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A few words about CHORUS

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Yes, it is CHORUS and not CHORVS. I know we all love to get lost in the memes but.. lets just move on.

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Chorus is a game that I felt like got a pretty decent spotlight in one of those Xbox showcases and then subsequently was never heard from again. It curiously did not have a day 1 release on Game Pass considering it was part of the Xbox showcase and only made it to the service quite recently. WHAT is Chorus you might ask? Well no one asked this because I don't think many people have actually played it but in a nutshell (and not one of those shells they put on the nut in a factory) Chorus is an arcade space shooter sort of like Freelancer from way back when. You take on the role of Nara, a pilot bestowed with special abilities called "rites" that used to belong to a cult of religious zealots following The Prophet and trying to bring the universe "into Chorus" so it can become "one." This was unification was done through various means of violence that culminated in mass genocide as Nara is ordered to destroy an entire planet for the greater good. This event takes a heavy toll on Nara and leads her to question the doctrine she so dogmatically followed all her life, and ultimately leads her to abandons the cult, abandon her sentient ship and lead a solitary life as a scrapper in the outer systems.

For what its worth Chorus has A LOT of story and lore that it is constantly dumping on the player, and not a lot of it is very engaging. There is a lot of sci-fi terminology and space religion with various aspects and ideas constantly being thrown at you through rather boring memory visions. Curiously there doesn't appear to be any sort of codex where you can look up any of this stuff at your own leisure so unless you're really paying attention a lot of it can go over your head. Not that this is especially heady stuff. Nara is undergoing a very classic redemption arc from cold hearted killer to a super natural messiah trying to right her wrongs by helping every single straggler along the way and coming to terms with her own guilt and place in the universe. Chances are.. you have already played a Nara in some other game.

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The meat and potatoes of the game lie in the somewhat unique space combat at the heart of Chorus. This is not a hardcore space sim so don't expect to be managing several different axis of rotation while juggling different power levels of your internal systems. Chorus is very much a point and shoot type of space shooter that honestly feels somewhat awkward to control at first. There is no strafing and side to side movement is governed by a roll that seems to have just enough of a cooldown on it to feel inconsistent at most times. Not that you will be using this roll for anything other than dodging telegraphed sniper laser strikes. No, the basic movement in Chorus feels rather limited for a space sim but it's main selling point lies in it's unique two-fold answer to the age old conundrum of flying sims: how to make dogfighting interesting when all you do is fly in circles behind each other? Well the answer is special abilities and drifting. Yes, Tokyo Drift style drifting. One of the first basic "rites" or abilities you unlock shifts your ship into a drift trance which is a fancy way of saying it disengages all propulsion and makes you drift in a straight line in the direction of your initial momentum. So while boosting away from an enemy you can engage the drift mode, flip your ship around 180 to aim back at your pursuers while still travelling forwards. This means you're never stuck flying endless circles behind your attackers because you can always just flip around at will to counter attack. This ability also plays heavily into certain environmental puzzles as well as capital sized ships that require you to fly inside tight corridors while taking out weak points to the sides. The second ability that defies this classic merry go round tactic allows Nara to simply teleport behind any enemy ship. This might seem like almost cheating but Chorus manages to lay on the pressure thick enough to where it's never that simple and along with the need to manager your power juice combat is always fairly interesting. As time goes on your unlock more supernatural abilities that help in the eradication of increasingly tough enemy types and honestly thats where the game shines the most.

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The biggest problem with Chorus is that it makes a rather lousy first impression. The game opens up with Nara piloting a scrappy junker of a ship and it takes a few missions before you get back up to speed and start gaining the abilities that make the game unique in the first place. Both the opening tutorial and several first story quests are not very good and I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people put the game down before you even start getting your special abilities. The idea of starting the player underpowered before they get back to their "normal" super powered state is nothing new but it's a delicate balancing act that I feel Chorus gets completely wrong. The proper way of doing this is having a heavily scripted and incredibly short introduction section where a few enemies bat you around before you return having regained your "lost abilities" and wipe the floor with them. Chorus doesn't even hint at the fact that you will get anything special down the road, and in fact lets you go on and do side missions all in this underpowered state that you shouldn't waste a single second of your game time on. I flew around the semi open world doing odd jobs not knowing I didn't even fully get out of the tutorial zone yet.

Once you do start unlocking more abilities the combat really opens up and the game becomes a much more fluid and enjoyable experience. Unfortunately that does take a while and I wouldn't fault anyone for giving up along the way. Through the power of guilt free gaming on Game Pass I was able to get there although I was ready to drop the game several times in the early goings and in fact did take a break from it before giving it a second and third try that finally made me stick with it. The narrative never really gets any more interesting and nearly all of it unfortunately plays out as audio logs that force you to float around in space and stare at static holograms. As an arcady space shooter it does come into it's own and with a surprisingly robust equipment system that has set-bonuses you can even customize your "build" to a limited degree. This is one of those games where it's kind of hard to recommend because.. it's not great, but it's not bad. Just kind of a middlie of the road game with some neat ideas that is decent fun if you want to fill up some time between bigger releases, but one I wouldn't recommend you pay full price. It's very pretty on consoles and I imagine even more so on PC if you have the system to run it. Funny enough on Series X the game crashed several times for me because it "ran out of video memory" which is something I never thought I'd see on a console. If you have Game Pass then check it out but also be aware that YES it is awkward to control at first, and yes you will get used to it and you DO need to wait a while before it starts getting better. If you can get through all that.. there is.. a fairly decent game waiting for you on the other side.

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Late to the party: Death's Door post-mortem

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I've recently had a chance to finally play Death's Death and it wasn't quite what I was expecting. I've seen a lot of gameplay footage of this tiny little crow slashing their power sword around and for some reason was convinced this was another of those very cute but very hardcore gaming experiences. Seeing the early boss fights especially seemed intimidating. Is this another Souls like? Do I have the energy to beat my head against high pressure situations where a single missed dodge can cost me a 10 minute fight? Luckily this isn't the case at all. Quite the contrary! I found Death's Door a very pleasant and mellow experience.

For those uninitiated the premise is cute and simple. You are a crow working for an agency tasked with retrieving souls. On one of your big assignments the soul you were tasked with retrieving slips away which has dire consequences for our main character. In this world until that soul is captured and sealed back up in the vault your immortal crow will begin to age. This is how the story starts but there are many twists and turns along the way that are quite clever with one major late game reveal that made me chuckle out loud. The game manages to tackle the difficult subject of death from an interesting point of view that neither makes light of it nor does it get especially morbid. If anything it's quite an uplifting tale that definitely made me stop for a moment and reconsider how I thought about the passage of time. I definitely didn't expect a cute little action game like this to raise such heavy questions so effortlessly.

Whats a good story without good gameplay to back it up? Death's Door is a mix of many genres but at it's heart I would compare it most closely to a classic Zelda more than anything else. This took me by surprise as for whatever reason as I mentioned above I had the game pegged as a Souls-like which it definitely is not. Death's Door is also not really a metroidvania either. You do get abilities that unblock previously inaccessible areas but the progression here is quite linear. Unlike a game like Hollow Knight where the player can get lost quite easily if they're not paying attention, Death's Door is a very straightforward A-to-B experience. From the start you are presented with three branching pathways but you can only really advance in one of them where you will acquire an ability that lets you move forward to the next. One of the common gripes I've heard online is the lack of a map but personally I think that while it would be nice to have one it's not really a deal breaker. The zones are typically small enough that you'll remember where an ability gated pathway was and the structure of the game is such that you're encouraged to go through these zones several times. By the end of the main story I had gone through each zone at least twice looking for any little secrets I had missed and was able to easily internalize and find everything I was looking for without having to consult a guide.

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Exploration is in my opinion the bread and butter of Death's Door and is what provided me the most enjoyment from the overall experience. Sure there is a decently robust combat system here as well, but nothing was quite as fun as discovering secret temples or better yet, figuring out a mechanic that made you go “oh so thats what those things are!” and then setting out to find all the places where you can now put your newfound knowledge to use. The game is very good about being obvious when it needs to be and also letting you stretch those brain muscles from time to time. There were never any moments where I felt the secret I uncovered was cheap, no Metroid-like situations where you simply run around the room hitting every single wall hoping to find a false block. Everything is signposted and calculated and the game gives plenty of little nods and clues to help you keep going. There is even an NPC that is dedicated to giving you hints to the whereabouts of secrets at no extra cost.

