Metroid and Me, Part 2: Into the Green World

Welcome to part two of “Metroid and Me,” my lengthy, introspective blog series exploring why the Metroid franchise is such a resonant one for me. If you haven’t read it, I highly suggest starting with part one (link below). Not only does it explain what this blog series is, it also covers my personal history with Metroid, which I think provides useful context for what’s to come. Because now it’s time to really dive into the “red meat” of this series, and start looking at precisely what it is about Metroid that has connected with me so strongly. Each part will have its own overarching topic, but also bear in mind that there is some overlap between them; it’s the delicate synergy between its many characteristics that makes Metroid so special after all. So while each part focuses on one topic, my goal is that by the end they will all combine to form a larger, holistic view of what the series means to me. To kick things off, we’re going to look at one of the broader and more obvious appeals of Metroid: its sense of adventure.

Metroid and Me, Part 1: In the BeginningMetroid and Me, Part 2: Into the Green World
Metroid and Me, Part 3: Frozen UtopiaMetroid and Me, Part 4: Lone Star
Metroid and Me, Part 5: In Your PrimeMetroid and Me, Part 6: Torvus Chips
Metroid and Me, Part 7: SolitudeMetroid and Me, Bonus: Series Ranking
Remix Title: Into the Green WorldOriginal Song: Brinstar - Plant Overgrowth Area (Super Metroid, 1994, SNES)
Remixer(s): Sam DillardOriginal Composer(s): Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano

Into the Green World

You’ve just landed on an unfamiliar alien planet. You have no idea what dangerous creatures or hostile environments lie before you. You have no clue where to begin your search, no way to know which direction your mission lies. In fact, you’re not 100% sure what your mission even is, but you know without a doubt that evil is lurking beneath the surface, and that you will need all your wits and courage if you’re going to stop it. You gather yourself, open the door leading away from the safety of your ship, and descend into the great unknown.

In Metroid's very first room, you're already exploring.
In Metroid's very first room, you're already exploring.

This simple yet daunting gambit is the one presented to you at the start of a Metroid game, and sets the tone for a thrilling adventure. “Adventure” is the key word here, and I believe that a strong sense of adventure has been one of the series’ biggest strengths from the very start; the original Metroid, released in Japan 30 years ago, was built upon such a foundation. Without so much as a hint, it started you off on a bizarre alien world, and left it up to you to dive in head first and find your own way. Players immediately found out just how little the game was willing to direct them. In a subtle yet iconic move, the very opening room of Metroid allowed you to move either left or right. The design of the room very quietly suggested moving to the right, which was also the convention of the vast majority of video games at the time (and generally still is). I’d guess that most of us moved right, but it didn’t take long to realize you weren’t going to get very far that way. That meant players were already backtracking, back to the left of the starting position, where they found an important upgrade that let them progress farther to the right. In this simple, bold, and instructive introductory moment, players had already experienced a microcosm of Metroid. You set out and explore in whatever direction you choose, poke and prod until you can’t go any farther, then regroup and try a different path. As the game goes on those paths grow longer, more numerous, and interconnect in clever ways (this complexity is a big part of the franchise’s longevity and appeal). But the underlying exploration it demands is there from, literally, the start.

It takes an adventurous spirit, a certain kind of “go with the flow” attitude to get over this initial hump. And even then you have to be willing to keep throwing yourself into the wilderness as it continues to, slowly but surely, become ever more convoluted. There’s that moment in almost every Metroid game where I’ve been making good progress, gaining new abilities and opening up the world substantially, only to find myself somewhat stumped. I pull up the map and think “There’s nowhere left to go.” But there always is, and to find it I have to dive back in and fully wrap myself in this untamed world. Somewhere there is a newly accessible nook that went overlooked, or a path that can be accessed in an unexpected way. Even after playing a Metroid game multiple times it can still catch me. I frequently overlook the Wrecked Ship in Super Metroid, or just how many places you can use the Grapple Beam in Metroid Prime. Part of this is purely attention to detail; in theory, if you notice and remember every little thing on the map you’ll never get lost. More realistically, it’s the willingness to explore and re-explore as necessary. Most people, myself included, can’t memorize these large worlds in their entirety. At least not without spending dozens, if not hundreds, of hours in them. Instead, you must keep diving back in to resurvey the land and map a new route. As time goes on you become more and more intimately familiar with the world around you, but the sense of discovery is always present. There’s always something new to uncover, even in seemingly well-worn territory.

Tourist? Or traveler?
Tourist? Or traveler?

The desire to keep your explorer’s hat on for hours is the driving force behind any Metroid experience. That kind of mindset is not for everyone, as it demands a certain level of curiosity and self-motivation on the part of the player that’s rarely needed (or even encouraged) in a lot of games. The simple idea of backtracking itself is often seen as wasting time, and regularly shunned in favor of more clear, tangible progress. That’s a perfectly valid preference, and there are also plenty of games that implement backtracking poorly, or don’t have worlds worth retreading. In those cases it can be frustrating, but I also believe there’s merit to becoming so invested in a well-crafted video game world that you genuinely want to discover all the little nooks and crannies. Think about the difference between a tourist and a traveler. The tourist is there to see the highlight attractions in the most direct, efficient method possible. They follow the guidebook, go down the checklist, and see the “big stuff” without straying too far off the main path. The traveler is there to become a part of this new place, and experience all that comes with it. They want to see a place how a native would see it, to understand what makes it tick, or what it’s like to live there. They want to be a part of a new environment, rather than simply pass through it. Metroid, as much as any game, frustrates the tourist and rewards the traveler. It presents highly detailed and complex worlds, and demands the player pay attention and embrace every part of it as they search for their goal. There’s no surface level sightseeing here; you’re going to need to become just as familiar with those back alleys and local conventions as you are the famous landmarks if you want to complete your mission.

Deep down, I’ve always been more of a “traveler,” which for our purposes might as well mean “adventurer.” When I visit a different location, be it a new park, city, or foreign country, I generally don’t care that much about the “big” sights. Sure, I saw the Colosseum when I went to Rome, but I was far more interested to venture down the side streets, to walk where the locals walked and eat what they ate. I wanted to feel, in some small way, like I was a part of the city, rather than just passing through. One of my personal favorite trips was a weekend trip that I took by myself to Split, Croatia. To my knowledge Split is not known as a traditional tourist hotspot with world famous attractions, but I had a great time meandering about the city, exploring its various corners, alleys, and parks. I’m always excited to see what’s around the next corner, and I enjoy the process of mapping out and learning a new area. Along the same lines, I love to hike because I enjoy the sense of self-guided exploration, of being subjugated to the rules of a foreign space and learning to adapt on the fly. There’s something pure and thrilling about stripping yourself from the comforts of daily life, and focusing on unfamiliar challenges directly in front of you. That thrill is a defining part of the adventure, and I’ve always been a closet thrill-seeker in that respect.

Metroid has essentially “gamified” this type of adventuring, which fits my tastes perfectly. You’re encouraged, and often required, to go off and explore every corner of a foreign world. Doing so leads to more items and power-ups, which will enable you to access new areas and grow stronger. It takes fairly traditional video game mechanics, and embeds them within expansive worlds worth exploring, which is precisely what makes it all work so well. The idea of “exploration” in video games is a noble one, but it falls flat on its face if the virtual space in question isn’t exciting. That’s one of the areas where Metroid truly shines; few video games worlds are so lovingly handcrafted, detailed, and lively (as we’ll see in future parts). Simply being in these worlds feels adventurous.

Metroid's adventure results from your own discoveries.
Metroid's adventure results from your own discoveries.

I’ve focused a lot on the idea of “exploration” here, and while I consider that a substantial part of what I mean by “adventuring,” it’s certainly not the only part. The adventure of Metroid also lends itself to plenty of action and surprises, if in its own, subtle way. There are rarely blockbuster set pieces or grand plot twists here, but the happenings in a Metroid adventure are extremely resonant nonetheless. Metroid Prime’s tagline states that before evil can be destroyed, it must be found. While exploring Tallon IV, you end up fighting Space Pirates and reading about their experiments. As you inevitably fight their creations yourself, you’re slowly exposed to this “evil,” which builds up to a poignant encounter with their freshly engineered Metroid variants. That’s about as dramatic as Metroid gets, and while it may sound dull on paper, the way such moments play out feel important. Seeing and understanding the game’s events doesn’t happen in a flashy cutscene or through melodramatic exposition; these moments happen naturally as you explore and fight your way through historic ruins and fiery caverns. This adventure that forms naturally through your own actions can lead to all sorts of implicit revelations, and I’d argue that they can be even more effective as a result. I’ll continue to cover Metroid’s narrative structure and its impact next week, but it does meaningfully add to the series’ sense of high adventure in a way that I strongly appreciate.

Plenty of games have a strong sense of adventure, including more than a few of my favorites. But Metroid, by keeping the focus so heavily on the adventure itself, is as pure as any in that regard. There’s no elaborate or obtuse goals, no long-winded monologues, no side quests or distractions, no markers littering the screen, and no gimmicks. It’s just you, out there on your own, exploring an untamed world that somehow needs to be tamed. It’s about embracing the unknown, discovering as you go, and becoming familiar with a world that initially seemed anything but. That’s the adventure of Metroid, and it’s an adventure that has resonated with me very strongly time and again. Setting foot onto an alien planet has rarely been this exciting, and a lot of that has to do with the quality of such worlds. That leads us directly into next week’s topic, where I will dive head first into one of Metroid’s more defining characteristics: its thick atmosphere.

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Metroid and Me, Part 1: In the Beginning

Welcome to the first part of what will ultimately be a seven part blog series! I've had the idea for this series in my head for a long time, and I’m excited to finally get it out there. So what exactly is it? Titled "Metroid and Me," this blog is a lengthy, introspective look at why the Metroid franchise has connected with me so strongly on a personal level. It's long been among my favorite video game franchises, and I've found myself thinking about it a lot lately. Different games connect with different people in different ways, and I feel it would be an interesting and worthwhile exercise to thoroughly explore why Metroid has done that for me. What is it about Metroid specifically that clicks with me so much? What is it about my personality and preferences that draw me to this franchise? Why haven't other seemingly similar games grabbed me the same way? These are the kinds of questions I'm looking to answer here.

There will be seven parts to this series, including this one, and I will post one a week for seven weeks. Each part will focus on one substantial aspect of Metroid that I feel is important to my affection for the series. Topics such as atmosphere, world design, and isolation are among those on the docket, and my goal is that by the end I will have thoroughly and holistically covered everything that's critical to my connection with Metroid. Hopefully this structure accomplishes what I want it to, and proves to be an entertaining and engaging form of expression. And now that you have a rough idea of what this blog series is about, let’s get started! Today's topic is an introductory one: my personal history with Metroid.

Metroid and Me, Part 1: In the BeginningMetroid and Me, Part 2: Into the Green World
Metroid and Me, Part 3: Frozen UtopiaMetroid and Me, Part 4: Lone Star
Metroid and Me, Part 5: In Your PrimeMetroid and Me, Part 6: Torvus Chips
Metroid and Me, Part 7: SolitudeMetroid and Me, Bonus: Series Ranking
Remix Title: In the Beginning...Original Song: Title (Metroid, 1986, NES)
Remixer(s): Mercury AdeptOriginal Composer(s): Hirokazu Tanaka

In the Beginning

Where did it all begin? What was my first encounter with Metroid? Ironically enough, I don't think I can pinpoint the precise moment that I first played a Metroid game. If I had to guess, first contact came from briefly playing Metroid II: Return of Samus at a friend's house when I was very young. I barely remember anything about it; all I remember is loading up an existing save file and not knowing what to do or where to go, and I doubt I tried it for more than an hour. Feeling lost may be a natural reaction for people playing Metroid for the first time, especially if you're very young and diving into an existing save file. But the experience didn't leave a lasting impression either way.

