By Mento 0 Comments
We've passed the mid-point of the year, but we're still not quite out of the summer slump. That suits me fine (the slump part anyway, not the unpleasantly hot and humid summer part) as I invariably spend most of my time working through backlogs and picking blog feature ideas that interest me, rather than engender the interest of the ol' SEO feelers. There is an unparalleled freedom and degree of personal satisfaction when it comes to writing primarily for yourself, though that is of course offset by not earning one red cent from doing so. I could springboard off this into an anti-capitalist rant about how much more preferable life as a creator and critic would be if money were no longer a daily survival concern, but it's steamy today and I just want to write about games to unwind and unpack. Best to save the heavy stuff for autumn, where cooler heads prevail. Man, I wish I was cooler. In every sense of the word.
Due to my having some unexpected if temporary access to Netflix, the "Other Distractions" section - which covers movies and TV shows - grew a little out of control this month so apologies for the massive text dump. The more the merrier, though, right?
Indie Games of the Month
July comprised the 127-130 entries of Indie Game of the Week, outlined below:
Environmental Station Alpha (IGotW 127) is me ticking off yet another game on the giant list of Indie spacewhippers (a.k.a. explormers, a.k.a. metroidvanias) and trying to determine what makes this particular one stand out. The answer is not a whole lot: the game is like a lo-fi Metroid Fusion that balances out the retro 8-bit presentation with an immense map size that is packed with abilities to find, barriers to surpass, platforming challenges to overcome, and bosses to defeat. It's a very typical example of the genre, by design, and solid enough if unremarkable.
Bear With Me (IGotW 128) is a revisit, since I only played the first episode of this three-part adventure game originally. It follows the frequently sarcastic adventures of precocious child Amber and her companion, the hard-boiled detective (and teddy bear) Ted E. Bear. Both are facing a serial killer threat to their old haunt, Paper City, while trying to solve the mystery behind the possibly connected disappearance of Amber's brother Flint. The second and third episodes cashes the checks that the first episode made in terms of establishing the creepy existential threat of the "Red Man" (which has nothing to do with ghosts helping you cheat on college entrance exams) and establishing the noir rules and archetypes of the city of stuffed animals, only for it to throw it all into the void for the sake of a metaphysical deconstruction of the protagonist's repressed trauma. There's some solid storytelling, scripting, and worldbuilding, even if the adventure game side of the equation is a little languid and perfunctory.
Treasure Adventure World (IGotW 129) was another spacewhipper and another Indie pretender to the pastel-hued, feel- good throne of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. I certainly have no objections to more Indie games building on the chillest Zelda, especially if they create an open-world as layered and vibrant as TAW's, but I'd prefer if they were optimized a little better than this. As well as this game-wide awful slowdown, the game has a few obnoxious sequences only made worse by the lag, and it ended becoming a game I appreciated for its philosophy and style but didn't actually enjoy playing a whole lot.
What Remains of Edith Finch (IGotW 130) is another one of those artsy first-person exploration adventure games, of the type where you take in your surroundings with careful examination while following a voiceover narrative breadcrumb trail, but balances its more slow-paced exploration of the ancestral home of the most cursed family in America with a series of mechanically and visually distinct vignettes that details the sordid and inexplicably supernatural fates of your protagonist's ancestors. A fantastic melange of magical realism and fatalistic melancholy that nonetheless aims to be optimistic and hopeful about the unity of family.
Hey Everybody, It's the Tuesday Slot
I finished last month with a "Bucketlog" appraisal of Mother 3, but at the time I was barely halfway through the game and didn't have the full picture of what it was trying to say about a myriad of eclectic matters and themes, not least of which include the dehumanizing forward march of technology, what that will ultimately mean for the fragile blue orb we call home, the destructive and creative dichotomy of the human spirit, and EarthBound's usual subversion of what it means to be a hero and what heroes generally tend to look like. Though Lucas is another quiet boy with a strong will and stronger psychic powers, like his antecedents Ness and Ninten, the limping Duster, androgynous Kumatora, precocious pup Boney, and stoic Flint are nobody's idea of traditional RPG party members and yet are able to prove their mettle and character. There's also the game's bevvy of clever mechanical features, some returning from previous Mother games while others created solely for this entry, and the endearing surreal tone and sense of humor that permeates Shigesato Itoi's work.