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Death’s Door is in general very pleasant and forgiving in many ways. In recent times plenty of games have adopted the worst types of mechanics from the Souls franchise. It’s like someone thought difficulty is the one takeaway from those experiences and your road to enjoyment should be paved with minute frustrations to better appreciate the final destination. Death’s Door is in turn very laid back. Boss encounters always have a teleport right outside the arena so that you can retry right away or go off exploring and maybe upgrade your abilities. When you die you never lose anything. You keep all your currency at all times. Checkpointing is typically generous and each mini-boss-encounter will have a clear “Retry” button without forcing you to backtrack all the way back to it. While the boss fights are the biggest skill check in the game they never get so outlandish that you’ll be banging your head against a wall for hours on end. Bosses typically feature a few different movesets and after you see them once it’s not too difficult to dial in the pattern and course correct on your next try. I’m far from the best gamer in the world and it took me a max of three tries for each of the main “big bads” in Death’s Door. Even the final cinematic encounter features a very welcome checkpoint halfway through and doesn’t force you to re-do all the phases from the very start. Which is all very welcome. As I wrote in my Ouija piece, I find the trend of games just letting you enjoy them without putting up arbitrary hurdles in your way a very pleasant change of pace. Elden Ring is right around the corner and although I’m sure it will be plenty challenging, even there I’ve heard that FromSoft has started to implement some much welcome quality of life improvements that cut down on pointless runbacks that added nothing to the experience except time added to your endlessly ticking life clock.

The only area where I might have the slightest of complaints in Death’s Door is some of the controller mapping. While combat generally plays out very smoothly, there is a strange system at play when it comes to using your abilities. Each of your spells needs to be primed before it can be released which makes mechanical sense. Being able to spam your arrow spell would make the already very manageable combat a literal cakewalk. That said the way you have to hold down a trigger that plants you in the ground and then choose a direction and use a button that isn’t associated with combat to release your spell messed with my head for some reason from start to finish. There is a traversal ability you unlock later on that was especially maddening to use because of this setup. Weirdly enough the game never makes use of the LB/RB | L1/R1 shoulder buttons which seem like they would be prime candidates to map some of these abilities to. While Death’s Door is not nearly as bad as Psychonauts 2 when it comes to choosing said abilities, having to constantly shift from one to the other with the dpad instead of just mapping them to some button combination felt a little tiresome. I imagine on PC this feels a lot smoother as does the aiming.

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When all is said and done though I had a terrific time with Death’s Door. I won’t waste time going over how gorgeous some of the art is - I’m sure you all have eyes and can judge from the screenshots yourselves. I will say that in certain key moments the game breaks away from it’s rigid isometric camera view to great effect and makes me wonder if they ever toyed around with the idea of having a 90 degree shifting camera like Fez did. The main story never outstayed its welcome even though I took a lot of time to hunt down every health and magic shrine and generally speaking combed through the map at least 3 different times. For those that want more there is a secret ending and a whole “post game” world change that is very interesting and leans even heavier into the puzzle solving aspect of the game. If you’re looking for a fun time that won’t stress you out too much while still presenting a decent amount of both physical and cerebral challenge I can’t recommend Death’s Door enough.

4 Comments

Olija and the importance of games that want you to finish them

"Then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago."

I recently wrote some early impressions on Olija created by Skeleton Crew Studio, a small indie dev based out of Kyoto Japan. As a brief recap Olija is a side scrolling, retro themed, action game that aesthetically borrows heavily from Flashback and to a lesser degree Prince of Persia. It's a stranger in a strange land tale that has you looking for a way back home while also getting mixed up in some local otherworldly business. In a sea of indies that continue to impress with just how how much a small team can accomplish these days Olija came and went with little fanfare. It's a relatively short game that clocks in at around 5 hours and offers no replay value - the game quite literally takes you back to the main menu after you finish it without the ability to go back to a time before the final boss encounter. There may be some cloud save tomfoolery one can engage with to get around the issue but honestly, when I was done with it I didn't feel the need to go back. I don't mean that in a negative way, quite the opposite, I had a great time playing Olija. The controls are snappy, the world is intriguing and the presentation is unique enough to stand apart from its contemporaries out on the market. While the story is slight, it does enough to keep you on track with seeing the journey through to the end. What I most enjoyed about this bite sized indie is that unlike some other similar titles that I've played in the past, Olija wants you to see the credits.

"Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight, For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night."

In an age of ever increasing accessibility, being able to tweak a myriad of options to tailor an experience to your personal enjoyment has started to slowly become normalized and accepted. Thankfully developers are starting to move away from verbiage such as "the way it's meant to be played" and recognizing that the way everyone plays and enjoys games is very different from one individual to another. We are moving towards an era of ticking boxes and setting toggles that can alter gameplay mechanics in profound ways. Unfortunately not every team can afford to hire in-house psychologists like Microsoft did for Psychonauts 2, or armies of testers that can put these options through the ringer and make sure that accessibility isn't actually compromising the experience on a technical level. Smaller teams, especially indies, have to rely on internal balance. The accessibility has to be baked into the product when it goes out the proverbial door. This is where I find a lot of indies tend to falter. Smaller teams tend to have more laser focused goals that leave less wiggle room for a broader audience. One might argue that the lower price tag on these titles is another reason why you should "know what you're getting into" before you make the leap. A few years back I remember pulling my hair out playing Capybara’s BELOW. Another highly stylized indie that draws you in with a highly unique presentation and deeply brooding atmosphere accompanied by a melancholy Jim Guthrie score, what was there not to like? Well turns out quite a bit. Below was an incredibly harsh experience that seemed to punish the player at every step of the way. If the enemies didn’t get you, then easily missable instant-kill traps would and the constantly ticking hunger and thirst meters made sure you never felt quite safe. You could even lose a mission critical item required for completing your adventure and be forced to retrieve it upon respawning, except without said item you were at a massive disadvantage just trying to get to it. Everything from the in-game mechanics to the general design of the experience seemed poised to detract you from ever actually seeing the credits. What was most frustrating was that beneath the harsh overbearing exterior I could see how with a few tweaks this could be a really fun adventure that a lot more people would actually see through to the end. Nearly two years after release Capybara announced the addition of an “Explore Mode” for Below that let players take in the brooding atmosphere without having to brave the “brutal test of endurance” of the original experience. At this point one might argue the damage was already done. How many people actually went back to finish Below after it was made more palatable?

"Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful."

What I found most refreshing about Olija was that it’s a game that wants you to finish it. Olija doesn’t go out of it’s way to put roadblocks along your path. You’re not being punished for attempting to see the work of these talented developers. Yes there is platforming but should you die you’re typically respawned a room earlier and allowed to keep trying. You’re never put back at the beginning of the level, forced to replay all the earlier bits just so that you can make your way back around to that one tricky jump. There are no lengthy runbacks or similar tricks that typically serve only to pad out the length of the experience and frustrate the player. The game never burdens you with limited lives, sparse checkpoints or obtuse puzzles. Olija says “here is a little challenge but if you don’t make it hey don’t worry about it, we got you.” The combat has surprising depth with the various weapons and movesets it presents you with, but should you simply mash on the attack button that will get you through most problems just fine. You are allowed to get creative if you want, but you’re not punished for failing to do so. In fact the final boss encounter feels almost out of place and takes you by surprise when you encounter it the first time considering how gentle everything else has been up to that point.

