Seeking Warframe & Fortune (Part 7/July '19)

One robot ninja's noble journey to see how far they can travel across this great cosmos of ours without spending any money or exerting too much effort.

Part 7: Less is Moreframe

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I know, I know, everyone's talking about Empyrean this and Rapololyst that, but I'm never going to find out what are those are. Those, my friends, are raids and other activities for the discerning max-level, Mastery Rating 10+, four-person elite groups that take this game far more seriously than I (though I say that in the midst of penning the seventh of these pleonastic rundowns). In any MMO, especially of the paid content kind, there is a hierarchy of haves and have nots; the best way to not let it drag you down is to avoid other people at all costs, something I find a lot easier to do in single-player games.

That isn't to say that Warframe is bereft of joy for the financially and socially challenged, mind you. Though it's been slow going over the past month, having hit no end of walls between high challenge levels and a new warfame I'm not particularly sure I'm using right, I'm still finding my own fun with a combination of level revisits (usually boss fights, to farm warframe component drops), tense Void Fissure gauntlets, and testing the occasional node on the most recent planet - Europa - to see if I can at least run through it like my ass was on fire (and it regularly is with those Corpus Machinists around) and make it to the evacuation zone in spite of my lack of grace and courage. It does feel like I'm scrabbling for every victory for these days, which itself has a certain kind of appeal. Besides, if I get really stuck, maybe I can revisit the Plains of Eidolon and see if the open-world thing is for me.

New Developments!

Eu-R.I.P.-a

So, Europa. It's an inhospitable moon orbiting Jupiter - the smallest of the Galilean moons, in fact, which are the four big ones - and another blue Corpus destination. The ice actually has a deleterious effect here, rather than being mostly for the sake of a frosty aesthetic: while on the surface, and away from the frequent heat generators, you take steady damage. There's no Final Fantasy VII style thermometer to inform you how uncomfortably far below freezing it is, but the drain's not significant. Just significant enough to be a burden in a middle of a firefight when you're hiding behind a glacier and really need those shields to start recharging again.

Beyond that, the moon's fresh Hel (in the cold Norse sense) is in its ramped up difficulty. There isn't a single node that dips below a level 18 requirement here, and that's no bueno when you're starting out with a new 'frame looking to keep on trucking across the star map. I spoke (well, whinged might be the more accurate verb) about this particular level creep in June's "Mento's Month", where I discussed the longevity of this feature going forward. In short, Europa's going to be nothing compared to what comes next - Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and so on - and I'm going to be less and less likely to have the means to survive those worlds, especially if it there's a critical Defense node between me and the next junction (which, speaking of, those guardians are going to be a serious problem also). I'm tempted to say "I'll cross that bridge when I get to it", but the bridges in question are starting to resemble the one seen in the climax of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: death on one side, death on the other, and an even worse death waiting far beneath.

You know what would make this frozen pee-pee heckhole more fun? If that jerk of a butt Stalker decided to show up.
You know what would make this frozen pee-pee heckhole more fun? If that jerk of a butt Stalker decided to show up.

Doesn't help that some Europa missions seem to delight in giving me a hard time. In a Rescue mission the goal is to rescue a Tenno captive and then leave. The map can have any number of enemies in it, but the actual prison area has a stealth aspect to it: if you can successfully eliminate or elude all the warden enemies (which are too burly to snipe from a distance without a really powerful rifle, and will automatically set off alarms if they notice you) you'll won't trigger a death timer for the inmate and will have a much easier time escaping to the extraction zone. The prison area is therefore relatively sparse of enemies in order to let this stealth aspect shine; allowing you to focus your attention on the wardens and their patrols, moving quickly and quietly into stealth kill position or to where the prisoner is waiting. Instead, the first time I played this map there were about 30 enemies milling around this area, crowding the walkways to the extent that the AI was having trouble navigating them around the throng. I'm used to glitches in Warframe, especially in the less-stable console version I'm playing, but this almost seemed... vindictive.

Mag Neato

The new warframe I've been using is Mag, whom I believe was originally if not still presently one of the three starter 'frames for new players. She's built for support rather than all-out offense or tanking, and has a handful of shield-related buffs as well as the ability to attach a magnetic field to an enemy so any stray bullets will hit it (good for bosses, presumably even better if you have multiple inaccurate teammates with you). She also has decent shields herself, even if health seems to suffer in turn, and they can be bolstered further with the right mods. She's not terrible, and yet I find myself in serious trouble whenever she gets surrounded. Certain enemy attacks seem to cut through shields so quick, if not render them inert instanter, and when that happens Mag has about two seconds to kiss the world goodbye unless she's holed up somewhere. There are just certain high-aggro nodes that are impossible to defeat with Mag alone, it feels like.

I might need more practice with her, but at this point she's getting close to max level and I'm eyeing Valkyr - who has a very survivable crowd control buff that I was unfortunate enough to see up close - as her replacement. I'm tempted to mark this one down as either me mistreating the poor girl with inefficient tactics undeserving of her build or it's because she's a starter that she simply doesn't have the legs for the mid-game onwards (where I am presumably at), but I can't also help but feel she probably would've been perfectly fine company in any of the previous worlds. It might just be that insurmountable challenge wall bearing down on me ready to crush any warframe I might bring along like the Death Star trash compactor.

My Mag. Or, as I like to call her,
My Mag. Or, as I like to call her, "The Twizzler".

For the record, Mag's attractive skillset include: Pull, which drags enemies in close for melee damage while damaging them, and can often pay for itself with a higher than usual chance at dropping energy refills - I use this a lot whenever there are crowds around that I can't stealth by easily, though it occasionally has the annoying effect of tossing an enemy behind me I think is dead, only for them to start blasting extra holes in my tuchas a second later; Magnetize, which temporarily makes an enemy a bullet sponge (save this for bosses and Eximus hardasses); Polarize, which blasts enemy shields while restoring your own (good for when you're really in trouble, provided I remember to use it and am not just panicking); and Crush, which seems powerful but the range is never far enough for my liking. A lot of these work best as close-range AoEs against large groups, and if you're in a position where there are multiple enemies crowding around Mag her odds of survival drop precipitously. She'd be incredible at support and offense alike if someone else could stand in front of her and soak up all those painful, painful bullets.

The New Strange, a.k.a. The New Roadblock

This mission continues an arc started a while back while searching the Void for the Orokin, and promises even more revelations about our absent friends. Unfortunately, while I progressed fairly far into this questline - the Cephalon Simaris is helping out while also trying to poach my own ship's cephalon AI, Ordis - I hit a sudden stop with a Europan-bound Defense node, which is five rounds of protecting a very fragile gizmo followed by a fight with a feral warframe, Chroma. I couldn't survive a single round - or to be more precise, the piece of high-tech crap I was trying to guard didn't survive.

As I explain below, there are certain node types that are simply unfeasible for the single-player experience because of the immense number of foes to deal with. In fact, it's not even the struggle of taking on so many enemies at once - the Void Fissure missions are similar, but eminently more survivable because you fight them on your own terms, retreating when necessary to lick your wounds before jumping back into the fray and making a break for it when you've earned enough Void Reactants to unlock the Relic's treasure and can quickly complete the mission and get out of there. In Defense, and others like it, your options for tactical retreats and cover are severely limited not only by the fact that you have to remain in one area that is beset from all sides, but that any attempt to lose aggro on yourself is then immediately applied to the squishy item you're guarding. Sometimes it can take the extra punishment if you need to chill for five seconds, but often it'll go down extremely quick if you're not there soaking up most of the enemy's attention and firepower. Some warframes are simply not built for that kind of assault, especially ol' Tissue-Paper Tammy (my Mag nickname that won't be catching on), and it seems irksome to keep dropping nodes like this to trip up anyone choosing to play anything other than a heavy-hitter DPS or proverbial brick shithouse tank.

My current nemesis. Death to single-player Defense missions! Especially progress-critical ones!
My current nemesis. Death to single-player Defense missions! Especially progress-critical ones!

But hey, the game has certain expectations of you at this point. For instance, it probably (and reasonably so) expects that you have enough warframes and warframe slots to have a max-level killing machine for every occasion, and to be fair I could probably try that mission again with my maxed out Rhino or Excalibur and be just fine. It feels counterproductive to do so when there's nothing to be gained XP-wise is all. It might be better for my sanity if I power through these heavy-aggro missions with as much strength as I can muster so I can get them out of the way and appreciate the fun missions, like Exterminate or Spy, that allow me to go at my own cautious pace with warframes that work best from the shadows.

Bonus: Aggroing Pains

Partly because I've been curious about the survivability of certain mission types, and because this will help in my own risk assessments, I've thrown together a little table here of mission types and the amount of aggro you can expect. In most missions you can sneak around and take down enemies, making sure to quickly gun down enemies heading to the nearest alarm console if they spot you. Some, high aggro is inescapable, and it's more a test of your endurance and crowd control. Below are all the mission types I've encountered so far (not an exhaustive list quite yet) with a brief enough summary of how those missions tend to play out, all ranked by the relative amount of enemy resistance you can expect to encounter.

NameBasic DescriptionAggro Rating
SpyFind three secure areas, hack the computer there without being detected, get out. Spy mission areas are almost completely free of enemies, besides cameras and the occasional security drone. Everywhere outside of these areas have normal aggro rules.Low
RescueFind an imprisoned NPC, bust them out of pokey in stealth-focused prison areas, get out. Again, mostly normal areas followed by one relatively quiet area.Low
ExterminateKill a certain number of enemies. Despite the high kill count, you could theoretically complete an entire Exterminate mission without anyone knowing you were there.Mid
SabotageHack a system to destroy a facility via its power source. You'll probably set off alarms once the place starts falling apart, but by that point you're already heading to the exit.Mid
CaptureFind an enemy NPC and gun them down, and then capture them. While chasing these guys through multiple rooms you'll probably invite a lot of aggro from other enemies, but it's usually over quickly and then it's back to business as usual.Mid
AssassinationFind an enemy boss and destroy them. Not only are boss fights tricky, but it's hard to avoid a lot of small fry butting in during the battle. That said, the fight itself is simply the capper to a mission with an otherwise normal amount of aggro.Mid
InterceptionThis is the "capture the point" mode, where you and a bunch of aggro enemies try to hold onto captured zones. Very tough to succeed on solo, but the enemies are often too busy capturing other points to shoot at you so even as a perma-aggro mission type it's less dangerous than others.High
ExcavationFind machines that dig for useful items, protecting them while finding new power sources to keep them going. The fact that you often have to be running around for power sources means the enemies aggro you less often than the machines, and the downtime between each of these sequences is usually chill enough.High
Mobile DefenseHack into multiple consoles with a handheld device, guarding them until the hack is complete. Like Excavation, there are points of high-aggro and points where it calms down again.High
HijackPush a big rolly thing down a track while enemies keep showing up to shoot at it (and you). Most of the mission is spent pushing the thing here, which means you rarely have a moment to breathe.Overwhelming
SurvivalKeep resupplying oxygen as you see how long you can last in a perma-aggro level. Talking about not having a moment to breathe, Survival missions can be very rough if you aren't constantly moving to the next canister. That said, you can outpace the enemies and sprint to the exit after five minutes if need be.Overwhelming
DefectionThese are Infection-specific missions where the goal is to rescue other NPCs and bring them to an evacuation point, while dealing with perma-aggro Infestation enemies. Tough to survive but the melee-focused Infestation can at least be outrun.Overwhelming
DefenseGuard a thing for several waves. Absolute nightmares if you're on your own, as neither you or the guarded object will be able to survive getting shot from every direction for too long.Overwhelming
*CrossfireLess a mission type, more a modifier. Crossfire missions have two enemy types that will aggro each other, reducing the amount you have to deal with.Less Than Usual
*Void FissureLess a mission type, more a modifier. Void Fissure missions keep teleporting in instantly-aggro'ed tough enemies from a bunch of different factions.More Than Usual

One Hek of a Gun

If Mag took some time to warm up to, my new weapon loadout was love at first sight in comparison. I've got very little to say about my Lato pistol secondary - it seems fairly weak, so I'm only really using it for stealth or blowing up traps and other barriers - but the Hek shotgun has paid for itself many times over. The way shotguns seem to work in Warframe, or maybe this one in particular, is that is has a very persnickety hitscan where you can aim just to the side of an enemy and miss completely, but hit them anywhere on their body to have all the gun's "spread" hit them square on, doing more damage the closer they are. I suspect having to calculate the trajectory of every shard of a shotgun blast might be a little much for the Warframe CPU to do on the fly with everything else going on, so it makes sense for the game to instead check if you hit first before applying damage based on distance.

It didn't take long before the Hek could one-shot almost every enemy, and even with the level 20+ enemies on Europa it's rare it takes more than two whole blasts at short range. Mag's Pull ability makes it trivial to get enemies into maximum damage range quickly, provided they survive the Pull itself, so there's a certain amount of synergy at work here that's made the Hek a very efficient death-dealer. Really, the only issue is that it's levelling up so fast I'm already just about done with it.

All right, now I'm ready for the Final Fantasy VII remake.
All right, now I'm ready for the Final Fantasy VII remake.

On the melee front it didn't take long to max out the Amphis staff - moderate damage, high range - and I've now switched to the Galantine sword: an enormous two-hander that, like the Fragor hammer, is slow but gets the job done. The downside is that I can't resist saying "Happy Galentine's Day!" every time I chop someone down with it. Melee weapons receive the most experience because they get all that juicy stealth kill bonus XP, which can be several multiples higher than what you might receive from those enemies normally. If I can sneak up on a high-level Eximus enemy and take them down, that could be around 5000 affinity in just one blow: with most of the alert fodder enemies you're looking around 100-200 at best. It's why the melee weapon mastery list on the table below keeps growing and growing while the other columns - especially secondaries, which can rarely kill anything - are a lot smaller.

The Warframe Progress-o-meter

(Italics indicate a weapon/warframe that I've mastered, or a planet I've fully explored. I'll probably sell anything I've mastered first if I need to make space.)

WarframeLvlPrimary WeaponLvlSecondary WeaponLvlMelee WeaponLvlPlanets Visited
Excalibur30Braton (rifle)30MK1-Kunai (thrown)30Skana (sword)30Earth
Rhino30Boltor (rifle)30Dex Furis (SMGs)30Dex Dakra (daggers)30Venus
Oberon30Hek (shotgun)29Lato (handgun)13Cronus (sword)30Mercury
Mag25Karak (rifle)0Furis (SMG)0Fragor (hammer)30Mars
Vauban0MK-1 Braton (rifle)14Bronco (shotgun)0Amphis (staff)30Phobos
MK-1 Paris (bow)0 Galantine (2H sword)7Ceres
Vulkar (sniper)0 Pangolin (sword)0Jupiter
Europa
The Void

On the next episode of Seeking Warframe & Fortune: I'm going to see how much further I can squirm across Europa, and maybe convince a certain insane Norse-themed warframe to pinch-hit.

