Sunday Summaries 04/12/2016: Evoland 2 & Go! Go! GOTY!

Well, here it is. The final month of the year, where we all sit and ponder what could've possibly gone wrong. Why did so many great talents pass away before their time? Will the next year even be any better considering what's already been set in motion, politically-speaking? This year might've sucked, but it could also be the last sane year we'll see for a long time. The collapse of Western civilization is a heck of a thing, but I can't help but feel that we perhaps deserve it.

An example of a 2014 game that was a revelation to me in 2016. I now can't imagine what my 2014 GOTY list would look like without it.
An example of a 2014 game that was a revelation to me in 2016. I now can't imagine what my 2014 GOTY list would look like without it.

So with that warm feeling of optimism in our hearts, we can at least agree that 2016 was a great year for games. I've been working on another "adjusted GOTY" list, this time for 2014, and it's remarkable how many games I've played from that particular year: just over forty-five at last count. I feel like that's going to be the case for 2015 as well once it's also had another twelve months of catching-up: I already have five 2015 games ready to go, including one I've started playing that I'll talk about in the usual section at the end, and there's plenty more on the wishlist. The past few years, this one included, has given us such a wealth of new games that it's getting harder to even keep track of them all, let alone play them.

If nothing else, this year has imparted on me just how deleterious open-world games are for sucking up all my free time and preventing me from covering as many different games as I'd like, and I'm strongly considering detoxing myself from them for a while. I mean, after I've played the ones I've already bought, of course. I'm introducing a new weekly feature next year that will force me to chip away at this ridiculous Steam backlog of Indies I've accrued, instead of waiting every May for a month-long unpacking. If I could just excise most of this "now playing" list of half-finished games of May Madnesses past, I'd be sated.

Anyway, I'll get more into my 2017 blogging plans as we get closer to January. For now, please enjoy my daily Go! Go! GOTY! series, which should run for the entirety of next week at least and possibly another week thereafter. (And yes, I will be writing two blogs today. Such is my poor life planning.)

New Games!

Between Brexit, Trump and this game coming out, it definitely feels like the Mandela Effect has been working overtime of late.
Between Brexit, Trump and this game coming out, it definitely feels like the Mandela Effect has been working overtime of late.

I'm still not convinced The Last Guardian is coming out this week. It's entirely possible that everyone who has been showing off their early review copies on Twitter were faking it somehow, a massive global conspiracy to convince the world that the adventures of dogragon and boy finally finished development and was unleashed on an unbelieving world. It's probably going to play like a PS2 game, but I'm not bothered by that so much. It's a little too early for the PS2 nostalgia wave to start, but we have been moving away from the sort of games that dominated that system. Having a lush Fumito Ueda action-adventure game following last week's lavishly produced big-budget JRPG really takes me back to that era.

Speaking of nostalgia, I guess Dead Rising 4 is coming out swinging with a ludicrous improvised weapon this week too. It'll probably end up overshadowed by the miracle that is Last Guardian's release, plus folk didn't seem too keen on the new character treatment with Frank West (whom Capcom will absolutely transfer to the new Marvel vs. Capcom game in lieu of his pudgy original. Dante too). I have a secret theory that this game, with its endless smashing of zombies, appeals to a subset of fussy fans who considers Dynasty Warriors and other Omega Force brawlers to be beneath them when they evidently are clearly not. From my perspective, it all looks very similar.

This game seems like it'd be super busy and super complicated. I'm sure Austin will be all over it.
This game seems like it'd be super busy and super complicated. I'm sure Austin will be all over it.

One of the other mods was raving about Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun lately, and it does look like some challenging top-down real-time tactical fun in the vein of Commandos. I never could get the hang of operating a squad of characters concurrently in a real-time fashion - even though you can use tactical pauses to set up ambushes and the like - but I like the medieval Japan aesthetic they're going for here. Feels very Seven Samurai.

Warhammer 40k games keep on coming out, and I'm not sure what to make of any of them. I have a 360 copy of Space Marine (SPACE MAREEN!) lying around, and a couple of tactical CRPGs from the 90s still in their jewel cases. Space Hulk: Deathwing is the newest, and hearkens back to the claustrophobic 1993 FPS that pits the burly space marines against hordes of "genestealers"; Warhammer 40k's non-copyright variant of xenomorphs - they have four arms, so they're totally different. This particular iteration, actually the fifth to be based on the Space Hulk board game, comes to us courtesy of Streum on Studio, the developers of the very odd E.Y.E.: Divine Cybermancy. Who better to navigate the equally bizarre universe of God-Emperors, Necrons and Nurgles? (Personally, I always preferred Space Crusade to Space Hulk. You had more enemy types to shoot.)

