flashing lights. At the same time, it's clear that the game where you can wear a combat fedora doesn't take itself seriously. You're here to mindlessly enjoy the slop.

On the flipside, they do a good job of retaining the Final Fantasy building blocks of dungeons, jobs and character building. I played the first Final Fantasy this year and, while I liked it, I wished that it hadn't aged so poorly. Stranger of Paradise manages to bridge that gap between eras perfectly. Just like being an angsty teen, it feels like no one understood what this game was aiming for.

It's just one of those days, where you wanna kill chaos!

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5. Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration

When I first reviewed this collection, I wasn't expecting it to be as memorable as I feel about it now. Every time I think back on it, I appreciate Atari 50 just a little bit more. It feels weird even mentioning it, because the commending aspect of this release isn't the game part; it's the finite, but incredibly stimulating documentation around it. I've seen every scrap of info that developer Digital Eclipse put in there and I would still see more of it.

Every tiny piece of the game's historic timeline builds to a growing appreciation, not just for video games, but the creative process behind it. It feels like you become a better person for having internalized this release, which is a unique feat to achieve for any game. As an Atari fan, I've also gotten a good kick out of playing its library, both good and bad. It has been said before, but: Every collection needs to be this lovingly curated from now on. Atari 50 is a new standard. Accept nothing less.

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4. Dwarf Fortress

I have never played Dwarf Fortress. It's unlikely that I will, ever, play this behemoth. Yet, I've consumed hours of this release, without ever touching it. I'll watch videos of people getting pushed into the deep end. I devour every social media thread with stories from people's colonies. I haven't found a bad story yet. Dwarf Fortress is, detached from its systems, just a writing prompt. It's a way to get people to talk about their experiences with the creations they've nurtured.

Part of why this game is endlessly interesting to vicariously live through is, of course, the scope. Dwarf Fortress is an island; deeper than any other thing ever created. If you can think of it, there's likely a system for it. The living society behind this pack of dwarves rarely ever unfolds in the same way twice, meaning that you'll never relive the same thing as someone else. Basically, what I'm saying is that this is what it would be like if No Man's Sky was an actual good game.

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3. Harvestella

If your only exposure to Harvestella is the Giant Bomb Quick Look, then you likely haven't gotten a complete picture. Sometimes, that happens, but it hurts when it's a game quite as special as this. Yes, Harvestella is a farming sim, in a year where a lot of them were released. However, I think that shoving it in that box is a little short-sighted.

The biggest strength of this game is that all of its systems feel equally implemented. In a lot of these sims, there are always one or two elements that feel forceful, as farming games need to have certain checkboxes they need to tick. In Harvestella, you wake up and tend to the farm, then it's time for chores or a town visit. After that, it's likely the afternoon and you'll need to eat the food you've prepared to regain your energy, before it's time to go deepen the paths in the dungeon you're exploring. That Etrian Odyssey-esque model will yield the resources that you'll bring back to build a better self tomorrow. It's rare for days in games to feel this harmoniously filled, as they would in real life. Harvestella nails it. It's not so much a farming sim with RPG systems, as it is the coziest RPG in quite some time.

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2. Kirby and the Forgotten Land

I feel bad for Kirby games. Not only do people chronically underestimate this franchise, but they also frequently release when no one will remember them. Kirby is this year's biggest victim of recency bias.

Watch the opening to Kirby and the Forgotten Land and you'll understand why this game rules. This explorative platform game is all about a jubilant love of video games. Kirby is here to make you feel good with their mouth. Sucking up giant objects, to transform you into the next little gameplay section, offers such a quirky way to experience moment-to-moment vignettes. The obvious comparison here is Super Mario Odyssey, even if I feel that's kind of reductive. Kirby plays second fiddle to no plumber.

At the end of the rope, Kirby and the Forgotten Land will also reward you with a crazy storyline. What other game will hit you with an opening and ending song, like an anime episode? This is just a wholly euphoric thing; enjoy it.

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1. Vampire Survivors

We did it, baby! We finally agreed on a game being good! A lot of years, my choices have been deemed eclectic, if not contrarian. Therefore, I'm extra relieved to see Vampire Survivors being able to maintain its momentum until the end of the year. Once again, this speaks to the quality from the breadth of games we've had this year.

The moment I put my hands on Vampire Survivors, I knew it was going to be the one. Until then, there was just nothing else like it. Since then, a hundred clones have tried to, unsuccessfully, replicate its success. That's how you know you've made something impactful. It's so plain to see why, as well. Vampire Survivors is the same immediate dopamine avalanche of mobile games, but without the dark patterns. Shit is just popping off all the time because it's cool. That's exactly how video games should be. You need minimal effort, but you get maximum enjoyment, free of charge. The action is so captivating that I lived through the awful web version for ages, before the mobile version was released. Killing monsters by the hundreds just feels that great. No part of this game sucks; it's all good shit. Vampire Survivors is the undeniable game of the year.


Fortnite Has Looped Back To 2004

The new Fortnite season is here! Chapter? It's one of those interchangeable words, for sure. There's new content for Fortnite! This means that there's another battle pass to complete, which I already have done. Well, I'm above level 100; now I just need to prestige it. Additionally, the game has another regimen of special events and landscape changes in store for the island.

