Deltarune Chapter 2, [[BIG SHOTS]], and Free Will. [SPOILERS / Theory Crafting]

Three years ago, Toby Fox basically stealth released the first chapter of the now episodic Deltarune...series? Or, technically singular game, considering Chapter 2 is just a free update, and not standalone. Now, Chapter 2 has released, and I got around to not just Chapter 2, but also replaying Chapter 1, just to refresh myself on the story, characters, world, etc. After playing both chapters, and falling down a bit of a hole on the Deltarune wiki, I couldn't stop thinking about it, and here I am writing about it.

But that's getting way ahead of myself. I'm glad I played the first Chapter again, because it was good to refresh myself. And even though I did remember more of what happened than I would have thought (or rather, when scenes came up, I'd remember, “oh this is the part where you can make the thing look like the duck,” or “this is where you don't follow Lancer because he has no idea where to go”), all the jokes and whatnot held up better on a second go through than I also might have guessed.

Anyway, it left me primed and ready to embark on another adventure with Kris, Susie, and Ralsei. This time as they enter “A Cyber's World” to save fellow classmates Noelle (who totally doesn't have a crush on Susie (spoilers, she does)) and Berdly from the clutches of the not really that evil Queen. Even if at times it feels like the Queen wants you to save her from Berdly, who is perhaps the most (intentionally) obnoxious character I've encountered in years.

This is the last time I play a PC game without either figuring out how to take screenshots that isn't just hitting prt sc and then manually saving the image, because for various technical reasons I won't get into, I had a hell of a time getting screenshots from elsewhere into this blog.
This is the last time I play a PC game without either figuring out how to take screenshots that isn't just hitting prt sc and then manually saving the image, because for various technical reasons I won't get into, I had a hell of a time getting screenshots from elsewhere into this blog.

The short version is that I loved it, all the writing and humor are as great as ever, at least assuming it appeals to you. Personally I love Toby Fox's brand of goofy slapstick nonsense combined with the corniest puns imaginable, but humor is always the most subjective thing. The music is just as catchy and memorable as ever (I'm going to have “NOW'S YOUR CHANCE TO BE A [BIG SHOT]” stuck in my head for weeks), and I even think a couple of smart changes make the combat better too.

Perhaps most crucially, I think Chapter 2 feels like Toby Fox and company figured out how to give Deltarune more of its own identity, so it doesn't just feel like a rehash/remix of Undertale, like Chapter 1 did, to an extent. Undertale still holds a special place in my heart, it's still one of my all time favorites, but it's good that Chapter 2 feels less like a one trick pony just doing that same trick for a third time now.

Even if the tricks are pretty similar. But like I said, the combat especially feels like it's almost at that sweet spot where it needs to be. My biggest complaint with Undertale was that there were way too many fights, and even playing the pacifist route (which personally feels like the ideal way to experience these), the puzzles to pacify each enemy type were only fun to solve once. Deltarune made that more engaging by increasing the party size from one to three, and adding a gauge that fills by defending or grazing enemy shots, and can be spent on spells to heal, or do other bespoke actions in fights.

Chapter 2 has a couple other small, but key changes. First, enemies now have a Mercy meter next to their health, indicating how close they are to being spared (removed from the fight without killing). It makes it a lot easier to keep track of things, especially because now more enemies take multiple steps to be fully removed from fights. The other key change, is that Kris is no longer the only character that can “Act” during fights, as early in Chapter 2 someone points out in dialog that there's not really any reason why the other two can't just do stuff on their own. There's still group actions that tend to be more effective, or affect multiple enemies at once, and those will use the turn for every character involved. Still, simply being able to “Act” more than once per “friendly” turn just helps make the fights feel a lot smoother than before. Now Susie and Ralsei can do more than just cast heal or defend to fill the meter!

There's also more reason than before to actually fight enemies more than once. Aside from getting money (or EXP if you're a monster and kill). Between chapters Ralsei, Lancer, and friends (probably mostly Ralsei) set up a little town, but it needs people to keep growing, and become a real community. Spare enough of an enemy type, they'll be recruited for the town, and go live there. There's even a handy checklist viewable at save spots (which also now feature a storage box for excess items) to keep track of what enemies have and haven't been recruited. I think I managed to recruit everyone in Chapter 2, and it was cool to see them around town, and how the town had expanded by the end of the Chapter.

When Chapter 3 comes out I'm just going to replay the first two on PS5 because that'll be easier in the long run. Plus, presumably I'll get Troph-dogs too.
When Chapter 3 comes out I'm just going to replay the first two on PS5 because that'll be easier in the long run. Plus, presumably I'll get Troph-dogs too.

As far as I know, there's no “game play” benefit to recruiting. This isn't MGSV where they can be assigned to do things, or anything like that. And I'm fine with that, maybe even glad. As much as the game part of Chapter 2 is the best I've played yet from the Toby Fox-iverse of games, the writing and characters are still where it's at its best. That's the main draw, and I'd rather get a goofy line of dialog or two from an NPC than feel obligated to recruit for some tacked on mechanic, or something.

Otherwise, aside from the party changing a bit throughout the Chapter (notably when Ralsei and Susie split off for a while and Noelle follows Kris instead), that's kind of it for the game part of the game. There's some environmental puzzles to solve, and secrets to be found, which...I'll get back to. It was a delight to go on another adventure with those characters, great to have them fleshed out even more, and to see Noelle get to become a main character in this Chapter. The bit in Chapter 1 where you can intrude on her visiting her father in the hospital was about all she got then, and as touching as that moment was, it was just a moment.

Susie in particular felt like the one who had the most growth from Chapter to Chapter, and probably turning into my favorite character in the game. So far, at least. Her arc in the first Chapter was basically just learning to begrudgingly work with other people, but now she's become genuine friends with Kris and Ralsei, and all the different goofs and hijinks the three of them get up to are so funny. Plus, her interactions with Noelle are also cute and kinda heartwarming, but I'll not spoil what does or doesn't happen there.

This is probably the part where I should throw up the [SPOILER] warning for real. I mentioned some stuff in passing, but what made me feel like I had to write about Chapter 2 is not just key story stuff in the game, but also theory-crafting (for lack of a better term) about the future of Deltarune, so even if you have played Chapter 2, if you want the future of your Deltarune experience to be just playing the games, duck out now and write yourself a reminder to finish this blog next decade when every chapter is out!

And if you haven't played Deltarune yet, it's still free! PC, PS4, Switch, the first two Chapters are both free, and given that Undertale is pretty reasonably priced, I can only assume that even if the later Chapters are more expensive than that, they'll be on the cheaper end of new game prices.

Like I said, I loved Chapter 2, I think it's better than the first, and even in some ways better than Undertale, despite not yet being a complete narrative. But if the story's going where it seems like it could be, I think certainly the potential is there for it to do some really interesting stuff beyond what Undertale did, but the wait will be long. Just hopefully not as long as I fear it will be.

Here's some Susie dialog before the beginning of the [SPOILER ZONE].
Here's some Susie dialog before the beginning of the [SPOILER ZONE].

[Final SPOILERS warning.]

Okay, so first, I need to go back to the end of Chapter 1. I played through that back in 2018, just thinking the game was basically all goofs and silly nonsense, without it really getting as serious or dark as Undertale did. A few moments, but mostly it was just goofs. That is, until the very end, when Kris wakes up in the middle of the night, rips what appeared to be their heart (or soul) from their body, and throws it into a birdcage. Kris pulls out a knife, there's a murderous red glint in their eye, and the Chapter ends. Cliffhanger to keep us waiting on for three years.

Chapter 2 picks up the next day, initially seeming like it was going to address that immediately, but it turned out to be a fake out. In terms of the direct narrative of the Chapter, this isn't addressed or seen until again, the very end. This time Susie has come over to Kris' house, and while she's helping Toriel bake a pie, Kris pulls the heart/soul out of their chest again, and jumps out the window. But they return, and they go watch a movie on TV with Susie, until everyone dozes off. Then again, in the middle of the night, Kris pulls it out again, and stabs the floor, creating the geyser of a dark fountain, just like the ones they and Susie closed in the two Chapters. Presumably also creating another dark world, but that will remain to be seen until Chapter 3 is out.

The obvious conclusion from the obvious narrative is that Kris is probably the one who has been creating these fountains. Reference had been made to a mysterious knight, one also referred to with they/them pronouns like Kris (shout out to canonical nonbinary characters). Not that Kris is the only NB person in the game (though I think they're the only one in the main cast), but that feels like too much of a coincidence, especially in a game where stuff like that NEVER ends up being coincidence. These things are either a set up for a joke later on, or something important to the capital P Plot.

From the end of Chapter 1. I couldn't find a good one from Chapter 2's end.
From the end of Chapter 1. I couldn't find a good one from Chapter 2's end.

So, knowing there was a three year gap between Chapters 1 and 2, and there likely will be a similar one before we get more (though I hope the writing on the Steam page means Chapters 3-5 might be released at once), and given the ending, I really wanted to know more. So, knowing I'm far from the only person who obsesses over things online, I turned to the Deltarune wiki, and did some reading. It did not take long before I realized I had missed something fairly crucial in my interpretation of what was going on in the game. At least assuming the fan interpretations are correct.

That being that you play as Kris, rather than what seems to be the case, which is that you actually play as the red heart/soul that is in turn controlling Kris' every action. Something I had neglected to even consider, but seems to be accepted as fact amongst the rest of the fanbase, is that isn't Kris' soul. But rather someone else's, who is for reasons unknown, possessing and controlling Kris. And, I think the most disturbing part, Kris is aware the entire time. Aware, and in some instances (particularly in the darker “Snowgrave” route, apparently) actively fighting against the choices and actions of the soul/player.

I'll be honest, this revelation...made me feel kinda bad. I don't think it's controversial to say the idea of possessing and controlling someone against their will is morally wrong. Especially in a game that seems to emphasize that you should try to spare enemies, and help others when you can, it just makes the fact that you have to control every aspect of another living being's life feel...bad. I'd like to think that personally I didn't make Kris do anything they would regret, because I always spare enemies, help others, etc... But then I have to remind myself that I also make Kris do the stupidest things imaginable.

Like eating moss.

Repeatedly.

They just like moss! And eating it!!
They just like moss! And eating it!!

I just think them and Susie enjoying eating moss is a really funny recurring gag, okay! When characters talk about Kris' past (presumably prior to their possession), and all the dumb pranks Kris would pull on Noelle, or other things people talk about, it makes me think that eating moss when stuck in a jail cell for three minutes is something they would have done on their own. And that they'd keep doing it after learning that Susie likes moss too. Never mind that Susie likes to eat chalk recreationally.

The idea of Kris just being a puppet also immediately put another part of Chapter 2 into a different light. That being the arc of Spamton. He is spam emails incarnate, at first just a boss in the middle of the Chapter with some funny dialog about being a [[BIG SHOT]], and [HYPERLINK BLOCKED]. He's a salesman trying to get Kris to agree to a deal, a deal that clearly no one should make, but the only way to get past him non-lethally is to ultimately agree to the deal. And once Kris does, or rather you do, Spamton slinks away, and Kris continues along their journey.

I bet for a fair number of people, that may have been the last time they encountered Spamton. In terms of the main narrative, that is the last time he appears, aside from the aforementioned Snowgrave route (a darker route that apparently involves forcing Noelle to kill a lot of enemies with ice magic). But, do a bit of exploring like I did, and Spamton can be found operating a shop in the junk area near his initial appearance. Aside from selling equipment that looks like it have game breaking stats until you leave his shop, he has another proposition for you. Find an item in a secret room in the basement of the Queen's mansion, and bring it back to him.

It was clear that this wasn't part of the main story, so obviously I had to prioritize it while working my way through the mansion, because I love doing side quests. After finding the room in question, Kris told Susie and Ralsei to wait outside while they went in to find the item. At this point I was wavering between wondering if this was all setup for a big joke, or something dark, and you'd think this area being the creepiest most menacing place in the game so far would tip me in one direction, but I still thought it might ultimately be a gag.

Anyway, after finding a data disc in a dead automaton, I brought it back to Spamton, and he uploaded himself to it, with the instructions to put the disc back where it came from. So I went back, Susie and Ralsei again waiting outside the creepy sub-basement, and loaded the disc back in. Nothing happened at first, but then...

[Hyperlink blocked]
[Hyperlink blocked]

The [[BIG SHOT]] returned, taller and grander than ever, his aspiration of reaching to [H E A V E N] seemingly within grasp. But, still to his dismay, a puppet at the end of strings, with only the soul in Kris' body as his new goal. From there Susie and Ralsei save Kris from immediately getting killed, and thus starts the Spamton NEO fight. This was by far the hardest fight I'd encountered so far in Deltarune (though having gone back now, I think the optional Jevil fight I missed the first time in Chapter 1 is actually harder), and also the most unsettling. Even without the idea in my head that Kris was also just a puppet, it felt like there was something else, something even darker and worse behind the scenes during this fight.

After the fight, Susie stops Kris and asks them if they're okay, as they seem visibly shaken in a way they hadn't been before. Now, normally I'm the sort of person that if people ask how I'm doing, or if I'm okay, I just “stretch the truth,” and say “fine,” or lie and say “yes,” even when I'm clearly not. But here, “No” felt like the right option, so I picked that, and though Kris' exact dialog is never seen (certainly an interesting choice), the others seemed real worried that Kris was screaming in a way they hadn't before. Or at least Susie was, Ralsei was a bit too quick to want to just move on, and pretend what just happened didn't mean anything at all.

From what I've read, picking “Yes” makes Kris sound strained, which I would have thought just meant they were trying to conceal how they felt. The fanbase online, though thinks it means it was another case of wanting to fight against the player's control, but I'd say either version is plausible.

I don't quite know how to feel honestly, other than that feeling of not being in control of your own life...it's pretty relatable. Even just on a more immediate basis, I have to fight against myself to get basic things done sometimes, or especially doing anything outside my comfort zone. And even more specifically, as an NB person (like Kris is) with a chronic illness, I certainly know what it's like to feel like I have no control over my body. Not that I think Deltarune (thus far) has anything to do with illness (aside from Noelle's dad), but still. Finishing Chapter 2 on my birthday, of all days, and reading up on these fan theories, it put me in a bit of, not quite an existential crisis head space, but it certainly got me thinking about a lot of things that are maybe on the wrong side of depressing.

Addendum: Thinking about it even more after writing this blog, and I realized something a bit before I was going to post it. Not only are there so many parallels between Kris and Spamton being puppets, but also... If you choose to spare Spamton, you need to cut all the strings controlling him. Using your power to control a puppet and make them cut another puppet's strings... Forcing Kris to give Spamton his freedom (even if that ended up being an empty dream) while denying it to Kris... Just twist the knife while you're at it, Toby.

At least it gave me plenty to chew on regarding the game, and theorizing about what's going on. I don't want anyone reading this to think it had an overall negative affect on me, I still love it. It just gave me a lot more to think about than I expected it would, even if a fair amount of it is still in fan theory territory. Plus it's been a good while since I've had something that let me go into this wild theorizing state of mind, and even if the theories get dark and depressing, it's still kinda fun to think about.

Oh yeah, also there was a mech fight. My mech had the duck head. Listen, I was STRUGGLING for relevant shots that aren't fanart. I love the fanart, but then I'd have to credit the people, and I'd feel kinda weird not getting permission, even if these blogs are something I do for free in my free time, you know.
Oh yeah, also there was a mech fight. My mech had the duck head. Listen, I was STRUGGLING for relevant shots that aren't fanart. I love the fanart, but then I'd have to credit the people, and I'd feel kinda weird not getting permission, even if these blogs are something I do for free in my free time, you know.

Maybe, ultimately Deltarune is just a big metaphor for life, and how it's so hard to ever feel like anything we do, anything we choose to do has any impact at all. Or the reverse, more uplifting theme (which feels in line with Undertale's pacifist ending), which is that having enough Determination, and enough friends to help along the way, can ultimately help you overcome almost any obstacle.

More directly to the plot though...I can't help but wonder why this soul is possessing Kris in the first place? If it's not Kris' original soul, then what happened to that one? If this new soul is controlling Kris against their will, how come they can just rip it out? And why put it back in (they do seem to struggle to move without the soul)? Why are they creating new dark worlds? Considering the (mostly) fun adventures they go on, the new friends they meet, I could see an argument to be made for the creation of more dark worlds ultimately being a good thing. Or Kris viewing it that way, as these games wouldn't exist without them. Assuming they get closed before Ralsei's warning about titans comes true (though would this really be a video game if such a warning didn't come true and have to be overcome?).

Conversely, there's nothing good to be seen about slashing Toriel's tires, which makes me think that whether it's Kris themselves, or another force manipulating or possessing them, there is something malevolent going on. Unless the idea was to prevent Toriel from driving Susie home, but the town is small enough that Susie could easily walk, so I don't think that makes a ton of sense.

A thought I had, with nothing to back it up, is maybe the soul is Asriel, trying to look after his younger sibling while at college. Or maybe Kris sent their soul to watch after Asriel? I dunno, but wanting Asriel to return from college seems to be the most important thing to them, outside of the immediate adventures with Susie and Ralsei.

Speaking of, I'm more convinced than ever that Ralsei being a direct anagram of Asriel has to be important. Aside from Deltarune being an anagram of Undertale, there's no other direct anagram names in there. Kris is almost an anagram of Frisk, but missing that F. Also, Ralsei's the only goat person outside the Dreemurr family, which again, can't be coincidence.

Maybe when Kris started creating the dark worlds, they created Ralsei to try to fill the hole in their life that Asriel left when he went to college. That's certainly a more pleasant theory than the one that Ralsei is bad, actually. But even if Ralsei ends up having some ulterior motive, the whole point of these games is finding ways to make people stop fighting without hurting them, so it's not like Kris and Susie are going to kill him or anything. The most that will happen is he leaves the party for a while, like Susie did in Chapter 1 when she was goofing around with Lancer.

At least outside whatever dark alternate path is waiting in future chapters, because I'm sure there will be something horrible people can do. I'm happy to never do any of that, and only read about it in passing after the fact.

Okay, last thing. My main hope for the future of Deltarune is that if Kris is indeed being possessed by a soul other than their own, that when all is said and done, there's some sort of amicable understanding between them. That even if what the soul (us, the players) did was wrong in possessing Kris, that we at least did it to try to do some good, and part ways on good terms. Maybe with the soul getting into that “discarded” character created at the start of Chapter 1, and Kris getting their original soul back.

Maybe it'll make those lyrics over the credits, “Don't forget, I'm with you in the dark” feel reassuring, rather than menacing like they do now.

No Caption Provided

Anyway, thank you for reading. And sorry if you read all of this, because that likely means that like me, you also have Deltarune brain rot. I had to get this out of my system, and writing's the only way I know how.

Hopefully the wait isn't as long as I fear, because I'd hate to have to wait until 2036 to have the full story.

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Dying to loop in "Deathloop."

Back in 2012, I played a little game called Dishonored. It wasn't the first game from Arkane Studios, but it was the first one I played (or at least the first game they were the lead on, apparently they helped on BioShock 2 to some capacity?). And I'd guess it's the game that put Arkane on the map for most people. While Dishonored certainly has its diehard fans, I can't really count myself among them.

Looking back at what I wrote in 2012 (always interesting to remind myself of how my writing skills have improved over the years), I really liked how open ended the levels were, and the freedom of different ways to go about traversing them. Conversely, I was frustrated with how lacking it was in terms of non-lethal options, especially in a game that chastises you every step of the way for killing people. Which is why I ended up with a large body count, and the bad ending. That, and the story seemed to be the thing at the time that I disliked the most, even though over the years it's the frustration at the nonlethal side of Dishonored not being fun that I remember the most.

That, and not being able to unequip that sword from your right hand, haha.

So, I didn't play Dishonored 2, or Death of the Outsider, because from the outside looking in, it didn't seem like they had addressed my issues with the first game. Like the sword. On the flip side, at some point Arkane expanded to form a second studio, this one in Austin, and that team went on to make Prey (2017). Unlike Dishonored, I absolutely love Prey, and it's one of my favorite games of the last generation. Just a fantastic game, one with a really compelling story, and I like its underlying message about the importance of empathy, and going out of your way to help others. Prey was followed by the excellent Mooncrash DLC, which was an intriguing combination of Prey's mix of stealth and survivor horror game design, with rogue-like-like elements.

And all that, after this lengthy intro, brings us to the latest game from what is now called Arkane Lyon, “Deathloop.” Now that I've finished “Deathloop” I'm extremely happy to report the best news I can on the game:

No Caption Provided

You can equip things other than a sword in your right hand.

Also it's another fantastic game that I couldn't stop thinking about whenever I wasn't playing it. Even now, after having seen credits, after having exhausted just about everything I can in the game without going hard on getting the Platinum Trophy...I still want to keep playing. Keep looping, keep trying out new ways to complete missions, keep trying to screw with other players by invading them, keep searching for every last audio log or text collectible...

I guess for those who might not know exactly what “Deathloop” is, it's basically Dishonored but in a time loop. Colt Vahn (voiced by Jason Kelley, giving one of the best performances of the year) is stuck in a time loop on an island full of the richest, most obnoxious a-holes on the planet, and his only way out is to kill every one of the eight other Visionaries on the island. The catch, obviously, is that when the loop resets at the end of every day...they all come back.

Broadly speaking then, “Deathloop” becomes a game of first figuring out how to kill each of them, then figuring out the most efficient way to get them all, and do it before time runs out. Game play wise, time only really moves when Colt moves between levels, but when there's eight targets, four levels, and only four times of day, it takes a whole lot of work to get everything to line up just right.

All of that is really interesting, and cool, but none of it would work if the game itself wasn't fun. Thankfully, it retains not just the open ended level design that I liked so much in the first Dishonored, but also addresses all of my issues from back then, though one of them not in a way I would've expected. I joke about the sword, and technically you could play “Deathloop” with Colt's machete out the entire time (there's even an option in the menus to start levels with it equipped), but having weapons on one hand, and abilities on the other does help streamline the experience of simply moving through the world, and interacting with stuff. Being able to Shift (Dishonored's Blink teleport in everything but name) from rooftop to rooftop, and quickly take out enemies below with my silent nail gun just feels good and quick to do in a way that I don't remember anything in Dishonored being.

As you might guess from my saying “nail gun” rather than something like “tranq darts,” “Deathloop” isn't a game I played non-lethally. That's because you can't. Arkane's solution to non-lethal play not being fun was to simply remove it entirely. You could still run from enemies, or circumvent them entirely with stealth, but when a fight breaks out? I'd say the only thing Colt leaves in his wake are bodies, but through sci-fi timey-wimey justifications, all the bodies just turn into little wisps of ethereal smoke, but the point stands. And it all feels good too, whether running out with a fully automatic shotgun, ducking and weaving through enemies (there's a side dash and long slide that both feel good to pull off), or taking them out sneakily from the shadows, “Deathloop” is a fun game to play.

Combine that with a time loop game design built around revisiting levels again and again to learn them inside and out, and you get a game that absolutely captivated me. Those open ended levels in Dishonored were great and all, but short of starting a new game, there wasn't really any way to revisit and try out different approaches. So in a way “Deathloop” feels more like the recent Hitman trilogy, but I think this takes it a step further. Hitman only encourages replays through high scores, and menus full of challenges to try to prod people into doing things again, but taking a different approach.

Here, you need to keep going back into the levels, and you need to learn them. And learn the different variations of them, because each level is different in each time of day. Oddly there are a couple instances where the game just refuses to let you in (specifically Karl's Bay at noon and Fristad Rock at evening), but otherwise each level at each time is different to some extent. Enemies in different places, different events happening, different side quests, and sometimes whole chunks of the levels are locked off, except for a specific time.

No Caption Provided

Charlie's funhouse feels like a perfect microcosm of explaining some of this stuff. It's only open at noon, and at least at first, the only obvious way to get in and take out Blackreef isle's resident game master, Charlie Montague. It's only approachable from a single bridge, and inside it's floor after floor of cardboard cutouts made to look like a 60s sci-fi TV set, except with real guards carrying real guns between Colt, and Charlie.

First time through, when I was still familiarizing myself with the ins and outs of the game, I fumbled and bumbled my way up the floors. Trying to be stealthy, but getting into fights, weaving around the cardboard cutouts to find moments of reprieve, and hopefully evade the enemies long enough for them to stop actively searching for me (though if I have any issue with “Deathloop,” it's that I wish the AI was smarter, if anything). Eventually I made it past all the guards, past Charlie's security measures, and when I got to him...he ran away. So I had to chase him back around the core of the funhouse, and eventually offed him, finally netting me the Shift ability.

So when I came back later to take out Charlie again, and get myself an upgrade for Shift, it was pretty evident that I could just get circumvent a lot of the area by Shifting around the back, and go in through a balcony door in the rear. This is just a simple example, but “Deathloop” is filled with things like this, levels that feel like there's only one or two ways at first, but after exploring, getting a new ability, or finding a code somewhere, you open up so many more paths. This game is so intricately designed, and the levels are so dense that the initially paltry seeming four levels is so much more game than I would have thought. I haven't played the Dishonored sequels, and it's been so long since the first game that I can't really say with certainty that these are the best designed levels Arkane Lyon has ever built, but I feel confident that the game they built around them did a fantastic job of making me explore every nook and cranny.

Most of the Visionaries drop a Slab that when equipped, gives Colt a new power, but like all the other gear in the game, they're lost at the end of a loop if they don't get infused with a resource called Residuum that can be harvested from various items around the word, from the bodies of Visionaries (they always seem to drop just enough to infuse their Slab or upgrade), or from sacrificing other items, weapons, etc. The fact that infusing can only happen outside of the core missions also gives some good incentive to not just die after completing an objective, and getting the core knowledge (how to kill a target, keypad codes, etc) that's the main focus of the game's narrative thrust.

I'm a bit mixed on the Slab powers, if I'm being honest. Some of them, like Shift, always feel useful, even if they aren't always totally essential. The same goes for Aether, which allows Colt to turn “nearly” invisible. If enemies get too close, especially if they're already on alert, they'll spot Colt, and keep attacking. Others, like Nexus (link enemies together so if one takes damage, they all do) and Havoc (strong defense and offense buff) have their moments of usefulness, but I never found Karnesis to be good at all. Karnesis is a telekinetic power, but it only works on people. On paper being able to toss enemies around should be fun, and initially it is. But as best as I can tell, it doesn't really kill, at least not on its own, or on the first throw. So it ends up feeling too situational, or maybe I never figured out the right combination of upgrades to really make it work for me. Especially not when you can only have two Slab powers equipped at a time (not including Colt's Reprise, which gives him two extra lives in each level).

I was kinda so engrossed in the game that I forgot to take screenshots of combat or the Slabs, so instead here's a corner of a room where I found four double cheeseburgers and three loaves of bread.
I was kinda so engrossed in the game that I forgot to take screenshots of combat or the Slabs, so instead here's a corner of a room where I found four double cheeseburgers and three loaves of bread.

A lot of the time I found myself wishing I could have more than two Slabs equipped at once, because most of them are cool, but I get why that limit is in place. The game wants people to have to think about their loadouts, and those restrictions help push toward equipping Colt for a particular style of play, rather than just having everything at the ready. Besides, if every Slab was accessible at every moment, it'd be way too easy of a game.

