This is Part II of my many thoughts on Cyberpunk 2077! You can read Part I (my thoughts on the technical side of the game, its story, and game play), here!
Or just read on, that's okay too! Also, keep in mind there will be some mild SPOILERS for a couple side mission chains relating to some side characters.
Here's a subject that I feel came up a fair amount in discussing Cyberpunk 2077: Just how “cyberpunk” is it, actually? Putting aside the fact that it is set in a preexisting world literally called Cyberpunk, and even if that TTRPG didn't originate the term, it probably helped popularize it, I still think it's an interesting question to ask. In terms of its faithfulness to the source material, considering the physical version of the game came with a booklet outlining the history of the world, starting with when it split from the real world in the early 90s, I'd say it's probably pretty true to that source. Again, I've never played the TTRPG version, and I'd guess that most people running that with friends probably put their own spins on little bits here and there, the same way that lots of people do when playing TTRPGs. That's part of the appeal of that style of game, after all.
Cyberpunk 2077 being an open world AAA huge budget action RPG, of course, means that sort of stuff has to be locked in place. And also given that huge budget, it means that as much as some of the devs may be punk at heart, that doesn't mean it translates to the game being punk.
Unsurprisingly, I think the game is really hit or miss when it comes to how cyber, punk, and cyberpunk it is. Probably the thing it's most consistent with, is that the game really hates corporations. Basically all the corpo characters are scumbags, and no one else in the game likes the corps, and yet just like in the real world, they run basically everything, and have unchecked power that has meaningful and entirely negative impacts on the lives of everyone and everything they touch (other than the rich profiting off them). So that, the game gets right (though I guess I haven't seen the ex-corpo origin, but considering the “ex” part of it, I doubt it's a positive portrayal). Heck, Johnny's whole thing is that he's obsessed with destroying the corporations, no matter what it takes, and even if his methods were extreme, his rationale wasn't.
Something the game is more conflicted on, though, are the cops. Considering that I am writing this in the days after the police stood outside for forty plus minutes and let someone murder children in an elementary school, I'm feeling even worse about the police in general than I usually do, so again, don't @ me (I'm mostly writing about them in game after this paragraph, FYI).
There are aspects of this game that feel like they were made with how the police really are in mind. There's lines of dialog about how the cops only protect the corps, they're never there when people need them, etc. There's even a couple side gigs about what cops do to the few cops in the system that try to push back, and fix things.
There's one where a hit was put out on a cop whose investigation was getting too close to uncovering dirt about other cops (that I resolved by convincing the cop to get out of town while she could, though you could probably just shoot her and get paid by the worse cops in question). And another where a cop needed to be rescued from being forced into a mental institution, because again, she was uncovering dirt on other cops. As far as I know, things like this have happened in America. “All Cops are Bastards” doesn't mean that literally every cop is pure evil, it means that in the rare instance where there is someone who tries to push back against the system, the system tries to destroy them to protect itself, no matter what the cost (it means a lot of other things too, I'm simplifying).
Then there's River Ward, one of the characters V can romance, who is a detective in the NCPD. He's also (I believe) an Indigenous American, and voiced by one to boot (Robbie Daymond, who people may remember from voicing such twinks as Prompto in FFXV, and Akechi in Persona 5/Royal). His missions are optional, I think people could play the game without ever meeting him, but in broad strokes it's not that difficult to guess what happens. He has a case that gets personal, the higher ups suspend him for taking it too far, and V helps him with it.
There's really two things of note in it for me. The first is that at one point, River and V play an augmented reality game with River's niece and nephew, where they all play as cops who go and shoot digital perps for points. As something that exists in universe, it's certainly interesting, but I feel like any read on it being commentary on “copaganda” isn't really intended by the game itself, so all I have to say is that it's interesting. Well, and it was cute that the game gives you an optional objective to let the kids win, as I am a proponent of going easy on kids in games in real life.
The other thing is that at the end of River's missions, he says that he's not sure what he's going to do with his life, but that “private detective has a nice ring to it.” Implying that he was done with the police force, and he wants to use his investigative skill set in other ways. That's all good and fine, except then during the credits, when a bunch of characters are leaving messages for V, the one from River is written like he's still working for the NCPD. The gist being that he's trying to take weapons and things confiscated by the NCPD, and give them to people outside the force that can use them for good. That part of it is fine, but it just feels like a weird disconnect from the last time I spoke to him in game about it, so I wonder if it was an oversight in the game's writing, or maybe a bug. A couple other credits messages were clearly due to choices I made (I'm sorry Jefferson, I may have made the wrong choice after all! (Judy, however, I made the right call romancing her)), so they're definitely not all totally static.
Anyway, in terms of the narrative aspects of the game, even if it's not perfect, I think Cyberpunk is at least in the right ballpark with it thinking that the police are pretty bad overall. Not the full-throated ACAB (or even more colorful language) of real punks, but about as much as one could expect from something as big budget and “mass appeal” focused as a AAA game.
It's the game part where it screws up. Two ways in particular. The first, more obvious, is in the side content. The game has three tiers of side stuff, Missions (which all feature unique writing and voice acting, often are parts of long chains centering on fleshed out characters), Gigs (one off jobs from fixers, with a few different objective types, but usually a bit of unique voice acting), and finally...NCPD dispatches.
The lowest rung of content in Cyberpunk is taking jobs from the cops to go “neutralize” (lethality is up to player choice) some perps and acquire “evidence” at the scene. All for some cash, whatever can be looted, and Street Cred. Now, there's a lot to unpack here, but first and foremost, the idea of getting Street Cred from helping cops in any capacity is the most absurd, and most un-punk thing in the entire game. The Street Cred system in general feels half baked (I dunno if it's more fleshed out in the TTRPG), as I think it just artificially gates buying/equipping certain items behind arbitrary levels. It feels particularly silly when buying clothes from retail stores, or Cyberware mods from Ripperdocs in upscale parts of town. “I'm sorry, you simply cannot buy these booty shorts, your Street Cred is one level too low!”
(Actually now that I think about it after writing the first draft, it may have been possible to buy the clothes, just not equip them, which is silly in a different way, but Ripperdocs definitely won't install Cyberware if your Street Cred is too low. I just left in the booty shorts line because I thought it was funny.)
But I just need to reiterate that in no place in the real world would helping cops increase any sort of street cred!!
Now, there's probably something interesting that could be done with the idea of cops having to sub-contract out work to freelancers, but as this is the lowest rung of content in the game, it doesn't. It's just there to give players something else to do, with little pockets of enemies to defeat and loot. In some cases, these are things like a group holding a store owner at gunpoint, and if you aren't fast enough, they'll kill the person. So in that regard, stepping in and trying to save the person is the right thing to do (at least in a game where the player character has the means to win these sorts of fights). It's just the part where it's framed as working for the cops that makes it grimy.
The other way the game screws up is that it treats cops differently than any other sort of enemy. Which is to say, they kind of aren't treated as enemies. When exploring around, occasionally there are little groups of NPCs that are technically affiliated with the various gangs of Night City, but they're not doing anything wrong. Just standing around, doing different animations meant to help liven up the city, and make it feel like it's inhabited by people who do things. That's fine and dandy, no complaints there. But these “gang members” can be targeted, scanned, and hacked just like enemies in hostile areas. And when a game is trying to be built on systems and whatnot, again, that's fine.
The cops though? You can scan them, shoot at them, hit them with melee weapons, but you can't hack them. Their robots you can, but the human ones? Nope, outside of specific missions or gigs where V gets attacked by cops as part of the scripting, they're all immune to hacking. Which makes them different from all the other enemies in the game. No explanation, it's not like there's a class of enemies with no Cyberware to hack. That would have been interesting, honestly. This is just a case of the game being designed to dissuade people from picking fights with the cops. Similarly, they don't drop loot outside the weapon they were physically holding, which is probably more just a result of weapons being physical objects in the game that can go flying away from enemies after defeat.
I really only actively instigated a fight with the NCPD once, just to see what would happen, and that's what I came away with. Very un-punk, if you ask me.
As an aside, I never tried attacking non-enemy/non-cop NPCs in the game, for obvious reasons, but when scanning them, they weren't hackable either. Just for anyone who was curious.
Then there's the cyber part of cyberpunk, which I was originally going to start with, but then I later realized segued better into something I'm going to get to later on, and I didn't want to end this blog complaining about cops.
There's a lot of different Cyberwares that V can get, that can have some meaningful changes on the game play, and I like that a lot! On the other hand, the only ones that change V's appearance are the arm and hand mods. Mantis Blades look different (especially when in combat mode), and so do Gorilla Arms. But when I got the mod to let me double jump, I was disappointed that V's legs looked exactly the same as before.
Now, I get it, it's a first person game, and even if V's body is visible when looking down, for the most part the only parts of their body seen in normal game play are their arms. So I understand why the arms would be the only part with visible changes, but part of the appeal, part of the cyberpunk fantasy is being a cyborg. It's in replacing flesh with chrome (as they call it in game). If I upgrade my legs to be able to double jump, I want my legs to look cool! I want to see my cyber gams, dang it! Especially considering that there are plenty of NPCs in the game that have much more mechanical, and I think cooler looking Cyberware than V can get.
If you've been looking at the screenshots I took whilst playing the game, it's pretty evident that I like the game's photo mode a lot. There's a ton of fun poses (so many more than I could include here), and other options for people who actually know how to do photography artfully to take some truly incredible pics with. My point being, that I want my character to look cool for the photo mode, and while I do like the look of my V, I wish they could have been even more cyber.
I feel similarly about the game's fashion. There's some cool stuff in there, but there's a lot of even cooler stuff that NPCs wear, but V can't. There's wearable skirts and dresses in the game, but they're all very tight, restrictive looking ones. I definitely saw some NPCs with looser, pleated skirts, but V can't wear them! There's even cooler stuff, like some outfits with glowing bits, or almost even looked like holographic clothing, and that's the sort of cyberpunk fashion I'm looking for! I bet there's mods to let players equip that stuff in the PC version, but unless CD Projekt decides to expand the game's fashion in a future update, console players like me are just going to be left envying the NPCs.
At least I still have the bi colored crop top sweatshirt. They can't take that away from me, even if I'm still not sure about how I feel considering the name of that item is called “Bipolar,” which is certainly...a choice. But, that actually gives me a good segue into something that I think is a good intersection of how cyber, punk, and cyberpunk it is, along with something I have a tendency to write about...
Its your and my favorite segment, it's...
That's right, I realized recently that I've written about queer stuff in games so many times over the years, that it really has become a recurring segment. And, in keeping with the artful subtlety that I'm known for, I created the above image that yes, I fully intend on using for the foreseeable future. For anyone curious, I originally wanted it to be an animated gif, with the Kris from Deltarunes dancing. Sadly the process of exporting to gif resulted in even the original 4K version of it being horribly downgraded in visual quality, and the more reasonably sized lower res versions fared just as poorly, so I opted instead for a static image.
In all seriousness, obviously queerness is a significant part of who I am, and I can't turn that part of my brain off, who I am off when I play games, so I write about it when I have things to say! And let me tell you, I've yet to run out of things to say about Cyberpunk, so buckle up!
Even prior to release, I knew I'd have thoughts about this game regarding queerness, because at some point CD Projekt made a statement about the game's character creator. I forget exactly what and when, but as far as I know it lined up with what's still in the game today for character creation. Namely that V's voice, body type, and genitals could all be chosen separately from each other. Which is cool! Even if other games had done that, at least for those first two options, before (the Saint's Row series comes to mind). But, the negative side, even announced at the time, was that the ways people would refer to V (pronouns, etc) would be decided based on voice. IE, the feminine voice would get she/her pronouns and whatnot, whereas the masculine voice would get he/him, and whatnot. Sadly, for the nonbinary people like myself, no other options available.
Even outside that, it was a bummer because there's people out there who might want to play a character with a feminine body, and the deeper voice, but still have that character be referred to with the feminine terms because that's who they are in real life. Like a lot of trans women, because for all the magic that hormones can do for a body, my understanding is that they don't really affect the voice that much, and voice training can be expensive, time consuming, and not easy. And of course the vice versa for trans men who might want the masculine body and terms, but higher sounding voice. Or really anyone who might want to set this stuff up however they want just because!
All that said, it didn't actually bother or affect my experience with the game that much because (lack on non-gendered terms aside), in these sorts of games I usually gravitate toward playing more feminine characters anyway, so that body and voice type is what I would have picked anyway. And if I had to go with gendered terms in a game, I'd rather the feminine ones, if only because that's an experience I haven't had in real life.
Really the thing about the character creator that hit me in the moment, when going through it myself, was being able to put a penis on the feminine body type. Like, it's such a weird thing, and I'm not exactly sure how to put it into the words, but there was something cool about having a big budget game where that was an option. Not something done as a joke, just another option for a part of the body, no judgment. So of course I went with Penis 2, partly because I think “Penis 2” is funnier than picking “Penis 1,” (yes I know I said the game doesn't treat it as a joke, I think “Penis 2” is funny for different reasons) but also because I liked the look of it better.
Not that it's visible in this blog, because frankly I'm not quite sure what is and isn't within the rules of the Giant Bomb forums. Been a long time since I was a moderator, haha. Personally, I'd say that a completely non-sexualized Penis 2 and nipples from a game should be acceptable on a forum such as this, but I don't know. Then I came up with the above idea to edit the image from the character creator, and while I could have asked if Penis 2 and nipples were allowable on the forum, it was too funny of an idea to not use, so here we are.
All that said, I think there's plenty else to criticize in the creator. There's only the two body type options, for example, and at least with the feminine one, the only other option for changing the shape of the body is the breast size. And penis size, of course. But really, it should have more variability in body shapes and sizes, especially when the only two options are the stereotypically thin, physically fit “male” and “female” body types. More head options too, and hair! I feel like the hair might even still be gendered, but I didn't actually go into the creator with the masculine body type to tell for sure.
That, and I guess at some point before I played the game was patched to allow for some things, like hair, makeup, nails, and body scars to be changed again later, at the mirror in V's apartment. That's cool, but if this game really wanted to be cyberpunk, everything should be up for changing again. Or at the very least, tattoos! I didn't give my character any, thinking by the end of the game I'd have cool, visible robot parts, but sadly not. If I'd known that, maybe I'd have spent more time looking at the tattoos to see if there was a set I liked more.
This isn't directly related to queerness, but it is related to the genital selection, and how this game handles nudity in general. In the character creator, the character is fully nude, as they are in the inventory screen if no clothing is equipped. But exit out of the menu and look down, or go into photo mode, and suddenly V has underwear on. No bra at least (unless the censor nudity option is turned on), but no matter what, the undies stay on.
Even during a shower in a story cutscene! V is sitting, depressed in the shower (relatable), and when they stand up, their view moves such that the underwear is visible, thus kind of ruining the immersion of the scene. I don't know about anyone reading this, but that's not how I prefer to shower! That part is particularly odd, because they could have just made sure the camera doesn't show V's crotch, and I would have been none the wiser.
It just makes me wonder why make a big deal out of genital selection prior to release, and especially why bother going to the trouble to render that stuff for just the character creator and inventory screen?? It's truly the most baffling thing in the game to me. Is it some weird ESRB or console (IE PlayStation or Xbox) rule that they can show genitals, but not close up or in first person? There's even physics on the penis as V animates in the inventory screen, so clearly someone spent some time on it, just for it to then be hidden away.
