Now, you might imagine I wouldn't have more to say about this mechanically traditional SpaceWhipper after yesterday's update, but the game continues to surprise me. I've already discussed how the player moves from body to body by removing the extant head and taking the body over, like some kind of sci-fi penanggalan. (I know you were all wondering when I'd bring up the obvious penanggalan comparisons, so there you go.) However, the game doesn't rest on its laurels with the same color-coded security doors and shoot-outs we've seen so far.
In a particularly memorable portion of the game that I've just completed, the player must pass through a simulated warzone featuring specialized combat units of white and black colorations: this isn't so much a "half-black half-white guy from Star Trek" reference as a big, pointless war game indulgence streamlined down to two sides. Because it's black and white, the theme is chess: every piece has a role and a counterpart. This area is also a repurposed section of the spacestation's archives - because the plot tells us that the corrupt AI in charge of everything has forbidden the acquisition of knowledge, which gives a certain Biblical flair to its oppressive overlord (though really just reflects how real-life dictators will suppress and remove the intellectuals first), the archives have been left neglected and this "Grid Clash" game has taken up the space. In order to move the data around to your allied NPC buddies, you have to jump into various bodies, have them download the information and then make it to the equivalent upload pod without that body exploding.
It seems like a difficult and annoying challenge from the offset, but this wargame has everyone distracted and you're usually only facing a few aggro'd soldiers at a time. What's particularly ingenious is how every unit works: the pawns are practically useless, and tellingly have the same randomized names as the hapless, harmless citizens you've been ignoring; the knights fire in a distinct L-shape, true to their unorthodox movement in chess, making it hard to properly aim but giving them a built-in 90 degree refraction which gives them an edge in combat; bishops fire in two directions diagonally away from the direction you're aiming at; the burly rooks don't shoot at all, but rather use melee attacks to devastating effect; and the king is a special piece that the player has to move into the right position to end this stage of the game. You're then thrown into a boss fight with the antagonistic "Kill Queen" (I so wanted this to be a Queen reference, because they could've scored this game much like they scored Flash Gordon, but I realized it was a play on "kill screen") that I'll go into in just a moment.
When you reach this portion of the game, which I'd estimate at around the halfway point if the various completion stat trackers are any indication, the game had settled into a basic rhythm of "find the right dude, get through the door". The last section involved unlocking a lot of elevator locks to increase their accessibility, but relied largely on the same mechanics. You might say the same about this chess one too, since it again involves relying on two different colors for access to various parts of the area, but the way it's recontextualized as this team battle game that you're trying to inconspicuously sneak around gives it something of a frantic new edge.
The Kill Queen boss fight also relies on a similar Ikaruga-style polarity-switching mechanic, where she'll turn face (literally) and be immune to the other side's color. This is a mechanic that's been persistent throughout this part of the map though hasn't really been pertinent until now: white pieces can't hurt other white pieces, and ditto for the black team. You can still pull off heads while disembodied - the required vacuum pull is the first upgrade you pick up - but when disembodied everyone, black and white, suddenly becomes hostile towards you. They can't attack when you're on their side though, so staying in a body confers some degree of safety. With Kill Queen, you need to constantly switch from white piece bodies to black piece bodies in order to do damage, and make yourself immune to the damaging laser beams she fires.
It's not a particularly novel mechanic - even if we're just limiting ourselves to Indie SpaceWhippers, Outland built a whole game around switching between two colors - but the game makes it work within the framework of the setting and story they're telling, presenting the whole wargaming charade as another exerise of the eternally bored (there's that Zardoz influence peeking through again) and its overseer Kill Queen as a perfectionist chess grandmaster who berates your martial tactical acumen constantly while you're trying to surreptitiously move data around from under her nose.
Anyway, this game continues to be neat. I hope to finish it tonight, or early tomorrow, so I probably won't write any more about it for this feature. I'd recommend it for the aesthetic alone, honestly, though if you're a fan of this subgenre it's a decent entry if a bit too on the simple side. Going from the well-hidden secrets and challenging checkpoint-running of Axiom Verge to this almost too forgiving game where deaths respawn you at the last entrance you passed through and every door and collectible is helpfully placed on the map for you to peruse later, Headlander might end up being too straightforward and effortless for some, similar to how basic and repetitive Costume Quest sometimes felt when it wasn't being far too delightful. Double Fine have long been far more invested in their presentations than in any particularly in-depth game mechanics, but that's not necessarily a bad thing; they're accessible gateways for movie/comic nerds to the various game genres they represent, if nothing else.
While I didn't make too much progress in Headlander today, I feel like I've seen a decent amount of what the game has to offer, if only mechanically speaking. Headlander is a stylistic Indie SpaceWhipper (I believe this is the third one in a month for me) which is clearly inspired by classic science fiction, and in particular the heady era of the late 1960s and early 1970s where people were so high on various chemicals that long, languorous, contemplative sci-fi epics about the nature of humanity and our place in the universe were how they spent their time.
2001: A Space Odyssey is an obvious source for much of the game's oddly comfortable looking space travel, though there's plenty from Zardoz (at least one trophy gives a nod, and the antagonist is usually pictured as a familiar statue of a bearded face), Logan's Run (the modest pastel outfits and how all the game's civilians are called some variation of "first name-number" - I've met at least one "Jessica-6" so far), Silent Running (adorable robot designs that elicit the same kind of empathy pets do - plus some of the robots actually are pets), Barbarella (the only sci-fi movie that comes to mind that used shag carpeting in its spaceships), Mars Attacks! (which was a mid-century B-movie in spirit, and I'd imagine was where this whole "heads come off and get attached to other things" business came from) and general archaic visions of the future collectively known as "zeerust" by futurist fans that are frequently explored/parodied by Futurama. It's a game that luxuriates in this particular aesthetic, much like how Inside was made magnitudes more fascinating by its stark chiaroscuro-heavy visual design, and a big part of the fun of Headlander for me is spotting all the visual references.
However, the game's also been plenty of fun as a regular 2D exploratory platformer too. The player isn't so much controlling a whole person than simply the head, which is capable of attaching itself to the game's wide array of mechanical NPC bodies once their original heads are out of the way. Many of these NPCs are security droids which the player is forced to incapacitate, either by shooting the body until they explode or destroying the head to preserve the body for themselves. The head quickly regenerates lost health, though won't survive long in a firefight on its own, but bodies have a fixed health bar that can't easily be repaired in the middle of a battle. Generally, the player needs to consider their next body donor as they whittle down the resistance they're facing. I've learned that it's generally a good idea to take over those with better weapons or higher security clearance, the latter indicated by their uniform color (brief aside: I don't know if the game was inspired at all by the old B-movie-inspired tabletop game Paranoia, but it also had a similar color-based security system for players to adhere to, as well as an inscrutable CPU overlord who really wanted the players to trust it). Other robots include regular citizens, who unhelpfully disco dance instead of fight, and various robotic civil servants in control of scanners, doors, forcefields and other potential obstructions. Occasionally, the player will be forced to move on as just the flying head, especially where small spaces and higher ledges are concerned.
The game's way more generous with its mapping than Axiom Verge was. It's happy to keep track of all the collectibles and upgrades you passed because you didn't have the right ability to reach them at the time: it even tells you where all the doors are, and which level of security clearance you need to pass through them. It still behooves the player to keep track of what actual upgrades they need to reach these currently unobtainable goodies, but it doesn't seem like the game has too many to dole out. If the upgrade screen is anything to go by, there appears to be four special traversal-enabling functions your disembodied head can learn, and a huge number of smaller boosts that assist in combat and exploration in various ways - shield increases, melee damage buffs, a headbutt attack that allows you to switch heads with another robot instantly, and so on.
It's a great game that I'm enjoying quite a lot so far, though the gunfights are already getting a bit tiresome as many of them rely on fighting waves of robots who teleport in in quick succession. I'm in love with the aesthetic, though, and I'm eager to see where its plot goes. It figures that the game's lead designer, Lee Petty, is the same guy who directed Stacking: the only other Double Fine Indie game I've appreciated without reservations so far. At any rate, I'll update y'all on my continued progress tomorrow.
Inside is a 2D, monochromatic (mostly) platformer from Playdead and the spiritual successor to their 2010 Indie hit Limbo. Like that game, your prepubescent hero runs, hobbles, swims, trips, falls and sneaks through a series of environments, forever following a linear path that nonetheless seems to go on for miles. Inside also shares a great deal of similarities with Limbo's overall aesthetic: the world is depicted as a dark, terrifying and hostile place, one in which a child is unlikely to survive long, and the game makes ample use of shading and silhouettes to render its already macabre story in a stark veneer.
In Limbo you spent most of your time either attempting timing-based set-pieces, usually involving hostile forces pursuing you that need to be outsmarted as often as they need to be outpaced, or solving physics puzzles to facilitate further progress. Inside continues in that vein, giving the player a number of quiet moments to consider the logistics of pushing boxes up against walls for an extra bit of lift or switching levers in the right order, bookended with moments of frantic panic as you avoid the jaws of rabid dogs and some crappy adults far too eager to commit a bit of paedocide (which is a really unpleasant word, now I've written it and read it back to myself). Whereas Limbo felt like an absurdly grim fairytale - though when are they ever not? - Inside feels more like a dystopian sci-fi movie where we see the world from the child hero's perspective, and adults are rendered as these indistinct and inscrutable creatures that cannot easily be reasoned with. Think something like E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial - a comparison I feel is probably fairly overtly referenced by the designers themselves, given the red sweater and jeans combo that the protagonists of E.T. and Inside both wear.
It's hard to argue for Inside's case. Not because I found it lacking - Brad's five-star score and effusive review were warranted, even if I take some small issue with how the game's overall length is as long as a movie - but because so much of what it does right is in the moment-to-moment minutia, the ingenuity of its puzzles, the mise-en-scéne storytelling (which I think is just a fancy way of saying "you gotta figure it out from the context given by the setting, because there's no dialogue whatsoever") and the spoiler-rich terrors that appear later in the game. An early fracas with a manic pig infected with a mind-controlling parasitic worm is merely the tip of the iceberg in many respects, and given the game's short length these fleeting moments of narrative insanity and brilliant level design are the greatest tools the game has to beguile its players. Just like how I wouldn't spoil the best scenes of a thriller movie by describing them in detail, I wouldn't want to do the same here, though I imagine the Giant Bomb boys will be a little less squeamish about revealing too much (about the game, I mean) when it comes to discussing Inside's place in their GOTY deliberations.
All I can say is, you should probably buy this game. Consider the short length, absolutely, but as a game that's been out for almost half a year it's probably dropped in price to the extent that a time-to-cost value consideration is largely moot. It's not only worth playing if you're into puzzle-platformer games with a bleak aesthetic and a cinematic confidence usually quite rare in the Indie sphere, but for a story that's worth experiencing first-hand before GB spoils it for you.
(In spite of my negative comments, I really am looking forward to Giant Bomb's GOTY talks later this month. When you have a year as packed as this one to dismantle, it's going to get heated.)
Hey there, Owlboys and Sega Hard Girls, to another December of catch-up fun with Go! Go! GOTY! 2016 Edition. A holiday custom as sacred as the yule log or the Santa hat avatar, I spend the first few weeks of every December collecting together and playing through any remaining 2016 games I own but had yet to begin for last-minute GOTY list additions. This Go! Go! GOTY! will feature a particularly slim selection - since buying a PS4 last December, I've been focused on plumbing its back-catalog this year - but I think I have enough here and on the GOTY list already that the top ten won't end up being a complete embarrassment. If I run out of material too quickly, I have some "bonus" episode refreshers for a few games I wanted to revisit before passing any manner of hierarchical judgement on them.
I'll try to finish every game I start, unless they really don't agree with me or they aren't the sort of games with completion states.
After three consecutive days spent on one game I'll move onto the next, regardless of the former's completion status. I'll keep working on those as I play through the others, but unless something drastically changes in the late-game I'll have no doubt said everything I needed to after three updates.