I'd review the whole season, but I don't feel I'm a representative player. I play on a Nintendo Switch and that experience isn't what you'll be facing in the game. I just won a game where the game disabled my sprint button completely. Couldn't run; still won. My daily complaints are found on Twitter, while I just post a different Victory Royale on Instagram daily. In short, the island is covered in chrome and everything has been pulled into the air. The added draw distance this verticality forces is tearing my poor Switch to shreds. Regardless, I'm still playing a ton of Fortnite and finding my enjoyment where I can.

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There is, however, one minor pebble I'd like to needlessly dissect. Just take a small point and go way too far with it; that's the internet way of things. See, the Fortnite modus operandi is to crank out a new event every week, without fail. That event then also comes with a set of objectives to complete, which coaxes players to keep grinding forever. Once you've completed those missions, there will be a new set of them next week. At the end of the carrot, you'll find something like an emote or maybe even a skin. This further triggers the ol' FOMO, which is fear of missing out. I could also talk about what the butterfly effect is for brute forcing that much content, but we're drilling much further down.

Most objectives in Fortnite are kept simple, for a good reason. Every abstraction will make it harder for players to clear an objective. If a player gets too frustrated, then they'll skip a mission. Skip enough content and suddenly that FOMO fades, since the payoff isn't worth the effort. As a result, most of what you'll need to achieve is to get a kill with a certain weapon, drop in a specific location or do a quantity of damage. It's a very 2004 feeling, being the number one head honcho who also gets tasked with killing the rats in the cellar.

Just kill Vader... while everyone else also is doing that
Just kill Vader... while everyone else also is doing that

It's one Mr. Driller block down that we're gonna go. The whole 2004 angle may sound simple and clean at first, but it comes with a kind of insufferable quirk. Fortnite puts a bunch of mini bosses on the map, for further distractions. This season, almost every event has a mission to go kill one of those chuckleheads. The issue is that, just like in 2004, the boss isn't its own instance. That enemy, who is pretty powerful, just exists in the same world as the 99 players who want to kill you. Not only that, but most of these players also want to complete that mission.

Now you've got two different problems. The first problem, which I've faced the most, is that you didn't land close enough to the boss. By the time you get there, someone has already killed your kill and they either ran off with the powerful loot drops or, worse, they didn't run yet and you're in their way. It's impossible for you to complete the mission this round, so you'll have to queue up again. That's great for player retention over at developer Epic Games' data center, but it sucks for the player.

The second issue is, if you do choose to land close, you'll be dropping hot and spicy. Several others will be cannibalizing the limited loot around, but more importantly: they're not there to kill the boss. These players are going to target you first. Fortnite, for as good as it is with its objectives structure, has no etiquette when it comes to mission completion. If any player spots another, it's go time. So, not only can you not kill the boss, now you're forcing a fight with very little resources and a ticking clock for when other people might join in. The whole structure is a have and have nots conundrum.

Gwen Stacy has a lightsaber now. Don't question it.
Gwen Stacy has a lightsaber now. Don't question it.

It's one thing to be stuck in 2004, idling in a field all day, waiting for your spawns not to get stolen. In those older games, however, you weren't also fighting everyone on the server to the death. Fortnite has chosen to bottleneck an already obsolete bottleneck that online games have solved over the many years of player management. This is completely mystifying game design and it comes from needing to have more content on a weekly basis, which limits the vetting process. Personally, I thought they would have caught this in the first week, but they're now up to the third mini boss quest. Now, every time they add another powerful enemy on the island, I dread the time where I'll need to spend two or three hours just forcing my way through, just to tick a box.

This week, they've brought back Darth Vader, who also happens to have another mission location right on top of him. It's a goddamn shitshow in that area right now, pardon my French. Everyone is either trying to kill Vader, sprinting to get the crates you need to open or trying to sabotage the aforementioned goals, because there are other players in their way. Meanwhile Vader throws a lightsaber around that crushes everything in its path. There's a force push that throws people around. It's more chaotic than a full lobby of Fall Guys in there. This forceful intensity is a far cry from just needing to go catch some fish. There's a risk in standing still and fishing, but at least it's not a complete crap shoot.

I guess my point is: Not all nostalgia is necessarily good. We don't need to bring back everything from the old World of Warcraft days. We have quite literally put these methods to the test of time. I don't want to gangbang Guns McGee that's coming in next week's inevitable event. I'm too old for that kinda partying.


Fire Emblem: Three Houses Is Fallout 4, In That It Was Once A Good Game

Spoiler warning: I'm nowhere near the end, but I reveal one or two big story beats in this. Do not read this if you don't want to know.

As much as I hate repeating myself, I bought a Nintendo Switch. I'm, also, still mostly playing Fortnite, since it's the lowest possible effort right now. I have, however, prestiged my battle pass by now, which is 200 levels. So, now I don't need to look at missions anymore, since that doesn't add anything, which has freed up some time. It so happens that, at around that milestone, I finally got my hands on a copy of one of the games that was recommended to me by you, the Giant Boomers. That's probably not a great name. We're old, though.