It's also just so baffling that this gets censored, in a game with first person sex scenes (though no genitals shown), that go on for frankly too long. And in a game with very graphic violence in it, like cutting people's limbs and heads off, and again, in first person so it's right up in the middle of the screen. But this is a larger, societal problem, where horribly graphic violence is more acceptable in media than simple nudity. At least in some parts of the world (America).
Last thing I'll say, before going back to queerness, is that I know the PC version has mods for things like this, while on console...there may or may not be a very easy glitch to get V nude in both the first person view, and photo mode. In photo mode it's perfect, with Penis 2 out there in full glory, and again, even affected by gravity, depending on the pose. In first person though, it becomes clear that they probably never actually intended genitals to be visible, because none rendered (I assume the first person character model is different than the inventory screen/photo mode one?). And really, what's the point of being nude in first person if I can't see my character's Penis 2 flopping around as they ran?
Again, I'm opting not to really show this in the blog, but you can tell. As for how to do any theoretical glitch, I'll leave that up to the readers to find out on their own.
Okay, back to queer topics. Another thing I remember some people making a big deal about before release were some of the in game advertisements that kept popping up in videos and screenshots. Specifically the Chromanticore soda ads that feature a person with a slim, feminine body wearing skin tight clothes, and with a long, visibly erect penis pushing against their clothing. I remember being off put by it too, but having now played the game, honestly I don't think it's that bad. It's not great, but it doesn't objectify a trans woman any more than the other ads throughout the game objectify cis women. Or cis men, for that matter. Which is to say, they all objectify people, and they're all obnoxious. Like a lot of real world advertising, honestly.
There's also a couple ads throughout the game with queer couples in them. One a very objectifying image of two beefy bois, totally nude and in a pretty sexual embrace, and the other featuring two women, clothed, in a “classier,” more sensual pose. I don't actually remember what either of those are for, honestly. Chromanticore is easier to remember because there are working vending machines in the game that sell the soda, with what I think is actually the most objectifying part of these ads. Namely that the part of the vending machine that releases the cans is right where her penis is, meaning you'd have to reach in and grab right there. It's a bit much, even if the point is supposed to be that all the advertising is obnoxious and objectifying.
So, considering that prior to release the things I knew about Cyberpunk's handling of queerness, particularly gender-wise, were locking pronouns to character voice, and these ads, I went into it expecting it to be low key transphobic at best. And while those aspects of the game are still present, they didn't really negatively impact my time with the game, and I genuinely don't think the game has any sort of malice, or ill will against queer people, even if there's still room for improvement there.
Improvement that I think if it was really a priority for CD Projekt, could still be patched into the game at some point. I don't remember the exact reasons given as to why gendered terms in the dialog were tied to V's voice, but I'd guess it was probably a mix of technical, and maybe needing to re-record some lines from both of V's voices to account for that. I'm sure it would be a lot of work, but don't forget that even if CD Projekt is (so far as I know) its own entity, it's still a large entity. One with a lot of people working there, and the resources to keep working on this game for years after initial release, even though it isn't a live service game with a steady flow of income from micro-transactions and the like.
I'm reminded of a different game I played recently, Haven (Part I readers may remember I said it'd come up again!). Haven released around the same time Cyberpunk did, near the end of 2020. For those who haven't played it, it's about a couple in love who fled their home world to start a new life on an alien planet. It was also a game where the main two characters were a heterosexual couple, thus making it a game about forbidden love starring two het people. Which I found to be eye-roll worthy at the time, and despite my loving that studio's previous game, Furi so much that I said I would play anything they made next, I skipped on the game.
The reason why I'm bringing this up is that a couple months ago, Haven got a significant free update, which added the option to select the genders for the game's couple. Meaning there were now options to play as a same gender couple, either two guys, or two ladies. New character models, new art for the loading screens, and most importantly for how much work it probably took, new actors cast because the game is fully voiced, and for what the game is, it has a lot of dialog. The banter between the two characters is Haven's heart and soul, and its most charming and endearing aspect.
Once I saw this was happening, and that it coincided with a sale price, I bought the game, and had a good time with it. I played with the two male characters, and it was a really heartwarming experience. Also kind of the right sort of game, and right size of game for me to play after 150 hours of Elden Ring. Honestly I enjoyed it enough (and it's short enough) that I might play it again some day, this time with the two lady versions of the characters.
Keep in mind, The Game Bakers is a small studio, with a core team of under twenty people, as far as I know. And yet despite that, despite their games not being enormous successes that set the world on fire (I kind of got the impression from a recent article on Waypoint that having large portions of development funded by PlayStation or Xbox via being on their subscription services helps keep them afloat), they took the time to do this, and made it a free update too.
So if a team that small, that makes games that are at best cult hits like Furi can do this, I think even if it would be a lot of work, it is well within CD Projekt's means to achieve. To expand what's in the character creator, and find a way to unshackle pronouns from voice selection. It just isn't a priority for them. I get why any sort of change like that would be lower on the list than any of the numerous glitches and bugs that were fixed over time, or maybe even still need to be fixed now. It might even cause a whole slew of other bugs that would then need to be addressed. But personally I think I would have prioritized it over adding more apartments to buy around the city. That's probably not a fair comparison, I don't know what parts of the studio are working on what, or what they're doing, so maybe someone has been trying to do this, and maybe it will make it into the game at some point.
Now back to what's in the game, because I still have the queer characters in the story to discuss! I said I was expecting the game to be transphobic, but the thing that surprised me the most is that by some metrics, it actually has the best representation of a trans character in a big budget game that I've played. If it wasn't obvious, this is an extremely low bar to meet, but even with that out of the way, I still like the character in question a lot.
Claire Russell, voiced by Maddie Taylor, is a bartender who likes to partake in less than legal street racing on the side, which in game terms means her mission chain is the obligatory open world racing one. Her missions start out as simple, “you drive, I shoot” deals, which are fun enough, if a bit easy. Eventually she reveals that she used to ride with her husband, who died during a race, and now she wants revenge on the driver she blames for his death. Help her get revenge, and V gets Claire's vehicle (what I like to call the “Trans Pride Death Truck”), but choose not to help, and Claire gets angry and stops talking to V. This was a rare instance where I did reload a save to see what would happen, but afterward I went back to having helped her, as that felt like what my V would do/I wanted to keep the Trans Pride Death Truck.
So, few things to note about Claire. First is that she clears what I think should be the lowest hurdle for trans characters in media, which is that she's actually voiced by a trans person. Representation is important, and by that same token, I think making sure characters are portrayed by the sort of people who they are is important too. In the case of trans characters, I feel like every time one is played by a cis person (usually of another gender), all it does is help reinforce wrong, and harmful stereotypes. And as pathetic as this sounds, I think Claire is the first, and only trans character in a big budget game I've played that's actually voiced by a trans woman. I'd like to think she wasn't the first one, and I'm positive there have to be smaller games out there that have actually cast trans people for characters, but I don't know. For all my talk, my gaming habits still lean almost exclusively to high profile, larger budget games, and despite saying I need to broaden my horizons, I never do.
This is a case where I would genuinely appreciate people telling me about trans characters voiced by trans people in other games, so please @ me if you know any!
Voice aside (and I think Maddie Taylor did really well with the role, I don't think she was cast just for being trans), I kind of appreciate that Claire isn't all about being trans. I mean, I feel like there's two ways to handle queer characters in general: Either make their story a journey about discovering who they are, etc etc, or let them just be people who are queer. And in the case of a game like this, made I assume by mostly (if not entirely) cis people, I'd rather they go for the latter. Because I think more media should have queer people who aren't there just to be the token queer person, it's just a part of who they are. In that regard, I think Claire works well. Her being trans only comes up once in dialog, in a situation where it feels natural, and otherwise the only way you'd ever guess she was trans is the trans pride flag on her death truck (thus the name I gave it).
So on the whole I like Claire a lot, but as a counterpoint to her being a well done trans character...she's also, as far as I know, the only trans character in the game. Not counting V's potential for being trans, if the player wants them to be (I at least didn't notice any dialog in the game that would negate my trans head canon for V, so that's good).
While that's not really surprising, I do think it's certainly a missed opportunity, and considering the setting being both cyberpunk and the future, probably not realistic either. I'm sure that in the grand scheme of things, the proportion of trans, or other non-cis people in the world who might not want to use the word trans (I generally tend not to use it for myself, not for any real reason, just nonbinary) is low compared to the total population of people. But also I know from experience that queer people tend to gravitate toward each other, for countless different reasons. Granted the game doesn't really show anything into Claire's life outside her street racing/revenge quest, so maybe she has a whole cadre of queer friends, just out of view of the camera.
Or maybe this was a game made by cis people who included a single trans character, and managed to do right by her, simply by doing what should be the bare minimum.
There's at least a few other queer characters too. Two of the four romance characters (Judy and Kerry) are queer only, in that Judy requires V have both the feminine voice and body, and Kerry the masculine voice and body. Interestingly, the other two romance characters, Panam and River, at least according to what I read online only require a specific body type, not voice. I haven't tested it myself, but if it is true, I'm glad the game doesn't just lock people who did that with their Vs out of a part of the game that can actually be kind of cute and heartwarming.
Yes, it does the thing where (at least for Judy, the only one I romanced) where you go on a whole long mission chain, which culminates in sex and them properly entering a relationship, which is a bit clichéd in the video game realm at this point (thanks BioWare). That said, I should add that I think the overall arc of them getting to know each other, and especially the final mission (where they go scuba diving) is really good, so don't take this as me complaining.
But, after the fact Judy continued to send messages to V (not voiced), and it helped add to the idea that these two characters were in a relationship, rather than just having sex once and then a Trophy pops for finishing that character's story. It would have been nicer if more of it was voiced, or even if there was a mission or two after the fact that you only get if they're in a relationship, but sadly not.
At least one time she arranged some soda in a heart shape, and gave V an iconic shotgun as a present. And if that isn't love, I don't know what is.
Not to be a downer again, but even in the realm of cis-queer characters, there aren't many in the game. It could be argued that lots of characters' sexualities are unknown, and that's true, but also in every instance I can think of, when side characters were in relationships, they were hetero ones. More than anything else, it just helps reinforce that this game was made by cis-het people for whom cit-het characters are the default, so that's what they went with, unless there was a relevant story reason not to. I feel like the only time I encountered NPCs that seemed like they were in a queer relationship was the time I found two guys arguing (about their relationship) in a gay strip club. Not to just repeat myself, but I'd like to hope that in a cyberpunk future, there would be a higher quantity of queer people around.
I think that's all I have to say on how the game handles queerness. I could go on about how I think queerness, and queer characters in media are important, especially these days. But that's just going to end in me saying that a few more queer characters in Cyberpunk 2077 isn't going to stop fascists from taking away people's rights, which is becoming increasingly an unending struggle these days.
Okay, time for closing thoughts. For all its faults, I had a great time with the game, and even if I wrote so much I had to split it into two blogs, I'm also glad it got me to think as much as it did. And believe me, there's so much more I could have written about (like the mission where you crucify a man (his idea, by the way) so the man's memory of dying on the cross can be sold to people around the world via Brain Dance technology), but I'll spare you. Even if part of me regrets never bringing up that this was another AAA game made with horrible years long crunch, and that's still an issue that I think needs to be addressed across the games industry.
I'll just say this: I'm looking forward to whatever the story expansion they're working on is, and I genuinely would really want to play a multiplayer version of Cyberpunk 2077, should they ever get back to/finish it. I just think horsing around in Night City with my cyber punk pals (real friends in this case) would be fun!
Okay, that's really it this time! Thank you for reading, especially if you read both parts, but honestly even if you only read part of it. I do truly appreciate it! <3
Quick Note: This was originally written as a single, very long blog, but for the sake of my readers' time, I split it into two.
Where do I even begin with this one? The astronomical expectations before it released? Or how it was such a disastrous release that it led to unprecedented numbers of returns, and even Sony delisting the game from sale on PSN for months? Given that I think it's safe to say anyone reading this already knows all that stuff, and I specifically waited for the PS5 version of the game because of it, I can probably start with the newer rendition of the game.
Or maybe before that, just a quick word on when I bought the game, before actually playing it. That was some time last fall, when it was on a clearance sale for $10. Again, just as a reminder for what happened with this game, that a major retailer was trying to get rid of copies they clearly had lying around since launch (as it came with a code for a free month of HBO Max that expired at the end of December 2020), and sold it for one sixth the original price less than a year after release.
Then came the release of the current gen (PS5/Xbox Series) version of the game, and a moment where it felt like CD Projekt Red was presenting this as the “we've finally done it and made this into the game we wanted it to be” moment. Or maybe a bit more cynically, the “we finally fixed it” version of the game. And that felt like the perfect time to jump in and finally use that clearance sale copy I bought!
Only problem being, I was deep into the Lands Between at the time, and I wasn't about to derail my Elden Ring playthrough for anything else. After finishing that, I wanted some smaller games to play first (thank you The Game Bakers' Haven and (RIP) Japan Studio's Gravity Rush duology for serving this purpose well (one of these games may get mentioned in Part II of this blog, so keep an eye out!)). Especially before starting another RPG where I was going to be spending time thinking about how to build out my character.
After everything I read and heard about Cyberpunk, I really had no idea what to expect going in. It's fair to say that, since when I bought it I thought, “surely I'll get $10 of enjoyment out of it,” my expectations were low. However, that's also perhaps part of why the game surprised me so much, because despite it all, despite the fact that the game definitely does still have problems (some of them technical, still), I actually had a really great time with it.
First off, I think given the game's reputation, and the year and a half-ish after initial release it took for the current gen console version to be let unto the world, I think the technical side of the game is the best place to start discussing the game itself. While I'd like to say I had a flawless time with the game, I didn't. It still has issues, ranging from weird bugs with the UI (like showing the wrong weapon equipped when loading into the game (particularly a heavy machine gun I neither owned nor had the stats to properly use)), to sound effects continuing to play after they should've stopped, to goofy ones like an NPC floating above a sidewalk, or a car loading in at a weird angle relative to the ground. Then there's the more significant ones. There was one instance of a character briefly not animating at all during a story cutscene, and worst of all, the game hard crashed my PS5.
Only game to do that, so far.
But I also want to emphasize that in eighty (yes, 80) hours with the game, the experience was mostly totally fine. Far from the buggiest game I've ever played, and though I didn't play the launch version of Cyberpunk, I'd say far from the horror story I've heard that was. For the most part I think it runs well too, at least in performance mode. Definitely some spots where, even with the PS5's new VRR mode enabled (and of course my TV that supports it), it still feels kind of hitchy, but really only in some of the most heavily populated marketplace areas in the game. I'm not sure what's going on there, but elsewhere, and particularly during combat where those frames have more impact, I didn't notice any issues.
Visually I think the game looks nice, with some cool design throughout (though I am a sucker for lowercase c cyberpunk aesthetics in general), but I wouldn't say it's the visual showpiece the game was touted as before release. Or, maybe more accurately, not the visual showpiece the game is on a suitably powerful PC. Perhaps if they ever update the game again for PS6 in the future, that version can have the full suite of traced rays, but until then, I don't think ray traced shadows (only in indoor scenes) is worth halving the framerate. That said, I love the HDR in it, because it really makes all that glowing neon pop.