The cut-off this year will be the 18th of December, though I'll probably work my way through the stack I have here long before then. After that, it's awards time.
This particular blog you're reading right now is my contents page; the in-depth game coverage continues with the links below. For now, please be content with the contents for my content:
I've talked about my bizarre penchant for RuneStorm's Viscera Cleanup Detail a few times before - most recently while compiling this adjusted 2015 GOTY list that includes all the 2015 games I've played this year and last - but rarely in any great detail. Giant Bomb demonstrated a rough outline of the game via this Unfinished and a brief stint with the alpha build on PK Thunder's Worth Playing series, and while people might be able to glean the "you clean up viscera" part from those videos (and from the title of the game, even), there's actually a great deal more that goes into a proper janitorial decontamination of the game's many movie-reference-laden levels that most are entirely oblivious about. I mean, they're probably happy to be oblivious about the menial and disgusting labor involved with being a one-man sci-fi hazmat crew working on the cheap, but I don't write articles to make people happy consarnit.
Anyhoo, since I spend way too much time on this game already, I thought I'd enumerate what exactly goes into a thorough Viscera Cleanup Detail session. Not just the basics, but everything that the game tracks towards that elusive 100%+ performance review and a shiny new "Employee of the Month" placard with which to decorate your office, along with any weird gross keepsakes you decide to take home with you. I'll do this in the same approximate step-by-step process that I mentally follow while on the job, to give you all some idea of the deceptively in-depth nature of the game's process.
1) Locate the furnace.
The furnace is the linchpin of any clean-up job. You need to dispose of a lot of gooey trash, and only the Flames of Gehenna itself will suffice. Well, mostly, as there are a few stages where the furnace is replaced with something equally final. As the center of the operation, you are beholden to begin your clean-up in the same room as the furnace and continue outwards from there.
Important tip: Open one of the furnace doors first before you start throwing garbage and dead people at it. If you open both doors, don't throw anything directly through out the opposite side. Viscera is difficult enough to clean up when it isn't on fire.
2) Locate the Slosh-O-Matic Bucket Dispenser, the What-A-Load Bin Dispenser, the Punchomatic, the iVend Supply Machine and the Laser Welder.
The tools of the trade. The major ones are the first two: you need a steady supply of buckets and bins while working, the former to clean up blood splashes and other liquid messes (the game draws the line at human waste, fortunately, though you could argue some of these fluids are even worse) and the latter to carry smaller trash items to the furnace in bulk. The Punchomatic computer is required to clock out, and you earn extra by "clocking out" the corpses by running their ID Tags past the device. Each corpse has their own tag, usually lying not so far away from wherever the torso ended up. I'll talk about the other two appliances in steps closer to the end.
The levels can be annoyingly inconsistent about where they put all this stuff. Occasionally, like Hydroponic Hell, the three major facilities are in the same starting room. Other times, they're stretched across the level. In those cases, I tend to grab several buckets/bins at once and stash them somewhere near where I'm working so I'm not always running back and forth.
3) Start the cleaning cycle.
Once you have everything, or at least know where everything is, you can start. I generally go with the floor pools first, since walking through them leads to footprints that need to be cleaned up later. Large trash items, like torsos and alien limbs, get carried directly to the furnace while smaller items like bullet casings and aluminum cans get thrown into a bin for the sake of convenience. Viscera pieces will leave blood splashes if you jostle or drop them, so they're a top priority. After that are wall splashes; depending on how violently those scientists and workers got destroyed by their own hubris via the vaguely defined biological or mechanical threat that ended them, you might have to mop fairly high up on walls, if not the ceiling as well. Some levels have a portable elevator cherry-picker thing to help with those, but that device can be awfully tetchy at times.
This step is definitely the meat of the game, so to speak. Each room tends to be full of carcasses and garbage to collect, and each level presents its own little quandaries and obstacles to figure out. The Unreal Engine has a torrid, tempestuous on-off affair with realistic physics, and so carting around buckets and bins filled with unmentionable human detritus can be an exercise in suspense. Will I hit an invisible bump and send everything flying? Do I really have to take the stairs or is there another way around? Have I ensured that the ground isn't littered with furniture or crates that will cause me to faceplant directly into this pile of severed alien dinguses (or dingii, as the Latin would have it) that I've jammed into this large yellow trash receptacle? Viscera Cleanup Detail doesn't have an antagonist per se but there are several abstract elements that might quality, from the hostile non-human forces that began the fracas and now lie dead alongside their victims to the callous, faceless bureaucracy that sent you on your way to the woefully inadequate and occasionally spiteful tools at your disposal - some of the dispensers just spit out human body parts at random intervals, just because. However, I'd say the game engine's poor attempts at replicating Newton's Laws for its virtual facsimile of real life is routinely the greatest foe a prospective space janitor will face.
Incidentally, if you aren't sure which items are trash, leave them be for step #6. Or burn them, but that requires adding more work to the docket. I generally avoid the latter if I can help it.
4) Everything's better with lasers.
At this time, you'll want to have found the Laser Welder weapon and have it handy nearby. If your level has, let's say, some battle damage to take care of the welder is the only way to fix it. This includes bullet holes and other types of weapon scarring damage to the walls and furniture. Sometimes a level won't have any of this but still have a laser welder somewhere, because a secondary purpose of the welder is to burn trash you don't feel like carting back to the furnace. Incinerating garbage with a laser rifle sure sounds like a fun drunken time with friends, but it's far too easy to set the entire level on fire and have even more ash and soot to mop up. Plus, if you accidentally melt a barrel or something, that turns it into trash that you have to clean up. Best to remember that you're a janitor and not a space marine and leave the superheated plasma to the professionals.
Absolutely destroy the laser welder in the furnace once you're absolutely certain you don't need it any more. You wouldn't want some kid to find it.
5) A supplies attack.
Check the iVend machine, if there is one. All iVend machines distribute lanterns and flares - they're completely useless, except to light up darker parts of the level as a mercy for those who don't know how gamma sliders work. Most of them distribute first aid supplies too: these are for all the empty first aid wall fixtures throughout the level, and restocking them is also part of the performance review. Because first aid wall fixtures keep themselves closed through hope and dreams, you'll want to avoid walking near one if you've restocked it because it'll collapse and vomit out its first aid supplies if you even look at them funny. I generally ensure that they're the last bit of work I need to do.
The iVend machine can often have other items too. These might also be required for restocking parts of the level, as per your vague instructions when you start. This might be seeds to replenish the empty trays in a hydroponics lab, or alien embryos to keep a laboratory running, or replacement ceiling gun turrets for the ones a rampaging ED-209 blew up (maybe don't give those guys ammo though; I found that out the hard/painful way). Usually, if there's a level-unique item in the vending machine, figure out where it needs to go and restock every other instance of same.
6) Whither the Sniffer?
The Sniffer is a handy tool for detecting anything the game registers as "undesirable". It's quite perceptive about this, which sometimes necessitates some searching around to figure out what it's bleeping on about. The bleeps get louder as you near the problem area in question, which can range from usual trash to splashes to bullet holes to really anything that you're there to fix or clean. What complicates matters, which is to say makes it take twice as long as it needs to be like with any of the rest of this game's "half-good" technology, is that the Sniffer has two modes: organic and inorganic. Best to sweep the entire stage for both, making sure that you just get the low-frequency "default" Sniffer noise. This is the step to polish off absolutely anything you might have missed. The Sniffer also works the other way too, helping you determine if some random box is actually garbage or not. Chances are, if it's not broken or bloody you can leave it be.
And don't worry if the Sniffer reacts poorly to your souvenir trunk and the items you've secreted away in there. It doesn't know what you intend to do with those. It's too innocent.
7) Close the damn furnace doors.
An easy step to miss, but an important one nonetheless. The game will dock your performance score if you let Ol' Fumey have at the relatively clean air of the level in the hours and days after you leave and before normal operations resume. At this point, you've hopefully burned everything you wanted to anyway.
8) Stacking the odds.
For some bonus score, you can quickly scan the floors for a yellow demarcation that indicates a barrel or crate enclosure, and then carry every instance of the appropriate cargo type to that zone. It's not essential, but it's an easy way to rack up some extra credit to redress any mistakes or leftovers you might have missed. Usually you just get the one zone for each cargo type, but if there's multiple stories the game will sometimes do you a solid by having a zone for each floor in the level.
You can even make a game out of it: see how many crates you can pile up in an hour, and then try to break that record!
(If you actually do this part, you are truly lost. There are non-profit organizations that can help, however.)
9) Bring up the console and type "KillNearestMess" a few times.
Just to be sure. Think of it as "janitor magic".
10) Clock out.
And there you have a successful cleanup operation. Upon reaching the office, you should get your results and a few extra notices hanging in various spots around this little hub zone. The notices tend to include anonymous death threats from your fellow janitors - those cards! - and a certificate of congratulations from whichever inspector looked over your work. You'll also get news headlines about the disasters caused by your mistakes: cults formed over an errant blood spill; people accidentally choking on a loose bullet casing they mistook for a Cheeto; seeing Space Jesus after inhaling the fumes from a left open furnace. The usual clickbait headlines. You can always load the last auto-save and fix these errors for a last-minute score boost, or just shrug and quit to desktop to resume all those social/professional responsibilities you left on hold.
The office itself is something of a mini-level, if you choose to start exploring behind lockers and figuring out the passcodes to its various locked doors. There's a bit of a meta-plot concerning a former employee turned psychopathic cannibal that you can follow by finding his notes in various levels. The office is also where you can stash your keepsakes, from the goofy Easter eggs from other games like Duke Nukem's shades or Isaac Clarke's distinctive helmet, or the literal Easter eggs the game also has. The office environment stays static throughout the whole game, so you'll always find it just as you left it. There's something cozy and comfortable about that, even if you've begun using the shelving to start a severed head collection. Hey, a guy's gotta have hobbies with a 9-5 grind like this.
I don't think I've adequately illustrated the appeal of this game by explicating deeply upon its far-too-exact standards for success, but it does prove two things: A) the game is far more elaborate than spending a few hours simply picking up paper cups, bags of chips and dismembered extraterrestrial crotches and casting them into the nondiscriminatory flames, and B) if you're going to build a game to ensnare the OCD, you'd better be every bit as anal as they are. It's an instinctive thing among our type, one that can't easily be disguised; we can smell your anal from a mile away, so don't leave us wanting.
A lot of the time you'll play a game and realize that it doesn't really understand you or what you want out of this great hobby of ours, which can suck. Occasionally, though, you'll come across a game that understands you and your foibles far too well, and that's debatably even worse.
Happy Thanksgiving, y'all. Well, it was three days ago, but we're still in the extended Thanksgiving weekend so... enjoy your last day of that? I need to stop publishing these on Sundays, it's a bummer day of the week.
We're now approaching the Holiday Creep; the final month of the year where many of us gear up for the travails of the season. More important than a bastardized Saturnalia, however, is the Game of the Year deliberations happening on Giant Bomb and elsewhere. I have something of an issue with my particular 2016 list of favorites: I didn't play enough this year to fill out a top ten list. Not even close, actually. I'm now considering alternatives to my usual GOTY extravaganza as I'm unlikely to make up the numbers before 2017 rolls around, and certainly not before Giant Bomb starts rolling out its GOTY coverage.
A notion I had was to put together "adjusted" GOTY lists for the previous years. I've never been one to buy games brand new, and that's becoming more prevalent with each new year as more and more games get left behind and I'm more inclined to catch up with what I've missed than to expensively ensure I'm in on the ground floor with each significant release. The big "AAA" games all tend to be iterative open-world action fare and multiplayer-focused shooters anyway, so I don't feel too bad about missing out on those for a few months, and Indies on Steam drop in price extraordinarily quickly, especially if you wait long enough for them to appear in bundles hosted by sites like Humble Bundle or BundleStars (less said about Groupees and IndieGala these days, the better). Because games tech has more or less stalled for the time being, unless you're really intrigued by VR or 4K resolution (I am not), it's actually not such a big deal any more to be a little behind the curve. If you have a favorite genre, there's probably a dozen games to fit that niche that have passed you by. If you have multiple favorite genres, like me, then there's no shortage of wonderful games to delve into. As Vinny always says, there's never been a better time to be playing games - not just because 2016 had a particularly good output of video games, and it did by all accounts, but because there's many, many games out there that many of us have yet to discover. If only on an individual basis.