At any rate, I wanted to do a deeper dive to properly critique a game that left a stronger impression on me than most of the Bucketlog games I've covered so far. There are better Mother 3 rundowns out there, but with this I covered everything I wanted to say about the game and what its heady themes meant to me.
It's been a very long thirty days between the 13th of June, when E3 ended this year, and the 13th of July, when I published the fourth and final part of my Trailer Blazer review series on the games promoted during the E3 period, or at least those with trailers that made it to this website.
I always give myself a little more work to do than is strictly necessary - summarizing each trailer, my take on the games they depict, and a bonus hit of silliness that this year took the form of a Terminator reprogrammed to suss out the tone of each trailer - and I'm definitely going to have to reconsider some things if I do this again next year, but it's also fun to let loose and tear into upcoming games and maybe let myself get hyped up for same.
Parts Three and Four of this year's Trailer Blazer: E3 cover the last 95 games to be shown off this year (some of which saw multiple trailers). Now that I'm done putting together these lists, I think I could probably point to a few announcements that I'm most excited about: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Sequel, Elden Ring, Ghostwire: Tokyo, Deathloop, Tales of Arise, and Trials of Mana (remake) are top of that pile.
In what's looking like a feature that I'll be winding down very soon, the latest Seeking Warframe and Fortune sees me hit a brick wall of sorts with the mid-game, where you're either expected to spend more money and resources improving a bunch of "prime" gear - which isn't necessarily referring to Prime warframes and weapons, the superior versions that are far harder to earn, but simply those that you've maxed out and are most effective with - in order to make any forward progress on your own. The alternative, of course, is to find people to complete these levels with: when the enemy levels start surpassing your own, and what your theoretical limit is, there comes a point where external help goes from beneficial to downright necessary.
If I can't get over this block on my own, I'll probably decide that I'm done with the game. My goal early on with this feature, to help distinguish it from the many other more in-depth and more informed Warframe retrospectives out there, was to see how far I could get working solo without spending cash or taking too much time grinding and farming (though some amount of both is expected in a F2P game like this) and it's looking like that glass ceiling is looming just ahead. I'd like to at least see Saturn and some more of the story before I call it quits, though, so I'll persevere for a little while longer.
This particular round-up covers the early nodes of the moon Europa, the New Strange quest with its diabolical Defense mission conclusion, the feminine warframe Mag and her ability to drag enemies through the air, a few new weapons including the powerful Hek shotgun, and a list of mission types rated by the aggro you can expect to pull in each for my own edification if no-one else's.
Divinity: Original Sin II is a game with a lot going for it, as I'll delineate a little further down this blog, but suffice it to say the main selling point of the game - in my view - is a complex and versatile combat engine that not only takes into account a set of cooldown-based "skills" that allows players to fire off their best spells and abilities with abandon, but also factors in the immediate area's topography and environmental features as additional vicissitudes for each of its combat encounters. It's rare to have any fight in DOS2 that wasn't carefully considered by the designers, from the spread of enemy placements and types to the unique challenges that you might face: stuck in a valley where the ambushing enemies have height advantage, for instance, or fighting undead in a venomous swamp where they're immune to its effects but you very much aren't (unless you have a few undead party members of your own).
I tried to explicate just how strong this variance is and how a typical fight might pan out, using a much older blog on a combat encounter from The Temple of Elemental Evil as the basis. I cordoned off one small area of the game for examination, where its encounters ranged from: a story-critical boss encounter, a conflagrative spectacle against some oil- and fire-based "voidwoken" (the game's sinister Lovecraftian extradimensional antagonists), a scenario in which you had to make a moral choice between staying incognito for the sake of your mission or stepping up to save innocent lives, and the interruption of a fight already in progress in which you could either pick a side or watch it play out on the sidelines to see who emerged the victor. Despite being a gigantic game with an eventual runtime in the triple digits of hours, DOS2 never seemed to repeat itself too often, and I was planning strategies and micromanaging my team and their gear well into the end-game without feeling any burnout. The varied combat encounters are definitely a large part of how it managed to stay fresh throughout, and that's what I hoped to establish with this piece.
The Bucketlog continues to bounce from system to system, with the Sega Mega Drive action-adventure Beyond Oasis being the oldest played so far. Nominally built to compete with Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda franchise, Beyond Oasis is in actuality a far more novel creation that could only come from Sega and its closest conspirators: a top-down action game closer to a brawler, and one suited for the system's more arcade sensibilities. Even if Beyond Oasis is more action-oriented than its peers, it still has its share of puzzles to solve: not only in the traditional switches and keys approach, but in how the player can summon and switch around elemental spirits with unique abilities to help them progress.