All in all I'd say the game still has room for improvement, but at least on PS5, it's a pretty good experience in that regard. Of course, even a technically perfect game isn't great if the rest of it isn't up to snuff, but both the story and game parts of Cyberpunk were significantly better than I expected.
We all know the setup at this point, a small time criminal named V gets wrapped up in something way bigger than they ever expected, and winds up with a rogue Keanu trapped in their noggin. What I didn't know going into the game, is that the build up to that happening is way longer, and more involved than I thought. There's a late title card after it, and not counting end of story late title cards (like Red Dead Redemption), it's both one of the latest, and best I've ever seen. Just a great build up to a sudden event, and the title card pops. I know it's another thing I'm a sucker for, but nothing hits quite the same as a well executed late title card, and again, this is genuinely one of my favorites of those.
I'm not going to go into too much depth about the game's story (but there are some end of Act 1/beginning of Act 2 SPOILERS I'll mention), but on top of the game's main narrative being compelling enough to keep my interest through its whole run time, I was surprised by how much I liked the game's cast of characters, both the main and side ones. And I think crucially, the fact that the game has way more heart, and spends much more time developing them than I anticipated.
Take Jackie, for example. He was the guy who probably showed up the most in the promotional stuff for the game (aside from maybe Johnny Silverhand, because of Keanu's obvious star power), but even before playing the game, I kinda got the vibe that something was going to happen to him. And, unsurprisingly Jackie does meet an untimely end at the close of the game's opening Act, but the game had done enough to make me feel bad when he died. Both in the time spent with him, and in his final moments.
Then, even more surprising to me, was the side mission to go meet with Jackie's mom after the fact, and attend a get together for Jackie's friends and family to pay their last respects to him. For whatever reason, I had this impression going into the game that Cyberpunk was going to be nothing but cynical and edgy for the sake of being edgy, and while I'm not going to say the game doesn't have a fair amount of cynicism in it, and there are definitely parts that feel like they're trying too hard to be edgy (like the in game advertising), but it also has genuine heart and compassion for its characters.
Not just in this one mission either, throughout the game, just about all the major characters get moments like this. Scuba diving with Judy, spending an afternoon staking out and chatting with Takemura, cruising around the badlands with Panam, or even all the heart to hearts that V and Johnny Silverhand have together. A lot of it is optional, but that's true of a lot of games like this. Someone could technically play a Persona without doing the social links with party members, but like that, this is an experience where players are really supposed to go and spend time with these characters.
Even if that is kind of at odds with the game's main narrative that is focused on what is meant to feel like a fairly tight (literal) deadline. Conversely, I'm glad that unlike Persona there aren't any sort of time limits or actual time pressure on these things, so I could just do them whenever, and at whatever pace I wanted. Not to get sidetracked, but it does still bother me that I had two unfinished Confidants that I cared about in Persona 5 Royal, that if I had even another in game week I could have completed. But no such problem in Cyberpunk, which is good.
The last main story related thing I really want to touch on is the relationship between V and Johnny. Considering the casting of Keanu Reeves, someone who certainly who by all appearances is a very popular and good sounding guy (at least by celebrity standards), I was expecting Johnny to be kind of a friendly pal type character. A mentor who would show up with words of wisdom, or funny quips.
Instead Johnny's kind of an a-hole, and also a terrorist?? He used a nuke in the middle of Night City to blow up a building, and killed who knows how many people, for crying out loud! So, the first time he appears to V, it's an intense, and frankly almost scary scene as he tries to forcefully wrench control of V's body away from them.
So, as one could guess, their relationship doesn't exactly get off on the right foot. And for a large portion of the game, the two of them are practically at each others' throats, even though they know they basically have to work together if they want to achieve their goal: Getting Johnny out of V's head before it's too late. And as much as I love Keanu (as an actor at least, I've never met the man), I admit he doesn't exactly have the largest acting range. But thankfully his casting for the role wasn't just a publicity stunt, and unlike some other similar casting (Kiefer Sutherland), Keanu actually has a lot of lines throughout the game, so he feels really fleshed out.
Across the board, I think the voice acting for all the main characters is really good, especially at least the feminine voice for V. I can't speak to the masculine voice option, though that one did seem a little off putting when I watched a comparison video after finishing the game, just out of curiosity. Anyway, I just wanted to give a proper shout out to Cherami Leigh for her performance as V, because even now I still think that voice actors don't get enough credit for all their hard work, and how that work can mean the difference between characters/a story being compelling, or a slog. Plus I would have felt bad if the only actor I mentioned by name was the big name one from Hollywood.
Back to V and Johnny, I don't know how much variation there is based on choices made, or whether some side quests later in the game are or aren't done, but I like the overall arc the two of them have. Slowly growing to trust each other, even if they still find each other kind of annoying at times. I mean, I would too, if someone was stuck in my head, even if he did look and sound like Keanu. Or if I was stuck in someone else's, for that matter!
Last thing I really want to mention about the story, is that I quite liked the ending I got. I started the game with the Nomad origin, and I'm not going to spoil anything about the different ways the ending can play out, but I'll say that the ending I got felt true to my character, and to a large extent their Nomadic leanings. It was a bittersweet ending in a lot of ways, but that just ended up making it feel that much more endearing to me.
Then there's the part of Cyberpunk where it's a video game, which I also liked a lot! This I had a better idea of what to expect going into the game, as I'd heard it was basically CD Projekt's take on making a Deus Ex game, just with added hacking that feels more Watch_Dogs-ish. Considering it's a cyberpunk game with an emphasis on stealth, encounters designed to be tackled in a variety of ways, and some amount of customization on how to build out the character, in a lot of ways it is. But considering the much wider breadth of this game (being fully open world) and options for character builds (at least compared to the latter two Deus Exes, I only played the Jensen games), I think Cyberpunk pushes further than those games did in a lot of ways.
One of which being that character builds and RPG elements aside, I actually think that Cyberpunk is pretty good and fun to play outside of the stealth. Listen, I like those two Jensen games as much as anyone else (especially Human Revolution), but the combat never felt all that good. It was a bit more refined in Mankind Divided, but it always felt like a stealth game first and foremost, and particularly one where entering into combat meant I had messed up.
I'm not going to say Cyberpunk has amazing combat, and I definitely had to monkey around with the right stick sensitivity and acceleration a lot before I got it feeling right, but for this style of game? It's definitely the best feeling the combat, both ranged and especially melee, has ever felt to me. Even expanding the comparisons, I think it plays a lot better than the Fallout games. Exponentially better than The Outer Worlds ever felt, that's for sure! A game that some may recall, I disliked the combat so much that my takeaway was that Obsidian should just give up on including combat in their games, and instead focus on narrative adventure games.
There's a decent variety of weapon types too, including “smart” weapons that curve their shots to hit targets (like that one from The Fifth Element), and tech weapons that can shoot right through solid concrete when charged. And the melee combat has things like well timed parries and dodges activating slow motion (think Bayonetta style Witch Time), and that always felt cool to pull off too.
But that's not all either, there's also the hacking, which is useful for both stealth and combat, as it can be used for Watch_Dogs style jumping from camera to camera to scope out areas before infiltrating, giving enemies debuffs, or even outright attacking them. And as my character ended up being primarily focused on hacking, it wound up being by far my most effective “weapon” during fights. Why shoot back at the enemies when I can activate my hacker vision (which stops time to give me time to think), then just upload digital poison that spreads to all my foes? Or simply give them a system reset that knocks someone out entirely, and then spreads to another person because I bought the Cyberware deck that lets “Ultimate Quickhacks” spread to another target? Maybe install a little sneaky trick onto all the enemies in the area whilst I breach them that automatically disables their ability see when they spot me, so I can mosey on by undetected? And if I'm feeling deadly, detonate a grenade, or just force a target to pull out their own gun and commit suicide?
Well, because those last two options are...very dark. I'm not saying I never did those (though I may have never actually used the grenade one, come to think of it), but I did generally try not to just outright kill most enemies in the game. Not unless they really deserved it. I didn't go for a 100% nonlethal route, partly because I don't think it can done to the letter, as there's some enemies in the early game that I think the only way to deal with them is killing. That said, there are certain side missions with an optional objective to not kill, and I did my best to adhere to those. Particularly the “Cyberpsycho” ones, as the person who gives those missions (Regina) wants to help the afflicted Cyberpsychos recover, and they can't if they're dead.
Usually when games have nonlethal options I do try to use them, as I find it interesting when games treat “not killing” as something worthwhile (I prefer not to use the word “pacifism” because I think knocking people out is still a form of violence, and thus not literally pacifist). In most games, the nonlethal play style feels notably different from the default, and often in ways that make it more of a challenge than just killing. Sometimes too much more (like Dishonored's paltry sleep dart ammo capacity), and there's always the rare game where it's somehow more effective to not kill (Splinter Cell Blacklist and its room clearing sleep gas bombs). Cyberpunk, though, is weird because aside from doing a blunt melee only run, its solution to nonlethal play is to equip a mod to V's eyes that just magically makes all their damage nonlethal. I think the lore explanation being that it allows V to target parts of the body that won't kill the enemy, but...it's still me manually aiming the weapon, so it feels a tad silly.
Now, for the smart weapons, this does make some sense because it then it does only target limbs, instead of the chest or head. But for tech weapons with enough power to shoot through concrete? A little less so. Regardless of how much real world sense it does or doesn't make, in practice whether to kill or not kill doesn't have that big an impact on how one plays the game, which made it a bit less compelling to me than in most other stealth games. The tradeoff is supposed to be that headshots don't get any bonus damage, but I don't know if that was actually working as intended. Because the game previews how much damage an attack will do (at least from stealth) by making a portion of the enemy's health bar change color for how much damage the attack will do, and headshots always took up a larger portion of the bar. At least when I was actively paying attention to it. Now, maybe that was a different bonus, like a sneak attack one that isn't affected by the nonlethal eye mod, but I don't know for sure.
All that aside, as I said, as I got deeper into the game, and my build became increasingly focused on stealth and hacking, at some point I found that the game got too easy, since I could just hack everyone, and all my skills and ram recharged so fast I was unstoppable. So I turned the difficulty up to hard, and my immediate reaction to that jump wasn't great. At first it felt like the only difference was that now I died almost immediately when enemies shot at me, thus forcing me to actually stick to cover, and only peek my head out to quickhack before ducking down again.
And that was frustrating when combat started, so I went back and forth between normal and hard for a bit before getting my character to a place where they could more easily survive once the combat started. Through one of the cooler skill sets in the game, Cold Blood. I assume this is probably something from some incarnation of the Cyberpunk series of tabletop RPGs, but basically Cold Blood is a series of buffs that build up as more enemies are defeated in rapid succession. Better defense, better damage, better resistances, better cool downs, etc. Luckily defeating enemies in any way, including hacking, counts, so by doing that, and being aggressive, I was able to still get through fights in a manner that wasn't just hiding and poking my head out, and while still playing on hard.
Probably worth noting that by the end of the game I hadn't actually hit the level cap (didn't spend enough time sleeping for the well rested XP bonus (or showering for the “not stinky” health regen bonus)), but I had maxed out two of the five Attributes in the game (Intelligence and Cool), and almost maxed a third (Technical). But that left my Body and Reflexes very low (five and six), meaning I had very little health. So even with as much armor as I could get my mitts on (while also trying to be fashionable), my character was not built for tanking damage. That and I think the game's health regen abilities might not work entirely correctly? But I can't be sure how much of things not working like how I thought is ability descriptions not being clear enough, or maybe weird bugs.
All that said, when it wasn't too easy for its own good, I had a lot of fun with the game's combat and stealth, and I think there's potential for some pretty good variety in character builds. I focused on stealth and hacking, but there's so much melee and ranged combat stuff that I never even touched, even if I did occasionally pull out a sword, or Gorilla Arms to just punch enemies for fun. A lot of Cyberware mods are locked behind needing a specific level of certain Attributes, and because of that there were a ton of Body and Reflex focused ones that I couldn't ever try out. Ones that I assume probably make surviving in fights easier! Thankfully the sub-dermal armor can be used by anyone, and that was a big help.
Conversely, I'm pretty sure some of that better stuff for hacking was locked behind having high enough Int, so I'd imagine a melee only build probably can't hack well. Or maybe even at all, because I think there are other options for that slot in the Cyberware menu, which replace the hacking with a berserk skill, or maybe something else entirely? Like I say, I didn't have the stats to equip any of that stuff, and respeccing only refunds skill points, and not Attribute points. IE, I could rearrange how I spent my points within the different skill sets underneath the Attributes layer, but not the Attributes themselves. It makes sense in practice, trust me, and I assume the reason is because so many Cyberware mods are locked behind Attributes, and letting the player change those would result in some sort of wonkiness with that, or maybe require respeccing be done at a Ripperdoc, rather than anywhere. Which wouldn't have been a bad tradeoff, honestly.
Anyway, even if some skills could be explained better, and I wish I could refund individual skill points instead of it being all or nothing (just to save time when I felt like I had one skill that wasn't working out), overall I like these systems a lot. Enough that I kind of want to play the game again with a different build? I mean, I went all in on stealth and hacking, and I think it'd be fun to do a character that was all in on combat. Just a beast that runs through slicing and dicing, it'd be fun!
Partly because for as many neat mechanics as there are in the stealth, with it feeling like a good mix of Deus Ex and Watch_Dogs, even on hard when the enemies do have better eyesight, it's still kind of easy. Or, I think worse than being easy, most of the stealth encounters feel too short, and I don't think they fully explore what these mechanics could do, regarding different interactions that could happen with hacking. For side gigs that are meant to be done in a quick manner, that's fine, but even the story missions never really feel like they had me sneaking around as much as I wanted (and honestly some of the late game gigs felt like longer and more challenging stealth scenarios). Like, those Deus Ex games by being capital S Stealth Games, had some long sneaking missions that really felt like infiltrating heavily defended locations.
Cyberpunk, meanwhile, by being a game that has to cater to a wider swathe of play styles, doesn't. There's some longer sneaking sections in the game, but they're few and far between, and I wish they'd been a bit more challenging.
So, I've written a bunch about this game's mechanics, and could probably write a whole lot more if I really wanted to dig into every nook and cranny, but instead I'm going to move on and say something that might be controversial:
I think Cyberpunk 2077 is a better playing and designed game than The Witcher games. A much better one, in a lot of ways! Granted, I never actually played the first Witcher, but I don't think the combat in II or III ever rose to anything above mediocre, and the RPG aspects of III were an active hindrance to my enjoyment of the game. I liked exploring and meandering around that game's world, but the bulk of playing the game (outside talking to people) was just spent using Witcher vision to follow things to a creature (some of which is still in Cyberpunk, particularly with the Cyberpsychos), and then engaging in adequate, but never exceptional swordplay with some very light magic sprinkled in on top.
Don't get me wrong, I like those second two Witcher games a lot, but because of story, world, characters, those sorts of things. Whereas Cyberpunk also has story, world, and characters that I enjoy, but with a lot of game systems and mechanics that are so much more interesting and fun to play around with. For me anyway, I'll take a cyber stealth game over a generic feeling fantasy game, purely in terms of the game part, I mean. I'm not going to compare and contrast the stories of the games, because that feels even more subjective to me (but also this is a personal blog, everything I write is subjective!), and also it's been years since I played Witcher III, and even longer since II.