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Some might scoff at this and say it’s too easy. That there is no challenge. I would argue that not every game necessitates a challenge in the classic sense of the word. Olija is ostensibly an action game, but first and foremost it is an experience, and it’s not embarrassed by lending you a hand so you can see everything that it has to offer. Rather than getting bogged down by how much pushback these flying green man are giving you with their basic attacks and slow movement speed - no match for your harpoon that lets you close the gap instantly and unleash a barrage of strikes with your sword - you’re encourage to enjoy the sights and go with the flow. This is a much healthier alternative for a smaller team that might not have the resources to put in a dozen different toggles and it’s better than simply giving you a God mode that offers no pushback at all. I had a great time with Olija. It feels great to play and it certainly kept me engaged when I was traversing it’s exotic islands and eerie dungeons. I was always making forward progress which was a welcome respite from some more difficult titles I had played recently. For the story it’s trying to tell it never outstays it’s welcome and by the time the credits rolled I was happy with the time I put into it.

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I played Code Vein so you don't have to

The Souls-like genre has grown into a phenomenon where games from all walks of life are trying their hand at it's specific stylings. It is surprising that it took so long for a full-on anime souls games to emerge but Code Vein is here and is trying to claim it's own little corner of the market. Is Code Vein good you ask right at the top of the blog? Well, it's not terrible would be the most diplomatic answer I can give, but that doesn't mean it's good either.

The many shades of
The many shades of "ruined city"

Code Vein to be extremely reductive is basically Dark Souls with anime characters and a post-apocalyptic vampire motif. The world has gone to hell, people have started coming back to life with a strange blood thirst, and at the root cause of all this is a mysterious red mist linked to a Queen. There is a little bit of everything thrown in here. A decrepit world, people turned to bloodthirsty mindless husks, a strange royal order, a catastrophe no one can explain.. The story makes about as much sense as one of these typically do. You uncover nuggets of info through various forms of exposition but ultimately everything is fairly vague even though Code Vein has a quite hammy way of forcing narrative on the player in stilted flashbacks which you have to slowly walk through again and again. By the end I had already gotten confused by the lore to fully grasp what was going on - so the relics are in the successors to bind the what and the miasma is the where and the what? But thats fine - I actually think a big part of these games is being odd and vague and forcing you to actually do another playthrough and pay more attention to whats going on now that you have a rough outline of the events in your head. I can't imagine myself playing through a NG+ of this but I might be tempted to watch a YouTube video.

Gameplay is where things get interesting and also noticably worse. The structure is familiar enough - you run around hitting respawn points until you reach a boss at the end of an area. There is stamina to manage, there is weight that influences your dodge speed, you have a light and heavy attack, you drop your experience upon dying and all enemies respawn when you rest at your checkpoint (in this case a Mistle). This is all pretty straight forward for anyone that has played one of these games before. Code Veins strength lies in it's flexible approach to classes. As you meet new characters and get to know them better they will give you their "Blood Code" which is essentially their class. At any point in the game, even in the middle of a level, you can change your Code which also changes your stat scaling - so a Warrior Code would scale strength while a Ranger Code would scale dexterity. Additionally all codes have unique passive and active "Gifts" you can purchase that can be slotted in and out freely. Initially you can only use the abilities tied to their respective code, but if you use them long enough - i.e. kill enough enemies with the Gift equipped - you will be able to max out it's proficiency and use that gift with any other code you want. So say the Warrior Blood Code has a passive buff that increases your Health but the Ranger code doesn't. You change to that code, put on that passive buff and kill enough baddies to fill out it's proficiency bar - then you can use that Health buff on your Ranger Code or any other code you wish. This is actually a pretty neat system that allows for great versatility and ensures that you never feel locked into one particular playstyle since nothing is permanent. Leveling brings all your stats up automatically so it's really the blood codes that decide how much health or mana you have or what type of weapon you can use. Each code is like a loadout as the game remembers what active skills you equipped and which passive buffs are attached to it. You can very easily go from a two handed tank to a nimble caster in a few button presses whenever you feel like it - you even don't have to be resting at a mistle.

Does that outfit make sense? No.
Does that outfit make sense? No.

Unfortunately playing the game itself is a whole 'nother story. Souls combat can be slow and deliberate but it's also tactile. Code Vein feels floaty, mushy, and generally just off. There is great showmanship to everything you do but there is no feeling behind it. Your sword strikes feel weightless and clumsy, and don't feel like they are making meaningful impact on your enemies. If there is one word to describe the general feel of combat it's "inconsistent." Since the whole game has a loose vampire thing going for it all your abilities and spells are fueled by blood. Getting blood can be done in various ways, the most prominent of which is your drain attack that is linked to the type of armor you are wearing. This is a long charge up move that initiates a flashy animation, which you can blissfully turn off, as you tear into your foe and deal damage while also refilling your "ichor" (mana) gauge. Another way to initiate this drain is to parry an attack and Code Vein has the most esoteric parry system I've seen yet. I generally classify counters in action games in two ways - frame specific or animation specific. Or basically good or bad. Frame specific parries are when you're required to hit a button during the brief window before you're about to get hit - this makes sense and is also easy to predict. Animation specific parries are not dependent on when you press the button but rather on the animation of your character executing the move - this I would generally classify as bad. Code Vein mixes the two and makes it twice as risky and essentially unattractive to use. Unlike most games you're not going to be using your weapon to parry but your armor. Every armor type or "Blood Veil" has a special Drain Attack and Parry assigned to it and they all differ in damage and speed. Armors that are the "claw" type will nearly instantly pop out giant claws, while the spear type has a slower animation that whips out a scorpion-like tail from the back. The way the parry works is you press the button and your parry animation winds up, and then inside that animation is a brief window where you flash white and that is what you have to time with an enemies attack. The claws are by far the easiest to attempt this with as they appear nearly instantly along with their specific parry window. The tail is an extremely long animation that is very difficult to time. This is made all the more difficult by the fact that enemies in Code Vein are generally fast and have sweeping 360 degree attacks that would be hard to time even if your parry was an instant button press and the combat already doesn't feel particularly great to begin with.

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Thankfully each weapon drains blood from regular attacks as well so that you're not forced to engage in the insanity that is trying to parry anything in this game. But wait, there are more weird systems! There is the focus state which for nearly half the game I complete misunderstood. The more you get hit the higher your focus gauge grows until you reach a focus state in which certain passive buffs activate and you also have the ability to initiate a special launcher attack on enemies. For nearly half the game I thought you gained focused from successfully dodging instead of receiving damage so imagine my surprise when I actually re-read the tutorial.. I can proudly say that I never once used this launcher as my natural cowardly inclination is to retreat when taking damage rather than execute a move that can easily be interrupted by swarming hordes. I assume this system is meant to mimic the rally from Bloodborne that gives you a brief window of time to recover a portion of lost health by attacking, but it's awkward and dangerous to attempt considering how easily you can be stunlocked from enemy attacks in the middle of any longer windup - the latter portion of the game especially has you facing off against entire mixed groups of baddies that all aggressively swarm you at once. Many times I had died by having some lowly grunt hit me once, causing a stagger that cascaded into being knocked about like a tennis ball, unable to roll, heal or do much of anything, much less try this fancy focus attack. The scaling is also odd since armor scales to your stats but it only affects your drain attack and nothing else. There is a whole intricate gift giving system with your allies where you earn favor points thats you can exchange for unique items they offer - specifically resources that grant your weapons unique augmentations. There are abilities that are locked and require you to find a "vestige" memory and then go through its corresponding interactive cutscene to unlock. Ability proficiency can level extremely slowly but can be bypassed by yet another weird currency... Theres a lot of systems and honestly you don't have to engage with a lot of this stuff, but it does offer something to aim for.