It's surprisingly hard to get physical copies of Switch games that didn't release recently. The rare few that are, in turn, still sell for full price and that just doesn't sit well with me. I'm sure Breath of the Wild is a good time, but it will have to wait until some second hand copy pops up. From all the games that ended up on the shortlist, I managed to indefinitely borrow a copy of Fire Emblem: Three Houses. The Gameboy Advance predecessor is one of the best tactics games on the platform, so there's a pedigree there that has me interested in seeing its evolution. There's gotta be a reason that they keep shoving characters in the Super Smash Bros titles, right?

Welcome to the world of anime bullshit
Welcome to the world of anime bullshit

Three Houses has a scope far greater than its origins. Rather than just have fights, interspersed with conversations, the game now presents the protagonist with a hub. Your life as a mercenary has landed you a job as a teacher in a monastery, where youths are training to protect their side of the land. Out of the houses present, guess how many, you choose to lead one color-coded side. I went with the yellows, because their leader wasn't a serious as the others and they had a himbo named Raphael, who is a continuous delight to have around. Personality is a huge draw here, which is why you'll spend a lot of time in the monastery running around and getting to know people better, even the students from the other two groups. There are also a few side activities, like fishing and gardening, though those aren't nearly as involved. They're there. The place has a bright, colorful tone, though the cel-shaded textures are surprisingly low resolution for a game of this stature. Whether you're playing on a screen or in handheld, the smudgy edges are very noticeable, even if the overall art is solid.

As Three Houses is twofold, one part in the monastery and one in combat, I'll detail both. Each month, there's a mission that will happen. Until then, you can not just talk to students, but also instruct them in certain traits that raises skill levels and unlocks more attacks. Teaching requires motivation, which in turn can be increased by handing out gifts. I don't know why a teacher would do that, but that's the mechanism. Give a girl flowers and she'll want to be tutored some more. Someone good enough in a taught trait can pass an exam to become a more potent class of fighter, from thief to a wizard flying on a dragon. Well, it's a wyvern, if you wanna be nerdy about it.

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With these new powers, it's time to hop into a battle; whether it's the month's mission or auxiliary quests. Once again, the battlefield is weirdly ugly for a game like this, tiled in the most drab environment you could think of. After choosing the units you like, you'll fight in a traditional roshambo system. Sword beats axe, axe beats lance. There are a whole stack of other possibilities above that. Magic of different kinds, ranged attacks, special skills that reduce weapon durability and battalions with limited assaults that cannot be countered. As far as fighting goes, Three Houses hasn't missed a beat. Pour on top of that the personalities of the students and fighting is a joyful affair. I want my kids to do well, even the ones who are little douchebags.

A lot of emphasis is put into making these characters likable, whatever their archetypes might be. In fact, I could argue that relationships are the main priority in the game; in the tactics game. At first, I just talked to people I wanted to and got on with my day, until I realized that's a punishing way of playing. Any character that doesn't get attention also doesn't scale. Not talking to someone will hide information that will be needed later, to increase someone else's potential. On top of that, there are 'support' conversations between all the students, so that they do better while in proximity with each other in fights. I'm almost always talking to someone or watching someone talk.

I've recruited Petra to my house. They're great.
I've recruited Petra to my house. They're great.

At first, I thought Fire Emblem was about fifty-fifty between fluff and combat, which is already a weird ratio. The real slice, however, is a conservative 60/40. I spend at least an hour and change in the monastery and the mission is never longer than 40 minutes. In fact, if you'd only do the mandatory fight, you could easily play the game at around 80 percent dating simulator and 20 percent fights. That's insane! I enjoy my time with the people of the monastery, but there's a limit to how much blabbering I'm willing to do.

With all that dialogue, it's also hard to stay engaging. That's really where this game broke down for me. The first dozen hours of Three Houses are amazing, some of the best I've ever played. After that, the anime parts start rearing their heads, including cutscenes. Conversations get more generic, clichéd tropes are brought out. The wide range of possibilities funnels into a trodden story that Fire Emblem will tell, whether you like it or not. That point came to me as a major event was supposed to rock my world. My mentor wanted to tell me something important, but didn't have the time, as there was a dangerous mission ahead. That's a giant burning flare to say that person dies. It was very anticlimactic. Right after that, a character demands that I hand over the deceased's diary, even though no point until then would make me do so. You frequently get choices that can raise (or lower) your relationship, but in this case only one option worked. The other choice, not giving up a super personal item for no reason, would just loop back around endlessly. For a game that asks for your input every twenty second in dozens of hours in dialogue, it certainly doesn't give a fuck what you think, when it comes down to it. Why even ask anything of me, other than to waste my time.

I haven't seen a plot railroaded this badly, ever since Fallout 4 let you carelessly blow up the world for twenty hours, before making you suddenly deliriously emotional about your child that hadn't been mentioned more than once. Fallout 4 wasn't the franchise we were used to, just like Three Houses, but the evolution of it was enjoyable, until it stopped giving a fuck. Just like Fallout 4, there's a better game in here than the new Fire Emblem ends up being. The monastery is just like the settlements that you have to foster. The tactical combat of both is undermined by more popular, emerging game systems. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is Fallout 4; a divisive mess that will alienate a lot of older fans and will make others dig their heels in.

The game that brought you Fallout 76. That's where we're headed.
The game that brought you Fallout 76. That's where we're headed.

