Sunday Summaries 30/10/2016: Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow & Dark Souls III

Happy Halloween, everyone! Well, it's still All Hallow's Eve Eve by the time this goes up, but I imagine most of us are getting our spooky reveling out of our system during the weekend.

There's always this unspoken obligation to play survival horror games during this period of the year, to get into the spirit of things. While the survival horror genre is stronger than it's ever been thanks in a large part to Indie developers, it's been a while since one really grabbed me. I played Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and Among the Sleep earlier this year for May Mastery, but both felt sorta surface-level with their mechanics and linearity. But that got me thinking about what a good survival horror game needs to be.

The actual best part of Halloween: a new Homestar cartoon.
The actual best part of Halloween: a new Homestar cartoon.

When we consider the genre, we think of the obfuscated puzzles of the genre originators: Infogrames's Alone in the Dark and Capcom's Resident Evil. There were plenty of other games prior to these that had a horror theme, many of which were adventure games with a similar focus on puzzle-solving for progression (like ICOM's Uninvited or Capcom's Sweet Home, both of which also involved escaping a haunted mansion), though Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil were the first to truly the establish the genre with their jump to 3D environments and use of fixed cameras. Subsequently, every major survival horror game since has had players running around a mansion or some equally ominous location searching for keys and special objects required to progress further, all the while contending with various supernatural foes by gunning them down, whacking them with blunt objects, or just staying out of their reach. Even my favorite survival horror series, Fatal Frame/Project Zero, has an awful lot of backtracking and object hunting involved, largely so the game can funnel you towards the same ghost attack encounters over and over.

These days, survival horror is less focused on backtracking and obtuse puzzles and more on presenting a linear spookhouse ride and doubling down on the scares and narrative than headlining any kind of more elaborate gameplay. It's attempting to boil down the horror genre - in literary terms rather than its loosely-defined video game terms - to its necessities, scrubbing away what was essentially a holdover from an era when these games were more point-and-click-like in construction. We've also, as a whole, relaxed a little on what constitutes a necessary level of gameplay - the arbitrary inclusion of enemies and a combat system in something like Deadly Premonition or SOMA was reviewed as unnecessary to the appeal of those games, and we're less likely to see new horror games shoehorn in something like that to ensure that the game's detractors can't dismiss it as a pointless "walking simulator" with jumpscares. At the same time, with no fear of an early demise, how terrifying could a survival horror game potentially be? I mean, there'd be no real "survival" aspect to worry about.

We all played this game to watch Agent York eat gross sandwiches. If anything, the zombie stuff just got in the way.
We all played this game to watch Agent York eat gross sandwiches. If anything, the zombie stuff just got in the way.

Anyway, the horror genre's popular enough that there'll never stop being a horde of Indie devs working on the next big evolutionary leap for the genre, even if the grand majority of them are content to push out generic spoopy pap to appease YouTubers who make a lot of business through face cam reaction hi-jinks. Still, if those guaranteed sales can act as a safety net for some wild ideas from a particularly imaginative designer, I can't begrudge that little industry much at all.

Before we start with the usual sections, just want to give a hearty "good luck" to everyone streaming for Extra Life this week and next. I'll be moderating the GB streams as much as possible, though I unfortunately cannot partake myself due to a lack of bandwidth and/or computing power. I did consider an "Extra Life Blogging" marathon, but I risk RSI enough already with these 3000-5000 word Sunday Summary behemoths every week. I'll extend that "good luck" to the Waypoint stream too, if it's still going.

New Games!

Owlbolt looks so good, you guys! Wait, did I say Owlbolt? I meant Owlbloy.
Owlbolt looks so good, you guys! Wait, did I say Owlbolt? I meant Owlbloy.