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Indie Game of the Week 128: Bear With Me (Episodes 2 & 3)

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Early last year, I decided to try out the first episode of Bear With Me: an adventure game eventually released in three parts. In retrospect, each of the three episodes are perhaps a little too short to require their own individual IGotW entries: you could probably get through one in an hour, contingent on how long the inventory puzzles stymied you. All the same, it didn't feel right to leave this game half-finished (or one-third finished, as the case may be), not only because it leaves the overall review incomplete but also because I enjoyed that first episode quite a bit.

Bear With Me's twists aren't the most surprising, but it's evident early on that Amber Ashworth's make-believe session with her stalwart buddy, the well-worn private dick Ted E. Bear, wasn't quite as cut-and-dry as it seemed. Paper City is filled with archetypal noir roles filled out by Amber's many stuffed animal toys, in a process that might be precocious and incongruous for a ten-year-old but could feasibly result from a steady diet of Dashiell Hammett novellas or Humphrey Bogart movies (which all the ten-year-olds of today won't shut up about) - the noir setting is enhanced further with a monochrome aesthetic, monologuing voiceovers, and monolithic urban edifices that divide up the mean streets and the meaner alleyways of this corrupted burg. Flashes of red, however, portends an unnatural interloper that threatens to annihilate not just the people and buildings of the city, but the very creative energies that brought it to life and sustain it. In other words, this mysterious entity isn't targeting some aspect of Amber's made-up world, like the Mayor's office or the gangster-led casino, but Amber herself. Ultimately, to save her friends, Amber will have to confront this existential menace and come to terms with the trauma it represents.

Are all these pop culture references strictly necessary for the story Bear With Me is telling? It's like a Where's Waldo of nerd shit.
Are all these pop culture references strictly necessary for the story Bear With Me is telling? It's like a Where's Waldo of nerd shit.

Bear With Me has a slight tone problem as it relays this sordid tale to the player, deftly establishing the sinister threat of this mysterious crimson slasher (definite shades of Deadly Premonition's Raincoat Killer in his design) while frequently engaging in silly reference humor and fourth-breaking jokes. There's certainly room for levity in adventure games like this - the best ones all have a comedic bent, after all, as there's a huge capacity for ribald commentary with the less-crucial hotspots used to fill out each scene - but it makes it harder to take the truly emotional and tense beats of the game seriously as a result. These characters are, by their own frequent admission, fluffy playthings acting like cops or private detectives or waitresses or nightclub bouncers, and nothing twists a tragedy back around to comedy like seeing a named character bleeding out from gunshot wounds delivering their final, trembling words of reassurance to the protagonists only to turn back into an inanimate stuffed toy a moment later. I hesitate to discuss just how dark the game gets in its final chapter for fear of spoiling too much, but suffice it to say it's some serious business. I'm just not sure the game put me in a headspace to fully appreciate it.

That minor narrative quibble aside, as a standard adventure game Bear With Me falls somewhere in the middle of the "annoying" and "accommodating" spectrum. It doesn't have the ever-handy "highlight all hotspots" button, and the movement speed of the main character(s) leaves a lot to be desired if something on the opposite side of the screen requires your attention, but it does compartmentalize its chapters and episodes into small groups of rooms and screens for its puzzles, which greatly mitigates the difficulty without making the game a complete pushover. In this department it definitely earns a pass for never roadblocking me for too long: the one time I was stuck in an area for more than ten minutes, it was because I missed a coat that took up most of the very right margin of the screen, so that was entirely on me. If you're an achievement nut, prepare to get frequently flustered as many require checking hotspots that vanish quickly once the story moves head, and completing puzzles perfectly the first time (including a couple that are specifically meant to be trial-and-error); achievements are often a hard nut to crack when designing them around adventure games though, so I'm not going to hold that against the game. Likewise, the localization can be a little spotty with typos and unusual accents for minor characters, but there's only so much a small foreign-language studio can do and I could at least follow everything (and the joke references were fairly universal also - no in-jokes about Croatia's hottest TV show).

If ever a splash of color appears in Bear With Me, it's usually not a good sign.
If ever a splash of color appears in Bear With Me, it's usually not a good sign.

I think if I was going to sell this game to anyone, it would be on its atmosphere and mystery. A noir whodunnit should be expected to have both those things in abundance, of course, but in this game's case the atmosphere is in the encroaching horror of the "red man" and how that juxtaposes with the world of 1950s noir clichés it destabilizes, while the mystery is more metaphysical in origin: If there was a god of a small universe and some external menace decided to start hunting that god and destroying everything in its path to get to her, what could the normal citizenry do? Help her fight it? Cower in fear of something several leagues above what they're capable of dealing with? Give into that fear of their and their world's imminent demises to try and help this demon before everything is gone? I kind of like when games establish the rules of their world and then break them with some unforeseen existential threat, and Bear With Me handles that conceit with a certain amount of panache and self-effacing charm. It has its share of minor problems, but I think this is a cool idea for a story and game alike.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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"Tonda Gossa!": A Slightly More In-Depth Mother 3 Review

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When I wrote about Brownie Brown's Mother 3 just over a week ago, it wasn't too far into the game's story. In fact, I'd probably say it was well short of the mid-game. Mother 3 is not a game beholden to conventional rules of video game structure, as anyone who has played it or its predecessor EarthBound is no doubt aware, and the slightly back-heavy format of the game took some acclimatizing. In fact, a lot of the game required some acclimatizing, and it's only now that I've finally seen the ending of the game that I can process everything that happened and all the pieces the game puts into place early on.

It's for this reason that I wanted to revisit the game for a significantly deeper dive, expatiating on the game's structure, themes, genre subversions, characterization, humor, how it develops its own deeply referential mythos, game mechanics, and in particular its late-game revelations and conclusion. It's also going to be very hard not to keep alluding to Undertale, because I now understand just how much of that game was sourced from Mother 3's blueprint specifically (though not in any kind of plagiaristic manner; if anything, Undertale felt like the iterative Mother 4 we never received). I suppose it might be prudent instead to just keep Toby Fox's Indie darling in the back of your mind as you read the following.

(It's also worth pointing out that I will be spoiling the hell out of Mother 3, if that wasn't clear.)

You Can't Go Home Again

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Hard to know where to start, so we'll start with what the world of Mother 3 is like. Mother 3 is set on Nowhere Island, and in a village called Tazmily in particular. Tazmily is set up to be a low-key utopia of sorts: one where the citizenry are friendly and helpful towards each other, want for nothing, have no need of money or a barter system, live in peace with the local beasts (which they can understand? It's never clear if this is due to PSI abilities, if animals work different in this world, or if their noises have simply been translated for the player's benefit), and have an empty Sheriff's office because there's no crime for them to stop. It's the first of the game's many subtle subversions, in this case riffing on the idyllic childhood home village that most JRPG heroes seem to have been raised in without incident. We're conditioned to think of this place as the archetypal happy home for our heroes, at least until the first spark of conflict comes along to be the ignition for the hero's journey. Instead, Tazmily becomes the default location for the first seven - of eight - chapters of the game, frequently acting as a hub if not always central to the immediate stage of the story.

We're conditioned to see past a lot of Tazmily's more unlikely altruism because it is typical of a JRPG to present the hero's small rural hometown as being perfect, safe, and wholesome, at least until it is tragically destroyed by a cruel world undeserving of that peaceful equilibrium. A critical media observer more versed in semiotics than myself could even attach a parallel to that with the Hollywood notion that big cities rob people of their souls, while the "heartland" of smaller rural communities are where you find home and your truest self. As someone who has lived in the latter for most of their life, I can attest that these places have as many bad apples (I had to go with the agricultural metaphor, huh?) as anywhere else, and are boring as shit to boot. The truth behind Tazmily, relayed to main character Lucas and his companions by the ludicrously tall man Leder, is that it was a deliberate attempt to recreate a society free of the ills that caused the world - our world - to destroy itself and leave nothing but an ark ship of rueful survivors. The new world built on Tazmily and Nowhere Island was an attempt to start again from scratch: thus, all the humans aboard that ship, aside from Leder, had their memories wiped and new artificial ones put in their place to kickstart this model agrarian civilization.

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Of all of Mother 3's paradigmatic subversions, this twist takes the longest to get from the set-up to the reveal, and is perhaps ultimately irrelevant beyond establishing a gritty and morose reality to what was one of the game's less obtuse elements. It's taking the most mundane trait of a topsy-turvy world, where you fight bizarre metaphysical creatures with psychic abilities and converse with joyful immortal beings of indeterminate gender and whatever the heck Mr. Saturn is, before revealing that this silly, lighthearted land is actually all that remains of a terrible, world-ending series of atrocities that the game never quite makes clear is due to environmental collapse, nuclear war, or some other doomsday scenario we will evidently be ill-equipped to deal with. It's taking the one JRPG trope that feels the safest and most familiar - the paradigmatic tranquil home town full of friendly if eccentric faces - and using that as a vector for one of the game's darkest twists.

Of course, this makes me want go off on a tangent about JRPGs that have also recognized this recurring cliché and have put their own spin on it (Wild Arms 4, among others, has the protagonist's "bubble" of a peaceful upbringing be literally that, as invaders smash through the protective dome making it appear for all the world that a massive crack has formed in the sky) but I feel like we'll be here all week if I point out every way the commonalities of unimaginative JRPGs have been turned on their heads by Mother 3 or others, so I'll move ahead to how the structure of this game bears notice.

An Octet of Acts

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Although Mother 3 is broken up into eight chapters, these chapters aren't all necessarily the same length, feature the same protagonist, or even. In the late 1990s, when Squaresoft (as it was still called) was preparing for their big 32-bit debut with Final Fantasy VII for the Sony PlayStation, the studio was experimenting elsewhere with irregular narrative structures in their RPGs. SaGa Frontier & SaGa Frontier 2 (and to a lesser extent the Chrono series) were the only games of this unorthodox style that we in the west were privy to, but over in Japan it includes almost all of their late SNES efforts: Live A Live, Romancing SaGa 3, Treasure of the Rudras (a.k.a. Rudra no Hihou), and Seiken Densetsu 3. These games were notable not just for their episodic, almost vignette-like story structure but for the fact that the perspective character kept switching - many might be said to have a default protagonist, but not a single character was the focal point of the narrative for the entire journey, or if they were they were not always the sole option. Though there was an ever-present risk of a fractured overarching narrative that was challenging to follow, these games often found a way to tie all the disparate threads together when it came time to the end, often producing a bottom-heavy game in the process as the player got all their narrative ducks in a row. In some regard, though it comes from a different developer, Mother 3 picks up this torch from where Square left it behind.

The prologue of Mother 3 concerns Lucas and Claus, the former of whom we control for but a single battle. They are staying at their grandfather Alec's cabin far north of Tazmily Village along with their mother Hinawa, and are playing with the local peaceful Drago creatures before a calamity occurs just off-screen. We then switch to Flint for the first proper chapter of the game: a decently-sized adventure that has him pass through Tazmily's nearby forest as it burns down to establish most of the people of Tazmily, including the panicky Thomas of the local store and Lighter the lumberjack, as well as the villains (the Pigmask Army) and the mysterious Magypsies. A curious element of Mother 3 is that the protagonist of any given chapter doesn't speak: when Flint finally has his first lines, it's later in chapter 2 when we've assumed the role of Duster for a while. Duster, for his part, goes from the genial helper we meet in chapter 1 to mute himself, suggesting that being the viewpoint character also means temporarily removing themselves from any dialogue. It's yet another of Mother 3's surreal little jokes at the expense of nonsensical video game conventions, one that will come to a head with Lucas (as discussed further in just a moment).

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Duster's chapter concerns sneaking into the nearby dilapidated Osohe Castle to recover a relic that his father, Wess, stashed there for safekeeping. Osohe Castle is occupied by friendly (and a few unfriendly) ghosts that offer advice and boons to Duster, including the purchase of one of the game's best ancillary characters, Rope Snake. Initially, Rope Snake seems like another "thief tool" of Duster's - he already has another animal used in this fashion called the Siren Beetle, which helpfully turns enemies around as a distraction which skips their turn and also increases damage done against them while their backs are turned. Rope Snake isn't used in battle, but rather is used as a hookshot to get over small gaps in Osohe and elsewhere. It's only later on when he's required to latch onto a flying airship while carrying the whole party that he eventually loosens his grip (or, rather, his bite) and begins a spiral of self-doubt and chagrin that becomes a recurring sub-plot well into the final chapters of the game. The Mother games have this tendency to cleverly canonize their most unexpectedly appealing ancillary characters like Apple Kid and Exit Mouse, ensuring that after their unassuming debuts they continue to have major influence on the plot in spite of their incidental statuses, and it also becomes one of Mother 3's sharpest examples of understanding its own strengths as a comedy adept. Duster's chapter is also where we encounter Kumatora for the first time, making a strong first impression by quickly insulting both Duster and Wess before quickly grasping the situation, and it's after the three of them are flushed out of the castle's waterworks by a trap (that Wess set) that the game unexpectedly switches to a plotline happening simultaneously elsewhere.

Salsa the Monkey becomes the protagonist for the relatively brief third chapter of the game. His girlfriend is being held by the Pigmask Army and as a result he's being coerced by the villain Fassad, who we briefly met as Duster in his more affable disguise as a passing trader, who keeps Salsa in check with a shock collar he cruelly activates every few moments whether Salsa obeys him or not. I'm not sure what it is about shock collars that video games find so enticing, but it does a good job (if one that's a little tough to deal with) where the player character is being forced to obey the commands of an NPC or else suffer the ignoble fate of a cartoon electrified ashening. Though I'm sure it's a complete coincidence, there was an extended sequence with shock collars in Tales of Destiny too, and like in that game I think the core purpose behind its application here is to breed animosity for the one holding the button. Though it takes the whole chapter, including a lot of little side-tasks and gesture-based monkey dancing, Salsa eventually breaks free of Fassad's dominance due to the help of Kumatora and Wess, who are shown again to be sharper than they look. However, we learn here that Duster has vanished, and the relic he was sent to recover along with him. Cut to three years later...