It took me too long to get there, but I'm glad I eventually did.
It took me too long to get there, but I'm glad I eventually did.

Regardless of what my official first encounter with Metroid may have been, I do in fact know when I first experienced the series in earnest. I wasn't old enough to start actually following video games until the turn of the century (I was born in 1986 for reference). Until then, what games I played were determined almost entirely by what box art looked cool at the local rental store, or perhaps by what friends at school talked about. Super Metroid managed to elude both of these, and seeing as Metroid went into hibernation from 1994 to 2002, I was unlikely to get any further exposure to the series during that time. Once I was old enough to pay attention and follow games on my own, however, I became aware of Super Metroid and its legacy. Furthermore, the double whammy of Metroid Fusion and Metroid Prime were coming in 2002. Thus, I quickly went from barely knowing about Metroid's existence to curiously eyeing a trio of fresh Metroid games. It was time to dive in and find out what Metroid was for myself, so I found a copy of Super Metroid, and was off to the races.

I won't say it was love at first sight, because I'm sure there was a learning period to understanding what Super Metroid was. It was very different from the kinds of games I had played at that point in my life, and it required a particular attention to detail that I wasn't used to needing. But it didn't take long for me to "get it;" I was on board pretty quick. Exactly what I "got" is the exhaustive subject of future parts, so for now just know that I enjoyed every moment of my first true Metroid experience. It was also perhaps the perfect game to formally introduce me to the series, as Super Metroid is in many ways the best and purest representation of the series to date. After that initial playthrough, I immediately wanted to jump back in and find items I had missed, discover new paths, and try for a better time. I played through Super Metroid a few times in quick succession, exploring as much of this captivating game as I could.

The perfect way to transition Metroid to 3D.
The perfect way to transition Metroid to 3D.

I did want to move on, however, because two new Metroid games were coming in hot. As mentioned, I didn't get around to playing Super Metroid until Metroid Fusion and Metroid Prime were both almost out. Between those I started with Metroid Prime, and I was immediately blown away by it. The game sucked me in with its stunning audiovisual presentation, and I felt that the first person perspective and 3D world brought a new sense of wonder to proceedings. Things felt more intimate, more "in your face" this time around, and yet it never lost what made Super Metroid such a special thing in the first place. Despite all the hubbub about Metroid becoming a first person shooter, playing Metroid Prime made it clear that it was still very much a Metroid game above all else; adventuring and exploration remained the focus. In short, I absolutely loved Metroid Prime, and afterwards I moved on to Metroid Fusion. I enjoyed Fusion for sure, but I also didn’t feel it was as strong as either Super or Prime. I didn't feel its world was as intricate or as sprawling as those two, and the mediocre dialogue didn't do much for me either. Still, it remained a Metroid game at its core, with many of the series’ trademarks intact, and one I very much liked.

At this point I had been introduced to the franchise, and played three wonderful Metroid games in a very short time. And in doing so, I had quickly become enraptured in what it had to offer. Seeking as much Metroid as I could, I next decided to go back and play the two games I had missed: the original Metroid, and Metroid II: Return of Samus. While I technically had played a small amount of Metroid II many years prior, I didn’t remember any of it. So as far as I was concerned, these were both brand new Metroid experiences for me, despite both being over a decade old at that point. Their age showed too, and while I certainly enjoyed seeing the series’ first two installments for myself, they clearly weren’t as polished or refined as the games that followed. Super Metroid in particular simply seemed like a bigger, better version of the original, but those first two games were by no means bad, even that long after the fact. The core essence of Metroid was there from the start, amidst the rough edges, and was still good enough for me to enjoy exploring their expansive worlds. Ironically, Metroid: Zero Mission came out around this time as well, and I followed up my history lesson of the series by playing through this remake. I thought it did a wonderful job at giving the original a fresh, modern coating, and I found it to be yet another awesome Metroid game.

What a great way to modernize a classic.
What a great way to modernize a classic.

Metroid felt like it was on a roll at that point. I was in some kind of golden Metroid bubble, and there was yet another big new Metroid game right around the corner: Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. I immediately plunged into this sequel upon its release, and enjoyed it nearly as much as its predecessor. While I do think Metroid Prime remains the better game overall, Echoes had some interesting design elements that I found very endearing, and the core Metroid tenets remained present and strong. I know Echoes was not as widely loved as the original, which in some ways made sense; this felt like the Metroid game made for die-hard Metroid fans more than a wider audience (which was somewhat ironic given this was the one with multiplayer). But as a fan, I liked Echoes’ campaign a hell of a lot. Yet it’s also the turning point for the series in my mind, and it’s where my personal Metroid bubble “burst,” so to speak. Until then I had more great Metroid games to play than I knew what to do with. Following Echoes, however, I feel like they started trying to reach a wider audience more aggressively. While I’m all for trying new things, and don’t think any company is wrong to pursue a new strategy, that doesn’t change the fact that the subtle changes they made did not resonate as much with me personally. This led to a handful of games that, while not always bad, I didn’t exactly love.

This shift began two years after Echoes with Metroid Prime Hunters (I skipped Metroid Prime Pinball because it’s, well, a pinball game). While not a terrible game, it was pretty clear that Hunters was where the focus tipped more towards shooting, rather than adventuring. Whether it was meant as a technical experiment, or as an attempt to widen the series’ appeal, I will never know (I would guess some of both). Either way, too much of the Metroid fundamentals were lost in the transition, and what replaced them simply wasn’t as interesting. It felt more like an offshoot to me, and that feeling persisted into a much more high-profile game in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. While I liked Corruption much better than Hunters (Retro Studios’ standard of quality certainly helped), it still felt like it was missing something, that je ne sais quoi that defined previous Metroid games. Travelling between multiple disjointed worlds didn’t have the same scale or sense of discovery, the puzzles, bosses, and collectibles weren’t as devious or memorable, and the poor dialogue and stilted NPCs took away from what life and atmosphere still existed in the worlds themselves. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed Corruption a fair amount, and do not consider it a bad game by any stretch. But it was clear to me that this was a different thing from previous games in the series, and one that didn’t resonate with me quite as strongly.

The last Metroid game released as of this writing.
The last Metroid game released as of this writing.

Finally, the only Metroid game to come out since Corruption was the infamous Metroid: Other M. I still think there is room in the world for a more action heavy Metroid game, but Other M was clearly not it, and missed the mark in numerous ways. The control and design weren’t there, the environments and enemies were not interesting or atmospheric enough, and the game’s narrative and tone were just a mess. Chalk it up to a failed experiment if you want, but either way Other M did nothing positive for me, and I’m totally content to ignore it in the grand scheme of things. That game came out six years ago, in 2010, and there’s been no news of a proper Metroid game since (only of the upcoming spin-off, Metroid Prime: Federation Force). That means it’s been over a decade since the last Metroid game I truly loved came out. I don’t bemoan that fact; whatever happens going forward doesn’t take away from the joy the series has already given me. I do wonder about the future of Metroid, but only time will answer that. In the meantime, I can always revisit the classics, which I’ve done numerous times in the past decade. Super Metroid and Metroid Prime are the main ones, as I believe they are easily the series’ pinnacles. They are the two games that best embody what the series is all about to me, and I’ve played both numerous times from start to finish. I’ve also replayed many other games in the series at least once, and I don’t feel like I’ve exhausted the well yet either. The good Metroid games are timeless in their design, and hold up exceedingly well today.

I had two goals with today's introductory part. First, I wanted to give a brief overview of what this blog series is, and what's happening with it going forward. Second, I wanted to cover my history with the Metroid franchise in more detail. The latter was today's main topic, and I think that context is important to cover before diving into the real meat of this series; it establishes a baseline for my perspective that I will build upon. Hopefully today’s entry has provided that, and was a worthwhile and enjoyable (if abridged) trip down memory lane. Keep an eye out for part two next week, where I will really begin diving into the heart of this blog series, beginning with one of Metroid’s biggest strengths: its sense of adventure!

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Laying Thine Souls To Rest

SPOILER WARNING: Very mild spoilers for Dark Souls III ahead, mainly regarding its references to previous games in the series. I personally don't consider anything here spoiler-tag worthy, but some people are picky about this stuff. So here's your friendly warning!

There's a moment near the end of Dark Souls III where it all came together. I stepped out onto a bridge in the final non-optional area, and took pause for a second. I've seen this bridge before, or something very reminiscent of it. This giant stone bridge, with an equally giant iron gate at the other end. These wooden barricades erected before me, and the undead soldiers scattered about. I bet even more enemies are hiding behind these barriers, aren't they? Yes, I've seen this bridge before, if not in exacting detail, then in spirit. I saw this bridge seven years ago, at the very beginning of a little game called Demon's Souls. It all seemed so unassuming then, but little did we know what was to follow. My, how much has happened since.

I remember this place, too.
I remember this place, too.

Dark Souls III contains a lot of such references to From Software's previous Souls games, which in my mind includes both Demon's Souls and Bloodborne in addition to Dark Souls proper. Yet most of them didn't work that well for me personally. Yes, I remember Firelink Shrine. I remember Andre the Blacksmith. I remember the archers (those fuckers). And this one area sure looks a hell of a lot like Yharnam. But those mostly felt like cheap, easy reminders of times past, simple callbacks meant to placate long-time fans. It left me wondering, what is Dark Souls III's identity? It gleefully displayed its ability to pay homage to the past, but what is it able to do for the present?

Dark Souls III, other than being a reference machine, is for better and for worse another Dark Souls game. For better, this is still one of gaming's grandest adventures. This is a quest that's easy to lose yourself in, reveling in details and scope all at once. This is a game full of secrets and things to explore. This is a game containing countless tough foes, and exciting bosses. This is a game that places incredible confidence in its players' ability to find their own way. And in its execution, it's easily the best-playing Souls game yet. Combat feels faster and tighter, taking some of the lessons learned from Bloodborne to produce action nearly as good as its adventuring. Mechanical and customization elements are more clearly explained, and feel more balanced than before without losing any of the depth. Levels are also both larger and denser, containing winding paths that diverge and reconnect in exciting ways. Exploring is at the heart of this series, and Dark Souls III has some of the most elaborate levels of them all. The bosses too, while perhaps not the hardest to date (I don't think the game on the whole is the hardest either), are extremely varied and clever. No two boss fights are the same, which keeps things engaging throughout this lengthy adventure. Previous games could lose steam in the back half, but Dark Souls III remains steady from start to finish.

Who could have foreseen where this game would take us?
Who could have foreseen where this game would take us?

For worse, it has lost its novelty and mystery. Demon's Souls is one of the most memorable games I've ever played due to how bold and inventive it was; it took modern gaming design, turned it on its head, and tossed the player into a new, unforgettable adventure. Dark Souls III, by virtue of being the fifth such game, never had close to that kind of an impact on me. Even for all its sublime execution, and for its ability to produce an adventure more compelling than 99% of games out there, I never could shake that feeling of "been there, done that". This double-edged sword defined my entire playthrough of Dark Souls III. I consistently enjoyed the game, but it also felt like going through the motions too regularly. By playing safe within its own established conventions, it loses one of the defining traits those very conventions established in the first place. Dark Souls III was no longer mysterious or surprising in the way the series once was; it was no longer bucking the trends, instead succumbing to its own, now wide-spread trends. These are still good trends mind you, but I've done this all before, multiple times now. Some of the magic is naturally lost, and the edge dulled.