My highlight for this week is Owlboy, which is actually coming out for realsies y'all. The Indie community's Cuphead before Cuphead was a thing, we've been waiting on this glorious-looking 2D action-adventure-platforming-possibly-a-Spacewhipper for what feels like a decade. It's been getting rave reviews from the press outlets with early copies, so it seems like it will be worth the wait. That we're getting this and The Last Guardian this year (though that's still very much a "wait and see") seems almost unreal. A good year for long-delayed games with feathered heroes, though perhaps a bad year in almost every other respect.

Xanadu Next is my obligatory JRPG pick for this week, a sequel to one of Falcom's earlier RPGs in its Dragon Slayer anthology series. The Dragon Slayer series would also go on to spawn the first The Legend of Heroes games, best known by their more recent Trails in the Sky and Trails of Cold Steel entries. Xanadu Next is a bit more archaic; the original version was first released in 2005 and played a lot like Falcom's Ys series of action-RPGs. Even if it is just a Ys game in disguise, though, by all means sign me up. I need something to hold me over until I can get my hands on the new Ys VIII.

Now nobody can win even faster!
Now nobody can win even faster!

Mario Party: Star Rush will unfortunately be out of the running for Mario Party Party, since they enacted a "no portables" rule, but it's also one that takes after the more recent two entries in the series in prioritizing expediency. Whereas in MP9 and MP10 the whole squad moved around the board as one unit, in this game it looks like they all take their turn at once, each in a mad dash towards the Star - hence the name. I'm sure the duders will still feel obligated to Quick Look the game, even if it turns out to be Dan and whomever drew the shortest straw, so I look forward to that. (If not, perhaps, actually playing the game myself.)

Let's get this out of the way: Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare is out this week too, completing the trifecta (quadfecta?) of Autumn shooters alongside Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2. I am curious to see more of the zero-gravity space stuff that was shown off during E3, but I've long since stopped caring about the single-player campaigns of Call of Duty. I'd say the same about the multiplayer aspect, but I never cared for that in the first place. This might be the year that Call of Duty's competition finally buries it, between the two aforementioned releases, Gears of Four and Overwatch in full Halloween dress-up holiday mode, or maybe it'll be the one to draw the online crowds through its unexpectedly high quality and/or series reputation. Definitely a tough call to make. So to speak.

As for the round-up, we have Hitman Episode 6: Hokkaido to complete the first "season" of IO Interactive's piecemeal assassination sim, and that new graphically enhanced The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition for modern consoles and PC. I've heard the new remake doesn't have the mod support of the original, so I'm not particularly inclined to jump back into Tamriel just yet. Others might be waiting for that portable version that Nintendo hinted at with the Switch teaser, though I somehow doubt that. Skyrim's definitely more of a "sit in one place for so long that you fuse with the couch" sort of RPG than one conducive to short plays on the bus.

Wiki!

The indomitable PC Engine rages on.
The indomitable PC Engine rages on.

Still working on those Wii Virtual Console releases for PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 games. It's been a dream of mine, ever since I was a young boy, to ensure that anyone who wished to write a review on Giant Bomb about a TurboGrafx-16 rerelease on the Wii's Virtual Console could attach it to the appropriate release information, regardless of region. I'm up to V on the alphabetical lists, so I don't imagine it'll take another week. At that point, I'm moving onto something marginally more interesting: NES header images.

In the slightly more long-term, I'm prepping for another GDQ event and the wiki work that entails. As per usual, I'll be scrubbing through the GDQ schedule to find games that we might not have represented on our site. The intent is less to fill out the pages for the more obscure games that get covered during the event - usually 8-bit/16-bit forgotten licensed dreck as part of the "Awful Games Done Quick" block, but there's a lot more lesser known Indie games popping up too - but to ensure the pages are there in the first place, since the event uses Twitch for its streams and Twitch in turn uses our wiki database for its "now playing" algorithm. We've never been entirely copacetic on how Twitch actually processes that information through the API - we frequently get frustrated devs emailing support or the mods because Twitch decided one of our pages didn't "count" - so the best bet to cover our bases is to create the page, add some general info to the side-bar, write a basic synopsis for the text portion and attach at least one release. The event starts about a week into 2017, so I'll want to start that project at the beginning of December ideally.