As I recruit more students and therefore have to sit through even more talks, I've started doing daily tasks around the house while they yap. I have to touch the controller, like all the time, but it's nothing more than a check, to see if I'm still there. Compelling. On the combat side, as your students get more involved, a huge rift grows between them. Anyone who is on a flying creature straightup obliterates the enemy. If you give that character a bow, it will even demolish archers, which are supposed to be a direct counter. As such, anyone not on a flier just can't keep up, especially when terrain gets harder to navigate. Anything with range scales twice as much, so I have to go out of my way to not super murder everything, just so a grounded unit can painstakingly kill some fodder. Admittedly, I'm playing on Casual so that I don't lose units, but that has only happened twice in the beginning. It also doesn't change the fact that ranged units trump everyone else. The game is stupidly easy once a few missions have passed; I barely pay attention anymore. It's almost like they just want you to get back to the dating sim part.

I still think there's a great game in Fire Emblem: Three Houses, but the honeymoon phase has crashed and burned. Some characters still make my heart flutter when they appear, I do want to stress that. That's why I'll keep playing. Some of the writing is endearing and will land for you, no matter what kind of person you like in your anime bullshit. Then again, I also am forced to invite people to tea parties, just so I can raise my charm that I need to recruit others. It's clear that the priority for this franchise has shifted away. Where it was once a plot-driven tactics game, it is now a dating sim with some combat systems. Right on queue for me to fall out of love, they've announced a new Fire Emblem, subtitled Engage. Subtle. It looks like they've made it even more anime than before. I'm sure someone will like that, but for me the hype is dead.

Long live Fire Emblem.


Are We All Gonna Play Fortnite Now?

So I bought a Nintendo Switch. I think I said that already. With the help of the Giant Bomb community, I made a small list of games that I'd one day try to find an affordable copy of, though I'll admit it's a mission that's a lot harder than I thought. Nintendo things are an eternal constant. There are about a dozen titles I'm keeping an eye out for, like Selener.

While I'm waiting for the fateful day, but also because buying a Switch made me eat sleep for dinner a few times, I looked up a few free games to play. This being the current dystopian future we all wanted, I can't just play free games on a Switch. That would be too simple. Online activation requires a paid subscription and while Nintendo has a fairly priced plan, it is still paying for a service that should be free. I'm not quite going to do that yet; maybe after they beef up the selection of emulated games. Put Terranigma on there and we'll talk.

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There are, luckily, a few exceptions to online taxation. A select amount of titles are so big that their critical mass escapes the Nintendo paywall. You can't be the one platform without the current tastemaker. That's like reverse money making or something; I don't know, I didn't read Freakonomics. So, thanks to TikTok making me a thought zombie, I downloaded Fall Guys, since the platform game is having a crazy resurgence. If anything, I just wanted to know what all the in-jokes on my feed were about. My verdict is: That game is okay. I both understand why it's easily playable and why people would have lost interest so quickly the first time. Again, I think the Switch control design is awful, so that doesn't help me in my games. I briefly flirted with buying some cosmetics, because Fall Guys is an exception that makes its microtransactions actually micro. Then I started grinding dailies and since those missions include team modes, I hit the Pokémon Unite wall, where solo players are always grouped with children. I don't want to go through that again, so I stopped playing. Here's a free game design tip: How about you use all that data that I know you're mining off me to make a checkbox that lets me pair with adults only? Just a thought.

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On a whim, I downloaded Fortnite; that other big game. As you know, I'm a huge PUBG fan and I had been long overdue to try some battle royale action again. I cleared all of the tiny internal storage on a Switch to do so, since I also don't have an SD card yet. An hour or so later, I was dropping on what felt like a brand new game. I played Fortnite in Season 1, and yes they're doing seasons now, but this Goliath has since morphed into a whole new beast. Honestly, the game feels extremely overwhelming at first. I find the constant objective stimulation to be a bit of a dark pattern, but I managed to quickly tune it out. There are a metric ton of things to do in Fortnite; some you'll do organically and some you won't. I advise to just play normally at first and once the pinball sounds stop happening, only then hop into the quests tab, to see what else you could do.

I'm playing the game mode without building. Shooters on a controller are already bad enough to wield; I don't want to also do rotating building sequences that will give me carpal tunnel. Fortnite is so much more fun without building and I used to build all the time. Without that hassle, you free a lot of mind space to think about learning the myriad of mini game systems instead. There's Spider-Man swinging, fishing, riding sharks, weird roller coasters, vehicle modding; there are too many things to mention. I don't think I've ever learned so much about a game that I technically played before.

Beep beep, so let's ride
Beep beep, so let's ride

My favorite thing to do in this game is to just drive around. Fortnite is a vessel that lifts from other games, ever since they fucked over their business partners in PUBG. It's what made Epic billionaires. For their cars, specifically, they ate GTA's lunch surprisingly well, by adding real-time radio. Especially since I'm a solo warrior, I drop at the edge of the map and need to somehow make my way into the circle every time. To do so, I'll just hop into a vehicle, turn on a station that's full of TikTok sounds and start cruising around the map, hitting opponents with my car. It's never not fun to hit someone and watch them fly off into space. On top of that, you can attach a cow catcher to your ride and ram any structure in your path. Is your enemy running into a building, thinking they outsmarted you? Simply knock down the building with them in it! It catches people off guard almost every time. I'm telling you, this mechanism is hilarious and it's the closest I'll come to reliving the days of when vehicular combat was alive and well. That's why H1Z1's Auto Royale car mode is the second best battle royale ever made, after Radical Heights.