What that aside basically boils down to, circling back around to that isolate sentence about adjusted GOTY lists that I abandoned in the cold like a Dickensian orphan, is that it's less important for a guy of limited funds - who cannot possibly cover the spread of new releases that the staff of a professional video game site might - to worry about knocking together a top ten GOTY list every year that's nowhere near as comprehensive as I'd prefer. Instead, I ought to focus on collating together the many subsequent years spent playing games of a particular vintage and slowly construct a more authentic GOTY over time.
Ideally, I'd like to be able to do this with more sophisticated list creation tools on the site. I was thinking about how we could use multiple colors to reflect when new games were added to a list and how far games have dropped in ranking as new entries supplant them - so 2016 games played in 2016 would be the site's standard white-text-on-black, while 2016 games played in 2017 might have a green tint and 2016 games played in 2018 could have a blue tint, etc. - but I think for that amount of additional engineering manpower to make sense, there would need to be more than three people actually making lists. But hey, a lot of people put together GOTY lists around this time every year, so it's not that ridiculous a notion.
Anyway, this intro's gone on long enough. I'll start putting together an adjusted 2015 list, since that's definitely the year that got the most play from me of late, and consider going even further back after that's been sorted. As for 2016 games... well, a top six list is still pretty good, right? Right?
OK, fine, I guess I'll swing around the Black Friday Steam sale one last time.
As if I wasn't swamped enough with games on the backlog to check out, this week serves to add even more to that growing pile. Well, OK, there's really just one game I have my sights set on this week, but it's a doozy:
After over a decade in development, Final Fantasy XV is getting released this Tuesday (well, unless your local store already broke embargo, in which case good for you, you dirtbag). They probably should've named this "Fucking Finally, Fantasy". I'm on total media blackout for this one - I'm even going to avoid the Quick Look, but that's mostly because no-one on staff really does JRPGs well besides Jason and his anime MonHun clones - and intend to go into it fresh as soon as... well, as soon as I feel it. All I really know about FFXV is that S-E took the complaints people had about how every Final Fantasy XIII location only allowed you to move in one direction, and spitefully made that critique more literal by sticking One Direction in this game. There's no point considering it for GOTY this year, because there's no guarantees I'll even be able to beat it before January rolls around, so it's going to have to be something to look forward to in 2017. (If that wasn't enough, I've also stacked that particular deck with a couple of 2015 JRPGs for January and February as well: Xenoblade Chronicles X and Tales of Zestiria. You know how it is with Winters and long hibernations...)
Super Mario Maker for Nintendo 3DS is out soon as well, though I'm still scratching my head and wondering what the point of it is. I mean, I know the reason it's getting made is because dollar signs appeared over Tatsumi Kimishima's eyes (and I still had to look up who the current president was. RIP Iwata. I guess I'll get used to it) with the success of the Wii U version, and if Nintendo wants anyone to play their games they'd better release it on their far more successful handheld. I'm specifically questioning the purpose of a Mario Maker game without the level-sharing tools the Wii U version has. It's funny - when that game came out, people were not only surprised that the "make your own Mario level" conceit had legs to it, but that Nintendo had done something genuinely cool with online functionality for perhaps the first time since the Satellaview. But now it seems more like it was pure serendipity; that they had no idea what they did right and are obliviously backpedaling on it. I'm sure this 3DS version will appeal to those who have been pondering a Wii U console purchase just for that game, and possibly Bayonetta 2 and a handful of other exclusives (see Xenoblade Chronicles X above as well), and are now grateful that they don't have to go through with buying an expensive doorstop that has more or less died on its ass at this point. For everyone who already has the game, though? Ehhh.
Steins;Gate 0, the prequel/sequel/spin-off to Steins;Gate, is also coming to both current Sony consoles this week. It's considered one of the better visual novel series out there, with a time-looping game mechanic that allows for multiple endings and a whole lot of convoluted sci-fi time-travelling goodness. Non-coincidentally enough, the original Steins;Gate is also coming out for PS4 around the same time in Europe (it's already out here, in fact) and North America. The original game was first released as far back as 2009 in Japan, but it wasn't until the fairly recent PS3 (late 2015), iOS and Steam (both in September) releases that folk got to play an official English version. At any rate, this is one of those visual novel series like Danganronpa that I've been meaning to jump into for a while, so it's firmly on my radar. Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Radiant Historia were Japanese games that did some interesting things with the concepts of time paradoxes and adjusting a narrative through tinkering with the past, and I can only imagine both were inspired by Steins;Gate to some extent.
The Dwarves is the newest release from King Art Games, the guys behind the superlative graphic adventure series The Book of Unwritten Tales. This RPG looks a mite more serious than the parodic pulp of TheBUT, and is apparently based on a novel that I imagine was only big in King Art's native Germany (though that didn't hurt the international appeal of The Witcher and its similar Poland-centric start). It still looks incredible and appears to have something of a Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance flavor to it; as in, a bridge between the mindless hack and slash of Diablo and something with a little more tactical flair to it such as the original Baldur's Gate titles - it even has the same tactical pause feature for its real-time combat. Plus, it's fantasy Dwarves. Who doesn't like those guys? Beer and gold and axes and shitting on the elves. I guess I'll reserve judgement until a few critics get their hands on it, but King Art Games has given me plenty of reason to trust them.
Last one this week, Ubisoft's Steep is out just in time for some Wintery fun on the slopes. And by fun, I mean horrific injury-inducing falls and spills. You will believe even the powderiest snow can break bones with Ubisoft's extreme Winter sports game, the first of theirs I believe where the mandatory climbing of the tallest structures around actually makes some sense. I'm not holding out a lot of hope that the game will be something I want to play - this genre peaked, so to speak, with Amped 3 - but I am anticipating a lot of enjoyable footage in the vein of Skate 3's wipeouts and crazy glitches. If nothing else, creating the douchiest rich kid snowboarder you can imagine then have him realistically shatter every bone in his body by jumping off cliffs sounds like... why are you all looking at me like that? It's been a rough year, we all need some release.
Right, turns out that the Nintendo Entertainment System had quite a busy year in 1987 after all. Thankfully the majority of the Japan debuts appear to be Famicom Disk System games, and I completed that wiki project some time ago. Even so, there's a huge number of releases in the latter half of the year that I wasn't anticipating, and the progress for this little catch-up project has slowed to a crawl: I only muddled my way through July '87 to the first half of October '87. All the same, it's highlighting a lot of work that was originally left on the table, and I'm especially thankful that I'm able to fix the mistakes that I myself made years back. I'd be glad that no-one seems to be visiting those pages and seeing the errors, but that also puts a damper on the work I'm doing now. Well, someone out there appreciates it. Jeff, possibly.
If it doesn't look like I'm going to finish the 1987 list by next week, I might just stick it on the back burner and move onto the GDQ wiki project. AGDQ 2017 starts on January 7th, and with everything in December taking my attention I imagine it'll just appear out of nowhere. So far I've taken the list from the GDQ site's schedule and am taking a preliminary glance through to see which pages need work. That schedule is always subject to last-minute changes, though, so I'm going to try to be vigilant as we get closer to the date. Feels like it's too early to celebrate the coming of another big days-long charity stream so soon after Extra Life though, you know?
Hitman: Episode 1: Paris
It took some amount of willpower to resist buying the rest of the first season of the new episodic Hitman, so impressed was I with the first episode, but this might actually be a case where I want to plug through each episode individually with some time separating them. When it comes to episodic games I nearly always want to play the next episode immediately after completing the prior, but I realize that's because they've all been heavily narrative-driven. I childishly resent having to wait months for a cliffhanger to be resolved, and so I tend to buy them in bundles when the "season" is complete.
With Hitman however, it does a disservice to the game as a whole to give you too much to delve into at once. Each setpiece episode is built with so many mechanics to explore, so much diversity in how you might take down the assassination targets and so many bonus objectives and additional modes (like the Escalations) to complete. Each episode needs time and space to breathe, as opposed to the more straightforward graphic adventure serials like Life is Strange or anything from Telltale, and this feels like one of the first cases where the episodic format is both beneficial to the developers - they can keep the lights on with the proceeds of the previous episodes as they work on the next - as well to the player.
Of course, once you've bought the entire season you're free to play it as you like. If I were so adamant about the above approach, I could easily just buy the whole thing and limit myself to one episode a month, let's say, and thoroughly immerse myself in that single zone until I feel like I've seen everything it has to offer and can move onto the next. At the same time, I sort of don't trust myself to do that, and jumping between the various episodes - perhaps to net an elusive target unique to that region - for the content tourism seems counterproductive to understanding and appreciating each level's deeper workings. These are quibbles, honestly, but it might be better in the long-run to pick up the episodes individually as breaks in my 2017 gaming schedule open up to accommodate them.
As for Paris, you can read how I got on with this "Putting the Sassin' into Assassin" play-by-play over here. I didn't find a good spot to talk about the two tutorial missions though, and both offer a far more streamlined version of the game in comparison to the immense size of the Paris map (and, from what I've heard, even larger maps for areas like Sapienza).
The boat mission test is fun because of its artifice: the fake boat is surrounded by canvas and wooden walls, with the missile silo-like exterior visible throughout. It's surreal to look up and see a huge cylindrical metal tunnel to the sky from behind the backdrops - it takes a moment to process what you're seeing. The goal is to "assassinate" a jetsetting thief who calls himself The Sparrow, and the tutorial part teaches you all about disguises and how each one has certain allowances for where they can go, the disposing of bodies to elude attention, the suspicion trackers of the more eagle-eyed NPCs who are generally those who are likely to know that you don't belong like those in the same profession or supervisors, acquiring and concealing items from the environment, and using the common tricks and tools of the assassin trade to approach and eliminate the target without getting spotted. Curiously, the game also creates the somewhat unrealistic but recurring element that is the "important VIP that apparently no-one knows well enough to figure out that it's just 47 wearing their clothes", which leads me to believe that the game is set in the same universe as Superman. Just needs a pair of glasses, and 47 suddenly vanishes with nary but a bespectacled stranger where he once stood. I also like that you're allowed to toss people off the boat: presumably there's something down there to soften their fall in lieu of seawater, but 47 doesn't seem particularly concerned either way.
The Russia exam map recreates a classic Cold War black op with the narrative reasoning that the head of the ICA based it on a mission he himself narrowly completed back when he was an agent in the 1970s with the intent of giving this untrustworthy new rookie an exam so challenging he couldn't possibly complete it. It's another relatively small level: a single aircraft hangar with offices on the first floor, and a surrounding car park and guard station. The whole stage puts you in trespassing mode - while you're often harmlessly escorted out of such areas if you get spotted, in here they just shoot you because it's meant to be a Russian military base in Cuba - so you really need to be fast in procuring a disguise and finding the target. Fortunately, almost any disguise gives you free reign of the base. The target, an obnoxious American chess grandmaster, is usually escorted by a guard and the local KGB Colonel. This level introduces Opportunities - guided tours for certain showy assassinations that are really designed to give you an idea of the mischief you can get up to - and so there's a lot of options. You can dress as the Colonel and escort the target to a secluded area for a sneaky execution, find some expensive vodka and poison him with it, mess with the slide projector and electrocute him, or - and I believe every Giant Bomb staff member took this approach the first time playing this map, as did I, as it's almost impossible to miss the NPC conversation that inspires it - set up an ejector seat test and rig it so the chair actually goes off and drops the target from a great height. While this is meant to be a simple map to get players confident enough to try the real thing, it can be challenging if you're trying to avoid using disguises or attempting the restrictive Escalations: you don't earn any mastery XP like you would on the regular missions from going out of your way like this, but it helps bring out the inherent challenge of the level.