The Scorpion tail is cool but difficult to time
The Scorpion tail is cool but difficult to time

By far the biggest shortcoming of Code Vein lies in the level design which is uninspired and bland from start to finish. Most zones consist of tight corridors made up from the same few assets repeated over and over again giving off the feeling of being constantly trapped in a maze. Thankfully there is a minimap with a cookie crumb trail showing where you've been which is essential for getting around as entire sections tend to look completely identical. It is not uncommon to completely lose your sense of direction as you exit a combat encounter since both the entrance and exit to any one place looks exactly the same. It also doesn't help that none of it looks particularly good either. While the Dark Souls games generally feature dilapidated worlds they have, with some exceptions, unique touches that serve as both markers and interesting set dressing. What happened in this castle? What is this library? This dungeon? Code Vein has crumbling buildings, grey walls and one area that consists entirely of white walkways hanging in the clouds. There is no mystery as to what this place was, or what happened, as none of it actually feels like anything. Once you leave the drab city scape behind, it is all vague crumbling walls of blue or yellow depending on what biome you're in. The white walkways of the Cathedral are just a plain maze that doesn't try to be anything more than that. You're not asking yourself what deep lore took place here, what does it all mean, because it's just walkways that turn at right angles - nothing could have lived here because it's not an actual place. Other memorable locations are: an underground swamp, a cave, a mountain, another cave, another ruined city area but this time it's constantly on fire, a city area that is covered in sand.. an underground city area that is vaguely purple. There is something to be said about visual storytelling and Code Vein absolutely has none. Each place serves as a mechanical extension of funneling you forward and making you feel lost. It is by design, as every new area you enter is clouded in a fog of war until you reach a mistle, but it's bad design that only serves to frustrate the player without offering anything positive in return.

There is a skeleton of an interesting game here. A fun take on an existing formula with vampires and an anime touch. Deck13's The Surge suffered from similar issues as Code Vein, but ultimately was saved by its amazing gameplay that was further refined in the sequel and is in my opinion one of the more exciting takes on the Souls genre. It also doesn't hurt that I greatly prefer sci-fi over fantasy. I think with some gameplay tweaks and a whole lot of work put into building a coherent and interesting world, Code Vein 2 could actually be another great offshoot of a formula that we seem to know so well by now. The game is decidedly very anime for better and worse featuring a lot of flashy spectacle during fights and cutscenes, with plenty of talk about believing in yourself and fighting for others. Most of the female outfits are so absurd you can only just shake your head in wonder, but there are some really cool enemy designs as well. Code Vein features an incredibly detailed character creator but unfortunately is subsequently let down by the lack of outfit variety (although this can be solved by mods on PC). As it stands it's not a terrible game but one that is mired in awkward design. I wouldn't say it's worth the time to finish but if you're bored and you have Game Pass then it's worth checking out just to see how someone else tried to go about this whole Souls thing.

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I've started getting into Twitch and it's a crazy place

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I'm starting to get up there in my years and as impossible as it may have seemed in my youth I am inevitably starting to fall out of step with technology and culture in many ways. One of those blind spots for me has been Twitch. When I was in college in the mid 2000's YouTube was really blowing up and I regularly followed a lot of what today would be called content creators. Back then that meant typically a college aged guy with some sort of microphone recording Call of Duty matches in his dorm room and then posting them with an audio commentary. This is back when guys like Hutch, SeaNanners, Wings of Redemption etc were fairly popular. By todays standards this was pretty barebones content. A lot of these guys didn't even have picture-in-picture cam feeds. It was just really good Call of Duty players getting ridiculous scores like 150/4 by exploiting kill streaks and generally being good at twitch aiming. To this day I remember a really young kid who at that time went by the name ProsDontTalkShit which was inarguably a terrible handle was starting to come up in the game and was being persuaded by his older and wiser YouTube mentors to change his name in order to avoid issues with sponsor deals in the future. Those were simple times and earning money from YouTube was pretty basic. You ran ads and the more people watched your video the more money you made from the ad. It was a very easy to grasp 1:1 sort of scenario.

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I knew Twitch back in the day as Justin.tv and understood it was basically a place to livestream games. I never really took much interest in it and years later when I did attempt to watch anything I would for whatever reason always have buffering issues and generally just gave up on the platform. Fast forward to today and Twitch is a completely different beast - one that I really still fully don't grasp. Specifically I mean the business side of Twitch. Subscriptions, donations, Bits.. it's ..ahem.. a bit much. When you tune in to big name Twitch streamers their setups are typically overlayed with a ton of info regarding, basically, how much money they are raking in. Latest donations, leaderboards on who is the biggest fan in terms of bits spent, subscription goals, etc. While YouTubers stick to a basic intro and outro segment where they beckon you to Like, Favorite, Hit the Bell, Twitch streamers typically keep up a nearly constant effort of thanking whoever donated or subscribed in any fashion to the point of it sounding like a Pavlovian response more so than a genuine show of gratitude. I always found it distracting how Twitch streamers all exhibit that nervous back and forth movement of the eyes as they peel away from the game they're playing every 15 seconds to keep up with the chat scrolling by. Unlike the passive YouTube model where the monetary aspect is largely kept in the background, Twitch is a very active and reactive system encouraging viewers to donate and requiring the creator to keep engaged with the live audience.

Recently I found a streamer that I started to follow quite regularly that gave me a bit more insight to how a lot of this stuff works. Jinnytty is a Korean female streamer that does a mixed bag of chatting, streaming outdoors and some game playing on the side. What is interesting about her is the humorously antagonistic relationship she has with her chat. Instead of the typical male audience that tends to worship their female host of choice in often gross ways, her chat is often mocking her and poking fun of the way she does things, but it never feels hostile or genuinely hurtful. While she cooks lunch in the middle of her show chat will comment on how inedible the food looks or what a bad cook she is to which she will reply "fuck off" with a grin on her face. It's like best friends making fun of each other where it never goes too far, and when it does the mods step in. Content aside, following her streams has allowed me to better understand and see how all the financial stuff happens first hand and it is both fascinating and terrifying.

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The craziest part of supporting your favorite Twitch streamer is how seemingly little the viewer gets out of it. Bits seem like a complete scam. "When you use Bits in a channel, Twitch rewards the streamer and you create an exciting moment," reads the description in the drop down purchase menu. Your reward for spending real money, sometimes up to hundreds of dollars, is an "exciting moment" when your purchase is overlayed on the stream and a little animation plays out. On the most recent Jinny stream a user bought 45,000 bits in celebration of something funny that had happened. As I'm currently in the EU the price for 5,000 bits is about 72 Euros - as far as I know a rough equivalent in US dollars. This person spent over 550 Euros and got, basically, nothing for it apart from recognition on Jinnys part. Subscriptions similarly seem to offer very little in return. I generally haven't seen Jinny do Subscriber only streams or lock anything away behind the subscriber paywall, and yet people will regularly buy dozens of subs and gift them randomly to the viewers in show of support. When she was doing a marathon of streaming 24/7 for several days in a row there were folks who would regularly gift 100 subs to random viewers, a value of 499 Euros or a new PS5. One of the primary ways people directly interact with her is to donate and leave a message which is then read out loud by a robotic text to speech program. This is mostly used for jokes as someone sends in a donation with a message that will highlight a funny situation, and while often these turn out really fun, it is basically paying for attention. The entire system is built on paying for various degress of interactability. Unlike say Giant Bomb, where you support the site by purchasing a yearly subscription of Premium for one-time fee of $50 and get access to a fair amount of premium content each week, Twitch viewers spend hundreds of dollars supporting their streamers with little to show for it, and that seems crazy.

Granted I haven't really watched many other streams so I'm not sure if this is a unique situation to this streamer alone. While Jinny doesn't really play up the fact that she is an obviously attractive female to rope in susceptible folks that feel maybe a stronger connection to her than they should, male hormones will often sing their own siren song. Heck, I'm not too proud to admit that I was probably initially drawn to click her stream thumbnail for the very same reason even though I stuck around because she seems like a funny goofball. That said this is the Twitch model. Male or female these streamers are relying on their fanbase to engage with a system that seems to be so heavily stacked against the viewer. So maybe I am getting old, and far be it for me to tell someone how to spend their hard earned money, but putting down $500 so a floating diamond pops up and the streamer acknowledges your username for the 2 seconds it takes them to blurt out a thanks for the donation seems like a raw deal any way you look at it.