Speaking of difficulty, I need to do some outside reading on how it scales. There's a short tutorial message about “loop stress” that says enemies will get tougher and drop better loot as more Visionaries are killed. When I read that, I just assumed that meant on a loop by loop basis, or in other words, that it resets on every new day. Then I heard Brad Shoemaker talk about it, and he seemed to think it kept ratcheting up the difficulty until Colt lost all his lives and fully died, resetting the loop that way. And when I thought about it, the enemies had seemed like they just kept getting better and better eyesight, until at some point they were seeing me in situations that were just ridiculous, and unrealistic. Like through a tiny sliver of glass in the floor of a room where I doubt anyone would be looking at the floor in the first place.

I did end up fully dying a few times, and their eyesight seemed to die back down a little, but it never really felt like their AI scaled in other respects. They didn't take significantly more damage, their tactics never got any better, so I'm still not clear on what exactly is going on with that system.

If I have any other quibble with the game part of the game, I do wish there were more in the way of gadgets too. There's Colt's trusty Hackamajig (what a great name) for cameras and turrets (making them shoot the enemies instead of him), and a nifty grenade with three different modes. Regular grenade, trip mine, and proximity mine. Of the three the proximity mine was the one I found the most useful, but I think there's cases where the trip mine makes a little more sense, and there's nothing wrong with lobbing a regular ole grenade into a group of foes.

But that's it, it's just the explosives and Hackamajig. I don't have specific ideas of what I would want, largely because the game is really only designed with those couple of things in mind, yet I do think it'd be cool if there was more. Conversely, given the game's overwhelmingly positive reception, maybe it being relatively simple with things like this just helps broaden its appeal. A lot of the time, in the heat of the game, it kinda feels like a weirdo game for weirdos like me. Anecdotally though, it feels like a game that even if only for a week, everyone was playing it. Hyperbolic, of course, but if the game reached a wider audience than Dishonored or Prey, the devs probably made the right choices.

I just want to reiterate that the above really are quibbles, and my wishing the game had even more variety and whatnot just speaks to how much I liked its best aspects. Bigger budget stealth games were never the most common thing in the world, but they've especially dried up in the last few years. Just having a new game that feels like it was made with stealth first, rather than being an action game where you can be stealthy made me happy. And it's great that the action feels really good too!

Here's Juliana!
Here's Juliana!

And finally getting to things outside the game play, I think the story and characters are pretty good too. Maybe not as good as I had hoped based on the potential the game has at the outset, though. Colt and Juliana (played by Ozioma Akagha, also giving one of the best performances I've heard all year) are both great, and the Visionaries all flirt the line between “good intentionally unlikable” and “kinda annoying intentionally unlikable.” So in terms of characterizations, and more broadly, character, “Deathloop” is leaps and bounds better than the performances from the inexplicably star studded cast of Dishonored, which felt like the auditory equivalent of watching paint dry. Seriously, look up Dishonored's cast and share my confusion at who was in that game (Susan Sarandon and Carrie Fisher????).

But like Dishonored, I think “Deathloop” sets up a really interesting world, but doesn't do as much with it as I wish it did. Even that isn't entirely true, because I think there's a lot of interesting stuff to find out about the island, about the characters, and the history of everything. Blackreef's history between the abandoned military base, and everything around the Visionaries and their Aeon project is neat. It's more that the whole time loop anomaly stuff ultimately feels underdeveloped. Maybe I missed something along the way, but the game never really explains that. Which is fine, but in the end the time loop just feels like a justification for repeating the game part of the game.

That's probably true in terms of why Arkane Lyon wrote the story they did around the game they made, but I still wish there was more. Especially considering the game kinda just...ends. It's not a bad ending by any means, and getting to that ending was fun, but, as I said, I just wish there was more!

I think the only thing I haven't really gotten into is the multiplayer side of “Deathloop.” Invading as Juliana, or getting invaded by another player controlling her. The main reason is that I spent the majority of the game playing in single player. At first it was because I didn't really want to be losing progress left and right because I was getting invaded by people who somehow already had everything unlocked and knew the game inside and out. Ultimately the fact that you can't pause when set to online mode, even if you haven't been invaded yet, that ended up being the sticking point that kept me playing offline.

That said, I have spent some time as Juliana invading some other people, and had really mixed times with it. Sometimes it's fun, sometimes the other person just hides motionless in the last place I'd think to look for fifteen minutes. Sometimes the other person doesn't even seem to enter the level at all? And sometimes it's so laggy that it's almost impossible to even move around and do anything.

Interesting to note that the game doesn't stop Juliana from killing NPCs, so it's possible to do makeshift co-op. A friend and I tried just that, but that transatlantic lag didn't really help matters, sadly. Still something to keep in mind for anyone reading this that might have a friend they'd like to try that with! Or just use the “friends only” option to get in some “Deathloop” deathmatch.

The music, and just general tone and style of “Deathloop” are all great too. It's got a solid sixties vibe to everything, but really more of a faux, “this is how we see the sixties now” kinda thing, I'd think. I mean, I wouldn't really know, I'm nowhere near that old, but that's what it felt like to me. Anyway, the music's great, and I do love the game's psychedelic/funky sixties bolted onto more traditional buildings and military bases aesthetic.

I want to be the person who goes to timeloop murder island and just does wholesome things like make cute snowmen.
I want to be the person who goes to timeloop murder island and just does wholesome things like make cute snowmen.

That's “Deathloop.” I loved it, I really did, and I'm probably going to keep playing more of it. Not immediately, as I'm a handful of hours into Lost Judgment, and that feels like it's only just started to open up. Then Metroid Dread is looming on the horizon, not to mention Kena, which I really want to play too. It's almost October, and that feels like the right time to replay spooky games like The Evil Within 2, or the Resident Evil 2 remake, both of which I've been meaning to for some time... And speaking of remakes, I still want to replay Final Fantasy VII Remake on PS5, and that had the InterMission DLC too...

Anyway, thanks for reading! Dunno when the next write up will be, Lost Judgment is fun so far, but it feels like more of the same in a way that I probably won't have anything to say if it isn't a deep dive on the specifics of the story. And Metroid? Who knows, I just hope that game is good.

Regardless, see ya next time!

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Miles Morales, Family, and Community. (SPOILERS).

Early in Miles Morales, on his way home, Miles comes across someone painting a mural on the side of a building. One of none other than everyone's favorite web-slinger, Spider-Man. The classic, original Spider-Man, with his bug eyes and bright red suit. Miles, still amidst his Spider-training, suggests adding the new Spider-Man too, and the painter replies with something to the effect of a dismissive “maybe.”

From there, the quiet opening turns bombastic as Miles and Peter attempt to escort a prisoner transfer back to the ultra-maximum security Raft prison, only for Rhino to escape, rampage through the streets, a mall, J. Jonah Jameson's studio, and finally a power plant. Miles blames himself for how badly things went, including Peter almost dying, and to some extent he's right. Miles did screw up early on with the helicopter, but he was also the one that stopped Rhino. So Peter did his best to cheer up Miles, and give his reassurances about how it all went.

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Then he drops the bombshell that he's not only leaving town, but the whole country for a few weeks to help MJ cover a story, and in doing so, is leaving Miles as New York's sole Spider-Man. Thus starts Marvel's Spider-Man Miles Morales, a game much more succinct and better paced than a heavily Branded® title like that might suggest.

I'm not going to beat by beat summarize the whole game's story, and I'm going to try to keep this short. Or at least short for me. Miles Morales is in so many ways an evolution of the previous Spider-Man game, but such a refinement that it often feels like it exceeds the original. Given the change in protagonist, that's fitting. Peter is the old faithful, the classic, the tried and true Spider-Man that's been around long before I, or most (all?) people reading this were born. Miles is new, young, and ready to prove himself. He lives in that space between youthful overconfidence and gnawing self doubt. That place where when things go right, he's the best of the best, top of the world, but when he screws up, he realizes he's still far from the best he could be.

But he's just a kid still, only seventeen. A kid whose dad was killed the year before, who lost touch with his former best friend Phin after the two went to different high schools, who is in the middle of moving into his grandmother's old apartment. And of course, a kid still trying to find himself, both figuratively, and literally, given his newfound Spider-powers. And not so spider-y powers, once he can harness his bio-electric Venom strikes, and invisibility.

As a brief aside, a while ago a friend who knows a lot about the long history of the Marvel universe informed me that “Venom” in the context of electric powers actually predates Venom the goopy space symbiote. Just something I know I needed clarification on after both this, and Spider-Verse just refer to Miles' electric sparking powers as “Venom” with zero regard or reference to what I assume is the “Venom” more widely known and associated with Spider-Man.

It does make me wonder that if Peter is playable in the next game (my assumption is it'll switch back and forth between him and Miles, hopefully each getting roughly equal screen time (rather than it being majority Peter)), he'll have a Venom button of his own, just like Miles...

You can't unlock it until after finishing the story, but I do love the cat.
You can't unlock it until after finishing the story, but I do love the cat.

Even though he has way fewer gadgets than Peter, Miles' Venom powers more than make up for it, and make the combat even more fun than it was before. In the early goings I thought they were making it a bit too easy (probably not helped by my just replaying the first game on a harder difficulty and starting this one on normal), but things got a lot tougher later on. You really need to be good at timing those dodges to not be constantly using the Venom meter to heal instead of attack. I'm not always good at that, haha. That said I do think it's easier in this game to just accidentally walk or jump into machine gun fire after they've already started shooting, and you no longer have the warning lines. I've had a fair number of combos ruined by that.

But back to the story, and how Miles really does go through so much more than someone his age should ever have to. Not in a tragic, wallowing in misery way, in that superhero “need to rise above and do the right thing” sort of way. Even if it sounds clichéd when I describe it that way. Or, maybe the fact that it works as well as it does when all the individual pieces could be the sort of cookie cutter superhero origin story parts just slapped together in another context. Evil corporation that needs to be stopped, strife with another super powered person whose heart is in the right place, but her methods are “too extreme,” and would only hurt more people in the end, etc.

I know I'm a sucker for these sorts of stories, so the bar that needs to be met for them to work for me is maybe lower than it is for some people. But there's just so much about Miles Morales that feels like they're really going for it in ways that the previous game didn't. Roxxon isn't just an evil corporation, they're an evil corporation building an unsafe power plant in Harlem. Specifically because Harlem is a part of New York that historically is predominantly people of color, and the corporation thinks they can get away with it. Thinks, probably correctly, that not as much attention would be drawn this way, unlike if it was white people getting sick, or dying. In a game where aside from the evil CEO, all the main cast are people of color, I think it's pretty clear what the game is trying to do, and say.

That's not me saying the game is trying to be some super leftist, socialist thing, just that it feels a bit closer to reality than a lot of superhero stories get. Or at least the mainstream stuff in movies, video games, rather than in the original comics themselves (a medium I sadly have little direct experience with). I will say though, as a leftist, socialist person myself, I do appreciate it, and wish it went even further. Anti-corporate stories are certainly nothing new, but I'll take them when I can get them!

It's still
It's still "just" a cross-gen game, but it still looks beautiful.

One of the things I really like most about the game is that it's not just about Miles protecting Harlem, or all of New York from the big bad corporation and its dangerous new energy. He actually gets time to be put the “friendly neighborhood” in Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. For as great as 2018's Spider-Man is, most of what Spider-Man does in that game is fighting big picture super villains, or stopping crimes on the street as the now infamous “Spider-Cop.” It did have the environmental help side missions with Harry's research stations, and a few times Peter would go to the Feast shelter to help out Aunt May, but when he's in the suit? He's fighting crime.

Miles, with the help of his nerdy tech friend Ganke's app, actually takes the time to help people with more mundane tasks. Like finding lost cats, or tracking down one guy's stolen car. Granted the stolen car leads to a chop shop, so it gets to slightly bigger picture crime stopping even in that stuff. Even then, it's not like he stumbled upon some huge conspiracy, it's just a chop shop. A chop shop where the guys there complain about how they thought Spider-Man wouldn't come after them since they were a relatively small time operation. Small time or not, stealing cars hurts the community, and Spider-Man isn't going to stand for that. And it's great to see a superhero game taking time to let the hero help people, rather than just protect the city.

It's especially cool considering that this is a tighter, better focused game than Spider-Man. Both in the main story and the side stuff, Miles Morales is focused in a way that keeps the story feeling propulsive throughout. There is downtime, time to breathe, but every story mission actually moves the story forward, in one way or another. Whether that's a confrontation with the villainous CEO Troy Baker, or just Miles reconnecting with his semi-family-disowned uncle Aaron. Could be catching up with his old friend Phin, or trying to stop the dangerous Underground from attacking something, or someone. Or both, as the story deepens and it turns out both Miles and Phin have secrets of their own.

The “A Plot” conflict is about Roxxon, their dangerous new energy source, and the Underground, a gang rising to prominence in New York that stands against Roxxon, but for mostly dubious reasons. Miles is in the middle of all this, trying to save his community from whatever the terrible long term effects of exposure to the new energy will be, and do it without costly casualties like the Underground's methods.

Former friends trying to find common ground.
Former friends trying to find common ground.

But that's not the real conflict. The real conflict is that the Tinkerer, the brains behind the Underground's assault on Roxxon is Miles' old friend Phin. She wants revenge for Roxxon killing her older brother, who also just happened to be the guy who actually developed the new tech Roxxon is using. And if that wasn't enough, Miles' uncle Aaron is also the Prowler, an old B or C tier New York masked villain. He says he just wants to protect Miles, but his attempts to do so only makes things worse, and drive a wedge between him and Miles right when Miles needs someone like his uncle Aaron, not the Prowler the most.

During all this Miles' mother is busy with her campaign for City Council against an unseen opponent, so she's not around as much as she could be for Miles. Not that she would know he was Spider-Man until pretty late in the game, but sometimes people need whatever support they can get, even if it's from people that couldn't possibly know everything they're going through.

As another quick aside, the fact that the game never shows, or I think directly names Rio Morales' political opponent is maybe my one “big” issue with the game's story. It's just the sort of thing that makes it feel clear from the start that she's going to win, and kinda makes the whole thing feel like a weird subplot that doesn't need to be there. I say “kinda” because she is campaigning against Roxxon more than anything else, and there's things that happen around her campaign, and during a rally at one point so I don't actually think they should have cut it from the game. Just maybe given a little time to making it seem like she was running against another person.

Back to Miles, his being torn between his oldest and closest friend, and that person being the one he needs to stop to save his community... It's great, but it's also kinda heartbreaking. Especially after Miles makes his final attempt to stop Phin before it's too late, and the game switches to an extended flashback of Miles and Phin going to a museum exhibit. The two of them had a science project on display, and spending time with the two of them being happy, goofing around, just being kids drove home how tragic it is that their friendship went the way it did. And they ended up on opposite sides of this conflict.

In the end, after realizing that Miles was right and her plan would actually destroy literally all of Harlem, Phin ends up sacrificing herself to save Harlem, and Miles. In so many ways I wish she hadn't died. I think she's a great character I would have liked to her return in the next game. It would have been great, and heartwarming to see her and Miles become friends again. But more than anything else, she was still just a teen, still so young. She deserved better. Not in a storytelling/writing way, in the way that so many people hurt by corporations, by society at large deserve better. Especially when it's always the people at the bottom that get hurt the most.

Once all that is said and done, once Harlem is safe, and Miles has recovered, he's walking down the street again. Headphones on, listening to music, finally having a chance to relax, and live a normal life. If only for a few minutes. And as he goes, he passes that same mural from the start of the game, except now it's finished. Finished, and now featuring not just the original, but the new Spider-Man too.

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Because to put it into the game's words, “he's our Spider-Man.” A Spider-Man for the people who didn't think they'd get one. A Spider-Man for the people who never thought they'd have a superhero who was from their community.

As sad as it was for Phin to die, and for Miles to go through everything he did, in the end he still saved the day, and became the Spider-Man he was meant to be.

Like I said earlier, I'm a sucker for these sorts of stories, but even so, I think this game is genuinely among the best superhero stories, at least in games. Almost certainly in games. I don't regret waiting until I got a PS5 to play it, but it is so good that I do wish I'd played it sooner. It certainly would have felt more seasonally appropriate last year around release, given the Christmas setting.

Anyway, before I ramble too much and get too far off topic, I'll just reiterate myself: I think Miles Morales is a fantastic game, and I couldn't be more excited for whatever Insomniac does with the franchise next.

And, of course, thank you as always for taking the time to read my blogs. I know I don't actually reply much to people who comment on the blogs (often because I don't have the energy to get into long discussions), but I do greatly appreciate when people read my writing.

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New Console, and Old Nostalgia (I finally got a PS5!!!).

It only took seven (7) months, but I finally managed to get my hands onto that most coveted of items...a Sony® PlayStation™ 5. How did I achieve this, you ask? Was it the months of checking stores online for stock? The weeks of having the Target page for PS5 open every morning? Was it waiting in line at PlayStation Direct queues? Was it some sort of elaborate Fast and Furious heist, just with consoles instead of DVD players?

No, I just lucked out and got an email giving me access to get them off the PS Direct store before the free for all queue. Which is good, because not once, but TWICE I managed to get through those queues in time for there to still be stock of the Digital Only PS5, but not the one I wanted! More than anything else, even more than the Targets near me not getting stock whilst seemingly all the other ones did, that stung.

So, my months long quest finally over, and the prize in my hands, I got my shiny new PS5. One of the things I was most curious about was the size. Ever since it was unveiled, and people roughly figured out its dimensions, there were lots of jokes about it being big, but I never really know how big something is until I've seen it in person. Even seeing it next to real live humans, that doesn't actually convey scale, at least not with how my brain works, I guess. For example, last year when I got my Switch, I'd never seen one in person before, and even after years of seeing people with them online, I was still surprised at how small the thing is. So, I wondered, how would the PS5 feel to me? Would I think, “it's not THAT big,” or would I agree with the internet?

The concise version is to say that my first thought on removing it from the box was... “BIGH.”

But while I'm thinking about the physicality of the PS5 itself, I do like the look of it. I have it horizontal, for various reasons, and I like that it looks like it's floating. Granted getting it positioned on the stand was a bit awkward, it kinda slid off at one point while I was positioning it and plugging in the cables, but I got it situated right. It's a weird looking console, and I like that about it. Part of me would replace the panels with black ones, but not for whatever price Sony would likely charge for two hunks of plastic.

I don't get to Astro's Playroom until later, but I couldn't resist opening with this adorable robo-bunny.
I don't get to Astro's Playroom until later, but I couldn't resist opening with this adorable robo-bunny.

A console isn't complete without games to play on it, so I also got Marvel's Spider-Man Miles Morales Ultimate Launch Edition, and Ratchet and Clank Rift Apart. Elsewhere I bought a 5 TB external drive, which was the biggest size I could find for a price I felt was reasonable, and also with a size that didn't feel like overkill. Of course, something always has to go “wrong,” so days after I bought all this stuff Miles was on sale for $50 instead of $70 (and even cheaper for the version without the remaster), and the literal same hard drive I bought went on sale for $30 cheaper than I paid. Granted, I already got it at a sale price, but still.

That said, I'm getting those gripes out of the way because the PS5...is rad. Was it worth the wait? Worth all those months of obsessively trying to get one without giving scalpers their blood money, or buying some silly bundle with something in it that I didn't want? As an aside, right when I set my mind on buying a GameStop bundle as the easiest way to get one, the fact that they started putting in the baseball game drove me up a wall (I hate baseball).

Personally, finally being able to play games I've been unable to for months, and having games I already like dramatically improved seems worth it to me. I know I could have played Miles months ago, and as of this writing I've only just started it, but now I get to experience it in all its 60 FPS, ray traced glory. And, on top of all this, I finally got my hands on that newfangled DualSense controller.

I've only had the PS5 for about a week as of this writing, and it is a little funny feeling it turn from this new and exciting thing to just a normal thing around the house. But at the end of the day it is a machine for playing video games, and while I think it does that tremendously well, I do have a few gripes with the UI that I should run through. Just quickly, I promise.

My biggest issue, is the lack of folders. I knew it didn't have them, but I don't think I quite anticipated missing them this much. This wasn't really an issue when the PS4 launched without folder support (after the PS3 having them), because when I got my PS4 at launch in November 2013, I had five (5) PS4 games. Three I got in a buy two get one free deal (AC IV, Need for Speed, and Killzone), and the two PS+ games (Resogun and that platformer with the shadows and the guy who voiced Jensen from the Deus Ex games).

Today, I have two PS5 games I got on disc (one of which installed two games because I had to finish my replay of Marvel's Spider-Man I started not thinking I was going to get a PS5 anytime soon), a slew that were on PS+ over the months...and basically all of my PS4 games. Of course I haven't installed all of them to that external drive...yet, but I've got a lot of them already, and it'd be a lot easier to find the stuff I want if I could manually organize them myself.

There's other little things I could nitpick about the UI too. Getting to Trophies feels like it takes too many steps, and listing them horizontally instead of vertically just makes no sense at all. And I don't really like the Trophy sound as much as the PS4 one, if I'm really going to nitpick things (but at least it isn't obnoxious like getting rarer Achievements on Xbox). Really, the UI issues in general can be summed up with either, “it takes too many steps to get there,” or, “this is fine but feels like it was changed from PS4 just for the sake of change.”

Some changes are absolutely welcome, and good. The party stuff definitely has more options now, like being able to adjust the volume per person for the others in a party chat. You may be thinking, “when would you need to do that?” And let me tell you, I already have, whilst chatting with one person who sounded just a bit too loud, and one who was just a bit too quiet, both in the same chat.

Another positive UI change, is that rather than have media apps in a thingy in the main row of things like on PS4, instead they're in a separate tab. And unlike PS4 where it just shows everything and I have to button past Disney Plus every time I want to watch Netflix, here I only have Netflix installed. Granted I still have to button past a screen that shows ads for stuff (currently Disney Plus' Loki, which to be fair I do extremely want to watch but am waiting for the season to finish), so functionally it's the same, BUT. I do think the tab part is an improvement, so I don't have to go scrolling past a bunch of games I've played since the last time I used Netflix.

One thing that initially excited me, but now I see as a disappointment, is the system invert y axis option. That was a feature I really liked on the 360, and I was genuinely thrilled to see it finally returning! Sure, it isn't a big issue in most games, and even if this worked I'd still end up going into the settings menus first time I start a game anyway because that's just the sort of person I am, but... Well, to set the stage here, Astro's Playroom worked with it, which gave me hope! Then after trying out the, ahem, “STRANGER OF PARADISE FINAL FANTASY ORIGIN TRIAL VERSION,” which didn't have the axis inverted at first, I sighed. I thought maybe it was just because that's a demo, but after trying some other stuff that didn't, I realized it wasn't just that. Sony didn't care enough to mandate games actually use that feature, which shouldn't have surprised me.

Alas, it held so much promise.
Alas, it held so much promise.

But the thing that really irked me was Destruction Allstars, a Sony published game, that didn't have it inverted either!! If even games put out by the console maker itself don't use the feature, then what's even the point of it being there in the first place? Now, it worked in Miles, and I've been told Ratchet and Clank uses it. So some games will probably use it over the course of the generation, but it's still a bummer to see it disregarded so soon. Especially in a game that published by the company with the most incentive to make sure its console's features actually get used!

So, the UI still has room for improvement, but what about the games? Well, like I said, I've only started Miles Morales, and haven't touched Ratchet and Clank yet. If I have writing-worthy thoughts on either, those will get their own blogs. For this, I'm focusing on the general experience of the PS5 itself, Astro's Playroom, and a pair of PS5 enhanced games that I've weirdly played a lot of over the last week.

Games!

Well, one of them maybe not so weird, but possibly the game I put the most hours into on my PS5's first week was...Destiny 2. Really it's not weird, because I've gotten back into that game this year, largely because of one of my Destiny friends getting back into it (regretfully not the other because of his job), and because Destiny 2 has largely been good this year. But that's beside the point, because Destiny 2 on PS5 is the same game, just looking a little sharper (I don't have a 4K TV but I do feel like the game looks less aliased (thanks super sampling?)), loading faster, and running faster.

Granted, I think Destiny 2 is the best optimized on PS4 that it's ever been, with this season's Override being about the only thing all year to get the framerate to chunk up, and even then only rarely. But on PS5...it's 60 FPS. I'm sure for PC players out there, they've been playing like that for years. Well, I haven't, and seeing the game on my big TV running like that, it was wild. At least at first, now after playing it just about every day for a week, I'm pretty used to it.

You might not be able to tell, but these orbs were rendered on a PS5.
You might not be able to tell, but these orbs were rendered on a PS5.

The load times might not be blisteringly fast, but they're a lot better. And things that you might not immediately think about being improved by this sort of thing are a lot snappier now too. Like the inventory screen. Ever play Destiny 2, pull up your inventory, and have to sit and wait a few seconds for everything to load before you can compare something, or equip something else because you realized you aren't properly prepared? It's a lot faster on PS5!

At the end of the day though, this is definitely a much nicer version of Destiny 2, but it's still Destiny 2. I wouldn't exactly call these improvements transformative, but there's another co-op game I've played a fair amount of over this week...

Marvel's Avengers.

You may remember that when this game launched, I was both a Marvel's Avengers enjoyer, and defender. I stand by that, for all its faults, the core is still fun, and the main story is good! On the other hand, the game technically collapsed under its own weight in the ongoing co-op game part, and eventually the molasses framerates, blurry dynamic resolution, and interminable load times broke me.

So when I say that the PS5 version compared to the base PS4 version is genuinely transformative, I mean it. It runs like a dream, looks great, and more than anything else, this is the game that shocks me with how fast it loads. It's not always the two second loads that other stuff can manage (though it only takes about that long to load in from the main menu), but the the difference between how this game loaded on PS4 and how it does on PS5 is way bigger than the change in Spider-Man's loads. Avengers always felt like it took minutes to load into missions, whereas now it takes closer to five or ten seconds. I don't know exact numbers offhand, I'm sure the mission loads weren't consistently literal minutes, but the difference here is almost unbelievable.

As a result, the game is so much more playable, and it's great to be having fun again. I have been playing in the framerate mode, though the level of particles and destructive bits in the quality mode are cool. I just made the mistake of trying the framerate mode first, so I didn't really want to stick in the destruction mode for too long.

That has kinda been a weird effect of playing PS5 games. The framerate sickness is getting me. I've played plenty of 60 FPS games over the years, but something about playing nothing but 60 FPS games does make 30 feel...different. Here's a concrete example of this in practice:

A few weeks ago I started a new game plus of Marvel's Spider-Man. I hadn't played the game since it was new in 2018, and after watching a couple seasons of the 90s Spider-Man cartoon on Disney Plus (listen, I subscribe to that one on and off) for nostalgia, I had a Spider-Man itch. Specifically for some actually good Spider-Man content (sadly the cartoon did not hold up to watch young me thought), and a PS5 seemed like a far off dream. So, I played the game again, got most of the way through it, and then managed to order a PS5. Figured I'd hold off on finishing the game until I could transfer my save over to the new one, and instead of finishing the NG+, I spent a couple days revisiting old favorites from the generation on my PS4 (DMC 5, MGS V, and Titanfall 2 ended up being the only ones because I played each longer than I intended, haha).

Delicious Spider-Pizza.
Delicious Spider-Pizza.

All 60 FPS games, oddly enough. PS5 shows up, of course the first thing I played was Astro's Playroom (saving that for last in this write up for reasons that will be obvious), but after a few days of 100%-ing that, I finally got back to finishing my Spider-Man replay. But something about when I started it, picking up my save (being shocked at how fast it loaded in), and swinging around, it just felt kinda...sluggish. I sat there, kinda perplexed, wondering what was going on, the game didn't feel sluggish just a week before when I was playing, and that's when it hit me...

