All-New Saturday Summaries 2017-11-25: Clairvoyance Edition

Welcome to the last Summaries of November, everyone! Coming down to the wire now, with only one week and one month remaining in the year to cram in a playthrough for every as-yet-untouched 2017 video game in our possession for the sake of our GOTY lists. The greatest way to enjoy video games, am I right? Speaking of which, I believe it's time for...

GOTY Prognostifications from the Bomb-Beast Wyzzard

So for funzies I'm just going to take a wild swing at what Giants Bomb and Beast are going to pick for their top ten now, days before they all sequester themselves into that podcast chamber for a fortnight like 12 Angry Men, only it's two thirds that number and with an Angry Abby thrown in for flavor. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately, depending on who you ask), the Giant Beastcast has talked almost non-stop about what they expect might happen during the deliberations and who would go to bat for what, so I think we have a fairly clear idea what the temperature in the room will be like. Ice cold, because there's no heating in the CBS building. But metaphorically, I think the hottest games will be as follows:

  1. The top five will consist of Super Mario Odyssey, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Horizon Zero Dawn, NieR: Automata, and Cuphead, but not necessarily in that order. All are very highly regarded, almost all have been played by the entire staff, and thus all present a fairly obvious choice for the upper half of the list. I think we'll see some Nier pushback, but I also suspect that Alex and Ben will fight tooth and nail for that thing to be #1, so it'll probably end up being closer to 3 or 4 as the others prevaricate or toss up the dragging "route B" as a point against it. I might also suggest from their reputations among the duders that Hollow Knight and Pyre have the chops to make the top half also, if enough people fight for them.
  2. The second half of the list is a lot more difficult, because we'll see a mix of three categories: generally good games (say, the 4-stars) that everyone would be happy to include but no-one's particularly passionate about fighting for them too much, letting them slip comfortably into the second half with little argument; very divisive games, or games only a few duders played and won't get much support, that'll bring out the "alliances" in order to find them spots; and the few games that are beloved - as in, personal #1 beloved - by one or two staff members that they argue is worth fitting onto the list, even if that means being squeezed into #10. I'll have a stab at predicting what games will fall into which categories: the "fair but impassionates" will include Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, Assassin's Creed Origins, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, Persona 5, Resident Evil VII, Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, Nidhogg 2, ARMS, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, Splatoon 2, Metroid: Samus Returns and SteamWorld Dig 2; the "divisives and mostly unplayeds" will include Destiny 2, Night in the Woods, Yakuza 0, Nioh, What Remains of Edith Finch, Injustice 2, Prey, Sonic Mania, Golf Story, The Evil Within 2, West of Loathing, Tacoma, Heat Signature, Battle Chef Brigade and South Park: The Fractured But Whole; and "personal picks" might include Absolver or Fire Emblem Warriors (Jason), Kingsway or Rivals of Aether (Ben), Dream Daddy (Abby), or Madden NFL 18/NBA 2K18 (Alex).
  3. As always, there'll be games that won't get a mention outside of being part of the big list of releases the host (probably Brad) runs down. Well-reviewed games that, had there been staff members to fight for them, might've had a shot: Danganronpa V3, Ys VIII, Divinity: Original Sin II, Tales of Berseria, Cosmic Star Heroine, Torment: Tides of Numenera, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, Thimbleweed Park, The Sexy Brutale, Flinthook, Yakuza Kiwami, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (though, to be fair, this'll probably be out after they've already started deliberations).
  4. And then there's the big games that can't escape a mention or two, but will be bumped off the list faster than you can say "we're temporarily removing microtransactions": Star Wars: Battlefront 2, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands, Mass Effect Andromeda, Drawn to Death, Yooka-Laylee (this'll hurt, because it's on my GOTY list), Agents of Mayhem, Knack II, Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite, Middle-earth: Shadow of War, Need for Speed Payback, LawBreakers, Call of Duty: WWII, WWE 2K18, Gravity Rush 2, Sonic Forces and, sigh, Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back.
  5. Finally, there's the awkward situation that PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and its early access status presents. I think they'll ultimately decide to excise it - best case scenario is that it'll be a December release, and it's not like any other December release will get to feature either - and decide to give it its due in 2018, either by throwing it in with 2018's top ten or making it "2018's 2017 Game of the Year". Until then, they might just jury-rig a special "Honorable Mention" category (or indeed the top spot for "Early Access Game of the Year", in which it'll beat out Dead Cells and Astroneer) to placate its many fans inside the room and out.
  6. While I think the end list will be a giant quagmire of betrayals and compromises before everyone reaches that ideal point in negotiations where no-one's happy but no-one's particularly upset either, and thus impossible to predict, I figure I might as well take a wild shot in the dark at a final order for the heck of it: Super Mario Odyssey, Horizon Zero Dawn, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, NieR Automata, Cuphead, Hollow Knight, Assassin's Creed Origins, Yakuza 0, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, and Pyre. We'll see how accurate that prediction is in a month, I suppose.