I've been discovering and rediscovering much about Sega's 16-bit system in recent months - it's part of an ongoing wiki/blog hybrid project called Mega Archive, which I intend to revive this upcoming August - but I've come to realize that its games don't grab me as much as those on the SNES did. I think that's because the Mega Drive is a little more focused on the arcade experience, with more games built towards extra lives and limited continues with much greater representation in arcade-friendly genres like shoot 'em ups and brawlers, whereas I've always preferred a more home computer-ready, narratively-guided experience like an RPG or adventure game. Beyond Oasis is one Mega Drive exclusive that managed to bridge that sort of mindless but fun action experience with something a little deeper and story-driven, and it's a game I'm glad I took the time to discover. I'll be keeping an eye out for more titles like it as I resume exploring the system's 1991 output in the weeks to come.
The Games of July
Divinity: Original Sin II
Excepting the games already featured in the Indie Game of the Week and Bucketlog entries (and Warframe, of course) my entire month was swallowed up by Divinity: Original Sin II, the latest RPG in Larian's Divinity franchise. Using the original Original Sin as a launching pad, Original Sin II manages to be bigger and better by every metric that matters in an RPG series: the combat is more sophisticated without necessarily being dragged down by complications and new rules to learn, the character development is fairly intense but accommodating enough that you can respec at any time after the game's first act, there's a great multifaceted story about a would-be wielder of "the Source" ascending to near-godhood as the next "Divine" by facing down a legion of enemy factions and metaphysical nightmare creatures as well as their many peers and equally likely candidates (definite shades of the last leg of the Bhaalspawn's journey in the Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal expansion), and an overall facelift that takes the vaguely expressionistic world of Original Sin and its bright hues and shades to even greater heights of visual vivacity.
The above article on the game's elaborate combat systems is probably all I need to write about that game's aspect, so instead I'll speak to the character progression a bit more and then end with what will stick with me most about the game long after this month has passed into oppressively muggy memory.
The party composition and classes system is an odd one: anyone could theoretically be any class with the right amount of stats apportioning, but it goes further than that. Your skills are linked to several schools of magic and martial skills, which the game calls "combat abilities", for which you earn one point to spend every level (and can get several more via equipment buffs): each skill in each school derives their damage (or effects, in the case of heals, buffs and debuffs) through one of three "damage" stats - intelligence, strength, or finesse. Some skills derive from other values, though, like a shield tossing offensive skill that actually calculates its damage from the physical protection that shield would normally grant. Thus, if you were particularly fastidious, you could look at every skill in the game and figure out what would work for a character that has, say, strength as their dominant stat. There's also the fact that damage type falls into physical and magical, and likewise every character and enemy in the game has a physical and magical armor value to overcome before you can damage them. So from there, you can piece together which skills from which schools do the kind of damage you need at moment: it's way easier to drain the magical armor of a fighter or a hulking troll, for instance, and similarly for the physical armor of a mage or magical creature. With specific goals in mind, you can create whatever class hybrids and polymaths you think will serve you best, cherry-picking the skills and spells that best reflect what you want from that character's basic combat role (DPS, healer, tank, etc.). The idea of the starting classes is really just there to give you a blueprint: they're the sketched outlines of the character, ready to be filled in with whatever markers or paints you consider ideal. It's a much more open - and slightly intimidating, it must be said - approach to character development than most RPGs I've seen, especially in a CRPG market that so often hews to the restrictive rulesets of D&D and other table-top staples.
It's hard to pinpoint a singular aspect to the game that I appreciated most, so here's a list of stand-out features, components, and mechanics:
- The Diablo-esque way you end up carrying several unidentified pieces of equipment after a fight or a dungeon treasure raid, clicking the identify button and seeing what randomized set of attributes that item has and if it can compete with what your team is currently wearing. You'll be switching up a lot, as all equipment has levels that determine their offensive/defensive values and you'll constantly find old gear falling behind. However, sometimes a good bonus attribute or several is worth suffering a lower level item for a while, especially where accessories are concerned.