I'll be playing more Hitman in the future, for sure. I imagine the next season will begin before I'm done with this one, such is the speed that they've been putting them out, but at least I can now take part in the zeitgeist that seems to have wrapped up the entire site. If it doesn't make GOTY for Giant Bomb, I'll honestly be surprised.
You know, I'm not sure what I was expecting from Axiom Verge. The internet collectively went a bit nuts for this pixel-based SpaceWhipper last year, to an extent I rarely see for an Indie pixel game of this genre. I love them to bits - see last week's Sunday Summaries on Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight, a similar case to this - so I was going to dive into this one regardless, but it seems very... well, ordinary. In a giant crowd of ordinary.
Don't get me wrong, it's a well-made one of these. The game presents a huge number of weapon modifications that modify the spread of your core weapon's output, though it doesn't quite get into crazy mix-and-match combinations. The music's fine and atmospheric, though the sound effects are a bit grating with their low-fidelity drills and boops. The aesthetic is particularly striking; it recalls a lot of H. R. Giger's less famous work with serene female faces surrounded with black-tinged biomechanical gubbins, which you might also see in something like Cyberdreams's Dark Seed graphic adventures or the PC Engine game Jaseiken Necromancer - such was the Swiss master of the macabre's widespread appeal that his influence can be seen in both Western and Eastern games, even beyond the usual xenomorphs. The story's on the philosophical side, and deals a lot with the role of the protagonist and the nature of the alien world he finds himself in after a lab accident, not too dissimilar to the plot of Another World (and I want to say that was one of Axiom Verge's more deliberate references).
One significant aspect is how the game allows you to "glitch" reality. It's where the deliberately old-school presentation - hovering between 8-bit and 16-bit, depending on the area - works to the game's advantage. Graphically, everything could feasibly appear on an old console, except for the glitch effects: these might also be seen while playing an old game tape that hasn't been cleaned in a while, sure, but it wouldn't be intentional like they are here. The game plays with its biomechanical world by suggesting that the setting - an interdimensional pocket named Sudra, claimed by its inhabitants to be poised between our universe and one that has seen much greater technological advancement - is actually sitting between a physical world (ours) and a digital one. That the line between physical flesh and blood and digital code is blurred in this place, and that the "breach", which is essentially static white noise made manifest as damaging airborne particles, surrounds this world like a maelstrom of inscrutable chaos. The glitching also makes a strong impact on the gameplay, with the player eventually collecting a type of weapon that can glitch enemies and the environment for various beneficial effects. A glitched enemy might move slower, fire less frequently, float around harmlessly or simply cease to be corporeal. Likewise, glitchy platforms and walls will impede exploration, until they are turned "off" (or "on"). The player picks up a few other means of travelling through areas they couldn't reach before - it wouldn't be much of a SpaceWhipper without this element - but none of them are as noteworthy as the idea of fiddling around the with the nature of reality, as a scientist who might visualize this strange world as being part machine code.
Overall though, the game follows the Super Metroid template to a T, more than any other Indie SpaceWhipper I've played in recent memory. The dark and claustrophobic atmosphere, the hostile alien lifeforms that populate the planet, the equally alien and occasionally fragile structures that surround each room, the mysterious sapient beings that appear to help and hinder the player in equal measure, and the gameplay's focus on firepower and the drive to improve it in order to weather the hazardous distances between checkpoints, or boss encounters.
Like I said, this is a great game. It has a number of wonderful surprises both mechanical and narrative in nature and controls fluidly with a brisk movement pace that increases as you procure more traversal power-ups, with the few button-specific commands never growing in number to the extent that you can barely keep up with which button does what - an issue that plagued Guacamelee and a handful of others. Keeping genre fare like this simple is essential to the lasting appeal of the format, which should be obvious when creating a game in a sub-genre made popular back when there were fewer buttons to worry about, and Axiom Verge handles that paradigm without having to sacrifice any of its novel twists to the formula. But formula is what it sticks to, more or less, and while I can concur with the richly deserved appeal it garnered from the mainstream, I'm still left slightly perplexed by it. It's an Indie SpaceWhipper, guys. You know these things are everywhere, right? Or am I overstating just how much everyone was talking about this thing last March? (It didn't make Giant Bomb's top ten, so perhaps so.)
Bonjour mes amis, and welcome to this little feature I threw together to celebrate finally getting my gloved hands on what might be Giant Bomb's 2016 GOTY, IO Interactive's Hitman: No Subtitle (It Was Assassinated). I only have the intro pack currently, though I'm enjoying the game enough that I might start picking up the other episodes whenever there's a sale on, or if they hugely discount the whole thing to promote Season 2.
What surprised me about Hitman, as a total series neophyte who only had vague ideas of what to expect, is how much the game relies on classic adventure game puzzles and timing, rather than something more stealth-based and action-y. Those are still prevalent elements, for sure, but if you're playing the game "properly" (like Dark Souls, the game is built in such a way that no ideal solution ever presents itself) there's not a whole lot of sneaking around and dodging behind enemy patrols that needs to be done. Generally speaking, there's almost always an easy-to-get disguise that will allow you free reign of any given region in a level, and you're better served going that route than relying on the game's deliberately inscrutable spin on the usual guard sensory cones and the like. Combat's also a no-go: almost everyone's armed, and you die relatively quickly once you've been made and the goons start showing up in larger numbers. Instead, the gameplay prioritizes spending the time to set-up and execute the perfect murder and cheerfully eluding blame as you make an unhurried exit from the crime scene. Coin toss distractions and sneak attacks from behind have been my go-to, since I'm an impatient sort, but there really is a breadth of options available for imaginative manslaughter, many of which can be viewed in the game's own "collectible" menu of opportunities, discoveries and assassination methods scattered across each level.
Yet, the game only gives you sensible choices to make with these challenges. To find some of the truly creative methods, which is to say the insane ones that would never work, you either have to look to the game's multiplayer aspect or take matters into your own hands. The multiplayer aspect, the Contracts, operate like a game of "H.O.R.S.E.": a player runs around the level, marking and murdering various targets in various disguises in various ways, and then uploads that chain for others to try. You can make it really difficult on yourself, and subsequently those following in your footsteps, by going for the most ridiculous and loud kills imaginable. I'm still a little too wet behind the ears to dig too deep into this mode - I had a heck of a time just figuring out how to take down this week's Elusive Target, which might be another topic for this feature to cover if I continue it - but I've been picking up little clues and notions about these levels that I'm curious to try out.
Paris, the game's first episode, tasks Agent 47 with eliminating two targets: Viktor Novikov and Dalia Margolis. The duo cooperatively run a spy ring collecting information on the rich and powerful by using attractive fashion models to honeypot their way into positions of trust where they might glean a gem or two, which I believe is also the plot of Zoolander. (It has been a while since I saw that movie, though.) The former target is schmoozing downstairs with fashion icons, the press and a few incognito government contacts, while the latter target is upstairs monitoring an auction of state secrets with a group of insidious global movers-and-shakers. Because they spend almost the entire time separated, barring a security lockdown spurred on by something loud and dumb you just did, the various opportunities and challenges generally only involve one or the other with few exceptions.
Because this was my first proper episode, I've spent quite a bit of time casing the joint and following the built-in opportunities each level provides, which act as guided tours for the level's quirks and geography. These have been instrumental in my understanding of the mansion's layout, the location of various important items like the master key that unlocks every door and the IAGO invitation that allows me to skip straight to the third floor without needing a disguise. It's also introduced me to a rogue's gallery of bit-players: the blogger who is trying to get an interview with Novikov, Novikov's contact from the Russian national security agency FSB, Dalia's accident-prone assistant Hailey, the reclusive Sheikh al-Ghazali whose wealth is matched only by his fondness for shimmying around window ledges, the delicate head fashion designer Sebastian Sato, and - I'd say inimitable if it wasn't so easy to imitate him - Helmut Kruger, the trashy gothic fashion idol with whom Agent 47 shares a certain bald likeness. These guys are like the characters in any adventure game: they can be window dressing that adds flavor to the narrative, or they can end up being actively if obliviously involved in your schemes.
Here's a few of my favorite ways I've completed the Paris mission:
One of the big set-piece murders involves dropping the entire catwalk's lighting rig on Novokov as he strides out to make an ingratiatory speech to the collected fashionistas in the audience. It's pretty much the least subtle way to complete the level, short of sticking a mine on a propane tank and rolling it into a pack of NPCs like they were the shark from Jaws. It's an opportunity that requires a great deal of prep too: you need to overhear the security goons talking about how unsafe the lighting is, you need to remove Sato from the event (you can just spike his drink with rat poison and be his emesis nemesis) so Novikov is forced to appear in his stead, and then you need to find a crowbar and to physically climb up there to get the ball rolling. Worth it though.
I booby-trapped the blogger's camera and exploded it outside the entrance to the mansion mid-interview with Novikov. I was the Sheikh at the time. Just prior to that, I won the secret auction as the Sheikh (I assume I stole his tablet) and was congratulated by Dalia in her office. I didn't let her finish her effusive piece, though, as I had better things to do and just dropped a chandelier on her head. This mansion has a real problem with insecure light fixtures.
I poisoned Novikov twice, since I had both poisons on me. That opportunity involves mixing up his favorite cocktail, which requires a quick scout around in the basement. There's a few documents like that lying around which become necessary for some plans to work, and the game helpfully tracks them for you in the "intel" screen (though unless you're using the guided opportunity tracker, you still have to find them again). I first tried the cyanide I was given by Dalia while disguised as Kruger, since all of IAGO's "agents" are given some, and he dropped dead mid-schmooze. The second time, I gave him an emetic and followed him to the bathroom, whereupon I drowned him in his own vomit. It's a delightful game.
One of my favorites, if perhaps a little straightforward, involves setting off the duo's big fireworks show early and taking a vantage point where I can snipe them both as they come outside to investigate. The sniping controls aren't exactly ideal, but if there's assassinating to be done in a modern setting I'd better be able to Duke Togo that shit.
Here's a few discoveries I'd like to capitalize on at some point:
There's a battleaxe in the cafeteria. I have no idea what it's doing there, and there's no way to conceal it, so I can only imagine that a weapon that size kept so far away from the two targets is meant to be an expert-level assassination tool. Challenge accepted.
One challenge has you drop Dalia onto Viktor from high enough that they both perish. I noticed when I did the sniping mission that Dalia's third-floor balcony overlooks where Viktor walks out on the ground level. That sounds like it might be hilarious. And super efficient too, come to think of it.
Another has you eliminate both of them simultaneously in their underground panic room. I suspect the best way to get them running is to either set off the fire alarm or use Novikov's bodyguard's phone to trigger an alert. Either way, it can't be difficult to complete that mission with them paired together, provided I can find and enter the panic room before they lock it up.
I've killed Novikov and thrown him into the Seine before, but it didn't occur to me to cut out the middleman and just push him in when he's taking in the view. I'll have to rectify that, but I am concerned about any screaming drawing attention. The game has a great challenge-unlocking system where it won't actually force you to complete the whole mission for them to count. Rather, they stay unlocked even if you reload to an earlier save, and you merely have to complete the mission once to get all the score benefits.The first time I completed the Paris mission, I earned around twenty unlocked challenges and gained enough XP to be halfway to "mastering" the level because I kept reloading and trying different approaches. The game manages a fantastic balance of being simultaneously challenging and super lenient that I admire. Specifically, it does this by making the truly challenging gameplay completely optional, like the Elusive Targets and the Escalations (more on those in another update; gotta get better at them first).
I kinda want to poison Dalia with the cyanide she gives you. I'd need to be Kruger for that, and getting his suit isn't as easy as the Giant Bomb boys make it seem. It's hard to choke him out and keep that body undetected if you don't want to kill the guy, since the security patrols are relentless. It would also require dressing up as a member of the auction staff to actually spike the drink, and because the auction and fashion show waiters have different colored waistcoats it's much harder to find the former.