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It's after this time skip, in which we're in control of a pre-teenaged Lucas (now and for the rest of the game), that we start to understand the seeds planted during Salsa's chapter. In helping Fassad spread the "happy boxes" of the Pigmask Army to the garrulous but gullible citizenry of Tazmily, which vaguely resemble pink CRT TVs and could be making any kind of statement about the corrupting effects of modern media (or they're simply brainwashing people, which is equally likely), Salsa may have inadvertently turned the whole town of Tazmily evil. Well, maybe not so much evil, but a familiar combination of apathetic and solipsistic that defines many of us in the real world, distracted by our various passions and problems while frequently detached from the horrors perpetrated right under our noses. Like, say, the slow erosion of human rights as it occurs to other people: various hold-outs in Tazmily are mysteriously finding their homes hit by lightning bolts over and over, which isn't quite the same as concentration camps full of immigrants but follows along a similar theme of an ethical insouciance borne from a contemporary disconnect with our fellow man. I guess what I'm saying in the most heavy-handed manner possible is that Mother 3's biggest theme is one that is still unfortunately prominent today, with Tazmily's comically rapid descent into venality and sin being largely due to the beguiling effects of propaganda and information control by the game's antagonists, resulting in the sort of jeremiad one could level at both the UK and the USA alike given recent downturns in our collective moral characters. Of course, this also ties into the above revelation about Tazmily being the colony of a seedship of a destroyed version of Earth: the reason the people of Tazmily fall into these self-destructive habits is because they're actually old habits, albeit long-forgotten, making them far easier to lapse back into. Don't you love late-story twists that help recontextualize everything that happened prior?

Chapter four is really more of a "getting the gang back together" sort of affair, with Lucas taking Boney out to understand his place in this strange new world (though to Lucas, time has passed normally). We encounter the new Tazmily, now resembling a small town of the modern era rather than one stuck in a rustic ideal of the 19th century, and how these changes have affected the citizenry. Due to Fassad's meddling, the town - and the entire game - now has an understanding of currency: "DP", or Dragon Points, are earned after every battle and can be used to purchase new items and equipment from a series of vendors. It's both jarring from a mechanical and narrative standpoint to suddenly introduce something as otherwise quotidian as earning money so late into the game, and it also takes a while to get used to how the game manages your money. Instead of holding onto any cash you earn, it is automatically deposited into the bank, ready to be withdrawn whenever you need to buy something. Ness's dad would give him money the same way also, often necessitating a trip to the nearest ATM before purchases could be made, but because Mother 3 has a game over penalty that halves the amount of money you're holding (earlier chapters, of course, have no penalty of any kind) the fact that all your money is safe with the bank - organized by the save point frogs, in a convenient doubling-up of their services - means you won't lose anything unless you make the error of taking your entire fortune with you. So it doesn't really change too much or make the game substantially harder or less convenient, but it is an additional factor that feels both alien to the experience so far and completely natural given how many RPGs depend on their economy as a major aspect of character progression and player choice (say, opting for certain consumables over others depending on their perceived utility-to-cost ratio).

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After chapter four and five, the latter of which simply changes the goal from "find Duster" to "follow Duster to recover the artifact he recovered from Osohe", the party eventually defeats Fassad and shuts down the Thunder Tower that caused all the Tazmily rebels to lose their homes in freak lightning storms. It's when they impulsively decide to chase after the departing Pigmask Army airship and the mysterious masked general on board that they end up falling (you tried your best, Rope Snake) and separating for chapter six. Chapter six is where the game really finds a remarkable application of this eight-part structure, as the entire chapter is spent as Lucas and Boney on their own in a field full of sunflowers - Hinawa's favorite - as they silently chase her specter off a cliff. This was all part of Hinawa's plan, as she'd already told her father Alec in a dream to build a haystack for Lucas and Boney to fall into. So ends chapter six and begins chapter seven, by far the longest chapter of the game.

Chapter seven sees the game kick into high-gear and present - fashionably late - the typical McGuffin hunt seen in most RPGs, including Mother 3's predecessor EarthBound. Similar to the Your Sanctuary locations of EarthBound, the goal here is to travel all over the island - to places you've never been before - to pull the seven mystical needles that are keeping an ancient, colossal dragon sleeping underneath the island to awaken. These needles are under the protection of the seven Magypsies - each named after one of the seven musical modes: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian - each of whom help Lucas find their resting place. However, the Pigmask Army is also pursuing these needles and have someone of their own who can pull them (the first big hint that Claus is this masked stranger, as Lucas is the only known person able to pull them from the player's perspective) creating a chase of sorts. At least once, the destinations that the player might follow become open-ended choices, though the enemy difficulty is such that it's usually advised to take a linear route through the following:

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  • Aeolia, whose needle can be spotted in the depths of Osohe Castle. This needle is pulled first by the masked man off-screen, initiating Lucas's journey to find the rest.
  • Doria, whose needle is found behind the Pigmask Chimera Lab, where they've been creating the majority of the game's foes: hostile juxtapositions of two animals, or one animal and an inanimate object. The Chimera Lab is where you meet Salsa again, who has managed to rescue his lady friend and eventually decides to help you out, once you elude the Ultimate Chimera that has broken loose. Finding Doria also means meeting up with Kumatora again, adding her back to the party permanently.
  • Lydia, whose needle is found on the top of the highest mountain of the island. The player reaches this location via the mole cricket cave - a mole cricket playing the unenviable comedic role as the extremely weak enemy you fight as a tutorial - and it's due to your second beatdown of their best warrior that they all decide to become merchants instead (in fact, most of the merchants you meet for the rest of the game are mole crickets). You're too late to reach this needle, alas, as the masked man beats you to it and leaves a boss behind to slow you down: that's two for the masked man, one for Lucas.
  • Phrygia, whose needle is inside a volcano. Reaching this needle also means passing through Mr. Saturn Valley, full of everyone's odd, spherical, Homsar-talking favorites. Rescuing the Mr. Saturns from the Pigmask Army also frees Duster from their clutches, filling the last slot of what will be the party for the rest of the game. Before pulling the needle here, you have a fight with a cyborg Fassad who now needs an interpreter as his mouth has been replaced by French horns.
  • Mixolydia, whose needle is on a remote island. This is the oddest segment of this chapter, and perhaps the whole game (excepting the Mr. Saturns above) as it begins with a trek across the ocean floor - big-lipped mermen are around to resupply your dwindling oxygen gauge - before embarking on a mushroom trip reminiscent of the metaphysical Magicant sequence of EarthBound. Here, hallucinations keep attacking the party while psychologically tormenting them until the party eventually recovers from the effects with Mixolydia's help. This leads to another encounter with the masked man and another lost needle. It's also where you fight what I thought was the hardest boss in the game: the Barrier Trio, a buff set of blue triplets who toss out powerful PSI abilities and keep switching their elemental weakness to confound you.
  • Ionia, whose needle is in a temple stuck in time. Ionia is the Magypsy you've had the strongest rapport with so far, and her segment is relatively short as it means a short pass through the mountain valley first seen at the start of the game, followed by a quick trip to the temple. The masked man is fought again here, but Lucas has picked up a Franklin Badge - a series-wide artifact with protective qualities of some repute, to the extent it later appears in the Super Smash Bros. series - which protects him from the same attack that demolished the party at Mixolydia's needle. The party is victorious, evening the score in number of needles pulled with only one needle left.
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Chapter seven could be considered the meat of the game and the home of most of its more conventional RPG aspirations, as the tried-and-tested Great Tchotchke Hunt format, but it is curious that this entire endeavor - so often the basis of an entire RPG story - is condensed into a single chapter, especially with how much ground it covers. You spend so many chapters in this game in relatively small environments - the opening chapter in Tazmily Forest, or spending most of chapter four running across a train track to get to a factory and then a nightclub, to say nothing of the single sunflower field that comprises chapter six - that to suddenly see the whole scope of the island's geography from coast to coast in one relatively rapid around-the-world tour is both remarkably strange and absolutely typical of a Mother game, especially if it's subtly decrying its predecessor for such a well-worn RPG structure.

Chapter eight takes place entirely within New Pork City, the home base of the Pigmask Army and their leader Porky Minch. There's a brief amount of time spent in the streets of this gray city, built entirely to amuse and honor its despotic leader, before you get the big exposition dump from Leder (as told in the first section of this review, regarding the truth behind Tazmily's occupants). After this, you enter Porky Tower with a meeting with the game's true antagonist. At least, that's the idea, but he can't resist putting you through multiple floors of nonsense first. Here's where the game has the most fun messing around with your expectations for what constitutes a sensible dungeon idea. You never find out which floors these events occur on, but in order:

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  • A concert hall for DCMC's last performance, which Duster/Lucky joins in on for old time's sake.
  • An aquatic habitat for "Hippo Launchers": one of the most dangerous chimeras in the game (but completely docile, if you just wanted to walk right past).
  • The purple "Fan Room", full of Porky's harem girls. Fortunately, because he has the mind of a child, these attractive women are forced to do little more than fan him with large fronds and hand feed him candy.
  • A labyrinth of bathrooms, giving the game ample room for all its best potty humor. You get attacked here by sapient "men's room" signs and the Ultimate Chimera pops up for one more unexpected cameo.
  • The empty Magypsy house of Locria, the one guarding the seventh needle (or supposed to be) who the others say betrayed them. There's plenty of evidence lying around to suggest Locria was actually Fassad the whole time.
  • An unfinished storey full of workers and gaps in the floor. You have to knock a few of the workers over to create bridges.
  • A laboratory floor full of powerful robot enemies and chimeras, and a number of citizens trapped in green canisters.
  • A floor where the whole goal is to let a robotic Porky narrowly beat you in a set of mini-games.
  • The actual 100th floor, where you must first defeat a powerful pig robot boss followed by a horde of robotic Porkys that explode after taking damage.

The finale of the game takes place underneath the tower, where the final needle can be found. This means defeating a familiar robotic spider version of a greatly aged Porky - who eventually retreats into an "absolute safety capsule" he can never leave - before taking on the masked man, Claus, in a climactic final duel that is like the Giygas fight in EarthBound in that it plays out via a set of unconventional rules: Lucas refuses to attack his twin, so all you can do is guard and pray. Once the end finally comes, and Lucas removes the last needle, the dragon awakes and destroys the entire island, with the game fading to black. (It took a while to realize that the game hadn't quite ended yet...)

The Anagram Twins

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Since we're already talking about them, let's address the relationship between Lucas and Claus: two near-identical boys but for their hair color and temperaments. The importance of the bond between the two is not so much the crux of the game but its pivotal bookends: the final boss fight is against a brainwashed Claus, who has undergone an unknown degree of cybernetic change due to the machinations of Porky - the game's true nemesis, and a millennia-old childish troublemaker last seen in the climactic battle of EarthBound - and must be stopped before he can pull the last of the aforementioned mystical acupuncture needle McGuffins. Though Claus's early disappearance is felt most keenly by his father, Flint, who is all but absent after the first act of the game spending his days searching Claus's last known location. Claus's shadow is cast over Lucas's adventures as it becomes apparent fairly quickly - though the game doesn't get explicit about it until the end - that Claus has now become Lucas's antithesis and biggest obstacle in his mission.

There's also some tragic dramatic bookends in the deaths of Hinawa and Claus at the start and end of the game, respectively, and how that factors into Lucas's journey of maturation. Of course, as a silent protagonist with a permanent blank expression (I told you Undertale comparisons were difficult to ignore) you don't get much sense of this bildungsroman in action, which in my view makes it yet another of the game's subversions. For all we can tell, Lucas has been dead inside ever since his mother died and his brother disappeared: we only have the assurance of secondary and tertiary characters that he's developed in any way, shape, or form at all. Lucas follows Ness and Ninten as EarthBound protagonists that represent the all-American kid hero, with a catapult tucked in the back pocket and a twinkle of mischief in his eye, and maybe some formidable psychic powers in their corner. However, even though all three are effectively player ciphers, Lucas has the most relevance to the plot and the most intense emotional arc of everyone in this game if not the trilogy: hence why I recognize him as another subversion. After all, how far you can accept the typical mute, emotionless hero character when they have been through so much anguish and misfortune? Especially when multiple characters remark on how sensitive Lucas is even before the tragedies that befall his childhood. It's as if he spends the whole game shellshocked.

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As always, it's the other characters in your party that prove to be the more interesting. Duster is a trainee thief who lacks PSI abilities but makes up for it with a selection of "thief tools" that adequately take their place, especially when there's debuffing to be done. His items allow for four different status effects, plus strength downgrades and defense downgrades, and coupled with his relatively fast speed and strength he makes for a strong melee character able to soften enemies up before moving in for the kill. As a character, Duster is a dimwitted figure of mirth but also of hidden depths and obscure ambition: he disappears at one point only to re-emerge as the amnesiac bassist for the game's jazz ensemble and Runaway Five ersatz, Desperado Crash Mambo Combo (or DCMC), where he realizes a self-made place in the world beyond meekly accepting his thief father's reprimands and insults. That you then have to shake him out of his reverie and have him join you in his old thief guise is both played for comedy and tragedy: DCMC immediately sends him off with a powerful ballad, as the erstwhile Lucky the Bassist symbolically leaves behind his big comedy afro to hit the road with his newly rediscovered friends.

Kumatora, meanwhile, is a character about whom little is initially apparent. Despite being a princess, she's given a tomboyish inflection to her voice, wears her hair short, has a badass name that is essentially Japanese for "bear-tiger", and her idea of going incognito is dressing and acting like a stereotypical valley girl - one that every guy in the vicinity quickly falls for. There's no denying Kumatora kicks ass, but it takes a while to understand how she got there: she was raised by the Magypsies, the gender-obfuscated magically immortal beings I spoke of earlier (the translation, and possibly the original Japanese script, gets very cagey about their pronouns - switching between one or the other, often depending on the viewpoint character's perception of them), which explains both her own non-binary leanings and how she came to be the party's other major PSI user. Lucas's PSI abilities are almost all buffs and heals, while Kumatora is more of an offensive and debuff type. Though she usually has the least HP and defense of the party, she's frequently the biggest damage-dealer of the group, especially when the enemy has an elemental weakness to exploit.