Only last comparison I'll make is that I'm glad Cyberpunk has a much more diverse cast of characters than any of the Witcher games. Which is to say, people of color exist in Cyberpunk, and though there are definitely good women characters in the Witcher series, I'd still lean toward Cyberpunk being the better of the two at handling them. Broadly speaking they tend to feel more like they have actual agency over their lives, as opposed to just being there for Geralt to come and solve all their problems (even if V has a lot of problems to solve too, to be fair). That, and the cyberpunk setting means the outfits all feel appropriate for the setting, as opposed to The Witcher where a lot of women felt needlessly sexualized. Like Ciri's shirt in III being unbuttoned in just the right spot to see her bra. At least in Cyberpunk when there are characters whose bras I can see, it feels like it fits, and like something a person might do as an intentional choice, if that makes any sense.
And before anyone @s me about the race thing in The Witcher, there's plenty of people of color in the Netflix Witcher series, so just don't. I won't respond. There's zero good reasons to exclude people of color in fantasy settings. And if these days if I see an all white fantasy world, it's kind of hard to not think it's down to either active racism, or the creators of that world being way too white for their own good, and way too clueless (and arguably that's a form of passive, unconscious racism).
To also be clear, I'm not saying that Cyberpunk is amazing in any regard to race. I'm sure others more qualified to speak on the matter had things to say about it falling into the “exoticising” and “Orientalism” tropes that the genre (and also series) of Cyberpunk often does regarding Asian people broadly (but specifically Japanese and Chinese in Cyberpunk 2077). Never mind that there's very few black characters in the main story (several of which are killed early on, and the others only show up very briefly), and the majority of the Hispanic characters are pretty light skinned. Which obviously people like that exist in real life, but considering the game's Californian setting, it feels a bit odd.
Again, just to remind people, I'm white, and that surface level musing is about all I feel comfortable saying. So, instead I just want to bring up one last brief thing before ending Part I of this blog.
Namely, the music. Overall I think it's pretty good, at least all the “story/cutscene” type music. Most of the stuff that played on the radio wasn't so hot, but I'd say that's true of radio stations in real life too. Even on the game's radio, there's a lot of stuff that I think is enjoyable enough, until the vocals start. Then I changed the station, or turned it off entirely while driving. Which reminds me that I wrote this whole thing without ever talking about the driving! It's totally adequate, but I want to say the driving model was overhauled at some point before I played the game, so maybe it used to be terrible, for all I know.
That's it for Part I (the shorter of the two parts) of my many thoughts on Cyberpunk 2077! You may be wondering what else I had to say after I already wrote about the story and game design (though honestly I could have gone so much deeper on the story if I wanted to get into actual spoilers), and if so, tune in soon for Part II! I'll be exploring the topic of, “Just how 'cyberpunk' is Cyberpunk 2007,” and doing the thing I can't stop myself from doing: Writing about the game's handling of queer topics and characters.
Thank you for reading, and Part II is live now! Give it a read if you just can't get enough of my writing!
For the first time since, I think Death Stranding, I've felt compelled to write not one, but two (2) blogs about the same game in short succession. In this case, however, I actually really like the lore and story of Elden Ring, as opposed to the Death Stranding one being about my trying to wrap my brain around the mess that was that game's story. So, as one might surmise, that means this is going to be full on SPOILERS, for not literally everything in the game (I'd have to write a whole book to cover all that), but some major things. Main plot beats, late game bosses (including the final boss), and deeper lore stuff that I know my friends and I can't stop thinking about, and talking about amongst ourselves.
So if you haven't finished Elden Ring, stop reading this, and go do that! I've got another blog all written up if you want very spoiler light thoughts on the game, and you can read it here. It only took me 150 hours over a month and a half, not like it's a big time commitment or anything...
The set up for Elden Ring is that the player character, one of many Tarnished, has arrived in the Lands Between with the goal of acquiring the Great Runes spread across the lands, and using them to reforge the shattered Elden Ring to become the new Elden Lord. Which, I should note, it was not until the very end of the game that I realized the Elden Ring is not a ring worn around a finger. All this is a pretty straightforward, very video game-y set up. Go kill the named bosses, get their special items, and become the new ruler of the land.
Where it gets interesting is that Queen Marika, who had been the central figure in all of the goings on in the Lands Between, is the one who shattered the Elden Ring. Despite it being crucial to her rise to power, she was the one who caused the Shattering, and plunged all the lands into a devastating war. And this isn't treated as the big twist of the game or anything, so far as I remember it was revealed fairly early in the game, though I don't remember exactly where or when. Now, as for her reasons, that the game doesn't really make clear without paying attention throughout...quite a lot of the game.
It does, however, lead into one of the most fascinating parts of Elden Ring's lore, and perhaps the thing that I find most compelling about it. Marika did not just come into power on her own, or even simply through her manipulation of others to do the work for her (like her one time consort and lead war guy Godfrey). It was the Greater Will, through those creepy sets of giant fingers that were the ones pulling Marika's strings, and as best as I can tell, using her to do their bidding. Whether that was uniting the Lands Between to as close to one rule as possible, or creating a system to feed the Erdtree (and its “small” (still enormous) Minor Erdtrees)) with every corpse the living jars could get their hands on, the unseen Greater Will and their Golden Order were the ones really in control.
But what exactly is the Greater Will? Well, to use the game's terminology, “Outer God” would probably be the correct term, but I'd prefer to use the word...alien. That's right, Elden Ring is really about aliens. Or at the very least, the Outer Gods are important, though largely unseen figures in the game, because the Greater Will isn't the only one, even if they are the one most relevant to the main story. But it's not just the Outer Gods, there's Fallingstar Beasts, which as one might guess from the name, came from falling stars, the Onyx/Alabaster Lords, who apparently came to life after something with falling stars as well, and Astal the “Naturalborn of the Void,” which is very alien too. Both in how strange it (and some other one off enemies similar in design) looks, but is also connected to space in some manner.
I'll be honest, I love space stuff, and aliens. A lot. One of the reasons why Bloodborne has stuck with me so much over the years is that its world and story ultimately revolve around the Great Ones, which even if they didn't arrive in spaceships or on “falling stars,” are aliens of a sort too. And as soon as I started getting into this stuff in Elden Ring, I got real excited, because they were doing it again! Then I got a smidge deflated because I thought about it a little cynically, in the “well they're just doing Bloodborne again” sort of way. But that cynicism didn't last that long, because even if it is similar ground to what they've done before, it's interesting enough to be worthwhile on its own, and a good enough concept that I understand why From would go to that well a second time.
Also, in a lot of ways, Elden Ring kind of does feel like a greatest hits of From's past games anyway. The Outer Gods are like the Great Ones again, the core of the game feels like the natural next step in how the Dark Souls games played, and it even has the stealth and jumping mechanics from Sekiro (even if the jumping felt better and the Death Blows were more useful in Sekiro). Even the basic setup is a lot like Dark Souls, only with the “normal” ending being the “become the lord” ending(s), as opposed to that being the “dark” or “bad” ending, and the light stuff on fire ending (Frenzied Flame) is the bad one in Elden Ring, as opposed to the “good” one in Dark Souls.
Of course these games have long been about being manipulated, and the question of what's right or wrong, or the best course of action is as ambiguous as anything else. By Dark Souls III I was definitely of the belief that the Fire was ultimately no good, and that trilogy was really about those in power (the Gods, starting with Gwyn) using said power to maintain control, and eventually forcing others to sacrifice themselves (light the Fire endings) to maintain their power, and the status quo. Of course, it's not completely cut and dry considering that Gwyn tried to relight the Fire himself (I think? I mean he's the final boss so I don't remember if he actually re-lit it or lost his mind before he could), but for as ambiguous as these games are, I don't think their societal commentary is subtle.
So, like how in Dark Souls III I went with the “let the Fire go out” ending, in Elden Ring I ended up with the Ranni ending, as I am fully bought in to the idea that the Greater Will and Erdtree are ultimately bad. Also because I had finished her quest, and I wasn't going to not get her ending after going through all that effort (more on that later). Ranni (a step-demigod and the daughter of Rennala and Radagon) thinks the Greater Will exerts their will too strongly over...pretty much everything, so her plan is to take the power of Elden Lord (and thus the Greater Will's Golden Order) to the moon, where it's far away from all the goings on down on the planet, so people can live as normally as anyone could in that world.
At least that's what I gathered from it, after talking with some friends about how some of her dialog was apparently not properly translated. I don't really know any Japanese, or how the dialog was written in Japanese, but the ending as literally written in English certainly sounds a bit...grim. But I think it's supposed to be more along the lines of just letting people be, but I dunno.
Also I like this ending because it has a strong, “written by dudes who included a marriage/consort thing with Ranni because she's a lady which then inadvertently makes it the lesbian ending if you played a lady,” energy. In the same way that in Prey 2017, Morgan Yu had an ex-girlfriend regardless of which gender you picked, meaning it was either (presumed) hetero dude, or lesbian. And I guess I got the better dialog where she refers to the player Tarnished with a more endearing word because I happened to go back to her tower and talk to her (in doll form (no, not her normal doll form, a different doll form)) before finishing the game.
As an aside, I know I tend to look at games from a very “I'm a queer person perspective,” so I like to lean into things like “inadvertent lesbianism,” but there was one thing in the game that the more I think about, it does bother me. I don't go into From games expecting anything queer, even if there are certainly trans readings of Gwyndolin in Dark Souls (the predominant theory was they're a trans lady, though I kind of feel the opposite and they're a trans guy). Anyway, the boss Mohg in Elden Ring, on the surface is just another crazed demigod, this one obsessed with blood and a blood related Outer God, but read into the item descriptions pertaining to him, and he gets...significantly creepier.
He was obsessed with becoming Miquella's “consort” to the point of kidnapping Miquella while inside a cocoon, and thus powerless to fight back. Now, for context, Miquella is a guy (thus making Mohg the only character I know of in the game with any sort of “canonical” “queer” “inclination”), but also afflicted with a condition that made him unable to grow beyond childhood (the cocoon was a means to attempt to get around that magically). And also Mohg's half brother, as they share the same mother (Marika).
Now granted, “consort” is a very loaded term that the game uses a lot, and arguably more often than not it's purely for political reasons, as opposed to anything else. But even so, Mohg wanting to be the consort of his half brother, who is perpetually a child is...creepy. Of course I don't exactly think the game thinks the “Lord of Blood” is anything other than a boss to be felled, but again, aside from the “inadvertently lesbian” Ranni, that's the closest thing to a queer character I found in this game, and...I don't like that. I think it's fine to have queer characters be villains in media, but less so when the only one in the game is an incestuous pedophile. Even if you try to look at it as Mohg wanting Miquella to grow up first, that's then him grooming his half brother, and considering the current climate of supposed grooming being the central pillar of the fascist attacks against queer rights in America, well it just starts to feel even grimier than before.
And before anyone tries to say “Mohg just wants to be monarch,” if that's the case, then he should be killing his twin Morgott, “the Last of All Kings.” If Mohg has any claim to any throne, it should be through his brother who's currently claiming to be king, not poor Miquella.
I'd like to think From, or even George R. R. didn't mean anything by this, and that I'm just reading into it too much. Maybe Ranni is canonically bi, and maybe there's other queer characters in the game that I just missed, or maybe there's a genderfluid reading of a character (or pair of) that I don't really buy into for reasons I'll get to later. Still, it's the one part of the game's lore that after thinking about, I felt bad about it. But now it's out of my system, so this longer than intended “aside” I inserted after writing the rest of the blog is over, and I can get back to just discussing the game's endings.
I haven't exactly had the time to replay a 150 hour game (I know it'd be much faster to play again now that I know what I'm doing), but I have gone and looked up the other endings. The Frenzied Flame ending seems pretty unequivocally bad, just swapping the Greater Will for a different, much worse Outer God. I mean, for as much as they overextended their will, at least they didn't want to literally burn everything. And the other endings, watching them all in succession in a YouTube video, the only differences seem to be the color of the sky, maybe some weather effects, and slightly different dialog from the narrator who I don't think had spoken since the game's intro.
Which is all to say that apparent mistranslations aside, I think Ranni's is the best ending, and probably the only reason to ever go for the other ones would be to get all the Trophies/Achievements. And considering the PS5 doesn't let you copy saves off the system like the PS4 (cowards!), I don't really think I'll be replaying it twice more to get the Trophies for the Frenzied Flame or Become the New Elden Lord endings. That was how I got the other two endings in Bloodborne whilst only replaying it a second time. Listen, I spent that time in the Chalice Dungeons to get to the Queen Yharnam boss for the Platinum, I put in my time!
But back to Ranni, on the whole I'd say her questline, and the side quests associated with it were my favorite side quests in the game. I'm counting the first quest with Blaidd, the one that can be found and finished very early on as a part of this, considering how closely tied Blaidd is to Ranni. Blaidd was also probably my favorite character in the whole game, partly because he was one of the first named NPCs I found, and interacted with, so he ended up being one I spent a lot of time with. But he's also a cool wolf man, and his initial seemingly one off quest to get back at that guy in the Evergaol felt like a classic little From quest. Help an NPC beat a mini boss (or in this case summon Blaidd for help), and then the two of you part ways, and continue on your journeys.
Quite a bit later on, I encountered a humble, though large blacksmith named Iji, just sitting by the side of a path leading up to a large manor. Aside from offering his smithing services, Iji tried to dissuade me from going to the manor, saying it was protected, and whatnot. Despite his being a much more pleasant blacksmith than Hewg at the Roundtable Hold (though Hewg endeared himself to me by the end of the game), I ventured forth regardless, avoiding the giant magical blasts, and eventually worked my way through the manor and met Ranni. Or, re-met her, since she appeared as Renna much earlier in the game, and gave me the ability to summon Ash Spirits. No, I don't really know what exactly the differences between Ranni and Renna are, or if that's just a fake name she used for some reason. I've not read into this, as I'd probably just wait for Vaatividya to do a video on Ranni and hear his explanation since he has such a nice voice.
Anyway, after pledging to Ranni (though I just remembered the whole reason I was looking to do this was because Rogier at the Roundtable had his own quest to find a Mark from Ranni's old body and I was going undercover at first), I was delighted to see Blaidd again, and find out that he and I were to embark on a quest together! Or, as together as anything is in a From game, which is to say we met up at a few different locations. First underground, then later at the Radahn Festival, which is yet another standout moment in a game filled with so many. That was also where I met Iron Fist Alexander, and the moment of charging up against the enormous Radahn with a whole crew of other warriors was fantastic. I know the word epic has long been ruined by the internet, but it felt epic in the very classical sense of the word, and that was a fun fight.
As an (actual) aside I beat Radahn before he was nerfed, though apparently he was later buffed again, so I don't know if he's as “hard” as he was initially, still easier, or maybe even harder? I dunno, I didn't think the fight was that hard, just a matter of summoning everyone for help, and figuring out how to avoid his falling star smash attack.