But if this truly is to be the last game of this type, as From Software claims, then Dark Souls III's place becomes more discernible. Instead of being the game to push the boundaries of what a video game adventure can be, Dark Souls III is more reflective, looking back and saying "Hey, look how far we've come!" It's a reminder of all the great memories it's created, and tying a bow on one of gaming's most important and beloved series over the past seven years. This realization finally hit when I stepped out onto that Demon's Souls-esque bridge. I remembered that bridge, and immediately remembered everything associated with it. I remember being utterly confused and delighted as I explored the seemingly impenetrable Boletaria, and the satisfaction that came when I finally unraveled its mystique. And I remembered all the games that followed, and how they built on that legacy. That bridge kicked off one of the most influential gaming franchises of the modern era, and seeing it now at the end of Dark Souls III brought it full circle.

Dark Souls III is a fitting end to multiple journeys.
Dark Souls III is a fitting end to multiple journeys.

It brought a personal journey of mine full circle as well. When I crossed that iconic bridge in 2009, I was unemployed, living with my parents. I had just graduated with my bachelor's degree, but after wasting a year in graduate school and deciding that wasn't right for me, I was frustrated and directionless. I've gone through a lot of life changes over the past seven years, and this series, one of my favorites, has punctuated every step of my growth. When Dark Souls came out in 2011, I had been working a comfortable if unexciting job for roughly a year and a half. When Dark Souls II released in 2014, I was preparing to move and go back to graduate school, this time for a substantially different degree. When I got around to Bloodborne a little over a year later, I was graduating with my master's degree, punctuating one of the most intense and life-changing years of my life. And now, in 2016, I have a job I love, living in the place I want to be. In that way, Dark Souls III is not only a retrospective send-off to a series that has defined an era of video games, but also a period of great change in my life.

I hope From Software makes good on their word, and that Dark Souls III is their last such game. It's a fitting end to the series, and to make another one would only undo the bow this game ties. Yes, this series has created many great memories, and Dark Souls III is happy to remind us of that. But I'm not convinced it can reach those heights again, and I think it's best to leave it there and turn now to the future. At some point, you have to move on, and I'm doing the same in my own life. I've experienced great memories, both high and low, since I first set foot on that bridge seven years ago, and I want to remember and cherish them. But now it's time to look forward. The future is full of possibilities, and there are new memories to make, for both From Software and myself. I won't forget the Souls of the past, but it's time to lay them to rest.

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My Favorite Video Game Music of 2015

The “top 10 games” list is a time-honored tradition here on good old Giant Bomb, and I’m deep in the throes of trying to nail down my own personal list for 2015; I have two more games to squeeze in before making my final decisions. It’s a fun (if sometimes difficult) process, and it always inspires me to make another equally fun “top 10” list to go along with it: my favorite video game music. I’m a long-standing fan of video game music, and every year there’s plenty of fantastic new soundtracks to go around. In some ways we’re more spoiled on that front than ever, as the variety of 2015’s music covers just about anything you can think of, and is often very high quality. I’ve managed to narrow that broad selection down to these 10 soundtracks, and have chosen a representative song from each. Needless to say, this is all my personal preference, but the music from these 10 games stood out to me more than any other I played this year. These are the soundtracks that added that little something extra to the games they accompanied, showing once again how great music can make an otherwise solid game even better. I hope you enjoy listening, and feel free to share some of your own favorites!

Finally, these games are ordered by release date, not by preference.

Gravity Ghost

Featured Track: Flower Girl (by Ben Prunty)

Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number

Featured Track: Divide (by Magna)

Ori and the Blind Forest

Featured track: Main Menu (by Gareth Coker)

Pillars of Eternity

Featured track: Combat D (by Justin Bell)

Axiom Verge

Featured track: The Dream (by Thomas Happ)

Titan Souls

Featured track: Souls (by David Fenn)

Crypt of the NecroDancer

Featured track: Disco Descent (by Danny Baranowsky)

N++

Featured track: Odyssey (by Yser C)

Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime

Featured track: Orion (by Ryan Henwood)

Undertale

Featured track: Undertale (by Toby Fox)

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The Troubled Class of 2012

Note: Any release dates I cite are North American ones.

It’s been roughly two years since the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One came onto the market, in the fall of 2013, which means we are firmly entrenched in this “generation” of video game hardware. These two consoles weren’t the beginning of the transition though; in fact, they remain the newest, and seemingly final additions to the current batch of platforms (notwithstanding supplements like VR headsets and Steam Machines). The transition saw its modest beginnings two and a half years earlier, when the Nintendo 3DS came out in the spring of 2011. The 3DS got off to a slow start, but later picked up the pace thanks to an aggressive price drop and some killer games. In fact, the 3DS is the current leader this generation with around 50 million units out in the wild (according to Wikipedia at least). And while neither the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One have, to my knowledge, passed half of that mark yet (no big surprise given the 3DS’ substantial lead time), all signs suggest they are holding their own just fine. Sony and Microsoft appear pleased with their progress, developers are showing both boxes plenty of support, and fans seem to be enjoying their offerings. All in all, this “generation” is shaping up nicely.

Contestant number 1.
Contestant number 1.

Or is it? Those three machines are finding success, but what about this generation’s other members? In between the Nintendo 3DS’ March 2011 launch, and the twin launch of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in November 2013, two other pieces of hardware joined the family in 2012: the PlayStation Vita released in February, with the Nintendo Wii U following in November. And to put it bluntly, both systems have struggled mightily to gain any kind of traction. I’m not privy to exact sales numbers, but all signs indicate they are bad for both. An audience has been hard to find in such a competitive market, which makes publishers hesitant to lend any additional support. It’s easy to look at both the Vita and Wii U and say “Of course they’re struggling, they have no games!” And while you’d not be completely wrong, it’s just as likely that they have no games because they struggled right out of the gate, struggles that may or may not have anything to do with the quality of the systems themselves, or the software on them. It’s a frustrating “chicken and egg” problem for all involved, and has left both platforms in a grim state.

Contestant number 2.
Contestant number 2.

I’m not interested in trying to pinpoint where things turned south for the Vita or Wii U, which is likely a futile effort with too many subtle factors to consider (that won’t stop armchair analysts from trying though). I give the brief recap simply to illustrate where things currently stand, and highlight that this generation’s pair of 2012 entrants have been troubled from the start. What I’m more interested in, is what those systems have turned into, and what they are offering the few people who actually bought them. Being the kind of sucker who inevitably buys every platform I can, I am one of those people. As of now I own all five major consoles and handhelds (along with a decent PC), and while the Vita and Wii U are by no means the strongest of the bunch, they’re not a wash either. Both have particular quirks and features that I find interesting, or even endearing, and I’m genuinely satisfied with owning both. Perhaps not many would be, but I have broad tastes, and also enjoy being in the know and along for the ride. Chalk it up to my somewhat academic interest in the medium if you want, but I find something compelling about these troubled platforms. So think of this as me taking stock of this generation’s underachievers three years in, and looking at what I’ve gotten out of them so far.

I’ll start with the PlayStation Vita, which I picked up following a price drop in the summer of 2013, a little over a year after it launched. The only “big” game I got with it was Persona 4 Golden, which is probably still its best game to date. That in itself is a little odd, given that was a remake of a four year old PlayStation 2 game at the time. But the timing was right for me to finally play this gem, and I was also immediately able to load up on PlayStation Portable games I had missed; those PSP games were actually the biggest driver for me wanting a Vita in the first place. I never owned a PSP (poor college student and all), despite there being a handful of games I wanted to play on it, from Patapon to Crush to Jeanne d’Arc. The Vita, then, was a “two-in-one” system for me, as virtually all digitally available PSP games are playable on a Vita. Taken from that viewpoint, the system was immediately justified for me. Add in a healthy dose of PlayStation Plus freebies I had accrued, and access to a surprisingly large suite of PSone Classics, and the sheer number of games available on the Vita was pretty profound.

Luftrausers is one of the many neat games perfectly suited for the Vita.
Luftrausers is one of the many neat games perfectly suited for the Vita.

That gets to the real appeal of the Vita. It doesn’t have many worthwhile exclusives, and many of the good ones end up on other platforms eventually (prime example: Tearaway). But it is a great place to play a huge variety of games pulled from other sources. Between downloadable PSP games, smaller/indie PS4 games that generally support “cross-buy” and/or “cross-save,” and all PSone Classics, there are a ton of games a Vita can play. And playing them on a Vita is, in some ways, more appealing to me than playing them on the other platforms they appear on. I don’t have a PSP of course, and I’m certainly not dragging out my PlayStation in 2015 (unless I’m getting real serious about it). I also simply enjoy playing a good number of games on a handheld. Playing Persona 4 Golden in constant short bursts, with easy access to a slick sleep mode, made it a much more enjoyable experience for me than trying to slog through longer sessions in front of a TV. Even better are the even smaller quick-burst games, such as Luftrausers, Pix the Cat, or Velocity 2X, many of which come down the PS+ pipe. I would probably never bother playing those if I had to boot up a console for them, but they make for quick, fun diversions on a handheld. The same can be said for PSone Classics, most of which aren’t available on the PS4 anyway (for some weird reason). I played plenty of great PlayStation games back in the day, but missed just as many, such as Klonoa: Door to Phantomile, Alundra, and Suikoden II (along with countless other revered JRPGs). And the Vita is perhaps the best place to catch up on these classics today. All of this is intensified by the fact that the Vita is a nice piece of hardware to interact with. Everything runs smoothly, and I find the UI intuitive and easy to navigate. The Vita is a slick thing that’s fun to use, plain and simple, and a great place to play the many games playable on it.

Moving on, I picked up Nintendo's latest a few months after it launched. As someone who genuinely likes a number of Nintendo franchises, there was never any doubt I would get a Nintendo Wii U eventually; all it took was a decent bundle and a few game announcements to get me to pull the trigger. That said, this purchase was not justified as immediately as the PlayStation Vita was for me. I have a much richer history of playing Nintendo games than I do Sony games, so there was no equivalent here to the PSP games or PSone Classics for me to dig back into. I’ve played the big Nintendo games already, but even then the Wii U’s legacy digital offerings are not nearly as deep as the Vita’s; ironically, the Vita has access to a larger “Virtual Console” than the Wii U does, and by a good margin. Also contrary to the Vita, the Wii U is… not a nice piece of hardware. It’s extremely slow (even by console standards) and the touch screen isn't the best one around, but even worse is Nintendo’s continued reluctance to adopt modern online sensibilities. While they’re slowly making steps in the right direction (I give them credit for the Miiverse, which is a neat thing), online play is still not reliable for a lot of games, and the lack of a sensible unified profile is astounding. The way digital purchases are tied to a machine, rather than a profile, is not only archaic, it’s a potential nightmare for anyone whose Wii U craps out.

Nintendo consoles always rely on first party exclusives, and the Wii U is no different.
Nintendo consoles always rely on first party exclusives, and the Wii U is no different.