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Finally, of the main group, we have Boney. Boney is Lucas's loyal dog, one far more inclined to action and adventure than the cowardly King of EarthBound (who taps out after that game's prologue chapter), and occupies an unusual and underrated role in combat that takes some time to properly figure out. Boney's canine form means he is prohibited from a lot of equipment that might improve his stats, which usually has him tailing the rest of the party in damage output, defense, and offense. His one advantage is his alacrity: he'll almost always act first, unless the enemy is particularly quick. This makes him well-suited as the party's item-hound, so to speak. When characters take mortal damage, they have precious seconds to rescue themselves with a quick heal: as Boney always goes first, he does the lion share's of the work in keeping people just outside the critical HP range until the PSI members can take over with their more substantial healing abilities. Likewise, he's good to give consumables like bombs and debuff items to throw at enemies as they're likely to take effect first. You can thus strategize around following up these opening salvos with whatever other complementary abilities you might have. A useful item you procure mid-game from a slightly irksome side-quest is the Shield Snatcher: an endlessly reusable item that removes shields that can halve or reflect different types of damage, which many bosses start with. Since Boney will go first, he can remove the shield with the item allowing the rest of the party to wail on the now unprotected foe. Beyond his speed, Boney can also sniff enemies to determine weaknesses: you will often get important information about which status effects and elemental PSI abilities will work best. As a character, Boney's an intelligent if uncomplicated beast who follows Lucas out of his instinctual loyalty but will - like the dog companion from Secret of Evermore - occasionally give in to other doggo instincts, like chasing strange animals or refusing to eat weird food. An extended sequence where he has to pretend to be a human, or "that weird hairy kid that smells like a dog", presents him with a great deal of discomfort especially when he has to walk on his hind legs everywhere.

You also have Flint, the father, and Salsa, the monkey. Neither character has much time as a playable member of the group: Flint really just serves as a tutorial character with nothing but a handful of buffs (rather than PSI abilities, they're manifestations of his innate stubborn manliness) while Salsa, as a tiny monkey, is depicted as a deliberately weak character who wins battles mostly out of guile and force of will. Both interesting characters represented well via game mechanics for the battles in which they appear - Flint's high stats are capable of carrying new players through the first chapter of the game, especially if they rely on his risky but powerful all-out attack skill, and Salsa's relative fragility is tied into the abuse his character suffers and the unexpected help in battle that his abuser provides - but are both purposefully lacking in the versatility of the main four.

Final Thoughts

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I don't believe that Shigesato Itoi makes these games to be this weird on purpose. Rather, the way he makes and writes games is a combination of personal philosophies, what he finds appealing, and what he finds lacking in the games of others. In that regard he's not at all different from other auteurs like Hidetaka Suehiro, Goichi Suda, or Hideo Kojima: they focus on what they think is cool, or original, or makes the most sense to them, and the rest of us have to endeavor to see through their filter of the world and popular culture so we can appreciate where they're coming from. Or don't, and simply enjoy their unusual fiction for whatever we perceive it to be.

I was excited to finally read this translated interview Itoi had with a Japanese gaming magazine shortly after the launch of Mother 3. He talks candidly about the game's production troubles - it was originally slated for the Nintendo 64, and in-progress development screenshots of a 3D Mother 3 are plenteous - and his choices for various sequences in the game, suggesting that Osohe Castle was a relic stuck in time, how Hinawa's death becomes more impactful because the player can rename her before they start, suggesting the way characters earn new PSI abilities - which in-game involves a short sequence where those characters "look feverish" and can no longer dash (a convenient means of getting around quickly that can also instantly defeat weaker enemies) until it passes and they acquire the new ability(ies) - is akin to teething or growing pains or puberty (a comparison enhanced further by how both characters with PSI abilities, Kumatora and Lucas, are youths approaching adulthood), and how his fondness for those misunderstood by society or carry ailments - like the androgynous Magypsies or the limping Duster - means they are given chances to be heroic and noble in his games. It's a great interview full of noteworthy observations and attributions that gave me a lot of missing context for the decisions Itoi made: decisions that, ultimately, aren't all that strange or bizarre at all once you understand the authorial intent behind them.

I've evaded the comparisons to Undertale as best as I've been able to, but I think the one thing that Toby Fox and Shigesato Itoi are most in concordance about is the importance of love. Not just love of gaming, but love for your fellow human beings, and how a game is better for reflecting that unconditional compassion and pushing socially progressive mores than paddling around in the usual pool of power fantasies of an ultimate +1 sword or abs you could grate cheese on. Heroes that have emotional or physical dysfunctions that they rise above, and antagonists that you work to befriend and see eye-to-eye with than bash into an early grave - it's why Mother enemies often "become tame" or "surrender" once defeated. For such a cult series, I think there's a deep universal appeal to the Mother games that is easy to overlook with Mr. Saturn spouting "Dakota!" or recurring sub-plots about a snake who pretended to be a rope trying to get his groove back or an errant doorknob that passes from person to person until it eventually falls into the hands of the actual player themselves. I'm happy there continues to be game developers like Toby Fox out there keeping that particular wholesome oddness alive in their own inimitable way, and I'm certainly glad I finally found my way to Mother 3 after a decade of vacillation. Nintendo really needs to think about following the recent Collection of Mana with a Collection of Mother, and sooner rather than later.

Thanks for reading, and give my regards to the next frog you meet.

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Indie Game of the Week 127: Environmental Station Alpha

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Look, I realize I play a lot of spacewhippers (which I'll be calling explormers for a change) for this piece, but that's only because people keep making them. What am I to do? Not explore the wonderful maps they've made and the particular flowchart they've designed for how each of the upgrades opens a path to the next? This particular phenomenon, which I don't just limit to platformers with this concept but certain gated RPGs and action-adventure games like The Legend of Zelda also, are built like an enormous environmental puzzle that you can't really even readily process due to the enormity of it: it's like a hedge maze, where you can only appreciate its form looking down from high above, though you can certainly appreciate its function while you're lost inside.

Environmental Station Alpha made me think about what it is about explormers at their core that is so appealing, because the game itself has no grand ambition or gimmick or pretensions. Inspired to no small extent by Metroid Fusion, the player is a robot exploring the titular space station. It is presently devoid of human life and has since been taken over by a combination of the biological organisms that were being studied by the crew and a compromised station AI, all of which are hostile. Given little direction, the immediate goal at any given moment is to find notes left by the scientists, follow their directions to necessary suit upgrades or other sites of importance like the main generator, and fight the occasional boss that opts to end your expedition short. Even the upgrades themselves are as standard as they come: a hookshot, a double-jump, an air-dash (with multiple sub-upgrades), a charge shot for the main weapon, a suit for surviving high temperatures, and the requisite health upgrades. Health starts at ten points and goes up to at least thirty: hardly the hundreds that Samus ends up with, but that's sort of the point of ESA.

It wasn't long until I took to capturing and annotating my own map. Sometimes you gotta do the legwork yourself, especially with a map this big.
It wasn't long until I took to capturing and annotating my own map. Sometimes you gotta do the legwork yourself, especially with a map this big.

Environmental Station Alpha isn't concerned with being showy. Its 8-bit presentation - though it's a little more substantial than that under the hood - makes a clear statement that this is the genre boiled down to the core components. Instead of flashy bells and whistles, the developers instead opt to put all their efforts into creating a moderately-sized game - I'm near the end and have about 12 hours on the clock - with a concise difficulty curve and the most responsive controls you could ask for. Speaking as someone whose PC could be kindly rated by professional computer assembly sites as "rescued from a skip"-tier quality, I appreciate a graphically lo-fi game that has no trouble maintaining a steady framerate with zero lag: essential for most games, but especially so for explormers. Of course, your mileage with pixel art may vary, but I will say the artist(s) do a lot with a little here: the small sprite makes the various cavernous chambers of the station feel that much more immense and lonely, and the player's travels are accompanied with some great melancholy atmospheric VGM to befit the game's Metroid allusions.

In some respects, it's hard to sing the praises of an explormer that doesn't rock the boat or introduce much new to the existing and well-worn formula. It has little personality of its own, save the developer's well-hidden silly in-jokes and whatever eerie atmosphere it stole from Metroid's playbook, and it's unlikely you haven't encountered its specific formula a dozen times before, depending on how attached to this particular genre and its Indie incarnations you might be. All that said, the game hones in on and nails everything immanent to the explormer genre, with a surprisingly long runtime and a carefully calibrated difficulty curve that I can attest to being perfectly suited to my own level of skill at least: I consider any game of this type a winner if I can rarely beat a boss on the first attempt, but can usually pull it off before my tenth. It looks like it's packed with other secrets, some of which I'm slowly discovering as I inch closer to that elusive 100%. It may be the most vanilla ice cream of Indie explormers, especially when stacked up against the extravagant Neapolitan sundae that is the recent Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, but you can never go wrong with vanilla.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Mento's Month: June

It feels like I didn't get a whole lot done in June for several reasons: It was hot as hell, I spent every morning playing about 30 minutes to an hour of frickin' Warframe, and I spent a similar amount of time reviewing 5-10 E3 trailers. June's always a madhouse between E3 and SGDQ, or a madsauna with how the humidity's been around these parts, but I wouldn't trade it for the world. Actually, I would probably trade anything to skip ahead to September so I don't have to melt-waddle my way through July and August. How are we doing with stasis pod technology? Just Walt Disney's frozen head so far? Rats. Or cartoon mice, as the case may be.

Moving on to what I did in my summer non-holiday:

Indie Games of the Month

June comprised the 123-126 entries of Indie Game of the Week, outlined below:

My brain is almost certainly full of fart gas also. Certainly feels that way when I forget what word I want to... uh...
My brain is almost certainly full of fart gas also. Certainly feels that way when I forget what word I want to... uh... "use"! That's it.

Figment (IGotW 123) was the follow-up of sorts to Back to Bed, a charming and surreal isometric puzzle game set inside the dreamscape of a somnambulist who needed a little help getting back to his cosy sleeping apparatus. Figment's a little more involved than that, building a whole Bastion-like environment and dramatic story to match, with more fights, puzzles, and occasional lines of dialogue. I might not say the overall package was quite as uniformly solid this time around, but I can always admire the ambition of (spiritual) sequels like these.

Holy Potatoes! We're in Space?! (IGotW 124) was sadly a game I bounced off almost immediately. I did not anticipate that every Holy Potatoes game would be wildly different, barring some mild sim elements as you watch its vaguely familiar potato people wander around doing stuff. Rather than the plate-spinning of the original A Weapon Shop?!, We're In Space overtly takes after Faster Than Light with its semi-randomized encounters and strategic ship-to-ship warfare. Not terrible, but not something I wanted to play for more than a few hours.

Ever wanted to play a ball of light reading people's mail? Boy, does Square Enix have the game for you.
Ever wanted to play a ball of light reading people's mail? Boy, does Square Enix have the game for you.

Goetia (IGotW 125) was not quite how I imagined it, having read the synopsis of the player being a ghost seeking to thwart some demons who had taken over your ancestral estate. Rather, it was a probing and thoughtful look at a family torn apart by loss and fear, especially as those emotions relate to the encroaching World War 2 in 1940s England. Piecing together the fate of your kin, and the nearby villagers, was often a somber affair but one well-presented in its epistolary format, some occasionally trippy level design, and an unsettling but not overly tense atmosphere.

Golf Story (IGotW 126) is a clever and original game I'm still not entirely sure I like, though there's certainly enough about it that appeals. It has a sharp script and some great character work, presenting your quest to turn pro for some rundown golf club and its eccentric rivals into a series of RPG-style side-quests and minor challenges on top of the usual 9-hole tournaments. Alas, actually playing the game can frequently feel like a hassle, and it's not getting any easier to beat its challenges with the legion of minor issues dragging it down. Conceptually great, fantastically written, maybe lacking in the execution - like getting a higher than desired scorecard because all your putts kept missing by an inch.

Hey Everybody, It's the Tuesday Slot

Hoo boy, was this a productive month. I'm going to have to drop the name of this section of Mento's Month, because so few of these actually ever land on a Tuesday.

Seeking Warframe & Fortune (Part 6/June '19)

June already made me feel like a hot ball of gas, so Jupiter was the perfect vacation spot.
June already made me feel like a hot ball of gas, so Jupiter was the perfect vacation spot.

We'll start with one of my ongoing features. Warframe continues to be a harsh mistress, growing harsher by the day. If you've played a F2P game you're probably familiar with "the hump": well, Warframe has two. The early one we discussed in a prior entry: the way it takes a long time for you to have access to enough planets and their unique resources to craft any additional warframes, becoming stuck with whichever one you picked at the start unless you're ready to fork out some actual cash on the warframe store.

The second hump is one related to the game's difficulty. You effectively have a warframe, three weapons (primary, like rifles and shotguns; secondary, like pistols and throwing knives; and melee, like swords and hammers), and a companion. All of these can level up to 30, at which point they become "maxed" and - while still powerful - are now letting experience go to waste, as your overall game "mastery" is raised by levelling as many warframes and weapons as possible. In regular play, you're almost always using relatively weak warframes or weapons, because it would not be productive to stick with maxed equipment.

However! As you get further along the game's progression, enemies continue to level up: they're around 20-23 where I'm at on Europa, and they'll get to the 30s and eventually 40s by the time I reach the last planet, Sedna. There's no real way to beat these levels without exceptional warframes and equipment, at least around 25 or above. Sometimes it seems like it'd be prudent to just bring along a maxed weapon for security; use the lesser stuff while exploring, but fall back to the max level gear when the chips are down. It's also where the relative lack of inventory space that new players - or cheapskates that don't spend money - suffer from becomes that much more of a problem. Suffice it to say, I'm not sure how much further I can go without investing a lot more time or looking for alternative ways to boost my chances. Fortunately, I've found at least one of those since writing this week's entry: Aura Mods, which I'll discuss more next time. I think I might be on the cusp of another too, so that'll have to wait until the July update.

For the record, the June update mostly discussed the planets of Ceres and Jupiter, the warframe Oberon, the weapons Fragor and Boltor, and the "A Man of Few Words" quest (i.e. the one that gets you the NPC Clem).

A Thousand Roads: Modern Adventure Games

*guy tapping head meme* Can't be a walking simulator if all you can do is float.
*guy tapping head meme* Can't be a walking simulator if all you can do is float.

I opened the month with this one-off feature looking at the many ways the adventure game genre has evolved and grown since it was adopted by the Indie market, and the talented if unorthodox storytellers such a genre attracts. In addition to conventional western styles, like interactive fiction, graphic adventures (i.e. point-and-clicks) and FMV, as well as similarly rote Japanese models like visual novels, I tried to define the broader spectrum of adventure game experiences that Indie developers have been debuting and modifying in recent years.