Getting away from the duders and back onto me, my favorite topic, here's this week's blogging in a nutshell:

  • The Top Shelf this week features the second and third Ratchet & Clank games, which was a battle I had a serious struggle framing due to their many fundamental similarities. I knew the Battle Royale matches would be tough - I'd have been able to make a decision on them back during the first round otherwise - but I really hope it doesn't get quite this granular again. For one, it's harder to make a case without replaying all the contestants, and I seriously no longer have the time this year. (That said, the three Battle Royales taking place in December will each involve a game I've yet to complete, so that's something I've been hurrying to get done on top of the GOTY bait. They're not small games either: Champions: Return to Norrath, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Makai Kingdom, each at least 20 hours long. I'll probably only get a considerable way through each before making a decision, I suspect.)
  • The Indie Game of the Week is another edge case with Full Throttle Remastered, which is technically now an Indie game after being published by Double Fine. Full Throttle is, of course, one of the graphic adventure games in a chain of hits from LucasFilm back in the 90s: it sits between Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango chronologically, and joins both with this graphical remaster that expands the screen ratio and replaces the aged pixel graphics with slightly less aged vector graphics. Honestly, it can sometimes look like that awful smoothing filter that SNES emulators have, but for the most part looks pretty good and especially with regards to those early polygonal models the original used for its vehicles. The game itself I was a little more mixed on: the story, script, setting and voice acting are all stellar, as I suspected they would be, but there were like ten puzzles total and even some of those weren't exactly corkers - instead of more puzzles, we got this slightly obnoxious motorcycle combat mini-game instead. Maybe not the all-time classic Day of the Tentacle was, but a game I'm glad I finally got the opportunity to play some 22 years after the fact. Not to worry, though: I still have plenty of 90s gaming blindspots left over for another May feature for next year.

Addenda

Gonna briefly (ha) discuss the handful of games I played this week. I didn't quite have enough time to dig into the next 2017 game on the docket - that would be the newly acquired Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, darn you Black Friday - but I attended to several others this week. Including...

Champions: Return to Arms

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Champions: Return to Arms is one of those aforementioned PS2 playthroughs that I want to see concluded before I'm prepared to vote on keeping either it or its predecessor for the shelf during December's Battle Royale contests. As a loot RPG, it's a perfect accompaniment to podcasts and the like: the sort of low-concentration game that works with something else in the background. What's remarkable about Return to Arms is its difficulty; it feels like most loot RPGs kind of become effortless after a while, unless you get really careless and wander into a big crowd of tough monsters who whup you faster than you can heal, but RoA's bosses will frequently kill you in one or two hits, necessitating a level of strategy and defensive work that is traditionally not required in games like this.

It didn't help that I began with my imported character from Champions of Norrath, the prior game, who turned out to actually be some five levels below the recommended level for the second difficulty level (but, conversely, twenty levels above the standard difficulty). It meant I needed to start over a few times, reaching the first boss - Rallos Zek, the God of War, who most EverQuest players might recognize as kind of a big deal and not an opponent to take lightly - and resetting/re-importing my character progress until I finally had the levels, skills and gear to defeat him. My particular build is also all offense, little defense, having gone all-in on passives like "more damage with bladed weapons" and "increased chance to stun" instead of wiser ones like "added resistance to all elements" and "reduced chance for knockback". The barbarian class, incidentally, is one intended as the tank in a group of online players: they stand at the front with their impressive defensive skills while the rest of the party whittle down the enemies from a distance. However, in single-player, a best offense is always the best defense, and with dual-wielding you can take down most enemies almost as quickly as they take you down.