All of those gripes aside, the main detractor from the Wii U is the same as the Vita’s: a lack of games. Yet the way in which they lack games is completely contrary to one another. The Vita has access to tons of games, but almost no good exclusives; the games playable there are playable elsewhere. The Wii U, on the other hand, does not have access to a lot of games period. Yet among the few games it does have, a relatively high number of them are exclusive. This is especially true when looking at “big” retail games for the system in comparison to other current consoles. That’s the appeal of the Wii U; it has games you can’t get anywhere else, and more of them than its most direct competitors. That “quality over quantity” mantra can be a tough row to hoe, however, as it demands those exclusives be very good. And while the likes of Pikmin 3, Super Mario 3D World, and Super Smash Bros. 4 aren’t going to set the world on fire, they’re solid installments in storied Nintendo franchises. That does underline one key fact about the Wii U’s exclusives: you have to like multiple Nintendo franchises to be on board. But if you do, there are enough good ones at this point to justify the system, especially as a supplement to another platform.

The Wii U has finally found its groove.
The Wii U has finally found its groove.

If there was another big bummer to the Wii U, it was that, until last month, I didn’t feel it had a true “system seller” quality first party title. Almost three years in, despite having plenty of perfectly good games, the Wii U was still lacking its Ocarina of Time, its Metroid Prime, or its Super Mario Galaxy; you know, the kind of games that have kept Nintendo’s consoles relevant ever since third parties abandoned the company following the SNES days. Enter the recent Super Mario Maker, hands down the best Wii U game to date in my mind, and likely to be the console's defining gem. Super Mario Maker is something special, and emits the charm, polish, and creativity that people love about Nintendo. I’ve had as much fun with it as I have any game, on any platform, in a long time, and one can’t help but wonder how it would have changed the Wii U’s fortunes had it come out two years earlier. Either way, it makes the Wii U an intriguing and relevant console (for me) in 2015. I personally like enough of Nintendo’s franchises to provide a strong supporting cast to Super Mario Maker’s magic, which leads to a healthy selection of games that have finally made the system stand out.

Both the PlayStation Vita and Nintendo Wii U continue to have plenty of caveats, and I wouldn’t recommended anyone choose them as their primary gaming platform over their contemporaries. But for those who already own another, more robust platform, and have the right interests, there can be a certain appeal to what this pair of troubled systems can offer. Whether I’m digging into the Vita’s deep, robust selection of digital offerings on the go, or the Wii U’s small but strong lineup of first party games, they make for surprisingly competent supplemental devices in 2015. It's taken them three years to get here, but I’m happy to own both, and will continue to curiously partake in everything they have to offer; even if it only leads to me going down with the ship. It should be an intriguing ride while it lasts.

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Monthly Roundup, July 2015

I had to be somewhat of an opportunist with my gaming this month. I attended three weddings back to back to back, which ate up a lot of my weekend time. I was more than happy to support my friends of course, but it did leave me tired and in need of some genuine downtime more than once. I found that downtime in odd places when I could, and did get through some cool games during this hot, sticky, and nuptial July. So let's get to them!

Pillars of Eternity

Pillars of Eternity is a winner in my book.
Pillars of Eternity is a winner in my book.

I wrapped up Pillars of Eternity this month, and while I unloaded most of my thoughts about it last month, it’s worth a few more closing ones. It was once again the game I spent the most time on this month after all; RPGs are long, and Pillars is no exception. Yet Pillars didn’t feel needlessly long. Unlike many RPGs I play, it didn’t drag down the stretch, and I thought it wrapped up the final hours nicely. There was only one part of the game that felt really bogged down to me, and that was around the middle of the game, when you spend hours and hours in a single large city (Defiance Bay for those who’ve played it). I was ready to leave this city a few hours in, but it just kept going. Otherwise I think Pillars paced itself well, and it did a better job than most 50+ hour games at making me remain attached during the back half. Often times I end up just wanting to be done with a long game well before it’s over, but that feeling never came with Pillars. I think that’s primarily due to the balance it has between combat and storytelling; the moment I got tired of one, the other came to the rescue. And as I described last month, both of those aspects are very strong, and remained so throughout. I enjoyed playing with the new abilities I acquired all the way up to the level cap, and I was genuinely interested in how the story wrapped up. I was pretty invested in this world and its tale by the end, and thought Obsidian did a good job of tying it all together.

Another thing I realized as the game neared its end, was that I also enjoyed most of Pillars of Eternity’s side content. I didn’t do everything, but I did the vast majority of it, and most of what I did was very good. Only a few side quests boiled down to trite fetch quests; more often they involved either an interesting side plot, or a challenging dungeon and/or boss. It felt like Obsidian flexed their creativity a little more here, both in terms of storytelling and dungeon design. I enjoyed spending the extra time doing that stuff, and if I didn’t have so many other games I’m eager to move on to, I would likely dive back in to clean up anything left that I haven’t done. But I do feel the need to move on, and give a fond farewell to Pillars of Eternity. As I mentioned last month, this was my first legitimate dive into a “true” CRPG, and I really liked what I found. It makes me want to go back and check out the Infinity Engine classics, but that’s a bigger time investment that will have to wait. For now, PIllars of Eternity is a great game in 2015, and one I feel is totally worth it for any fan of such RPGs.

Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number

I wasn’t necessarily the biggest fan of the original Hotline Miami, but I did enjoy its frantic, miss-and-you’re-dead style combat. It was tense and thrilling in that tightrope kind of way, and the game’s audiovisual style added a lot of flavor. What I liked most about the game, however, was the almost puzzly nature of the combat. I enjoyed scouting each room, looking for the most appropriate angle of attack, and then trying to execute said plan. This was engaging because of the melee vs. gun dynamic; guns were certainly more powerful, but they also drew attention. It was easy to get overwhelmed if you used them in a poor spot, and using melee weapons efficiently is something that took some engineering. The levels and enemy placement seemed well measured to take advantage of this dynamic, and the result was an exciting and clever romp.

gunsgunsguns
gunsgunsguns

While Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number retains the original’s basic structure, I also feel like it has lost some of that critical dynamic that made combat in the original so fun. Almost every single level seems to demand the use of guns, as indicated by the fact that the vast majority of enemies wield guns, and they are generally scattered haphazardly in open spaces. It simply doesn’t feel as meticulously crafted as before, and rewards raw aiming and reflexes more than strategy, which is inherently less exciting to me (though it may be what others are looking for). In addition, it makes the combat feel decidedly more one-note. There generally aren’t that many angles to approach any given situation, and while I’ve died a lot in both Hotline Miami games, my deaths in the sequel feel more like bashing my head against the wall until I manage to land a precise shot. Trying to execute a simple act like that over and over can get old quick, and that’s been my experience with Hotline Miami 2 thus far... especially since it’s a much longer game than its predecessor. I think I’m near the end (just finished Act 22), and I’ve already clocked a few more hours than I did on the original. That would be fine if the game had more variety or tighter levels, but it doesn’t, which has lead to me getting tired of the game relatively early. And while it still looks and sounds great, I don’t think it’s stylistically any better than the original. In fact, I care about the story even less than before, and the soundtrack isn’t grabbing me as much either. There just don’t seem to be any standout tracks that will implant themselves in my psyche like they did in the first game. Anyway, that’s my mini-rant about Hotline Miami 2. It retains most of the basics, which still work well enough for anyone looking for more of that. But I also think it’s a few small, but noticeable steps backwards in terms of pacing, variety, and combat design, and the presentation isn’t able to make up for such regressions. It’s just not as tight, but I do plan to go ahead and finish it; I feel I’m close, and doing a level or so a day is fine enough. Just don’t sign me up for more Hotline Miami anytime soon.

Her Story

Viva is excellent as Her Story's sole performer.
Viva is excellent as Her Story's sole performer.

Her Story is fascinating. That’s the word I keep circling back to when trying to describe this oddly compelling game. The basic premise is simple, and seemingly non-interactive: all you do is scrape through a video library consisting of police interview tapes. These interviews are of a single woman, and concern the death (presumably murder) of her husband. In other words, the primary thing you do in the game is watch videos. These videos are live action, however, and the game’s sole performer (Viva Seifert) does a fantastic job. Given how focused the game is on these videos, along with the fact that every single video shows her and only her, a high quality performance from Viva is mandatory for Her Story to work. A daunting task, but I think she does a wonderful job, and really brings the game to life. It helps that the writing is strong as well, and I also really enjoy the underlying story. A lot of it is shrouded in mystery, and not all of the questions are definitively answered by the end. The game does a great job at giving you enough clues to satisfy the general thread, while also leaving many minor, at least one significant detail open to interpretation. It’s the kind of thing that has (and will continue to have) message boards buzzing about what’s really going on. That could have been annoying, but I think it’s cleverly done here, and leaves just enough room to apply your own interpretation in a satisfying way.

But what makes it all so fascinating, past the quality of the acting and writing, is how you go about accessing and viewing these videos. You interface with an intentionally dated UI, and enter search terms to parse the archive of all the videos. Every time you submit a query, the game lets you know how many videos the given term was spoken in. The catch is that you can only watch the earliest five videos that contain that term (each video is time-stamped). This means you have to eventually get creative with your searches to access the later videos, and the writers have clearly paid a lot of attention to the wording in each video. In fact, by the end I was starting to pick up on subtle hints in Viva's speech about terms to search. There are a few ways to “game” the system if you want, but if used as intended, this method of exploring the game’s story is a surprisingly mesmerizing exercise. Everyone should uncover the videos in different orders, based on their searches, and thus piece together the events slightly differently. I have to imagine this has an effect on how different people interpret the game’s main unanswered question, and I’d love to know if that was their intention. Either way, it’s fascinating, and I think Her Story is totally worth a shot from anyone who enjoys mucking around with experimental video game stories.

The Other Stuff

It's not much to look at, but Tennis Elbow is a serious tennis sim.
It's not much to look at, but Tennis Elbow is a serious tennis sim.
  • I finally got around to trying Mount Your Friends, which is just as hilarious and ridiculous as it always seemed when the GB crew played it. I only played it with one other person, and while I’m sure it’s better with a few more people in the mix, I still had a lot of fun (and laughs). The controls and movement are just precise and robust enough that you can develop some real skill, and pull of some cool maneuvers with practice. But they’re also just frantic enough to encourage a lot of general flailing, and provoke horrible missteps. It’s controlled chaos at its best, and it also has a wonderfully stupid tone. Just a rad game for a local get-together.
  • It’s no secret that I’m a bit of a tennis nut, but Tennis Elbow 2013 had somehow eluded my eye until it recently came out on Steam. Billed as a tennis simulator made by and for hardcore fans, I finally picked it up and tried playing for a bit. It’s certainly an interesting game if nothing else, and has a lot of intricate mechanics that are clearly trying to simulate professional tennis as accurately as they can. There’s a lot that goes into each and every shot you hit; it’s a technical game that has a steep learning curve for sure. And while it can be uneven at times, I’ve also had a few incredibly rewarding moments when it all clicks. I’m not sure that it comes together as a simulation any better than what the Top Spin series has done, and it's certainly not as accessible, but there is something there. If they could iron out a few kinks (and polish up that awful interface), they could have a special tennis game on their hands.

Looking Ahead to… the Future!