While at some point we're simply arguing semantics - and tiptoeing around the tacit acknowledge that video game genres are busted and poorly defined at the best of times regardless - I feel this piece helps make the case that this particular genre has continued to seek new horizons from inventive, and dare I say heretical, new talents in the scene. Check it out, as it's a piece I'm relatively proud to stick my name on. Unlike all the rest of this rabble.

Anyhoo, here comes more rabble:

Mento's Alternative to E3: My Passing Interest in Falcom-ry (Day -1: Ys)

Mento's Alternative to E3: My Passing Interest in Falcom-ry (Day 0: The Legend of Heroes)

Mento's Alternative to E3: My Passing Interest in Falcom-ry (Day 1: Zwei)

Mento's Alternative to E3: My Passing Interest in Falcom-ry (Day 2: Xanadu)

Mento's Alternative to E3: My Passing Interest in Falcom-ry (Day 3: Everything Else)

I swear, any chance to sing the virtues of Ys and I'll take it. Look at this cool sniper dude! His name is Hummel!
I swear, any chance to sing the virtues of Ys and I'll take it. Look at this cool sniper dude! His name is Hummel!

Grouping these together, as a five-part look at Falcom's oeuvre published across E3. Falcom is a developer I've been planning to get more serious about following, so this little guide to what they're best known for was really to encourage my own peregrinations in their back catalogue as much as it was to sell anyone else on trying them.

In order of their appearance, we looked at: Ys, the fast-paced, hard-rocking action-RPG that helped put Falcom on the map as far back as the late '80s and continues to be a compelling flagship franchise; The Legend of Heroes, Falcom's most story-heavy series and one that - through the Trails in the Sky and Trails of Cold Steel multi-part sagas - have sold to Falcom's cause a lot of RPG fans who prioritize solid narrative and characterization above all else; Zwei, one of Falcom's more lighthearted series, and a bit like Recettear in both tone and appearance; Xanadu, one of Falcom's earliest games that continues to see new adaptations and re-imaginings every decade; and a miscellaneous round-up of every other significant Falcom title past and present.

I squeezed in a lot of self-elucidation (hey, no law against it) and gave myself plenty of games to consider for later, as well as an excuse to start playthroughs for Xanadu Next (which I completed later the same month) and Zwei: The Arges Adventure. Over the next few years I'm hoping to also try out the second Zwei, all the Trails games besides the first Trails in the Sky (which is as far as I got), Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure, Tokyo Xanadu eX+, Ys: Memories of Celceta, and the upcoming Ys IX: Monstrum Nox.

Wiki Project: Summer Games Wiki'd Quick 2019

Despite what Giant Bomb would have you believe: Super Mario Sunshine never disappoints.
Despite what Giant Bomb would have you believe: Super Mario Sunshine never disappoints.

Another bi-annual tradition is making sure we have pages for all the games featured in the GDQ speedrunning events that occur twice a year. The primary, and only really crucial goal, is to ensure that the pages exist at all; this is for the sake of the Twitch engineers that use our wiki API for their "now playing" widget. My secondary goal, if I have time, is to clean up and fix any pages that need the work, though I neglected my duties this time due to the workload (and, if I'm being honest, sneaking in watches of the speedruns themselves - I'll still be checking out the VODs of what I missed for weeks yet).

Thankfully, no missing pages this time, even for the terrible obscurities found in the recurring "Awful Games Done Quick" block. Having similar games pop up GDQ after GDQ makes this project a little easier every year, but I still appreciate it as a semi-legit excuse to thoroughly study the schedule for anything intriguing. That's what I attempted to do with this round-up blog: as well as kvetch about the pages in rough states, I put together a small list of the speedruns I was looking forward to most (and they didn't disappoint).

Bucketlog June: Mother 3

I got emotional here. Even though I only met these guys three minutes ago and they all demanded I play rock-paper-scissors.
I got emotional here. Even though I only met these guys three minutes ago and they all demanded I play rock-paper-scissors.

The June pick for the bucketlog is one that's been in my periphery for well over a decade: Mother 3, otherwise known as EarthBound 2. The late-era GBA RPG had its share of problems, with developing stopping and restarting at least once in the journey from N64 game (as a platform with exactly one good RPG, it could've used another EarthBound) to its eventual GBA home. Troubled doesn't even begin to describe the plot either, though at least in this case it's deliberate; the tranquil isles is suddenly brought to the modern age through duplicity and tragedy, and it's up to a small group of the less susceptible islanders to thwart this encroachment and save their homeland.

Even with the linear vignette style of its narrative in the early chapters, as well as a newly introduced and unusual emphasis on rhythm and fighting to the beat for bonus damage, Mother 3 still has every bit of its predecessor's surreal sense of contemporary style and gift for humorous dialogue and I've enjoyed my time with it, perhaps excepting the parts where it can get a bit grindy and repetitive with the random encounters. But hey, that's old JRPGs for you.

List: Trailer Blazer: E3 2019 (Part One)

List: Trailer Blazer: E3 2019 (Part Two)

Since E3 ended around mid-June I've been working feverishly on reviewing every E3 trailer uploaded to the site while the expo was in full swing, and it's of no surprise (more like bitter resignation, really) that the number of trailers has once again peaked past the 200 figure. Releasing this list of E3 reviews in groups of 50 for easier readability, the two I have so far can be viewed above and you can expect two more in July before I'm finally done with this Herculean and entirely self-inflicted task.

That said, I rarely get the chance to flex my sarcasm muscles quite as much as I do with the less impressive E3 trailers every year, and I hope you all take a read because it's some of my funniest work. Not that I'm really known as the "good jokes guy" around these parts, but anything can change with time.

The Games of June

Despite all, I did manage to tick off two more items from this year's backlog. They were, granted, two of the smaller games on my list of ridiculously-sized RPGs but I'm still taking the win.

Marvel's Spider-Man

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Marvel's Spider-Man has Insomniac take what they learned from the inFamous franchise and apply it to a pre-existing superhero, in this case the slippery and quippery Spider-Man. Taking place in a fictional timeline that might be considered eight years in the future of the current MCU, Peter Parker is now a post-grad working as a scientific research assistant after years of photography freelance work for the Daily Bugle, effectively bridging Parker's past and present. Some villains have long since been established - Spider-Man has histories with Vulture, Shocker, Rhino, Scorpion, Electro, and Kingpin - while others in the game are new (to him, at least). The game also brings in future Spider-Man successor Miles Morales and an intrepid reporter version of MJ (with whom Parker's had a tumultuous past relationship) to round out the cast, along with present boss and mentor/future archvillain Dr. Otto "Octopus" Octavius.

Part of what made the story of this game appeal to me was the steps it took to present Parker as an adult, albeit one who still doesn't have his life sorted out quite yet despite living with his crime-fighting alter-ego for almost a decade. The regular young person problems of finding somewhere to crash after being evicted, of choosing a career that is more rewarding than it is financially stable, of running into problems with your significant other that causes long-standing disagreements that neither wants to back down from, to even realizing that the costumed superheroics are maybe less of a solution to rampant crime than socially progressive initiatives like feeding and housing the poor; a charity project that this game's Aunt May is passionate about and Peter tries to help out with whenever he can. I didn't need to see Uncle Ben take another shot to the gut to sympathize with this older Peter Parker, and I'm thankful Insomniac chose to go with a slightly more relatable model.

The gameplay feels tweaked to the nth degree also, taking valuable lessons from the prior Spider-Man games that figured out how best to employ Spider-Man's combination of strength and speed for rapid, non-lethal takedowns, using every gadget and web-slinging technique in the book to establish that Parker's not only an exceptional brawler but a resourceful guy who regularly lands on his feet: far more a Batman than a Superman, to draw an analogy from another universe. Levelling up the Spider also means prioritizing technique over brawn, or on suits over gadgets - suits make it worth your while with the special mods they bring with them, though there were a few gadgets I found I couldn't live without, especially the web grenade.

Everything else - the collectibles, the side-missions, the radiant crimes to prevent - were fine if not exceptional. Hitting some of the bonus conditions for the crimes and hideouts, useful for some extra XP, were some real nasty fuckers, especially anything that involved not taking damage or keeping a high combo streak going. The backpacks were fun: each contained an item from Spider-Man's past, often referencing events from the movies or famous comic book arcs, and so too were the various NYC landmarks distinct to this particular version of the Big Apple, like Dr. Strange's Sanctum Sanctorum, the Wakandan Embassy, or the Avengers Tower. Others just seemed like busywork a lot of the time, though the versatile fun of the combat never flagged even after the twentieth time taking down a group of Silver Sable's mercs or the sharp suited Demons. In many respects a very standard superhero open-world game, but a superhero open-world game that got all its disparate parts right and bound it all together with one of the better stories to come from this genre.

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle

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Odd for me to say, but I was almost dreading playing this just because I knew I'd hit a wall eventually with the amount of tactical acumen that would be needed for its final levels. I'd heard plenty about how the game drops off the deep end once you get far enough in for the truly diabolical maps and enemy types to appear, and throughout the entire game's story I was sweating this moment finally arriving. To the game's ultimate credit, that moment never happened: sure, there's some post-game "ultimate" challenges that I want nothing to do with, but for the most part every map was on the right side of approachable and I quickly fell into a groove with my preferred team of Mario (who is the only compulsory team member), Rabbid Mario, and Rabbid Luigi.

For those unaware, Kingdom Battle sees the universes of Nintendo's Mario and Ubisoft's manic Rabbids collide violently and awkwardly after a wayward accident causes some experimental merging technology to fall into the arms of the Rabbids, who quickly misuse it to create legions of mutated foes who run amok across the peaceful lands of the Mushroom Kingdom. Mario is quickly joined by two of the still-friendly Rabbids, whom for whatever reason decided to dress like his brother and love interest respectively, and they take off after the sole Rabbid responsible for these "hostile mergers". The whole game takes place across a series of chapters, each of which involves one or two turn-based fights on a grid map in much the same style as an XCOM: especially as taking cover is of paramount importance to survival.

Where Kingdom Battles differs from XCOM is in its maneuverability. Rather than hunkering down behind a big rock and exchanging shots that have a 35% chance to hit, team members on both sides of the struggle move around for better angles and get in "dash" attacks: free hits that you can land on any enemy in movement range before committing to a relatively protected spot upon which to finish the turn. As you improve your characters, you can unlock new attacks, stronger versions of the dash, more quotidian upgrades like health and movement range, and special abilities unique to each of the game's eight characters (Mario, Luigi, Peach, Yoshi, and their four Rabbid doppelgangers). Even between a Mario character and their specific Rabbid ersatz there are significant differences, though both occupy a generally similar role: for instance, Mario is an all-rounder with high offense whose special abilities include a version of XCOM's "oversight" (that is, waiting until an opponent moves out of cover and blasting them) and an AoE buff that improves everyone's damage output; Rabbid Mario, meanwhile, is a close-quarters specialist whose abilities include a shield that prevents almost all dash damage (since he'll be close enough to enemies to accrue a lot of it) and a "magnetic dance" that draws enemies towards him for his devastating melee attacks. My favorite was Rabbid Luigi: his dash can be upgraded so much that it will eventually do remarkable damage with a leech effect, allowing him to heal himself by constantly shoulder checking others. Every member of your party has their own distinct advantages, so you can either choose to pick the ones you're most comfortable with or elect to pick the ones best suited to the immediate map - it's worth cycling your guys around anyway, because you often can't heal between maps (within the same chapter at least - there's a full heal for everyone once a chapter's over).

What you're left with is a game that, while it isn't always fair with its challenging scenarios, at least gives you every break you could want or need and never puts you in a scenario where you levelled up the wrong characters the wrong way or don't have the means to progress. Some characters are definitely more useful in some maps than others: Luigi doesn't have a whole lot of HP, making him less effective in boss fights or massive battle royales, but he does have a great movement buff that helps in courses where you have to escort a non-combatant to the finish line in as few turns as possible. Similarly, Peach is a veritable tank with a convenient means to heal others, so she's useful in maps where the goal is long-term survival (likewise Rabbid Luigi, who can endlessly heal himself with leech dashes, would be also a good pick there as he would be for most situations).

I'd liken Mario + Rabbids as being to strategy RPGs of the XCOM/Fire Emblem variety as Super Mario RPG or Paper Mario are to traditional turn-based RPGS: simplified in some ways, more versatile in others, and doing its best to ensure that Mario (or Rabbid) diehards are never too put out by the difficulty level or all these new systems to learn. For as often as it could kick my ass on occasion, sometimes snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, I can't say I had a disagreeable time or an insurmountable struggle with this unlikely crossover.

Looking Ahead

Here's where I usually wax lyrical about what's coming up this following month, but July's looking a little... bereft. Probably for the best, as June was plenty busy between Super Mario Maker 2, Judgment, and all the E3 surprises like Cadence of Hyrule. September's going to be even more packed to the gills, so until then we have a couple months of relative peace with which to catch up on the first half of 2019 and anything pressing left over from the not-insubstantial release schedules of 2017 and 2018.

July itself is looking like a sea of solitude right now.
July itself is looking like a sea of solitude right now.
  • The first significant blip on my radar looms into view this Friday the 5th: Sea of Solitude, the much ballyhooed EA Original from Jo-Mei Games concerning the spooky adventures of a sooty stowaway. The devs are looking to use the game as a metaphor for mental illness, following the example set by Ninja Theory's Hellblade, so I don't expect to it to be exceptionally cheerful...
  • A few distant maybe games later, and we come to the following Friday - July the 12th - with Dragon Quest Builders 2. The bigger and better sequel, we've been told, addresses some of the shortcomings of the first of these Dragon Quest/Minecraft hybrids and adds plenty of new features and items and monsters besides, so it's definitely one to watch. It might also be the excuse I need to finally play the first game, which has been sitting on my shelf unplayed for a while now.
  • We're bouncing ahead another week to Friday the 19th, which is when Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order hits its exclusive home of the Switch. The MUA games have always been fun if superficial brawlers with plenty of Marvel fanservice, and by setting itself apart from the MCU with its brightly colored cel-shaded visuals it's probably the more attractive of the two upcoming Marvel games right now.
  • Finally (I told you it was a scant month) we have the Wolfenstein II follow-up of Wolfenstein: Youngblood, set in a Nazi-occupied France of the 1980s with all the synth jams and antifa violence we've come to love from this franchise. Early impressions paint a game with a co-op factor - the AI can take over if you don't have a buddy to play the other of BJ Blazkowicz's twin daughters - and a non-linear mission structure that has you tackling the game's content in an order of one's own choosing. I've been excited about this ever since I heard Arkane Studios was involved, but like so many other games out this year I can't help but feel I should probably play their predecessor (in this case Wolfenstein II) first.