Anyway, eventually this quest led to Blaidd being locked in the very same Evergaol his prior foe had been (I must admit at this point I started looking up what was going on because I had gotten so far underground (and in the wrong direction, to boot) without finding Blaidd and I was worried). By Iji, no less. So I confronted Iji, feeling like I was about to be heartbroken at his betrayal, only to learn that he did it for Ranni's sake. As Blaidd, due to his nature as being from the Greater Will (I think?) would eventually lead him to turn against Ranni, as her quest was against the Greater Will. I conveniently did not mention to Iji that I had already let Blaidd out (or rather I don't think there was a dialog option to, but I don't remember exactly), and continued on my quest.
Which is to say I had to get a friend to help point me in the right direction because I completely missed where to go underground, and then later I had to look up what to do after I found the Ranni doll, but missed the one spot you can initially talk to her. So, after talking, I ventured onward, and eventually finished the quest with a wedding proposal (a bit odd considering how she and my Tarnished barely knew each other), a promise to meet again once this was all done, and a bit of a chuckle as I remembered this all started with a request from Rogier, who at this point was long dead. RIP to Rogier, who even if he fell in with the wrong crowd (Fia and her death cult), he still deserved better.
Sadly, this wasn't where it ended, as I was heartbroken first when I had to fight Blaidd (well I could have just run away but felling him in battle felt like the way it was meant to end), and then when I found Iji had been killed by the Black Knives. That especially, I hadn't seen coming. Unlike Blaidd, which I had accidentally read too far on the wiki page about the quest (plus it was easy to see coming after talking with Iji). But Iji, I was completely blindsided by, and felt terrible about. He didn't deserve that. Neither did Blaidd!
In the end though, that's kind of how a lot of the quests in From games go. People try their best, but things go wrong, their wills eventually give out in the face of seemingly impossible odds, or whatever else gets in the way. This wasn't the only time I felt devastated at what happened either.
After feeling happy that Diallos had found a place where he could be useful, at Jarburg helping the Living Jars, I couldn't help but get a sinking feeling in my stomach. I knew something was bound to happen, I just didn't think it would be as bad as it was. I came back one time, and found that the little Jar Bairn (or Jar Kid as I liked to call them) was the only Jar left alive, and Diallos was dying. He asked if he had been able to protect the Jars, but as I looked at him, and the devastation, I lied, and said he had. No point in making him feel despair in his last moment, even if he had failed in his duty.
As heartbreaking as this moment was, I think this quest has a bit brighter of an ending to its tale. Jar Bairn dedicates their life to growing up to be a brave warrior like Diallos, and like their uncle Alexander, and they go off on a quest to do so. Not seen again, but I'd like to think they succeeded. Who knows, we may even see them again in Elden Ring II, maybe all grown up and strong. Finally the Warrior Jar we all want to see in the world.
I won't go over every quest in the game, but I've got a few more I want to at least mention. Millicent's was another tragic ending, as she gave up right before making it to Malenia. This one especially hurt, because she was so close, and even if she would've (I think?) had to give up her needle to save Malenia from the Scarlet Rot, that would've been a better end than just giving up. Also because I could have used her help as a summon against Malenia, because while I refused to summon other players or use a Spirit Ash, I generally don't have qualms summoning the AI that the devs specifically placed at specific bosses. I like to think of those as bosses that were balanced or designed around having that help, and that maybe there's some story reason for their help. Like how I think it'd be really dumb to go against Radahn all alone!
But the other two I want to mention, Boc and Rya, have happier endings. Or, they can, I guess depending on what you do in them. Boc is a demi-human (I think?), and while there's not really much to his quest, I do think that after reading how else it can go, the fact that his is about accepting who he is, and not feeling ashamed of his physical appearance is nice. And I should say, I wouldn't have had any idea that you're supposed to use one of the Prattling Pate “say a phrase out loud” items near him (the “You're Beautiful” one that I think isn't actually from Pate) if a friend hadn't told me about it. And Rya is a similar situation, where I think the ending I got, not erasing her memory so she instead comes to terms with her serpentine origins, and goes off on a quest to truly find herself is an uplifting ending.
I mentioned Radahn and Malenia earlier, which brings up the topic of the boss fights. I didn't really want to spoil any of the bosses in my other blog, so now here I'm going to do just that for the bosses, or moments during bosses that really jumped out to me. Obviously the whole of the Radahn Festival and that epic charge to face him in battle was great, but maybe my favorite part of Radahn is that while he's the biggest boi, his steed is decidedly normal in size. I briefly mentioned Leonard in the other blog, but not the fact that Radahn mastered gravity magic specifically so he could continue to ride and spend time with his beloved friend. I still feel bad for Leonard in a way, because even with the gravity magic he does look to be struggling in the cutscene before fighting Radahn, but I like to think that's only because Radahn has since lost his mind. When he was fully in control of himself, I want to think Leonard barely felt a thing as the two moseyed about. But also, I can't help but admire such a dedication to an animal friend, learning to control a type of magic so well that he could also hold a falling star suspended in orbit. If that isn't love, I don't know what is.
But earlier in the game, the first moment in a boss fight that stood out to me was the second half of the fight with Godrick the Grafted. Where, during a cutscene, he lopped off HIS OWN ARM, and as is his namesake grafted on something else in its place. Naturally, he went with the head of an already deceased dragon. Just an absolutely gnarly moment, especially considering it worked and now he had fire in addition to all his other moves!
Malenia, despite my being frustrated at how hard her fight was, is probably my favorite boss in the game. Partly because overcoming that challenge was so thrilling, but I really like her just as a whole. Her entire aesthetic, in both forms of the fight, honestly. Though if I'm being honest, part of me wishes they'd gone even further with the prosthetics. Like, I know she'd already lost an arm, a whole leg and part of the other, but if the idea is that the Scarlet Rot takes the limbs first (this is what my lore obsessed friend told me), and she being the goddess of the rot, I kind of think almost her entire body should've been prosthetic. That, or after her rebirth for the second phase, she should have lost the prosthetics and had a wholly organic body again. Yes, even the cool arm that's probably the most iconic part of her visual design, going back even to the reveal trailer from 2019.
Also if I'm being honest, I'm jealous of any warrior who can just throw off literally all of her armor, and not only keep fighting, but be even stronger and tougher than before. Plus I appreciate that they had a boss who is a literally nude woman but did it without her feeling sexualized. On the flipside, one time after I died she was standing in exactly the right spot so her butt was right in the camera, taking up most of the screen, so that did get a big laugh out of me. All the rot butterflies are neat too, I just wish it was easier to appreciate them without having to be dodging for my literal (in game) life, haha.
In terms of the fight itself, the character, and the visual design, Malenia is my favorite boss in the game (Radahn's up there too, though), but my favorite funny moment in any fight has to be with Godfrey. The fight against the actual Godfrey, not his shade earlier in the game. First off, in the initial phase, I couldn't help but think that the lion Serosh looked like it was a Stand from JoJo's. I also, throughout that first phase, kept thinking that the second phase was going to be the lion getting off his back, and then having to deal with both of them at once. Surely that was the reason Nepheli (another character I found quite endearing, even if I didn't detail her quest here (I'm glad she ended up with her own castle)) was summonable to help, right? Considering that Maliketh was the hardest of the late game story bosses (for me anyway) the idea of a similar beast boss in addition to Godfrey seemed intimidating.
But no, instead Godfrey kills Serosh, maybe absorbs its power, throws away his ax, and assumes his true form: Hoarah Loux, warrior, and...professional wrestler. If you went against my suggestion and read this without finishing the game, I'm not exaggerating. He's shirtless (sadly not fully nude like Malenia; thanks cowards), covered in blood, and starts using grapples and throws. Throwing the player (and Nepheli) high into the air, before slamming them back down, shattering the ground around them. It's great spectacle, very silly, and I absolutely loved it.
I have the steelbook case for the game, which has Godfrey and Serosh on it, and through so much of the game I kept wondering why they, of all people, were on it. Aside from looking cool, which they do, it's a nice design, I couldn't really figure out why. Obviously Godfrey is important to the lore, but I would've thought Marika, maybe the Tarnished themselves, or even Malenia would make more sense. Malenia was the statue that came with the biggest collector's edition of the game, after all (I don't have that because that costs a lot more money, though honestly if I had that sort of money I would buy the game again to get it, haha). But having experienced this ridiculous fight, I see now. Good choice.
Then there's the final boss fight(s). First Radagon (at this point finally revealed to also be Marika (I again promise more on that soon)), and finally the...Elden Beast. Let me tell you, I was a bit perplexed at this one. At this point I was well aware of the alien stuff in the game, but I wasn't expecting the last boss to just be one. Or some form of one, I'm still not entirely sure what the Elden Beast is. Probably not the Greater Will themselves, just some manifestation of them, or maybe one of their more powerful minions or something? Either way, it was at least a pretty fight, if a bit on the easy side. If I hadn't already used up most of my flasks on Radagon, I'd have felled it on my first try. Even so, all it took was swapping out my physical damage negation talisman for a holy damage one, and I felled them both on my second try.
Speaking of, I'm mildly obsessed with the fact that rather than “defense,” Elden Ring calls it “damage negation.” I don't remember if any of From's previous games did this too, but I just find it funny.
So, I think the last big thing I want to bring up is the Marika and Radagon thing. Just the whole question of what exactly is going on with them. Are they the same person? My first thought was that Marika was some sort of genderfluid shapeshifter (I told you I'd get to it), and that she created the form of Radagon as a means to seduce Rennala, and bring about peace that way, as Godfrey didn't seem to be able to wrestle Liurnia into submission. As far as I know the earliest mention of Radagon is in relation to this stuff, so from that perspective it could be conceivable that he exists solely for this purpose, as purely a guise Marika created to suit her (and the Greater Will's) needs.
But that theory doesn't really work out considering a couple other things. The first, which is debatable given the fantastical nature of Elden Ring, is that Marika and Radagon had several children together. Again, given it's a fantasy world, I can't say that a shapeshifter wouldn't be able to have children with themselves. I also can't help but think about out of all the demigods, their two children, Malenia and Miquella, are the only two that were both with serious “health issues,” for lack of a better phrase. Malenia afflicted with the Scarlet Rot, and Miquella with the inability to grow out of childhood (though I guess how young he perpetually is isn't shown directly).
But really the fact that Marika and Radagon have such different motivations is the biggest evidence that they're two separate people. Marika shattered the Elden Ring, and Radagon tries futilely to repair it, as seen in the reveal trailer from 2019 (even then I thought something was up with there being two separate people who looked very similar working that anvil).
So, if they have such different motivations, and they're two separate people, why do they share the same body? That's the question, and considering how the game ends (with Radagon felled, and Marika seemingly also dead as a result), I really doubt we're ever going to get a concrete answer about it. That's fine though, I like the ambiguity of From's games, and I think having all the answers would spoil a bit of the fun. Like if I already knew everything there was to know about the game, what reason would I have to spend hours watching lore videos on YouTube? Talking about the lore with friends wouldn't be nearly as fun if we had all the answers, after all.
I could keep going, there's other characters, quests, bosses, areas, etc that I could go on and on and on about. But I think I've covered most of the stuff that really compelled me, and the stuff I really loved the most. And that one bit that I kind of hate the more I think about it.
If you read all the way through, thanks as always, and double thanks if you read both my blogs about the game. Like I said, it's rare for a game to compel me enough to write about it twice in a row, especially for almost entirely positive reasons, but that's Elden Ring for you. Or From Software, more accurately.
Here's to hoping that rumored/leaked mech game of theirs is real, and continues the incredible streak From has going.
If ever there was a game that was so hyped up that it felt like it could never possibly live up to those expectations, it'd be Elden Ring, right? Announced a decade after the release of the game that set From Software down the path to its current status as one of the most renowned studios out there (Demon's Souls), and ultimately released eleven years after Dark Souls, it had a lot to live up to. Dark Souls went on to be one of the most influential games of the last decade, and though its sequels didn't reinvent the wheel, they were still great games. Bloodborne is an all time favorite of mine, and even if the story stuff in Sekiro wasn't great, the thrilling duels certainly were.
So, they have this lineage, and combined with a “world created by Hidetaka Miyazaki and George R. R. Martin,” the expectations weren't just through the roof, they weren't even stratospheric. They'd gone past the Moon and about halfway to Mars! How could a game possibly live up to all this?
For me, my expectations were maybe a bit different that other people's. Probably because I'd never read anything of Martin's, or ever watched the Game of Thrones series, so I really had no idea what to expect from a collaboration between him and From. Game play wise, I was maybe a bit trepidatious, thinking the open world could be great, or it could just as easily feel like empty space, meant to be filler between what would be the equivalents of classic Souls style “levels.” Even so, it was hard to not get sucked into all the hype, all the potential of From setting a new standard, a new game to take up the mantle so things were no longer the “Dark Souls of,” but now the “Elden Ring of” in years to come. I couldn't help but feel that electric hype in the air when I first sat down to play it.
Which made my early hours in the game...interesting. When faced with the character creation menu, it took a bit of thinking before choosing a starting class. In the lead up to the game I'd already thought a lot about, broadly speaking, how I wanted to play Elden Ring. I'd done the Dark Souls trilogy as a “sword and board” character, dodging attacks when I could, but still relying on a shield for safety. And with a smidge of magic and bows and arrows for slightly longer range. Demon's Souls I cheesed through as a Royal and min-maxed for magic, so I ended up not really enjoying the game because I made it way too easy on myself.
But Bloodborne and Sekiro, I adored the combat in both, so it made me think that I should try to approach Elden Ring in the same way. Play as fast and agile a character as I could, one that couldn't fall back on a shield for safety, and one that needed to stay aggressive to succeed. So, the two starting classes that caught my eye were the dual-wielding Warrior, and the katana equipped Samurai. I'd never really dual-wielded in a From game before, so I went with Warrior, thinking it was the most different from how I'd play the Dark Souls games (without going the magic route), and hoping it'd give me what I was looking for.
In retrospect, this was kind of a funny choice. I used those starting dual scimitars for the bulk of the first twenty hours of the game, as I explored the opening Limgrave area, delved into a underground area, and finally stormed Stormveil Castle. But as I did, I kept feeling like I was running into trouble. Aside from when I cheesed Demon's Souls, all these games have been fairly challenging, but none of them felt like I was struggling the way I did in this first chunk of Elden Ring. Basic enemies weren't too bad, but any time I had to face something tougher, it just felt like I was getting worked over. Whether they were knights on horseback in the open world, ghost Vikings underground, or especially the wind magic using knights in Stormveil, it just felt like I had completely forgotten how to play this style of game.
To some extent, I may have, given the last one I played was Sekiro. For all its similarities in terms of level design, and enemy layouts, Sekiro really was a much different feeling game. Even simple things like jumping, which Elden Ring has too, just felt different there. The Sekiro man could jump higher, and felt so much more agile generally that going back to the more grounded feeling of Elden Ring, it was off putting for quite a while. It drove home that in terms of game play, Elden Ring is much more Dark Souls IV than it is any sort of follow up to Sekiro or Bloodborne.
Never mind that, as I remembered after writing the first draft of this, Sekiro was as much a game about parrying and blocking as it was pure agility, and you can't block at all whilst dual-wielding in Elden Ring.