Ever since I started playing, I almost instantly fell into the deep end. In six days, I managed to get to level 96 on the battle pass, just endlessly looking forward to the next objective to complete. My Twitter has become a nightmare, where I just tweet about Fortnite every day. I'm bleeding followers, because of all of the Fortnite. If I win a game, I almost compulsively take a screenshot, so no one can doubt whether I actually won. I even managed to surpass several of my lifetime battle royale goals, like winning two games in a row or getting double digit kills. Granted, the Switch pool only has a few players that are impossibly good, but I'm also impossibly bad at controlling the joy-cons, so I think it balances out a bit. Hell, I'll periodically play bad enough that the game will literally make bots fall from the sky, so you can feel good about killing someone. Bots aren't quite as bad as in PUBG, but they do have big tells. All of them try to break walls if their pathing fails and they have magic aim, turning on you from hundreds of meters away, if you get in their vision range. Bots are great target practice, which I desperately need, so I'm okay with their presence.

I killed one of those Narutos in this one, so I hit em with the default dance
I killed one of those Narutos in this one, so I hit em with the default dance

By some coincidence, Giant Bomb also got back into Fortnite. Considering this particular timing, I hopped in the Playdate stream and had a blast watching the crew and duders learn what I just learned: Fortnite is a fun time. I hope they do more of those streams. Several people in chat mentioned installing the game as well and I can only hope their journey is as enjoyable as mine has been. There's more than enough video game around the edges that you don't immediately feel like you're just getting beaten into the ground. That trial by fire that happens in most other games gets softened here with all the wacky side antics you can focus on instead. You will still need to be able to shoot a gun, but I've watched a fair share of end games where the last person is just crouching in a bush to win it. It will likely happen for you as well. You will get a Victory Royale that will enable you to sing that song about Tomato Town.

I'm so close to completing the battle pass that I'll probably keep going until I do. Even if I find V-bucks reprehensible, I'll buy the pass once to cap off the good times I've had. There are a few skins that don't feel like highway robbery as well, on top of some pretty well designed ones. If I had unlimited money, I'd get the Street Fighter crew that's currently in the store. Blanka in a suit goes pretty hard. Who knows, maybe I'll play enough Fortnite that I won't mind giving them more money to make Apple memes. Time will tell. I guess that means that I won't be playing a main Switch game for a while after all.


So I bought a Nintendo Switch

It's not news that I go through game collection sprees periodically. I've been looking for a Wii U for months now. You'd think it would be easy to find someone doing away with a console no one wants. For some reason though, people are selling their unwanted child for either way too much or in a ridiculous, incomplete state. Then, two-ish weeks ago, I finally replaced my broken Playstation 1 with the filthiest, nastiest lot I've ever had in my hands. Considering I own a thousand console games and lived in a condemned house, that statement says a lot. That batch was all kinds of fucked up, but it was affordable and that's where I'm at with my collection maintenance.

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Usually, an acquisition like that keeps me busy enough to close any secondhand market apps I have, but this time I lingered. Not one week later, another aptly priced lot presented itself. Well, the €300 price tag was more than I could afford, but my brain also yelled at me that I'd never find an equally good deal. So I bought a Switch. It's taken five years, but I'm finally a current gamer again. The woman selling the console being a rare friendly person during the entire transaction made the purchase that much easier. You'd be surprised how many messages from sellers come back with fewer than three words. "Buy it or shut up" is not the great business acumen you think it is, especially not when you're already charging a premium. Resellers are a plague, I'll mention it every time.

Anyway, what is the Switch like for someone who stopped buying consoles around the Playstation 3 (PS3) era? I thought I'd give some of my belated first impressions here. The first thing I noticed is the console's dozen awkward designs. The placement for cartridges, both game and storage, feel like they're going to break the surrounding shell at any point. Inserting a game makes my heart skip, every time. The SD card sits exposed behind the flimsy kickstand, which I haven't managed to get my screen to stay upright once. That video of the rooftop party really set up some unrealistic expectations, because even a slight breeze would defeat this tiny, plastic stick.

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The control scheme is just as awkward. God, why does Nintendo feel the need to rework an already solved problem? I hate every iteration of the control setup, from the individual little joy-con nubs, to the pointless grip that doesn't charge the controllers. I've grown used to this mismatched mess, but it's a far cry from both Playstation and Xbox, which have figured out that less complicated works best. On top of that, the game I'm playing doesn't even let you play with the full grip, instead making you choose one joy-con or forcing you into portable mode. What an unbelievable regression in user experience this is, coming from standardized controllers. I hate it, a lot, and can see this ridiculous design affecting how much I'll play down the line.