That will have to do it for this month o' Mento. July promises to be quiet in more ways than one, and I hope to use this quiet before the storm to finally tackle some of the more pressing items still lingering on my backlog; Divinity: Original Sin 2 being a major white whale, though there's also the aforementioned Dragon Quest Builders and the final part of the Spyro Reignited Trilogy left to contend with. We're also getting close to the annual summer Yakuza playthrough, which this year will be the exceptional (if somewhat divisive?) Yakuza 0. See ya when I see ya.

(And if you've just skimmed to the end looking for highlights, try the Thousand Roads adventure game blog or the E3 2019 Trailer Blazer lists. S'all good, but those were my favorites to write this month.)

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Bucketlog June: Mother 3

Welcome to the Bucketlog! It's going to be 2019's year-long blog series, focusing on games I've been meaning to play since forever. I've put together a list derived from a mix of systems, genres, and vintages because it's starting to look like 2019 might be the first "lean" year for games in a spell (though time will tell whether that pans out to be true) and I figured this would be a fine opportunity to finally tick off a few items I've had on my various backlog lists/spreadsheets for longer than I'd care to admit.

January: No More Heroes 2 (Wii)February: Steins;Gate (PS3)March: Okage: Shadow King (PS2)
April: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies (3DS)May: Banjo-Tooie (N64)June: Mother 3 (GBA)
July: ?August: ?September: ?
October: ?November: ?December: ?

June

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Long-time fans of Nintendo and JRPGs were delighted by the recent announcement, turned immediate reality, that Seiken Densetsu 3 would finally see an official localization and a worldwide retail release as "Trials of Mana." It is in fact, getting two releases if we count the remake coming next year. However, though I did not hear it myself, I couldn't help but imagine some small voice at the back - similar to the guy who kept "nay"-ing Homer Simpson when he was temporarily a union president - complaining that it wasn't Mother 3 instead.

Shigesato Itoi's RPG trilogy juggled surreal humor with a contemporary setting and a deeply emotional core. By emotion, I do not mean the usual melodrama that most JRPGs traffic; it was borne instead of a certain maturity and complexity that Itoi felt his audience were ready to accept. The combination of these unusual factors and a streak of personality so large that could be seen from space helped endear the franchise to a cult following in its native land. Outside of Japan, however, we were only initially blessed with the middle child of this series: EarthBound (a.k.a. Mother 2), released on the American SNES in 1995. (Europe would have to wait a little longer to get into the smaaaash-ing action: EarthBound became available here for the first time via the worldwide Wii U Virtual Console release in 2013.) The first of the two games that sandwich EarthBound, Mother for Famicom, would also later see a Wii U Virtual Console localized release as EarthBound Beginnings. Presently, however, the last of those three - Mother 3 - remains Japan-exclusive.

"Localize Mother 3," has long been the inevitable mantra rolled out by the Mother faithful whenever a Nintendo Direct is scheduled to drop, and they've only been emboldened in recent years with the success of Operation Rainfall - the fan-driven campaign to get excellent Wii RPGs Xenoblade Chronicles, Pandora's Tower, and The Last Story released internationally, which all three eventually did - a second (or third) life for EarthBound as part of the SNES Classic Mini compilation, the advent of EarthBound Beginnings, and now this surprise localization of Seiken Densetsu 3/Trials of Mana.

Personally, I've been looking for any reason to try Mother 3 out for myself. I was a huge fan of EarthBound back before I could purchase it legally (and have done so since; twice, even) and knowing that Mother 3 is not only created in a similar vein, but is full of mechanical improvements and an even more emotionally-affecting story - without sacrificing either the silly humor or ear for comedic dialogue of the previous game - is enough reason to want to jump in. I had intended to wait for a localized version, but after thirteen years (eleven since the well-regarded fan translation from Tomato and his team) it's not clear when this will actually occur. This year's all about plucking the games out of the ether I've wanted to play the most, after all, and in no sane world does Mother 3 not make that shortlist.

The GBA's native 240x160 resolution doesn't make for impressive screenshots, so here's a kooky collage for y'all.
The GBA's native 240x160 resolution doesn't make for impressive screenshots, so here's a kooky collage for y'all.

For the unfamiliar, the Mother series are set in a fantastical version of a mostly modern United States, and are turn-based RPGs where characters are frequently able to call upon psychic powers. Though the major antagonists require a bit more lore to properly introduce, most enemies in this series are often mundane objects, animals, supernatural beings, and people made sentient and/or real and/or mutated and/or hypnotized by nebulous evil energies: this might include zombies, robots, ghosts, time-travellers, hippies, sapient blobs of slime, trees, gravestones, punk bullies, balls of soot, and at least one memorable encounter with a Terminator caribou. The combat system has its quirks too, the most well-known of which is a feature wherein a player character can take a mortal hit - losing all their HP - but the actual HP tracker will count down slowly enough that the character might still be able to finish the fight and survive. Mother 3 expands on the combat system further, including a novel feature where players can tap the attack button to the beat of the fight music to do additional hits to their opponent, up to 16 bonus hits for the truly rhythmically-inclined. The difficulty is such that this mastery over the soundtrack isn't strictly necessary, but still offers a worthy enough boost of around 100-200% bonus damage to make it worth the effort of learning the cadence. Beatings to the beat, as it were.

Mother 3 also has an uncommon (but not unheard of) structure in that each chapter so far follows a different protagonist following a different objective. I've sadly not made as much progress as I would've preferred - I'm still reviewing E3 trailers and have spent more than a few hours being distracted by SGDQ speedruns this past week - but in the three chapters I've seen I've been introduced to at least six playable characters and followed four of them: Flint, the patriarch of a family that includes a mother Hinawa and twin boys Lucas (of Super Smash Bros. fame) and Claus; Duster, a dimwitted "thief for justice" who is capable enough with his special thief tools; and Salsa, a clever monkey who badly wants to be reunited with his lady love Samba. There is also Kumatora, the tomboy princess whose solitude has turned her vaguely feral; and Boney, the family dog of Flint and Lucas and a pup who has significantly more fight in him than the cowardly King of EarthBound. Each character has their own special set of skills - Duster's thief tools, for instance, all carry specific debuffs which work better against certain enemies - though for the time being you don't have a whole lot of control over who enters the party and when: it's been a strictly linear affair for these early chapters.

I already adore the game. Even if it's been extremely linear so far, there's a certain unpredictability with where the plot is heading next, and some truly heartrending scenes have already occurred to spoil the quiet and almost Utopian peace and natural harmony of the Nowhere Islands after the sudden appearance of an army of "pigmask" stormtroopers with advanced technology. The local eccentrics of Tazmily Village are amusing enough that I frequently see what new commentary they have to provide after story events. The combat's been challenging and a little grindy, if I'm being honest, though getting to grips with this "sound battle" system, learning which abilities to use and when, and an ample supply of healing items dropped after battles have kept me going. The game also doesn't have a penalty for death, besides tossing you back to the last save point (which are all frogs, for some reason, though I've seen weirder save points - remember the Time Minders of Anachronox? (I swear that isn't a B-Movie title I just made up)), which makes my frequent demises easier to swallow. Even if the combat isn't riveting, the story, dialogue, characters, and incidental surreality have been more than enough to push me forward. I'm sure I'll have more to say about the game at a later date, perhaps once it's opened up more in the later chapters (one assumes, at least) or I've seen the full narrative play out by the game's end. For now, though, I'm just sorry to have waited this long to finally play it.

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Indie Game of the Week 126: Golf Story

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There is a quote, popularly attributed to Samuel "Mark Twain" Clemens, that states that golf is "a good walk spoiled." I refute this: I would instead argue that it was a bad walk to begin with, as there's barely anything to see besides manicured grass and a remote though still possible chance of getting beaned on the dome by an errant slice. Suffice it to say my animosity towards golf also extends to golf games in most regards, however I have this weird affinity for Ball Chess whenever it happens to appear as a side-activity in a decidedly un-sportslike game with less than conventional rules governing it. A perfect example of what I mean is Spheda in Dark Cloud 2: a mini-game that has you play through the procgen dungeon floor you just defeated with a randomized "hole," "ball," and par score to meet.

Sidebar Games's Golf Story, though deferential enough to the eponymous sport as evinced by the significant amount of terminology you pick up while playing, aims to be a 16-bit-inspired RPG that just so happens to use golf mechanics almost exclusively (there's some brief interludes for disc golf - never say "frisbee" - and lawn bowling) and is built around challenging nine-hole courses based within incongruous golfing environments like a beach, a dinosaur bone-infested mesa, a set of clifftops, and the grounds of a haunted mansion. The game is armed with a witty script and no end of imagination when it comes to creating little golfing challenges that the player character takes on for the cash and XP required to turn pro.

Even Abby shows up to help out. She's way into her frisbee golf.
Even Abby shows up to help out. She's way into her frisbee golf.

Unfortunately, actually playing the game can feel like an uphill struggle, playing with Sisyphus's boulder rather than a Titleist. This is due to an unexpected dearth of quality-of-life additions that would normally be present even in an Indie, suggesting that this game was perhaps a freshman effort that didn't quite enjoy a full QA cycle. I took to jotting down all the annoying inconveniences and player-unfriendly design decisions as they happened, because there was getting to be so many:

  • Most significant is that you cannot restart challenges or golf tournaments without either quitting to the main menu or leaving to the world map. This occurs even in challenges where you have a specific number of attempts to complete a goal and a set number of successful attempts required. Let's say you have ten attempts to chip onto the green five times. If you miss the first six shots, the challenge is clearly over, correct? You can no longer make the target goal of five. So, obviously, the game would then automatically terminate the challenge with a "you failed" prompt, and perhaps provide a "start over/quit" menu. Not so in Golf Story. You can either quit to an inconvenient spot - walking back to the challenge from the world map might take as long as the challenge itself - or sadly and shamefully waste the remaining shots to get to the failure screen faster. After which, you have to go talk to the same quest NPC again.
  • You also have to click through all the dialogue windows every time you re-attempt a challenge, but can skip through it with the B button: however, B is also the button for denying the challenge when offered a "yes/no" choice, so you can't press it too much or you have to start the dialogue over.
  • Quitting to the main menu, meanwhile, can be very capricious with what it chooses to save. I've lost around half an hour of progress after rage-quitting a challenge via the only option I had other than "wasting all the subsequent attempts in bitter resignation". Once I came back, not only was the current challenge not in view but all the challenges I'd completed up to it had returned, the game having reloaded from the last time I exited a building. Why would you choose to have the auto-save activate at buildings and not immediately after a successful challenge? The mind truly fucking boggles.
  • There was a silly little fetch quest where you had a chain of trading - like that part in Link's Awakening where you have to keep trading items between NPCs before you got something you'd want to keep - only when you get to this one guy he wants "something sweet" as the hint. You have an ice cream on you at this stage of the chain: however, he doesn't want the ice cream. What he wants is the candy you trade for the ice cream. Maybe should've thought that one through a little more.

In addition to this "death by a thousand cuts" legion of minor annoyances, there are times when the golf physics seem to have a mind of its own. As a 16-bit approximation of golf, Golf Story is usually pretty fair; there's a "precision mode" that indicates where certain shot power levels will take the ball - so, you can see exactly where you'd land if you hit the ball at 60% or 75% power, and will leave a shadow of that amount on the power gauge to make it easier to hit. You can also tweak where you hit the ball - top, bottom, or sides - to direct it around obstacles or reduce the distance it bounces. However, there are times where the ball seems to go a lot further than advertised, with no particular reason included: wind is a common culprit, but not always. The fact that it's perfectly accurate 95% of the time just makes that 5% of the time when it isn't all that more irksome, especially if you're eight holes into a tournament and don't want to restart the thing because of a single water hazard.

The almost unplayable game-within-a-game Galf, based on NES Golf, has an era-accurate manual for you to peruse at your leisure. Unfortunately, that
The almost unplayable game-within-a-game Galf, based on NES Golf, has an era-accurate manual for you to peruse at your leisure. Unfortunately, that "Note from the Devs" turns out to be a little too self-referential for its own good.

To be fair, a lot of my irritation with Golf Story can be levelled against the sport itself. Golf has a habit of turning on you when you least expect it, and the lack of any kind of checkpointing in its longer challenges - the 9-hole matches in particular - can result in a lot of sighs and replayed content. As for the rest of the game, there's definite potential in an irreverent 16-bit RPG spin on golf - it's certainly more successful in that regard than Battle Golfer Yui, perhaps its closest peer - but it could've used some more fine-tuning, I suspect. The golfing isn't bad, except for the rare times when it is, and like I said previously I think the script is really solidly funny and the game's cast of eccentric and mostly obnoxious rival golfers are a hoot, but I find myself annoyed at the game equally as often as I'm delighted. It's the video game equivalent of a beautiful chip onto the green, and then having the ball stop an inch away from the hole - almost worse than having it fly right over and dropping in the bunker, just for the way it turns your joy into ashes in your mouth.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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Wiki Project: Summer Games Wiki'd Quick 2019

Here we are with another round-up of the good, the bad, and the weird of the games featured in this year's Summer Games Done Quick charity speedrun event, as well as the wiki pages that pertain to them. For those of you who are new to any of this, here's a quick primer:

Summer Games Done Quick is a week-long streaming event on Twitch where various members of the speedrun community - those that have trained their wits and reflexes (and a little bit of glitch exploitation knowhow) to finish games as quickly as possible, in order to have the fastest completion times in the world. Despite this competitive edge, the speedrun community is very gregarious and supportive, especially to those just starting out. Usually any big franchise of note - in particular any game of the Zelda, Sonic, Mario, Metroid, Mega Man, or Castlevania persuasion - has dozens of speedrunning tips and tutorials to get you started. As the name suggests, Summer Games Done Quick occurs in the summer; their other annual event, Awesome Games Done Quick, instead happens at the start of the year in winter.

Games Wiki'd Quick is a little task I set myself twice a year to earn my keep as one of the less busy wiki mods around here. In essence, the Twitch games database that the SGDQ streams use to pull their "now playing" info is derived from the Giant Bomb Wiki API, and will automatically update itself whenever new data enters our side of things. With that in mind, I go around to all the game pages that are either missing, empty, or otherwise in need of some TLC (the exception being ROM hacks and other fan games that pop up during SDGQ that don't qualify for pages, like those "Kaizo Mario" ROMs) and make sure the GB Wiki is in decent shape for any inquisitive Twitch spectators.