As far as August is concerned, there’s a few interesting games coming out that have caught my interest; more than I’d expect for the final month of the traditional summer gaming drought anyway. It begins with Galak-Z: the Dimensional, which looks potentially fantastic, and is followed up by Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Volume. I’ll almost certainly play at least one of those in August. I also have some other high priority items, such as Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and N++ (both of which I've already started), and Massive Chalice. Hopefully I can make good progress on those in August.

I'll still be playing games, including finally getting to this crazy thing.
I'll still be playing games, including finally getting to this crazy thing.

Whatever games I play in August though, I currently don’t plan to write about them. At least, not in this format that I started almost exactly two years ago. It’s a format that I still think suits me extremely well, and is something I’ve genuinely enjoyed all along, which doesn’t make it something I drop lightly. But as I do every so often, I’ve been re-evaluating how I spend my time, and what I could be doing with it. Now that I’ve gone through a big move, a hectic and tumultuous year in grad school, and have begun settling back into something resembling a normal and stable life, I have ideas. Lots of ideas, big and small, related to video games and otherwise. Some of which I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but just simply haven’t been in a comfortable position to follow through on. Now is my chance to start doing stuff, to put it bluntly, and I need time for that. I know that all sounds incredibly nebulous, and even still it will be slow going. But as much as I enjoy these regular monthly ramblings, they do take up a good chunk of time consistently (more than you may think). I’ve decided that, at least for now, that time can be used better elsewhere.

That’s by no means to say I’m going to disappear, or even that I won’t be doing any more writing here on Giant Bomb. In fact, some of those aforementioned ideas are writing ones, including a relatively lengthy blog series that I’ve wanted to write for over two years, but haven’t been afforded the time (and it will take some time for me to put together still). So you will see posts from me here and there, but it will be less overall, and not on any schedule; I’ll write when I have the proper inspiration. Otherwise, just know that I’m out there still playing video games, checking Giant Bomb, and living the life. And to anyone who’s read any of my writing over the years (which stretches back to Giant Bomb’s founding (and beyond) in one form or another), I appreciate it. Ya’ll have been great.

Anyway, that's the update! Like I said, I’m not going away, and don’t plan to be a stranger. I’m just not going to be doing this specific thing for the foreseeable future. See you around! :)

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Monthly Roundup, June 2015

In a sense, June was a reboot for me; after a year of being back in school, followed by a needed month off, I’m back to the working world. I’ve settled into my new job nicely though, and am slowly getting back into a solid gaming rhythm. Still, I managed to sink a good chunk of time into a big ass CRPG, a handful of multiplayer games, and a few other oddities to boot. Not a bad month for games!

Pillars of Eternity

By some odd twist of fate, I had not played a true “CRPG” before 2015. The closest I’d gotten were a handful of BioWare games during the 2000s, such as Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age: Origins. To varying degrees, those all could potentially be likened to traditional CRPGs; some like Neverwinter Nights and KOTOR even used Dungeons and Dragons rules. However, per my understanding, they still diverged from the Baldur’s Gates and Icewind Dales of the world in various ways. I missed those games back in the day, by some combination of not playing a lot of 90s PC games and simply not being “in the know”, but I’ve always felt I would enjoy them. I like me some regular old D&D after all (in fact, I’m currently participating in a 5E campaign), and see no reason why I wouldn’t like it in video game form. I’ve had it in the back of my mind to revisit those classics someday, but a recent surge of throwback CRPGs got me to wonder if I’d be better off easing into something a bit more modern. After rolling it around in my head for a bit, along with asking some helpful Giant Bombers, I finally settled on jumping into Pillars of Eternity. I spent a good chunk of time on the game this June, and would estimate I’m just past the halfway mark.

Combat can be intense and engaging.
Combat can be intense and engaging.

So far, it’s been a very positive experience. While it doesn’t use official D&D rules, it’s very comparable, and much of the same logic, structure, and even terminology still apply. Hell, eight of the game’s eleven classes are straight up in D&D 5E, and one of the remaining three is pretty analogous. That actually prompted me to try one of the other two classes, and I ultimately settled on a cipher. It seems like a nice mix of using martial weapons and magic, and I think it’s a neat addition to the class roster that I’ve enjoyed playing. Really though, it’s not one class that makes the combat in such games, but the interaction among a group of characters from different classes. Pillars of Eternity lets you roll with a sizable party of six, and while it was a somewhat slow build to reach that full size (and I felt vulnerable until I had four or five characters), coordinating a group like that can be intense and exciting. Sure, there are some mundane encounters where you just spam basic attacks and “per encounter” moves without fear of dying. But the game regularly throws you into situations that require you to constantly pause and line up a series of carefully planned attacks if you want to make it through. I’ve had to reload to try different strategies on a handful of particularly tough encounters, which can be very satisfying when you finally get it right. Especially as you learn your characters and what they can do, coordinating their many abilities can be a real treat.

While I find combat to be fun overall, there is some amount of “bloat” to it, along with most other aspects of the game (as in most big RPGs). How many unthreatening skeletons do I have to demolish to clear this dungeon floor? How many spell options do I really need, and how many of them are that useful anyway? How much vendor trash do I need to sift through and manage? How many side quests to solve personal problems am I going to get sucked into? Pillars of Eternity is a big game in pretty much every capacity, sometimes unnecessarily so. This was at its worst near the beginning of act two, where I spent hours and hours just running around a giant city talking to people, collecting fairly mundane fetch quests. That section felt pretty bogged down for me, but otherwise I feel I’ve been moving at a decent clip. Pillars of Eternity is certainly a chunky game, and there is some filler here and there, but I’ve also seen much worse. That’s not necessarily an excuse, but it’s to say that this game doesn’t cross that line into being a worthless and tedious slog. I’ve avoided plenty of games the past few years for fear of wasting my time, but this game is not one of them (so far). It manages itself well enough.

The writing is consistently sharp, and really carries the game.
The writing is consistently sharp, and really carries the game.

The interesting nature of the combat likely saves Pillars of Eternity from feeling too grindy or repetitive, but I think what really helps the game hold up over the long haul, and is also its strongest aspect at large, is the quality of the writing and storytelling on display. If Obsidian is known for anything, it’s for making buggy games with great writing. Thus far I haven’t encountered much in the way of bugs here (I’ve had it crash on a load screen twice, and a character got stuck in a wall once, forcing me to reload), but their patented writing is pervasive. They’ve created a rich world, and you have plenty of chances to learn about it from talking to all sorts of people and reading all sorts of books. I’ll be honest; I don’t read all of it. In fact, I generally don’t read the books, unless they pertain to a quest. I even click past dialogue if it seems long in the tooth. Pillars of Eternity is a long game already, and you could probably double your time if you read every single thing, which I don’t care to do. If that is your style, however, you’ll likely eat it all up, as everything I have read has been excellent. The highlights for me are the souls you peer into (an ability your character acquires near the beginning), and the varied personal histories you get from them. You find citizens from all walks of life, with all sorts of histories, and that little glimpse you get into them can be fascinating. In fact, I think Pillars of Eternity does a great job in general of focusing on the personal, rather than the grand. I’m sure at some point there will be a larger world-threatening crises, but thus far a lot of my goals have been smaller in scope. They’ve focused on how various injustices or otherwise unfortunate situations have put a strain on individual people, and the game is able to impart a gravitas on such situations without being showy. Everything feels important in the moment, regardless of whether or not it is built up to be important in the long run, which has made for a fascinatingly realist adventure thus far.

Pillars of Eternity has some other nice touches as well. I’ve particularly appreciated its more modern concessions, such as easy access to your (presumably infinite) stash, and a really clever balance of regenerating health versus long-term health. They impressively get around making you micromanage health after every fight, while also putting emphasis on not taking more damage than necessary over the long haul. There’s also a potentially interesting system where you build up your own stronghold, and there’s an optional fifteen floor mega dungeon that could end up being a lot of fun. Ultimately though, the strong combat and great writing are the things that really stand out to me about Pillars of Eternity, and are undoubtedly its primary strengths. It can be slow at times, but I also feel like there’s often an exciting encounter or interesting story beat around the next corner. That’s rarely the case for 50+ hour RPGs, but I think Pillars of Eternity is going to have the legs to carry me through. I plan to keep going with it, and hope its second half is as good as its first. I’d like to finish it next month if possible (fingers crossed), and will report back on my progress.

Heroes of the Storm

It's definitely a MOBA, but one I can get into.
It's definitely a MOBA, but one I can get into.

The only MOBA I’ve tried before is Dota 2, and I was immediately pushed away by its archaic, exclusionary design. Dota 2 very deliberately enforces nonsensical rules that seem to exist to serve its long-standing, weirdly devoted community, all of which signaled that it was not a game for me. This month I decided to dip my toes back in the MOBA waters, spending a decent amount of time on Heroes of the Storm. Right up front, it was apparent that HotS (using that acronym for something other than Heart of the Swarm still feels wrong) could not be more philosophically different from Dota 2 while still being essentially the same type of game. HotS is incredibly welcoming, and gets rid of a lot of the tedium that plagues games like Dota 2. There’s no “last hits” rule for doling out experience, and as far as I can tell you can’t attack your own minions to “deny” kills. All of that stuff in Dota just felt weird to me, almost like it was an overlooked design quirk that was somehow embraced by the community because it added a higher “skill ceiling”. I just found it to be another thing to micromanage that was tedious and annoying. Furthermore, everyone on the team shares the same experience and level in HotS, which feels like a more straight-forward and logical way to support teamwork. There’s also no item shop to manage during battle, or items period. Instead, as your character levels up you get to periodically choose among a variety of talents that augment your existing abilities or provide new passive bonuses. These talents add a lot of flavor and customization to how you play your character, and they may even provide just as much variety as the items in other MOBAs. By being character specific, talents may provide even more variety, and they’ve allowed Blizzard to get really creative.

In fact, the characters in HotS seem more varied and creative on the whole than I would expect from a MOBA. Take Abathur for example: he’s basically worthless when fighting on his own, but he can provide any ally with some powerful new abilities that he actively controls from a safe distance. Or take Murky, who can put an egg anywhere on the map, which provides a new instantaneous spawn point after death. There’s some fun stuff in here, and yet it all feels a lot more streamlined than I would have expected. I suppose that’s Blizzard’s MO -- making streamlined games that nevertheless have a ton of depth -- and that’s certainly the case with HotS. Any given game can be pretty intense, and definitely requires focus and teamwork to come out on top, but the basics can be learned quickly. Blizzard continues to bring a high level of polish to games that are both accessible and rewarding, and they have also been treating the free-to-play model with care (HotS is handled similarly to Hearthstone in that regard). Anyway, I’ve quite enjoyed what I’ve played of HotS thus far, and while I don’t expect to dive too deep down the rabbit hole, I’m sure I’ll continue to dip my toes in here and there.

The Other Stuff

  • I’ve continued to play Evolve with some friends, which I’ve enjoyed more as I’ve opened up some different characters for some classes. The game’s strength (to me) continues to be the delicate interdependence between the four hunter roles. I've come to appreciate what each one brings to the table, and you really feel it when someone doesn’t pull their weight. Like Left 4 Dead before it, Evolve is a game that makes you work together, which can be cool. I haven’t particularly enjoyed the few times I’ve played as the monster, there’s some frustrating knockback in the game that I’ve seen people abuse, and I do have some questions about balance. But otherwise, Evolve remains a pretty neat game.