Beyond that, I've got the shadow of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System looming over me. The relatively sedate 1996 will be the last year the SNES will see a significant number of releases, and I'm eager to finish the console off after several years of researching and wiki work that it's taken so far.

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow!

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Though I didn't play any survival horror games this week, the two I did play definitely have a spooky edge to them. In fact, they both involve killing monsters and absorbing their souls to become more powerful, so that's a curious throughline.

My Aria of Sorrow playthrough, which snips at the heels of last year's Dawn of Sorrow revisit, was very much the result of watching Vinny progress through Symphony of the Night for the site's Vinnyvania premium feature. I doubt Vinny will extend the feature to cover all the open-world Castlevania games that IGA is best known for, but seeing him pass through the inverted castle and all its secrets got me pining for a playthrough of my own. Since all the Castlevania games on the Wii Virtual Console are presently on sale, I snapped up Aria for a song (so to speak) and completed Soma Cruz's inaugural adventure for what I believe is the third time.

Aria of Sorrow's big defining feature is the aforementioned soul-stealing, where Soma absorbs the souls of fallen foes and uses them for his own profit. They essentially act like a versatile power-up system, a greatly expanded variant of the Belmonts' sub-weapons, with the souls falling into four basic categories: red weapon or "bullet" souls that allow Soma to bust out an attack for a certain number of hearts per shot, blue guardian souls which provide an ongoing boost for as long as the active button is held down, yellow enchanted souls which provide a passive benefit, and grey ability souls which act like the progression-enabling relics in previous games and are always active.

The issue with these souls is that they don't automatically drop whenever a new enemy type is slain. Rather, their drop rate is defined by a certain percentage chance, often dependent on the quality of the soul and the assistance it provides. An early example are the zombies right at the start: as in many Castlevania games, you being by passing through a corridor with endlessly spawning weak undead enemies, but the chance of one of these zombies dropping a soul is incredibly slim. The Peeping Eye enemy, a frequent Castlevania mainstay, has a soul that gives you the very useful ability of detecting breakable walls, behind which many of the game's items - including the best sword in the game, the Claimh Solais - are hidden. The chance of it actually dropping its soul, however, approaches one in infinity.

"The greatest and Orangest of Vampire Hunters."

I'd imagine this makes Aria of Sorrow an exciting game to speedrun, because you can't depend on any of these souls happening by chance and nor can you afford to wait around to farm them. You either devise strategies based on what you can rely on - the "assured" items/drops - or you hope to strike it lucky with a particularly useful soul for speedrunning that'll give you an edge over everyone else attempting a world record. I'd imagine almost all runners would opt for the former and mitigate any element of randomness as much as possible as a matter of course, but you gotta imagine there are folk out there going with the latter with a slightly revised route past some particularly juicy souls and hoping the RNG is on their side.

At any rate, the story's a fun one with an abundance of characters to meet and a few surprising twists, and while the map's not quite the size and scope of Symphony's it's still substantial enough for a portable game. Having all those souls and weapons to play around with definitely adds some replayability to the game - I tried daggers for the first time, since Vinny's presently having a ball with them - and I have the Boss Rush mode to try if I feel like another challenge. It's not Symphony, but it's perhaps the next best thing.

Dark Souls III!

Thumbs up for birthday presents!
Thumbs up for birthday presents!

I'll be going into more detail with Dark Souls III when I start writing up the "Bosswatch" feature that tends to accompany any new Souls/Borne playthrough, but I've played enough at this point for some general early impressions.