I normally go with some kind of theme for these round-ups, but this time I'll just stick with a handful of games to represent each category I usually cover:

  • Category A: The most unusual games featured in this SGDQ. Getting the full breadth of what's coming up, there's usually a few outliers that make you think "Wait, you can speedrun that?" or just as often "Wait, you can speedrun that in that very specific, odd manner?"
  • Category B: The games that required the most work for their pages. Happy to report that there are no SGDQ '19 games missing from our wiki. However, there are still plenty which demand a lot of attention.
  • Category C: The speedruns I'm personally looking forward to most. I've earmarked these to watch live or via VOD, for any number of reasons I'll be providing.

Category A: The Whys

Dave Lang's Divekick: Speedrun Game?
Dave Lang's Divekick: Speedrun Game?
  1. If I hadn't just watched most of the stream last night, I would wonder how you could do a speedrun of Borderlands 2 when the game is not only so packed with content to run through (especially with the "all quests completed" modifier that this run has) but so contigent on random chance for all the game's dropped gear. Turns out, speedrunners have found a lot to exploit in the seven years since the game's release. The riotous three-person co-op playthrough, with additional remote commentary from some of the dev team, is an exhaustive look at every exploitable glitch and RNG manipulation in the book. Best of all? A lot of the tricks involve skipping huge swathes of the game's dialogue.
  2. I learned a couple of things about Divekick after seeing it in the schedule: the first is that it has a story mode (it does?). The second is that you could probably beat that game super fast already if you know how to cheat the CPU, so I wonder what makes this particular run stand-out beyond just kicking everyone very quickly.
  3. As far as I can tell, Laffy Taffy 3D Pyramid Challenge is a licensed browser game available (in archived form) from the Wonka Candy website. It didn't meet our requirements for a page - we only consider "significant" browser games, like the original Meat Boy and other famous franchises that started as Flash games on Newgrounds or Kongegrate - but it might become one after its debut in SGDQ. Makes me wonder if a speedrun for that Winnie the Pooh homerun derby Flash game is far behind.
  4. I was a little surprised to see Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti, a cutesy Japan-only Famicom spin-off of the gory brawler series best known for its localized Genesis and TurboGrafx ports, on the schedule but then when I opened its wiki page and found it was fully featured and my own name was in the list of contributors I realized where I last saw it: at the 2015 AGDQ, where it was part of a whole Splatterhouse block. One of those rare cases of a wiki self-own where I think "they're running Wanpaku Graffiti? What an obscure choice," before realizing I've only heard of it myself because of GDQ.
  5. Finally, I have no idea why anyone would want to run Jumper: Griffin's Story, but there it is. There isn't so much a single Awful Games Done Quick block this year than there is a handful of trash games spread across the week-long event. Jumper was a terrible licensed action game for the Wii which was based on a terrible movie featuring a teleporting Anakin Skywalker. Sometimes I suspect someone only runs a game like this so they could have the world record unchallenged, like how people apply for the Guinness World Records in the vaunted category of "sticking nine pieces of chewed gum to your face while singing the 'I'm Just Me' song while hopping around on one foot".

Category B: The Fixer-Uppers

It's always
It's always "you, you, you" with games like this.
  1. Timespinner's the most typical example of what I usually run into: a game only recently added to the wiki that editors haven't had a chance to flesh out yet. All a game really needs for the purposes of Twitch is a "default image" - the box art you see at the top left of the page - and the page name, and maybe a release (we mods are still not quite copacetic on that). Most new pages have these elements and some screenshots (even a header image, the one that takes up the background behind the deck at the top of the page) but usually no body text. Timespinner, the time-manipulation spacewhipper that came out last year, is one of those.
  2. The Textorcist: The Story of Ray Bibbia is another example of the above, and others in this year's SGDQ include Catleratal Damage, Nex Machina, Lethal League Blaze, and even the site's 2018 GOTY Tetris Effect. All recent games you've probably heard of, but little in the way of wiki love. Maybe a sad indication of how much dust the wiki is gathering these days. I'm hoping it turns around, as someone who's poured way more into the wiki than is perhaps healthy, but we could really use some more incentives. Hmm... I wonder if I could somehow convince the engineers to bring back Wiki Tasks...?
  3. Split/Second is the winner of this GDQ's dubious award of "most 2nd person". The lack of any formal style guide for the wiki, especially early on when it was basically the wild west (the wiki wiki wild wild west, if you prefer), means that a lot of pages made years ago would not pass the revised moderation standards of today. One of the most profuse of these style guide "no-no"s is writing in the 2nd-person perspective: i.e. "you," and "your." Any given GDQ event will throw up a dozen pages with significant 2nd person usage, and Split/Second - the "cinematic" racing game released in 2010, early in the site/wiki's lifespan - has (or had) a whopping 99 uses of yous and yours. Naturally, this level of pedantry is low on my list of "wiki triage" priorities, but I usually address them anyway in case those games show up in a future GDQ and I end up cursing the indolence of my past self.
  4. Nothing attracts memes like Shrek, so seeing Shrek Extra Large - a long-forgotten GameCube game - on the schedule isn't the biggest shocker. It does mean that we have a mostly empty page that will need some sprucing up, which also means looking at a bunch of Shrek game clips and figuring out the logic behind it. The fifth and sixth generations are the worst when it comes to making good game pages, because emulation problems make accurate screenshots hard to procure (and in a decent resolution and quality if scouring G.I.S.) and gameplay footage less common. Anything older and you have more or less perfect emulation to draw from; anything newer and there'll be an abundance of decent screenshots on the internet.
  5. Sylvester and Tweety in Cagey Capers, conversely, is a fine example of the type of empty game page I usually like to work on. Released for the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis), it'll be no problem at all to put together all the elements that make a good wiki page: screenshots, gameplay, release data, and a solid header image. It does raise the question of why someone would want to speedrun a so-so Looney Tunes licensed game from over 25 years ago, but sometimes the strangest games make for the best runs: it all depends on how quickly a dedicated runner can take those games apart and put them back together, and quickie licensed stuff is usually less stable than most.

Category C: The Must-Sees

I really don't need a reason to want to watch the bear and bird at work.
I really don't need a reason to want to watch the bear and bird at work.
  1. I always enjoy watching anything related to Super Mario Sunshine - hence why Steal My Sunshine remains my favorite feature Giant Bomb East has ever had - and in AGDQ earlier this year the runners had this cool "bingo lock-out race" where they had to quickly pursue a set of randomized goals, with every attained goal disappearing as an option for the other runner. This time it's just a straight race, but it's still entertaining to watch that admittedly buggy game get dominated. (It's actually running as I publish this, I sorta ran out of time today.)
  2. Dark Souls II is perhaps my least favorite of all the Soulsborne games but it's still a fantastic title, and one I'm looking forward to seeing put through its paces. DS games are great for speedruns because of the amount of risk involved taking on bosses with comparatively little in the way of equipment and levels - impressive enough, seeing how much trouble I had originally - but because they're such popular games with huge communities, there's a fair amount of optimization, bug exploits, and ruminating on ideal routes and stat builds. There's also a Dark Souls 1 run this year, but I gave this spot to DS2 because it's been such a long time since I've last seen this game, and I've never seen its DLC bosses beyond Fume Knight (all of whom are also included in this "all bosses" speedrun).
  3. Almost every GDQ pays homage to the King of Platformers, Super Mario World, and its ubiquity usually results in some off-beat variants and unusual challenges for its runners. As well as a few separate Kaizo Mario ROM hack runs, this year's Super Mario World run is a blind relay race: two teams of four runners, each taking on stages they've never seen before. These kind of races are fun because they combine the high-level play of speedrunners with the "surprise mechanics" of a blind run, where no-one's sure what to expect.
  4. I have no specific reason why I'm looking forward to the otherwise standard Banjo-Kazooie 100% race, I've just had the bear and bird on my mind a lot recently between their unexpected induction into the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate roster and my recent first playthrough of its flawed but ambitious sequel, Banjo-Tooie. A 100% run will pass through every stage grabbing every object, giving me all the time I need to absorb Grant Kirkhope's great soundtrack and submerge myself in nostalgia for a few hours. (I'm also curious to see if there's a specific optimal route, or if the two racers go off in different preferred directions.)
  5. Finally, we have the A Link to the Past + Super Metroid Combo Randomizer, which rather than a race is a co-op run. This was shown off during a GDQx, or Games Done Quick Express, which is a shorter event that last occurred in October. It is, as you may have guessed, a ROM hack combination of SNES games A Link to the Past and Super Metroid - two well-represented games already - where exits in one game might lead to exits in the other. It's a little chaotic and very challenging to keep track of all the exit warps, in addition to the randomly placed items which could also be in either games' maps (Samus's Varia Suit may show up in one of Zelda's Dark World dungeons, for instance). I have no idea how this co-op run will work - if both players are playing separate instances of the same seed and liberally share item locations to each other whenever one makes progress, or if one is playing and the other is navigating - but I'm curious to find out. It'll be a serious undertaking, hence why it appears in the penultimate speedrun of the whole event, and I'll be there to cheer them on.

That's going to do it for highlights for SGDQ this year. I'm supposed to be doing all sorts of regular life stuff, as well as reviewing trailers for this stupid E3 thing I do each year, but I can't help but get distracted by the GDQ streams every time the event rolls around. My approbations go out to the runners, the crew behind the event making everything tick along smoothly, the nerds behind the always entertaining TASBot Block, and everyone who donates to the worthy cause at the heart of it all.

Be sure to check it out here: https://gamesdonequick.com/ (and see what's coming up on the schedule here: https://gamesdonequick.com/schedule)

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Indie Game of the Week 125: Goetia

No Caption Provided

Eh, Indie enough. Goetia is a 2016 horror-themed (or really just horror-adjacent, more on that in a moment) adventure/puzzle game published by Square Enix's "small games" division the Square Enix Collective, which also put out The Turing Test, Children of Zodiarcs, Tokyo Dark, and others. It is named for the Belgian-born singer best known for his 2011 single "Somebody I Used to... OK, wait, late breaking news. Let me start over. Goetia is a Latin term to mean "to summon," and specifically refers to the 72 demon lords discussed in The Lesser Key of Solomon. I've seen this text, or references to it and its various archevil aristocrats, in a number of video games before: the one that springs to mind most readily is Shadow Hearts Covenant, which - true to its name - tended to involve a lot of demons and the summoning thereof.

In Goetia, you assume the role of the disembodied spirit of Abigail Blackwood: an extremely precocious child who tragically died young at the turn of the 20th century, leaving behind her sister and parents. She awakens forty years later, as concerns about the Blitz of World War II has driven many away from the countryside surrounding your family's ancestral estate in the south of England. Fortunately, you don't spend too long figuring out who you are, how you died, or what year it currently is as the game quickly hurries to the more interesting mystery: what happened to your family after you passed, and where the heck are they?

In many regards, the game feels like a 2D side-scrolling version of Fullbright's Gone Home with a more overt spooky supernatural angle to it, given you literally play as a ghost and must figure out how to dismiss the demons that have captured various parts of your manor as their dominions. That the game focuses on a sister protagonist with "black" in her surname, takes place in a stately manner that at times feels abandoned and at other times suggests there's a presence in the very next room, and has a heavy emphasis on epistolary storytelling: that is, a narrative delivered almost exclusively via letters and notes written by other characters. There's also a little bit of Ghost Trick's spectral puzzle-solving, as several puzzles require that you possess an inanimate object and use it where it's needed to make progress or learn a new piece of information. There's nothing that requires quick reflexes or the like, so it's safe for those less adept with traditional video game skillsets, but there's plenty of puzzles that still demand a keen perception, deductive skills, and a degree of situational awareness - remembering points of interest in the game's moderately-sized maps is paramount for determining solutions, especially when you're dragging objects around from screen to screen. Annoyingly, the game also requires you know things like solfege (a.k.a. the scales for singing) and can replicate rhythms heard elsewhere on a musical instrument, which is the surest sign that the game designer has a musical background and/or a sense of rhythm and simply assumes everyone else does too. Kind of a big no-no for games like this in my view, but then everyone has different ideas of what constitutes a tough but fair puzzle to suss out.

This big face is one of the few NPCs you can talk to; the journey of Ghost Abigail (Abighoul?) is narrated almost entirely by her own thoughts.
This big face is one of the few NPCs you can talk to; the journey of Ghost Abigail (Abighoul?) is narrated almost entirely by her own thoughts.

That being said, Goetia's relatively high puzzle difficulty is kind of refreshing in the same way something like Fez was. The game does a fine job collecting your protagonist's thoughts in a journal - including a form of side-quests which usually leads to more lore - so you never lose the thread of one particular questline, though it's often recommended you have a pen and paper ready for the occasional code or password that the game won't remember for you. The game also opens up shortly after breaking the first of the demonic seals, allowing the player to take on the next four seals in any order they wish. These alternative paths also serve as breaks if the player becomes stuck in one place and is starting to feel mentally taxed: if you're stymied by one course, there are three others to dig into, and you'll occasionally acquire new ghost powers like the ability to trace where a possessed object's been that may provide new hints for these stumpers. It's a well-considered branching structure that does its best to avoid "bottleneck" roadblock puzzles, though you'll probably still bump up against some real humdingers that might need some trial and error to solve.

The other aspect I appreciate about Goetia is how unhurried it feels. You have all the time in the world to explore the mansion and its surrounding areas, read its texts, solve its mysteries, and absorb the atmosphere. It's not like the heroine is getting any older, and some of the environments are very photogenic to float through in spite of their eeriness. There's also some neat concepts for area designs, like a maze of enchanted photographs that move from layer to layer like the movie Inception, or a formerly bustling village left abandoned by the advent of war. The lack of any actual supernatural peril might be disappointing to some (not too dissimilar to Gone Home, in fact) but it's a game far more interested in striking an unsettling tone and letting you ponder its enigmata than it is forcing you to jump through hoops because one of your home's resident demons decides to chase you around for something to do. If you don't mind your adventure games a little on the languid and challenging side, Goetia might be worth summoning up.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Seeking Warframe & Fortune (Part 6/June '19)

One robot ninja's noble journey to see how far they can travel across this great cosmos of ours without spending any money or exerting too much effort.

Part 6: Warframe! I'm Gonna Live Forever!

No Caption Provided

Welcome to another installment of my monthly Warframe check-in. Auspicious times, my friends, as my domination of the Solar System continues unabated. Mostly unabated. All right, so I'm having a bit of trouble with some of the junction guardian specters and my new guy isn't quite the powerhouse the last two were. Nonetheless! I feel like I now have access to a sufficient amount of the game's territory that - though I'm a long way from seeing everything in the game - I can pick up whatever resources I need by bouncing back to whichever planet has Neurodes, Orokin Cells, Neural Sensors, Gallium, or Morphics: all major components for equipment and warframes going forward.