The game defaulted to the resolution mode. So I went in, switched it to performance + RT, and suddenly it felt right. I said it wouldn't happen to me, and instead it happened almost immediately. The framerate scumbag in me has gained so much power in just a week. If I'm being honest (and hopeful), I bet if I spent time actually just playing a game at 30 again, it'd be fine, and I'd realize I was just being hyperbolic about this framerate business. But for the time being...60 FPS...

Anyway, aside from the change to Peter's face and technical improvements, that's the same game it was in 2018, I don't need to write about it again. I did play through the DLC, which was fine, I didn't think it was terrible, nor was it anything really noteworthy. I did get all the Trophies in them. Speaking of, having the whole Platinum's worth of Trophies pop at once after importing my save was very funny. Highly recommended.

Okay, I think I've talked around the main event here long enough.

Astro's Playroom.

I think it's fantastic at everything it does. It's a delightful little platformer, it's absolutely adorable, it's the perfect showcase for all the gimmicks in the new controller, and the nostalgia...

Which is funny for me to think about, because I haven't been a PlayStation fan since the start. My first PlayStation was a PS3. I don't even have many memories of playing PS1 or PS2 games at friends' houses like I have memories of playing Sonic games on my friend's Genesis. It's just kind of a gap in my personal video gaming experiences (one filled entirely by N64, GameCube, and even a little Dreamcast as a treat), which makes me the person where it was the PS4, and funnily, the references to old PS3 stuff that got me the most in Astro's Playroom. Well, not counting references to games that are mostly associated with PS1 and PS2 (like say, a Solid Snake Astrobot in a cardboard box). But seeing old PS3 accessories and controllers, hearing bits of the music show up in the levels, it just...They found the right, bizarre heartstrings in me to pull, haha.

I lost it with the Spider-Man reference.
I lost it with the Spider-Man reference.

You know, I'm not actually old, I'm only thirty, but the older I get, the more I realize just how sentimental I get over weird stuff like this. Now that I've got a PS5 that can play almost every PS4 game I have (sorry PT), there's no practical reason for me to keep the PS4 out, or hooked up. After I copied all my saves off it and onto the PS5, I knew I had to either get the PS4 out of the living room and somewhere else in the house, or it'd just end up sitting there. Forever. So I put it back in the box it came in back in 2013, and now it's up in a room with other old consoles.

And the thing is, I felt sad doing it. I know it's just a machine, just a conduit through which the video games flowed, but that PS4 was a part of my life for the last seven and a half years. 2013 was the year I graduated from college, the year I ended up in the hospital because of a chronic illness that has so defined what my life has been in the years since. It's been a rough seven and a half years, in so many ways, but that console helped me get through all the toughest times. Whether it was just giving me a means to immerse myself in games and be alone, escaping reality as best as I could, or connecting with friends. So many countless hours playing online with people who are now some of my closest friends. Again, the PS4 is kinda just a means to an end there, it could have just as easily been an Xbox, or a gaming PC, but it wasn't.

The point to all that being, when I started Astro's Playroom, and through sheer luck started on GPU Jungle, the PS4 era level, it got to me. And like, it's not really a “PS4 themed” level, it's a jungle level in a platformer where the collectibles are PS4 era accessories. At least until reaching the top of the mountain at the very end, when the PS4's ambient music starts playing. Anyway, playing this game has made me realize that even if I wasn't playing PlayStation games as a little kid like I was with Nintendo and Sega, it's still been long enough that the nostalgia hooks got me.

And it's not just nostalgia and fondly remembering bygone eras in my (again, not that long) life. Mostly Astro's Playroom was making me grin ear to ear. One of the first things I saw was a group of Astrobots with Monster Hunter weapons playing on PSPs. World is still the only Monster Hunter I've played, but the detail of them playing PSPs is so specific, and good, that I just burst out laughing. That's what makes the referential side of this game work, is that it's not just blatant references, they're clever. A couple of them are blatant in ways that make me think a certain company's legal team wanted them to be painfully obvious (Crash Bandicoot and Spyro specifically), but for the most part they feel like a lot of time and effort was put into coming up with neat ways to invoke the feeling of the reference.

Meat.
Meat.

Or, arguably to make sure that they're not copyright infringing, like the Spider-Man one. It's just an Astrobot dangling upside down from a spider-web. Enough to evoke that feeling, but generic enough that they wouldn't have to pay for the branding. I actually would be really curious how much legal work had to be done for this game. The Astrobot in a red coat keeping an enemy air juggled with his pistols is pretty obviously Dante from the Devil May Cry series, but was it obvious enough to warrant getting Capcom's approval?

Obviously just about every Sony property gets its time at some point. Aside from Tokyo Jungle, which is the only bummer about the game. Listen, you might think I joke about that game, and it certainly started that way because Tokyo Jungle wasn't actually a great game, but it was definitely memorable. And I think more deserving of a little reference than the David Cage trilogy of nonsense, with each of those games getting a separate thing. Tokyo Jungle has certainly done more good for society than that toxic hack ever will!

Ahem, anyway, Astro's Playroom. I got so caught up in my feelings that I neglected to even mention one of the most interesting parts of the game, which is its usage of the DualSense rumble and triggers. After months and months of people raving about how real and cool they are, I'm happy to report that the rumble and triggers are in fact both real, and cool. It wasn't really a case of being instantly sold on them, despite the initial controller demo still being pretty cool. First time pulling the triggers and feeling that tension was neat, and the part where the little Astrobots are rolling around in the controller really felt like there were little robo-buddies in there, bouncing and jostling around!

But it wasn't until actually getting to scenarios in game that it really clicked for me. The monkey climbing part of GPU Jungle was the first moment where it felt like my eyes were opening to the triggers. It just felt cool, and I wish there were more of the fragile handholds that need the light touch, or they break, because that was the most interesting part. And then there was the springy frog in Cooling Springs, where the rumble really felt like a spring moving back and forth, I just don't know how else to describe it!

And the rocket in SSD Speedway! Feathering the triggers, feeling the resistance as the rockets boost up, navigating tight passageways, it's just cool! Really, the rolling ball in Memory Meadows was the only one of those controller gimmick interludes that felt like it was just a gimmick, and not a great one. Not that it's bad, but the DualShock 4 had the touch-pad too. Even if this one is better (and I have no idea if it is), sliding a finger across it like rolling a trackball wasn't clever or neat like the other ones. But that rocket, that was so cool!

Tactical Espionage Astrobot.
Tactical Espionage Astrobot.

All these sections, and really the game as a whole, are pretty easy. Like, if I have any legit game play complaint to make, I wish there was more of a challenge, but I get that this isn't that sort of game. It's a tech demo combined with a love letter to so many great games that all share a connection to PlayStation. Plus even if it's not a kids' game (I'd argue the target audience are people my age and older, and specifically those who had PlayStations in the 90s), it's definitely a kid friendly game. And having that be the game pre-installed on every PS5 is brilliant. This could have easily been some grizzly game about killing dudes, but instead it's an adorable game about running and jumping around while cute robo-bunnies frolic and a giant GPU with a pixelated face sings in the distance.

And the music! GPU Jungle is absolutely the standout to me, but SSD Speedway is a fun one too. Most of the music is jaunty platformer fair, not anything that is amazing. Aside from that GPU song, which I just keep absentmindedly singing bits from. “I tessellate, and animate these dancing sprites and sunlight skies, for you...” Also I can't think of any other catchy songs that feature words like tessellate, or rasterize.

Then there's the load times. They're fast! What impressed me the most is how snappy it is to be in one level, select a totally different one from the pause screen, and then you're basically just there in the other level. I mean, it still takes a couple seconds, but it's just so fast! It's so fast!! It certainly made going back in to find the few things I missed a lot easier, and faster than it would have been if this was a PS4 game. There were definitely some PS4 games that had really fast load times, but the only examples that come to mind immediately were either based on previous gen games (stuff like Rayman Legends, Persona 5 Royal), or indie stuff that almost certainly didn't have much data to load in the first place.

Same feeling I had loading into the remaster of Marvel's Spider-Man for the first time, just flabbergasted at how fast it was. That though, is straying from Astro's Playroom, but suffice it to say that I'm certainly an SSD believer now. Not every PS5 game I've tried loads that fast, so clearly it's still something that has to be properly optimized for. But it's definitely got me excited for when I get around to Ratchet.

Now that I'm just writing about the PS5 generally again, I guess that means I ran out of stuff to say about Astro's Playroom. It really is one of the most delightful games I've played in years, and one of the ones to have me smiling the most. It feels corny to feel nostalgic over a game that has photo realistic renditions of branded PlayStation hardware as collectibles, and real silly to see those juxtaposed next to cutesy robots, but I adored my time with the game.

Look at these robo-penguins!!
Look at these robo-penguins!!

I can't really sit here and say everyone should play it because getting your hands on a PS5 feels nigh impossible, and I only managed it through sheer luck. Never mind that how one reacts to it will correlate almost one to one with how much you like the PlayStation brand. I'm sure diehards who spent the 90s with the PS1 were even more over the moon with it than me, but I could see the game just flopping for a lot of people.

I'd say anyone reading this already knows how they feel on that front, but it wasn't really until getting into it that I felt it, so who knows. All I do know is that I had a blast with Astro's Playroom, and despite some quibbles with the PS5's UI, I think the future is bright for this console. I'm looking forward to more years of making memories, and having fun through the help of this weirdly shaped, bizarre console.

And, of course, thank you for reading!

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Insert NieR pun here: I played Replicant ver.1.22474487139...

NieR is one of those games where I feel like I need to give some backstory with my history with the franchise before really getting into it. I didn't play the original NieR, but I was at least mildly aware of it at the time. Which is to say that I had seen the Quick Look, and (of all things) had heard about the game's true, final ending. Without getting into it (yet), let's just say that ending is kinda wild, at least conceptually. But as interesting as that stuff sounded, after watching the Quick Look, the game still looked kinda...bad. And granted, 2010 was peak me being into bad games that had compelling stories (it was the year of Deadly Premonition, after all), but I hadn't seen anything to make me think NieR actually had a compelling story. Just a weird gimmick around its ending.

So, time passed, and I didn't play NieR. Eventually, in 2017, NieR:Automata released, and that one I wanted to play. Not enough to get it right at launch, but eventually. Thing is though, at this point I decided I didn't want to go into Automata with basically zero NieR knowledge, so rather than track down a copy of the original, I watched an all cutscenes video on YouTube. In the moment, that felt like the smart thing to do, but after playing Automata, I wasn't quite so sure. I don't want to say Automata was just retreading the same ground as NieR, but there's enough thematic and idea similarities between the two that it can't be coincidence. As a fellow writer myself, I couldn't help but think at the time that maybe it was a bit of, “well no one saw these good ideas the first time, so let's just use them again.”

Anyway, I enjoyed Automata, even if to this day I'm still not entirely sure how much. The difference between my blog snippet right after finishing it (“really unique experience that will stick with me for a long time”), and the Moosies that year (“Is this a case for the game not sticking with me like I thought it would”) is interesting, to say the least. I don't remember why, but it's frustrating that neither of the times I wrote about it in the year of its release were big, in depth blogs. If anything, with a few years between then and now, and after playing Replicant, it only makes me feel like I need to replay Automata (and maybe finally write about it in depth?). One thing at a time, though.

Obviously now I've played Replicant to completion. That's 100% side quests done, and all endings, A through E. Not all the weapon stories, to head off anyone who might try to say you didn't have the complete experience without doing that. Honestly, I didn't care for the weapon stories I did see, and I already spent over sixty hours in this game, I don't want to spend another twenty just grinding for weapon upgrade materials. Anyway, I have thoughts, ranging from general stuff about the game itself, to end game SPOILERS that will of course be properly marked when I get to them.

Good dog.
Good dog.

Replicant, in a lot of ways, is an odd one, but in a lot of other ways, kind of not an odd one. It has some strange sensibilities to it, but in terms of the part where you play it, it's just a generic action-adventure game. It reminded me of the Fable games, more than anything else. Appropriately enough, it even released the same year as Fable III, which seemed to have sunk that franchise for a good long time. Neither had a fully open world to explore, but rather a series of relatively small interconnected areas. There's a main story thing to do, but lots of generic side quests to collect X number of a thing, deliver a thing to someone else, etc. But as I said earlier, I did all the side quests, so there was something compelling about it to me. Part of it was that just enough of them had something worthwhile in them, whether it was an interesting side story helping flesh out the world, or even just some snarky dialog from the game's most novel character, Grimoire Weiss.

That's not all of it though, because aside from Fable, the game that I thought about the most playing Replicant was...Death Stranding. A lot of this game's side quests mechanically feel like filler, just running back and forth between towns, delivering things to and fro. I couldn't help but think about how much I loved that part of Death Stranding, and it got me wishing for a game that played like that, but was set in and had the sensibilities of the NieR world. A game where traversing the environment itself was the challenge, and the payoff was story and characters that are actually worthwhile and interesting.

Sadly, that's not this game, instead this is a game where traversal is just running between areas, and the only obstacles being enemies called Shades. Shades that, I will always associate with Ryan saying they looked like, “Goldschläger ghosts” in the Quick Look. I can't really compare the combat between Replicant and the original, but I can compare it to Automata. It doesn't have the same depth, or level of nuance as Automata, but I do think it has the same core problem. The issue in both games (and this is something I said even back in 2017) is that while they feel good to play, they never give sufficiently challenging or interesting enemies/encounters to make use of what's available.

There might not be moose to ride like Automata, but you can ride these giant boars.
There might not be moose to ride like Automata, but you can ride these giant boars.

I like stylish action games a lot, don't forget DMC 5 was my game of the year in 2019. So I know what I like out of that style of combat. The combat feeling good and having a variety to what the player can do is only part of it, the game needs to give you interesting things to do with those moves. In Automata, it felt like Platinum went all out on designing 2B's move set, but then never got around to fleshing out the enemies to the same extent.

Here, it feels like they took an older game where the extent of the combat was something like a three hit combo (based solely on the aforementioned Quick Look), expanded that out to the point where it feels good...and then that was that. Again, this is just me extrapolating from what little I know about the original NieR, so I could be completely wrong and the enemies were also redesigned for Replicant. If that was the case, then it didn't stop the game from having that same feeling as Automata, where the main character is way over equipped for what is actually required to deal with the enemies.

So, to put it another way, Replicant's a game with very generic side quests, and over designed combat for what the enemies are actually capable of. But I wouldn't actually put it that way, because despite all that, I enjoyed my time with the game. I did the thing I do in games like this, which is soak in the world, take my time, try to get to know the characters, whether they were companions like Weiss, Kainé, and Emil following along my quest, or NPCs I got to know along the way. Like the red bag wearing couple, or the old fisherman by the shore.

Which, oh I could go on about the fishing journey I went on with this game. But I'll keep that short and just say that to anyone playing this and using a guide for fishing: Don't believe what the guides say about using sardines to catch marlins. Use a lure instead. The sardines are just gonna attract sharks and a tougher fish that is basically impossible to catch at the fishing skill level you'd be at. Look up a video because there is a specific timing to the lure bobbing to get the marlins, but it's easy once you know it. Also, if you're going after the “catch every fish” Trophy and you think you've caught them all but the Trophy didn't pop, you're probably missing a carp.

The fact that I immersed myself enough into this world that I was able to prattle off a whole paragraph of specific fishing tips without looking that up says some things. Maybe mostly about how I spent too much time fishing, but also that the game succeeded in drawing me into its world. It made me care, and at the end of the day if a game can do that, it kinda doesn't matter if the rest of it is bad, or generic. And I wouldn't say bad in this case, I'd just recommend most people be a bit pickier about which quests they do.

Then there's the story, and the characters. I would really have to play Automata again to say which has the main narrative that I liked more, but Replicant easily has the better cast of characters. Weiss (who is a floating, talking book) just has such an air of pomp and circumstance around everything he does and says, and gets so upset so easily. But he still always goes along with what the main character says, always does the right thing, so you know deep down he cares. He's an a-hole, and I love him for it, but he cares.

Kainé, also an a-hole, just with a much fouler mouth. Maybe not as profane as people make her out to be, it's not like she drops an f-bomb every sentence, it's more that the ways in which she curses out others (both enemies and friends (Weiss) alike) are pretty creative. Definitely a lot of threats of shoving removed body parts into orifices they weren't intended to, things of that nature. Again though, just like Weiss, her heart is in the right place, even if she has to be dragged along for even her to realize it too.

And finally Emil, the wonderful lad who can do no wrong. Okay, that's a lie, no one in the world of NieR can do no wrong. He's different in that he's the one companion who isn't constantly sniping insults at the others, and his attempts to keep things civil between the others are honestly adorable.

Friends!
Friends!

Of course there's tragic backstories galore, but I won't get into that stuff quite yet. At least in terms of what happens in them, so much as the how they're told. I guess for anyone with literally zero NieR knowledge beyond what I wrote above, this is your cue to drop out, because this is kind of an interesting “mechanical” thing the game does a handful of times, and would certainly be surprising the first time it happens. But also it's not really a spoiler, and the original game is eleven years old now, so I dunno.

Anyway, mostly Replicant is a third person action-adventure game, but at various points it turns into...I don't necessarily even want to call it a text adventure, because there's not really that much in the way adventuring, or choices. In fact, the ones relevant to Kainé and Emil don't even have choices in them, it's literally just pressing a button to advance lines of text.

Point is, Replicant turns into just pages and pages of text on (mostly) black screens. I don't mind that, but the weird thing is, the first time it happens (and at least one other time I remember), some of the dialog between the characters is still voiced. But even in that first instance, after a few lines the voices stop, and it's just the text. I get that these sequences are supposed to invoke a weird dreamlike feeling, and I'm sure the lack of dialog is part of that, but I really like the voice acting! And given this remaster has full voice acting for literally everything else, so I kinda wish all the dialog in the text sequences was voiced too.

If I had to pick a favorite part of this game, it'd easily be the acting. Laura Bailey's Kainé is as good as any other character she's done, but really it's Liam O'Brien's Weiss that steals the show. I don't know how much of the dialog in Replicant is new (if I had to guess I'd say they probably redid everything for consistency's sake), and maybe he was just extra playing it up because NieR became what it did over the years, but he was on top of his game here. Just chewing through every line, I loved it so much. And because Weiss is the companion that joins up earliest, and the one that follows the main character into every town (as opposed to waiting outside like Kainé and Emil), he also has a lot more dialog than the others. He's the one constantly grumbling about the main character being unable to say no to literally any request, no matter how inane or tedious. And if his performance wasn't spot on, a character like that would get annoying fast, instead of being a delight to hear grumble and complain.

Speaking of audio related things, the music. It wouldn't be a NieR game without the music being interesting, and I quite liked it here. There's no one song that leaped out at me as an all time banger like BECOME AS GODS from Automata, but a lot of it felt like...how I was feeling at the time? This is a weird thing to write, but I saw the news about Vinny, Brad, and Alex leaving Giant Bomb on my phone while I had Replicant paused, and now a particular music track playing at the time is connected to that news in my brain. Later that day I spent a solid ten minutes idling in the tavern in the main village listening to Devola sing, just trying to process what was going on. There's a deep melancholy to most of the music that simply felt...right, for as sad as it was. And even if it weren't for this weird association through sheer chance, the game's music is still really good, and does what it sets out to do well.

I think I've exhausted what I can reasonably say without getting into spoilers, unless anyone wants to read about how long it took me to cross pollinate and grow every type of flower. Too long, is the answer. Thus, unless you've played either the original NieR, or Replicant (and I will be writing about Replicant's new Ending E), or have no intention of ever playing it, just enjoy the following image of my Replicant garden, and stop reading. For whatever faults it has, I did enjoy my time with NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139... a lot, and I think for most people it's easily the best way to experience this story in the year 2021. Unless you're the sort of person that really wants to suffer, I guess. But also if you liked Automata, give it a shot.

I tried to make this a trans pride garden, but one of the pinks decided to turn white, and none of the flowers wanted to face the same direction!
I tried to make this a trans pride garden, but one of the pinks decided to turn white, and none of the flowers wanted to face the same direction!

Rather that one giant block of spoiler-y ramblings, I'm going to try breaking them up into sections, and label each one outside of the spoiler block, in the hope that makes it a bit easier to navigate for anyone who might not want to read every last word I say.

NieR and Queer (characters).

Because I'm me, I didn't know where else to start, and the characters are the most endearing part of the game, I thought I'd begin with Kainé and Emil. NieR is still a largely cis-heteronormative game, but as one could guess, there's at least two characters here that aren't that. In Emil's case, it's pretty obvious from what he says in one scene that he's gay. And that's fine. Given his character (despite being extremely old) is stuck at the age of a preteen boy, giving him a big romantic arc would've been weird.

Kainé is the character that's more interesting in this regard. When the main character and Weiss first meet her, they learn that she's been possessed by and/or is half Shade, and that she's been shunned by the local village. Thus, she lives in a ramshackle shack just outside the village (though one that's certainly on much sturdier ground (which is to say ground) than anything in the Aerie). With that info, and a lot of the mean remarks from the villagers in the Aerie, the initial implication is that she was an outcast because of her Shadiness.

Except that's not the real reason why. Later in the game (at the start of Route B), during one of those text flashbacks it's revealed that she was bullied, and hurt by the villagers years before she was possessed. And unless I missed something, I don't think the actual reason for why is stated in game, or even implied in a way that someone could reasonably figure out what it was without reading an outside source. Which is not to say her backstory doesn't work without the full context, and there's always something to the idea of there being enough ambiguity that more people can project themselves onto a character. More room for more people to relate, after all.

On the other hand, Kainé is canonically intersex, which is not something that most games would even consider attempting to include. And I'm kinda torn between wishing this was something the game was more upfront and direct about, and thinking that maybe the ambiguity is why there isn't any aspect of it that rubbed me the wrong way. I'm not intersex myself, but it's pretty evident by the number of times I bring this stuff up in my goofy blog here that queer topics in games matter to me, and I want to make it known when they screw up, just as much as I want people to know when they get it right.

“Queer person who was bullied and traumatized by others because of their queerness” is certainly something that has happened to far too many people in the real world, and been used in plenty of fiction (hell, even if my writing is generally lighthearted and uplifting, I've basically done this in my stories!), but not too much in games. Or rather, that same thing I say any time I write one of these, at least not in “bigger” games that get attention. Even as weird as it is to think about NieR being a “bigger” game now, when it was a budget release most people hadn't heard of, let alone cared about.

To get back to the main point, as much as I do think Replicant has good writing (I'm sure due in no small part to the quality of the localization), I'm always skeptical of (presumably) non-queer people writing queer stories. Not to say there aren't good examples where it's happened, I'm just skeptical of it. And I do think that part of this is my lingering fury from Dead2y Premonition still smolders within me, especially given how convinced I felt after THE MISSING that Swery and company learned better, only to get so much worse.

No Caption Provided

I got off the point again. I like Kainé as a character, and I think that as sad as her backstory is, that's the vibe of the NieR games. That's the tone of the world, and I think threading the needle of making a tragic/traumatic backstory work without feeling exploitative, or gross is tricky. And I think hers was handled well, even if part of me wishes I knew she was intersex from something in the game, rather than reading it online, outside of the game.

And if nothing else, for once it's good to have a tough lady with a tragic backstory where the backstory is something other than sexual assault. Unless there was supposed to be something other than nonsexual violence in her backstory that I also missed, in which case I rescind this paragraph. And maybe “good” isn't even the right word, given ladies can be tough without preexisting trauma.

The serious point being that probably the trope I hate the most is “tough lady who's tough because of tragic sexual assault backstory.” Granted, “tough lady who's tough because of tragic queer related bullying” is close to that territory, but for whatever reason it didn't feel quite so exploitative to me. Perhaps that's just because I haven't seen it poorly implemented nearly as often.

Anyway, here's hoping whatever is next in the NieR series can have more in the way of openly queer main characters, who if they are traumatized, maybe it can be for something else. Also less in the way of the creepy Trophies for upskirting, I hate that they added one to this game for Kainé. And also, Yoko Taro, I know you're reading this (sarcasm), tone down the horny on the ladies, or tone up the horny on the dudes (assuming they're adults because come to think of it I don't know how old the “adult” main character is actually supposed to be in this game). Maybe just tone down the horny.

Mixed thoughts on vengeance.

About midway through NieR's Route A (the first playthrough), there's a five year time skip, and the main character goes from a young teen, to someone who at least looks grown up. According to what I found online, he goes from sixteen to twenty-one, but sixteen felt a bit older than I would've guessed. Anyway, he grows up, and changes quite a bit as a character, accentuated by the change in voice actor from a plucky, happy go lucky kid, to brooding Ray Chase doing his best Noctis again. Funnily enough, the voice actor for the younger version, Zach Aguilar, is actually a lot closer in age to the older version than Ray Chase, who's in his early thirties.

I jest, but that's not entirely fair, as I feel the biggest difference after this time jump is just how bitter, spiteful, and how much of a killer the main character has become. Specifically toward Shades. Of course the younger version still didn't hesitate to fight and kill Shades, but the older one delights in it, and all but brags about how he wants to kill every last Shade on the planet. Frankly it's off putting, and disturbing at first. And that's not to say it becomes more acceptable to keep the murder going as the game goes on, so much as I just got used to it after the repeated replays to get the other endings.

Even before Route B starts giving more context for the Shades that get slaughtered along the way, and even before the twist near the end of Route A where it's revealed that Shades are the remnants of the original humans of planet Earth, it's pretty evident that the way the main character acts, and talks is wrong. I think the game knows it, the writers/localizers knew it, I think Ray Chase knew it, and yet... I feel like in most stories about how “vengeance is bad,” there's some moment where the main character realizes they were wrong. This game doesn't have that?

Did I miss something? Like, the main character's arc is that he wants to do what he can to help his sick sister Yonah, so he goes off on an adventure to power up a mysterious book, and meets some weird friends along the way. Yonah gets kidnapped, so he spends five years brooding and training, then continues the quest with his weird friends. And as the quest resumes, he even encounters other people and situations wrapped in cycles of violence (the humans of Facade and the desert wolves), or consumed with vengeance (Junk Heap kid and the robots). At one point he even says something about how the poor kid can't look past his vengeance on the robots, yet at no point does the main character self reflect on his own quest for vengeance. He's just convinced that he's doing the world a favor, and that anything he needs to do to rescue Yonah is justified.

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Of course, I don't think the game just ending on the main character monologuing about how he learned his lesson would have been great either. So I dunno what would've been better, or at least seemed better to me. For all I know, feeling conflicted was the whole point, rather than the game explicitly wanting the main character's actions to feel fully justified, or fully wrong. Though, considering what happened to the Aerie, it's kinda hard not to lean more toward it being wrong than right.

The nature of humanity.

Years ago, when I first watched all of original NieR's cutscenes on YouTube, the Shades being the “real humans” was the big twist, and I vaguely remember wondering if NieR was a “you played the bad guy all along” story. The whole game was spent playing as an “empty shell,” a being “without a soul,” at least according to Devola and Popola.

I don't have anything profound to say, just think it's funny that now, having played the game, even though some of the things the main character does are pretty awful (like murdering Shade younglings), the Shades aren't really any better. I feel like they gave up any claim to those bodies the second the bodies developed their own consciousnesses, their own personalities, their own lives. Again, I don't have anything profound to say, just interesting how a mix of experiencing the game in its full context, and those four years between watching those cutscenes and now gave me a different takeaway from that aspect of the game.