Two words: Vampire Magician. Found the suit once, already had a different opportunity underway and left it behind. Apparently the game has a whole bunch of magic trick-related assassinations unique to that costume, but I have no idea how you're supposed to pull them off while wearing the least conspicuous outfit imaginable. Could it be possible that the Vampire Magician can turn invisible...?
Although I didn't get around to it this week, I'm excited to try out Hitman finally. I must've seen at least three Giant Bomb staff members go through the early sections now, discovering the projectile prowess of the modest fire extinguisher and learning what you can and absolutely cannot get away with while trying to be inconspicuous. Getting through those early tutorial missions and the Paris map myself, finally, will seem all too familiar. All the same, it feels like this was the game to watch this year, along with Doom and a handful of other surprises.
2016 has definitely been a year of surprises in the grander scheme of things, almost all of them bad to potentially apocalyptic. I'm glad the video game industry reversed that trend, with the surprises as the highlights and the straightforward sequels and certain overhyped games slightly underwhelming in comparison.
Samurai Shodown VI is out this week on PS4's PSN, the first time a home version has been made available in English. The original Arcade version came out in '05, apparently, and it was ported to the PS2 in Japan early the following year. I didn't even know the Samurai Shodown series went all the way up to VI, but that's what I get for underestimating SNK's propensity for sequels. Just goes to sho, I suppose. I do think it's rad that we're getting freshly localized PS2 games for PS4's PSN - their PS2 Classics selection has been pretty great so far.
Aqua Moto Racing Utopia certainly sounds like a blast from that title. Can't say I have much experience with the Moto Racing series, but if they're still producing them then someone must be buying them. Look at me, with my fancy book-learnin' knowledge of how supply and demand works. Jetski racing games and their water physics should be one of those litmus tests for the graphical/physics hardware of new console generations; like Triple H's (old) hair, but even more wavy.
For Steam, we have... a new Dragon Knight game? For real? It doesn't seem to be related to the infamous eroge RPG series though, just cribbing off its uninspired name for a dull looking anime hack n' slash. Oddly, the Steam page has tags for nudity and the like, but there's nothing to suggest that in the screenshots (its heroines don't appear to be wearing much, but that's every anime game). Maybe the person who added those tags assumed it was a sequel/remake too.
I was going to look for other Steam games, but then I noticed there were three anime visual novels being put out by the same company on the same day. You want an update on what Steam is like presently, there's your answer.
: NES 1987, general clean-up and header images. I've theoretically processed this year already, but there's a few gaps that needed filling in.
1987 is proving to be a busier year for the NES than I remembered. It was a significant twelve months for the console, make no mistake, with its European launch (well, for the half of Europe that matters) and the introduction of major franchises like Final Fantasy, Metroid and Mega Man - though Alex will be the first to tell you that the original Mega Man had room for improvement. In my head, though, I have this weird idea that the NES was still testing the waters for its first few shaky years and only hit its groove around 88/89. Yet I suppose that wouldn't make much sense given how close the SNES would be at that point.
It's still a relatively modest list of releases compared to something like the recent SNES projects, but I'm getting sidetracked by games with multiple Virtual Console releases, since I'm probably going to be adding those eventually and might as well bash them out now. With some of the more popular games in particular, we're talking four separate region releases for all three consoles that support their own Virtual Arcade: Wii, 3DS and Wii U. And then there's all the fussiness inherent to the currently busted release editing tools. So that's taking some time.
All the same though, I hope to have this catch-up task completed before December sneaks up on us and it's time to knuckle down with GOTY stuff and holiday-related chores, and then AGDQ shortly into the new year. Not that I'll have much to write about for GOTY given I've barely played any 2016 games, but I'm sure I'll throw something together. Like a "2016's Best of 2015" feature, maybe.
Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight
For whatever reason, my gaming this week was dominated by two challenging 2D platformers. Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight, the first of these, is an unfairly overlooked Indie SpaceWhipper from a small studio who have been putting out these anime-inspired action games for a while but have only recently entered the big leagues. Well, the Indie big leagues, which is getting a game added to Steam with a $10 price tag. I realize it sounds like some janky Touhou Project doujin, but it's legit. Honest.
I've said my piece about this game in the review I wrote last week, but the skinny is that while it's not the most elaborate Indie SpaceWhipper ever made nor the longest, there's a great deal of craft and attention put behind it. Its Souls-ian flair wasn't something I anticipated, and the game is fairly rough from the offset due to how much damage you take and how few healing items are available at the start. It becomes far more manageable as your stock of curative increases, though you still have to be on your toes throughout.
I'll sweep up games of this genre every so often because I find it relaxing to comb an ever-increasing map of squares and backtrack for collectibles and the like, and Momodora is a fine one of those. I'm tempted to try some of its freeware predecessors at some point.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
This one was just a bummer. When Donkey Kong Country Returns came out, there was plenty about it I loved as a fan of the SNES trilogy of Donkey Kong Country games. I loved the music, which celebrated the great compositions of David Wise (even if this site's owners seem to have a beef with him) with many a modern remix, and I loved its colorful presentation with the various non-2D flourishes - like how barrels would launch you into the background and foreground - or how certain stages would be rendered entirely in silhouette. Unfortunately, the game also carried over some of the faults of that series too, in particular its inkongruous difficulty curve for such a cheerful series. I've no problem with platformers being challenging - there's a time and place for masocore, but even something traditionally soft like Mario needs to throw you for a loop now and again - but DKCR was unnecessarily so, to the extent that its developers appeared to believe that the appeal of the original games was in a large part because they were so difficult. That was more the result of Rare being a developer unused to crafting a family-friendly 2D platformer and the awkward, sluggish movement of its giant simian hero, both of which were apparently kongsidered sacrosanct by Retro Studios and transported over wholesale instead of any attempt to alleviate them.
With Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, the developers have doubled down on both the wonderful presentation - now in HD! It really does look incredible - and this underlying user-unfriendly gameplay. Companions are now simply upgrades for Donkey Kong: they sit on DK's back and assist him with his platforming. Diddy expands the amount of horizontal distance DK can travel with his backpack, Cranky can use a Scrooge McDuck-style pogo hop with his walking stick to increase DK's jumping height and allow him to safely move across spikes, and Dixie provides a middle ground between the two with her Yoshi flutterjump-enabling helicopter hair. The player can collect Banana Coins and spend them for single-stage power-ups too, like a health increase or hiring the secret-finding acumen of Squawks the Parrot to find certain well-hidden collectibles. You would think with all these bonuses that the game would be challenging but fair, right?
Well, no, not really. What the game is really fond of doing is forcing you to start levels over from the very beginning. It either does this by having a collectible right at the end be impossible to reach without a companion, and then refusing to put any companion barrels between the collectible in question and the last checkpoint you hit. Ditto for secret exits, of which the game has many. Another fond trick is to take all the checkpoints away, or ensure there's no healing items or companion barrels to give you a reprieve at any point thus forcing you to complete the entire level nigh perfectly. Without a companion to aid his leaps, Donkey Kong moves and jumps like molasses on a Monday, and it's rarely adequate for some of the game's trickier precision jumping sequences. Tropical Freeze will do this with the hardest stages it has just to make them even harder. Why? Well, I can only surmise it's because the designers aren't copacetic on how to make the game more challenging without mean-spirited artificial methods like the above.
But it gets worse. There's another gameplay hurdle that was carried over from the previous game: the way each stage has exciting dynamic events that create obstacles that are almost impossible to predict ahead of time. Floors start collapsing, lava starts erupting, or rubble kongstantly drops down from above in some levels, and others resort to the Flappy Bird rocket barrel or minecart all too frequently. In those fast-paced auto-scrollers, this "cinematic unpredictability" issue is exacerbated severalfold, and you'll often sacrifice lives by the dozens to memorize what happens and when so you don't crash into something you couldn't possibly have anticipated. The game is generous with 1ups, at least, though that does nothing to mitigate the forfeiture of your finite time on this Earth.
Even boss fights, which are often the highlight for this series, go on far too long. Rather than figuring out a boss's moveset and hitting them the traditional Nintendo Three times, or a more reasonable five times, bosses take anywhere between nine and fifteen hits before they finally give up. The only reason they take this long is to chip away at your very limited health. Again, this feels like something preserved from the originals, but was never necessarily an aspect worth keeping around.
Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is a fantastic platformer in most respects, easily the rival of Super Mario 3D World, Shovel Knight or Rayman Legends. If you just intend to play it casually without worrying about KONG letters or puzzle pieces, have at it with my blessing. However, if you were to make an earnest attempt to beat every stage with all collectibles and unlock all the secret levels, you'd soon be tearing your hair out over how patently and deliberately unfair it all is. It's not just difficult for the sake of channeling the SNES trilogy - its reputation for ape murder makes the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden seem like a safe haven in comparison - but done so with a level of cruelty so callous that I'm not entirely sure what was going through the heads of Retro's designers. Maybe they're resentful that they were stuck working on another Donkey Kong sequel when the Metroid Prime series, easily their magnum opus, grows stagnated. It's not good form for a critic to dwell on kongjecture though, so I'll just warn folk ahead of time that while this game has a bright and colorful facade, inside beats a heart of the coldest, blackest night.
Hey, guess what happens if you beat the game with 100%? Hard Mode! No items, no companions, only one hit point. Go fuck yourself, Tropical Freeze.
Another short one this week, since I'm writing this in the midst of a 24 hour Extra Life charity stream hosted by Jeff. Yeah, that guy. It's been a particularly rough week for most of us otherwise, so I'm just going to get on with what I have here and try not to think about it too much. I'll be back to my usual level of verbosity next week, I hope. Or maybe I'll stick with the whole brevity thing and start writing more non-Sunday stuff. Seems a bit late in the year to start tweaking this format, but hey. It's not like there hasn't been a lot of changes of late.
It looks like everything got out of the way for the two big releases this week. The first of those, Watch_Dogs 2, is an open-world game that... I'm sort of optimistic about? I'm getting a lot of inFamous Second Son cringe vibes from the totally right-on activism angle, but Watch_Dogs was a game that seemed to go down badly because it was far too po-faced and generic with its protagonist and story. If nothing else, this colorful new entry seems to be attempting to address those shortcomings. Well, besides the generic story, but I guess time will tell with that. Either way, I've been sitting on the original Watch_Dogs for a while now - it's the last of my PS4 backlog to tackle, though I've plenty of other games on other systems to look at - so I'll wait until I've played that before discussing my hopes for how the second one will fix its myriad problems. How's that for unclouded optimism?
The other big launch this week, which I erroneously reported as coming out far sooner, is Pokemon Sun/Moon for 3DS. I'm tempted to just copy/paste what I said last time in the 14/10/2016 Sunday Summaries update, but let's make an effort here. I'm generally in three minds about video game genres: I'm either into it, in which case I tend to consume as much of it as I can; I don't care for it, in which case I generally ignore it; or I've accepted that I no longer have the patience or time for it, which is where a lot of long-winded RPGs and open-world games are starting to end up. I still love those two particular sub-genres, but I'm being far more judicious with them given how much of my gaming time they've monopolized this year. Pokemon, and monster raising sims like them, are especially demanding of your time with the amount of grinding involved. That's cool to some extent; Pokemon was built to be played on the go, in small bursts for long stretches, but it's not how I consume games. This is a long-winded way of saying that I don't particularly care for Pokemon, but I think it's fair if I spend a few sentences to say why without falling back on anything more immediate and dismissive.
There's other stuff out this week, but it's fairly minor. An Assassin's Creed compilation, for instance, or some Star Wars Battlefront GOTY edition (which they called something else, because who considered that to be GOTY?). A sequel to the Whispered World? Something called Runbow coming out for Steam? I think everyone's going to be fine hacking and Pikachu-ing.