While we won't see any new major gameplay shifts in this update, not like the Archwing or Eidolon Plains of entries past, a lot of progress was made over the past month. Well, as much that can be made after playing between 0-1 nodes on a daily basis.

New Developments!

Filling the Void (With Corpses)

We left off last time discussing Phobos, the only one of Mars's two moons to be featured in Warframe. A Corpus stronghold, its most notable characteristics are: a steady supply of Plastids, a "common" material in that you find them in clumps of 20 or more, but uncommon in the sense that I can only acquire them on Phobos for the time being; the local boss, imaginatively named The Sergeant, whose big gimmick is that he runs away a lot - defeating him is how you acquire component blueprints for the Mag warframe; and a second exit that leads to the Void.

The Void is a fascinating place. It has three entrances that lead to a few nodes each, but these nodes don't connect to other Void exits: this splits the Void into three distinct, disconnected regions, unlike every other planet/moon/region I've been to so far which all have a contiguous throughline to every one of their nodes. The Void's aesthetic is also enigmatic as hell: a collection of pristine, stately rooms and corridors that resembles something like the Royal Palace of Atlantis with its alien design. Eerily beautiful, the Void is (or was) the home of the missing Orokin - an ancient civilization of extrasolar visitors (or maybe not) that vanished many eons ago for unknown reasons - and is also a treasure trove of their technological secrets, or so the universe believes. You can visit the Void briefly in certain other nodes and story missions past, via Stargate-like teleporters on Grineer/Corpus research planets, but here you get the pure uncut experience.

It feels like everything here is super expensive. Well, time to start breaking stuff.
It feels like everything here is super expensive. Well, time to start breaking stuff.

Two other things to note about the Void: all the enemies here are the corrupted versions of regular Grineer, Corpus, and Infested foes that you'd normally only meet on Void Fissure missions - those special instances of normal nodes where you'll have a bunch of high-level enemies frequently teleport into the level and start corrupting the enemies already there. This makes them much more challenging versions of those same nodes but with a worthwhile reward at the end of it in the form of a "void relic": essentially a lootbox of six possible prizes that you have to kill enough corrupted void fissure enemies (and then complete the node normally) to open. The other notable Void characteristic is that it's the only source of Argon Crystals I've found: a resource unique (so far) in that it actually decomposes if you don't use it quickly enough, meaning you should only venture into the Void if you have a blueprint almost ready to go that only requires some Argon Crystals to finish.

I poked far enough in from the Phobos entrance to complete "Teshub" and "Hepit" (an Exterminate node and Capture node, respectively, neither of which are much of a problem) but balked at the third and final node of this section of the Void, Taranis (a "Defense" node, which I hate). Since it's only level 10-15, I might attempt it again when I need those Argon Crystals for something.

Ceres: I'm a Planet, Not Some Asteroid Floozy

Moving back through Phobos and Mars to the other Martian junction leads us to Ceres, the largest of the asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. Another grimy Grineer planet, Ceres is the first location in the game to drop Orokin Cells - a frequent ingredient for warframe blueprints, and those for the rare and valuable Forma - and its boss fight involves fighting previous foes Captain Vor (from the first questline in the game, though they levelled him up a bit here) and Lt. Lech Kril (first met on Mars; he's a puzzle fight where you have to figure out how to eliminate his ice shield before you can damage him) at the same time. The reward is weapon component blueprints as well as components for the warframe Frost, so I'll have to come back at some point for the rest of those.

Beyond that, Ceres is a fairly typical planet (well, asteroid) that has three routes to its only other exit junction (to Jupiter, naturally). The shortest of these routes includes the tough aforementioned dual boss fight, though I found that preferable to passing through the Interception node (the hardest of the regular mission types on solo, as it involves capturing and protecting multiple "king of the hill" zones) elsewhere on the map.

But let's talk about that Jupiter junction. Each junction, to recap, is guarded by a Tenno specter: an AI warframe you've probably not encountered yet, giving you both a challenging sub-boss fight and a crash course on how effective they are for future reference. The one here, Valkyr, has this incredibly powerful buff that renders her invincible for a while, and also greatly boosts her melee attack damage. Once it's active, I couldn't survive more than a few seconds, despite all my evasive maneuvers. It wasn't until I switched back to reliable DPS standby Excalibur and used a combination of his blinding and Exalted Blade abilities that I was able to stun and cut Valkyr down before she ever invoked her "instant win" buff. This doesn't make me optimistic for future junction specter duels, though I guess I have a "cheese tactic" I can always fall back on if my current warframe isn't up to the task.

Jupiter Culling

Jupiter is as far as I got this month. It's a Corpus location with some interesting level design that hearkens back to that one Metroid Prime 3 location set above a gas giant (or, as a slightly more universally recognizable sample, Bespin Cloud City of The Empire Strikes Back). A lot of enormous open areas that drop to an intense gravity well demise. Everywhere also has this neat orange glow to it that feels like a permanent sunset, so even if the vistas of an enormous orange ball of gas aren't doing it for you, there's that at least. As for rare resources, Jupiter is home to Neural Sensors and Hexenon. I've seen the former in blueprints a number of times, so I'm glad to find some at last, but Hexenon is an unknown quantity to me. I suspect it relates to a certain other aspect of Jupiter I'll get into in just a moment.

The Jupiter nodes are again arranged so there's two circumferential routes and a more direct one, though here the direct route is also the busiest with lots of dead-end nodes with nasty conditions like Interception or a high-level (20-30) Defense with Infested enemies. I'm leaving those well enough alone and heading around the edges to Jupiter's two junctions: one to Europa, the smallest of the four Galilean moons orbiting Jupiter (the other three - Ganymede, Io, and Callisto - are all nodes on Jupiter itself for the time being), and the other leads to Saturn. Once again, the conditions for unlocking one of these junctions (Saturn) involves completing a boss fight on the other (Europa), making it clear which I'm supposed to work my way towards first.

I don't know if I'm into Oberon's neon green stripe. It looks like he's having problems swallowing his Mountain Dew.
I don't know if I'm into Oberon's neon green stripe. It looks like he's having problems swallowing his Mountain Dew.

The unusual thing about my approach to Jupiter is that I was two nodes in when the enormous new patch/expansion "The Jovian Concord" kicked in. This had the effect of reworking most of Jupiter's content and adding new special missions called Disruptions to its, and other planets', node maps. Subsequently, I feel like I've had a harder time on Jupiter than I was perhaps supposed to, with one Mobile Defense (like Defense, only you have to keep switching locations to guard) mission requiring several attempts before I was able to clear it. The Jovian Concord introduced a lot of new Corpus enemy types that have been kicking my robotic keister on a regular basis - at least I assume they're new, because they didn't appear in the Jupiter nodes I took out prior to the expansion. I'm still going to avoid Defense and Mobile Defense on Jupiter for the time being (and probably Survival) until I either get a brawnier warframe or better gear or both.

It is definitely starting to feel like I won't be able to make serious progress with my current system of levelling up multiple weapons and my warframe simultaneously: I'll probably want at least one or two max-level tools in my arsenal to account for weaknesses elsewhere. Unfortunately, I'm in the slightly awkward pickle of having all three of my weapons and my companion Kubrow, Coolbro, close to max level. If they all decide to max out at once, I'll be running with peashooters in every slot (or peahitters in the case of melee) for a while. Burn that bridge when I come to it, I guess.

Run, Oberonnie, Run

Before I get into my third and newest member of my entourage, I'll recap the three ways you (glacially) earn warframes in, uh, Warframe:

  1. The easiest and quickest route is to just buy them with the game's premium currency, which is perfect for those high on real-life cash reserves and low on time.
  2. The second is to buy the blueprint and then find the components' blueprints by fighting specific bosses in the game, hopefully getting the three separate parts you need to drop - neuroptics, systems, and chassis - with the minimum amount of duplicates.
  3. The third way is via the Clan Dojo laboratory, which is a system I'm still not in a position to get deep into (though I did build my first reactor! Yay!).

To summarize, if you're a cheapskate the best means of getting new warframes is beating the same boss over and over until it drops all the parts you need, and then spending a huge amount of resources and cash (and time - one day each for the components and three days for the finished warframe) to make one. This should hopefully explain why I've been playing this game for months and only have access to five warframes so far.

Oberon is the first warframe I've acquired that feels far more suited as a support role in a multiplayer co-op environment. His abilities tend to center around keeping him and his companions alive, which presently only includes my dog. His "Renewal" is a rapid regeneration AoE buff that has saved my ass on multiple occasions, and his innate passive means that my Kubro is resurrected once per mission, making it easier to keep it alive for the more hectic nodes like Survival. He's no slouch with combat abilities either - "Smite" is a powerful ranged attack, "Hallowed Ground" is a denial debuff that makes the ground damaging to enemies (good for Defense missions), "Reckoning" tosses around every enemy in the vicinity like ragdolls in a satisfying way - but because he's considerably weaker than Rhino and less offensively-powerful than Excalibur, I've been saving all my energy for heals. Not the most effective way to play a character that is equally split on offensive and defensive abilities, but I'm cagey enough with abilities to only use the one or two that really come in handy.

I'll admit, it's been tough going with Oberon so far, but it's also forced me to be a bit more careful after the tanking of Rhino. No standing in the middle of the room headshotting the horde surrounding me as I weather their hits; instead I'm likely to find a closet somewhere and try to bottleneck the throng after my blood (or artificial warframe equivalent).

Fragor Rocks

I figured I'd discuss a few of the weapons I've been using, because they're as much of a gameplay determinant factor as the warframes themselves in many respects. For pretty much the whole month I've been using the combination of Boltor (primary), Dex Furis (secondary), and Fragor (melee).

The Boltor rifle is supposed to be like that giant harpoon gun from BioShock 2, but the offensive power isn't so high to result in a showy one-high kill each time. Instead, it feels more like a semi-automatic dart shooter, which only propels enemies back (and pins them against walls in some cases) on the final, fatal hit. It happens often enough that I got a lot of mileage out of the standard "I think he got the point" one-liner, but overall it's not as spectacular as you'd hope. Decent firing speed and damage at least.

The Dex Furis are special elite dual-SMGs that I picked up in some event. The "Dex" modifier means they have twice the mod capacity of regular weapons, which would be amazing if I had more secondary weapon mods to stick on them, but the downside is that I chew through their ammunition very quickly when on my John Woo diving around guns akimbo bullshit. A mod I picked up recently is a noise suppression one that makes the SMGs handy for keeping quiet in Exterminate and Spy missions, but I don't rely on them too often when enemy aggro is high.

My favorite new thing of late? These little roombas in the Jupiter levels. Sorry for making more work for you, little guy.
My favorite new thing of late? These little roombas in the Jupiter levels. Sorry for making more work for you, little guy.

The Fragor is my first heavy melee weapon, which the requisite high damage but slow swing speed, and I'm having a great time with it. The sheer output of this thing is worth the slow arcs, and there's a diving attack that smashes the ground and knocks everyone on their ass that I regularly use on crowds, especially in "protect the mission objective" nodes like Defense, Mobile Defense, and Excavation. I'll be sad to see it go when it maxes out soon, but I'm going to try to keep varying it up with melee weapons (and the guns) - there's separate achievements for weapon types, so that's usually all the motivation I need, but it also makes such a huge difference to the gameplay too.

I'll be done with all three of these very soon, so what I have lined up next include: the Hek shotgun as my new primary, my first of this type. Should be good for Infested maps, since they're all close-combat types. I have a cheap Leto pistol for my secondary, because I haven't really branched out with those yet. If I find something more interesting I'll probably switch quickly. The next melee weapon is the Amphis staff, which should bring me back to a balance of strength and speed as I swing that thing around like Iron Monkey.

Can I Save My Darling Clem In Time?

Not a whole lot of questing in this period. There are no story quests between Stolen Dreams, which we covered last month, and the Europa junction. Europa will actually introduce two new questlines: The Limbo Theorem and The New Strange. Curious about the latter, since Stolen Dreams is the requisite and it feels like this will be the game's big overarching multiple-act story.

I did take a moment instead to check out an optional side-quest you have to activate back in a Tenno relay (hubs for trading and meeting friendly NPCs). This involves helping Davos, a guy we met all the way back in the initial Captain Vor questline, rescue one of his contractors: an affable Grineer defector named Clem. This involves a Rescue mission to spring Clem from a Grineer pokey and then a Survival mission to recover his special dual-SMG weapons. After this, Clem becomes available as an intermittent source of additional missions: each play out the same as the previous Survival mission, though you get the benefit of having Clem fighting alongside you. Some cute world-building and a new source of missions if I needed one, but nothing substantial in lore terms.

Nightwave's Back!

Just a final note: after Nightwave suddenly vanished while I was a few points away from a really handy Forma bundle, it came back a few weeks later. There's no big story hook yet like there was last time with the Saturn Six escaped convincts, but instead this is a transitional "intermission" that is really just the daily/weekly challenges aspect alone.

I'm glad to have some daily targets to aim for again (though some are still a pain) and I've already picked up some decent rewards: the Glaive weapon (very reminiscent of Digital Extremes's earlier game Dark Sector) and the curved Pangolin Sword. I didn't notice that you can get Aura mods from here - I'll probably have more to say on those are later when I actually find some - but those are my next reward targets.

The Warframe Progress-o-meter

(Italics indicate a weapon/warframe that I've mastered, or a planet I've fully explored. I'll probably sell anything I've mastered first if I need to make space.)

WarframeLvlPrimary WeaponLvlSecondary WeaponLvlMelee WeaponLvlPlanets Visited
Excalibur30Braton (rifle)30MK1-Kunai (thrown)30Skana (sword)30Earth
Rhino30Boltor (rifle)29Dex Furis (SMGs)28Dex Dakra (daggers)30Venus
Oberon24Hek (shotgun)0Furis (handgun)0Cronus (sword)30Mercury
Mag0Karak (rifle)0Lato (handgun)0Fragor (hammer)29Mars
Vauban0MK1-Braton (rifle)14 Amphis (staff)0Phobos
MK1-Paris (bow)0 Galantine (sword)0Ceres
Jupiter
The Void

On the next episode of Seeking Warframe & Fortune: "Europa?" Sure am, are you my tenants Jack, Janet, and Chrissy? (This is awful and no-one will get it.)

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