It is a really clever idea for a story, though. Humanity needed to create new bodies for themselves, but before they could get transferred in, the bodies developed minds of their own. The fiction writer in me just wishes that someday I could think up something as clever as that. This is really a different topic altogether, but a lot of my favorite stories leave me feeling inspired. They fill me up with ideas for my own stories, my own worlds, characters, etc. Gets the imagination revved up like nothing else, but there's another level beyond that. The stuff that's just so incredible that it leaves me awestruck, and feeling like I'll never be able to make anything that good

Replicant isn't at that level. It definitely left me more inspired than awestruck, even if these days it's all I can do to get myself to write these blogs, let alone full on stories.

Okay, to get this back on track, I guess I do have something to say about how the game hands out its info about the Shades. The twist at the end from Popola and Devola is fine, it's the part where you need to play through half the game again, and it just arbitrarily adds in cutscenes that's a bit irksome. The extra dialog in fights sort of makes sense because the context is that it's what Kainé hears, but also not really because you're not playing as her. Automata tried to rectify that by making 9S the character in Route B, but he's such a slog to play as that I know multiple people who gave up on the game because of it.

Not only does having to replay the game to get extra cutscenes feel like filler, I think a lot of it isn't really necessary in the first place. Even before the twist, even before the extra dialog, it's obvious enough that the Shades aren't just mindless automatons, not just evil demons, or anything like that. So those extra scenes feel like they're layering it on a little too thick, I guess is my point.

Conversely, those scenes of stuff like Emil and Kainé camping? Those should have been in Route A! That camping scene is one of my favorite bits from the entire game, and I wish it had more sequences like that.

Time for a quick camping break before discussing the game's endings.
Time for a quick camping break before discussing the game's endings.

Sacrifice, and the Power of Friendship (Endings D and E).

To me, the most noteworthy thing about original NieR eleven years ago was its true, final ending. Ending D, the one that requires deleting your save to achieve. That was the thing people talked about from NieR, and it became the thing the game was known for. Or at least the thing I knew it for. Of course I had zero other context for it, so to me it was just a novelty, just a weird thing from this oddity of a game I'd never play.

Now here I am, having played it, and I'd say I have...mixed feelings on it. On the one hand, the point of this ending isn't supposed to be about deleting the save, it's supposed to be about sacrifice. The main character is sacrificing not only his life, but his entire existence to save a friend. As in, not only did he cease to exist in the present, but also the past. And that's why the save is deleted, to remove any record of his actions, his deeds, his existence from memory.

And all that's left is a short ending cutscene, and a different look for the main title screen. In the original NieR, that was that, and frankly if I hadn't known there was another new ending, I would have turned the game off and started writing then, instead of playing for another four or five hours to finally finish Replicant. But I'm not quite at that yet, I still have a few thoughts about Ending D.

Which is that...I don't know that I actually like Ending D now that I've seen it in the full context of the game, rather than just after a series of cutscenes. The worst part is, my problem with it isn't even about thinking the characters would act differently, or it not fitting thematically with any other parts of the game, because I think it does. My problem is that the sacrifice just feels completely out of nowhere.

Okay, the context for the scene is that Kainé finally fully loses control, and turns into a Shade, or a Shade like thing. She and the main character have a brief fight, and then the Shade who had been possessing Kainé can now talk to the main character, and tells him that he has two options. Either kill Kainé (Ending C, which I hate and think is the worst ending in the game by far), or erase himself from existence, everyone's memory, and make Kainé fully human again.

The thing that I don't like about this, and I hate that this is the thing that bothers me so much, is that there's no foreshadowing for this. There's no point anywhere else in the game where there's even the slightest reference to this being a thing. It's just something the main character can do? Is it something that Shade can do? I know “why and how is this a thing” is not at all what I should be getting stuck on, or thinking about at all, but...it is!

I think the reason it irks me so is that so much of the rest of the game doesn't feel like this. There's always some foreshadowing, or some reference, or anything. I'm not saying there should have been a whole big quest dedicated to the concept of erasing people from history, but even just a few off hand comments from Weiss could have helped alleviate this. Or maybe foreshadow it in a fairy tale that the main character tells Yonah at some point early in the game.

It also comes off as this arbitrary way to force the game to have a sad ending, which feels needless because with Weiss and Emil disappearing, there already had been plenty of sacrifice in the lead up to the final confrontation. Granted Emil reappeared as just a head (and with a jaunty shop theme in Automata), but I would have preferred Emil still be presumed dead and not have this weird choice at the very end of the game, frankly.

Anyway, if the sacrifice had just been better contextualized in game, it would have worked better for me.

But, since this is NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139..., that's not the end of the story. And for anyone who played the original NieR, but hasn't gotten to Replicant yet, this is your last chance to hop off before I spoil it. Because I'm gonna spoil it!

Last warning!
Last warning!

With the previous save deleted, to get E, that requires starting a whole new save file. And using a different name for the file, because the game blocks the original from being used again. Sadly MOOSE was lost to history... So I started a new character named Nier (which is the canonical name for the character, I've just avoided using that to save on the confusion with the game), and played through the first two and a half hours of the game again. When I heard about the new ending after deleting the save, I kinda just assumed it was something that would pop up in the first like, ten minutes of the game or something.

Of course that would be too easy, and wouldn't have me second guessing that I had done something wrong, or missed something. Luckily not, I just had to get up to the boss in the Aerie, after which the cutscene differs, and the game jumps forward to three years after Ending D. Kainé is living on her own in that shack outside the Aerie, and now the playable character. The thing that I thought they should have done for Route B, finally in Route E.

One thing I didn't do, but I wish I had just to see, was spend any time exploring. I just ran along the main path, which very quickly puts Kainé into a new area, with no way back out into the open zones. So I have no idea if there's optional stuff to do, conversations to have, anything like that. Probably not any side quests, but my attempts to search for if there's side stuff to do in Route E have yielded nothing either way. So if anyone knows if I did or didn't miss anything worthwhile, please let me know. It'd take a fair amount of doing for me to get back to the point where I could play Route E again and see for myself, and I'd rather not go through all that and be met with nothing.

Anyway, I'm not going to beat by beat give a synopsis of Route E, but I will mention the biggest points. Kainé ventures into the big tree in the Forest of Myth, which turns out to be a weird cyber lair for some creepy android twins. Then Emil shows up with his body again (with two extra arms, for some reason), and they both realize that there's something, or someone that they just can't...remember... But that's not going to stop them from fighting to find out what, or who, and to bring them back.

The short version is that they venture into a cyber-y cube world (that reminds me a lot of Automata), Weiss reappears, and after some more soul searching, inner reflection, and one last fight with her inner demons, Kainé does the impossible.

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She brings her friend back from the oblivion of erasure from existence...and un-deletes the deleted save file. There's a cutscene where the main character returns (in kid form instead of adult, for some unknown reason), and there's a giant Lunar Tear, also for some reason beyond my understanding.

Now, when I told someone who played the original NieR, but didn't really intend to play Replicant for various reasons (I think ranging from having too much fondness for the jank of the original, and its grizzled middle aged protagonist) about Ending E, she seemed all but livid about it. I'm not going to directly quote what she said, but it was something to the effect of calling Yoko Taro a coward, and going back on one of the most memorable parts of the game.

I totally get how a lot of the original NieR heads would have that reaction, and heck, maybe I'd lean more toward that if I'd played that game without any of the foreknowledge that I went into Replicant with. But to me, this doesn't feel like an act of cowardice, so much as just asking the question, “what would Kainé do if one of her best and only friends in the world was gone?”

And I think the answer, as seen in Route E, is fight to bring him back, no matter what. Kainé being Kainé, she doesn't let anything stop her, only slow her down a little, so of course she finds a way to do it. Even if the actual happening of it left me a little baffled as to why the main character was a kid again, and the whole giant flower thing.

So yes, I like Ending E. I have no idea at all what the general consensus amongst NieR fans is of the ending. I've talked with no one about it, and I'd certainly be curious to see if other people are like me, and like that the power of friendship was able to overcome this, or if they're like my friend, and think Yoko Taro is a coward.

Though if anything, I'd say that considering most NieR fans seem to enjoy the melancholy and sadness of the series, that daring to add a happier final ending isn't cowardly.

At this point, I think I've exhausted everything I can reasonably write about Replicant, and a fair amount more too. If you read all that, thank you as always for giving me the time of day! I really do appreciate it, given this is something I do mostly for fun. As for what's next in my blog writing, I do want to replay Automata and see if I can finally give that a proper in depth write up, but I don't think I'm going to get to that any time soon. Otherwise, I had started a “potpourri” write up about all the games I'd been playing this year that didn't warrant long discussions like this, and maybe I'll finish that soon. We'll see!

Thank you again for reading!

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What Giant Bomb has meant to me.

I'm not really sure how to open this one. Like everyone else, when I read the news that Vinny, Brad, and Alex were leaving, I was shocked. I couldn't believe it, truly could not. And like so many others, I've just been overwhelmed with emotions the last few days. I've fought back tears, and choked up thinking about how much this website, and those three have been a part of my life for so long now. And it's just so much that I felt like I should try to get some of it out into words, even if part of me feels a little selfish posting it as a blog of my own, rather than comment on a forum post already out there or something. (But I'll not kid myself, this'll be too long for that.)

Where do I even begin though? I'm thirty years old, and I've been a fan of Giant Bomb since I was nineteen. Aside from like, literal family or friends, nothing else has been important to my life for that long. Literally nothing. I was a freshman in college when a friend linked me to the Jackie Chan in Fists of Fire Quick Look, and that was the start of it all. The reason this friend linked it to me was because my roommate at the time, another friend, and myself were all watching so much of that Jackie Chan Adventures cartoon show. Now, in the years since I haven't really thought about that cartoon outside of its connection to this moment in my life, and I'm still friends with that one good friend who linked me the video (even if we don't talk nearly as much as we probably should), but those other guys? I lost touch with them before I even graduated.

The point being that for a third of my life, GB has been there for me. Most of my adult life, for that matter, and a huge portion of my life that I can actually remember clearly. Through all the bad times, and the fleeting good ones, GB, and all the incredible, amazing people working there have been there for me, and countless others. And it feels weird to word it this way, when really they're just talking over video games, and doing podcasts, but I know I'm not the only one who feels this way. I don't even know how to properly put into words what it means to be able to be at some of the absolute lowest, worst moments in my life, but having GB there as something funny, something goofy and silly and ridiculous, and something maybe touching enough to just keep me going a little bit longer.

And all the friends I've met. Again, aside from family, and my two oldest friends (<3 you both), all my current friends are either people I've met through GB, or met through people I met through GB. Even those two oldest friends of mine, they've been GB fans longer than me! But so many people that I hold near and dear to my heart now, simply never would have been a part of my life without Giant Bomb. I was gonna list out names, but it was too many, and I started to feel bad just having a handful of them, because I'd always leave someone out. But if we're friends, and you're reading this, you know how much you mean to me. <3

But it's not even “just” all those friends, GB became the place for me to put out my scattered writing about games, heck it's where I put this! And personally I'd be embarrassed to go back a decade plus and see what my writing was like back then, but it's all still there. A record of my growth as a writer, shaped by this site. You could probably go through and see how my sense of humor, how my tastes shaped and grew over the years. Probably isn't a better record of how I grew and changed as a person anywhere else in the world, than this goofy little blog.

And I wouldn't have done it if GB wasn't such a fun, inviting place. If it wasn't full of great, amazing people, both working it, and in the community. Even if I haven't regularly visited the forums in who knows how many years now, that was still a formative part of my life, probably in ways even I don't fully realize to this day.

I was even a moderator here, for crying out loud! Sure, it was a short stint, and it really didn't end the way I wish it had, but in retrospect I am glad I at least had the experience. Even if summer of 2014 (you know, the “GameGate” summer) was perhaps the worst possible moment in time to start as a moderator on a website about video games, haha.

But, the reason for this post is because of the people leaving Giant Bomb, so I have to say at least a little something about each of them too.

Vinny, truly one of the funniest people on the entire planet. I seriously can't think of anyone who could bring so much light and joy so effortlessly (or at least what felt effortless from afar) to so many people. I'd be lying if I tried to pretend Vinny wasn't my favorite at GB, like he is for a whole lot of others. There's a reason the “Vinny status confirmed” gif exists, after all. Who else could take the most pedestrian of open world games and make them into some of the funniest videos I'd ever seen? Not many people could talk over a hundred hour JRPG and make that a worthwhile series through to the end, even if parts of it haven't aged well (in ways I'm sure Vinny and Jeff would probably agree with now).

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Back in 2014, when it was announced that Vinny was leaving the San Francisco office to move to New York, it felt like the end of an era, but really it was just the beginning of GB East, and maybe still the best GB ever was. For years, the Beastcast was my favorite podcast. It was a pillar of my every week, it's the thing I listen to every Friday morning. Even over the last year, when they started livestreaming them, I still waited until Friday morning. Every winter, the Beastcast holiday special when Austin (truly a legend himself, for lack of a better word) returned for some tabletop game silliness, that became one of the things I look forward to the most that time of year. Especially this last year, when meeting up with family in person was a no go, I still had that to bring a little joy to my heart.

Now, it's coming to an end... The final Beastcast is going to be live, but...I know I'll just tear up and start bawling if I tried to watch it live. I might just do that on the archive version too. But at least then I can pause the video, and recollect myself as needed.

I've been thinking a lot about the time I got to meet Vinny at Pax. A friend who couldn't attend asked if I could give Vinny a hug from her, and not only did Vinny gladly agree (which sounds preposterous now in pandemic life, just giving hugs to total strangers), but after he smiled, and said, “and here's another hug, for you.” It's the only time I ever met him in person, but even just in that one brief moment, I could feel that something special about him.

Good hugger, too.

Part of me wants to try to say that Brad was often the most thoughtful member of GB, that he was a great writer that could really explain what made games good or bad... But let's be real, if I think about the Brad moments that will stick with me, it's him getting outrageously infuriated at hard games. Hearing Brad scream at the top of his lungs was always funny, but in truth the thrilling victories he pulled out were as much a reason to watch, even if the screams are what come to mind first.

And his playthrough of Demon's Souls with Vinny, is honestly my favorite “Endurance Run” of a whole game that I've ever seen. I can't really put my finger on exactly what it is, but I've just found myself coming back to rewatch that series almost every year since it originally aired. Maybe part of it is that when it aired I was coming off of some time in the hospital, and I wasn't exactly sure what was wrong with me yet, so it was comforting to watch. Maybe part of it is that I hadn't played Demon's Souls yet, and as much as I think it's a better game to watch than to play, there is something special, and kinda unique about that game, and my initial experience with it is tied to these videos.

But the main reason is that Brad and Vinny just made a perfect pairing for these videos. Vinny playing the trickster who Brad could never quite tell what he was serious about, and what was a ploy. And Brad, his obsession with the lizards is still one of the funniest things on the site, as far as I'm concerned. Again though, seeing him work through that game, it's just comforting, and fun to watch.

And Alex, who I feel a little bad about because I don't have nearly as much to say about him. Not because he also hasn't been a huge part of what's made GB special to me, because he was every bit as vital to making the Beastcast what it was as the others. The thing is, when I think about Alex, he feels more like a support than the main star. Or, to put it in food terms, he's like garlic. I wouldn't really want to be eating whole cloves of garlic on their own every day, but damn if it doesn't make just about any food better when you add it in.

Alex is, in other words, the garlic of Giant Bomb.

In all seriousness though, Alex in some ways always felt like the most relatable of the group. Mainly because while I'm sure every one of them has gone through so much we'll never know about, but Alex always felt like the most up front with his own mental health situation. Not that my experiences are the same as his, or I even know what his are beyond what he's said publicly over the years, but I appreciate what he has said over the years. Helps remind us all that we're not alone in this, you know?

I think I've said just about everything I can. This site has meant so much to me, because of all the people around it, whether they worked there, or were friends I met through it. In very real ways, Giant Bomb has helped shape who I am. For the better I think, or at the very least I'm a better person now than I was when I first became aware of Giant Bomb. Not all of that is because of GB, obviously, but probably more than you'd think.

I know the reason I wrote this was to say farewell, and wish the best to three people leaving, but I can't help but wonder... What's next for Giant Bomb? I don't know, but I do want to believe that as much as we're all talking and acting like this is the end, that it'll keep kicking. It'll be the end of Giant Bomb as we've known it for the last few years, but the Giant Bomb “as we've known it” has ended a bunch of times already. It ended after Dan left. It ended after Austin left. It ended when Vinny moved east. And it ended when Ryan passed.

But each time it's kept going, and I still want to believe that Jeff can help steer it somewhere good. It won't be the same, but it doesn't need to be. Giant Bomb has already helped me through some of the worst times of my life, and maybe whatever it turns into next will help some other people in the same way too.

Regardless, I've stuck around this long, and I'm willing to stick it out a bit longer too. I'd hope that Jeff wouldn't be staying if he didn't believe there was still a future for Giant Bomb.

Of course, there's no other way for me to end this than with one last farewell to Vinny, Brad, and Alex. I doubt any of them will read this, but thank you all for everything you've done for me, and everyone else. You'll never know how much you meant to all of us, and all I can do is wish you the absolute best in your lives. You deserve it, and so much more.

<3

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The Phantom Thieves Strike Again.

Between the long blog I did last year after finishing it, and GOTY season with The Moosies, I've certainly written plenty about Persona 5 Royal. Enough that part of me didn't think I'd be writing about the Phantom Thieves again any time soon, yet here I am, having just finished the follow up and/or spinoff of Persona 5, Persona 5 Strikers. When a game surprised me as much as Royal did, and I grew as attached and emotionally invested in that cast of characters as I did, naturally anything else with them in it is going to have some sort of affect on me, and surprising no one, I've got thoughts on Strikers.

Just not necessarily the sorts of thoughts I expected to have. Now, almost a year from when I played Royal, the things that stuck with me are exactly what I mentioned above. The characters, and how that game made me feel. (And feel free to give that blog a read if you missed it last year.)

I knew going into Strikers that even beyond the combat, it wasn't exactly the same sort of game. Rather than a day by day high school teen simulator built around deciding how to spend a full year, Strikers is a linear story. Time moves when the story dictates it does, and a lot of the restrictions from Persona 5 are gone. Want to leave the dungeon as many times as you want without moving to another day? No problem! Conversely, there isn't really much to do besides traverse the dungeons, or otherwise push the story forward. Some optional things, small-ish quests to do things for the other Phantom Thieves, but otherwise that's it.

The Phantom Thieves hit the road.
The Phantom Thieves hit the road.

Anyway, I went into Strikers thinking my takeaway would be how attached I still am to these characters, and leave with the same bittersweet feeling that Royal gave me last year. Don't get me wrong, I still like these characters as much as I did before, even if the game does feel like it lacks some of the nuance the characters had before, there's nowhere near the character growth they all had previously, etc. But the feeling I've got after finishing Strikers...is that I had an absolute blast slicing, dicing, and casting magic through all those levels with the Phantom Crew I still like so much.

I suppose now is the time to mention for anyone who doesn't know (and hey, they might exist), Strikers is a “Musou” game. Or in other words, the Dynasty Warriors people came in and made an action game around the core of Persona 5 and its cast. I had not played any Dynasty Warriors games previously, nor any of the other Musou styled spinoffs. Unless the Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity demo counts, but that was just a demo. The Dynasty Warriors have a reputation for being the mashiest of button mashers. Games where you just hit the attack button forever as you mindlessly mow your way through literal thousands of enemies.

Is that reputation deserved? Probably not. Is Strikers that sort of game? Maybe on easy, but not really on normal, and definitely not on hard. Which is how I played the majority of the game, and like I said, I had a blast! Even just on its own merits, I think it's tons of fun, but especially considering all the different mechanics and quirks from Persona that have been incorporated in, and how the characters are designed, it's really remarkable.

At first glance the combat looks really simple, just hit Square varying numbers of times, and use Triangle for combo finishers, but there's more depth and variety than meets the eye. Maybe not Devil May Cry depth, but enough. Take Ryuji, who was a melee focused character in P5. Here, his special ability lets him temporarily increase his defense, and resistance to flinching (getting knocked out of animations). That, combined with his moves revolving around charging up his attacks mid combo, make him feel like a real slugger that just wades into the horde of enemies, and lets nothing stop him while he gives them the walloping of their lives.

Contrast that with Yusuke, the other melee focused P5 character, whose moves are about ultra fast sword slashes, and countering enemy attacks. Considering that the two of them were fairly similar to each other (combat wise) in P5, I think it's really cool that they feel so different here, and each in a way that feels true to them as characters. Ryuji, who always just charges ahead, of course he gets the buff that lets him tank so much damage. And Yusuke, much more elegant and always with an eye for art, has a more refined approach. Though, perhaps the rapid slashing just makes more sense for a katana, but either way, it feels true to him.

Occasionally environmental objects, like skateboards, can be used to fight.
Occasionally environmental objects, like skateboards, can be used to fight.

Now, does every character feel totally unique to play in Strikers? Not really. Makoto's special ability infuses her melee attacks with nuclear damage, while Ann's gives her whip fire damage. Their actual attacks are different enough (Makoto uses her martial arts knowledge to unleash a “Fist of the Phantom Star” level of endless punches and also drives her pope motorcycle Persona to ram through enemies, while Ann...whips her whip around for big sweeping attacks), but there's certainly overlap in ideas and concepts. Another example, both Joker's and Haru's special ability is just a quick gun button. But the way each shoots and works that into their overall skill sets still help them feel different, with Joker letting out quick pistol shots in combos, while Haru and her Persona just hold the trigger down and blast a wide swath through enemies.

Of course it wouldn't be Persona without the actual Personas, and they're here too, along with the same exploiting weaknesses system. Enemies and Phantom Thieves alike have elemental damage types they're weak and strong against, and like before, using them properly can mean the difference between getting totally worked over, and thrilling victory. But it's not just that some enemies take more damage to the right type that came over, the “one more” attack system, and baton passing to another character so they get a boost is here too. Rapidly jumping between four characters in the midst of such a hectic game can lead to some instances of it being a bit too much to fully keep track of, but mostly it works, and it's fun.

Plus it gives that same feeling of this being a team really working together to win these fights that P5 did, even if this feels more like a bunch of wild teens just doing whatever, instead of carefully planning everything out, and patiently waiting their turn.

If you're thinking that exploiting weaknesses like that and pulling out the special attacks after stunning them sounds like it'd make the game too easy, for all I know it does on easy, or later game on normal. On hard at least, it usually takes more than one elemental blast to put the enemies into the staggered state. Or at least it does for bosses and minibosses, those have armor meters that need to be worn down with repeated hits to their weaknesses.

Now, I know what Persona diehards might be thinking, “what about SP management?” Well, you can definitely chew through it extremely fast, but holding the Persona button to freeze time and pick which spell to cast isn't the only way to get those elemental attacks out there. Each character has combo finishers that pull out their Persona to do an attack, and in some cases they even have different ones that do different attacks. Ryuji has different strong melee skills for a couple, and a lightning strike for his third. Joker, meanwhile, still has access to dozens and dozens of Personas (I don't think it's the full roster from P5, but it's close), and each has multiple skills they'll use depending on the combo you go with.

Joker's starter, Arséne, uses a curse attack after a three hit combo, a physical damage skill after a five, and which ones they use depend on how leveled up the Persona is, and what skills they have unlocked. But the key thing about the combo finisher Persona attacks is that while they might not do quite as much damage, they don't use any SP or HP to cast. So, proper Persona use can make these combos really devastating, and help save on precious SP.

I may have been playing as Makoto here, but it's a good shot of yo-yos in action.
I may have been playing as Makoto here, but it's a good shot of yo-yos in action.

That actually gives me a good segue into Persona fusing. As best as I can remember, it works the same as P5, but with a couple additions and changes. So far as I can remember, in P5 you just had to have the specific Personas for a fusion, whereas here they also have to be high enough level. Most of the time that's not an issue, but with specific Personas (and I specifically mean the ones you need to beat optional bosses to unlock access to fuse), those levels are ridiculous. King Frost for example, requires a level 40 Jack Frost (high, but reasonable), and a level 40 Jack-o'-'Lantern. Which is just absurd, I think the Jack-o'-Lantern I had was like, level 7? Getting that up to 40 just seemed like it would require an absolutely unreasonable amount of grind.

To mitigate that, slightly, are Persona Points. Fusing, deleting, and acquiring new Personas by picking up masks during fights all give PP (though the masks might only do that if Joker's Persona inventory is full, and it gives points instead of the Persona). PP can be spent to increase their overall levels, or add points to individual stats, like strength, magic, etc. So by screwing around with fusing, deleting, and resummoning late game Personas (because I had more than enough money), I was able to get enough PP to make my King Frost.

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Black Frost though? That required King Frost at level 65 (two higher than he was at), and both Jack Frost and Jack-o'-Lantern...at level 45. So that took a little more work, but I got them, even if it wasn't until after finishing the game's actual story.

Will say though, the game is fun enough, and there's enough to do that it kept me excited to venture onward, and do what side stuff there is, even after finishing the story. Maybe this is spoiler adjacent, but unlike P5, finishing Strikers doesn't immediately put the save into new game plus, but rather it reverts it back prior to the final boss, and opens up some harder optional fights. And between when I wrote the first draft of this, and posting it, I've since beaten all those optional fights (still on hard) and unlocked new game plus. Since I don't really feel like playing through the whole game again on “Merciless” difficulty (at least not so soon), I've now run out of things to do in the game.

Of course, spending pages going on about the combat in a sequel to a game that compelled me because of its characters, might give a poor impression about the story. But the story is good enough. It doesn't really take the time to dive as deep into specific characters as P5 did, and it a lot of ways it does feel like it's just going over very similar (if not the exact same) themes and ideas of P5, just at a faster clip than before. Without going into actual, full spoilers, I'll say that just about anyone who enjoyed Persona 5 would probably enjoy this too. It's just a breezier, less emotionally charged follow up. In a lot of ways, it feels more concerned with letting the characters have fun, and enjoy their summer vacation road trip than it is with trying to wrench hearts.

That's not to say I don't still have a couple bones to pick with the game, and specifically some characters from P5 that got left out in the cold here. Some, like Iwai (the airsoft gun store guy) and Takemi (that shady doctor lady) get mentioned, but don't actually appear in game. Others, like Mishima, get mentioned absolutely zero times throughout the whole game.

Mishima getting this treatment especially rubs me the wrong way. He was never an official member of the Phantom Thieves, but between his running the Phan-Site, and the number of times he appears in P5, he really felt like an honorary member to me. I get that P5 had a big enough cast of secondary characters that most of them probably had to be left out, and I knew this game didn't acknowledge anything, or anyone from Royal (poor Kasumi), what with it having been more or less made in parallel with that game. But Mishima could have gotten a cameo. Have him show up in one of the towns the main crew visits throughout the game, or he texts Joker every now and then. He could even be running the Phan-Site again, and have that be how you get side quests, like P5.

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While on the subject of issues with the game, this being Persona, while it might not have as much capital P Problematic stuff as P5 did (no homophobia, no romances involving bad age gaps (or romances at all)), it's still not totally without issue. Specifically the fatphobia boss, midway into the game. It's bad, but also so totally out of left field, and just incongruous with everything else that I don't even understand why it's there in the first place.