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Inside Little Nightmares

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Back in 2010 Playdead released Limbo, a highly stylized sidescrolling platformer with a bleak atmosphere and a striking black and white presentation. It was part of the Xbox 360 Summer of Arcade rollout and something that we haven't seen before - a smaller indie title with great production values, a unique hook and an appropriate price tag to go along with the mix. Six years later Playdead would follow up Limbo with their bizarre new nightmare adventure "Inside" following the studios familiar motifs of small children traversing often oppugnant environments, solving puzzles and wading through a general miasma of ambiguity. Inside ditched the monochromatic presentation but it still remained purposefully desaturated, simplistic in geometry and relied heavily on shadow and light to create atmosphere in place of detailed textures. Inside was bizarre, at times unsettling and a great mix of horror and mystery with a twist ending that no one would have guessed would result in a collectors item created by the folks at RealDoll. I was a huge fan of Inside because of its look and at times head scratching puzzles. From simple box pushing challenges to herding crowds of "zombies" with a mind control helmet, the game ran the gamut on how much mileage you can get out of a sidescrolling 2D platformer.

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While waiting for the next adventure from Playdead, there came the release of Little Nightmares - another highly stylized 2D puzzle platformer featuring little kids trying to escape the left side of the screen in a mildly horror motif. Originally titled "Hunger" the game was developed by a relatively small Swedish outfit Tarsier Studios. In many ways I think it's the perfect spiritual successor to both Inside and Limbo while simultaneously carving out it’s very own niche path in this new nightmare-child-endangerement genre. In stark contrast to Playdeads titles, Little Nightmares is highly detailed and rather colorful when it needs to be in order to accent important elements of the wonderfully unsettling backdrops. You are still a small child running from left to right and solving puzzles along the way, but Little Nightmares excels in creating a twisted, dreamlike atmosphere that is unsettling but not gruesome. The surroundings you traverse are distorted and warped, towering over your mouse sized character. Seemingly normal rooms will open up into cavernous interiors that stretch vertically in improbable ways. It all makes for a fantastically morbid atmosphere as you begin to encounter the more deranged elements of the world. Child sized cages that pile several floors high eventually lead to conveyor belts moving across the ceilings with ominous looking burlap sacks dangling off their hooks. Later on as you ride one such belt to safety from a rather terrifying encounter you end up dropping down onto a mountain of discarded little shoes, revealing what happened to all those sacks from earlier on. While the game doesn’t ever produce direct narration, the environmental storytelling is equal parts unnerving as it is aesthetically fascinating. This macabre motif repeats throughout the game as you enter each chapter and discover what nightmare entity roams it's halls.

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How Light Nightmares diverges quite significantly from Inside is where each game places emphasis within its gameplay. Playdead’s titles are very cerebral ordeals that require quite a bit of ingenuity to move past their more challenging puzzles but give you plenty of time to figure it out. There are few encounters with enemies and when they do happen they’re short but tense sprints. In comparison Little Nightmares offers less head scratching but a lot more running, seemingly taking the form of one long nightmare marathon instead. You are never truly challenged by the “what” but are rather tasked with perfectly executing on the “how”. Nearly every area features an overseer of sorts that your little raincoat wearing heroine must elude. There is little room for improvisation in these encounters and quite often initially hair raising scenarios can become tedious runs of trial and error as you get caught time and time again because you ran the wrong way. This is my least favorite part of Little Nightmares and it unfortunately comprises much of the gameplay. Inside would present you with a room and allow you to sit there and puzzle it out. Things generally moved along invisible rails and solutions clicked into place in a definite manner. Little Nightmares not only doesn’t feature elaborately conceived puzzles, but the few times you are asked to do something more involved than simply hiding or sneaking by, the ability to move freely within the level instead of being glued to a specific plane presents a whole host of unintentional obstacles. Jumping to a hanging platform can become frustratingly difficult when you can’t judge your angle of approach. When traversing long skinny pipes the game doesn’t center you and it’s very possible to fall off the side as the camera pans out for a cinematic shot and you stop paying attention to your little avatar. To cap things off some of the earlier checkpoints are unnecessarily spread apart forcing you to redo mundane aspects of the puzzle just to get back to that one jumping sequence you missed up.

All that said when you’re not cowering in a corner the movement does have a wonderfully tactile feeling to it. Your primary action is a grabbing motion mapped to the right trigger. Climbing ladders, grabbing switches, carrying oversized keys - all of this requires you to hold the grab button and it goes a long way in accenting the feeling of physically when performing an action in-game. Objects carry some semblance of physics to them which makes hanging off a garbage chute to see it slowly creak open feel a lot more satisfying than if it were a simple button press. The disproportionate world makes for a perfect playground and I do wish there were more sections where you could interact with it without a giant monster constantly on your heels.

That said.. as iffy as these “combat encounters” can get there is something to be said for how they also help to keep the action moving forward. You’re never stuck on any one problem too long and the strength of the game lies in experiencing it’s bespoke, nightmare environments. I remember getting extremely frustrated at times with Inside because a puzzle was keeping me from being able to move on and my brain simply wasn’t clicking with the solution. There is also a delightfully morbid sense of satisfaction when you inevitably turn the tables on your pursuer. The story is as ambiguous as it can get but regardless of how much you gleamed of it along the way the last chapter has a satisfying finale that thankfully doesn’t involve a rolling ball of flesh. Complimented by a fantastic soundtrack, Little Nightmares to me was a great visual experience that clocking in around 3 hours was the perfect bitesize acid trip that didn’t outstay its welcome. The recently released sequel is much longer but offers a similar array of twisted imagery and trial and error frustrations while also shedding some more light on the story of the original game. I now eagerly await Playdeads next release that apparently takes place in a sci-fi environment, and will hopefully feature a small child of some sort, tasked with escaping some sort of nightmarish environment.

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I don't have the time to play Roguelites

I think we've all heard that age old addage: when you're young you don't have money but have plenty of time and when you get older you have a lot more money but a lot less time. For a while now as I've grown older myself I've been increasingly feeling the effects of being pushed in the direction of the latter. Buying new games is not an issue anymore, but dedicating time to them is. I honestly see the roguelite genre as a young mans game. They require time, dedication and fast reflexes are definitely a huge bonus. That is not to say that getting older is going to cut you off from those type of games entirely. Matt Rorie, with all due respect, is no spring chicken but he has honed his Spelunky skills to a fine edge and can clear that game quite consistently. Not all of us are as lucky to be born perfect human specimen.. unfortunately.

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I've dabbled with roguelites for a while now trying the popular titles and always dropping them very early on. Dead Cells took the world by storm and I struggled to get past the second boss and in fact never did so. The idea of having to clear those early stages and that first boss just to get an attempt at the second one seemed exhausting. I've always favored linear, bespoke, iterative game models. Specifically I enjoy the feeling of growing stronger in games thanks to skills and stats you've earned along the way. Less Dead Cells and more Hyper Light Drifter. I understand the appeal of actually getting better at the game instead of pumping up arbitrary stats in order to get ahead. That must really feel satisfying, but I no longer have the time, patience and possibly the dexterity to go that route. Most recently I've started checking out ScourgeBringer through Game Pass. The game has a great presentation and a unique combat system that has you bouncing from enemy to enemy in a stylish mid-air ballet. I'm not sure how it ranks in terms of harshness in the genre, but I know that despite enjoying my time with it I will eventually just have to put it down. ScourgeBringer like many roguelites requires you to beat the entire game in one go. As far as I know there are no shortcuts and each run begins at the very beginning. Each run first tasks you with locating the sub-boss of the "zone" by traversing randomized rooms in a square grid and then defeating the main boss of the zone known as a "judge" in order to move on to the next biome. At this point I can reliably get to the second boss and I've actually come pretty close to beating him. That said, the idea that I will have to repeat this ever increasing journey for each new area is deflating. I simply don't have the time or dedication to put into this game in order to get it done. I'd like to, but it's not likely to happen.

I've actually bought Hades and haven't tried it yet but I have heard that it is possible for folks like me to get through it. I'm definitely looking forward to trying and I hope that it can maybe be the first one of these that I stick to. I'm honestly kind of jealous of people that can find the joy in these games that I simply cannot. Seems like hitting gold when you do encounter a really good one as you get so many hours of fun out of it. They say not all games are for everyone and I just don't think I'm cut out for the genre, but I do wonder if these types of games were around when I was in my late teens back when I had all the time in the world would I be of a different opinion.