Teamwork makes the dream work?
Teamwork makes the dream work?
  • My brother and I have been playing through Ibb & Obb, a co-op puzzle game that came through PlayStation Plus a while ago. I’ve been really enjoying it, and think it does what most good puzzle games do: it takes very simple mechanics and pushes them to their limit, continually creating new and different scenarios that are fun to solve. Ibb & Obb manages to do all of that in a way that works in co-op too; you feel like you need both players to advance. It’s also got a cool look to it. It's a good time.
  • I’m not much of a fighting game guy, but I had always wanted to try out the 2011 Mortal Kombat for whatever reason. I finally got around to it this month, and spent a few hours dabbling in its various modes, as well as playing some matches against my brother. All in all I enjoyed it, and found it to be pretty accessible for a genre that’s always felt over my head. I was quickly able to pull off the moves I wanted to, and while I’m never going to execute never-ending juggles, I felt solid with the basics. That goes a long way for me in a fighting game.
  • Continuing my fighting game exploration, I also tried Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition this month, which I’ve never found to be as accessible as MK. I played some Street Fighter II back in the day, yet even after spending a few more hours with SFIV I still can’t reliably perform a shoryuken or a sonic boom. While I know I’m no fighting game maverick, I’m a pretty competent game player in general, so not being able to pull off the game’s more basic moves after a few hours of practice seems pretty ridiculous. In some ways I feel like this should be the fighting game for me, but experience suggests it most definitely is not. Oh well.

Looking Ahead to July

Ah, July. The slowest month for new game releases every year, almost without fail (every now and then December bests it). 2015 is looking no different, as I don’t see a single game scheduled to come out this July that catches my interest. That’s perfectly fine with me, however, as I never have any shortage of games to play; no new games could come out for well over a year and I’d be fine. On top of that, by some bizarre coincidence I’m attending three weddings this July. So my weekends, where most of my gaming tends to happen, aren’t going to be very fruitful on that front. When I do have gaming time this July, however, I will be venturing forth with Pillars of Eternity, along with some ongoing multiplayer games. I will try to pluck a few other games off my backlog as well; one game I’ve had for a while and not started yet is Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc. That’s at the top of my list at the moment, along with some recent Steam sale acquisitions. We’ll see where all that takes me!

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Monthly Roundup, May 2015

Well, I am a working man once more. After having a welcome month off (I would welcome more time off if I could) I started my new job this week. I am excited about it though (and lucky to have it), so no complaints here! Before work gets into full swing, I do want to wrap up what I played during my month off. Unsurprisingly, I did get to a lot of games in May, and ended up breaking my roundup into two parts as a result. The first part, which covers the first half of the month, can be found here. This is the second part, covering the other games I played over May’s latter two weeks. And with that preamble out of the way, let’s get to the games!

Sega Genesis

Despite having one of these, I never fell in love with it.
Despite having one of these, I never fell in love with it.

Bear with me here, as this one is a little different. Earlier in the year I got it in my head that I should try a lot of the Sega Genesis “classics” that I never played. We actually had a Genesis in the house growing up, but I spent way more time with our Super Nintendo. In my mind, there was never a real rivalry there; the SNES simply had substantially more, better games. At some point it dawned on me, however, that I never played most of the games people loved the Genesis for. I did play the Sonic games back in the day, but otherwise my Genesis experience in the 90s primarily consisted of Disney games (Aladdin, The Lion King, etc.), other licensed games (Jurassic Park, Batman, etc.), the Strike games, and a few other oddballs here and there (Zombies Ate My Neighbors, Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure, etc.). I did play a few other well-loved games, such as Ecco the Dolphin and Earthworm Jim, but to be honest none of those ever grabbed me. I remember liking Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Aladdin just fine, and enjoying a few other games in spurts, but the Genesis seemed like a big step down compared to the great library of the SNES.

Fast forward to 2015, and I found myself wanting to go back and give the Genesis its due. This was more of an academic exercise than anything; I never expected playing a bunch of Genesis games 20 years later to make me love the system. Rather, I wanted to get a good sense of what endeared the system to so many others, and what I had missed. So I did my research and compiled a list of highly regarded Genesis games that I had never played, yet looked like games I would have played had I been more informed at the time. This resulted in a nice pile, and I’ve tried out almost all of them over the past two months (mostly in the past few weeks). I didn’t finish any of them (which was never the goal, as most are rather hard), but I played enough of each to feel like I understood them. With all of that in mind, here’s a quick rundown of what I tried (in the order I tried them in), and my brief impressions. Side note: my brother joined me for all co-op beat ‘em ups, as I felt those would be better with a buddy.

Altered Beast is a special game.
Altered Beast is a special game.
  • Altered Beast: This game is preeetty hilarious. Imagine knowing nothing about this game in 2015, and then seeing your character transform with those late 80s animations. It’s a trip. The game plays pretty terribly by today’s standards, but it’s a sight to behold if nothing else. I got a kick out of it.
  • Golden Axe: We tried all three Golden Axe games, and I did not get them at all. They all feel equally sluggish, and the way you get stun locked from every single attack is infuriating. I know it’s old, but I can think of plenty of its contemporaries that did similar stuff, yet felt infinitely better; even older NES beat ‘em ups like Double Dragon and River City Ransom seemed heads and shoulders above this. Despite this series having such a storied legacy, I have a hard time understanding the appeal for it, and had nothing but a bad time with it.
  • Streets of Rage: Contrary to Golden Axe, this trio of beat ‘em ups seems pretty cool. The original feels fairly dated, but the leap from the first game to the second is immediately apparent. I had a pretty good time with what we played of Streets of Rage 2 and 3, and see why they have the reputation they do; they look, sound, and play pretty well. In fact, they’re probably on par with the best such games on the SNES, and we may go back and try and beat one of them sometime.
  • Strider: I had never played any version of Strider before, so why not start with the Genesis one? I won’t say I got super into Strider, but it wasn’t a bad time either. I even gritted through a few continues to try and push further, which is a good sign. It doesn’t always control great, and can be frustrating as a result, but there’s some cool stuff there.
  • Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle: Jeff is right; Alex Kidd is total garbage top to bottom. No idea why anyone would enjoy this game...
  • Comix Zone: This game seems to have some really neat ideas, but man is it tedious. It was a huge effort for me to beat the first stage, and while I understand that’s actually a third of the game, that stage is still pretty frustrating. It’s a very long stage where damage taken at the beginning can doom you later, and there are a number of spots where it’s easy to take damage if you don’t know the trick. This resulted in edging ahead a little further with each attempt, until I had memorized every little detail. That’s not my prefered style of play, even if it was somewhat common in those day. Either way, I didn’t come away that impressed.
  • Columns: This seemed alright, but it’s not really my kind of thing. It didn’t take long for me to get bored, but it’s neat that Sega had a well regarded game of this type.

Ristar is a pretty swell little game.
Ristar is a pretty swell little game.
  • Ristar: Now here’s the good stuff. I genuinely enjoyed what I played of Ristar, and it’s probably the game I played the most of this bunch, and got the farthest in. It just seems like a solid platformer; it looks good, sounds great, and controls pretty well for the most part, despite a few dated/frustrating kinks here and there. All you do is grab things, but the way that grab is translated into so many actions is pretty cool. I think this is a game I would have really liked had I played it as a kid.
  • Gunstar Heroes: I had actually played Gunstar Super Heroes on the GBA before (along with other Treasure favorites), so I more or less knew what to expect from this. And that’s pretty much what I got; a totally ridiculous side-scrolling shooter with more explosions than you could ever need. Like Treasure’s other games, it can be a bit too frantic at times, to the point where I don’t feel I have much room for finesse or accuracy. But there’s still a certain appeal to such madness, and I had an alright time with this. That board game style level is pretty annoying though.
  • Shinobi: I tried two Shinobi games, The Revenge of Shinobi and Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master. While I had heard a lot more positive things about the former, it was the latter that I enjoyed more, and by a good margin. It just feels a lot smoother to play, which makes sense being the newer of the two. Regardless, both games can feel kind of clunky in spots, but I did get some enjoyment out of Shinobi III. There’s something neat there.
  • Vectorman: I tried both Vectorman 1 and 2, and of all the Genesis games I tried, these perhaps feel the most modern. That makes sense, given they were released at the tail end of the system’s life, but it still makes for a more pleasantly playing game than most. In other words, I enjoyed both of the Vectorman games (which are extremely similar). I don’t know that they strike me as anything super special, but they are solid games that I probably would have liked as a kid.

That’s a (very) brief look at the selection of Sega Genesis games I played these past two months. While most of them were noticeably dated, it was still interesting that my enjoyment of them ran the gamut. And while it’s really hard to compare them to other Genesis and SNES games that I played back in the 90s, I do think I came out of this exercise with a better understanding of what the Genesis had to offer. There’s some good stuff there that I think I would have gotten into, and I no longer think people who genuinely love the Genesis are delusional :P I still have two more games I want to check out for the system as well. They are a pair of RPGs that were too long to lump in with the pile of short action games: Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium and Shining Force II. I’ll get to them when I can, and cover them appropriately. Who knows, they may even help the Genesis’ cause even more!

The Evil Within

This should probably be said up front: Resident Evil 4 is easily one of my favorite games I’ve ever played. At the same time, I’ve never considered myself a Resident Evil fan at large, nor have I ever considered myself a fan of “survival horror”. The only other Resident Evil I’ve liked is Resident Evil 5, and I never got into anything like Silent Hill or similar survival horror games. I think it comes down to the fact that RE4 and RE5 (and also Dead Space) were fun action games and/or shooters above all else. They may have had creepy atmosphere here and there, and some gross monster designs. But the things I really appreciated about those games was the feel of the gunplay, the way the enemies reacted to your shots, the weapons and their upgrades, and how that all came together to create some intense and varied encounters against mobs of exciting enemies. In other words, it was the action and combat scenarios I liked about those games. The “survival” and/or “horror” aspects of them, if they even existed at all, I could take or leave. They made no difference to me.

The Evil Within is at its best when forcing you to manage a large horde of foes at once.
The Evil Within is at its best when forcing you to manage a large horde of foes at once.

Enter The Evil Within, a game spearheaded by Shinji Mikami and co., and thus shares some DNA with RE4. Needless to say, I was curious. I unfortunately missed this game when it came out (thanks to school), and despite its mixed reaction I still wanted to give the game a shot. It seemed like a “love it or hate it” type of game, and I could only know where I stood if I played it for myself, which I have now done. The result, weirdly enough, is that I both love and hate things about The Evil Within. For starters, the strong combat that defined RE4 is mostly present and accounted for; moving through an environment and using everything at your disposal to take out the enemies in your way can be thrilling in The Evil Within. There’s a scenario early on that shows off this strength in a way eerily similar to RE4, and the movement and feel of the guns, if occasionally a little clunky, still feel very satisfying in general. I highly enjoyed these combat scenarios, and scurrying to pick up ammo and health as enemies lumber towards you, only to turn around and blast their heads off in the knick of time is as fun as ever. The Evil Within also adds some new wrinkles to the formula, in the way of stealth mechanics and traps. The stealth is pretty simple, and aside from a terrible opening chapter, mostly optional. It fits in well enough with the existing action though, and I relied on it regularly. The traps can be hit or miss, though I don’t feel like they're a big enough part of the game to have much impact one way or another.