For context, the main boss of that area, in the real world, is rail thin just like basically everyone else in the game. But when the crew finally encounter her shadow self at the end of the dungeon, she's enormously fat, obsessed with eating, and in a way that is clearly intended to be disgusting. Even the Phantom crew are shocked, because the game hadn't done anything at all to indicate that this was what the boss was going to be, because the whole dungeon is ice themed. Not that if the whole dungeon had been about eating and fatness that it would be better (worse if anything), but it just feels totally needless, and bizarre.

Otherwise though, nothing jumped out at me as bad in that way. There's a few scenes of “fan service” type stuff that's eyeroll worthy (because these are still teens, most of whom in high school), but nothing really unexpected or creepy. The game is still pretty hetero-normative, even if there's no romances. And no save import (unless unlocking a couple songs from Royal for rotation in fights counts), so no acknowledgment of any previous ones. But I'd say it's safe to assume anything from the first game was just a fleeting fling, if anyone took ire with that. Of course, I roleplayed my Joker as being queer as best as I could in P5, so naturally I still took the few chances I had to keep that alive here. Even if that means I'm thinking in my head that lines that are probably supposed to be jokes, were actually sincere, that sort of thing.

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So I'm not just ending this on a somewhat negative feeling note, I should at least mention some of the story stuff, and the two new members to the Phantom Thieves. Nothing super spoilery, for anyone worried. If at this point you can't tell that I think this game is well worth playing, well, I just said it outright there!

I'm trying not to post any pics of anything spoilery,
I'm trying not to post any pics of anything spoilery,
But this pair of Yusuke pics sum up how creative work feels to me.
But this pair of Yusuke pics sum up how creative work feels to me.

The basic premise of the game is that about six months after Joker left town after the events of Persona 5 (or in my case, Royal), he and his talking (not) cat are back in Tokyo for summer vacation (which for Japanese schools is August and maybe like a week of July). The whole (main) gang is back together to just relax, and maybe get up to some hijinks while camping or something.

But since this is an action game, and not someone's purely fun fan fiction (this is not a dig at fan fiction, honestly), something goes awry, and before they know it, the Phantom Thieves are back in business, delving into the Metaverse to change hearts, and help those in need. This time with the help of a friendly amnesiac AI named Sophia (or Sophie, as I usually referred to her in my head, since that's her very clever Phantom Thief code name).

Sophie's a fun character, even if a lot of her thing is that she's trying to better understand humans, and emotions, which leads to quite a bit of trying to explain these things to her. Her overall arc is good, though, even if it's not surprising. Plus, she dual-wields yo-yos, which is a very fun idea for weaponry. And fun in practice too, even if the game was so fast that I probably didn't time the buttons right to fully take advantage of her perfect attack timing mechanic.

Back to the main story, the main thematic difference between this and P5 is that while P5's Palaces were largely focused on legitimately terrible people whose desires were so powerful, and bad that they warped literal reality around themselves, Strikers' bosses are more in a grey area. And, as an aside, yes, I remember Shadow Futaba was one of the Palace bosses in 5, and obviously Futaba (a Phantom Thief) is a good person. In Strikers, instead of Palaces, they're Jails, and the “Monarch” of each Jail is someone who originally had good intentions, but something traumatic (and the game uses the word trauma a fair amount) happened, and for various reasons they all went down the wrong path, and ended up as bosses in this game.

And of course there's more going on behind the scenes, something larger, etc etc. And because the Jails are popping up around Japan, as opposed to being focused in Tokyo, the crew decides to borrow a camper just barely big enough to fit everyone, and take a road trip across Japan. Going from one scenic location to another, seeing the sites, and experiencing all the local delicacies. I can only imagine the people who made this game were very hungry, considering the vast array of foods that get brought up literally every time the crew arrives in a new place.

Joker becomes quite the cook over the course of Strikers.
Joker becomes quite the cook over the course of Strikers.

Along the way they at first begrudgingly work with a cop named Zenkichi, who may or may not end up joining the crew himself (he's on the game's box art, is all I'll say in that regard). I'd like to think my anti-cop beliefs are known at this point, so his subplot around being one of the few “good cops” because most of the higher ups are corrupt is not fully to my liking, but it's fine. I'm not going to make a stink about it not meeting some arbitrary standard of “all cops are bastards-ness,” because I did enjoy taking every chance I could to poke fun at him in the dialog. In the end, he's a good enough guy. That said, I did particularly love hearing Haru cheerfully exclaim, “It's just that we despise the police, is all.” (Which is especially rich coming from the character who has a fortune from the family fast food empire, but I digress.)

I think I said it already, but while the game doesn't really try to tug at the heartstrings as much as P5 did, it does at least give this stuff its all, and I think it mostly succeeds. In a lot of ways it feels like Persona 5 light, or to paraphrase Michael Higham from GameSpot, kinda like a direct to video follow up. Which sounds meaner than I (or probably Mr. Higham) intended, but I think it gets the point across. It's a fun time, and unless someone had an extreme aversion to action games, I'd highly recommend it to anyone who liked Persona 5. Wouldn't really recommend it to people who didn't play that one at all, though. It kinda assumes the player knows these characters, and what happened previously, which is totally fair.

Other quick notes: The styyyyle, and music. Both are intact, with some really good new versions of old songs (Last Surprise – Scramble I like quite a bit more than the original), old classics (I still get hyped any time Take Over plays during a fight, no matter how many hundreds of times I must have heard it in Royal), and new ones to boot. It's still the same singer doing the vocals (I think just credited as Lyn in the game), and she still does as good a job as ever.

Visually, I think the character models and effects all look great, but the game is way more aliased than I remember P5 being. I'm not sure what's the cause, if it's an engine thing, or if it's because the game is targeting 60 FPS on my trusty PS4 Amateur, and anti-aliasing had to be cut to make it happen. I will say, the fights are so fast and hectic that I never really noticed it there (and so far as I can tell, at least in “Framerate” mode, that felt smooth and solid), but in the walking around town/talking to people segments, it's hard to ignore. And swapping the game to “Graphics” mode didn't seem to clear it up, and I think the game still targets 60, so I don't really know what the point of that option is. It's not game ruining by any stretch, and I think the art still mostly shines through. But I'd also bet the PC version, or this game running on a PS5 looks sharper, and better. I'd worry about the Switch version though, anecdotally it sounds like that doesn't even have the good framerate.

Goodbye again, Phantom Thieves.
Goodbye again, Phantom Thieves.

Anyway, I had a blast with Strikers. It scratches the itch of wanting to go on another adventure with the characters that I came to know and love so well, and it's a far better action game than I expected. It's still bittersweet to say goodbye to the Phantom Thieves, especially when this time I know it's probably the last new game they'll be the stars of, but it was fun while it lasted.

As always, thank you for reading. Not sure when I'll write again, but I've got a slew of smaller games I've dabbled in that I could do a potpourri blog on, and the next big single player game I've started is...let me check my notes... NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139... I imagine I'll have some thoughts on that one.

In the meantime, have a great day, and stay safe out there! I know I just got my first Covid vaccine the other day, and boy was my arm tired!

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Scattered Moosey Catch Up: Kentucky Route Zero and 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim.

Not counting The Moosies, the last time I sat down and wrote a blog about a game was...September. About that Avengers game. And even counting The Moosies, it's still been a couple months. On the whole I am glad I moved to only writing about games that really make me compelled to write about them, but part of me does miss the potpourri "here's everything I played over the last month, even if I only have a paragraph to say about it" blogs.

So, here's a mix of the two. I have some scattered thoughts about Kentucky Route Zero and 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim (games I finally got around to playing this year), but not really enough about either for a dedicated blog. I'm going to try not to go too deep on spoiling stuff, especially for 13 Sentinels since that game is basically all story (and it sure does have A LOT of it), but there's some specific character stuff in 13 Sentinels that I will touch on when I get there. But fear not, I always make sure to use the handy spoiler hiding tech on Giant Bomb to do just that. Really though, just to be clear, if you haven't played 13 Sentinels, do that. It's pretty great!

Kentucky Route Zero

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Kentucky Route Zero, though? Well, I'm a bit more mixed on that one. In some ways, I do quite like a lot of what it does. It often has an incredible since of mood, and atmosphere. A mood of the slow miserable decay of the world around us, yet despite that people are still doing all they can to keep going. Keep some sense of normalcy in their lives, even if their lives appear extremely abnormal. That mood is one of the most relatable things I've encountered in a game in some time.

KRZ is obviously about Kentucky, but so much of what this game is about broadly could apply to anywhere in the US, and probably to many more places across the world. It's so easy to look at the state of the world, at so many people struggling to get by, at so much basic infrastructure just decaying and withering away around us, at so much just crumbling so slowly that we don't even notice it on a day by day basis. It's usually not until it's too late, and we can't ignore it any more.

More specifically, KRZ goes into things like coal mining, inescapable debts, and at the end the sudden unpredictable impact of natural disasters. Which that last one isn't quite the same thing as slow decay, but even though I played this game back in January, writing about it now it's hard not to think about it in relation to the recent stuff in Texas. How hard so many people were hit because of decaying systems built with the barest minimum of regulations, so much broke all at once, and the power companies could just hike up the prices to astronomical levels, thus putting people deeper into debt, and...

And that's just one example, these sorts of things are probably only going to keep happening with increasing frequency as time goes on. Thanks to climate change, and so much decay, our modern global society just dangles by a strand of decrepit infrastructure...

Thankfully KRZ isn't all misery and decay, it also has a pretty good sense of humor when it wants to. Kind of a weird, dry humor. My favorite bit in the whole game (comedic or otherwise) is in the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces (a great space in itself that gave me strong Bureau of Control vibes). There's an elevator in the back, which lists what all of the five floors are, and Floor 3 is just listed as "Bears." Naturally I had to go there first, and I don't know what I was expecting, but when that elevator opened, there was just a whole bunch of bears in an office. Just sitting and standing around, not really doing anything. Their heads turned to look at the main characters, and I just laughed. It's a great, silly little bit.

Bears.
Bears.

But the thing is, even after giving myself a lot of time to think about it, I'm not sure if I actually liked Kentucky Route Zero as a whole. Certainly some moments, and characters I did. The pair of traveling musician androids, Junebug and Johnny I liked so much I felt a bit inspired to write my own story about traveling androids. Didn't get around to it, because this blog is the first thing I've actually written since the start of the year, but it's one of those ideas that'll stick around in the back of my head until I do something with it. There's a lot of those there, to be totally frank.

There's just something about KRZ though, that I can't quite put my finger on, but I found a lot of it...kinda boring. It has a lot of weird, quirky stuff, moments where it feels like it's perfectly channeling things like The Twilight Zone, but then stuff where it just slows to a crawl. Moments where characters that only show up once just start talking on, and on, and on forever, and I found myself skipping a fair amount of dialog in the last couple Acts. And I'm almost never the sort of person that skips dialog, unless it's the thousandth time I've heard that blacksmith in Dragon's Dogma talk about "masterworks all." That sort of thing.

And maybe that's intentional, traveling along, meeting people, and some of them just telling you what might as well be their whole life story because it's been so long since they had someone new to talk to. Even though you don't really care what they have to say, because you'll never see this person again, you just keep listening, even if you're not really listening.

There's other stuff too, like the music. I love the weird, otherworldly sort of ominous stuff, but I just really don't like folk music. And that's fine, but there's moments in the game where the moment just fell completely flat because all I could think about was how much I hated the music. Like at the end, there's a part where they start singing a real church-y sounding song that just made me feel uncomfortable, as opposed to whatever the actual vibe was supposed to be.

I will say though, the part where Junebug sings in that bar was a good moment. That's the one song with actual vocals that worked for me.

So, as advertised, those are some scattered thoughts about Kentucky Route Zero. In some ways it really clicked with me, in others it didn't. I can't say I liked it, but I do think it's a game more people should play. It feels in touch with where the world is at in a lot of ways, that make me think it might only become more relevant as time goes on. It makes that slow decay feel real in a way that I can't think of any other game doing.

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Also, there's a dog, an old hound dog, and one of the first things in the game is deciding their name. There's two preset options (plus one for not giving them a name, if you're a monster), and one of the preset options is Homer. AKA the name that I already use for every in game pet/horse/sidekick that I get. I greatly appreciate that they did this, clearly just for me. The first Trophy I got in KRZ was for giving Homer some jerky, which delighted me.

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim.

This is a really tricky one to write about. On the one hand, there's so much going on in the story, or more accurately stories of this game that I could write something half as long as the game itself trying to unravel and properly go over it all. Obviously I'm not going to do that. But without talking about the actual story and characters, there's not really much to write about in the game. I think it's a great science fiction story, and I really liked a lot of the characters, but nothing about it felt thematically resonant in the way that KRZ did. If there's any sort of broader theme or message to the game (other than a generic work together to overcome great odds sort of thing), it went over my head.

The tactical strategy part of the game hasn't got anything interesting going on, and while the story part of the game almost veers into adventure game puzzling...it never quite gets there. Early on I thought the game might go fully into that sort of thing, but instead it's more akin to just picking which scenes you want to see first. Part of me wishes the game went in that direction, but considering how frustrating actual old adventure games tend to be when not using a guide, this was probably the better route.

Me, when I see a cat.
Me, when I see a cat.

So here's what I'm going to do about this write-up. First, focus on what I think is the most impressive part of the game, and then second, take a deeper dive into one part of the game that I have some conflicted thoughts on. Namely the game's handling of queer characters. Yup, that's me being extremely on my bullshit, as usual.

But first what impressed me. 13 Sentinels has what may be the most ambitiously told story I've experienced...ever? It's 13 different stories, with 13 different protagonists, and yet they all intertwine into a coherent, and great whole And large swathes of it are told nonlinearly, with the player being able to choose which characters to focus on, when to switch between them, etc. As a writer myself, and one who seems to always fall back into science fiction, even just writing one coherent narrative can be difficult, especially if you want to make it compelling. Telling stories from a handful of different perspectives if harder still, but 13?! That's just absurd! It's downright absurd, and I almost can't believe they pulled it off.

Yet they did, and it's both a coherent narrative, and one that kept me hooked pretty much the whole way through. I don't love the ending, not because it's bad so much as just a bit too sappy. But that's just personal taste. I just can't emphasize enough how impressed I am with the ambition of this game's storytelling, and how well it works on just about every level. I really liked most of the characters, the various stories are compelling on their own, weave in and out of each other in fun ways, and I've never experienced a story with so many twists, turns, and revelations. Seriously this game has so many reveals that would be the single big, huge climactic plot twist in almost anything else. It's just amazing that they pulled it off.

Mostly, at least. I do think the game gets a little caught up on the "teen drama" side of things. Which is fair, given all the protagonists are teens. But sometimes the "do they like me," "I don't have feelings for you (but secretly I do, actually)," stuff can be a little much. Maybe part of it is that since the game jumps between so many different characters, that none of them get the same level of development that they could have if the game was solely focused on one protagonist. The game does rely heavily on archetypes and tropes to lay the foundation for these characters, and some of them don't really get a ton of character development.

Talking about me.
Talking about me.

Will say though, for anyone who has yet to play the game, or only just started, don't hesitate to go look at stuff in the codex to remind yourself of what's going on, and what happened already. I know I had to sometimes to keep everything straight. Part of the problem with the fairly nonlinear design of the story, and the sheer quantity of threads is that it's tough to keep them all straight. I think part of that may have been on me for jumping around so much between characters, rather than trying to focus on specific ones, and get them as far as I could. Sometimes I just was really interested in what someone else was doing, because again, it's all interesting!

I think that's about all I can reasonably say about the game's story and structure without actually getting into plot synopsis and spoiler territory. Thus, time to get to the second big thing of 13 Sentinels that I wanted to write about, its handling of queer characters. This I really can't get into without spoiling anything, but the first chunk of it is just light stuff from the prologue. Later though, there is some stuff from the literal ending of the game, but that'll be well protected in a SPOILER ZONE.

Before I get to any of that though, I want to be clear that I don't think the game has any malice or ill intent toward queer people. I know there are long discussions to be had about intent, "death of the author," etc, but I do think that intent matters to some extent. For example, I know Persona 5 Royal was my game of the year last year (which I stand by, still), but that's a game that in the brief appearances that queer people have, it's just as bad stereotypes for the sake of bad jokes.

13 Sentinels isn't that, I don't think, but I still have some criticisms. And now, onto the light spoilers from the prologue (whited out for your spoiler safety).

It's mostly a very cisgender/hetero game, but there is one character definitely outside of that, Tsukasa Okino. He (the game uses he/him pronouns for Okino, so I will too here, though if I had written this game I wouldn't have), after traveling back in time to the 1940s, disguised himself as a girl named Kiriko Douji. I know I said the game uses he/him for Okino, but in the times when people thought he was a girl in the 40s, they use she/her for Okino, but, well, this is when it gets a little complicated.

The first time Okino pops up (in Kiriko mode), is during Hijiyama's prologue (still in the 40s), and around that same time Sekigahara makes some flippant response about Okino not really being a girl. This gave me a really bad feeling that the game was going to do something bad with that character and be a lot of "guy in a dress" style "jokes," but not long after it went in a different direction. After accidentally traveling 40 years into the future (again, this is all prologue stuff), Hijiyama eventually runs into Okino again. Okino in this time seems to dress and present differently seemingly based solely on the situation and mood, and says the line, "some binaries work for me, and others don't."

Now, that line to me, a queer person who is nonbinary, feels like something a cisgender writer wrote while trying to get the idea that Okino is nonbinary through, but talking around it in a way that I don't think most actual people ever would. It's one of those things where some writers just feel afraid of outright saying the thing, meanwhile most of the queer people I know will just say "im gay" at the drop of the hat, even if they're bi, pan, etc. Anyway, nitpicking the writing aside, this left me really intrigued about the handling of Okino, and Hijiyama's relationship with Okino, considering that Hijiyama very clearly has a crush on Okino, despite his wanting to deny it because Okino "is a man."

As a quick aside, I should add that I have no idea how the english localization does or doesn't differ from the original Japanese, but one off lines like the "binaries" one do make me wonder. Again, I know zero Japanese, and played with the english voice acting (which I really liked), so that's all I have to go on.

But given the nature of this game, and it taking a long while to get access to Hijiyama's storyline again after his prologue, that was kinda put on the back burner. Both Hijiyama and Okino occasionally pop into and out of other characters' stories, but it was a while before getting back into how the two of them felt about each other. And I also feel like I should mention, there is at least one other time in the game when another character makes a snide "you're still dressing like that" comment to Okino, in a way that felt kinda mean to me. Especially considering the time period the character is from, where I would think people dressing outside traditional gender binaries would be more accepted.

Anyway, I said earlier that this game spends a lot of time on teen drama "do they like me or don't they" stuff, and there's a fair amount of that here. Hijiyama being jealous of Okino, trying to deny he's jealous because he's in denial about his attraction to Okino. And that's stuff fine, if a bit cliché, but the problem is I don't think their relationship has any sort of satisfying conclusion to its arc. But to get into that, I kinda have to get into end game stuff, so I guess don't read on if you haven't finished the game. Really though, play 13 Sentinels, it's great, on the whole, anyway.

So the whole ending of the game is a lot of, "here's what happened to these characters." It's not quite full on Animal House "John Belushi became a senator" stuff, but it's a lot of scenes of characters talking about how they got married, had kids, etc. It's sappy, it's cheesy, but it's fine. And I don't know that this game having a tragic ending with the characters all dead or miserable would have been great either, so like I said, it's fine.

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Then it gets to Hijiyama, Okino, and Tamao Kurabe. That third one being a character that appeared so rarely throughout the game that I frequently forgot she even was a character. She was originally (well, as originally as anything is in this game's timeline(s)) back in the 1940s with Hijiyama and the others of that time, and I think implied to have been the character Hijiyama was dating, or romantically interested in at the time? Anyway, in the epilogue scene, Okino shows up, keeps making comments about Hijiyama and Tamao being on a date, before another Tamao shows up (this game has so much going on that it sounds like nonsense when I write it out like this), and then Okino and Hijiyama leave together, maybe on a date?

Okay, so my point is, all these other characters in this "five years later" sequence have hooked up, started families, etc. But Hijiyama and Okino still haven't figured out what's going on between them? I just feel like that's something they could have, and should have figured out in those five years, and I would have been a lot happier to see them as a happy queer couple than still going through this whole song and dance.

I'm also still not entirely sure what to make of Okino's gender situation. Which, to be clear, I think it's fine and even good for fiction to leave you unsure about characters' genders, but that doesn't mean it still can't leave me thinking about it. For a good chunk of the game, I thought that maybe Okino was a trans man, and that was perhaps why he was disguised as a lady back in the 1940s (not that that's an amazing theory, but it was a thing that went through my head). But then in this whole epilogue bit, Okino doesn't outright say he changed his genitals (through the whole simulated world thing), but he might as well have. In context being to presumably go along with the dress, longer hair, and maybe better fit with what Hijiyama would find attractive?

I mean, obviously I have nothing against people using digital worlds to change their bodies, I would in a heartbeat for myself if that was a thing. It's just the whole context of this scene feels weird, especially considering Hijiyama and Okino's relationship in the year 2188. Or, rather, the relationship of 2188 Hijiyama and Okino. In that time, the two of them were in a romantic relationship, and Hijiyama even says that he loves Okino. Like people do when they're romantically involved. Of course 2188 was the doomed version of humanity where everyone dies, so none of them got to live happily ever after.

Oh, to be a schoolgirl with a giant robot. I didn't really have any other Okino related screenshots.
Oh, to be a schoolgirl with a giant robot. I didn't really have any other Okino related screenshots.

The thing that I most wish the game did was make Okino a playable character too. Both to have more time to go in depth about his gender stuff, and just to explore him as a character beyond that. I think even outside gender stuff, he's certainly a more interesting and likable character than that prick Gouto. Just to pick one of the playable characters out of a hat. But also I do think it would have been cool if the game took the time to actually explore than side of Okino, and particularly to do so from his point of view.

Anyway, that's a lot of scattered mishmash thoughts. To try to make them into something coherent, I feel like in a game that has 13 different playable characters, only having one of them be (maybe) queer (unless a one off comment of Iori getting flustered around Yuki is meant to count as Iori being bi), is in itself frustrating. Then having the only definitely queer character (Okino) kinda have this inconsistent handling of that stuff, and his relationship with Hijiyama is the ONLY one that doesn't concretely end with them hooking up, despite everyone else having that made pretty clear (including side characters that in at least one case I think one of them was a scumbag who deserved worse than he got (Tetsuya Ida)), is disappointing.

Part of me wants to say that this is what I get for having such exacting standards, and for expecting more than I know realistically I'm going to get from these things, but then I just go back to that same things I always think. I don't think it's unreasonable that a game with 13 protagonists that more of them could've been queer. Not in the year 2020! And I don't think it's unreasonable to have wanted what's in there to have been a bit more direct, especially in the end.

Oh well.

Hemborger marks the end of the spoilers.
Hemborger marks the end of the spoilers.

Please, don't get me wrong, I still think 13 Sentinels is a great game. It's a game that I'd recommend just about anyone play. If you enjoy science fiction, just broadly, you'll almost certainly like what's going on in this game's story. Your love of the characters will probably depend on how into or not into you are with anime-esque tropes, but I still think there's more than enough going on in the plot to keep people's interest beyond the interpersonal character stuff. Which again, I mostly liked!

Particularly, I want to mention Natsuno, who so much reminded me of me as a kid. Her love and obsession with UFOs and aliens is one hundred percent how I felt back as a kid. Maybe a bit younger than her when I was at the peak of it, but honestly, if I had found a (probably) alien robot friend at her age, I'd have fallen right back into it too.

Natsuno was definitely my favorite character in the game.
Natsuno was definitely my favorite character in the game.

So, that's it. Bit scattershot, but overall I think I made some coherent points about those two games. Both I think are generally worth playing, but definitely a much stronger recommendation for 13 Sentinels.

Dunno when I'll write again. It'll probably be months, if I'm being honest. I haven't yet played Persona 5 Strikers, but I know I will. Doubt I'll have much to say about it, considering what I've heard, but who knows!

Briefly, for other stuff, I started Ashen the other day, which is a neat indie Dark Souls-y game. Great sense of mood, interesting world, and that more than makes up for the combat feeling like a derivative of Dark Souls, but not hitting the mark nearly as well as what it's copying. And speaking of hitting marks, between the release of Hitman 3, and my rewatching the old videos of Brad and Dan bumbling their way through Hitman 1, I decided to give the world of assassination another chance, and bought Hitman 2. It was on sale, so...we'll see! Didn't love the first one, but who knows!

Still no PS5, and unless I just happen to get lucky on a PS Direct queue, probably going to stay that way for a while yet...

As always, thank you for taking the time out of your day to read my thoughts. I've had a really hard time bringing myself to write anything at all the last couple months, but I'm glad I got this out there, even if it's a bit messy. Or a lot messy.

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The 2020 Moosies Video Game Awards!

I spent weeks writing the actual awards, but neglected to make a new logo, so here's last year's, just minus the year!
I spent weeks writing the actual awards, but neglected to make a new logo, so here's last year's, just minus the year!

2020. It was a year. Kind of a bad one. I don't mean this to sound flippant, so much as I don't know how else to say it. But I'll try not to linger on it, aside from a little bit of reflection on my own writing over the year.

Which, if you're reading this you probably noticed, but I wrote a lot fewer blogs this year than I usually would. There's a couple reasons for that. One is that I've been trying to not force myself to write about everything I play, because I often don't have anything all that interesting to say. And if I'm being totally honest, 2020 was a bit of a lackluster year for games. Not to say there weren't plenty of good games, but not too much in the way of things that really compelled me to write about them. To really sink my teeth in, and think about why it was that I liked it so much, or disliked it so much. For example, there was no Death Stranding this year. No game that was just so bizarre, yet I couldn't put it down, despite the story being such a befuddling mess.

But the real, main reason I didn't write as much is that this awful year just sapped my will to write. So much so that games that I probably could have written something worthwhile about, I just didn't. Or in one case (Hades), I did write something, but was so dissatisfied with the result that I told myself I'd start it over again and give it another shot, but didn't. If you're wondering why I didn't post what I wrote about Hades, I'll be quick and say that I realized I am woefully unequipped to write seriously about a story about trying to escape an abusive household.

And, one more note. Despite my repeated, best efforts, as of this writing I've been unable to get my hands on a PlayStation 5. I want one, you bet your sweet butt I do! But I just haven't been quick enough on the draw, and I would never even consider horribly over-paying to get one from a scalper.

So, that also means a bunch of games I really could have played on my PS4, I didn't because I want to see them in their next (now current) gen glory. Miles Morales, AC Valhalla, even Bugsnax. But that last one is mostly because I refuse to buy the PS4 version if I have access to the PS5 one via PS+. I know I'll love Miles Morales when I eventually get around to it, and I'm sure I would have had a great time on PS4, but it'll have to wait, and you'll have to wait to see my thoughts!

If nothing else, I'm here now, giving The Moosies my all! Thank you for reading, and giving my opinions the time of day.

As is usual, now that my preamble is almost over, it is time to look back upon my predictions for 2020 from last year, and see how wrong I was. Imagine just how wrong I usually am, and applying that to this atrocious wild card of a year.

Predictions!

Half-Life Alyx delayed at least once more before release.