But, I persevered, because for every moment of frustration, there were plenty more of awe and excitement at the world I was exploring, and learned more about the lore and story. I still can't say how much of it was from Martin, and how much from Miyazaki and the rest of From, but there is just an enormous amount going on in Elden Ring. The Goddess(?) Queen Marika, her Demigod descendents, the Golden Order, ancient dragons, Those Who Live in Death (just a great combination of words), so many different factions, different forces at play with each other, so many different ins and outs that at some point it stopped feeling like a video game world, and felt more like a full on mythology. There's even a turtle pope.
Yes, a turtle pope!!
I love the worlds of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, but Elden Ring may genuinely be the most interesting and fully fleshed out world in any game I've ever played? Even if “fully fleshed out” feels weird to say in a game that still teases out information bit by bit. From an NPC here, an item description there, and things inferred from the environments themselves.
That said, despite the teasing nature of the storytelling, and the grand scale of this being an open world game that took me just about 150 hours to finish, it still felt like I was learning more and more about the world, not only through to the end, but in a lot of ways still in greater amounts than the much shorter and more focused previous games from From. I do love the ambiguity of From's storytelling style, and I don't think I would want every question about the universe of Bloodborne answered, for instance, but Elden Ring does feel like it has the most to say about its world of the bunch. And, crucially, that everything it has to say feels important, and interesting to know.
But I can't really say too much about that, and the things that really compelled me about Elden Ring's lore without getting into spoilers, which I think I may save for a followup blog in the near future, rather than cramming it in at the end here. In short I'll just say that they absolutely nailed what they were going for, and no matter how much came from From and how much from Martin, in the end they came together like peanut butter and chocolate, and I loved it.
So the world-building works, but what about the open world itself? I'm very happy and relieved that of all the open world games that have released in the wake of Breath of the Wild five years ago, Elden Ring feels like the first one to really continue down the path BotW trod. The Lands Between (another great name) is worth exploring just for the sake of exploring. Just to see the sights, whether they be wondrous or horrifying. There's the unfathomably enormous Erdtree towering over the entire game, glowing so bright it bathes the Altus Plateau beside it in a golden hue. And marshy Liurnia, scattered with waterlogged ruins now inhabited the strange frog-ish Albinaurics. Caelid, so ravaged by war and the Scarlet Rot that it's one of the most hellish locations I can recall in any game. Even the somewhat idyllic pastures of Limgrave, where goats are free to roam and roll about as they please; they're all sights to behold. There's areas where for one reason or another, my jaw dropped because of what I saw, either from surprise, just how gorgeous it looked, or both. Especially that underground area, but I wouldn't want to say anything more than that, for fear of spoilers.
But it's not just the aesthetics of the world, lots of games like Ghost of Tsushima are beautiful to behold, but ultimately feel shallow. They're just cookie cutter copy and paste in terms of what is actually in the world, and what you do. I don't mean art assets, obviously any game of this scale would have to repeat a lot of that, it just wouldn't be feasible in any way to make everything bespoke. I mean that even if there are plenty of repeated things, like mini dungeons, or even little encampments of enemies, Elden Ring doesn't feel like most other open world games. It doesn't necessarily feel “naturalistic” because so much of it is so fantastical, but despite that, the only word that really feels right is that it feels real. In the same way that Breath of the Wild's world feels real in ways that clearly more “realistically” rendered games like Horizon or Tsushima (both games I like too (haven't played Forbidden West yet; will eventually)) feel like they're just video game worlds.
Elden Ring feels like there's a deep history to every little bit of its world, even after that world has been shattered and devastated by a war of unimaginable scale. So it's safe to say that despite the vastly increased scale of Elden Ring, the people at From still managed to instill it with that special From feel. That's not to say there aren't times when it feels like the game might be a little too big for its own good, but at least you can fast travel any time you aren't in combat or in the depths of a mini dungeon. That, and finally we have a From game with consistently fast load times, with them only about six or seven seconds each on PS5. Of course it came with one where you don't need to warp back to a place and talk to a lady to level up, but I'll never complain about fast loads.
Another thing I really love about Elden Ring's open world is that it is so big, and so open that in a weird way, it makes Elden Ring feel more approachable than their previous games. Like I said earlier, I was kind of struggling with some stuff early in Elden Ring, but there's so much freedom in where I could go that if something started to frustrate, I could just go somewhere else. And rather than bang my head against one thing, I could explore elsewhere, and naturally level up along the way, while finding new gear and upgrades, so that when I finally went back to whatever was giving me trouble, now I was better equipped to deal with it. Because of that, this was by far the least I ever spent grinding to level up.
Sadly I can't say I never did it, because I did do just a smidge of it late game, after spending hours banging my head against Malenia. Who, in my defense, does seem to be regarded as the hardest boss in the game. I know I could have summoned another player or two for help, or used one of the AI summon Spirit Ashes for help, but for a boss that was a one on one duel, I wanted to defeat her on my own. Eventually I did, and it felt incredible. Even if I spent some time being summoned into other people's worlds to get rune arcs to activate my Great Runes (for stat buffs), and regular Runes for leveling. At least it was fun and rewarding to help other players, so it didn't feel like time wasted.
Like much of my time with Elden Ring, I got a bit distracted from what I was saying, and went off on a wild side adventure. I had been writing about my first twenty or so hours with the game, and how I felt like I was struggling with the combat. Part of that may have been exploring into areas I was under-leveled for, like that underground one I found about five hours into the game. Ultimately though, I think it came down to those starting scimitars just weren't the weapons for me. They didn't really have the range, and at that stage of the game, dual-wielding just wasn't working out. Between L1 being the attack with both weapons button (only when using two of the same weapon type at once), and needing to spend double the Smithing Stones to upgrade both swords, it was causing more trouble than helping. Especially when I was trying to use Quick Step as my weapon art, and with that being L2, switching between that to dodge and L1 to attack felt awkward.
At some point in my early travels, I found an Uchigatana, which is the default katana. Between its longer reach, and the fact that it has blood loss buildup (which causes large bursts of damage), I ended up really liking it. It also ended up being the thing that pushed me over the edge to finally fell Godrick the Grafted, who is presented as the first major boss of Elden Ring. That fight was the moment when everything in the combat finally clicked into place for me. Using Quick Step in conjunction with the regular dodge to avoid attacks, and finding the right moments to swoop in and slash Godrick, it was thrilling. I finally found a way to play Elden Ring that felt right for me, and that was the moment when the up and down early hours of Elden Ring turned into a steady, upward climb.
It's safe to say that I truly, utterly love Elden Ring. While in my heart Bloodborne is still my favorite game from From, Elden Ring is maybe one of the best games I've ever played, and probably From's “best” game. I only use quotes because what does “best” even mean as opposed to “favorite?” I don't know, but Elden Ring is just excellent. Especially when, despite all the similarities, Bloodborne and Elden Ring are also so different that it doesn't even feel fair to be comparing them like that. I have room in my heart to love them both. And Elden Ring's certainly far from perfect, given that apparently the only easy way to play the game at a consistent 60 FPS is to play the PS4 version on a PS5 (I played the PS5 version on PS5), and it has other technical hiccups like very obvious pop-in for things like grass, or other shadow related visual oddities.
Even design wise, as fun as the mini dungeons usually are, they are extremely lacking in visual variety, I'd almost say even more so than the Chalice Dungeons in Bloodborne. It just didn't sink in until later in Elden Ring because each mini dungeon is only about the size of one floor of a Chalice Dungeon, and those were typically four or five floors each. On the flip side, some of the later ones have some truly mind bending layouts, even if they are using the same level pieces as the ones from early in the game.
Of course even if the aesthetic feels repetitious, at least it makes consistent sense in the lore, and I can't complain about that. I remember people making that same complaint about Bloodborne at the time, how all of Yharnam “looked the same,” but I think history has landed much more on the “Bloodborne is a modern classic” side of things, so a little samey-ness is far from the end of the world. And again, that's really only in those mini dungeons, the different areas in the over world all feel distinct, and I've written enough about that for now. All the main dungeons (weirdly officially called “Legacy Dungeons,” though I don't think that term actually appears in game) feel unique, and like the “legacy” of From's games over the last decade.
I do think it's worth noting, that for as awkward as I felt the dual-wielding was early in, by the end of the game...I was dual-wielding again. This time with the Nagakiba as my main (a katana that is no joke about as long as Sephiroth's from FF VII), and the old Uchigatana as my secondary. I still wish there was a way to remap the dual-wield attack button to R1 without also changing the regular right hand light attack button. Ultimately, I just got used to switching between L1 and L2 for attacking and dodging (later with the much more useful and cooler Bloodhound step). That, and giving each the “Cold” affinity so in addition to the blood loss, they also gave enemies frostbite, really helped. It gave me the edge to beat some of Elden Ring's toughest late game fights. And it felt fitting at the end for my Warrior to go back to their dual-wielding roots, as opposed to be bulk of the game where I thought I should have just started as a Samurai.
That does bring up the weapon arts again, which I have kind of mixed feelings on. Like Dark Souls III, weapons come with a weapon art, which is a special skill set to L2 that uses up a bit of the blue FP (Focus Points) meter, as a way to give non-spellcasters something to use that meter for. But unlike Dark Souls III, different arts can be equipped to most weapons, which allows for way more freedom in how to build out the weapons, and your fighting style. Problem being that I settled on dedicating it to a better dodge early in the game, so ultimately I missed out on almost all of the weapon arts. Now, is this more of a me problem than an Elden Ring problem? Yes. But also if the default dodge felt closer to Bloodborne or Sekiro, maybe I wouldn't have felt the need to do that in the first place!
Thankfully both weapon arts and affinities can be freely swapped in and out at any Site of Grace (the bonfire equivalent), at least after a certain point in the game. I think I had to find a specific item to enable that, but it's quick and easy. Same with reallocating flasks between HP and FP, which I didn't remember until re-reading my old blog on Dark Souls III that you had to go to Firelink and talk to Andre to change back then. Certainly have it easier now.
Then there's the magic, which I didn't really dabble in beyond a few spells to do things like cure status ailments or imbue my weapons with elemental damage, but just looking at the sheer breadth of spells, it really feels expanded upon from the earlier games. And different types of magic too, which all have their lore reasons for why they are the way they are. Even if I never used them, I did greatly enjoy acquiring the spells and reading the snippets of lore that came with each.
Aside from the music (which is very good), I think I've written about everything I can without just going deep on spoilers. I could write broadly about the NPCs and their quests, which overall I really liked the ones I found, and completed. Even if in true From fashion, most of them have rather sad endings. Even so, after thinking about it, I'd say Elden Ring has not only the most NPCs of any From game in the last decade, but also the best collection of them.
I'm going to be thinking about the likes of Blaidd, Iji, Roderika, Iron Fist Alexander, Jar Bairn, Millicent, Nepheli Loux, and Ranni for some time to come, just to name a handful. Or more than that. Even the boss characters are more interesting than previous games, to the point where several of them I wished there was some way to not kill them, so they could be real characters too. I'd just be remiss if I didn't include Malenia, Starscourge Radahn (again, I just love the word “starscourge”) and his beloved but scrawny horse Leonard in the characters I'll be thinking about for some time to come.
And also that guy that sells shrimp and crab because my friend Jay is obsessed with him and his line, “Marika's tits, you must be hongry!” By association now I can't get that out of my head, so thank you Jay, even though I know you probably won't read this, haha.
I think rather than write a whole novella, I'll keep this blog spoiler free (or light since I mentioned the names of NPCs and locations), and save the deep discussion of all the cool deep lore stuff that I can't get out of my brain, and the late game bosses that I think are super cool for reasons I don't want to spoil for people...until next time. For now, I'll say that Elden Ring is something special, and while I can't know how I'll feel about it in the years to come, but I have a distinct feeling it may end up another “all time favorite” for me.
I'm curious what the future holds for Elden Ring. With it selling twelve million copies so fast, this clearly won't be the end. I'm hoping there's DLC in the works, I've certainly heard some theories from friends about cut content being brought back for DLC, and that'd be cool.
Until then, thanks as always for reading! And if you've also played the game, I guess look forward to a followup blog of me rambling about the lore and stuff??
It's been so long now that I'm not even sure what got me into Pokémon in the first place, the game, or the anime. If I had to guess, I'd say I probably watched the anime first, which then led to me playing Pokémon Blue. Either way, there was a brief time in my life where I was obsessed with Pokémon. I played a ton of the game (I think it was also my first ever RPG), I watched the anime every chance I got, I bought plushie Pokémon, I even bought into the trading card game! I don't think I ever actually tried to learn the rules, let alone play it, I just wanted anything Pokémon related that I could get my hands on. At one point it went so far that I wanted Pokémon wallpaper for my bedroom, but my parents (in retrospect, wisely) decided not to go along with that.
For better or worse, I was destined to fall off Pokémon, and when I did, I fell off pretty hard. I think partly due to my gullibility as a child, but really more to Nintendo's money grubbing ways, it came at the hands of Pokémon Yellow. Again, as a child, I don't think I realized that Yellow was literally the same game again, just with Pikachu as the starter. So, at some point into Yellow, I suddenly got fed up with it being the same game again, and stopped playing the mainline games. When Gold and Silver came out, I grumbled, “oh it's just the same game again, but with new Pokémon,” of course without actually trying to play it. It may not have been literally true, but it was enough to keep me from coming back for a very long time.
At least from the main series, again I don't remember the exact timeline here, because for all I know these may have actually been before I played Yellow. Anyway I, like many people, rented Pokémon Snap, and I remember playing minigames in Pokémon Stadium at a friend's house. After that, I just...fell out of touch with Pokémon. I even stopped watching the show, and aside from playing as Pokémon characters in Smash, I had basically no interaction with the Pocket Monsters for a very, very long time.
I did very briefly try Pokémon Go, but even when I was regularly leaving the house, it didn't really work for me, for various reasons (chief among them being that I seemed to need to have my phone out constantly, when I had to focus on other things). I actually spent way more time with Magikarp Jump, a mobile “game” focused on training everyone's favorite fish Pokémon to jump as high as they can.
Then, in 2019 I went and saw Detective Pikachu in the theater, partly because of the absurd premise, but also because I think a part of me hoped it might relight that Pokémon spark deep inside me. It was a good movie, but not anything that had any sort of profound impact on me like that.
That, instead would be in 2021, upon learning that it was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the original Pokémon games. Now, to be clear, I realized that didn't mean it was twenty-five years since I played them, as that anniversary was for their release in Japan. Even so, the realization that it'd been that long made me feel...old. And like, I'm not really old old, but it still made me want to go back and re-experience Pokémon...somehow. But rather than dig out my old cartridge (which I'm afraid to and then see that my old save was lost to time from cartridge battery death or something (I assume it can happen to GameBoy games?)), I went for the other source of my Pokémon nostalgia.
Rewatching the anime. From the beginning. And you know what? I think it held up really well! I mean, it's still a kids show, and one focused on a lot of goofy slapstick humor, but it was nice to watch something silly like that again. Plus the emotional moments like when Ash says goodbye to Butterfree probably hit me harder now than when I was a dumb kid, haha. (Speaking of, I saw apparently the Butterfree has finally returned in the latest season of the anime, after all these years??) I enjoyed it so much that I ended up getting into the habit of posting screencaps of funny or cute things I saw in the show, to the point where I almost did it more for that, than actually watching the show.