All the same, this unexpected level of challenge is actually increasing my enjoyment of the game, even with the amount of times I've had to reload after yet another disastrous five-second-long boss encounter. Learning to block and find an opening, rely on my skills more, kiting enemies instead of wading into their family reunions like a chucklehead: there's layers to loot RPGs that most players generally disregard once they have crazy powerful equipment and one or two special skills they use over and over, reducing the game's challenge and making it more about that Skinner Box pursuit of higher and higher numbers. Diablo III quickly turned into that for me on my second run through, and I felt the need to move on before falling under its spell completely.

I didn't expect to say this, but I think when it comes time to compare the first and second Champions games in the Battle Royale (with perhaps a few kind if terminal words for the Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance games that precipitated them), the winner will be heading directly to the shelf rather than jostling for a place with the rest of the runners-up. They're some of the best RPGs of this type I think I've ever played, which is weird to consider given how little I care for EverQuest's world (which isn't to say I detest it, just that I have zero other exposure to it) and how much better that genre tends to fare on the PC. Of course, there's a lot of loot games like Path of Exile that I've yet to look at, so take the above with a grain of salt.

Talking of salty, especially around the eyes region...

NieR: Automata

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Well, that's done. I discussed where my mind was at last week with regards to NieR: Automata's Routes A, B and C, and I don't think there's any way to discuss the rest of the latter and the game's conclusion without gigantic spoilers everywhere, so before I get into all that I'm just going to offer my final appraisal/review without being too revealing:

NieR: Automata is remarkable for taking a flawed RPG, which would be the original NieR, and fixing up everything wrong about it in such a subtle beneath-the-hood way that the director Yoko Taro's original vision remains intact. It's clear that the various people in Platinum Games who worked on the game and signed off on letting Taro make it were evident fans of the first Nier, warts and all. It's a game that leaves a strong impression, even if it wasn't a picnic the entire way through, and like Deadly Premonition probably saw more approbations than it perhaps warranted because it had that scope of vision and personality that stood out in a sea of focus-tested mediocrity. It's a game you might recommend for its heart above all, while making excuses for its many flaws in the same breath. With Automata, Platinum worked tirelessly on mitigating those mechanical flaws, allowing the true beauty of the game - its affecting story, its deep characterizations, its wonderful lyrical soundtrack - stand all the taller with a more stable foundation beneath its feet.

That's not to say Automata never drags, nor that it can't be a little obtuse even with the many tutorials it offers via the in-game manual and helpful NPCs in the Resistance Camp hub. It says multiple times that there's no auto-save, but there'll be a few who disregard each warning regardless and be confused when they're dropped hours back. There's definitely going to be people who bounced off immediately because of the lack of saving during the moderately long tutorial in the factory. It takes a long-ass while before the game opens up its fast travel system, irritating those who steadfastly chase after side-quests as soon as they become available in case they should ever vanish after a big story event (no worries there, by the way - not only is there fast travel, but a chapter select with very specific checkpoints opens up after one of the game's conclusions). The combat has all kinds of hidden features the game doesn't tell you about, like a rising upper that leads to an air combo that you have to accidentally find the right buttons to discover, or the way you can cross larger gaps with a special "jump + pod attack" move. That there's other pods besides the gattling gun you start with, or which plug-in chips are the best ones to prioritize with your limited memory space.

A screenshot of Nier Automata. I still like the pink ribbon. The game has precious few cosmetic items if you didn't get the preorder stuff.
A screenshot of Nier Automata. I still like the pink ribbon. The game has precious few cosmetic items if you didn't get the preorder stuff.