I don't even remember. Was there a delay between December of 2019 and whenever it actually released? I don't know! I do think it's interesting, if not surprising, how this game just came and went. New Half-Life after so long, and almost no one played it because it was designed exclusively for higher end versions of tech that very few people (relatively) have. That's not a criticism, something usually can't make the most of out new technology if it has to support wildly different other stuff too (in this case not-VR stuff), but it's just interesting, is all. At least the people who did play it seemed to like it, so I'm glad it was good.

Xbox Series X has a mini-fridge built into it.

This didn't happen, but given that they actually made a full sized fridge that looks like a Series X, I'll say this was correct enough.

Nintendo announces the Switch Liter, which is just a slightly smaller version of the Switch Lite. Still does not drop the price on the regular sized Switch.

Thankfully not, but this is just reminding me of all the (sounding substantive) rumors of a Switch Pro coming next year, that all started about a month after I bought my Switch. And now I'm feeling grumpy because I could have waited another year...

The same Mario Kart 8 bundle returns in time for Black Friday at the same price.

I think this did happen. Maybe they were also coming with a year of Nintendo's online subscription or something??

Bayonetta 3 finally shown for real. She has a new hairdo.

Bayonetta 3 is not real. This game is never coming out, and will quietly be forgotten. Sadly.

Still no F-Zero.

Sometimes I hate being right.

Halo Infinite is, in fact, finite.

Halo Infinite is, in fact, delayed a full year (probably), so who knows!

Whatever attempt is made to get people interested in Anthem again...does not work.

I've heard promising things from the screenshots of some changes being made in Anthem Next, but... I can't say it's easy to feel good about BioWare as a whole at the moment. Especially after Casey Hudson leaving. Again. I just want BioWare to make great games like they used to. And to have good working conditions. Obviously.

Bluepoint Games' remaster is not, as people suspect, Demon's Souls, but instead...Tokyo Jungle.

This is a case where I'm glad to have been proven wrong. It's good that more people have gotten to play Demon's Souls. Besides, after some of the changes made (Cat Ring icon, Sticky White Stuff's name), clearly Bluepoint isn't equipped to do a Tokyo Jungle remake, because they don't have a sense of humor.

2020 Moosies Video Game Awards Game of the Year: Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise.

Huh, that's um, sure was a prediction I made last year. How'd that turn out? Well, perhaps I'll answer that, by getting to the proper "Awards" section...

Awards!

Todd Howard Presents the 2020 Moosies Award for Most Disappointing Game and Biggest Technical Mess of the Year: Dead2y Premonition: A Blessing in Disguise.

No Caption Provided

You know the score. You know how much I loved, and still love the original. You know how disappointing this was to me. How much the horrible tech issues impeded the game, to the point where it made me doubt the Nintendo Seal of Quality for the first time in my life. How the plot driving the game was half baked at best. How the game felt like large swathes of it had been cut and not replaced with anything else. How Swery managed to disprove that The MISSING: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories meant he had learned literally anything at all about trans people, or how to write stories about them. Instead he doubled and tripled down on the fleeting transphobia from Deadly Premonition 1, making a "sexual deviant trans woman" antagonist the cornerstone of the sequel's story.

And you know how much my heart sank while playing this game. How I was into it for like the first half of the game, until it got into the cruddy transphobia, and all the facade crumbled away as I realized the story wasn't going anywhere interesting. That despite my wanting to enjoy another adventure with York and Zach, despite brief moments of the same quirky humor and heart shining through, DP2 is just a bad game.

So bad it's the most disappointing game I've ever played. Literally.

So bad I've basically lost interest in anything Swery makes in the future.

Don't play this game.

10. Most Exploitative Free to Play Game I Still Had a Pretty All Right Time With: Genshin Impact.

No Caption Provided

A little inside baseball here, but you can tell when I wrote this by the fact that the first thing on my mind is that bad article Waypoint published trying to help "guide" people on how to best engage with the infinite money hole part of Genshin Impact. I'm sure that's fallen out of everyone's memories by the time I put this up, including mine, haha.

All that aside, despite the fact that the game gives off both the aura of being a shameless rip-off of the greatest game ever made, and the aura of wanting nothing more than to feed off people with those money sinks... Okay, all joking aside, this game's pretty good. It's a big open world, with tons of cool sights to see, puzzles to solve, and much more interesting lore and characters than I expected. It certainly exceeded basically all my expectations, and I've had a pretty good time with it, despite not spending a single dime on it.

But I'd be remiss if I didn't mention I started playing right at the start, when they were throwing out free "pulls" for the characters like candy. I got lucky and got windy god boy Venti, who so far as I know isn't even attainable at the moment. Just to build up that FOMO and get people to spend while they're available.

I'm going to be real with everyone reading this: Getting this list up to ten games this year was a struggle. But I also didn't want to just do a top five list, and no other number between the two didn't feel bad weird, so Genshin sneaked on here into the tenth spot. Which isn't me saying it's actually bad, I've had lots of fun with it, and just about every time I play it, I remember, "oh, this game is actually more fun than I remember." The way the elements combo together in combat, the joys of solving environmental puzzles, the incredible vistas, and cool sights, especially in the second zone Liyue. It's a fun game, and as much as I hate the monetization, the truth is I doubt I would have shelled out sixty bucks for it, so I dunno!

There's a side quest to feed ducks.
There's a side quest to feed ducks.

If nothing else, it's at least fun to joke about Paimon being food.

Genshin Impact also wins:

  • Best Running Gag: Emergency Food Paimon.
  • Most Litigious Music: That one song that sounds almost exactly like Breath of the Wild.

Todd Howard would not stop calling me and sending angry emails until I let him present an award for a game that is at least good, so Todd Howard Presents the Still Kinda Disappointing in Comparison to its Incredible Predecessor but also Still Pretty Good Game Award to: DOOM Eternal.

No Caption Provided

Just to be clear, and state the obvious, I don't actually know Todd Howard. This just started as a joke in 2015 when Fallout 4 was at once very disappointing, yet I still enjoyed it enough to get onto my top ten. And it's continued since then, obviously. But in this case, well, I could have rearranged a few things and put Eternal at the number ten spot, but I thought it was funnier to have at least one section between this and me airing my final grievances to Dead2y Premonition. If you really wanted to know how Genshin got the ten spot!

In all seriousness, I had a lot of fun with DOOM Eternal. On paper, this should be a better game than its predecessor. All the changes made to the core game play are improvements. It feels better with the air double dash! Falling to your, ahem, doom no longer means sitting through a load screen, just take a smidge of damage and reset to a platform. Being able to stock up on extra lives and keep playing took a lot of the edge off more frustrating fights.

The flamethrower to get armor is a smart third part of the glory kills get health, chainsaw kills get ammo thing. And speaking of ammo, the game's extreme lowering of how much ammo the DOOM SLAYER can carry makes the chainsaw a vital part of this game, as opposed to DOOM 2016, where it was something I only had to break out occasionally. And all the weapons feel good and useful, nothing I never used like 2016, where the pistol and big laser whatever I literally never used. And even the grenades felt useful! The ice grenade was useful! There's a sword now!

And yet, despite all these improvements, not only is Eternal not a better game, it's a worse one. Too much (bad!) lore, combined with bad writing (I still can't believe 2020 saw "mortally challenged" "jokes" all over this game) just killed any interest I had in this series beyond the ripping and tearing. But even beyond that, too much platforming, and worst of all too many enemy encounters that lean on annoying enemies. That one enemy, with the shield, that can only be attacked by baiting him out into a sword swing, is just annoying. Not difficult, annoying. Yeah, I died a lot to them, but only because the extra lives meant I didn't need to entirely restart fights, and by the last handful of levels of the game, I just had lost my patience with that specific enemy, and it was easier to eat the damage and die to get through it faster than try to play along.

And I feel like that's DOOM Eternal in a nutshell. Lots of smart and cool changes to the core, but wrapped in a lot of crud that just drags the whole experience down. At least the grappling hook on the Super Shotgun was cool. I upgraded it to light enemies on fire.

9. Nioh 2

I love these round cats so much.
I love these round cats so much.

This year's Moosies really feels like it's off on a poor start, with what I realize now sounds like three games I was mostly negative on in a row. Which isn't the case, I liked more than I disliked in Genshin and Eternal! But Nioh 2? Only complaint I have here is that it's a bit too similar to the first Nioh. My thought while I was playing it was that it was the most, "they sure made that game again" sequel I'd played in a long time. And even that isn't fair, because there are new abilities and things, all of which help contribute to it being better than the original.

It turns out that being able to play as a custom character (cool purple haired samurai lady) instead of generic anime-Geralt alone made it better. But being able to steal demon abilities, and do cool stuff like demon counters and (I think?) even more depth to the already involved combat helped elevate it too. It could also be that the combat is literally the same as the first game, and I just engaged more with stuff like parrying, or weapons other than the default katanas (the tonfas are SICK). It's been long enough since the first, and that game was kinda forgettable.

I'd even say Nioh 2's story is better, not that it was anything special. But it's a story about two friends who grow close, only to have that friendship driven apart, and, well, I won't spoil it, though this is a game where problems are resolved at the ends of blades, after all. Or tonfa. Seriously, the tonfa are cool, maybe a little OP in some situations, because they're so fast you can stun-lock a lot of human enemies, and...

Suffice it to say, it's a really fun game. Maybe not something that would have cracked my top ten in a better year, but unlike Genshin, I don't really feel like I was scraping to get this one on here. Not amazing praise, I know, but it's really good at what it does.

Nioh 2 also wins:

  • Roundest Cats.
  • Best Pettable Cats.
  • Character Creator of the Year.
  • Tonfas of the Year.

Pokemon of the Year: Beta Wooper.

No Caption Provided

8. Star Wars Squadrons

I neglected to actually copy any screenshots of this game off my PS4, and this was the only one I PlayStation Shared.
I neglected to actually copy any screenshots of this game off my PS4, and this was the only one I PlayStation Shared.

One of my favorite games as a kid was Rogue Squadron II. Between my love of Star Wars (then at a purity I feel was only possible as a kid), and it being a visually stunning GameCube launch game, I just couldn't get enough of it. So much of what I loved about those movies, brought to life before my eyes, and in a really fun flying around space ship type game! Then a few years later there was Rogue Squadron III, which was still good, but never felt like it quite had that same magic.

Now, all these years later, did Star Wars Squadrons manage to evoke that same magic? Not quite, but close enough. While it might lack some of (in my memory) the more interesting mission and level design from Rogue Squadron II, the attention to detail in the ships themselves, and what they're capable of doing is beyond what those old games did. The cockpit only perspective, and redirecting power between subsystems was intimidating at first, but now I feel like an old pro at it. Like the ace pilot the game's supposed to make me feel like, and it's just so much fun.

Even beyond the campaign, I've played a whole bunch of the game online, and done pretty well at it. Or at least well enough that most matches I don't feel like I was completely worked over. I don't mind losing in online games, so long as it feels like I put up a good fight, and managed to hold my own.

To some extent, even just this being a capital G Good Star Wars game is enough to excite that little kid buried deep within me. After years of jokes being made at EA's floundering attempts to make Star Wars games (alongside Disney's floundering attempts to keep Star Wars going (I say this as someone who has liked all the Disney Star Wars movies (except Rise of Skywalker, which was smoldering trash))), it feels like it's starting to finally come together. Battlefront II, no matter how many patches and content additions it took, is a great, really fun game now! Jedi Fallen Order, bugs and framerates (which are probably buttery smooth in backwards compatibility on PS5/Series X) aside, is one of the best Star Wars games ever. And now Squadrons, though it might not be the biggest, or more elaborate Star Wars game ever, in keeping those sights relatively low, hit its target dead on, and is a great time.

Besides, how many other games out there let me space drift and put a wood carving of a Porg in the cockpit?

Star Wars Squadrons also wins:

  • Best Space Drifting.
  • Best Decorative Porg Carving.
  • Game that Most Made Me Wish I had VR.
  • Competitive Multiplayer Game of the Year.
  • MOBA of the Year. No I will not take any further questions on this award.

Expansion of the Year: Warlords of New York (Tom Clancy's The Division 2).

Look at this dog!!
Look at this dog!!

What a brilliant ploy that three dollar sale was. Who wouldn't plop down three bucks just to give a game a shot? I mean, obviously lots of cases I wouldn't, but regardless, Ubisoft managed to get me, and a couple other friends hooked on this game a month before the Warlords expansion, so of course I bought the expansion (along with some of the other DLC before then (hey I got a cool mission in an aquarium, it was worth it)). And it turns out, it was pretty good too! I could spend a lot of time writing about my issues with the themes and tones of Division 2 in general (sure picked a hell of a year to get into a series about a (probably) fascist military group wresting control over a post apocalyptic US ravaged by a viral outbreak), but honestly it was just good to have a shlooter to play in the months after losing interest in Destiny 2. Though, I say that despite the fact that I'd probably be playing Beyond Light now if I had a PS5, but that's neither here nor there.

This was a really good expansion, with a big new area to explore, and some solid missions. The end game ongoing forever shlooter stuff didn't hold my attention (like D2's Shadowkeep didn't), but at least this had enough meat to be worthwhile just to play through once or twice (on my own and with a friend), so I had a great time.

7. Marvel's Avengers

I'm really trying not to reuse screenshots from previous blogs, as you can tell by my having to use a Trophy auto-screenshot.
I'm really trying not to reuse screenshots from previous blogs, as you can tell by my having to use a Trophy auto-screenshot.

What a strange journey this game took to get here. Announced way too early (via some investment call or something YEARS ago??), the initial showing at E3 2019 didn't look great, and all the messaging around it was just so confused. Was it a loot game, or a story focused single player? Both??

And the game itself felt pretty confused about that too. Almost like two separate games duct taped together, but neither one feeling quite as fully polished and put together as it should have. Yet despite all that, I really like it! Still! Kamala's journey from an average girl to a super hero fighting alongside her heroes is still one of the most moving stories I've experienced all year. I know I'm a sucker for this sort of thing (hence why I like superhero stuff so much in general), but I still stand by this being a really good one of those.

Even the loot game stuff, still has its issues, but when I occasionally pop in, it's still fun! The game just needs more variety in stuff to do, places to go, and enemies to fight. The new missions around the new character (Kate Hawkeye) were good, I like the story and where it seems to be going (it ends on kind of a cliffhanger that I assume will get picked up again with the Clint Hawkeye story missions), but now that I've got Kate up to level 50... It feels like I've got nothing to do except wait for the next big patch.

So that's why this game is at this spot on this list. I know I wrote a mostly very positive blog about the game a couple months ago, and I stand by feeling the way I did at the time, but the game still isn't quite where I wished it was. Hopefully it gets there, because every time I read something about it not meeting sales expectations, or not making money back, I just worry Disney's going to pull the plug, and that would be bad for the ongoing story the game is trying to tell, and probably way worse for the dev team(s?) (the way the industry is, I just worry there'd be layoffs or something).

But also here's Cap's butt again, because no one can stop me.
But also here's Cap's butt again, because no one can stop me.

Marvel's Avengers also wins:

  • Best adaptation of a comics character I didn't otherwise know so she felt like a new character to me: Kamala Khan.
  • Best Co-op Game.
  • Best Ass (America's Ass).
  • Biggest Ass (Hulk (sometimes he hunches over in the jet on the way to missions and the camera focuses right in on it)).
  • Best ability to shrink enemies.
  • Award for the game that struggled the most on console but I still enjoyed it anyway, but whoof those framerate and resolution drops.

Game I wish was good enough to have really liked: Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout.

Paul Guys would've been better.
Paul Guys would've been better.

For a brief moment, this game was all anyone could talk about. Or at the very least it felt like it was everywhere, and everyone was talking about it. And heck, I played some of it too, and had a decent amount of fun. I even won once! Only once, but hey, a victory is a victory!

Problem is that Fall Guys, to me at least, is really only fun in the sense of just goofing around with friends. Like, the actual act of moving, and interacting in the game is a hindrance to enjoying it. The moving, jumping, grabbing, is all sluggish and inaccurate enough that sometimes it feels more like I'm suggesting where my Fall Guy goes, rather than having a tight control. And this game might not require the precision that say a Mario game would in its platforming, but it feels like it could use more precision than it has.

So I fell off the game, because I could tell that trying to play it alone would only lead to frustration. Fun game in theory, but not fun enough in reality to crack the top ten list.

6. Yakuza Like a Dragon

Look at these friends!
Look at these friends!

Ah, Yakuza. Like clockwork, like the majestic groundhog seeing its shadow, the changing of the seasons, a new Yakuza has entered our lives, right on schedule. And with more fanfare than ever, at least in the West, what with this one not only launching on multiple consoles at once, but being one of the flagship games Microsoft touted out with Series X support at launch. Of course I don't have one of those so I've just been playing it on my trusty PS4, but aside from a few load times being a little sloggy, I've had no issues technically, not that I was expecting any.

But to be honest, I went into this one kind of expecting to...not like it that much. Even as a long time fan of the series (summer of 2021 will be ten years since I played Yakuza 3 and 4 basically back to back), I'd be lying if I didn't say they tend to be hit or miss. When they hit, they hit hard and are fantastic. Transphobia in the real estate aside, Yakuza 0 is still probably one of my favorites of the generation, and so is Judgment. Kiwami 2 is right up there too! But at their worst? I'm still mad about Yakuza 6's terrible ending. And also the rest of that game being bad.

So the ups and downs of the general quality of the series, combined with trepidations over this being the studio's first attempt at traditional JRPG style combat made me really worry about this game. Would this be another slog like 6? A game that had a lot of good in it, but ultimately buckled under its own weight and poor thematic choices near the end like 5?

Not enough dramatic shirt removals so far.
Not enough dramatic shirt removals so far.

Well, as of this writing I haven't actually finished the game yet, but after a slow start, I've really liked it! Is it irresponsible of me to write about and include a game in my top ten if I'm far from the end of it? Maybe premature, given I'm still sixty plus hours in, but the game would have to fumble a lot of things very badly to get itself taken entirely off this list. Perhaps the placement would differ depending on how I feel after finishing the game, but if anything as of this writing, it should be at a spot higher. Just don't think I can quite put a game in my top five if I didn't actually complete it yet.

The combat, while a lot better than I originally feared, still doesn't quite feel like the best way I can envision doing a turn based version of Yakuza combat. For a variety of reasons I can see why they wanted to just do a JRPG (not least of which being main character Ichiban Kasuga's love of Dragon Quest), but what's in the game just feels like a coat of Yakuza paint over a generic JRPG. Enemies have weaknesses and resistances to certain attack types, but what they are usually feels completely arbitrary. On top of that, I don't think this game has something like Persona where you can pull up a menu mid fight to see what those are. I mean, they lifted the face button menu selection thing straight from Persona 5's combat, they could've taken this too!

In the older Yakuza games/Judgment, there was always some variant of the Heat system. Hit enemies with attacks, build up a meter, and spend some portion of the meter on special attacks. Get them into some sort of elaborate throw, smash their face into a wall, poke them in the butt with a long pole, roll them up into a snowman, there were tons and tons of them, and often they were context sensitive. Like a Dragon instead feels like each character/job type has a decent but not huge selection of these, but only the ones that can be done without needing something like a car door to bash into someone's head, for example.

There's two different complaints I can make about this one thing, actually. The first is that Like a Dragon doesn't have the Heat system at all. Instead of building up a meter and spending it on special moves, it's just MP (Mental Points), and it works like any regular JRPG. Spend it on attacks, and refill it with items (mostly energy drinks instead of potions). Or eat at a restaurant. A few things can regenerate a little MP on melee attacks (weapons for specifics Jobs seem to), but it's not common. Now, there's nothing really wrong with how it works, and managing MP hasn't been a big issue thus far, but it just feels like a big missed opportunity. They could have incorporated what was already in the series, and made this feel more like a JRPG version of Yakuza mechanically, rather than just aesthetically.

Sometimes I just cannot explain what is happening in this game.
Sometimes I just cannot explain what is happening in this game.

The other complaint has to do with the way the area around the characters does and doesn't matter. Like a Dragon is weird in that it's a game where positioning does matter, but you have no control over any of it. Not only that, but both the members of Ichi's party, and all the enemies shuffle around randomly. This can be an issue if you want to do a big sweeping attack that hits one enemy "and everyone near them," but the enemies just happened to move away so I didn't hit nearly as many as I wanted.

Or conversely, in a situation where I was fighting an optional boss (a giant murder Roomba) in the sewers. I got absolutely wrecked and defeated in about two turns because my characters happened to be bunched up in exactly the wrong way during the boss' first two attacks. On my next attempt at that same boss, without leveling or making any changes to my strategy, equipment, etc, that fight was a cakewalk because I got lucky and my characters weren't bunched up.

In most fights it hasn't mattered that much, but I've gotten to what I've heard is the biggest difficulty spike in the game. And let me tell you, that boss fight was hard. Not even because of all the character placement stuff, just plain difficult. In some ways it was kind of refreshing because it made it feel like every single thing I did mattered, but at times it felt kinda cheap. Especially with stuff like a special move that the boss(es) would do that (at least up to this point) was the only enemy attack in the game where I couldn't even hit Circle to reduce the damage taken!

I got off track from the positioning thing, but that's what happens when I wrote most of this prior to hitting that difficulty spike, then had to rewrite my "I haven't gotten to the difficulty spike yet" paragraph. At least what I've played since that boss fight has been a lot more manageable. All that said, the whole dying because of uncontrollable poor placement thing is frustrating when it happens!

Less aggravating, is that the AI pathing can be wonky a lot of the time too. I've seen instances where one character started weirdly behind the rest of the crew (because they all run behind you outside of combat), and then when I pick an enemy and an attack, they'll just run into a wall. For like, five or ten seconds, before eventually sliding along the geometry enough to get free, or even just warping right to the enemy. Nothing game breaking, but still frustrating to see the AI unable to navigate around simple walls.

There's kart racing! It's good!
There's kart racing! It's good!

I've done the thing I don't like doing, but ends up happening every year. I take a game I really like a lot, and focus on the negatives! Quibbles aside, after getting a full party of characters, and leveling them up enough to have a decent slew of attacks, I have been enjoying the combat. Some of the moves are suitably outlandish while still remaining in the realm of a real world modern day setting, like summoning pigeons to attack, or throwing handfuls of thumbtacks. Generally there's been a pretty good balance in terms of the fights feeling enjoyable. Often there's too many groups of enemies roaming about the city, but that was long a complaint of the series anyway.

This game could be better about tutorializing things. I say this mostly because when I originally wrote this, I included a brief bit about how I wished I could swap party members in and out mid fight. Turns out, you can! The game just never told me, and I didn't pay enough attention in the Etc menu in combat to notice. Sometimes even I miss the button prompts! But there's other things, like the whole business management stuff that the game does a poor job of explaining. Specifically the shareholders meetings. I completely flubbed up the first one I did, even with the pages and pages of the game trying to tell me what to do. However, once I actually figured out what to do, I aced every shareholders meeting since.

Then there's the story itself, which again, I haven't finished, but I've been pretty into it. Aside from the game's obsession with insisting a certain character who seemed like a big a-hole wasn't really an a-hole, I've enjoyed the typical Yakuza plotline. Secret schemes, double crossings, elaborate conspiracies, obsessions over real estate, "this person's evil grand plan, that they thought they tricked us into was actually a part of our plan all along, and acting like we got tricked into it was intentional," they're all here, and I hope it keeps my interest to the end! Sixty hours in to what I've heard is an eighty hour game, but who really knows at this point. Wouldn't be surprised if it takes me a hundred at this rate, and this is after every previous Yakuza/Judgment weirdly taking me almost exactly sixty hours. That's with the side quests too.

Like I said, beyond explanation.
Like I said, beyond explanation.

And those side quests... These may be the most ridiculous and outlandish ones the series has seen yet. Even if they're not, they've been a delight, and gotten quite a few laughs out of me. I've done everything from help a little girl try to raise money for her sick brother's medical bills, to using the power of the world's spiciest kimchi to help a little old lady cross the street in record time, to fighting a loose chimp behind the controls of an excavator.

On top of the regular side quests, since this is a party based JRPG, that means there's a party along with Ichi for the journey. And, let's say like another JRPG set in modern day Japan, you can rank up your relationships with them (no dating as far as I can tell, at least not with the party). They all have their own little side quest chain, and I've greatly enjoyed helping them along with all their problems. If anything has been made clear by my blogs over the last couple years, is that I'm a sucker for having friends in video games, and this is that!

The minigames are fun too! It has the usual assortment of Sega arcade games (though truth be told I'm getting a little tired of Virtua Fighter 5 and Space Harrier), and amongst all the other usuals, there's a surprisingly good kart racer, and the triumphant return of karaoke! After its absence in Judgment (apparently due to the Japanese actor for Yagami being a professional singer who charges extra money to sing), I love that it's back here. Even in the English dub too (of course I'm playing it in English, don't act surprised, Nioh 2 is the only game I've chosen to play in Japanese lately, haha). It was a bit weird finally knowing what the words of Baka Mitai mean, but let me tell you, Hot Pot Party...is a classic. Amazing, impeccable. I'm sure it's great in Japanese too, I'll have to look up the Japanese karaoke at some point.

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My only complaint with the dub is that a couple iconic characters from the older games have had cameos here, and I'm not going to say their English performances are bad, so much as just not the same. The thing happened that I thought would, which is that I so strongly associate them with their Japanese voices that any other voice just doesn't sound right. I'm sure the same thing would have happened if they were in Japanese but recast with someone else. But aside from those couple of (so far) brief cameos, I've enjoyed the dub. It's maybe a bit goofier overall than Judgment's, but that could be because this game feels goofier overall, and has more voice acting in the side quests.

That's Yakuza Like a Dragon. Maybe if the ending is terrible I'll end up souring on it, or maybe if it's great I'll regret not putting it higher on the list. Or maybe I finished the game before finishing this and cut this section out! Likely not if you're reading this. It's not the best in the series, but based on where I'm at, I'd say it's in the upper half of the pack, and I've been having a great time.

Yakuza Like a Dragon also wins:

  • Best Karaoke Song: Hot Pot Party.
  • Weirdest Enemy Type: Those guys disguised as trash bags.
  • Best Hair: Ichiban Kasuga.
  • Best Kart Racing.
  • Best Summons.
  • Chicken of the Year: Omelette.
  • Best/Most Absurd Side Quests.
  • Best Chimpanzee, Tiger, and Bear.
  • Business Management of the Year.
  • Best Reference by Name to the Dreamcast and VMU.

Sony® PlayStation® 5 Presents The PlayStation® 5 Game I Should Have Played but Couldn't: Astro's Playroom.

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Gosh I wish this was actually sponsored by Sony. And by "sponsored by," I mean they would just give me a PS5 since it's impossible to be fast enough to actually get one.

Anyway! Every year I take a moment to write about the one particular game I really regret not playing, and often the reasoning is the same it is this year. I lack some bit of hardware, basically. This year, I was torn between Astro and Miles, and while I'm sure the story of Miles will make that more endearing to me in the long run, right now, in this FOMO moment?

I want to hold that DualSense™. I want to feel those rumbles, and pull those triggers! And from the sound of things, there's no game that better shows off these new features than Astro's Playroom. I know that eventually when there is enough supply that people who aren't algorithms can actually order a PS5, this'll be the first game I play.

Runner up: Marvel®'s Spider-man™ Miles Morales.

5. Ghost of Tsushima

This game is gorgeous.
This game is gorgeous.