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How I became a Monster Hunter and loved it

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Monster Hunter always appeared to me like a game for crazy people. I was mostly exposed to it through Jason's various tales and none of it ever added up. Insane animation priority, no lock-on, timed missions, bosses with no life bars, combat that looks like you’re hitting a tree trunk with a wiffle bat, taking a knee to sharpen your weapon in mid fight.. what IS this game? At the same time I was always drawn to it for the insane amount of weapon variety and customization. The loop seemed like something right up my alley - kill monsters for parts and make unique looking gear from them. That sounds rad. But I was always scared of this eccentric Japanese behemoth from the handheld world. When the game landed on Game Pass I decided to take the plunge, the worst that could happen is I would lose a bit of time and move on. I’m really glad I took the plunge.

Monster Hunter World is dense and very Japanese. This is a game that despite its massive tutorialization at every step, still requires a whole lot of homework on your part if you’re a newcomer like I was. It’s hard to tell what is intentionally obscured and what is a result of this series evolving over a decade and the existing fanbase simply knowing how the pieces fit together. The entire “campaign” of Monster Hunter World is one long tutorial that slowly introduces you to various aspects of the game until after the final “boss” is felled you get to start playing for real. After about 30 hours I was beginning to feel comfortable in this world, but it took a lot of effort up front to get that far. Some things take forever to unlock while other elements are glossed over fairly quickly. For the entire first half you’re fighting monsters in what is known as “low rank” and the moment you advance the story to “high rank” all that armor you crafted instantly becomes obsolete. This is probably something obvious to series veterans, but I was a little shocked at how much time I wasted grinding some monsters when I really should have been plowing forward instead. It’s these little “I wish I knew this coming in” tidbits that can really trip you up early on as you learn how everything fits together.

The most important and most intricate aspect of MH:W is obviously the combat. The game is essentially a series of boss encounters in a beautifully hand-crafted open world that serves as your arena. You take on “hunts” and then track down the monster in the world and either slay it or capture it. Of course crafting is a huge part of Monster Hunter so along the way you’ll be collecting all manner of ore, bugs, honey etc., but when it comes down to it, you’re here to fight. Theres well over a dozen weapons to choose from and they all have very unique movesets and systems to master. I would say that the game is evenly split between learning your weapon, and learning the monsters. Most of the weapons in MH:W require a level of commitment both in mastering the moveset and animation priority. Wind up attacks can be intensely long and I spent a great many hunts getting knocked around because I was stuck in an attack while a monster was charging right at me. This is why knowing your beasts is essential. Every monster has very specific moves and tells that with time you will learn to recognize and in turn exploit as openings for your most devastating attacks. It’s a delicate balance of knowing when to advance, when to retreat, and how to dance around these towering beasts with a sword thats twice as tall as you are.

Learning what buttons to press isn’t as easy as you might think. To the games credit the training area offers a fairly competent rundown of each weapon, showcasing its most basic functions and combos. Digging deeper into your journal you can find useful tips and tricks on their basic usage and there are even small clips that let you know the basic tenets of their usage. Even so.. There are a lot of hidden mechanics that simply aren’t made very clear. Since I heard so much about this crazy Charge Blade contraption I decided to dive into the deep end and attempt to master it. Initially I decided to try learning on my own, practicing the different moves against a wooden pole and seeing how it all worked. I thought I had a handle on things and then decided to check some YouTube videos to see if there were any tricks I had missed. I believe I spent the next several days watching and re-watching 20 minute long in-depth tutorials on how to properly use this thing - and then it took another 20 hours of hunting monsters to feel like I somewhat have a handle on what I should be doing and when I should be doing it - and there are 13 more weapons to choose from! All offer their own varied levels of complexity, meters, charges, stances.. It’s mind boggling.

I could go on about the strange controls, the camera, the way you spend a lot of these hunts clipping into a monster and slashing it’s ankles.. Monster Hunter World is dense, and replete with gameplay. After you finally finish the campaign which takes quite a while if you’re inexperienced like I was, you can pick up a new weapon and spend the next dozen or so hours learning how to use it and going down it’s many upgrade paths. You can grind monsters for parts to craft that perfect armor set or simply collect them all. There is so, so much to do here. What really won me over though is the humor and positive vibes this game exudes. Everyone is in a constant go-get-em high. Your cute Palico companion is always making faces, and acting silly. There is a pig you can pet in the base.. Not only is the game vibrant graphically but it’s just fun to be in that world of goofballs. If you’re looking for a big time sink then I can definitely recommend Monster Hunter. You will have to watch a fair bit of YouTube tutorials but once you start getting it, the experience is very rewarding.

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Rip and tear into some fun sequels

Rip and tear..into the Surge 2 - you've been tricked now you have to read the rest of this blog.
Rip and tear..into the Surge 2 - you've been tricked now you have to read the rest of this blog.

In the past few weeks I’ve been playing the sequels to two games I greatly enjoyed in the past few years which both incidentally involve the ripping and tearing of your foes in comically graphic ways. The two games in question - The Surge 2 and Doom Eternal. While very different in nature, I found that both games shared a lot of common traits of the proverbial sophomore slump. That isn’t to say I thought these were bad games. In fact I had a fair bit of fun with both of them. They just weren’t the sequels that I personally wanted.

The Surge is a game that I loudly champion when given the chance like a crazy man on a street corner while everyone gives me a wide berth, hurriedly passing by lest they catch anything from mere proximity. It’s a souls-like game with all the traditional trappings but also many unique and fun mechanics of it’s own. While I greatly enjoyed The Surge there were plenty of things I thought a potential sequel could do so much better. If only more people played this I thought! Well somewhat surprisingly the game did get a numbered sequel and after having played it I can safely say it was your typical case of bigger but not necessarily better. The original worked so well because of it’s clever way of interweaving the narrative into the gameplay. The fact alone that you start the game as not just your everyday Gordon Freeman, but someone bound to a wheelchair was a surprising little twist that I’ve never seen in a game before. There is something to be said about little flourishes that are inconsequential to the minute to minute gameplay, but add a great deal to the overall experience when you take a step back and look at the whole picture. You work in a factory so you get a powerful exo-skeleton. Your weapons are basically power tools very much like how Dead Space did it. Your enemies are other employees whose brain-chip got fried in the titular surge at the outset of the game. The levels are different areas of the factory which you must escape and your bosses are typically large industrial robots now gone rampant. It all just clicked.

We've upgraded to a full city in the sequel
We've upgraded to a full city in the sequel

The Surge 2 foregoes all this in favor of giving you more toys to play with. You’re now in a city and there are different factions you’ll inadvertently come to slaughter by the hundreds but the reasons for how and why aren’t as neatly buttoned up. Why do all the citizens of this city have extremely high grade industrial exo-skeletons? Where did they get all these flamethrowers and energized staffs with spinning saws? The city itself is more diverse than the very samey looking industrial corridors of the first game, but apparently the developer Deck 13 wasn’t up to the task of making it look actually interesting. At the outset of the story a plane with a nano virus crashes into Jericho City and after spending two months in a coma you awake in what looks like the aftermath of a nuclear fallout. Two months and the city is nearly in ruins, and this is BEFORE the nano virus properly activates. The repeating look of grey rubble is pervasive throughout your stay. It’s a cheap and easy way to not model an actual city, but it also means that despite this ostensibly much more interesting setting, you are actually just going through different biomes of devastation. The docks are rusty metal, the city is crumbling concrete and the sewers are darkened caves with the familiar sci-fi plating that spans Jericho from top to bottom. There is one park level that breaks away from the norm but even there you can’t shake the feeling of this limited asset re-use going on. The level design itself is quite clever with many twisting pathways and shortcuts that lead back to previous areas. But like I mentioned above, it seems to be more for the sake of more. There are so many shortcuts that half of them end up feelings absolutely superfluous. Oftentimes because everything still looks so very similar and without character, you’ll open up one of these shortcuts and not even recognize the area you’ve come from because unlike the Souls games there is very little instantly recognizable architecture to be found.