Managed to get quite a bit of wiki work in this week after the utter dearth last time, though it's still mostly meta data entry and not so much probing the weird and wonderful world of Japan-only video games that makes for slightly better reading. I did, however, complete that ongoing task of the past few weeks of ensuring that we have all the releases for TurboGrafx-16/PC Engine games that have since been rereleased on Wii Virtual Console, Wii U Virtual Console and the PS3/PSP PSN store. There were even a few 3DS eShop releases in there too, but the TG16 has yet to make much of a splash on there. Much like how it failed to make a splash pretty much anywhere else. I still love it though.
The second task, which I'm going to try to fast-forward through to prepare for January's Awesome Games Done Quick event, involves going through the list of NES games released in 1987 and ensuring the pages are in an ideal condition. When I first processed the early years of the NES (and the Famicom, its Japanese equivalent) I wasn't yet a moderator, so many of the more obscure pages don't have their aliases or header images yet. Really though it's just more sprucing up, and I might once again recommend the Chrontendo documentary series if you want to know everything there is to learn about the Famicom/NES from its 1983 launch in Japan to the end of 1989, which is where the video series is currently at. For the record, episodes 14-27 cover the breadth of 1987, which is really where the NES picked up momentum both natively and abroad - that's almost half the videos in that series (at that point) spent dissecting the releases of that year alone, even though it was the fifth year of the system's existence.
Dark Souls III!
I don't have much more to say about Dark Souls III that I didn't already cover in the past two Sunday Summaries and three huge Bosswatch blogs that detail and review all the regions (except Irithyll Prison, I guess missed that one. Eh, it's just Tower of Latria again) and bosses of the game. However, I did probe a little into the new game plus, so let's talk about that for a spell.
Many RPGs have their own distinct takes on NG+. A lot of them don't have any sort of options whatsoever, besides simply starting over from scratch. A great many, though, have allowed players to carry over certain elements from their previous run to subtly change the experience the second time through. The Souls series is no exception: they'll regularly drop you back at the intro at the experience (or "soul") level you had at the end of the game, with all the stats and equipment carried over but lacking the quest items and keys that allowed you to make progress. The enemies are tougher too, of course, because Souls isn't going to hold your hand even if you've managed to defeat it once. The health and damage boost is barely noticeable for the weaker enemies and bosses at the front half of the game, but it won't prepare you for the tougher late-game content.
This is largely because you aren't really getting that much stronger any more, at least nowhere near at the same rate as before. If you beat the game at Soul Level 90-100, which I did, your most useful stats are probably close to their "soft cap" - the point where the stat returns aren't worth the XP investment. You might then put more points into less essential stats, like health or equip load which still help to a degree, yet you'll regularly find that you're doing the same damage but the enemies are taking more hits in stride. NG+ is designed to be a lot more difficult in Souls specifically because it takes away the "safety net" of being able to grind a few more levels or upgrade weapons to overcome the difficulty of the next boss. At the end of your first game, you're almost certainly rocking close to max damage with your stat scaling and fully upgraded weapon, and there's little you can enhance from that point if you hit another boss roadblock.
NG+ tends to be where "the true Dark Souls" begins for many players, having enough experience with the game to know how to explore its areas and fight its bosses with a level of efficiency that hopefully offsets the increased difficulty. Dark Souls 3 goes one better than its predecessors by populating its NG+ world with new, stronger versions of pre-existing rings. The game increased its emphasis on the many passive bonsues rings can give you throughout the series, with four slots for equipping rings and almost 100 unique ring types in the game to find, and grabbing these enhanced versions is the best advantage a player can have when meeting the enhanced challenges ahead.
At any rate, I'm not sure how much further I intend to get. New Game Plus is an investment on two fronts: the time consideration of getting through the entire game again, even if you can just run through areas once you know where all the traps and ambushes are; and the investment of wanting to see all that content again, even though there's not a whole lot different about it besides a few numerical tweaks. In particular, the way the game starts very easy - even with their health and damage boosts, the enemies in the first half of the game are complete pushovers - and then gradually reaches a hellish end point with bosses you struggled against plenty at the end of the previous game suddenly getting even harder. That's mostly on me and how I play games though; I'd rather play ten new games that I'll have mixed opinions on than spend an equal amount of time on a single game I love.
Speaking of which, I want next week and the rest of November to be marked with an increased amount of variation in my gaming experience. There's a few platformers I wouldn't mind tackling, and a few adventure games that I've been sitting on for a while. Neither of those game types take particularly long to complete, so I hope to have some diversity with next week's gaming rundowns. Until then, look after yourselves everyone. Give someone at risk from this scary new regime a hug, too. But, like, warn them first. They're plenty jumpy right now.
I wish this final Bosswatch entry came to you all in more auspicious circumstances. I spent all of Tuesday night whacking away at the worst monsters From Software could throw at me, but could do nothing to stop the one that just won the Presidency of the United States. I hate to make things political, especially when so many are so sensitive right now, but just know that I'm sorry about what happened and that I hope you all look after yourselves and be an ally for the minorities most at risk.
With that, I suppose I'd better get on with these bosses. This entry's going to go on a little longer than expected; I didn't quite anticipate the amount of content the game still had left after the third Lord of Cinder - of four, though there's technically five - and the various optional areas the game had in store. For spoilers' sake, we're starting directly after the second and third Lords of Cinder all the way up to the final boss, including every optional boss along the way. If you missed the earlier entries in this series, the first part is here and the second part is here.
Dancer of the Boreal Valley
The Dancer announces herself (she's one of the few overtly female bosses in the game) immediately after the player takes down the third Lord of Cinder. Up until this point, the game's bounced between linear and non-linear. There's been a few splits in the path, though only one was truly optional: the Smouldering Lake. When you complete the various branches that lead to the second and third Lord of Cinder, you are immediately warped to a church area found early in the game - right before the Vordt fight, the second boss - and given an item to proceed further into the Castle areas above the city. However, as soon as you try using this item, the Dancer ambushes you. Hence why we start this Bosswatch immediately with a boss instead of a new region.
The Dancer, like Vordt, is a wandering knight of the Boreal Valley that has since turned into a mindless animal through a process that isn't really explained, but could be contributed to Pontiff Sulyvahn's knowledge of forbidden sorceries; however, like Vicar Amelia of Bloodborne, this particular bestial curse seems to affect women differently. Rather than the charging beast Vordt was, the Dancer - true to her name - moves with far more graceful, almost vulpine motions. Her design accentuates her femininity without necessarily going the full boobs and butts route that would be fairly ridiculous for a ten foot tall stooped monster, with the sole exception being her helmet. The helmet has both an intimidating grille, which routinely emits cold foggy breath, and a wispy veil that underscores her dancer-like combat style. It's a neat design, and a good set to purchase if you want gender-appropriate armor for your female protagonist and don't want to resort to the paper-thin dresses of the prayer maidens or Dusk of Oolacile (or just stick her in unisex heavy armor, because what does it matter ultimately? Pfft, Fashion Souls, am I right?).
Which is partly why this boss is so disappointing. She starts strong with that stealthy first impression, but the fight itself feels like a carbon copy of the Pontiff Sulyvahn encounter - she even pulls out a second sword midway through, with matching fire and magic damage - that had way less thought put into its difficulty. In the first half of the fight, she has a poorly telegraphed lunging command grab which is very likely to hit you, and it's instant death. Even while embered, I couldn't figure out how to survive it (though in fairness I haven't really been prioritizing the health stat Vigor). And she'll do it constantly. You can't rely on ranged attacks so much in this one, because she's a large foe in a fairly enclosed space and she's fast enough to close any distance quickly. When she has her second sword, her grab thankfully goes away, but almost all her attacks at this point involve swinging both swords at once in multi-stage combos. It's highly unlikely you'll survive the whole thing if you didn't evade the first hit, since it doesn't take long for those double slashes to deplete your stamina, and she has two variations which usually result in an early demise. Unlike the Pontiff, where you could sort of see how he could be feasibly be recovering stamina between swings with his deliberate tempo, the Dancer seems to have no such barrier when it comes to unleashing devastating combos one after the other. She's a less human opponent, granted, but it felt like a pale shade of the far better structured and tactical Pontiff fight.
Add that with the fact that she appears out of nowhere, has very little plot relevance and appears long after you've already dealt with the Boreal Valley and its leader and you have a boss that feels thrown in because there was nowhere else to put her. In my headcanon for the development of the game, I imagined a scenario where two groups of designers were working on the major set-piece Pontiff fight, and one came up with the incarnation we faced in Irithyll while the other, lesser creation was left on the wayside until someone decided the game needed an extra boss and just shoehorned it in at an otherwise quiet lull. At least she looked cool?
After the Dancer, you are allowed to place the new key item you received to activate a grisly self-beheading statue which opens a staircase to Lothric Castle. The Castle eventually leads to the final Lord of Cinder, who is situated in a throne room at the very top not unlike Dracula in the Castlevania series.
The Castle's perhaps one of my biggest issues with Dark Souls 3, and something I discussed briefly in last week's Sunday Summaries. A lot of the enemies have been brought back from the High Wall region that begins the game after completing the Firelink tutorial area, and all of them have been buffed to remain a threat for the player at their much higher soul level. That means the same weak zombies, masked thralls and slow armored knights, only they're now doing much more damage and their usual tendency to come at you in groups has become far more dangerous. To be clear, they're a greater threat to you at this level than they were back when you first encountered them in the Great Wall as a weakling, even considering the amount of time the player's had to learn their patterns and just generally grow more adept at the game itself.
Design-wise, the external half of the Castle strongly recalls the last area of Boletaria in Demon's Souls or the latter half of the Undead Burg in Dark Souls. There's a lot of masonry that needs navigating around, and you'll be accosted by several more wyverns along the way, who follow the Souls tradition of sitting tight on a piece of rampart and napalming the same area over and over. These particular wyverns (there are two) had a curious trick to them, however: you can resort to a whole bunch of arrows to defeat them, but their bodies will remain present until you destroy their demonic possessors - the same weird blackish serpent things that infected the first boss, Iudex Gundyr, and a few zombies afterwards - which causes the entire wyvern's body to then vanish. I went the arrow route like a coward, but I suspect you could destroy these Las Plagas parasites and remove the dragons that way too, avoiding their firebombing to get around them and remove the real threat. The other enemies are simply variations on what we've seen before, including the overweight halberd knight in the bonfire area of the High Wall and the many other types of Lothric soldiers and knights. The only new type was a robed sorcerer that buffed and healed any knights in the area, and made himself incredibly unpopular (to me) by doing so.
Before you reach the boss of Lothric Castle - specifically, he's the boss of the first half that makes up the entire Castle - you have an alternate path to take that sends you to two new optional regions and equally optional bosses. I should make it clear that I only came back around to this guy once I had exhausted that route, but it wouldn't make sense to stick them in here between this boss's region and the boss himself. The optional bosses will be covered below this one.
The Dragonslayer Armor, rather than simply resurrecting Ornstein again, instead merges him with his burly companion Smough to create a heavily armored knight with a strong lightning affinity. The game doesn't cheat here, and manages to make this boss move as slowly as you'd expect from one with so much heavy armor (and a heavy shield). His design is kinda neat, something akin to a variation of Havel the Rock's bulky presentation but with an Ornstein-style lightning spear and his iconic draconian helmet. There's not a whole lot of lore about the guy, but you could feasibly conclude that he was built to resemble one of Gwyn's knights of old: the ones that were equipped for taking down the ancient dragons alongside their king. Curiously, however, the dragons seem to be supporting him this time, with several oddly skeletal dragons hovering around the battlements during the fight.