What's been notable for me is how this game has chosen to balance its difficulty between bosses and general exploration. The series has been playing around with this dynamic for a while, but they usually lean towards difficult boss encounters and moderately challenging exploration. With Dark Souls III, it feels like they went the other way: I've been having far more trouble passing through the mostly linear levels filled with traps and vicious enemies than I have with the game's boss encounters so far. The forested Path of Sacrifices, which I've just passed through, is filled with these pointy branch-carrying zombies that can you kill you very quickly if you aren't paying attention, and if you wander away from them you risk bumping something worse. Something like those really strong, tall zombies with crosses on their back who frenzy swipe at you, or the powerful giant crabs in the watery area of the forest, or the handful of NPC hostiles roaming around that fight like other players, or yet another venomous swamp. One passageway even had one of the black knights from the original Dark Souls guarding it. We're back to Dark Souls 2's healing system as well - a fixed number of Estus Flasks that the player can increase by finding items, as well as another type of item that increases each one's potency - that's been expanded with a system where you can designate some of your Estus Flasks as MP restorative items instead, giving players one less reason to pick a magic-based class. Would anyone be that eager to go all in on pyromancy, sorcery or miracles if it means giving up half their healing items to keep their mana up? I mean, it's Souls, so the answer is no doubt "absolutely".

Speaking of Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2, that would be the other significant element of the game: the increased amount of callbacks and references, both visual and narrative, to the previous games in the series. The landscape is vaguely reminiscent of certain areas of Dark Souls 1 and 2 - not so much in a lazy retread sort of way but a calculated attempt to link the geography to those places for the sake of the game's deliberately cyclic lore. The insinuation is that the Souls games are always hundreds of years apart, to account for various geographical changes and new characters, but the same old names and locations tend to keep popping up: Vinland, the home of sorcery and uppity mages; Izalith, the seat of pyromancy that has since been scourged by the same chaotic fire it sought to harness; Catarina, a land of noble if buffoonish knights who walk around in oddly onion-shaped armor. The NPCs too, of which there are many, are reminiscent of earlier cases. Siegward of Catarina reminds me of the similarly-named onion knights from Dark Souls 1 and 2. I've found pieces of Solaire's armor, suggesting that the SunBros are going to show up later as a covenant. We're back to Firekeepers and rekindling. Andre's back, apparently having not aged a day. There's a friendly hooded pyromancer vendor, a terse sorcerer vendor, a doomed maiden willing to impart miracles and yet another crestfallen sadsack sitting near the bonfire. I've no doubt Patches will show up eventually too.

Fashion Souls is back! Check out this dapper gear. I stole it from a corpse!
Fashion Souls is back! Check out this dapper gear. I stole it from a corpse!

That the game leans so hard on familiarity could be seen as either a strength or a weakness. Being familiar with the game's lore and tropes does not in any way prepare you for the game's surprises; if anything, you're likely to drop your guard with something that appears familiar and then becomes anything but. However, it does serve to highlight an ongoing issue with the series: it's running out of new features and ideas to incorporate, and by relying so much on what has come before it feels less like a bold new direction for the series than simply giving fans what they want and expect for another game in a row. As with Dark Souls 2, I can't fault the game for its many minor gameplay improvements and visual upgrades over the original PS3 games, but a lot of what made Dark Souls such a singular experience (if you temporarily forget about Demon's Souls, anyway) becomes diluted more and more with each subsequent retread.

I talked about how Aria of Sorrow and Dark Souls III are linked by soul absorption mechanics, where it's key to the character development in both, but really the better link would be how they're both chasing an immensely popular and critically acclaimed forebear - Symphony of the Night and Dark Souls, respectively - and coming up short when attempting to replicate the impact of that antecedent, despite the wonderful ideas and beneficial gameplay tweaks they've implemented in the meantime. I've heard tell that Dark Souls 3 will be the last of its particular series - at least with the current dark fantasy medieval world it has spent three games building - with new games either riffing on Bloodborne or creating a new universe whole cloth, and I think that's the smart plan. I'll reserve any critical thoughts on Dark Souls III until after I've completed it, of course, but while I'm always down for more Souls I can't say it's standing out too much.

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