I'm ending with Her Majesty's SPIFFING, a point-and-click adventure game I don't have high hopes for but at least has a novel premise. Queen Elizabeth II, sick of how poorly her country has fared since Brexit (topical!), decides to secretly create a space program with the intent of spreading the British Empire into the cosmos, as the rest of Earth is clearly tired of our self-defeating isolationist bullshit. I want to say the developers already had the game in motion before the Brexit referendum happened and, in a case similar to South Park's present series, did absolutely not expect the result we actually got. What sane person could? Anyway, I'm a big fan of adventure games and this one is British-y as all hell, so I feel compelled to at least give it a shot.

Wiki!

Not too many highlights from this batch, beyond this Rambo: First Blood Part 2 dating sim, the absurdly hard Karate Kid and Top Gun licensed games, and Brad-favorite Faxanadu.
Not too many highlights from this batch, beyond this Rambo: First Blood Part 2 dating sim, the absurdly hard Karate Kid and Top Gun licensed games, and Brad-favorite Faxanadu.

More 1987 NES stuff! I did promise last week that if I hadn't finished this project before the start of December, I'd temporarily suspend it to move onto the AGDQ 2017 project in preparation for the AGDQ charity streams which are only a month away. I'm going to tempt fate instead and stick with the Nintendo for one more week: I've only got a handful of December releases left to go, and I'm loath to leave a job half-finished. Initial impressions on the work required for the AGDQ project is fairly optimistic: there's an Indie PC gaming block that'll require some work, but I've been given a reprieve by the usually obscurity-laden "Awful Games Block" this year because the majority of them appear to be SNES games. I can already vouch for pretty much 90% of that console's library as being as complete as it needs to be.

My concern with the remaining NES games on this list is that they feature a few... let's say "significant releases". Like, I dunno, the first Mega Man and the first Final Fantasy. Also the first NES Metal Gear, Karnov and Wizards and Warriors. The issue here is that a few of these will have a lot of Wii Virtual Console releases to add, so here's hoping I can polish that list of eighteen off without it requiring another week of my alloted wiki-ing time.

Evoland 2!

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Before embarking on this end-of-the-year daily blogging stupidity, I started up this little Indie RPG figuring I'd finish it long before December started. Not even close. Evoland 2 is remarkably substantial in size, as opposed to its brief predecessor, and clearly has had many more ideas for parodies and homages packed into it.

The first Evoland was built on the cute idea of beginning from basically nothing - a monochrome world where you could only walk right - and "acquiring" the abilities to walk in multiple directions, have a combat system, have color, have background music, have 16-bit graphics, and so forth. Advances in video game technology were treated as upgrades usually rewarded for bosses and quests, and the game became this elaborate history lesson of console role-playing games tied together with a threadbare plot concerning a revenge-driven demon. It skewered a few RPGs along the way from the 8-bit to the PS1 era, but generally focused on universal conventions and mechanics of JRPGs old and new (or slightly less old).

The first Evoland had a lot of jokes like this. Evoland 2 eases off the meta commentary, but it still pops up in spots.
The first Evoland had a lot of jokes like this. Evoland 2 eases off the meta commentary, but it still pops up in spots.

Evoland 2 has a similar playfully reverent sensibility, but instead switches the focus around to be more about specific game homages and other genres instead. The game delights in throwing the player into different gameplay models at a whim: normally you have a standard top-down real-time action RPG in the vein of Zelda or Ys, but the game will often switch to a 2D platformer view for dungeons Link's Awakening style. It's also introduced a fighter mode, a brawler mode, a shoot 'em up mode, a CCG mode, and more. These modes aren't particularly compelling but they only tend to stick around long enough for the joke to land before switching back to the game's default model. Likewise, the homaging of particular games is far more overt than it was previously: one dungeon, set inside a dilapidated futuristic lab, has the party fight encounters in an active-time battle system right out of Chrono Trigger. This system - which even gives each character a small selection of spells and combo attacks - disappears the moment you leave the dungeon.

Apropos of nothing, visiting the pirate base has you fight them all in a side-scrolling brawler. The boss is one
Apropos of nothing, visiting the pirate base has you fight them all in a side-scrolling brawler. The boss is one "Captain Ababa". Like every other of the game's genre paradigm shifts, some attention's been given to the new genre's conventions: you have a devastating helicopter kick and an uppercut, if you can find the button combination to activate them.

It retains the graphical generation-hopping nature of the original, but instead codifies it to represent several eras of the game's setting: the past is rendered in an 8-bit style, the present more closely resembles a particularly attractive SNES or pixel-based PS1/Saturn game, and the future looks more like a PS2 game with a modest command of polygonal graphics that something like Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas contains. You'll move back and forth a few times as the plot decrees before the game opens up for its multi-objective late-game, which allows you to hop between eras freely. The Chrono Trigger allusion above isn't just confined to that one instance: a lot of the game relies on cause and effect puzzles, requiring you to modify the outcome of a scenario in the past to change the future in a way that allows you to progress or obtain an item. This model makes more sense to the game's "evolving through console generations" conceit than the linear one-way progression of the original, though my PC has some real trouble running the future scenario at a stable framerate for whatever reason.