The boss hits hard, but his range is short and his speed leaves a lot to be desired, and so it becomes the sort of fight where cautiously picking your moment to strike wins the day, rather than the ugly battle of attrition many fights of this type turn into. You could make it out of the fight without a scratch if you spent enough time studying his moves, and it's a satisfying battle because of this strategic interplay. At least, for the first half. As I came to dread for many of the bosses in this game, the second half of the fight adds some nonsense that serves to derail my appreciation for the clever boss design by adding a new wrinkle that makes it far less enjoyable and/or survivable. The halfway switch-up occurs with every boss in the game too, though the switch itself can vary between annoying and interesting. It's nuts that they never feel the need to break away from this particular design crutch of "get them halfway down, then a thing happens and the boss is harder". There's not even a case where there's a three-step process, like the Bloodstained Beast of Bloodborne; the only variation is that it sometimes activates at 60% or 70% of the boss's health instead of 50%. With this fight, the new wrinkle involves the previously passive dragons who now, at random points in the fight with little fanfare, either pepper the bridge with fireballs close to where you're standing or simply send a huge explosion your way. You don't hear or see it coming, because you're focusing too much on the Dragonslayer Armor, and all too often the explosions or fireballs will take you by surprise and wreck you. The best bet is to keep moving throughout the whole fight and hope the odds are in your favor.
This boss is introduced as one where it's all about the art of the duel: reading your opponent and taking advantage whenever possible to get in a few hits. Being insta-killed by a dragon farting on your back at random intervals is like taking part a heavyweight belt match and having the other guy's manager jump into the ring to whack you with a folding chair from behind. It's heel behavior, and it makes me so mad that A) the fight is cheapened because of it, and B) I cheapened myself by using a pro wrestling analogy.
Consumed King's Garden
This small area breaks away from Lothric Castle, creating a mini-swamp like the Farron Keep region - though this one imparts the far more damaging "toxic" status effect - and packing it with a handful of tough enemies. The region itself is tiny though; it's two courtyard areas one after the other, and the boss appears immediately after. If you didn't mind missing a bunch of stuff, you could sprint from one side to the other without incident.
I wish I could say that this region was interesting, that it spoke to some aspect of the boss that explained why he lived in a garden that had been corrupted so thoroughly that walking through it meant certain death, but it doesn't, really. It's an excuse to force the player to pass through yet another venomous environment and suffer a bunch of status effects they can't easily (or cheaply) cure. There's also a large number of the parasite serpent creatures here too, which I've yet to determine is related to the next boss. You'll see.
Oceiros, the Consumed King
So the reason that Lothric is ruled by a Prince instead of a King is that the King went a bit crazy and was locked away for his own protection. The King has since turned into a reptilian hybrid, the result of his dragon obsession and years of research and study into obscure sorceries, and this is a theme that would recur a little later and was somewhat prominent in Dark Souls 2 as well with the lava dragon boss that was himself previously a human King. He's another boss that feels like an afterthought, or perhaps an idea for a sub-plot that wasn't entirely fleshed out. The game will delve back into dragon worship and the process of becoming a dragon a little later, but Oceiros stands out as being an unusual non-sequitur at this stage of the game. There are no dragons besides the feral wyverns that are feasting on the zombies of the kingdom - a recurring Souls element - and Oceiros speaks frequently about a child named Ocelotte. Ocelotte isn't seen during the fight, but it does appear that Oceiros is cradling something invisible with his non-dominant hand. Far as I can tell, having now beaten the game, the game never expands on this mystery child. The King doesn't talk about his two sons, the Princes, at all either. In fact, I only really assumed Oceiros to be the present King of Lothric: he could well be a distant ancestor that's been locked away in this wing of the castle for centuries.
Oceiros's design recalls that of a human transformed into a dragon, as stated, which was a feature of Dark Souls 2 that appears to have carried over. Through forsaken sorcery, the focus of the experiments of the mad dragon Seath, it is possible for a human to transmogrify into a dragon, if only in part. Oceiros is quite clearly a dragon when you fight him, but he carries himself in an oddly bipedal way that suggests his lower half didn't quite as transform as well as his top half. It's an odd design, but one that definitely hearkens back to Seath and his own unusual top-heavy form. Likewise, Oceiros doesn't appear to have eyes, but doesn't have any problem figuring out where you are.
The fight's a curious one. As both a sorcerer and a draconian beast, Oceiros balances ranged magic attacks and fast charging attacks that make him an unpredictable opponent, which perhaps suits his entirely insane disposition. He's a chatty guy too; he rarely stops ranting throughout the whole fight, creating another layer of distraction to deal with. His midway boss upgrade isn't particularly drastic; he simply loses what is left of his marbles and his dragon sweeps and charges become a lot more vicious. Still, he was definitely one of the easier bosses I've fought in the game, thanks in part to a dearth of random back-attacks and instant-kill command grabs. I can appreciate the fight for that much at least.
Talking of non-sequiturs, Untended Graves brings back a trippy favorite from Bloodborne: an identical clone of the hub area, but far more darker and more dilapidated. It wasn't until the end of the game that I recognized this area's significance, and until then this felt like a weird incongruity. Bloodborne's "Abandoned Old Workshop" became the template for the metaphysical Hunter's Dream due to the first hunter Gehrman, who occupied the real workshop. The powers that created the endless night created the dream, and based it on the memories of Gehrman who became its guardian in the process. However, the Hunter's Dream wasn't a real physical location, and seeing its real-life equivalent after years of abandonment was an interesting tidbit that lifted the veil ever so slightly from the vaguely ominous hub world and its secrets before the end game delved into it in more detail. Conversely, we already know the Firelink Shrine is real, because the NPCs we meet can travel to it and is connected to the bonfire system. It exists, but so too does the Untended Graves.
So what's the deal? Well, there's a hint in the soul description of the next boss, but it doesn't adequately explain how both Firelink Shrine and this place can exist simultaneously. Essentially, this is an aborted cycle where the flame was never kindled and the world fell into darkness, a la the other ending of Dark Souls. The shrine is abandoned, but appears to be a carbon copy, even down to the empty thrones for the named Lords of Cinder. The only NPC present is the elderly Shrine Handmaid vendor, who is hanging onto the last vestiges of her humanity. To talk more about the boss soul item, I'll have to cover the boss himself:
The enemies of the Untended Graves are taken from various areas of the game, creating no real rhyme or reason to their presence: you have the dual-sword-wielding priestesses of the Deep Cathedral and a few black knights that were once scattered across the world, but have been largely absent from this game save for one in the Road of Sacrifices. Gundyr, however, is largely unchanged from his appearance at the start of the game, only here he wasn't brought low by a parasitic serpent, but foiled by darkness conquering the land before he even had a chance to fix it. Both our and this Gundyr, it turns out, is a Champion of Ash just like the player, who happened to start his journey many years earlier. His quest, like yours, was to head to Firelink Shrine, and from there reach the Lords of Cinder and bring them, or their remains, together to ignite the first flame. In the "real" chronology, he was possessed by darkness and pinned to the ground, either by his own hand or by another party, until the player disturbed him and caused his long-since hollowed form to lash out. In this one, the same thing happened; except he was never defeated in battle. Rather, the flame went out before he could help reignite it, and just stayed in the same spot once he realized he had failed, allowing himself to become hollowed in the interim. At least, this is how I'm choosing to interpret it. What fun is Dark Souls if you don't try and put your own spin on the narrative?
Gundyr wasn't "killed" in this timeline, and so he didn't suffer any detrimental affect to his combat prowess. He fights with a similar ferocity as his doppelganger, but does far more damage and has a few additional attacks, like a badass "Duke Boot" kick. However, when he drops to half-health, we discover something unsettling: Gundyr had been corrupted by the darkness after all, as his eyes suddenly light an ominous red and his attacks become far stronger and faster. There's no weird tentacled monstrosity growing from his side this time, but he's even more dangerous with this upgrade. I couldn't tell if this was something he was hiding for the first half of the fight, or if he had the mental discipline to resist the darkness this whole time until the player forced his hand with the prospect of a losing battle. With the tale I spun above, it'd make sense that he'd have a lot of resentment about his failure, and a desire to avoid another one at all costs by falling to this attractive and awesome interloper.
In pure technical combat terms, if not mechanical numerical terms, this was one of the hardest bosses in the game. There was no trick to it, no way to resort to ranged attacks or get him stuck on a corner (the game's generally been very good about not being able to cheese bosses, I should point out). It's just you, Gundyr and a whole lot of aggressive attacks that you either weather with a shield or learn to evade. I appreciated the fight's simplicity, even if it did recall how often Dark Souls 2 would lean heavily on humanoid knight enemies, but it wasn't half difficult to pull off. I think if I could do it all over again, I'd leave Gundyr until after I had the last Lord of Cinder soul. That boss wasn't easy either, spoilers, but at least it didn't feel quite as brutal.
The second half of the greater Lothric Castle region, the Grand Archives is a classic Duke's Archives exercise in confusion and disorientation. A largely vertical library, the goal of this location is to reach the very top where the final Lord of Cinder awaits. However, between the various staircases, ladders, switches and elevators, it takes some time to get used to the place. Often, you'll need to drop down to a different area in order to make upwards progress. It's a very unintuitive location, and I imagine it must've been a lot of fun to design. Like the Deep Cathedral, the elevators are given the shortcut duty of ferrying the player between the bonfire on the ground floor and various unlocked locations higher up. The roof of the Castle is littered with some of the strongest normal enemies of the game, such as the gargoyles of the Profaned Capital, three golden winged halberd knights (the fat guys), a trio of Bloodborne hunters for some reason, and a whole gauntlet of soldiers and knights that recalled the final staircase of Boletaria. Perhaps most significant, though, was the presence of a second Crystal Sage: the soul of the first, which was fought as a boss all the way back in the Road of Sacrifices, indicated that it was one of a pair of twins. The second is less dangerous, given how strong you were then compared to how you are now, but the large amount of space it can hide in meant it could pepper you with those sorceries without you being able to do a whole lot about it, teleporting further up the Grand Archives to escape your wrath. It required climbing up to the halfway point of the area before you could finish him off and halt the constant overhead crystal magic attacks.
I really enjoyed the design of this place, and some of the oddities it included. One such oddity was the vats of wax that the player could dip their head into, which created a temporary shield from curse-inducing ghostly hands that emerged out of bookshelves in several areas. The mage enemies in this region, too, had wax-covered heads and looked fairly ridiculous. The area was also swarming with the small thralls from the Lothric Castle and Deep Cathedral areas, using their hidden locations to hit you with ambushes. Their weapons looked enchanted here, which might explain how they were able to kill you in two or three hits (unless they jumped on you from behind, in which case you're done, son). A lot of hard-to-spot switches would move bookcases around, opening secret areas and shortcuts, and it felt like a lot of work went into its intricate level design.
Younger Prince Lothric
"Younger Prince Lothric" is sort of a misnomer for this boss. The real target is indeed the younger of two Princes, who was brought asunder due to his own blood - it's implied that a lot of in-breeding in the royal family caused some genetic abnormality, which is a bit on the nose for a Brit - but the boss fight is actually against his older brother Lorian, a powerful knight. Lorian, in sharing his brother's "curse", is apparently crippled and mute. I wasn't sure if by curse the game meant that both brothers had various disabilities due to their recursive family tree, or if the elder brother chose to sacrifice some part of himself to keep his frail twin alive.
Lorian isn't an easy opponent. While his attacks are slow and predictable, because he can't really move around much, his tendency to teleport after every other swing added, let's say, a touch more mystery to how he was going to slice at you next. This could either mean a physical swipe from your immediate behind, or teleporting some distance away so that he could hit you with a devastating charged downward slash that created a wave of energy. Even while embered, this attack still took off almost my entire health bar, meaning I had to stay at full health if I intended to survive it. Or, I could dodge out of the way, but that wasn't always feasible due to the wave's surprising width.