But hey, a little confusion is all part of the appeal of NieR. You learn as you go, and that goes for mechanics and story beats alike. Even when the game is at its most low-key, running through the picturesque city ruins or forests to farm materials for a fetch quest or new weapon upgrade, the chill music and brief flurries of combat make the game a constant joy to play even while it isn't blowing your mind with an enormous spectacle boss fight or an insane new twist to the tale. Listening to 2B and 9S talk about what it means to be human, trying out new weapons and seeing how they change up your old combos, taking a moment to fish in a new body of water to see what you reel up, or launching into an all-out aerial assault against a 200 foot tall robot kaiju; the game's energy and tone can be all over the place, but that's part of its charm too.

It was hard to recommend NieR, because for as much as I wanted everyone I knew to play it and report back to me about how it made them feel, its various issues and idiosyncracies meant that it was always going to be a personal favorite rather than a universal success. With Automata, that conflict no longer exists: this is a fantastic game from its nuts and bolts roots to the soul at its core, with very few reservations remaining to stop me extolling its virtues to anyone willing to listen to a crazy person rant about anime maid robots with emotions.

All right, spoiler time for some Route C and ending reactions:

Holy shit. Holy shit.

Route C's actual content, as it flits between 9S and A2, isn't particularly substantial from a mechanical standpoint: 9S spends most of his time chasing after the sub-units for this ominous new tower that appeared around the annihilation of YoRHa, having entirely replaced his curiosity and compassion with a cold determined rage that disregards even his own well-being as he fights through waves of defenders, and A2 is struggling to resolve the merger of her memories with those of 2B's as she disregards her solitary nature to help Pascal's village and the Resistance army deal with the increased aggression of the machine lifeforms and the lack of any YoRHa to help out, only for both groups to end up more or less extinguished anyway. Then, we get the crazy alternating fun of both androids taking on the tower at the center of the map, sacrificing Devola and Popola (whose arc only really makes sense if you've played Nier) and, eventually, taking down each other to halt the machine lifeform's central gestalt network and its machinations.

What I appreciate about Endings C and D is that neither are happy; in fact, both depict Pyrrhic victories in which 9S and A2 both succumb to injuries and die, but with 9S we see the machine lifeforms' ultimate plan - to launch the virtual personalities of all their experiments with humanity, from the humanoid Adam and Eve to the various eccentric machines like Jean-Paul and the Forest King, into space as an eternal monument to their efforts - come to fruition while with A2, it all collapses around them along with the machine lifeform's network itself as she finally completes her journey of revenge. You get the impression that it's the extinction of both YoRHa and the machine lifeforms alike: both have given up at this point, working towards mutually assured destruction, with only a handful of the resistance androids (and moose) left behind to pick up the pieces.

But then Ending E happens. Without getting into specifics, because I'm still not 100% sure what happened, the player him- or herself steps in to save the data of 2B, 9S and A2 so that they can potentially return one day, or at least be preserved in the same manner as the machine lifeforms were trying to accomplish. This involves a long, protracted hacking battle with the game's developers as "the final boss", which is impossible to win unless you accept the help of others who have taken the same journey - the music swelling to this chorus of hundreds cheering you on in different languages, their messages of support filling the screen as you fight impossible odds against the most bullet hell of bullet hells with their assistance. The insane thing is, in order to help other players you have to sacrifice your own save files - deleting all your progress, just so someone else has an increased chance of seeing the game's final ending and the essence of their virtual friends protected. It's a massive act of largesse on behalf of any player who opts to do this, one that recontextualizes the most memorable part of the original NieR's Ending E - the sacrifice of one's entire existence to help another, and its very real consequences for the player - and leads to a hugely satisfying if somewhat open and vague conclusion as the three YoRHa units' bodies are left, intact, to eventually reawaken. It's an incredible and emotional ending, only tarnished slightly by the familiarity of its structure from those who have played the original Nier, and it's something I hope as many duders see as possible before they start voting on Game of the Year: it's a breathtaking capper to already amazing game, in a medium that notoriously has so much trouble getting endings right.

Game of the frickin' year.

That's going to do it for this week. Next time, I'll have more PS2 games fighting for my love, another 2017 Indie game to join the shortlist of GOTY aspirants, probably more on Champions: Return to Arms, and I'll tuck into Uncharted: The Lost Legacy and possibly find time to get started on Ys VIII. Be sure to check in next week on all that, and for goodness's sake play NieR: Automata.

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