Pictured: Me ripping and tearing
Pictured: Me ripping and tearing

The combat which was excellent in the first game feels freshened up and faster in the second. Unfortunately a lot of the tougher enemy encounters revolve around a brand new directional parry mechanic. Parrying is a divisive tactic simply because you have to be actually really good at it to make it work, which is why a lot of people opt out favoring a more defensive strategy. A missed parry can have devastating effects and in a Souls like game this risk can be especially punishing. It doesn’t help that the parry here is tied to animation, which means it’s not just a split second button press. You need to anticipate both the incoming attack timing as well as your own characters physical response timing. These windows can feel wildly inconsistent across the varying enemies you encounter. There were some who I could parry 95% of the time with ease while others I struggled with to the very end. It’s a mechanic you could potentially ignore if not for the fact that nearly all the bosses in The Surge 2 require some form of parrying unless you want to really slug it out for a while. I should know because I was so bad at directional parries during my first major boss encounter that I decided to dance around him and take potshots when possible. After an incredibly long and ardous fight I felled the beast without engaging once with this essential risk-reward mechanic. Dozens of hours later I faced this same boss in NG+, now a lot more comfortable with bouncing attacks back at my enemies, and this boss was a breeze and much easier when tackled the way the developers intended. The big difference was not only the hours upon hours of practice I’ve had, but that my health and stamina pool both allowed me to engage the boss this way without it spelling certain doom if I messed up. At the beginning of the game you have so little health and limited amounts of healing that missing one of these attacks can literally lead to death. It’s scary. Now that I had a much bigger safety buffer, missing Little Johnny’s mechanical tentacle swipes cost me a tiny fraction of health compared ot my first encounter. Even if I got exceedingly sloppy I’d acquired an implant that gave me health back for sustained damage that let me easily build that green bar back up to full. During my final hours with the game I would parry quite often because I didn’t feel the danger of missing. I understood what the developers were going for, but I also saw how they were unable to perceive the shortcomings of this system for newcomers.

Those robots are kind of referenced in the lore..
Those robots are kind of referenced in the lore..

Which in a weird way brings me to Doom Eternal. The opinions on this game seem to sway in two polar opposites. Those who love it and those who feel at odds with the systems. At first I was leaning heavily into the latter. With time I’ve come to understand it’s mostly a case of a bad on-ramp. Eternal starts with all cylinders firing. There is a very short refresher course on what each button does and then the combat arenas begin in earnest. In no time at all the game introduces bigger enemies like the spidery Arachnotron and shows you their weak points to exploit. There is an overall very welcome transparency to the combat mechanics. Game director Hugo Martin even mentions in one interview or another that they didn’t really want the player to focus on puzzling out HOW to kill bad guys - they were going to show you exactly how to do it so you can go on have the fun experience of getting on with it. Yet many players felt constrained by these systems as if the game was actually limiting a lot of your options by forcing hard counters you needed to exploit. In turn many players that finished the game and loved it would argue that you don’t actually need to strictly adhere to everything the game tells you to do, that there is a lot of flexibility to the combat system and how you approach each enemy. This is true.. tt just takes a while to get there. At the outset you get a shotgun and a rifle and if you plan to survive you actually have to strictly adhere to the rules because you don’t have any other options. You’re not going to take out the flying Revenant with ease without taking out both his cannons with only the rifle and combat shotgun. You could lob a sticky grenade but it’s not ideal. This is a bit of a forced learning curve - the game is forcing you to do this knowing you have no other option in order to drill into the player the rock-paper-shotgun approach to combat. Later on I hardly ever bothered with this tedious scoping in because I would use my super shotgun and meathook right into a Revenants face. Similarly I stopped caring about a lot of traditional weak points opting out for weapons with higher firepower or knockback. The problem is you have to get there, and those possibilities all open up somewhere past the midpoint of the game. You’re fairly squishy throughout but especially so at the beginning. The first half of your demon slaying journey really feels quite frantic as you’re dancing around all these fiends with a limited arsenal. It’s a lot less fun and creative than the latter half of the experience where you get to choose how you want to engage the enemies and the “combat puzzle” becomes a lot more interesting with the additional puzzle pieces filling out the picture. You’ll annoyingly still take a beating from the most basic fodder types if you’re not careful, but getting out of bad situations is a lot easier as well.

The combat makes perfect sense when you look at it back from the perspective of a powered up beast you become by the end. There is actually a ton of freedom in how you tackle demons. Apart from the Marauder who forces your hand, you’re given so many options that there is always some way to make things work in your favor. So it’s understandable why a lot of folks get turned off early on when the game simply isn’t as fun. Having to run around wildly with just the combat shotgun in the first few levels doesn’t make you feel like a powerful demon slayer. The fact that you take so much damage from even the simplest imps similarly saps the power fantasy right out of Doom. And this is Doom after all. You’re meant to be an unstoppable power house but at best the Doom Marine feels like a glass cannon. Weapons and abilities should have been introduced much quicker so you can, as Hugo describes it, get quicker into the fun-zone.

By this point I was pretty tired of slaying
By this point I was pretty tired of slaying

That said, while the combat definitely picks up the further you go, I still don’t think this is a “perfect shooter” as some would say. Doom 2016 while slower had a lot more charm, a lot more character, and a smoother progression throughout. Eternal puts the pedal to the metal from the start and it unflinchingly stays in that high gear to the very end. The last act of the game starts to feel like a bit of a slog and the final boss quantifies this feeling by a hundred. If you weren’t feeling even a little tired of Doom, then that final encounter will try it’s hardest to wear you out. It’s not even a complicated or interesting challenge - you are presented with a towering meat bag that you have to dump copious amounts of ammo into, twice. You would maybe get some satisfaction from the absolute power fantasy of being able to use your insta-kill sword to your hearts delight if it weren’t for the length of the encounter. For the developer this was meant to be the final showcase of their really great damage tech that you’re witness to throughout the many hours of demon dismemberment. Perhaps they were a little too close to it all and forgot to take a step back to see that ultimately it wasn’t all that fun to play. Some other nitpicks is the level design which is now completely divorced from any sort of game-world reality and is just full on arcadey arenas with floating platforms and skulls throughout. It no longer feels like any one place but rather a collection of fighting pits. This was always the case with Doom but Eternal does nothing to mask it. The platforming while not ideal I didn’t really mind but the swimming sections with acid are all awful, not fun or creative in any way, and feel like someone lost a bet and they had to put them in somewhere. Thankfully much like the purple goop they show up very rarely. All the boss encounters are bad with maybe the exception of the Doom Hunter who becomes a regular enemy. The second to last boss is alright but homing rockets made the fight fairly trivial, but by that point of the game I welcomed the easy win. The lore, which I actually tried to study, is deep in the worst possible way and for all it’s wordiness is barely represented in the actual game. I kept waiting for some story twist, something, anything really.. but it’s very straightforward from start to finish. I can only imagine they will release the bridge between Doom 2016 and Doom Eternal as some sort of lost levels or worse yet DLC.

Not as complex but a heck of a lot of fun
Not as complex but a heck of a lot of fun

Yet despite all that there are those that love Eternal from start to finish. This made me wonder why someone would be so uncritical of these obvious shortcomings, and where have I seen this before? The answer is Devil May Cry 5. I’ve observed that there is a certain subset of players that simply love mechanics above all else. DMC5 was a game that some fans of the series loved and proclaimed the best character action title ever made. They didn’t see a problem with the level design being repetitious or the story, because those things don’t matter in light of the combat which they placed above all else. Doom Eternal is like that age old argument of DmC and DMC. While DmC might not be as nuanced as the canonical DMC entries, I found the overall package not only more compelling but also more inviting to play - in part because it wasn’t as complicated. People that love Doom Eternal love the combat and they will continue playing the game over and over because that is their main priority - mechanics, raw gameplaty. For those people I imagine there wasn’t a single second of the game that felt like a slog, because every new room, every new encounter, was another opportunity to engage in the fun of simply killing demons, and thats great. For those like myself that are never going to be that skilled or consumed with just gameplay, there needs to be more to fill out the corners and Eternal just doesn’t provide that. It’s one hell of a ride and I enjoyed large chunks of it, but ultimately it’s singular focus wore me out long before the credits rolled.