Anyway, eventually I ran out of episodes of the original run to watch on the official Pokémon site (because despite the fact that I'm pretty sure they have the rights to at least all the old episodes, what seasons they have up seem completely arbitrary), so I moved on to the part of the series widely regarded as the best since the original: Sun & Moon. And that was also very good! Plus, unlike the original, the fact that I was still enjoying it meant it wasn't just old nostalgia being dug up, that there was still room in my heart for new Pokémon too.
At some point over 2021, another thing happened, which was the announcement of the next main entry in the Pokémon game series, to put it in Nintendo's words, “the Pokémon Legends Arceus game.” I'm sorry, I just can't get over how Nintendo always needs to specifically refer to their games with “the” at the start, then the full title, and “game” at the end. With the promise of a big open world to explore, a cool setting inspired by old timey Japan, and a grand, new style of Pokémon adventure, well I'd be lying if I said I wasn't tempted from that first announcement.
So, after all this, after decades of waiting, after spending so much time looking at Pokémon from afar, thinking they were cute but not wanting to jump back in, after deliberating if this would actually be different enough to capture my imagination again, after spending a year indulging on nostalgia with the anime, and after a thousand words of preamble:
Yes, I played Pokémon Legends Arceus. And, after seeing credits, with only the endgame “true” final boss/“catching 'em all” left to do, and playing for just over sixty hours, I can safely say...
I loved it.
A lot of that is that while the anime reignited my love of Pokémon, Legends stoked the fire to burn brighter than it has since I was young. In so many ways, Legends feels like the game I always imagined the original was. For as simple as it could seem now, Blue was impressive back in its day, especially as a GameBoy game, and especially to me, a kid who'd never played anything like that before. At the time it felt like a grand adventure where anything could be waiting around the next corner, like just about anything was possible, even if it was almost always either random Pokémon encounters, or scripted trainer battles.
By giving Legends huge open areas to explore, it's managed to capture that feeling again. Truly anything could be around the next corner, atop the next hill, down in the next valley. Across the river, up high on the mountain, etc. I love games that are built around exploration of big spaces, it's a key reason why Breath of the Wild is my favorite game. Even if for as much as it wants to be like BotW (down to one particular piece of light piano music that felt very BotW-y), it doesn't meet that game's ambitions (certainly not visually), Legends still accomplishes what it's trying to do. It might not be one literal open world, but each of the areas it's segmented into feels huge. And each holds so many Pokémon that I spent hours and hours wandering each of them, just overcome with the drive to explore.
I can't overstate how excited I was, particularly in the early hours, so often when I discovered Pokémon. If it was one I wasn't familiar with (true for most Pokémon after the original 151), it felt like I had stumbled upon a wholly new creature. A new discovery I had to know more about. And if it was one I recognized, then the old nostalgia center in my brain burned bright. Seriously, every time I recognized an old Pokémon, I might as well have pointed at the screen and exclaimed, “it's that Pokémon!” For some, like Togepi, that makes sense. After rewatching so many old episodes of the anime and remembering how big a role Misty's Togepi played, of course I'd be hit with enough nostalgia to get excited. Even if that led to me flubbing up catching a Togepi the first several times I saw one. And of course getting excited when my favorite Pokémon, Snorlax, appears, makes sense. I mean, Snorlax does own, after all.
Conversely, things like getting excited at seeing a Zubat are...silly. But it happened! Listen, Zubat are cute! So many of the Pokémon are cute, or cool, or both! Not all of them, but I do think that by cherry picking for better ones, Legends does have a generally great lineup. That, and I think the new versions of older Pokémon for Legends are pretty cool. The new Arcanine in particular stood out as one that I thought was super cool when I first saw it.
And the new final evolutions for Legends' three starters are cool too. Even if I stubbornly never evolved my starter Rowlet, and didn't realize that I like the new Decidueye until getting a second Rowlet, and fully evolving it to fill out the PokéDex. Listen, I love Rowlet (it's a round owlet), and I wanted a cute little round bird friend. Ash's never evolved in the anime! Anyway, it's funny that I have a level seventy something Rowlet, and at least Legends makes you manually decide when a Pokémon evolves, so it's not like I have to actively prevent the evolution every time it levels up, like in the old games.
So I guess as a note for anyone who hasn't played yet, or only just started: Don't worry about the PokéDex and the other starters, there is an easy way to get them that doesn't require trading or anything. Which helps because trading online is locked behind a Switch Online subscription. I'm not sure when exactly it unlocked, but it's in there.
Because the premise of the game, while similar in some respects to the classic training to be a Pokémon master of the older games, is different in one key way that really clicked with me. Rather than “gotta catch 'em all,” Legends is more, “gotta research 'em all.” The goal isn't simply catching one of every Pokémon, it's to create the first fully featured PokéDex, and that requires completing a series of tasks for each species of Pokémon. Yes, of course that also implies catching 'em all, so I could see the argument that this is just something added as filler to extend the game.
I'm not saying that isn't true, but I am saying that having a checklist of things to investigate for all the Pokémon is a lot more interesting to me than just catching 'em. That said, there's also more ways than ever to catch 'em in the first place! The tried and true method of wearing them down in battle (but not fully defeating them), then throwing the ball still works, of course. But there's something just satisfying about hiding in some grass, throwing out food as bait, then nailing the Pokémon in the back (for a backstab bonus to catching) with the ball, and catching 'em without any fight at all. I'm not kidding about hitting them in the back, the game outright says that catching them by surprise both with a ball, or starting a fight gives you an advantage, and the game plays a good sound effect to let you know you got 'em.
All that said, I do think there's room for improvement with the tasks, should there be a Legends 2. Unless one of the tasks requires completing a side quest, they're all just generic things like number caught, number defeated, feeding them food, etc. Some are more specific, like defeating them with a certain type of move (one the Pokémon is weak to), and often seeing them do specific moves. But also it's the sort of thing where the idea of the game is about documenting previously unknown species of Pokémon, yet the checklists already know some of the moves the Pokémon can do, so if you think about it a bit too much, it doesn't make complete sense. Even if it's very helpful for getting hints at what types of moves are effective against them.
And very little of it actually involves observing the Pokémon in their natural habitat. I knew there was no way this game, on such a large scale could even attempt the level of bespoke animations and interactions from something like the Pokémon Snap games, but I still wish it was a little closer to that. Like, for example, often feeding Pokémon will count toward researching them. But there's nothing about observing the Pokémon to see what they eat in the wild. Nor, as far as I can tell, do you ever actually see the wild Pokémon doing anything like that.
Before I say this, I do want to reiterate that on the whole I love the game, and it captured my imagination. That said, if you really pay attention, it's pretty obvious that the Pokémon just kinda wander around areas without doing anything. Like, each has its set zone, and in that zone they move around, and they all make sense for the sorts of Pokémon they are. Fish swim around in rivers and lakes, woodland critters jaunt about the forests, some hide in trees or rocks, etc. But they never eat, they never interact with other Pokémon. There's never any point where predatory Pokémon hunt after prey Pokémon, something that certainly happened in the anime, even if they obviously never showed one Pokémon eating another.
Granted, when they see the player, they all react in ways that feel true to their nature. Some, like Bidoof are so friendly they just waddle right up to the player and do a goofy little pose. Some are so skittish they flee at the sight of a human, and a lot will go out of their way to attack. A fair number are docile at a distance, but get too close, and they definitely go hostile, thus leading to a lot of panicked fight or flight situations. Fight as in throwing out a Pokémon pal to start a turn based battle (thus keeping my human character safe), or flight as in running away very fast, but often having to dodge and weave around Pokémon moves.
It's very weird to have a Pokémon game that explicitly has the concept of invincibility frames, even if it doesn't use the phrase. Weird, but great, as this helps give an added layer to the game, and goes a good way to help make it feel more like the anime. Pokémon were not only ever threats to other Pokémon in the anime, and as far as I know this is the first game where that's true too. Plus, it's fun! I could see how it might get annoying to some people, but it scratches the same itch in my brain as Breath of the Wild. A lot of people didn't like the weapon degradation there, but I loved having to scramble in the midst of combat and try to figure out what to do when something broke. This isn't quite the same, but it's similar. Sneaking up on one Pokémon, lining up my shot, only to have another one sneak up on ME, and start attacking, thus sending me scrambling to escape.
Because if you don't, you lose items, that can then get Strand Gamed over to someone else's game to recover...at least if you have a Switch Online subscription. Which I don't. So instead the game just drops in fake ones from the same handful of generic names for me to grab instead, to get currency for a specific vendor. It's a neat idea, I just wish I didn't need to buy into the subscription to do it. Of course, for all I know Death Stranding probably required PS+ for those features, but I've been subscribed there since 2013. (I really don't know and DS was built around that, as opposed to this being a side feature, so they're not really comparable).
One thing I haven't gotten into yet, is the battle system itself. On the one hand, it is very similar to what I remember from the original, but in some ways it's very different. Which makes sense, I'd like to think that twenty-five years of iteration would be meaningful, but I don't know how much changed over the years, and how much is new to Legends. (I've been told since writing my first draft that apparently some stuff has actually been removed in the last couple games, but I can't speak to that.) It's still turn based, but now there's a list of the turn order, which can be affected by each Pokémon's speed stat, and the new Agile/Strong style moves. Agile moves are faster, but less powerful, and Strong do more damage, but are slower. The temptation to go Strong all the time is...strong, but having powerful Pokémon get multiple turns in a row can be rough.
Or brutal, honestly. While the player can only control one Pokémon at a time, I'm not sure what the limit on enemies is. I've had as many as four wild Pokémon battling against me at once, and I've fought against other “trainers” who had three battling my one. Which I understand getting ganged up on by wild Pokémon, but if other humans can command three at once, they gotta at least let me have two out there! I know double battles were a thing in some of the games after the original!
Like, I'm still kind of shocked at how hard Legends can get. I even had one battle against another human where by the end I was down to literally one Pokémon left. Out of six, five had been knocked out, and my sixth (a valiant little Sylveon I named “Sylvie”) was almost down. Then there was one endgame boss that I swear took me five or six tries to beat, and that included several after reevaluating my team, and using a bunch of rare candies to level some up!
While it's thrilling to win by the skin of my teeth, it's also frustrating that Pokémon don't get experience if they're knocked out at the end of a fight. There's other ways to get XP, like buying items that exist for just that, so it's not like I have zero options for keeping my A team leveled and ready to go, but it just feels unfair to have Pokémon who did a lot of hard work in fights get nothing from them. Especially when the post credits endgame content operates under the assumption that the player is rolling with a team of high level Pokémon. I was going up against level seventy Pokémon that are not easy to deal with without really knowing the type strengths/weaknesses.
That does bring me to one issue I have with the game, which is that it doesn't do a good job of explaining all the different types, and what is and isn't effective against each. There is a chart, but after the initial tutorial it's buried deep in a menu that's annoying to try to get to. The worst part though, is that it's not a very high res chart, and I don't think there's any way to full screen it, so it's hard to even tell what all the symbols on it even mean. I don't remember this being an issue when I was a kid because back then most of the Pokémon types made a logical sense. Fire was weak to water, water was weak to electricity, etc. These days though, I don't know how I'm supposed to intuit what fairy would be weak or strong to, for example. And please forgive me if fairy was a thing back in the original game, and I just forgot.
I know I could just look this up outside the game since I assume these have been the same since whenever the last time a new type was added to the franchise, but I still think a game should do what it can to convey something like this without needing outside resources. To the game's credit though, it does say how effective or ineffective moves will be in the battle menu, so at least the right Pokémon can be chosen, at least amongst the ones in the active party.
Speaking of moves, while the Pokémon can still only have four equipped at a time, any move a Pokémon has learned previously can be re-equipped at any time between fights, which is fantastic. This is especially useful for researching, as it can be handy to use one that I normally wouldn't just for the research points, then go back to what I prefer for the actual fights.
I know I haven't played any Pokémon games since the original, but I have at least watched some footage of the recent ones (mostly because of Jan's videos), and compared to even Sword and Shield, I think Legends does a much better job aesthetically during the fights. By which I mean the fight animations are generally pretty good in Legends! It's obviously not unique, bespoke animations for each of the hundreds of Pokémon, but they actually animate, and move around when attacking. Which sounds like a comically low bar, but I think the fights look good in Legends. Some of the attack effects are super cool too. Like the Hyper Beam looks like it came straight out of DragonBall Z, it's just enormous, and devastating.
My only complaint is that when an attack misses, it just shows text saying the attack missed, neither Pokémon actually animates. It's the only time in the fights that something like this happens, and if the attack animations are already in the game, I'd rather they show the animation, then just have the other Pokémon side step it or something. Maybe they tried that, and it caused issues what with the fights still taking place in the world, and it broke something, or looked too messy, I dunno.
Conversely the cut-ins when an Agile or Strong style move is used, with the music cues are really cool, so I forgive the game for this one misstep.
One other issue with the menus that I need to bring up is that the PokéDex can be annoying to navigate. It can be separated by each region, and Pokémon ordered either by number or alphabetically, but when I'm trying to research specific Pokémon that are in my party, I wish I could jump directly from the pause menu with my Pokémon to their specific pages in the PokéDex. For example, if I want to remind myself what moves I'm trying to see, and how many I've seen it'd be nice to be able to hit a button and go directly to the corresponding page. I can do that for wild Pokémon out in the world!
Granted the PokéDex does open on the last page I viewed, so it's not an issue if I'm focused on a single Pokémon. But that's not efficient, I want to be researching multiple at once! Even if I could just bookmark specific Pokémon, and be able to jump to a smaller list I'm currently working on, that could save me a lot of time and effort. Especially when it feels like I always end up researching ones that aren't near each other alphabetically (and I don't know how this game organizes them by number, so that isn't useful).
The other Phanpy in the room (Phanpy is an elephant Pokémon, though one I don't think is in Legends) that I haven't really mentioned is...the graphics. Which are...well, mixed I'll say. I think the Pokémon themselves generally look pretty good, I like a lot of the character designs, and especially the cute fashion the player character can wear. Up close I think the game usually looks fine. It's more looking at the distance, and seeing all the pop-in, or the giant flat textures that it feels very lacking. Particularly when using Ride Pokémon to traverse the world faster, then the game's visual seams really become unavoidable.
Thing is though, I tend to not want to move through games at a fast pace, so even after getting Wyrdeer (a very fast, majestic bearded deer), I still mostly walked around the world. How else was I going to get the drop on Pokémon, and keep myself stocked on materials for crafting? Plus, I like to stop and smell the figurative roses, even if they're kinda low res roses.
Speaking of, actually my least favorite part of the game's visuals is the lack of anti-aliasing. It's so bad in spots that I thought this game was running at a really low resolution until I watched the Digital Foundry video on the game. Apparently it goes between 900P and 1080P, which is about as good as a Switch can do these days. The game just looks chunky and pixelated at times, and it's kind of distracting. Not always though, but when I notice it, it is a bummer.
Now that I'm actually running out of things to say (at least without going into details on the story, but this blog is already a lot longer than I expected), I don't want to leave on a down note. So, another thing I love in the game, is the photography room. It's a room that exists just to take pictures of the main character posing with Pokémon. And it is, naturally, adorable. Of course I do wish there was more to it, like being able to hold the small Pokémon in my arms, or have the bigh Pokémon hold me in theirs, but I'll take what I can get. Just add it to the list of things I want in Legends 2.