The wind twisting through trees, along wide open fields, tufts of grass blowing along with it, there is a beauty to the landscape of this game that really captivated me. I almost called it a natural beauty, but every time the sun lined up just right behind a line of trees, that incredible sunset glowing so bright, it just looked so good that it felt like it transcended what would actually be possible. If that makes any sense at all. But there is something about the look of this game, about how everything reacts to the ever present wind, to the way the the leaves blow in that wind, the way the sun lights up everything in its path, that's just gorgeous.

A large portion of my time with Ghost of Tsushima was spent simply admiring the beauty of its nature. Slowly moseying through a quiet forest on my faithful steed Sora (the horse). Climbing up the peak of a mountain, and stopping to see the islands stretch out as far as the eyes can see. Playing a beautiful melody on the flute, gazing as the clouds drift by. Walking along the beach, watching the waves roll up and down, crabs scurrying about their business. Wishing I could relax in the hot springs like Jin, just free to soak it all in, experiencing pure bliss as those golden orange rays wash over as the sun sets.

That wind, the way the game uses it as the means to direct to the next objective (or whatever random spot marked on the map), is such a simple, but wonderful way to convey that info. I've long been vocal about my dislike for minimaps. Any game designed in such a way that you have to spend lots of it staring at a small map in the corner of the screen to know where you're going, rather than the lush, enormous world that people spent years crafting, I think that's a big mistake. I'm fine with icons in the world, or even something like the glowing breadcrumb trail from the Fable games, but having the wind guide you is so smart. It's subtle enough to not look intrusive, yet ever present, and obvious enough that it's easy to follow.

So much time spent just following that wind, wherever it took me...

I wish saving animated gifs on PS4 was easier because it loses a lot not seeing it in motion.
I wish saving animated gifs on PS4 was easier because it loses a lot not seeing it in motion.

As much as I would have really liked Ghost of Tsushima the nature appreciation game, it turns out it's also a really good open world action game with the appropriate amount of stealth peppered in for that extra modern game zest. It doesn't do anything revolutionary, but even in a genre that I've played countless times before, and will countless times again (most likely), if it does all the things I expect it to well, I'll have a good time. Obviously I really enjoyed exploring the world, but all the rest of the pieces fit together well too.

The combat finds a good middle ground between the very fast and precise design of its olde timey Japan contemporaries (Nioh 1/2, Sekiro), and the loosey goosey just do whatever you want of Assassin's Creed. You can certainly parry and perfect dodge your way through this game (I imagine you'd have to on "Lethal" difficulty), but even playing on Hard (what I settled on) was enough to be a fun challenge, but give me sufficient slack to not stress myself out in the way that say Sekiro did. Even if that was a good stress (I love From games), I think Tsushima's combat found the middle ground it needed to.

The most noteworthy thing about the combat/stealth, is that sometimes enemies will just get terrified of you. Not just randomly, there's certain abilities and things that can cause it, and gear to help boost the chances of it. I like this mainly because I think it's super unrealistic how in 99% of games with human enemies, they always fight to the last person, and never surrender. That's just not how these things work, people surrender, they run away, etc. Maybe they don't always get the chance to, but it's something I've noticed over the last couple years, and I appreciate the rare instances that a game has enemies do something other than just fight to the death.

And it plays into the story too. Jin Sakai, having narrowly avoided death multiple times, starts to become a folk hero, a living legend amongst the people of Tsushima. The Ghost, they call him. And while he becomes a symbol for the people of Tsushima to rally behind, he becomes a symbol of terror to the invading Mongols. It's striking to be fighting these enemies that speak only Mongolian for the bulk of the game, then suddenly hear them exclaim "GHOST" upon seeing Jin.

Let me tell you, it's pretty fun to start tearing into a group of enemies, and have the remnants scatter because they're so terrified of me. Or, more accurately, terrified of The Ghost.

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But back to the story, again, nothing revolutionary happening, but I did find it weirdly refreshing that the game's tone was as serious as it was. Maybe it's just because the rest of the game is so easy to compare with Assassin's Creed, but Tsushima trying to take everything seriously just felt different to those swaggering, goofy romps. I don't think Tsushima lands everything it tries to do, and I think what it does do it does better in the side quest chains involving the named characters than in the main narrative, but I liked it. It's not grim-dark edgy serious like some games, but it treats war, all the casualties it brings, and the horrible things it makes people on both sides do with a level of seriousness I didn't expect.

Of course it's still a game about a single dude murdering his way through an entire Mongol army (at least mechanically, even if the story is a lot of trying to recruit people to the cause), so I wouldn't call it realistic, but it works.

I had so many images I wanted to include but I don't really have the space for them.
I had so many images I wanted to include but I don't really have the space for them.

Plus, it has the ability to manually bow. Show respect to those who have departed this mortal coil, apologize to dead bears, or even bow to frog statues and have dozens of frogs appear out of thin air. And you can pet the foxes!

What a great game.

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Friend.
Friend.

Addendum! After writing this I tried the multiplayer mode with a friend, and that's good too! Plus you can pet the ghost dog. Also there are ghost dogs.

Ghost of Tsushima also wins:

  • Photo Mode of the Year.
  • Windiest Game.
  • Best Pettable Foxes.
  • Best Pettable Ghost Dogs.
  • Best Horse (Sora).
  • Best Sunsets/Sunrises.
  • Best Leaves.
  • Best Use of Bees.
  • BioForge Presents the Award for Best Flute Playing.
  • Best Frog Based Easter Egg.

Old Ongoing Game I Should Have Gotten into Sooner: Warframe

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A lot of the early part of 2020 for me was defined by trying to fill the Destiny shaped hole in my life. As much as that sounds like I'm jesting, I'm really not. There's kinda two types of games I find myself playing the most. Big single player games that usually take up a lot of time that I really want to immerse myself in, and games that I can just kinda play and use to fill time while I'm catching up on the podcasts I can never keep up with (I haven't listened to Friends at the Table since the Hieron finale in 2019, for example). And Destiny (2) really has been one of the best games for that over the years. But, well I don't need to go into why Shadowkeep was such a bummer for the umpteenth time, but it was. So I turned to other games to fill that hole in my life.

Of the ones I tried, Warframe was the best of them. It certainly has its issues, a lot of which stem from it being a game built upon layers and layers of cruft and junk, and sifting through all that can feel impossible. And beyond frustrating when I want to try to craft a new Warframe, only to be rebuffed when the first material I try to get is only gotten from a specific activity that you need to be at max rank with a faction I've never heard of to even do, let alone probably a minuscule drop rate.

But in terms of the lore, the setting, the aesthetic, the game itself, I think Warframe is pretty great. Great enough that I thought it deserved a special mention here, despite it not being a 2020 release.

4. Paper Mario: The Origami King

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Back when I was a kid, and reading about the original Paper Mario, there was something that eluded my grasp. The term "turn based combat" was totally alien to me. Was there something that physically turned? But after I started the game, I quickly realized, "oh, you take turns!" Listen, I was nine or ten, don't make fun of me! Of course I loved the game, and later loved Thousand Year Door even more, and even had a great time with Super Paper Mario, despite all that turn based combat replaced with turning the world from 2D sidescrolling to 3D running around.

After that, I didn't touch another Paper Mario, until this year. And you know what?

Young me is finally vindicated, because Origami King has combat that is based around TURNING. Physically turning (and sliding) the arena to reposition enemies! The most literal turn based combat. In all seriousness, it might not be the return of the traditional combat that all us Thousand Year Door die-hards wanted, but it's a lot more original, and creative. It certainly left me wracking my brain, especially during the (mostly) fantastic boss fights in ways that the combat certainly hasn't in any other game I can think of.

The combat really is neat.
The combat really is neat.

Really though, like the past games in the series, the combat is fun enough, if repetitive, but that's not the thing that got it to the fourth spot on this list. If that's all it had going for it, it'd still be here, it was kind of a weaker year, after all. The most endearing part of the game is the writing. The story, characters, and all the goofy little jokes and gags from the NPCs along the way are what got this game really into my heart.

Origami King isn't just the most delightful game I played all year, it was also exactly the right game I needed at the right moment. I impulse bought a Switch when I did because it was the exact wrong intersection of me having the money for it, there being enough in stock after months of shortages (otherwise the Animal Crossing FOMO would've wrangled me months sooner), and the impending release of a certain game about a certain FBI Special Agent that I won't mention by name again. Mario Odyssey, which I got with my Switch was also a delightful romp, but that other game was, well, I won't repeat myself.

Problem was it left me regretting that I spent hundreds of dollars on a console for a game that was bad, even if the other game I had at the time was great. "But I could have just kept waiting, gotten an actual deal, or the mythical Switch Pro," etc. All the typical bad thoughts I think after feeling like I made a blunder with my money.

Then, the universe smiled upon me, and out came Origami King, a new Switch release that not only helped me better justify spending that money, but was also everything I wanted from that other game, but actually done well. Okay, not a murder mystery, but the charm, the humor, the quirky characters, Origami King had them all! It helped raise my spirits and mood more than just about anything else I played all year, and for that, I'll long be grateful to this game.

BURN WITH ME
BURN WITH ME

All that said, there were still a few things I wish for better. Chief among them the bizarre decision Nintendo made at some point to severely limit what these games can do in terms of new characters. Olivia, the ditzy but lovable character accompanying Mario along the journey is wonderful, but she and her nefarious brother Oliver (the titular Origami King) are the only new named characters in the game. Sure, Bobby the Bob-omb is charming, and had a surprising heart-wrenching story of his own, but he's just a Bob-omb. Even the name "Bobby" was a nickname Olivia gave him, and he keeps insisting his name is just "Bob-omb."

Thinking back on how many weird, goofy, and hilarious characters were in those older games, it's pretty disappointing that all we get here are a collection of mostly generic Toads, Shy Guys, Bob-ombs, etc. The most original one amongst them is a sea captain named "Captain T. Ode." So, I guess technically he'd be a third new named character, but even that felt like they were pulling a fast one on Nintendo itself.

That, and the game starts to drag a little in the final hours, mostly in the combat, but otherwise it was an absolute delight. And there were a couple moments in the game that made me feel genuinely sad when the game wanted to evoke that tearjerker mood. All the laughter I expected, but that, I did not.

I keep repeating myself, but it really is one of the most delightful games I've played in a very long time, and weak year or not, it'd be one of my favorite games regardless of whatever year I played it in.

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Paper Mario The Origami King also wins:

  • Most Delightful Game of the Year.
  • Best "Turn-Based" Combat.
  • Best Papercrafts.
  • Funniest Game of the Year.
  • Most Monetary Inflation.
  • Game that Featured Luigi of the Year.
  • Best Song and Dance Routine Involving Koopas Vying for Birdo's Love.
  • Most Creative Boss Fights (Legion of Stationary).
  • Most Inexplicably Ripping Guitars in the Music (particularly the first time Mario drives the shoe car).
  • Best Seafaring.
  • Bob-omb of the Year: Bobby.
  • New Character of the Year: Olivia.

The Moosies 2020 Old Games of the Year Part 1: The Last Guardian.

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Every year I end up catching up on a bunch of older games released in years prior, and I'm glad I had plenty of older ones this year to fill those very long gaps between 2020 releases. At one point, quite a few years ago now, I even did a whole separate Moosies awards just for older games. Didn't quite do that this year, but in filling a few gaps in this lineup caused by my literally not playing enough 2020 games, I've decided to highlight not one, but three older games that really grabbed me this year. I guess four if you count Warframe, but I came up with this idea after writing that section, plus that is a forever game that got new content this year, but that's all beside the point.

The first of these games being The Last Guardian. I'm not going to dwell on this, I wrote plenty about it months ago, but the story about a little kid and their giant animal companion learning to trust each other, and becoming close friends still pulls at my heartstrings just thinking about it now. It's a really frustrating game at times, for a variety of reasons, but the parts that work just work wonders. Trico is big, and strong, and my friend, and I love them!

3. Hades

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Of all the games this year, Hades may be the one that was the hardest for me to figure out what to say about it. Not for lack of things that I like about it, clearly I wouldn't rank it so highly otherwise. Just a combination of the discourse around it being so good at integrating story into rogue-like-lite design feeling so recent, as does my botched attempt to write about the game from a couple months ago.

But I do feel the need to reiterate (or perhaps just iterate?) how good of a rogue-like-lite it really is, even just to play. It might not have nearly the same quantity of variety as a lot of others in the genre, but it more than makes up for that in quality. On the surface only six weapons sounds like a meager offering, but between the different aspects having their own effects, and all the different temporary upgrades along the way, a weapon can feel very different at the end of a run than it does normally.

And that's not even getting into all the godly powers that get bestowed along the way. A Zeus heavy chain lightning build can feel a lot different than one built around giving status effects like Drunk or Doom via melee attacks. Of course, there's no reason (other than luck) why they can't be the same build, and there's just so many different combinations that I certainly couldn't think of them all off the top of my head.

It's such a tight, fun game, that at least up until the late game "make this as hard as you want" modifiers come into play, any time I screwed up it felt like I had screwed up. At least until I got to my first big stumbling block, that dynamic duo, Theseus and Asterius. These two, literally mocking me (at least Theseus was) as I tried again and again, failing almost every time, just banging my head against their ripped, muscular wall. Even when I did rarely get past them, it just felt like I happened upon the exact right build, and I cheesed my way through.

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For a while there, I was starting to lose interest in the game, feeling like that buff wall was insurmountable. But I assure you, I stuck with it, and eventually mounted them- That came out wrong, but I'll leave it in. The point is, I realized that I'd let myself get too sloppy. I wasn't paying close enough attention to what I was doing, what those two bosses were doing in the fight. Just flailing around wildly, acting purely on instinct.

So when I took a step back, thought about the fight, what the two of them did, how the arena was set up, I figured out a plan. I'd separate the two, use the pillars as cover, and whittle down Asterius whilst avoiding Theseus' spear. And you know what?

It worked, and suddenly that wall felt like nothing. Suddenly I was the one clowning on them, laughing at Theseus' mistakes while I ran circles around them. Even if there was another stumbling block between me and my first complete run (let's say its name starts with "Ha" and ends with "des"), but that was just another case of stopping and reevaluating my strategy until I finally figured it out, and for a good while there, it felt like I had mastered the game.

Of course all those difficulty modifiers eventually got the best of me, but by then I'd finished the story, and pretty much everything else that I really wanted to see and do. Still never caught a legendary fish, despite catching HUNDREDS of them, but I'm sure Poseidon will understand.

Suffice it to say, I think Hades is an exceptional action game, but the way it hands out story bit by bit, the way the narrative is built entirely around the idea of dying and resurrecting is absolutely brilliant. So brilliant I'm shocked it took this long for a rogue-like-lite to incorporate. Or at least to do as well as Hades did it. The only place it stumbles, and probably one of the main reasons why this game isn't even higher on my list, is that I don't think the main narrative goes anywhere interesting. Ultimately I had the realization that its story is just a retelling of a Greek myth, but not a particularly interesting one. "What if this Greek myth explaining a meteorological phenomenon had our OC in it?"

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I almost feel mean reducing it that much, because the most enduring thing about the game really is the characters, especially that "original character" himself, Zagreus (though I guess technically there was some obscure figure named Zagreus in Greek myth, just like how technically there was a Kratos, but you get what I mean). What Supergiant did with taking the familiar faces of Greek myth (and a few more obscure ones), giving them incredible new visual designs, applying their usual craft for great writing, and for the first time a full voice cast (special props to Supergiant regular Logan Cunningham for voicing so many characters here), it all comes together to make every one of them just about the best reinterpretation of these characters that I can think of.

And they even managed to find a good middle ground between the overly sanitized/kid friendly version of Greek myth taught in school (or at least my middle school social studies class), and the brutal, often gross reality. Though, saying, "Do you think Zeus really slept with that many people or is just bragging," is kinda, well... I shouldn't get bogged down in wondering if it's in bad taste to re-write a serial sexual predator in that way given, again, these are all just reinterpretations of literal myth.

This is what happened in that other blog I tried writing, just got stuck on stuff like that!

But something I do appreciate is that while it's a little buried in side stories, it doesn't shy away from the queerness of the olde timey Greeks. Or, probably more accurately, such things weren't really taboo in the way that in a lot of ways they still are today. Though I'm no ancient Greek scholar, please feel free to correct me on the history of the gays if anyone reading this is. But still, I appreciate that half of the (two) romances in the game are queer. The side story involving Achilles and his lost love Patroclus is probably the best in the game. I appreciate that Artemis is the pitch perfect, "I don't talk about it with the relatives but I spend all my time with my girlfriend and all the other gays we know," lesbian.

If anything I just wish there was more of that, but I'll take what I can get. Same thing with Chaos being the only they/them pronouns character, I personally would have liked there to be a nonbinary character who wasn't as strange a mythological entity as them, but hey, better than nothing.

What I've written about here this game has been scatter shot, a jumbled mess, but I think I've conveyed my feelings on it. It's a great rogue-like-lite with some really great characters in it. I just wish the main story had been up to snuff.

Hades also wins:

  • Rogue-like-lite of the Year.
  • Best Canonical Gay Ship of the Year: Thanatos x Zagreus (ThanZag).
  • Rock of the Year: Bouldy.
  • DOOM-esque Soundtrack of the Year.
  • Best Pettable Dog (Friend) of the Year: Cerberus.
  • Best Instance of a Character Interacting with the Narrator.
  • Best Character Designs.
  • Best New Protagonist: Zagreus.
  • Voice Actor of the Year: Logan Cunningham, for voicing like half the characters.

The Moosies 2020 Old Games of the Year Part 2: The MISSING: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories.

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This game, probably the most noteworthy thing Swery has worked on outside of Deadly Premonition (sorry to all the Spy Fiction stans out there), just feels so much like it fell out of a parallel universe now. Despite it being from a cisgender director, and presumably mostly (if not entirely, for all I know) cis studio, it's probably the single best game I've ever played about a trans character, and a trans story. Granted that's about as low bar to meet as there is (mostly my own fault for not spending more time playing truly independent games made by trans people), but that doesn't diminish or change what this story is about.

Textually it's about a trans woman coming to terms with herself, with the help of her loving girlfriend, but mechanically it's about healing from all the pains and wounds that life throws at you. That no matter how hard things get, you can always work through it, keep going until things get better, and it resonates with me. A lot!

That moment late in the game, when it finally clicked (granted it was when the game explicitly called it out, which I think is kinda funny) and I realized how well those themes were integrated into the game itself, and the game just felt special in a way that most don't. Lots of games tell great, and impactful stories, but usually those stories feel disconnected from what you're doing in the game. Or they're games that are basically nothing but story. And those are all fine, but like I said, when it all comes together and works, it feels special.

Despite my being a few years late to the party on this one, I just had to write a little bit more about it. Especially when I fear it may end up having been the last good, or noteworthy game from Swery. Just, if you play it, take the warning at the front of the game seriously, it does get pretty dark and serious, especially toward the end (but don't worry, the ending is good, trust me). And also the part where it's a puzzle platformer isn't great, but it's worth seeing through to the end.

2. Final Fantasy VII Remake

What a perfect encapsulation of this game.
What a perfect encapsulation of this game.

From Resident Evil to Crash Bandicoot, from Tony Hawk to this, we've entered an era of the late 90s PS1 games getting full on remakes. Not just HD remasters, full remakings ranging from basically the same game but with entire graphical overhauls (Crash), to some mechanical adjustments (Tony Hawk, I presume). Resident Evil 2 (and 3, which I didn't play, only watched Abby play) was basically an entirely new game that just happened to use the same locations and major story beats from the original, and RE2 felt like a fantastic reinvention that the series needed (and immediately squandered in 3).

But Final Fantasy VII Remake? This game, so far as I'm concerned, is the best remake in the history of remakes, and it only covers a small portion of what was in the original game! I say this because it's not only a complete reinvention of that original game mechanically, it doesn't just expand upon the original story with more depth, more time spent to better flesh out the characters, whether they're main cast or side characters. It does all that, while using this framework as a springboard to both tell a new version of that story, while in a wild metatexual-y way, even has something to say about the people who wanted this remake to be nothing but a straight retelling of the original.

Most importantly, it works. All this would be for naught if the game didn't work for both fans of the original, and new players, like myself. Obviously I can't speak for every person who played the original, but at least anecdotally it sounded like most long time fans loved this game every bit as much as the newcomers like myself. And I just need to take a second to step back and applaud the developers for walking such an impossible tightrope and still managing to make everyone happy with the end result.

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I could sit here and write out my few gripes with some of the sloggy dungeons, and the uninspired side quests, and sure, that stuff makes the game drag in spots. That's mostly because the rest of the game is so good. I had zero attachment to any of the characters from this game before playing, and now I'm one hundred percent bought in. I went from, "Oh, Cloud has the pointy hair and Aeris is the one who [SPOILERS]," to, "Cloud is my tragic child and two or three games from now if anything happens to Aerith I will bawl my eyes out." Okay, maybe I never actually thought the words "Cloud is my tragic child" but you get what I mean. Aside from Barret's writing being kinda black stereotype-y (or a lot, I'm too white to say, but you know), all the characters are fantastic. And even Barret, he has some of the best lines in the entire game.

"A good man who serves a great evil is not without sin. He must recognize and acknowledge his complicity. He must open his eyes to the truth--that his corporate masters are profiting from the planet's pain."

Thank you Barret, for giving me this perfect segue into the thing about this game most resonant in this moment. Yes, I know I went into all this stuff months ago when I first wrote about the game, but seeing the governments of the world (well mostly the US but not solely) only continue to kowtow to corporate interests, seeing them refuse to take any serious or significant action on literally any issue of real importance, whether that be the environment, or anything around the pandemic, it really just drives home how screwed up everything is. And damn, if a game about people taking it into their own hands and bringing the fight literally against the evil corporation doesn't only feel somehow even more resonant now than it did this past spring. Amazing how that can happen, huh?

I still don't understand Eggs & Chips.
I still don't understand Eggs & Chips.

Even if this game wasn't the best AAA big budget cyberpunk game of the year with it being thematically consistent about these sorts of things, and having something to say about them, it'd still be a fantastic game to play. While I haven't actually played it since I finished it and wrote about it months ago, I've been thinking about the combat systems a lot lately, because of Yakuza Like a Dragon. Like a Dragon is a great game overall, don't get me wrong, but while I do enjoy its straight up JRPG design, compared to how FFVII Remake so masterfully fuses real time combat and menu driven move selection, Like a Dragon just feels like a missed opportunity to better feel like a JRPG version of Yakuza combat, rather than just a JRPG.

It might not have the same level of combo-driven depth as a game completely devoted to combat (though I've got high expectations for FF XVI given one of the combat designers from Dragon's Dogma and DMC 5 is working on it), but FFVII Remake is not only super fun in the moment, the game is so smartly designed that you really need to use all its systems to succeed. I've played games that try to be both a real time action game, and have some pick moves from menus stuff, but it never gels right. And the games never ask enough of the players to demand it all be used, but here?

This game just has so many thrilling, incredible boss fights. Duels atop skyscrapers, desperate fights against snarling beasts, tussles with mechanical monstrosities, and a battle against malevolent architecture! There's tons of wild, weird, and super fun fights in this game, and none of them feel like retreads of the same thing. Not to say that every one has a unique gimmick, but they all feel different enough, and enough of them require you do different things to open up their weaknesses, stun them for bonus damage, to just avoid their huge attacks, that I'm struggling to think of a game in recent memory that felt this varied with its bosses.

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And on top of all that, it's got four playable characters, two of which feel great in everything they do (the two melee ones, Cloud and Tifa), and the other two, well, the ranged combat is maybe the one lacking piece of the puzzle. But both Barret and Aerith have more than enough useful skills that they're vital for success (at least when they're in the party). And switching between them all mid fight, whether to spend some time kicking butt with Tifa, or just to pop off a specific skill at the right moment, it all just works, and feels spot on.

I'm sure I'm just retreading everything I wrote months ago, but those months have only made me appreciate just about every aspect of this game even more than I did then. The mark of a truly great game is that when I think about it, put those thoughts into words, I come away thinking, "I should play that again." And I'm sure I will at some point, but probably a bit closer to whenever Final Fantasy VII Remake 2 is actually announced, and releasing.

Out of everything coming in the next...who knows how many years, how the rest of this remake series is handled is probably the thing I'm most curious about. This one really surpassed my every expectation, and I just want to continue this adventure so much. I know bits and pieces of what happened in the original from osmosis over the years, from listening to spoilercasts for this, but no one outside the people working on them really know what's in store. Will my theories be true? Will the reality be something weirder, something no one saw coming?

I know I'm excited to see whatever is next, and come what may, I'll see Cloud, Aerith, Barret, and Tifa through to the end. Check back in to see if it really does make me cry like FFXV's ending did.

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Final Fantasy VII Remake also wins:

  • Best Reimagined Soundtrack.
  • Most Cats.
  • Best Divekicking.
  • Best Lines of Dialog About Corporations and "Good People" Serving Them.
  • Best Robot/Mecha Design.
  • Biggest Swords.
  • Best Robot House: Hell House.
  • Best Song and Dance Routine Involving Cross-Dressing (in a way that I found cute rather than transphobic like I originally feared).
  • Best Minigun Arm.
  • Longest Staircases.
  • Bess Boss Fights.
  • Best End Boss/End Boss Music.
  • Best Parrying.
  • Best Folding Chair Attack.
  • Combat System of the Year.
  • AAA Cyberpunk Game of the Year.

The Moosies 2020 Old Games of the Year Part 3: Pyre.

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Thinking about Pyre, and writing about it sandwiched between FFVII Remake and, well you'll see soon enough, but I've realized there's a pretty strong theme shared amongst the games that had the biggest impacts on me this year. Not exactly the same, Pyre isn't going after an evil corporation so much as the evils of a totalitarian society, but it's close enough.

Pyre, the one Supergiant game I came to years late, tells the tale of an unnamed, unseen protagonist helping a group of people wronged by society, outcast into a beautiful hellscape, find their way back up to the surface. Eventually, without spoiling too much, help them work toward righting those societal wrongs, and if everything goes according to plan, maybe even bring about a full revolution.

The story, the writing, and the characters are all so spot on, but then factor in all the ways that things can go differently, how characters won't stay with you for the whole journey, and how all of that is directly from your choices. The game literally makes you choose who to give up, who to let go, who is more important to have them leave than to have them with you still.

I had to make some really, really difficult choices throughout Pyre. And even though I got the best possible ending, that didn't make it any easier. Didn't make it still hurt at the end knowing that a few had to be left behind. That one person in particular never got to actually see the fruits of all he worked for in person, with his own eyes...

I may not have especially cared for the sports game part of Pyre, but it was never difficult enough to get in the way, or hamper such a fantastic story. I could go on and on about this and that, but it wasn't even a game released in 2020, and frankly I think people should just play it if they haven't. See the story for yourself, make your own decisions. Trust me, if you skipped out on this game, and especially if you're also itching for more Supergiant style storytelling after Hades, please give Pyre your time. It takes a few hours to get going, but it's well worth it.

1. The Moosies 2020 Game of the Year: Persona 5 Royal.

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You really never see it coming, huh? Bought this game almost on a whim, the third in a "buy two get one free" deal. Telling myself, "well, if I don't like it, at least it was basically free." Yet here I am, with this miserable year coming to a close, and this having been the game that left the biggest impact on me. Flaws and all, capital P Problematic elements or not, it's my game of the year.