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A few words about Final Fantasy XV (Royal Edition)

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As I wrote last month or so, FFXV had come to Game Pass so I decided to give it a shot as it had always piqued my interest, just never enough to actually put any money down. As part of my gaming Netflix? Why not.

I am not a big Final Fantasy fan. That is not to say I dislike the series, I simply have very little experience with it. My personal Final Fantasy timeline is rather short: I had played FF6/4 ages ago and really enjoyed it but due to some poor saving decisions I got stuck in a hard dungeon with no healing items and no matter how I tackled a particular boss encounter I was not able to progress and had to give up. Years later for whatever reason I purchased FF13 and actually enjoyed it quite a bit. As someone that was not well versed in JRPGs, the extremely linear nature of 13 lent itself really well to a relative newcomer. The story was convoluted but at least there was a codex so I was, for the most part, able to follow along. I also really enjoyed the bizarre role oriented combat. At times it felt like a battle of attrition more than anything else, but once again for someone that hadn’t played a whole lot of these in the past it was really cool and exciting.

That brings us to FF15, the third Final Fantasy I have ever played.

Eyes up here buddy!
Eyes up here buddy!

FF15 is really fascinating. There is so much happening here and a lot of it is handled in such odd ways that I would love to see a full documentary on the making of it. The gameplay had always intrigued me from the videos I saw with it’s stylized action and great visuals. At first blush it seems complicated and a lot to wrap your head around. With time though you come to realize that like most of FF15 a lot of it is very automated favoring style over substance. Combat has some strategy to it but it's all very surface level “attack from the back” or “exploit the elemental weakness” strategy, and most of the time combat encounters are a mess. You will typically face multiple enemies that all attack at the same time making any attempts at stylish character action weaving and split-second dodging a hopeless pipe dream. You are much better served by alternating between holding down the automatic evade button and then holding down the automatic attack button when appropriate, mixing in Blindsides, Warps and Counters. Once in a while you will get to do a summon although the mechanics and conditions required for this to happen are never quite explained and I ended up summoning maybe a total of 6 times throughout the entire game +postgame content (typically in battles that never even required the overkill of a summon). At the outset, even after going through the full tutorial, I didn't really get the battle mechanics and I can proudly say that by the end of my 35 hour run and several YouTube How-To videos later I was still none the wiser at how to gracefully make your way through combat encounters. I beat the game, maybe in spite of it, but I did finish it so maybe I was playing it right all along? There are a lot of systems at play and they’re all odd. Spellcasting for instance is relegated to a usable item that you craft with very finite uses instead of the mana based classic iteration. Each time you want to cast a spell you will need to craft an instance of it and even if you have the necessary ingredients the spell will not automatically repopulate upon depletion. Similarly awkward are the signature Royal Arms which you are tasked with collecting. These magical power weapons boost your stats and have unique movesets but they drain your health as you use them and will drain more health the more damage you deal - a truly baffling system of balancing power weapons if I’ve ever seen one. There is hardly any armor to be worn and the few outfits that do impact your stats come very late in the game. The Royal Edition comes with a variety of clothing options from the very start and also Magitek armor which as far as I can tell is like a Godmode built into the game? The armor blocks all damage and has enough power to easily take you through an entire dungeon. I guess it’s one of those DLC items that completely breaks the game and I ended up only using it once to finish a dungeon simply because I was getting tired of it.

Lunafreya is an important character - she is also in the game for about 15 min
Lunafreya is an important character - she is also in the game for about 15 min

Outside of combat there is plenty more weirdness to be found. Ostensibly FF15 is presented as this road-trip game, yet none of the systems support this style of gameplay. Camping out in the wilderness thanks to the odd experience banking system is actively discouraged as you lose out on experience multipliers that you can get when resting in towns. There are absolutely no benefits to camping or going out of your way to finding camping spots out in the wilderness. Each time you are ready to level it is far more efficient to travel to a town that has a 1.5x experience multiplier instead of using a campground that gives you nothing. Surprisingly there is quite a big world out there for you to explore when the game isn’t rushing you through narrative setpieces that lock you out of it. Like much of FF15 the world is really interesting from a skin deep aesthetic layer but there is little mechanical depth to it. Side quests are all very mundane and since travel is primarily conducted through the Regalia autopilot you are either sitting through loading screens during fast travel or sitting back as your car steadily makes its way to the quest destination. It is nearly Death Stranding levels of audacity to have the player sit through so much pointless travel with absolutely nothing to do. I guess the team was really proud of that world? Even a tiny gear-shifting minigame that would give you a speed boost would be enough to liven up the time wasted on travelling the countryside. But back to the topic of quests - the only worthwhile missions are the primary story Quests which offer bespoke and often very well produced set pieces. Everything else might as well have been churned out by a computer learning algorithm. The Royal Tombs which the game somewhat centers around are probably the worst offenders of the bunch and the most painfully boring, confusing and unimaginative dungeon designs I’ve seen in the past 10 years. Instead of each of the 13 Royal Arms having interesting, hand crafted mini-dungeons, they are instead a mess of identical right angle hallways that twist and turn to form a maze of identical passageways broken up by combat encounters every 30 seconds. The worst one (and I did them all) being a tower you can only enter at night that devolved quite quickly into room after room of spawning enemies linked by the most barebones of level design. The “puzzle” near the end consisting of moving blocks that animated ever so slowly. Worse yet you can’t save inside a dungeon so you are obligated to finish them out in one go (in my situation I was not about to trust the XB1X suspend feature). Normally OK but a few times I simply had to go somewhere and the dungeon was going on and on and I mean c’mon it’s not 1997 anymore just let me save inside the dungeon this is a quality of life thing more than anything.

Understanding the story is a struggle
Understanding the story is a struggle

But all of that pales in comparison to the absurdity of how they decided to go about telling the actual story of this game. FF15 is a nightmare of cross-media fragmentation to the point where the game by itself makes little sense until you go out of your way to study all available outside sources. There is a full movie I watched which sets up a bit of backstory and character motivations that are otherwise absolutely unclear if you just play the game. Apart from the movie there is a TV show, DLC mini-campaigns featuring each of your comrades in arms as well as a chapter dedicated to the big bad of the game AND if I’m not mistaken a novelisation. In a way it’s incredible. At the end of the day the story told is not even that complicated. This is a simple tale of someone getting wronged and then exacting revenge. It most certainly did not need to be spread out among several different types of media. This choice of course ruins the actual game as you constantly meet people who you should know from THE MOVIE or the SHOW and they are not introduced in any way. There are moments where you party members leave and then come back with huge scars and then say “you should see the other guy” - this is a literal quote from the game - and the story moves on. That particular even is probably elaborated on in one of the characters DLC episodes which I didn’t play. Why? What insane development plan ended up with this final outcome? Apparently the final area of the game had been “fixed” for the Royal Edition because it was somehow unfinished or broken before. I never played the original but I did look through some YouTube videos and they did in fact expand the final chapter quite a bit. Is it for the better? Ehh.. In the original you get back to Insomnia and then after a short trek face off against Ifrit (who had been corrupted by Ardyn but you would only know this if you played his DLC) and then you face Ardyn himself who tells you a few things that make no sense because the game never communicated any of the plot to the player in order for these final revelations to have any payoff. In the expanded version Insomnia is a small playable area that had been populated with some absolutely underwhelming quests like finding 10 batteries for Cindy in random places across the map. You also fight against a lot more bosses this time around. Most notably you fight the old kings whose tombs you visit and these encounters are actually pretty interesting if I knew more backstory about who these kings were. I didn’t.

Despite all this.. Alll in all.. I had a fun time. There are definitely moments in the game that feel very satisfying. The way weapons materialize from thin air never stops being cool. When you finally unlock the flying Regalia it is an awesome transformation and makes getting around the map actually almost fun. Combat is neat when it clicks or when you’re facing a limited number of enemies that allow you to see what is happening. Final Fantasy 15 is one of those sad games that could have been great if only it didn’t turn into such a mess. There is so much potential here that will probably never get a proper chance at being a real game. If anything it did make me excited for the FF7 remake which seems to be doing a lot of what FF15 did right and making it even better - like the combat. I’m happy to have experienced it even though I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a “good” game.

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