Yikes!
Yikes!

I will say that this game is ambitious as all hell, especially for an Indie title. I can't imagine the amount of resources required to design and code this many genres, and it's a generously-sized game to boot. While Evoland 1 felt like a short, archetypal parodic Indie game with a few smart ideas, Evoland 2 has the confidence and content of a full-priced retail game. I can't wait to get back to it once this daily Go! Go! GOTY! feature eases up a bit.

(Did I mention there's a collectible card game built in, a la Final Fantasy VIII? And it's actually not too bad? Like a streamlined variant of Gwent. It doesn't let you select your cards though, which is making some of the tougher opponents more difficult than they need to be as you regularly draw your worst scraps while they hammer you with high-value cards, but it's a worthy effort.)

Go! Go! GOTY! Stuff!

I'm just going to dedicate this space to briefly discussing the week's Go! Go! GOTY! entries. I've only played two games as of now - I plan to start the third later today once this Sunday Summaries goes up.

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Day One involved playing through the entirety of Playdead's Inside in a single sitting, which I think is definitely the way to go with that one. Like Journey, it's all about the... expedition through the game's many settings, each one representing a different tone and a different pace that, when combined together in one playthrough session, creates a pleasing narrative arc that crests and dips at various intervals. I don't know if there's a name for this particular phenomenon; I see it most often in concept albums and musical movies like Fantasia, where the order of events is carefully selected to rise you up and drop you down again in succession.

Anyway, Inside doesn't really raise you up in an emotional way - it's all uniformly quite grim. Rather, it's more about the way the game handles its tempo: there are parts where you're running quickly to evade enemies or get over some crumbling level design, and slower parts where you're exploring underwater or pushing boxes around to make a puzzle work. (Not so dissimilar from a Tomb Raider or Uncharted, I suppose.) Ironically, since I keep comparing it to music, there's almost no music in the game whatsoever. The stark presentation of the near-monochrome graphics also extends to the mostly silent audio, making the world feel far more sinister and cold than it already is. Not for the first time I feel slightly out of my depth in describing how it does what it does so effectively in terms of its narrative.

What I can do is rate it as a game: it's not bad. I'll talk about the deaths some, since that's an integral and all-too-common aspect and one that the game utilizes for purposes beyond bumming you out temporarily for screwing up. A lot of the game relies on timing: not just for swinging off ropes or moving behind cover to avoid getting spotted, but in cases where there are enemies around and they'll quickly move in for the kill once they see you. By waiting a little in the dark, you might see a group of nearby adults walk away or a dog choosing to sniff in the opposite direction, giving you the opening you need. Sometimes you'll be able to outrun the enemy, but other times it'll always catch up to you no matter how quick you are, so you need to distract it somehow first. Deaths are almost inevitable in this game, and most of them are used to teach you how the immediate puzzle works, or at least what will be required of you to move on: if you can't defeat it the obvious way, look for a less obvious solution. At other times deaths are almost comical due to how easily preventable they are. A safe attached to a rope tied around a hanging plank over a fifteen foot drop presents a puzzle where you need to push the safe off to create a hole in the wooden floor below, but the moment it gets pushed off it takes the rope and the plank you're standing on with it, so you need to already be running back across the plank before the safe drops past the length of the rope. That was a death I narrowly avoided as the gears clicked in my head the second the safe was away, but there were many other times where I was caught short by my inattentiveness and lack of foresight. Some of those errors felt almost Wile E. Coyote-esque in execution.

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Day Two and Three concern the Double Fine game Headlander, a SpaceWhipper with a distinctive and stylish 70s sci-fi flair. While the game has you gliding from one set-piece to the next, making almost zero effort to hide its various secret rooms and the upgrades they provide, it does at least have a lot of imagination behind those set-pieces, exploring the game's central feature of hopping from one robotic body to the next in as many different variations as it can scrounge up. Whether you're messing around with locked elevators, taking part in a battle royale with chess piece-themed robot gladiators, or attempting to hack into a series of satellites, the game does at least keep you busy with gameplay-distinct objectives.

I found the game supremely chill, even with all its fraught laser fights. Like many Double Fine games it's clearly endeavoring to reach a wider casual audience drawn in by its groovy aesthetic with its many quality of life concessions, and it's not necessarily a bad approach for a game of this genre. SpaceWhippers are served best by how they make the exploration fun, at least in my view, and this game makes that process very hospitable with how apparent it makes its collectibles and how lenient it is about deaths. If I get smushed in an instant-death trap, I'm happy that I just get sent to the nearest area transition instead of the last checkpoint, because I'm more eager to explore this wide world than to have to re-explore it because I bit off more than I could chew before returning back to a safe area to recuperate. It does mean that I breezed through the game, but I don't mind being a content tourist when the content looks this good.

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