To stick with controls for a moment, one of the selling features for the Switch was HD rumble, which is supposed to accurately simulate what's happening on screen. I feel like people praised this mechanism a bit too much. I mean, it's fine? The vibration does feel more nuanced than its competitors, but not at all in a "realistic" sense, whatever that means. Truly, this is the force feedback of its generation; a completely serviceable addition that otherwise doesn't warrant any revolutionary statement. In comparison, the 3DS depth feature actually simulates a sense of depth, even for someone like me who is stereo-blind. That's a gimmick that lives up to its potential. HD rumble is just okay.

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I was also expecting a few more applications to be available, but I can understand why Nintendo doesn't go too deep in customization. It would've been nice to have Spotify on a Switch, but it at least covers YouTube and Twitch. Especially since Sony discontinued Twitch support on PS3 amid the first lockdown, to cynically save on bandwidth, it is nice to watch streams on a TV again. Though, this being Nintendo, the app only populates streams it finds appropriate, meaning half of your follow list just doesn't show up. You can search for them manually. Why? Nintendo.

I could go on about the awkward design of the console, but I think that covers the most obvious ones. So now, how does the Switch play, with the above in mind? What I was most surprised about is that the portable factor is more appealing than it sounded. In fact, I went to lengths to make sure I had a dock, since I didn't plan on taking the console out at all, but now I play portably half the time. The screen is just large enough that a smaller size doesn't bother me. On top of that, the gaming experience seems a tad more fluid when not stretched to a TV. Not that games aren't sizing up, to the contrary; what I've played looked pretty good. When docked, there is a slight haze here or there, but some of these Nintendo games are pretty sharp these days. I'm not sure if the same can be said about streaming titles, but I'll try that when the time feels right.

Battery life seems decent as well. Granted, my point of reference is a launch 3DS that craps out after two hours, but I've done a few three hour sessions and neither the console nor the joy-cons ever dipped below half charge. Maybe some intensive games like Bayonetta will reduce that time, but I never felt like I'm racing the clock, like I was on 3DS. I even tapped the touchscreen a bunch, which works effortlessly, without any stress to the battery life. This is a launch model, so I take it that the improved versions are even better. That OLED Switch has to be a banger. Thanks for beta testing, everyone.

Rub your Pikachu vigorously
Rub your Pikachu vigorously

Since I got a random selection of games along with my Switch, I didn't know what to play first. I ended up going for Pokémon Let's Go, partially because I wrote about playing the first generation, but also because I play Pokémon GO daily. I'm not going to go into detail, yet, but it is a game that uses most of the console's features. I'm a little surprised that loading times from a cartridge are longer than I thought they'd be, but I'm enjoying running around and catching Pokémon, with the quality of life changes they made here. Particularly since Pokémon Yellow is fresh in my head, it's interesting to see how they evolved this reimagining to cater to their youngest audience. It's very clear that, despite a lot of fan service, the Nintendo Switch is for the children. I think a lot of people tend to forget that, even willfully.

Still, I feel like I haven't gotten the full experience quite yet. People are constantly raving about how every game would be "perfect for Switch" and I just don't know what that's like. Right now, this just feels like most consoles and the few demos I've tried didn't make me a believer yet, whether from first or third party publishers, portable or docked. I thought I'd ask the community for help on this one.

What is the one game that illustrates to you: "This is why you should own a Switch?" What is THE game everyone should try?

I remember when Nintendo was struggling so much that 102% of consumers owned this game; more than had consoles
I remember when Nintendo was struggling so much that 102% of consumers owned this game; more than had consoles

I have a few big hitters and access to maybe one or two more, but I'm also not opposed to just buying an instant classic, if needed. I've looked into getting that new Kirby game that appears to be pretty great, but only having local versions available in languages I don't want is pretty off-putting. Another Nintendo staple is that they will force you into a language interface, whether you want to or not. This is a specifically European problem, for all you North Americans. Not that Kirby has that much text, but I don't want to be made to read "Bouche Bagnole" or whatever translation quirks a localisation ends up choosing. I keep my dubs in anime, thank you.

As always, my timing for things is awful, as I acquired the Switch exactly after a giant sale ended on the eShop, but maybe that's for the best, as I'm already forced to eat spaghetti for the rest of the month. Spaghetti is bad heat wave food, by the way. As such, I'll probably have a few days before I can commit to a game, but maybe that will give me time to hit another sale. Though, from what I've seen, the discounts aren't exactly worth the digital trade-off. I guess that is also still a Nintendo trademark. The more things change, the more they stay the same.


Mobile Game of the Week - Ni No Kuni: Cross Worlds

Previous entry: Scurvy Scallywags

I don't know if I should start by talking about the current state of this website. I feel like it's both inevitable and also not the place to do so. I'll keep writing, because I think written content is undervalued these days. Someone has to keep every piece of video game chronicling from splintering into yet another undetectable Discord, right? I think that sums up enough.

I'm still neck deep into the first entry of this series and the Game of the Year of 2021, Fantasy Life Online (FLO). Despite Giant Bomb once more deleting my vote, thereby ensuring I'll never vote here again, that game is still good and it's still kicking. They've just increased the level cap of every character, on top of their weekly new events. This game is how I start my day, every day. Naturally, that means I've gone into the next mobile release from Level-5, Ni No Kuni: Cross Worlds, with some expectation. On top of that, the anime franchise is likely a little more known, so I imagine everyone else is hoping for some quality as well.