Unfortunately, I feel like The Evil Within doesn’t hit its strengths frequently or reliably enough. The aforementioned early scenario is one of the game’s high points, and counting that one there are maybe four or five similarly strong sections in the entire game. Each one is probably under 30 minutes, which leaves a lot of time to fill for a game that easily took me over 15 hours. The rest of that chunky playtime consists of slowly slinking through creepy environments picking up supplies, fighting small groups of non-threatening enemies, or participating in some form of set piece, the quality of which can be all over the place. Some are totally fine, but the game’s worst moments come from set pieces that have you navigate an obstacle or avoid an enemy that kills you in one hit, or some other QTE style variant. Otherwise, crawling through corridors and fighting a few easy enemies here and there is rarely that exciting. I feel like the game tries to rely heavily on its decent, but not amazing atmosphere in these situations, which is backed up by its weirdly paced, nonsensical, and generally underwhelming story. Put all of that together, and I simply don’t think the game taps into its strengths nearly enough. The Evil Within has some very high highs, and between that and its pedigree I expected to like the game a lot more. But while I certainly never hated it, its other sections never clicked for me either. There very well may be survival horror “purists” that like those moments, but I would have gotten more out of it had it focused on those large action scenarios much more frequently.

Looking Ahead to June

I’ve only been out of work for just over a year, but it will probably still take me a bit to get into a rhythm with it again. June is a reboot in that sense, which may lead to some weird gaming patterns, but I would be willing to bet I’ll get my fair share of gaming in. As for what I’ll actually play, that’s a bit up in the air right now. I’m currently poking away at some final Pokemon team-building tasks, and after that I have a handful of ideas that I’m not fully willing to commit to just yet. Rest assured, something will be played. There are some potentially interesting June releases as well. Massive Chalice officially just came out (finally), and Batman: Arkham Knight is the month’s big release. I may or may not dabble in one of those, but I have plenty of other options either way.

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Mid-Month Roundup, May 2015

Seeing as I have the month of May off, I’m going to shake things up and write not one, but two roundups this month. It’s a designated gaming month for me after all, which means I’ve been spending quite a bit of time catching up; if I saved it all for a single blog, it would be a lengthy one. Thus, here is my mid-month roundup for May, which covers the games I played during the first half of the month. Let’s get to it!

Bloodborne

I've been working my way through Bloodborne these past few weeks, and currently find myself right at the end of the game. While I'm technically not quite done with it yet, I'm more than close enough to elaborate on it. The main thing that needs to be said up front is that I really like Bloodborne, and it's another fantastic game from the folks behind the Souls games. It should also be said that, yes, Bloodborne is very much like the Souls games in the ways that matter most. There are certainly differences, but they are incredibly subtle, and the high points of what made the Souls games great also make Bloodborne great. A meticulously designed world to explore, plenty of secrets and mysteries to discover, hard hitting combat, fairly robust RPG systems, and a stiff but rewarding challenge are once again the order of the day, and combine to make another wonderful action RPG.

Combat is fast and furious in Bloodborne.
Combat is fast and furious in Bloodborne.

I don't think I need to dive into all those details any further, seeing as this is the fourth game in this line; you know what this game is by now. As such, I'll focus more on the minor differences, but just keep in mind that they are indeed minor in the grand scheme of things. To me, the two most meaningful such changes are the combat and the character building aspects of Bloodborne. The combat has been altered to incentivise more fast-paced action, becoming more about dodging and countering than circle strafing and blocking. The lack of shields or heavy armor are the most obvious incentives for being more active in combat, but the way you recover lost health by quickly hitting enemies also encourages more aggressive play. That said, it's not like you can't still hang back if you want to, poking your head in for the occasional opportunistic attack before retreating once more. You can still be fairly passive in combat, the game simply doesn't give you as many tools to do so, and enemies are generally more aggressive as well. This all works in Bloodborne, however, because the controls are noticeably tighter than they were in previous games; the action here feels precise, and responsive. Once you get a feel for the timings, combat is an exhilarating flurry that's more satisfying than it’s been in the previous games, or at least the pure tactile feel of it is.

Along with the combat, the character building aspect feels different in Bloodborne. I would guess the impetus of the change is to support the stronger focus on pure action, but the result is really that there just aren't as many character building options to be found. We're down to six stats, two of which seem relatively useless from my experience (bloodtinge and arcane), there's not a big difference between armor sets, and there's no real magic or archery to be found. At least, not to the point where you could build a character around them. The classic heavily armored tank is also MIA, which means pretty much everyone is going to have a slightly different variant of a lighter, faster, melee focused character. The only real divergences are whether you focus more on strength or skill (dex), and which weapons you upgrade and primarily use. Fortunately the game does have a decent stable of different feeling weapons, and everyone should be able to experiment with them and find something that suits their style. But once you’ve found that weapon you like, well, that seems to be about it. And if you’re like me, and stick with your starting weapon the entire game (the hunter’s axe), there’s not really much character development going on. That may or may not be a bad thing, depending on how you look at it, but I do miss the more nuanced character building from the previous games. I considered that one of their stronger aspects, and Bloodborne loses that in its more focused, streamlined approach.

Yharnam is another fantastic world to explore.
Yharnam is another fantastic world to explore.

Almost all of Bloodborne’s changes seem to be aimed towards doing just that: making it more focused and streamlined. While I can bemoan the simpler character building, it surprisingly hasn’t lost much else in the process. In fact, I think the world and boss designs in particular are more or less on par with the best in the series. The only two things that seems less streamlined, and are among my biggest nit-picky gripes with the game, are the way it handles your healing items and leveling up. Having a set number of estus flasks that refilled at every bonfire worked perfectly in Dark Souls, but Bloodborne’s blood vials no longer refill automatically. On top of that, they don’t drop from enemies often later in the game, which means I’ve found myself tediously grinding for them regularly. I have absolutely no idea why they changed that aspect, which worked so well already. As for leveling up, the first Dark Souls is the only game in this line that let you level up directly at a bonfire. Bloodborne once again makes you warp back to the central hub area to level up, which needlessly forces you through two extra loading screens every time you do so. Those gripes aside, however, I’ve been having a blast with Bloodborne. It’s another intensely rewarding action RPG from From Software, and while it’s not my favorite one they’ve made, I still like it a lot better than most games out there right now. As far as I can tell I’m in the final area of the game, so unless I dive too deep into chalice dungeons, I should be wrapping it up shortly.

Broken Age

I don’t have much experience with classic “point-and-click” adventure games. I remember having a few of the Goosebumps games as a kid, and I’ve played some of the modern Telltale stuff, but when it comes to the Monkey Islands and Grim Fandangos of the world, I have essentially no experience. Those two games in particular are backlog items I’m keen to go back and visit, but in the meantime I decided it would be worth checking out a more modern entry from Tim Schafer himself. Regardless of the game’s history with Kickstarter, I was curious to see what a veteran of the genre would do with it in 2014-2015. And while I don’t have much direct experience myself for comparison, I would imagine Broken Age is a fairly faithful homage to the classic style. I played through the entire thing (that’s both acts without a break in between) within a few week span, and I really enjoyed its writing and characters, but found most of the “puzzles” to be fairly tedious and unsatisfying.

Vella and Curtis might be my favorite characters.
Vella and Curtis might be my favorite characters.

Fortunately, it is the writing and characters that primarily take center stage. Vella and Shay are two very different, but equally charming protagonists, and their stories intertwine in some interesting ways. I especially liked learning about the strange world they live in, and discovering what was really going on behind the scenes, with the most interesting moments occurring when their paths crossed. This happened most directly at the end of each act, but occurred in other, more subtle ways throughout. I also liked a lot of the characters you interact with along the way, and my conversations with them frequently made me laugh; there’s some really great writing in here. I also dug the look and tone of the game quite a bit. It all combined to make for a great narrative that I wholeheartedly enjoyed seeing, but alas, the act of playing it wasn’t quite up to par. At their best, interactions were fairly harmless, and involved walking around and talking to people or picking up/using items in fairly obvious ways. Not terribly exciting, but completely inoffensive. As the game went on, however, and the puzzles got more involved and more obtuse, they began to feel like a nuisance that merely obstructed the game’s better qualities. Often these required you to use or combine items in completely unintuitive ways, such that you’d have to tediously click on basically everything to figure it out (I may have resorted to a guide at times). Worse were the puzzles that, even when you knew the solution, were a pain to execute. Two in particular stand out: one involving a knot, the other involving guiding an NPC character around a damaged ship. Both of these caused minor headaches, and I’m glad I never have to see them again.

But that’s how adventure games go, right? As someone who’s not that well versed in the genre, that’s been my impression of the typical adventure game over the years. In which case, Broken Age is indeed an adventure game through and through. I’m certainly glad I played it, and my experience with Broken Age leaves me just as interested to check out a few other “classics” somewhere down the road. It may never be my favorite genre, but I’m willing to trudge through some tedium in favor of writing and characters as good as this. Broken Age also didn’t overstay its welcome, and I would imagine anyone with even a mild interest in such games would have a good time.

Pokemon Alpha Sapphire

Sharpedo. It's a shark... torpedo.
Sharpedo. It's a shark... torpedo.

I found myself deep down the Pokemon rabbit hole again these past two weeks, and while I don’t have the numbers to prove it, I’m pretty sure I spent more time on Pokemon Alpha Sapphire than anything else during that time. I’ve been training competitive Pokemon on and off since the Diamond/Pearl days, and I’ve had it in the back of my mind for some time now to update all of my scatter-shot and/or dated teams for the current “metagame”, so to speak. Therefore, I gave a serious re-examination to each and every Pokemon I’ve ever trained, and performed tweaks to almost all of them; in some cases this meant re-training them from scratch. I also reworked my team compositions, and trained a few brand new Pokemon to fill some holes. All in all, it was an incredibly involved and time-consuming process that could only reasonably be done during a break (the planning alone was an ordeal), but it was also somewhat cathartic. Now I have a large stable of modern, fighting fit Pokemon (even if they’re not all top tier), and I really look forward to seeing them in action. I’ve played a small handful of matches with them, and while it always takes a while to fully digest the results (nothing happens fast in Pokemon), the early signs seem positive. I’m particularly liking a new team spread that utilizes a hazing Skarmory with a set-up Volcarona, and I’m also excited to finally have a speed boosted Sharpedo in my ranks (on a different team). Because, you know, Sharpedo. Anyway, I hope to play more matches in the near future, and see how my new teams do. I’m sure I’ll find some more things to tweak here and there, but it feels good to have some fun and updated Pokemon.

The Other Stuff

  • I picked up Evolve recently, and have played a handful of matches with some friends. There are some interesting mechanics at work here, and the balance between the monster and the hunters is pretty neat. The hunters really have to work together to survive, and the monster really has to exploit any weakness present on the hunter team. I still feel like I’m getting my feet wet and learning the ropes, and I also don’t feel like I’ve gotten the genuine Evolve experience yet; I’ve not played against someone who really know what they’re doing as the monster (it’s always been one of us, who generally play hunters). I’m looking forward to trying more though, and will have more to say once I do.