The fight doesn't have a traditional halfway point. Rather, you keep fighting Lorian until he ignites his sword and comes at you with a stronger fire-tinged attack, and then after that until his health bar has completely drained. At this juncture, the younger brother comes down from his bed and joins his brother in the fight, draping himself on his back and resurrecting him. The pair together suddenly generate two new health bars, one each, and come at you with renewed vigor. I really did not care for this development: the Abyss Watcher fight resembled this, but a single Watcher wasn't a particularly challenging opponent, and Lorian was plenty difficult just on his own. Worse, however, is what happens when you focus on Lorian and don't hit Lothric on his shoulders - which requires an overhead swing, since he's higher up. If Lorian dies before Lothric, Lothric simply resurrects him again. You have the best shot at Lothric you could hope for while he's doing this, but you're more than likely to have to face Lorian for a third time even if you try focusing on attacks that hit both brothers together. Fortunately, if Lothric dies the fight is immediately over, so it could feasibly be possible to just avoid hitting Lorian and focus entirely on Lothric. He doesn't make it easy though, not with his homing arrows and other sorceries, which he irritatingly fits in after his brother's combos to add to their length.
I can't be too mad at this fight though, regenerating health bars aside. It's a smart way of demonstrating that it's the younger, weaker brother who actually has all the power, and that the elderly brother is so devoted to his sibling that he suffers death over and over to defend him. It's a plot-significant boss that is able to highlight the backstory behind its characters in a gameplay congruous manner, and those are rare and precious occurrences. A fitting fourth Lord of Cinder fight.
Archdragon Peak, the final of the optional areas, took some sleuthing to reach. The only hint was a corpse sitting in a particular Yoga-style sitting pose in the Untended Graves which matched that of a series of corpses lined up across a cliff path back in the Irithyll Prison. By learning the gesture from the Untended Graves corpse and sitting alongside those in the prison with the same pose for a certain amount of time, you end up being transported to a mountain temple you can just about see off in the distance. It is every bit as abstract as ducking with a red crystal until a tornado takes you away in Castlevania: Simon's Quest, right down to there being a moderate delay until the cutscene activates that's just long enough to make you wonder if there's any purpose to this completely ridiculous thing you're doing.
The Peak is fairly nondescript, really. It's a shattered shrine high up in the mountains, and it's quite a bit brighter than the rest of the game. At some point, the designers thought they'd reintroduce the red sky and creepy moon of Bloodborne after certain events in that game's story made the world a slightly less sane place, but it makes far less sense here in Dark Souls 3 (much like the copycat Untended Graves, too). In comparison, the ruins of the Peak have a lot more sunshine, though it serves as a stark reminder just how badly the structures up here are decaying, and are therefore presumably that much more ancient. Almost all the enemies here look like Yoel - the first NPC vendor you meet in the wild, who reintroduces hollowing back in the Souls series as a sinister shortcut to power - only the cowls are hiding serpent heads that snap forward with devastating attacks. It's not quite the man-serpents of Sen's Fortress, but it's close enough. The goal of this isolated bonus area is to pledge your allegiance to dragonkind by completing a pilgrimage to the altar at the very end of the location and praying there with the same gesture you used to reach the area. It's not easy though, in part due to a vast number of powerful man-serpent enemies and two bosses.
(Also in this area? Havel and Ricard! It's been a long time since I saw those two, and they're both just as nasty as I remember them.)
The first boss of Archdragon Peak, the wyvern fight initially resembles that of the Ancient Dragon of Dark Souls 2, which can be aggroed into an optional battle that's extremely difficult to win - indeed, even the names are similar. However, while attempting to fight the wyvern directly is folly and will get you torched by its fire attack, there is a means to run past the wyvern and enter a series of passageways filled with enemies. It's here that the true fight is situated.
The Ancient Wyvern doesn't offer much new with its visual design. It is almost literally an upscaled (so to speak) version of the wyverns you fight in Lothric, down to the white coloration and jagged natural armor. The idea being that, while you could feasibly cheese those lesser wyverns with arrows due to their limited mobility and fire breath range, this Ancient Wyvern has no such limitations. It's not an opponent you can hope to destroy from a safe distance, and stays well out of reach for a more melee-focused approach. Even if you did assault it while it was on the ground by hacking at the feet, all you're doing is giving it a pedicure until it gets bored enough to sit on you.
After eliminating a gauntlet of tough enemies, all the while dodging the fire breath of the wyvern, you eventually reach an overcrop that lets you drop attack it directly on its head. Which kills it instantly. Kind of odd, but it's a badass way to finish a fight and hearkens all the way back to Demon's Souls where you had to eliminate an immense dragon opponent through largely indirect means, making the fight all about dodging breath attacks until you could activate the win state. Many fans of this series don't care for the requisite "puzzle boss" fight in these games, but I don't mind the change of pace.
The other boss is truly optional: a bell can be rung close to the end of the area, and in so doing it summons a pack of stormclouds that blankets the entire region. By stepping out onto the stormclouds close to the bell, the player can actually walk on top of them and find a long corridor in the sky that triggers the next boss. It's an event as impressive as the boss himself: The King of Storms.
The King of Storms doesn't so much refer to the knightly character in this fight than the blue wyvern he is riding, and the duo attack like a Dragonlance villain. The wyvern takes damage hard, but he's also very maneuverable and the rider is taking potshots at you the entire time with his immense lightning lance. The goal of this fight is to close the distance before he can swat you with a powerful bolt or a lance thrust and get in some damage before he moves again. Once the wyvern is down - no mean feat - the boss health bar regenerates and you're faced with the Nameless King himself.
The subsequent fight is very deadly up close. The Nameless King fights like Gundyr, only most of his attacks come packed with lightning elemental energy which is hard to mitigate effectively. Your best bet is to use range against him and draw a bow - this is both effective during the wyvern stage and the on-foot stage, since the Nameless King strolls unhurriedly towards you like a complete badass (I've used that word a lot, and yet it never stops being applicable...). Even with the bow and his gait, however, there's a lot of dodging to be done. Of particular note is a two-stage attack where he sends a horizontal wave of energy your way, which you actually have to evade roll over to effectively dodge, and then an immediate second wave follow-up that is far more narrowly focused, like Lorian's. The fight was an endurance contest, where the number of times you could mess up equaled the number of Estus flask swigs in your possession.
The coolest part about this fight is the Nameless King's backstory, however. Rather than regurgitating the lore of Dark Souls 1 and 2, in a "see what this NPC/region is like now!" referential sense, the Nameless King fills in a dangling plot thread: he is the eldest son of Lord Gwyn, who mysteriously disappeared long before the events of that game and is only referred to in passing. The backstory from that game paints the Nameless King has an unequalled god of combat that nonetheless lost his way due to some "folly" and was excised from the history books. That folly seems to have involved throwing his lot in with the dragonkind - it makes sense that Gwyn would disown him over this, given dragons were his (im)mortal enemy. Super cool boss, and one of the most fun to fight, even if I did cheese him with arrows. Like I was going to go near that guy...
Kiln of the First Flame
After restoring the four dead Lords of Cinder to their thrones in Firelink, they and the friendly NPC Ludleth disintegrate and pass their essence onto the player character, giving them the power to reignite the first flame. In so doing, the player is transported to another "dead" Firelink Shrine: one where the walls have all collapsed and looks even more ancient than the one in the Untended Graves. I think this was supposed to be the first Firelink Shrine, since it connects directly to the Kiln of the First Flame.
The Kiln is weird. Whereas in Dark Souls it simply resembles a giant bowl sitting over Izalith, in this one it resembles an interdimensional location that is adjacent to a maddening cube of random architecture from the various regions of Lordran, Drangleic and Lothric. It's a hodgepodge formed from many millennia of kingdoms rising and falling in service to the first flame, suggesting that the three cycles we've seen in the games were just three drops in the bucket. It's an awesome sight, but it's also the only thing here besides the boss arena at the very end: there's no last-minute attempts to troll you with black knights and precarious walkways before reaching the boss. I suppose such a stage would distract from the importance of this final battle, and presumably why every game since has had a clearly demarcated final boss arena that requires no effort to reach. It wants you to save all your energy (and Estus) for its final encounter.
Soul of Cinder
If you've been wondering about the guy on the box art, as I have, he's actually this guy. The final boss. The amalgamated Lord Souls manifested into one entity that challenges you to ensure you're prepared for the momentous task of linking the first flame. Either that, or they're sore losers who want to see you fail by uniting together. Either way, he looks like a regular knight enemy, but hardly fights like one.
The Soul of Cinder's whole gimmick is a versatility borne of his disparate parts. That means that at various points in the fight he'll suddenly adjust his fighting style and come at you with a different approach. He jumps between a standard broadsword fighting stance that resembles those of the knights you've been fighting for the whole game; a sorcery-focused build that peppers you with magic from a distance; a pyromancy-focused build that alternates between a dervish-inspired curved sword fighting style interspersed with random pyromancy spells like fireballs, strength buffs and poison mists; and a faith-focused build that uses a lance to hit you from range and miracles that allow him to heal himself or create large concussive bursts that send you flying. The versatility works both for him and against him: the unpredictable nature of his attacks keeps you guessing, but some forms are easier to deal with than others. Once you drain his health bar, though, the game throws another spanner into the works.
Digression: I actually sort of hate this particular development in DS3's boss fights, and I don't know why it comes at the late game instead of used for the entire length. I realized I just decried the game's use of having bosses change the game at the midway point, but this isn't really anything different; instead of a large health bar that triggers the change once it is half drained, we get two smaller health bars that appear consecutively. It's done purely for the sake of a single surprise; because of course, once you've seen them regenerate their whole health bar once, the trolling effect of seeing them come back again is lost. I guess my only real issue with this is one of consistency. At a certain point, instead of having every boss change their approach because their health bar was half gone, they do so because... well half their health is gone, but in a less obvious way. It'd be like if the health bars suddenly started draining in the other direction, or had multiple colored bars that you had to drain. I'm all for variation, but it's just odd when it changes absolutely nothing about the actual mechanics of the fight, just the visual feedback for how much progress you're making. Weird stuff.
Anyway, the second half of this fight, or the second of its two consecutive fights depending on how you choose to unwrap the mess above, involves the Soul of Cinder resorting to a single combat style: that of Lord Gwyn's. Now armed with a flaming ultra greatsword, the Soul attacks very much like Gwyn did, including a devastating five hit combo that is almost impossible to evade unless you see the warning signs and get the hell out of range. He also has the same command grab that Gwyn (and the Dancer) had, though the resulting unavoidable attack is fortunately far more survivable. This mode has slightly less health than the previous, but the attacks are far more damaging and it requires a great deal of caution. Seeing that combo is a good time to roll back about five times, and then draw a bow and give him some arrow-y business while he completes the ridiculously long chain.
The boss is a good one: it's all about pattern memorization and reflexes, like any good Souls boss, and while "the gestalt entity comprised of everyone you've slain" is kind of an ass-pull for a final boss, especially since these Lords presumably still want someone to link the flames and keep humanity going for another eon, it's a neat idea and a cool looking nemesis to stand between you and your destiny. Sometimes a good boss doesn't need to be a gigantic skeleton sliding into the abyss or a dragon-riding king in a sea of clouds, it just needs to have enough variation and danger to give you a run for your money.
That's going to do it for this episode of Bosswatch, and the series itself for a while. For what I believe is the first time, I've reached a point like many of you where I have no currently available Souls game left to play. Well, besides the NG+ of those I've left behind and the many DLC campaigns I don't feel like shelling out for. I don't think I like Dark Souls 3 enough to give it another turn; I've spoken about how the game reductively recycles its enemies and locations for the sake of some big lore-unifying process, and while the overall boss quality is higher than DS2 it felt a lot more "safe" than that one did in every other respect. More by the numbers. It's like the Jurassic Park movies: the first will forever remain a timeless classic, the second was weird and divisive but at least had some distinctiveness to call its own, and the third just treads water by reusing many of the same old surprises and turns of the previous two to the extent that it basically does fine but is unlikely to be anyone's favorite.
Of course, I'm open to more thoughts on how the game compares to its predecessors, or any of the bosses I've written about above. Anything I'm missing? (And, man, I apologize for the length on this one. All that extra content really snuck up on me.)