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Ni No Kuni: Cross Worlds keeps the massively multiplayer online (MMO) game theme of FLO going. Rather than a one-button adaptation, however, this thing is the full English breakfast; cooldowns, guilds, raids and everything. If you've ever played an MMO, it's like that. On the off chance you've never dipped your toes in one, just think of a role-playing game (RPG), but with a ton of people playing it at once. So, you'll be taking on daily missions, grinding dungeons, collecting loot to upgrade later and so on. There are several classes, but as soon as I saw someone that looked like Constanze from Little Witch Academia, I didn't look at a single other person. They're an engineer, which really sealed the deal, as that's usually my go-to anyway.

Stop me if you've heard this anime story before: You land into a strange new world, where you quickly discover that you're stuck in a video game. If you get past that factoid, there is a kingdom at peril from a band of dark mercenaries. They're probably actually a game virus or something. It might not be the most original, but there are furries and you get to look at your sidekick's butthole a lot. It's not all that bad. The game also looks the part and has some solid sound design, so the Ni No Kuni name is aesthetically upheld pretty well.

Real gamer recognize real gamer
Real gamer recognize real gamer

As for gameplay, that's a whole other can of worms. In short, almost all gameplay has the character performing real-time combat with a set of skills and three weapon loadouts. Elemental differences encourage you to switch to the proper type of weapon, which gradually also charges an ultimate attack. Additional help comes from tiered familiars. There are three slots for them as well, which can be used to call in more support on a cooldown. One layer deeper are the applications of a ton of buffs, through either consumables or a variety of shops. Did you get all that? Good. Now forget all of it.

Ni No Kuni: Cross Worlds automates almost every step of the above. You travel to the next mission, you automatically use your skills and, should it occur, you use potions on low health. As long as you click through the dialogue, everything else just happens until the job is done, sometimes even chaining together the next event. I put some gameplay on Twitter, to give you an idea. I've played twenty hours and was only asked to intervene twice, for a platform puzzle. Weirdly enough, this brief act of agency is pretty early on in the game, letting you believe this will be the diversity that it implies, but it literally happens only one more time. You could do everything manually, as there are environmental benefits to explore, but there is almost never a reason to do so. Hell, the game literally sells "AI time" that will remove even more interaction, so the goal is for you NOT to play.

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Any time I've spent in Ni No Kuni: Cross Worlds, I've spent into the menu. I'll get the mission ball rolling, then start diving into one of the hundreds of splintered objectives you have. Collect an achievement, boost skills, upgrade your gear, get more familiars, automatically clear a side dungeon; if you can think of it, you've got a button for it. Meanwhile, in the background, your character goes to the designated spot and picks up the objective, kills monsters or flicks a switch. As long as there's no talking involved, you stay in those menus, clicking the next exclamation mark. There are, in fact, so many branches of stuff that I've completely lost track of what's available, even with the dozens of prompts there to constantly remind you. I say this with confidence: I've never seen a game with so many splintered branches of shit to grind, each with their own bespoke rewards. I don't think I can even list everything, but I'll try to see what I can remember:

Boss dungeons, raid bosses, world bosses, vending stalls, team fights, familiar fights, reputation building, tiered dungeons, familiar gardens, item fusing, item crafting and also fusing on a separate branch, daily missions, set missions, achievements, records, collections, gear potency enhancing, gear tier increasing, familiar training, guild missions, guild dungeons, guild building, guild defense.

I'm definitely forgetting a bunch. There are about forty menu buttons that I've counted, each for their specific goal. At face value, however, having an overflow of content isn't necessarily bad. Sure, it's very old-hat MMO to just dump a ton of stuff in there without much direction, but an abundance of choice does mean that the game is playable forever. I don't see anyone getting through all the branches available now within the next year and that's if there aren't updates, which are already happening. If you want a game that will keep you busy until perpetuity, Ni No Kuni: Cross Worlds is there for you.

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No, there is a more sinister reason for this excess. Ni No Kuni: Cross Worlds is the most monetized game I've seen since Dungeon Keeper. Hell, I'm pretty sure it tops that easily. The reason that you have a million separate things to do? There are well over a dozen stores, each with bundles and offers for hundreds upon hundreds of Euro. Each time a new branch opens up, you'll also get pushed with a full screen pop-up for a limited offer, once more encouraging you to spend a lot of money. There even are multiple battle passes for different aspects of the game. I tried calculating what you'd spend if you wanted to get the most out of your daily sessions, but it honestly made my head spin. I've never seen so many ways to spend money, not even on the shittiest mobile cash grab. I can ignore it, because I'm poor, but it's a relentless assault on your psyche. In almost every entry of this blog series, I've told you to just ignore the monetization aspects, even the brutal ones. I think it's impossible to overlook how much Ni No Kuni: Cross Worlds wants you to fold; its monetized push is inevitable.

If there's a Top 10 Most Deflating Moments, this should be in it
If there's a Top 10 Most Deflating Moments, this should be in it

When I tell you that I wanted nothing more but to like this game; I really gave it my best shot. I'll tell you my breaking point: Dozens of hours in, Ni No Kuni: Cross Worlds is still giving you tutorials for the next branch that it can monetize. I was level 36 and got hit with yet another pop-up. It was the tutorial on how to level up. The game didn't think it was important to tell me a core mechanism until now, yet it had already given me several prompts for endless store purchases that I had to act on now, before I missed out! The priorities of this game are pointed clearly in one direction and it's not the gameplay.