He's a boy. He makes boxes.
He's a boy. He makes boxes.
  • I finally got around to playing another game of Civilization: Beyond Earth last week. I played one game right when it came out, but it’s been left untouched since, and I’ve had it in the back of my mind to revisit it. I finally got around to doing that, and tried out some different aspects of the game. I bumped up the difficulty, pursed different virtues and affinities, and focused more on combat than science, but my takeaways are much the same. Beyond Earth is a very fun Civ game, but it’s also so similar to Civ V that it feels like a mod as much as anything. Some of its tweaks are interesting (I like the way it handles unit upgrades in particular), but in the end I’d probably still get more out of playing the more fully featured Civ V instead. I have no idea if I’ll play much (if any) more Beyond Earth in the future.
  • I picked up BoyBox! last week, and have played through the first few worlds. It’s been a really neat little puzzle game so far, with some really clever ideas. So far it does what all great puzzle games do, which is to introduce simple ideas, then end up getting a lot of mileage out of them. It’s been constantly introducing new things you can do with said abilities, and if the pacing keeps up like this, it could turn into something pretty special. I also really like the look and style of the game, and it’s been an awesome thing to just pick up and play here and there. I’m looking forward to more of it.

Looking Ahead to the Rest of May

As May continues, so does the gaming. Polishing off Bloodborne is right at the top of my to-do list in the near future, along with playing more Evolve, BoxBoy!, and of course Pokemon. I would also really like to get through The Evil Within while I’m on break, which should be doable. Otherwise I’ll be cherry picking some more items off the backlog here and there. And maybe I’ll consider plunging into The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt? Probably not yet, but you never know.

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Monthly Roundup, April 2015

Well, I’ve made it. After the busiest year of my life I have a brand new master’s degree, which is honestly a little bittersweet at the moment; for as busy and difficult as the year was, I know I’m going to miss it. Otherwise I have a whole month off before I start my next job, and I’m pretty excited to use that time to rest and catch up on some video games I’ve fallen behind on. Before I get to that, however, it’s time to round up the games I did manage to get to during my final month of school. It turned out to be a mostly low-key month, at least compared to the rest of the year, and I had some solid gaming time. I think I used it to good effect too, and played some pretty darn good games. Let’s get to it!

Axiom Verge

I’ve been eagerly awaiting Axiom Verge since I first saw it in motion, albeit with a cautious optimism. Metroid is one of my favorite franchises after all, and given Nintendo’s current (and lengthy) neglect of the franchise, it’s been left to others to try to recreate what it has done so well in the past. While a scant few have gotten close (Shadow Complex being perhaps the best example), no one else has really captured that Metroid spirit. I still cringe whenever the term “Metroidvania” is used, because, as mentioned last month, it’s a poor word that has essentially lost all meaning. We throw it around freely to describe games that barely feel like Metroid and/or Castlevania (two series that in themselves aren’t all that alike), and trying to describe an entire “subgenre” with a portmanteau of two very specific games simply doesn’t hold up; imagine if we described all 2D platformers as “Mariosonics” or something. Yet we keep doing it, with Axiom Verge being the latest game to fall into that trap.

Exploring Axiom Verge's world is a treat.
Exploring Axiom Verge's world is a treat.

Hence the skepticism; it always feels like that often inaccurate term is meant to be nostalgia bait more than anything. But something about Axiom Verge seemed genuinely intriguing, so I held out hope that it would pan out regardless of how much it deserved its dumb label. Fortunately, it is interesting. Very interesting. And lo and behold, it also happens to be the most “Metroid” of any game I’ve tried that’s not actually Metroid; it well surpasses Shadow Complex for that title. You have a large, intricately designed, and mysterious alien world to explore, one that hides a rich history. You acquire a host of weapons and upgrades throughout your journey, and each one adds substantial functionality to your ever expanding repertoire. You fight larger than life bosses, search every nook and cranny for hidden secrets, and are accompanied by some fantastic visuals and a killer soundtrack while you’re at it. It checks all the boxes I want, but none more so than that exploration element. For a game of this style to work, I feel it really has to nail the exploration above all else. Metroid never had best in class combat or platforming or anything; it succeeded by giving you an incredibly well designed world to explore. Most importantly, it gave you compelling reasons to explore that world. Axiom Verge does this extremely well, matching the classics. There’s just a lot of variety from start to finish, which is apparent in the visual style of the areas, the enemies and bosses, the environmental puzzles, and the useful abilities you’re constantly picking up. All of this makes it exciting to round the next corner, as there’s always a high potential for something new, both in terms of gameplay and aesthetics. Exploring Axiom Verge’s dirty sci-fi world is constantly enticing, and easily the best part of the game.

Axiom Verge has some really cool bosses.
Axiom Verge has some really cool bosses.

That’s not to say the rest of the game is a slouch. The combat is at least as solid as it is in any Metroid game, and its variety of guns may make it better. The story is also something I found uniquely interesting, and the audiovisual presentation is top notch; I can’t stop listening to its soundtrack. Every piece of the game comes together beautifully to produce an experience that I was consistently eager to push forward. I didn’t put it down until I had meticulously explored every corner many times over, squeezing every last drop out of it I could. I’m still ready for more too, and will likely dive back in someday. Finally, for as much as Axiom Verge successfully replicates what Metroid has done so well, it subverts those tropes just as frequently. In particular, the abilities you acquire function and combine in unique ways that I never could have predicted. Many of my favorite moments in the game came from realizing how two seemingly unrelated abilities combined to increase my mobility in profound ways. These moments were incredibly exciting, filling my imagination with all sorts of new possibilities, and sparked lengthy expeditions. The way the game hides items also requires a fresh logic that’s more nuanced than your typical “lock and key” situation. I won’t spoil anything, but there’s a lot of subtle information conveyed within the world, its creatures, and their language; it’s worth paying attention to even the tiniest of details. Many of these items aren’t required at all either, and the order you can obtain them is much more dynamic than similar games. Axiom Verge also has some incredibly smart boss designs, and they’re often susceptible to different weapons. I imagine your strategy for some bosses could vary wildly depending on which weapons you’ve acquired, and it’s cool to see such a dynamic structure in a type of game that typically relies on certain items for certain bosses.

All of this to say, I really, really like Axiom Verge. In many ways it takes the essence of the best Metroid games, and then spins off into an alternate timeline to create something that is very much its own thing. It looks great, sounds even better, and is a joy to play every step of the way. In particular, its world is extremely well designed, and I eagerly explored its countless hallways until I had left no stone unturned. It’s a surprisingly fresh take on a style of game I’ve always held dear, and it certainly doesn’t need that “Metroidvania” label to stand out. Axiom Verge is an awesome game, plain and simple, and while this type of game isn’t for everyone, I’d have a hard time not recommending it in any circumstance.

The Talos Principle

The puzzles here will keep you on your toes.
The puzzles here will keep you on your toes.

Almost every year there’s at least one game I don’t get around to playing by year’s end that should have ended up on my top 10 list. This is now the case for 2014, thanks to The Talos Principle. It simply came out too late to make my 2014 top 10, but I feel pretty confident in saying it would have had I played it. This is a class act puzzle game from start to finish, combining surprisingly intricate puzzle design with a world and mythos that ends up being pretty fascinating by the end. It was the puzzles that grabbed me at first though. Like Portal and Antichamber before it, The Talos Principle is a first person puzzle game that relies on a few seemingly simple mechanics that end up proving to be very robust. It’s able to combine and permute its ideas in different, interesting ways, introducing new layers of complexity with each one. This leads to a series of puzzles that feel like they continually ramp up without having to introduce new mechanics; it’s a perfect example of a game getting a lot of mileage out of a few good ideas. For the game’s opening hours I was hooked, and wanted to see what new logic the next puzzle introduced. I learned to move boxes, place jammers, and redirect light beams in all sorts of clever ways, and only rarely did I encounter a solution that was even slightly frustrating. The puzzles in The Talos Principle are as rewarding as just about anything out there. Only the game’s length dragged them down for me, as I felt it bogged down towards the end ever so slightly. Still, it’s a very minor complaint of what’s otherwise a stellar suite of puzzles.

Given the caliber of its puzzles, The Talos Principle would be a great game if that’s all it was, but it layers in a story that’s almost as interesting on its own merits. I wasn’t sold on it at first, however, as it begins with some pretty stereotypical philosophical musings, such as the definition of humanity, the nature of free will, or the role of religion. These story bits occur via computer terminals scattered in each level that you scroll through and read, and I initially found this process to be a distracting hindrance to the exquisite puzzles. As the game went on, however, and the puzzles started to bog down, the text within these terminals lifted the game with a broader subtext. While the esoteric musings still never did much for me, I grew more curious about the true nature of what was really happening with these puzzle chambers. You start to uncover details about how all of this became constructed, and while the multiple endings were fairly obvious, I thought they were very well done nonetheless. The ending I got was really cool, and was accompanied by a fairly impactful final sequence. So in the end I appreciated the game’s story component, and when combined with the puzzles it makes for a game that’s engaging on multiple levels. The Talos Principle is a game that will make you think in a myriad of ways if nothing else, making it a game worth checking out for anyone who isn’t opposed to doing so.

The Other Stuff

  • Some friends and I spent a few hours with The Jackbox Party Pack, which marks the first time I’ve played any of the games contained within. Though if I’m being honest, we mostly just played Fibbage, which is easily the standout of the pack. It’s a hilarious and entertaining way to spend time with a group of people who aren’t comfortable with a controller in their hands, and it all works because the questions posed are just odd enough to allow the players to devise all sorts of lies that are just believable enough. I can easily see myself playing more Fibbage in the future.

Delicious!
Delicious!
  • I spent a surprisingly hefty chunk of time on Cook, Serve, Delicious! last month, which turned out to be way more addictive than I expected. There’s something mesmerizing about putting together customer orders under strict time pressure; think about applying something like Papers, Please’s document checking dynamic to a fast paced restaurant. On top of that, there’s an interesting metagame where you upgrade your restaurant itself. It’s all quite fascinating, with the only downside being that it sadly and needlessly feels drawn out and repetitive. I played a few hours and got a little past a one star restaurant, and I’m not sure if I will go back. But I really like what I played.
  • At long last, I finally got around to playing through Monument Valley in April. Seeing as the game is under two hours long, it really shouldn’t have taken me this long to play it, but here we are. Fortunately I enjoyed it though, even if it was a bit simple in the end. I feel like there was room to push those ideas further, but the core concept is still interesting and strong enough to be worth it. Plus, the game looks and sounds really cool. It’s a neat thing.
  • Despite genuinely liking the Wii (seemingly one of the few), I had never gotten around to trying one of its rare lauded WiiWare franchises, LostWinds. Correcting that had been in the back of my mind for some time, and I finally played a few hours of LostWinds: Winter of the Melodias last month. As these things can often go, I ended up not liking it that much. The way you push your character around via the Wii remote was a frustrating hindrance more often than I felt it should have been, and the game’s environmental puzzles were too shallow to be that engaging. I enjoyed the charming presentation, but otherwise I didn’t find much that grabbed me in LostWinds, which was a bit of a bummer.

Looking Ahead to May

As mentioned up top, for the first time in a long time I have a genuine gaming month ahead of me in May, which I plan to use to its fullest. I sunk quite a few hours into Bloodborne over the past two weeks, which will remain my primary focus for the time being. I’ve also started Broken Age, and I will have things to say about both those games in the future. The next “big” game I really want to get to this month is The Evil Within, which seems doable, and I’ll pepper the month with some as-yet-to-be-determined backlog games as well. We’ll have to see where I am after that, and if I make quick progress I may even do a “mid-month roundup”. Finally, there are a few interesting games coming out in May: Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Splatoon, and Galactic Civilizations III are all scheduled for release this month. I’m not totally sold on any of those yet, but they’ve all caught my eye. Regardless of what games I manage to get to, I expect May to be a pretty serious gaming month. It’s been a long time since I’ve said that, and it feels pretty good :)

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