Despite all that, it's also the one that I'm having the hardest time writing about. For real this time. At least writing this second time, I certainly spilled my heart about it closer to when I finished it. How hard (like other games this year!) its story about going against people who abuse their power hit me this year. About what a deep sense of nostalgia and longing it gave me for my younger years, despite knowing all too well how miserable I was in high school, and college.

How much all those characters meant to me in the immediate aftermath of the game. And now, they all still mean so much. All the goofs, all the heartwarming moments, all the adventures had together. Part of me wants to go down and list each one, but I already did that months ago.

You know, that's something I run into every year when I write these things. I always feel like I'm repeating myself, and I never have any idea how much people actually remember what I wrote earlier in the year. If they even read it at all. That, and I always feel like I'm defending my choices. Like I'm writing an essay, just trying to make a foolproof argument that the teacher can't poke any holes in, and disprove that this really is my game of the year.

Or maybe I'm just thinking about school again, because of this game.

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And granted, it certainly has a few things that really stick out as being Capital B Bad. How it undermines its own themes in parts, and can be just plain gross. I'm not defending or excusing those parts of the game so much as saying that in the 151 hours I spent with it, a few things (mostly optional/relating to the romance stuff) weren't enough to ruin my time with the game. We all like things with issues, just a matter of where we draw our lines, and acknowledging when the things we like have things we don't like in them.

But back to the things I do like about it. I said it somewhere earlier here, but I'll repeat myself. If you really want to make a game stick with me, fill it with endearing characters, and just let me spend a lot of time with them. Let me immerse myself in that world, let me feel like I'm really growing closer to them. Growing with them over the course of whatever the main story is. Whether it's a road trip with the bros, fight against the upper echelons of organized crime/the government in Japan, fighting against an evil corporation sucking the world dry, or just going to school with friends. And fighting the government of Japan, again. Starting to get a feeling maybe there's some corruption in there that needs to be dealt with.

And you know what the funny thing is? I've been so bought into that world, into those characters specifically, that maybe the game I'm most looking forward to playing in the near future is Persona 5 Strikers. You know, the Persona 5 Musou (Dynasty Warriors) game. Have I ever played a Dynasty Warriors? Nope! Ever played a Musou style game set in a different universe? Does the Age of Calamity demo count? The point I'm making, is that even if the game part is replaced with a generic hack and slash, I just want to spend more time with those characters. See whatever goofy hijinks they get up to, because in no way am I expecting it to be anything other than charming fan service. And yeah, I mean fan service both in the positive way (like hearing an old joke for the hundredth time, yet it's somehow still funny), and the negative (I bet there's another beach scene). Of course I say all that knowing that the Persona 5 dancing game exists, yet I have no desire to play that, so I dunno.

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But real talk, so many things from this game still just elicit immediate feelings from me. I see some fan art of characters, and I remember everything I loved about them from the game. I hear some music, and it brings me straight back to how I felt in the game, whether that's amping up for a big heist, or just chilling in the streets of Tokyo. And I hear that music a lot, because I've got it in my regular rotation of writing music. There's one particular song, one of the ones that plays when just walking about between areas, that's become one I listen to if I need something to just help my relax. It brings me back to walking the streets of fictional Tokyo, just...letting my mind go blank, and forget all my worries for a little while.

I've been so up in my feelings about the game that I almost forgot to even write about the part where it's a JRPG! And a pretty good one, I think. Granted a lot of what makes that part of the game work is that the styyyyyle really is ramped up so dang high, but I still think some of the mechanics are super cool. Like being able to combo from one character to another after exploiting enemies' weaknesses. I wish Like a Dragon had something like that, honestly. It would make weaknesses matter a lot more, for sure. Plus the fact that (after unlocking it) I can swap party members in and out during fights makes everyone useful, which is a feature I think every party based game should have in the future. I hope the Final Fantasy VII Remake devs are paying attention.

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And the whole capturing more Personas thing, as much as it sounds like I'm joking, it really evokes a good Pokémon feeling in me. I know I haven't played a Proper Pokémon since the nineties, but I'd be lying if I didn't get a certain "gotta catch them all" vibe from Persona 5. Not that I did catch, or fuse them all, but any time a new one popped up, I definitely went out of my way to try to get it.

The point being that even if the characters and story are the things that stuck with me the most in Persona 5 Royal, all the JRPG parts really clicked together and worked too. I'm sure I would have also enjoyed Persona 5 if it was just a visual novel, but few things got me as excited this year as hearing the heist music kick in. Knowing that it was now or never, and it damn well be now.

This write up, this final recap on the game has been a mess, but that feels appropriate in its own weird way. It was a messy, bad year, and the game that hit me the hardest was one that just let me lose myself in it. One about a group of misfits putting their all into fixing a broken society, all while trying to make the best of their broken lives.

Most of all it's a game about friendship, and I can't think of anything better to build a game around. Or a better one to be my game of the year for 2020.

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Persona 5 Royal also wins:

  • Most Styyyyyyylish Game.
  • Pokémon Game of the Year.
  • Most/Best Friends.
  • Boisterous Friend of the Year: Ryuji.
  • Talking Cat/Automobile/Helicopter Friend of the Year: Morgana.
  • Supportive Friend of the Year: Ann.
  • "He's trying his best" Friend of the Year: Mishima.
  • Extremely Queer-Coded (in a good way if the game would actually let its characters be queer) Starving Artist Friend of the Year: Yusuke.
  • Motorcycle Riding Smarty Pants Friend of the Year: Makoto.
  • Nerd Friend/Surrogate Little Sister of the Year: Futaba.
  • Shy Rich Girl Who Really Should Have Footed the Bill More Often Friend of the Year: Haru.
  • "I have too much on my plate and too much anxiety over not being good enough" Friend of the Year: Kasumi.
  • Coffee Dad (also friend) of the Year: Sojiro.
  • "You love to hate him" "Friend" of the Year: "Slimeball" Akechi.
  • Best Jazzy/Heist-y/Overall Soundtrack.
  • Best Original Song: Take Over.
  • Best game to just walk around letting it all wash over me, soaking it all in, chilling.
  • Best Heists.
  • Best Fishing Minigame.
  • Best Crossword Puzzles.
  • Best Fake TV Show Names: X-Folders, Guy McVer.
  • Best Sneaking "Whoosh" Sound.
  • Best "Hee-hoing": Jack Frost.
  • Best Attacking and Dethroning God.
  • Biggest Burgers.

Hopes for the Future.

In years past, I always end my Moosies with predictions for the year to come. Mostly they're not anywhere near correct, and I know that, because I try to come up with funny or ridiculous things that I know won't happen. This year though, I just don't have it in me to try to predict anything, so instead, I'm leaving with some hopes for things I...hope will happen, at least within the realm of games.

I hope that the games industry as a whole can make meaningful progress in bettering work conditions. Crunch, abusive bosses, etc have become bigger and bigger focuses over the last few years. It sucks that so many games come from such bad conditions, but it doesn't have to be that way. It shouldn't be that way. I'm not naïve enough to think that everything can magically become better in one year, but I still hope that people keep working toward that goal.

I hope that the big three consoles get better about what they let through cert. I have high tolerances for bad framerates, if I didn't Marvel's Avengers wouldn't be on this list. Heck, Control was my number three game of last year, and if I'm being honest, I don't think that game should have gotten through cert on PS4 (or Xbox One)! But between Dead2y Premonition, and all the hubbub around Cyberpunk, I think it's become too much, and Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft need to finally put their feet down and stop this. To actually act like they care about consumers for once.

I hope that consoles actually get widely available. I want a PS5, damn it! I've realized this year just how bad my fear of missing out can get, and it turns out it's pretty bad. So it sucks that several of my friends get to enjoy all the coolness of the PS5, but I (and lots of other people) can't!

I hope that whatever new hardware Nintendo probably announces in 2021, that it doesn't make me too mad. That significant rumors of the Switch Pro began circulating about a month after I finally broke down, gave into my FOMO and bought a Switch has already made me mad. The idea that I could have just waited another year, and the only good things I would have missed out on were Paper Mario and the zeitgeist around Hades is, well, it makes me mad! I wish these companies would be more transparent about these things, but of course they never will. They'd rather sucker people into buying multiple things.

And of course, I hope the games are good. There's a lot of potentially really great games on the horizon, and I'd love if they all live up to and exceed expectations. Too many to list here, on all platforms (well maybe not Xbox (I'm kidding, I hope Halo Infinite is good too)), but I think the future of video games looks cool.

I hope it is, anyway.

Well, there's my yearly Moosies. It was a weird year, and I think that's reflected in this. I wrote all this over the course of a couple weeks, bit by bit, and maybe that's evident in the writing, but hopefully not in too negative a way. I hope you enjoyed reading this, and while I'm not going to commit to writing about every game I play in 2021, I'll write about all the ones that inspire me to put something into words. And I look forward to it!

And of course, thank you for reading. It's always appreciated. <3

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Marvel's Avengers, the Video Game Crossover of Our Time.

Now, you might be thinking that Avengers as a singular group, as a Brand® is enough of a thing now that Avengers doesn't really count as a crossover anymore. Seeing Cap and Thor together just feels like a common thing, and not so special like it did back when the first Avengers movie (not to be confused with Captain America: The First Avenger) released.

But that's not what I mean. The crossover here isn't between various Marvel related sub brands, but between two different "genres" of game design: Traditional, story and set-piece driven single player game, and Destiny style forever loot game as a service. Games have tried this before, Anthem stumbled over itself with things like a five minute cutscene about eating weird alien crabs in the middle of a multiplayer mission, and I'd even still say that Destiny 2's campaign was really good. Certainly good enough that it getting removed from the game is a bummer, even if Bungie feels like that's what they have to do for whatever technical reasons they have.

Much more so than those other games, Avengers really feels like two entirely separate methodologies of game design crossing over into each other. Or, if I wanted to sound more cynical about it, it feels like a big budget single player game with a forever loot game stapled onto it. But I don't want to sound cynical, because I like it. A lot! I've been so skeptical of this game since its official announcement that before I played it, I was really not expecting it to be good. Everything from how closely it was aping the MCU visually (without being directly tied or based on those movies), to what was known about the set up (the Avengers get disassembled), to even this very pitch of it being both a single player story driven experience and a game as a service, it all sounded bad at worst, and at best, like it would be a mess.

The things that didn't come across in any of that, until I actually played the game, are both just how good the story/characters are, and how much fun it is to play. And let me tell you, as someone who went from a mild fan of a few Marvel properties (mostly Spider-Man and X-Men) prior to the MCU, to a big Marvel fan over the last twelve (!!) years, it's really exciting to finally have a great game starring these characters I've come to know and love so much. Even if they're slightly different takes on them, it's still super cool.

One of my favorite moments in the game is this quiet RV ride.
One of my favorite moments in the game is this quiet RV ride.

Look at it this way: The last game I played with any Avengers in it (not counting Spider-Man) was Marvel Vs. Capcom 3. Back in 2011. At that point, I was into Iron Man because that first movie was great (and even 2 I didn't hate like a lot of people). But Thor? I saw that movie, which honestly I thought was just okay at the time, it was really Avengers and onward that got me attached to Thor. And this was still months before Captain America (the movie). Back then, I looked at Cap, and thought, "he throws a shield at people? Comic books are weird." And so far as Thor went, I distinctly remember thinking, "he wouldn't even be in this game if it weren't for the movie, who cares about Thor?"

I'm sure there's die hard long time Marvel fans who would get riled up at me saying that, so just rest assured that these days, I'm super excited to be able to step into their shoes and do so much cool stuff as them! I love locking onto a whole group of enemies with Cap, letting the shield bounce around, then time my kick just right so the shield will go bounce into another group of enemies, and just keep bouncing around. I love throwing Mjolnir around, calling it back, summoning huge amounts of lightning, getting so many effects on screen that the game can't really handle it (I will say I'm looking forward to that 60 FPS PS5 version). I love when I'm playing with friends, and the one playing Thor specifically pins one enemy to a wall, and we cackle as we all gang up on the last robot, valiantly but futilely trying to wiggle free from the hammer.

Not everyone is quite as immediately fun, Hulk is a bit slow and lumbering for my taste, and I go back and forth on how much I enjoy the more ranged focused Iron Man. But Nat (Black Widow) and newcomer Kamala (Ms. Marvel) are just as fun in their own, cool ways too. Nat's attacks are so speedy, and Kamala's stretchy limbs are such goofy fun! For a game that generally goes for a realistic visual design, seeing her stretch and embiggen in such a cartoonish, comic book-y way is the right kind of silly for me, and I think it fits her character.

Which brings me to the story, probably the most endearing thing about the game. I'm a sucker for the super hero origin story, honestly. Average everyday person develops some special power, goes through some sort of emotional life changing experience, and comes out determined to use their powers to help others. It's an oldie, but a goody.

In the case of Kamala Khan, she has the added layer of already being a super fan of the Avengers. Something that I think a lot of superhero fiction ignores is the fact that if these sorts of people existed in real life, there would be lots of fans. There would be astounding amounts of merchandise, there would be fan fiction, there would be people who would spend all their free time idolizing these superheroes. Some movies acknowledge this, Captain America had Cap being used as propaganda by the US government (including actual comic books), Logan used old X-Men comics as a plot device, and Shazam featured a fight through a store filled to the brim with DC universe toys, but largely they just focus on the heroes, and their personal struggles.

Framing this story through a kid whose eyes light up at the presence of a superhero just felt so immediately relatable. Like, if I was her age and met Spider-Man (assuming he was real), I'd be just as starstruck as she was meeting Thor, or Captain America. Hell, I even would be today, and I'm almost thirty! But just being a big fan-girl thankfully isn't her only character trait, she understands the point of being a superhero is to help people, to fight for those who can't fight for themselves (or to help those that can but need the help), and to make the world a better place.

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And that's the driving force of this game, the glue that keeps it together, the thing that lets Kamala re-assemble the Avengers. That even when the actual superheroes themselves lost sight of what was important, even when they let the world, let their mistakes tear them apart, she never gave up. That all it takes is a little gumption, and a lot of heart, and anyone can do big things.

My only issue being that there's a five year time jump between kid Kamala and older teen (I'm not sure how old she's supposed to be) Kamala, and she goes from non-powered to already having use of and familiarity with her stretchy skills. The first time she's ever seen using them is when she makes her hands big to slide down a random zipline on the Jersey City rooftops, with no explanation whatsoever. Even just a little montage of her developing her powers, having some brief talks with her dad, anything would have been nice to fill that stuff in a little more.

If this was a Ms. Marvel movie (and I'm sure there will be one eventually), that'd be the whole first half of the story! But it's an Avengers game, so that had to be pushed to the side in favor of bigger names like Bruce Banner, Tony Stark, etc. And to be fair, most of that stuff is really good too. Troy Baker's Bruce is so good I not only like him better than Mark Ruffalo in the movies, I'd even say it's probably the best performance I've ever heard him give? Nolan North's Tony is, well, I think he moves back and forth between Nathan Drake and Deadpool, depending on whether it's a story cutscene or him making multiple different Ghostbusters references when summoning the Hulkbuster armor.

Laura Bailey isn't given the most exciting material for Nat, but she does the character well. Travis Willingham's Thor is a bit more over the top than Chris Hemsworth's, but in a way I like. Jeff Schine's (the one guy here I've never heard of) Captain America is kind of the weakest link of them, but he's still okay. He just doesn't have the same presence that Chris Evans has. Maybe that's an unfair comparison, but when Cap is supposed to be the heart and soul of the Avengers, I wish there was a bit more of that in this performance.

And of course since I name dropped the rest of the cast, Sandra Saad's Kamala really is the thing that sells the character. She could have come off as an annoying fan-girl, but the genuine joy in the character, along with the down moments in the story (because it's never just rainbows and lollipops), makes the whole thing work so much better than I anticipated.

I didn't really say much about the actual plot, but they assemble the team, fight a lot of robots, and beat the bad guy (only for someone else to be bad enough to build more robots for the forever game thing to go). I think more interesting to write about is the game part of this, how it moves from the single player story stuff into the co-op focused post campaign stuff.

But even that isn't quite true, because those are introduced during the course of the story, and are available alongside the story missions. The difference between the highly focused, bespoke story missions, and the co-op stuff is...Stark, haha. Okay, that was a bad pun. Everything from unique environments, to actively changing how you play as you progress (for example, Tony building a suit piece by piece over the course of a mission), and of course the much better produced cutscenes make the story missions stand out.

The co-op stuff, on the other hand, it's a lot of going through the same small number of environments, and doing the same small number of things. Clear out the enemies, stand in these points to capture them, break some generators, etc. If the game itself wasn't fun, it'd be boring and repetitive. Okay, it already is repetitive, but all games of this genre are at a certain point. How many times in Destiny 1 was the objective to just fight waves of enemies while Dinklage Ghost had to hack into something? The question isn't "does it repeat," but "does it repeat enough often and early enough to detract from the game?"

And I'm not sure how to answer that. I wish there were more environments, and some more variety in the enemies, so that could be interpreted as a yes. Is it frustrating to do a Taskmaster Villain Sector, then do an Abomination one, which involves going through LITERALLY the same EXACT level, just with different dialog spoken over it? And I mean an all caps LITERALLY, even the boss room is the same, except with a different boss.

The answer is yes, I've decided. It's frustrating, and this game needs more environments, levels, etc.

(Note, after writing this I played a different Taskmaster Villain Sector in a different level, but the fight at the end was fundamentally the same, the level still felt generic, and not like a bespoke Taskmaster focused mission.)

I put the photo mode to great use, as you can tell.
I put the photo mode to great use, as you can tell.

Not to suggest this game should just copy Destiny, but something like a Villain Sector feels like it should be more like Strikes. By which I mean each one should be in its own, bespoke spot, that feels specifically crafted around working toward a specific boss, and not just fighting through the same sorts of rooms as any other mission. Or again, LITERALLY THE SAME ONES. Also, as an aside, it's really funny to do one of these with friends, and see Captain America, Thor, Hulk, and Black Widow all just wailing on Taskmaster. Imagining the movie, or comic book where the four of them just ran into a room and started punching Taskmaster so much he could barely react.

In other words these boss fights could some more work to make them more interesting.

But I'm still having fun, and I've played a decent amount of it so far. I got Cap up to level 50, which is the current, ahem, cap. And I'm enjoying it enough that I at least want to get Kamala, Nat, and Thor to level 50 too. Probably Tony too, maybe even Hulk if enough time passes before I get another game to play, or more specifically another "forever game" to fill the ongoing game shaped hole in my life.

That's the other thing, I love big single player games, I love smaller indie games, but at some point those games all end (not counting rogue-like-lites), and I've got to move on to something else. There's a comfort in having these games that (cynically) feel like they go on forever, because it's fun to just pop in for a couple hours and mess around. Keep working toward something I never quite finished, do the new stuff that was added a while back, etc.

But this has been kind of an odd year for that, at least in my case. In the past, Destiny 2 has frequently been that game for me, and though it's not quite the same thing, a while back I played lots and lots of Overwatch for similar reasons. Thing is, I've fallen off both those games. Overwatch was kind of a longer thing in the making, just a build up of little changes here and there that slowly drove me away, culminating in Blizzard's bungled handling of that one player saying whatever he said in support of Hong Kong protests at the time. That was the moment I uninstalled the game, not that it really had any actual significance.

In the case of Destiny 2, it was last year's lousy Shadowkeep expansion and by all reports the stuff added since not being great that kept me away. I even uninstalled that too, but that was more to clean up hard drive space as that game was getting roughly as big as the Solar System itself. So, it left a vacuum in my ongoing game time, that I've filled with other stuff over the year. Played a lot of Tom Clancy's The Division 2 when that was $3, played that expansion, but fell off because the end game just got too repetitive.

I keep playing Warframe on and off, but it feels like any time I make some big amount of progress, and set my sights on something I want to unlock, I look into it, and it just feels like an impossible grind. Recently I made it to some story mission where I unlocked the ability to switch between my active Warframe and the actual human (like?) entity that controls the Warframe mid mission, and I got so excited I even spent some of my Warframe bucks (Platinum) to unlock some cool hair and clothing stuff for them. It was the first time in months I got really back into the Warframe groove, and it was right before a big update, so I was excited!

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Sorry for the random Warframe pics, but I wanted to show off my Operator. I think they look cute with my subtle hair and outfit color choices. Also Homer my good Space Dog.
Sorry for the random Warframe pics, but I wanted to show off my Operator. I think they look cute with my subtle hair and outfit color choices. Also Homer my good Space Dog.

Said update included a new open world zone to explore, new mechs to control, and of course a new Warframe. Xaku, the "first nonbinary Warframe," which for obvious reasons appealed to me. Turns out I'm easy to please when video game representation is routinely nonexistent for things like being outside the gender binary. Then Warframe's true form reared its ugly head, and after I spent hours grinding the same bounty to get the last blueprint I needed for Xaku, looking up the materials I needed, it just felt like an impossible task. Literally the first material I checked how to get involved leveling up some faction I hadn't heard of, so I could unlock this other bounty which had a chance of giving the thing I needed, or some other thing, I don't remember.

The point before that rambling aside is that I very much would like another game to be this sort of game again for me. Ideally without alienating me via the years of bloat Warframe built up before I even started. Maybe Destiny 2's Beyond Light expansion will bring it all back together again. But in lieu of that, I'm more than happy to run around with friends beating up countless waves of AIM robots as Cap, Thor, Nat, Kamala, etc. There's plenty of room for improvement, from more varied environments, enemy designs, to changes here and there to the combat (bit too much stagger off enemy projectiles), to just wanting more characters.

I'm excited for the two Hawkeyes to be added! I'm really curious how extensive the added story content will be, given how good it is in the main campaign. And I'm curious how different Old Man Hawkeye and Young Ashly Burch Hawkeye will play from each other. Adding both at the same time is either a real bold move to show that Crystal D has the chops to make two different bow users feel distinct, or a real foolish mistake if they play basically the same.

And, looking at the hacked list of upcoming characters (thank you PC gamers), I'm curious how characters not really associated with melee combat will work. Everyone in this game has some sort of ranged attack (even if it's Kamala stretchy punching or Hulk pulling up chunks of the floor to throw), but it's primarily a punching game. Will the likes of Scarlet Witch and Doctor Strange be designed in some different way? Or are they going to punch with magic instead of fists? Or just punch with fists, which I think would be the biggest cop out. Maybe Strange could punch with his magic cape?

And if we're talking requests for characters, since I know that realistically having Ant-Man shrink down and the whole game's perspective change too (especially given how low the framerate and resolution can get as is), I hope he can summon a giant ant. To ride around like a horse. And maybe he can throw random objects that he shrunk prior to the mission, and just keeps in a fanny pack or something. Please, Crystal D, lean into the comedic side of Ant-Man. I know you won't be able to afford Paul Rudd, but maybe you could spring for Michael Peña to appear, and give a long monologue that distracts all the enemies as Ant-Man's ult. I have to thank my friends for thinking of that incredible idea while we were playing the other day.

I didn't really get any good in combat screenshots, partly because I usually forget to take them. But also because the ones I did take were blurry, due to the motion blur and aggressive dynamic resolution.
I didn't really get any good in combat screenshots, partly because I usually forget to take them. But also because the ones I did take were blurry, due to the motion blur and aggressive dynamic resolution.

Here's a few things I forgot to mention until after writing this, and didn't want to spend an hour thinking about a way to more organically fit into the main text. Think of it as a day one patch for this blog.

I think a lot of the bad rap this game has been getting about the "too similar characters," or other related game play complaints has to do with how much is locked behind leveling up. Which is to say, too many basic skills, like some combo finishers, moves that can be do after dodging, etc. That, combined with leveling being pretty slow early on (at least slower in the story than post-campaign missions with far more enemies), means it takes longer than it should to get into the meat of how they work, and feel different from each other. Iron Man is a lot more fun to play once his lasers and rockets are unlocked as alternates for the repulsors, for example.

On the one hand, I kinda wish the loot had a visual aspect to it, because the game is lacking some amount of that "oh look at this cool thing I found!" But on the other hand, there have been enough games where I avoid equipping the best thing because it looks bad, that maybe keeping the aesthetics to non-game play related skins was a decent choice. So far as the economy on the cosmetics go, I haven't looked into it too much, but so far it hasn't felt as exploitative as say, having time limited skins that can only be gotten via random loot boxes. But hey, there's always room for them to screw that up in the future!

The Challenge Card (this game's Battle Pass, which has cosmetics to unlock along it) is fine. They don't expire, and apparently they give enough of the in game money to unlock the paid tier of the next "season" whenever that comes, so diligent players can keep it going without spending big. Some of the challenges (as the only way to progress the card is to complete daily and weekly challenges) are weirdly difficult (like rescuing large numbers of hostages), have bizarre requirements (like you have to be the person who rescues the hostages, your teammate doing it doesn't count), or straight up broken. It could use some adjustments.

For the game play side of the loot, I'm still in the "just equip whatever has the highest Power level" phase, which is fine, but kind of a bummer when sometimes I would rather stick with something that has some weird effect. I love the ones with Pym Particles, because they shrink the enemies! I legit laugh when I shrink someone down to like a third their normal size. It's very good, and I'd love if this game went further in the direction of having weird effects like that in the future.

One time my friend's The Hulk turned completely invisible. Except for the hair. Same thing happened to her Black Widow once too.
One time my friend's The Hulk turned completely invisible. Except for the hair. Same thing happened to her Black Widow once too.

The game has a tendency to get a lot buggier when playing online. For example, just last night I was playing with a couple friends, and we had a very interesting experience in one mission. After getting into an AIM Hive (fewer bees than you would think), I noticed that my health bar was gone, as were the health bars for all the enemies. I could still defeat them, so I didn't think much of it at first. But soon after, one of my friends said her health bar was also missing, as were the enemies'. So, we laughed it off at first, but soon we noticed that said friend was getting one shot killed a lot, or more accurately, literally every time she was hit. I, on the other hand, never died, so I like to think the game just gave me all of her health. Probably more likely is it somehow bugged her to only having 1 health, and me having infinite.

Still, we were able to finish the mission, just had to revive her more often than usual. Frankly I'm glad it went that way, because she's much better at avoiding attacks than I am.

And as a final thing, I wonder what the future of this game will be in terms of console support. It already feels like it's pushing the PS4 (Amateur) farther than it should. It's fine during the main campaign, but the drops can get really bad online, with the game just filled with tons of enemies, and wild effects from multiple characters' special moves all going at once. Is this game going to be held back by the PS4 and Xbox One? Probably. That, or those people who don't (or can't) buy new consoles but want to keep playing are going to have a less than stellar time with it. But I also just can't help but think about what if Iron Man and Thor could fly faster (but also desperately Cap needs to run faster, please), what if the areas could be bigger, less restrained? What if there didn't have to be so many elevators?

I know why they didn't do that, but I kinda wish this had been a next gen only game, so these restrictions could be a lot less...strict.

So, to sum things up, how does this crossover between story driven single player game design and ongoing co-op loot game work? Well enough. The story and characters are great, and the game is fun enough to keep me going onward, still. It's still early, and I haven't even finished all the post main campaign story, technically, but I think I've played enough to have written something halfway coherent about the game.

If literally nothing else, it's good just to have something to play with friends again, that has yet to just leave us bored, and wanting for something better to do. That may sound like a low bar, but like I keep saying, so long as we're having fun, that's the important part.

Cones...Assemble!
Cones...Assemble!

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