It's a major bummer that Ni No Kuni: Cross Worlds turned out the way it did. Inside of it, there's the core of a wonderfully diverse, if outdated, MMO that kinda feels like Final Fantasy XIV, before it was reborn. It needs work, but it could get there with some tweaks. It's just that the game is, I dunno... kinda rotten. I don't have more fitting words for it. It could be good, but it sucks extremely hard instead. I know that's not as descriptive as I'd usually rather be about telling you about games. Sorry about that. I'll keep playing it, just to see if it's worth the effort in the end, but deep in my heart I know it will only get worse as it goes. Oh yeah, the game is also going to get NFTs.

I wish we could have nice things.


Mobile Game of the Week: Scurvy Scallywags

Previous entry: NJPW Strong Spirits

Mobile games these days have turned a corner. While perhaps the healthiness of the platform's model may not have improved, at least companies have figured out how to really crank out a product. That wasn't always the case. For a time, mobile releases were just trying to recreate a different experience, more compact in its ambition. Tons of developers turned to this more attainable form of production, to throw low risk stuff at the wall and hope it sticks. One of those games is Scurvy Scallywags, from Ron Gilbert. With the announcement that Gilbert would return to their claim to fame, the Monkey Island series, I thought we'd look back at one of the many side projects the developer has done since.

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Scurvy Scallywags, whose unredacted name is the ridiculously long Scurvy Scallywags in The Voyage to Discover The Ultimate Sea Shanty: A Musical Match-3 Pirate RPG, is a match-3 game, as stated, with a slight variation. You line up three or more symbols on a board and then those disappear, slotting in neverending, new icons. Depending on what is matched, you'll accrue resources like gold for buying stuff in between rounds or power that you need to defeat enemies. The twist is that your character is present on the board and moves within the axises, as do your foes. Each encounter requires an amount of power, which is triggered in combat when the two opposite characters meet. Being underpowered costs one of three lives, but that can be prevented by using a variety of skills. With these special moves, often tied to a cooldown, you're able to manipulate the board to get away or you can simply blast a monster directly with some extra oomph.

Outside of the game, you're using those resources to unlock new costumes or to build a better ship, which gives subsequent games some marginal bonuses. So far, nothing is out of the ordinary. The parts where Ron Gilbert is infused in this game are found in the small story scenes that lead to new areas where the game takes place. While piracy, the maritime kind, is the main theme of the game, Scurvy Scallywags is actually a theatre play, where problems arise backstage and it's your job to have the show go on. These hijinks come with the same quirky humor that Gilbert has had for decades. For some, it will feel like the developer hasn't missed a beat, to others this plateau will feel like a one trick pony. I'm firmly in the latter category. It's hard enough for me to care about the story of a matching game, but when this has quips I've heard in the nineteen hundreds, I'll just ram that Skip button to play the next level.

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The thing is: The writing is also Scurvy Scallywags' only weapon; the only arrow in its quiver, the only cannon on its poop deck. That's hilarious, because I wrote 'poop' there. They haven't used that specific wordplay yet, but I'm betting that if I build enough boats, it's going to show up. Gilbert's writing isn't bad, but it also isn't memorable, especially when the game doesn't have enough meat for these lines to land. Throw away one joke, then off to the next stage. The reward for completing an area, a sea shanty with the same irreverent mood, is something to listen to once and then never again. Songs don't pop back up during gameplay, like the catalyst of ship faring in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, so you either go out of your way to hear them again or, realistically, you don't. Whatever Ron Gilbert was brought on for, the execution of it isn't exactly symbiotic. You can tell the influence is there, but it is fully separate from actually playing the game. It's kind of a wasted effort.

There is another interesting tidbit in Scurvy Scallywags, though; in its movement. Tiles move in the direction that you swipe, as do the new icons that slot into place. Since positioning of your characters is so important, there is some tactical advantage in moving a match one way or the other. That way, you can make a last ditch escape from an encroaching enemy, without using limited skills. Still, that mechanism alone isn't enough to reinvent the wheel. When a property like Bejeweled has already set the standard and explored the space in that genre thoroughly, just having one or two tweaks doesn't stand out. Introducing a slot machine with bonuses, as seen in other mobile games, is equally derivative.

While fully functional and light-hearted, there isn't anything extraordinarily about Scurvy Scallywags. As inoffensive and easily playable as the game is, it would take a very specific person to stick to this thing as their downtime of choice. Its forceful existence is a sign of the times, like John Romero making Ravenwood Fair for Facebook. These flat casual titles with strong nostalgic pedigree were a cold business decision, which tried to attract a lost generation to a mobile platform that this audience clearly had no interest in joining anyway. People who played Monkey Island just want another Monkey Island; they're not interested in twiddling on their phone. Games like Candy Crush Saga had much wider success by going the sensory overload route, to attract bored housewives who just needed any kind of stimulation. As far as opportunism goes, at least one of those routes had an effective attachment rate. The best way to describe Scurvy Scallywags is: "It's a game that you can totally play, if you wanna."

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