- Fane, one of the six "Origin" characters who have their own distinct journeys and side-quest chains to complete throughout the game's run. Fane is the one Undead Origin character, which is treated as a race of its own irrespective of what species the person originally was when they were still fleshy. Indeed, in Fane's case, he is a singular entity: a member of the idiosyncratic precursor race that existed long before humans, dwarves, elves, and lizardpeople came along. Each of the races was built in the image of a single member of Fane's race, suggesting a great deal of heterogeneity, and it's a shame you never get to see what Fane looked like before his present skeletal appearance. In addition to being a big question mark of a character and having some truly insightful comments about his race and the races that followed, he's just a lot of fun as a wisecracking skeletal bro pining for the old days where people were more enlightened and less gross and fragile.
- The serious impact going up a level makes on your combat prowess. Though it doesn't feel like you gain that much from one level to the next - usually a few HP, a couple of stat increases, and a new combat ability skill point - the difference between taking on an enemy encounter one level higher than you and two levels higher is stark. I don't think I survived a single fight against enemies two levels my senior, but I'd regularly walk away from anything less than that. You could theoretically - though I think the game also encourages this - thread your way through every level appropriate encounter in order so you'll never reach a point in the game where the next fight is insurmountable, but this approach does require some patience and experimentation.
- Talking of those mapping out those fights, the way the game is set up makes it very obvious when and where an encounter will occur, and many fights can be put off until you decide to initiate them, either by failing a dialogue check or by instigating the next phase of a quest or side-quest. Couple this with the fact that item drops and those you find in random chests is based on the level of the overall area you're in - i.e., an area with level 14 enemies will have level 14 gear to be found - and you could theoretically tiptoe around a lot of fights in order to acquire all the high-level gear to be found in that region, giving you a decent boost for the fights they contain. Skipping fights entirely is inadvisable - you really need to beat every one for the experience and treasure they provide - but getting yourself set up before hand via careful exploration (either with stealth or through devious use of teleportation tools like the Huntsman skill Tactical Retreat or the Teleport Pyramid artifacts) is a great means of evening the playing field. Well into the game's lengthy second act and equally immense overworld, I had a whole map full of annotations about what level encounters can be found where; often put together after some painful trial and error.
Honestly, the fact that most of the above rarely appear in other RPGs, and sometimes for good reason, is another demonstration as to why the Original Sin series is so sharp and imaginative. It works because the games are built around this degree of external consideration: it would normally be immersion-breaking to have a big list of side-quest and incidental encounters mapped out in such a way that you weave the most efficient path through them, or that you'd need Excel documents open with all the available skills to see which ones would benefit the arbitrary combination of stats and skills you've given each of your characters, but you know deep down that Original Sin II will reward such a level of investment regardless. I can appreciate why a game this occasionally Byzantine and colossal would scare a lot of people away - I've made a case for The Last Remnant and others in the past, and read similar treatises from others about RPGs I'm not sure I'll ever take the plunge into (Slay the Spire comes to mind, not to mention all those Paradox "Grand Strategy" titles) - but the scarcity of games that make these kind of demands from a studious player are few and far between, with most big budget games far preferring to deliver all their thrills before the average player's attention span can expire.
Original Sin II is proudly a game for stats nerds and table-top dorks, and I think that's why the articles I've read and podcasts I've heard from people in its orbit love the game so much, and why an equal number of others bounced after several hours and a few botched character builds later.
I have been watching a lot of Netflix and cable TV lately as it's frequently been too hot to focus on anything more demanding, so I'll be summarizing each of the follow seasons in a hundred words or fewer for the sake of brevity. I'd recommend them all for the merits outlined, though none are without their faults.
- Archer Season 10: Archer's been doing this genre-switching thing for the past few seasons, using the excuse that the eponymous protagonist has fallen into a coma and is imagining his work colleagues in thematically divergent settings with the same sort of funny vacillating conversational energy. Season 10 transplants the old spy workplace buddies into space, riffing on a lot of 1970s movies and TV shows, and while it's been as fun as always there is this pervasive sense that the showrunner, Adam Reed, is about ready to check out of the show. Curious to see how much longer it'll last without him.
- Stranger Things Season 3: Speaking of wallowing in the genre tropes of yesteryear, the dorks from Hawkins, Indiana are back facing a new peril from the Upside Down. Between the time skip and the new emphasis on teenage proclivities, it feels like the show's maturing a little. At the same time, it's still happy to invoke a dozen 1980s cultural mainstays - The Terminator, Red Dawn, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978 is close enough), and '80s mall culture in general - for those who come to the show for a nostalgic hit. A bit samey, but new characters like Robin help justify its continuation.
- Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Season 4: Not so much a new season than the back half of the previous, which had to take a pause due to star Ellie Kemper's pregnancy, the show takes the time to tie up its loose ends as it faces a known cancellation, giving each of its dysfunctional characters a fairytale feel-good ending that they might not have necessarily earned but was nice to see all the same. I'll miss this show's brilliant fast-paced jokes, as I do for its forebear 30 Rock, and hope Tina Fey's next project will be as remarkable (and maybe not as thematically dark?).
- Altered Carbon Season 1: Netflix evidently spent a lot of cash on this sci-fi novel adaptation featuring a near-future multi-planetary civilization where death has been conquered by the ability to shift "sleeves" - downloading consciousnesses onto alien hard-drives called "stacks" which can then be transplanted into new bodies - and the greater degree of inequity between the haves and have nots that occurs as a result. It's a dense show thematically speaking, but at the same time a relatively straightforward cyberpunk noir whodunnit that's a little too fixated on titillation and sleaze. All the same, I found it entertaining as heck. The next season sounds even wilder.
August will be the last of the quiet months; September, conversely, is absolutely packed with the majority of the games shown off at E3 this year that won't be 2020 games. The common wisdom that the release of Madden precipitates the rush of games worth caring about doesn't quite hold true here, as August will be just as sedate as June and July were, but that's not to say that it won't have some highlights. Here's just a few August 2019 releases that I am personally looking forward to playing some day:
- August 6th will present Metal Wolf Chaos XD, the revamped version of FromSoftware's satirically jingoistic American mecha game. I'd argue that the timing is a little off - the game presents the American President as the hero, when the reverse is presently the case - but there's a distinct silliness to this game that the people it parodies have missed out on for far too long. I don't recall the game itself being all that great, though, so this might be more of a case of looking forward to watching others play it.
- August 13th has the quiet launch of Rebel Galaxy Outlaw, the prequel to Rebel Galaxy: the hickory-smoked space trader simulator with a distinctly 2D take on cosmic warfare. I appreciated the first game, even if it got a little repetitive towards the end of its story (and while the game kept going after that, I was past done), but I could see a sequel working out the kinks and expanding to include other activities beyond fighting pirates, delivering cargo, and mining asteroids. What mattered was that the core was strong, and from there the sky's the limit. Or space is, I guess.
- August 22nd will see the release of Oninaki, the third game from Square Enix's "traditional JRPG" Tokyo RPG Factory branch. I've yet to play their first two, I Am Setsuna and Lost Sphear, even though I own a Switch copy of the latter. Nonetheless, these games have seen a lot of divisive critiques so far and I'm curious to see if Oninaki - which is a more action-oriented affair - can break out and be the Factory's first unequivocal hit. Either way, I'm hoping its good for the sake of Square Enix keeping up this appearance of caring about its JRPG legacy (I suspect Dragon Quest XI and the ongoing success of Final Fantasy XIV have convinced them of that, though, even if these throwbacks haven't).
- August 27th will see the launch of what is my (and I suspect many other peoples') most anticipated game this month: Remedy's Control, about the metaphysical depository of mankind's least explicable secrets and the brassy director trying to hold the whole department together with a rad shapeshifting service pistol. I've always appreciated Remedy for its presentational chops, as they've never been one to skimp on FMV with real actors or elaborate worldbuilding, and I hope Control ends up being the Syfy's Warehouse 13 game nobody knew they wanted.
- Finally, August 30th will be ready to drop even more narrative weirdness in our laps with the triple threat that is Platinum's Astral Chain, about a bunch of anime cops trying to hold back an extradimensional threat; Blair Witch, which reboots the venerable xylophobia franchise with some time-looping malarkey; and The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan, the latest choice-based horror adventure game from the Until Dawn devs. It's going to feel like Halloween came two months early to a lot of us, though I'm personally only really curious about the first of these. Given that NieR Automata was Platinum's last game, Astral Chain has a high bar to meet.
That's going to do it for the August release rundown and yet another verbose Mento's Month summary of what I've written, played, and watched. Thanks again for stopping by and get ready for a toasty month of Mega Drive takes, house clearing, and your usual weekly apportions of Indie appreciation.