Like being able to pet the Pokémon. I don't even expect different animations, just one generic animation that doesn't even look good on a lot of them will do. Let me pet them! It's great that I can toss them out and watch them do fun little animations, but let me pet them! And let them run around with me in the open areas. I want friends to adventure with! (Speaking of, I know this is an unrealistic hope for the next one, but co-op would get me to actually subscribe to Switch Online).
Oh, and the music! I think it's really good! I've read that a fair amount of the tracks are based on/inspired by old music from Diamond and Pearl, and that's neat too. But even without that specific nostalgia, I think it's generally pretty great. Only issue being that some fun song will be playing as I explore, but then it fades out and gets replaced with the “a Pokémon set its sights on you” music. Which is useful from a game play perspective, but can ruin the vibe.
That, and this is another complaint, but I do wish the game had voice acting. I don't expect it from Nintendo at this point, because they're the only AAA publisher that still makes games with this much dialog and then puts in zero effort to voice them. That, and while there is a charm to the noises the Pokémon make, it'd be nice if they sounded...better. Again, I get there's literally hundreds of them and doing unique noises for them all is a tall order, but still... It's not like Pokémon is the highest earning media franchise in the history of the Earth or anything...
I've managed to write a lot more about the game than I really intended to, and there's honestly more I could expand on too. Like I think the main character falling through a space time rift from the future is a funny premise for a Pokémon game. Never mind all the questions this game raises about the nature of Pokémon themselves, or the potential for time paradoxes. If Porygon were created by humans in the future, but they appear in space time rifts in this game, and get documented in the PokéDex, does that mean that scientists based Porygon on these old findings that wouldn't exist if Porygon hadn't already been created, and gone through the space time rifts...??
But the most mind bending thing is this game's explanation for the olde timey Poké Balls. Apparently the Pokémon themselves all innately have the ability to shrink and that's how the Poké Balls work????? That's definitely not the case in the anime, I can tell you that much. Plus all the stuff with the Pokémon space time god(s?), there's that too.
Just to reiterate myself one last time, for all the game's faults, and for all the areas that I hope they improve upon in the sequel, I did have a great time returning to the world of Pokémon after all these years, to use a phrase a friend “borrowed” from me. Don't ask, Tom knows what he did. It's a grand adventure that I loved, and I'm sad to see it go, even if there are still some troublesome Pokémon left to research... Maybe I'll return after a break. Definitely if there's substantial DLC, like Sword/Shield got. Here's to hoping.
Thank you for reading, especially this particularly long one.
Another year has passed. 2021. Despite it all...video games...still exist. And now it's that most wonderful time of the year when I spent the better part of a month chipping away at writing about and arbitrarily ranking my favorite games of the last year!
In all seriousness, I didn't do much writing over the last year. Even less so than the previous year, which already felt like I was slipping. Barely any blogs, and no fiction writing at all. I tell myself I'm taking a break, but I dunno. At least I put in the effort to get this done, because for as miserable as so much of the world is these days, even the world of video games (or at least so much of what's around the production of them), I did enjoy a lot of games this year. Several of which I hadn't written about previously, so look forward to some surprise takes from Moosey!
I will say, for anyone who missed it months ago, or forgot, I did manage to get my hands on a PS5 over the summer. I was very impressed with it in the moment, and since I've continued to really enjoy it. I've gotten used to most games being at 60 FPS, and while the usage of the DualSense gimmicks varies a lot from game to game, I do still enjoy both the haptics and adaptive triggers. But I do have to be honest and say that the sheen has worn off, and the PS5 has just become another thing in my life. I like it a lot, and aside from a couple annoyances (the disc drive is loud and the controller's battery is kinda bad) I still think it's a great console.
Traditionally I start the yearly Moosies with a recap of my predictions from the previous year, but in 2020 I gave up on making new predictions because of how unpredictable everything has become. Largely because of the pandemic, which as you know, is still a threat (get vaccinated and/or boosted if you can (anti-vaxxers don't interact, I'll just ignore you)). Instead I ended last year's with some long and short term hopes for the games industry, so I figure I can take a moment to check in on them.
“I hope that the games industry as a whole can make meaningful progress in bettering work conditions.”
Meaningful? Just as an outsider looking in, it seems like there's more pressure than ever to push for change. But also more than ever coming to light about so many abuses from companies like Ubisoft and Activision most recently, but even PlayStation has had allegations of gender discrimination made, so I feel like there's still yet more to learn about even more companies.
In other ways, I'm encouraged when I see things like Eidos-Montreal moving to a four day work week, because hopefully that means more reasonable work hours. But I don't know! That's just me reading a headline and assuming it works out. I hope so. Since I wrote this, Vodeo Games (a smaller studio I hadn't heard of) has become the first “certified” unionized game studio in North America. So again, this feels like progress to me, even if it's slow, and one step at a time.
“I hope that the big three consoles get better about what they let through cert.”
After games like Control, Marvel's Avengers, Cyberpunk 2077 (which I still have not played), and (*shudders*) Dead2y Premonition, I was in a real bad mood regarding my thoughts on what the consoles let onto their systems. I know it's impossible that every game will always have a totally locked framerate and no other technical issues, but it really felt like they had all but given up on having serious quality control. Now? I don't know that their standards have improved so much as it being that the new consoles have the horsepower to just run everything well. Sure, just about every PS5/Xbox Series game has a 60 FPS mode for now, but I still feel like that won't be the case by the time we get to the end of the generation and these consoles are showing their age.
(Again, since I wrote this, that Matrix Awakens tech demo (which looks amazing) released, which can't even hold 30 FPS (tech demo, so you know) but the return to 30 is coming...)
But for the moment, I do feel better about it than last year. At least since I have a PS5, I have no frame of reference for how these cross gen games run on PS4/Xbox One. I hope they're okay for the sake of the people still on those machines.
“I hope that consoles actually get widely available.”
Well, I got my PS5, and I get the vibe that most of my friends that wanted new consoles have managed to, at least. And honestly, part of me wants a Series X now (largely due to FOMO of seeing friends enjoying Halo-ing and Forza-ing together), but they still just sell out, and I don't have it in me to go through that rigmarole again. Doesn't feel like it's going changing any time soon either. Blame the pandemic, still, I guess.
“I hope that whatever new hardware Nintendo probably announces in 2021, it doesn't make me too mad.”
I was not happy last year when I finally bought a Switch, and about a month later the rumors of the new Switch seemed to turn concrete. Thankfully (for me only), that new hardware this year was not anything that made me upset, haha. I'm sure the people with the Switch OLED are enjoying their organic diodes, but a better screen (at a higher price) on a console I basically only use connected to the TV is not enough to make me wish I'd held out longer. Now if we can just get through all of 2022 without Nintendo releasing the Switch 2, because I'll have had the Switch for three years, which my brain arbitrarily decided was long enough to make me not upset. Listen, if I understood how my brain works, I'd tell you. Next time I don't think I'm going to wait so long before getting the next Nintendo. It'll reduce my grievances in the long run.
“I hope the games are good.”
Of course this one's entirely subjective, but I'll say this hope was true for 2021! Last year I had to struggle to get ten games I felt were worthy for a list, but this year I felt myself tempted to make the list longer. Instead I'm sticking to the same format I've used for years, which is the top ten list, and interludes between the numbered entries for the other games I've played this year that didn't quite make the cut, but still felt noteworthy.
Anyway, here's the games what I liked this year...just after a quick award...
Hashtag of the Year: #STRANGEROFPARADISEFINALFANTASYORIGINTRIALVERSION2
What can I say? Yeah, that game was kind of a meme from the moment that Jack Stranger of Paradise said, “chaos.” And the meme only grew after the cutscene of him just blasting some nu metal/rap rock after a boss fight. I say this, having played both of the then publicly available demos for the game, and actually having found it fun enough that despite the laughable nature of what we've seen of the cutscenes. And despite it looking (artistically and technically) and running like a PS3/360 era game, I think it has potential.
But also, when I PlayStation Shared a screenshot of it, and it auto generated the hashtag, I knew I had to write that down and remember it for the Moosies. Surely nothing could top #STRANGEROFPARADISEFINALFANTASYORIGINTRIALVERSION. Right? Well, I was wrong, because later in the year, the second demo gave us, well, you saw it already, and frankly I've written it more than a person should. And more about it too, so time to carry on!
10. Co-op only experience(s?) of the year: Operation Tango and It Takes Two??
Okay, I know I know, I put two games in there, give me a moment to explain. A few years ago my friend Larry and I played A Way Out together, and had such a good time that we kinda agreed the next time there was a game like that, we'd play it together too. So, fast forward to this year, and the followup from Hazelight Studio, It Takes Two arrives. But then we don't get around to actually playing any of it until December, and even then we only managed to find the time to play about two or three hours.
Operation Tango, on the other hand, that we were able to finish over the summer, so that can just be on this list, on its own. Problem is, those first few hours of It Takes Two were pretty great, so I know that if it remained that fun and absurd throughout, it'd be a top ten game of the year. At least for me, and probably for Larry too. So I'm in this spot where I want to acknowledge that it seems like a great game, and also cover for myself in case between my writing this and the literal end of the year we do find the time, so I don't need to go back and change my ordering here.
(Spoiler: We didn't.)
All that's to say there were a pair of great co-op only games that I played in 2021. Operation Tango is a sort of game that I'm honestly surprised there wasn't already something like it, a game where one player is a spy out in the field, and the other is the hacker providing backup. Larry and I swapped which ones we played every couple of missions, so we both got ample time with each, and the game does a great job giving both a lot of different tasks. And for the most part, finding engaging ways of making both players work together.
Only issue I had is that there's some instances where the timing seems tight enough that with internet lag, it took us enough tries that it got frustrating. Only a couple of specific puzzles, if I remember correctly, but they still stand out in my memory months later, so that's something to watch out for. And unlike A Way Out/It Takes Two, which are kind of meant to local but have online because local isn't always feasible (especially during the pandemic), Operation Tango is meant for the players to be in separate locations. Both to go along with the premise of the game, but also because a lot of the puzzles boil down to one player having to tell the other something, and so on. Kind of like Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes (though I've not played that personally).
It's a lot of fun, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone out there looking for a good two player game. It Takes Two, like I said, I'm not deep enough in to really judge as a whole, but Larry and I were laughing and having a great time with it, so I'm excited to get back to it! Eventually! Hopefully... I want to see what happens. Is the whole game basically, “Honey this a-hole book shrunk us and is continuing to ruin our lives by trying to make us reconcile but in the most obnoxious ways possible?” Will the little girl who sounds like a British orphan waif ever be happy?
Operation Tango also wins:
Best cooperating of the year.
Best hacking of the year.
Moose simulator of the year: Moose Life
Okay, this one is kind of a joke. Not the game, I think the game is pretty fun. But honestly the only reasons I played it were that it was on sale for four bucks, and it has Moose in the title. To be honest I don't even think the in game moose is that great, it looks more like a regular deer than a moose, but I'll take what I can get.
I guess for anyone who doesn't know, Moose Life is the latest game from Jeff Minter, he who does games in a very particular style. That being the aesthetics and design sensibilities of a particular era of old arcade games, but also includes a whole bunch of forest critters and barnyard animals. Like moose in this case, and little sheepies. Lots of moose/deer related puns in what little text is in the game.
And you know what? I bought the game on a laugh, but like I said, it's fun! I hadn't played any Jeff Minter games before, but I'm pleasantly surprised with this one. It looks really sharp and nice too, which I wasn't really expecting to think something like that. It's a good time, and also the best (and only?) game I played in 2021 with moose in it.
9. Farming Game of the Year: NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139...
When I write these yearly Moosies, especially about the games that I already wrote about extensively, I'm always torn between not wanting to just repeat myself, but also feeling like I need to write a decent amount. If these are really my favorite games of the year, surely I can find at least another (arbitrary) page's worth of words in me, right? But I'm not going to just rehash my thoughts on Replicant's story (I liked it overall, even the new Ending E), and I don't think there's enough interesting things in the game part to go in depth about again. So instead, here's two separate thoughts about Replicant that I've had in recent days while trying to determine what to write here.
The first, is something that I did actually mention in that old blog, but has a bit of a different feeling to it now. I was playing Replicant when I saw the news about Vinny, Brad, and Alex leaving Giant Bomb, and Replicant's fantastic, melancholic soundtrack (in particular the music I heard in the moment), just through nothing more than sheer chance, was the exact embodiment of how I felt at the time. Just this gut-wrenching feeling that things were going to be different, they were moving on, and Replicant was there with music to make me felt like the knife was being driven in even deeper. I spent like ten minutes just sitting in the in game tavern listening to Devola or Popola (I forget which) sing, and again, the deep melancholy the game is capable of eliciting with the music only accentuated what I was feeling.
Then of course, those three started their new thing, and got back to streaming games, and podcasting like nothing changed, and boy did I feel silly getting so worked up over them leaving GB. I bet a lot of us did, and I know this has nothing to actually do with Replicant, but these two things have been irrevocably linked in my mind. Personally, I think the people who worked on NieR would be happy to know I had an experience like this with their game, because it feels so in line with the general mood of NieR.
The other thought I've had of late about Replicant is that despite all the game's flaws (most if not all of which have their roots in the original NieR being a modestly budgeted game with too large a scope for its own good), and despite the fact that I had to replay so much of the game in the course of just working through to Ending E...part of me wishes I could go back and re-experience it all over again? Not even just to relive the story, there's something about this genre of game, this generic semi-open action-adventure game design that's...comforting to me. Something about having just enough space to feel like I can explore a bit, but not so much that it's an enormous world where I know I'll never see it all. That, and it having plenty of side quests keeping me running about to and fro, even if the majority of them are super generic in terms of what you do, I like it. It's comforting.
Part of me misses Replicant, especially those early hours where the main character is still an innocent little kid, just going on adventures with his snooty book friend and foul-mouthed violent friend, and then that got me thinking... Here I am missing this genre of game, this style of play that feels like it's mostly left in the game design bin of history, and I'm thinking that about a game with a time skip in it. One where the protagonist goes from a wide-eyed innocent kid who just wants to help his sister, to a vengeful adult willing to slaughter his way to his end goal, and I just...
Yoko Taro did it again. He got me. He'll never know, but he got me again.
Also I spent way too long gardening trying to not only get the special white flower for the Trophy, but then after the fact I got the idea in my head to try to make a special pattern with the blue, pink, and white flowers. Which, aside from some accidental cross-pollination, I think I mostly achieved.
Anyway, it's fair to say that flaws or not, NieR Replicant ver.1.22...etc was well deserving of getting onto my top ten, even if it didn't get high on it.
NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139... also wins:
Fishing minigame of the year.
Most novel character: Grimoire Weiss.
Best use of profanity: Kainé.
Orb of the year: Emil's head.
Best (not so) feral hogs.
Non-co-op Multiplayer game of the year: Knockout City
These days I don't really play much in the way of “competitive” multiplayer games. And believe me, I'm using the word “competitive” loosely here. Aside from the Crucible in Destiny 2 (which even that I don't engage with that much), most of what I play online these days is strictly co-op. Knockout City though, is a surprisingly fun multiplayer game of the “competitive” variety. There's more depth to the mechanics than I would have thought a “dodge-brawl” game could have, like a fair amount of technique to the different ways the balls can be thrown. Plus, it just feels good to run and jump around in, never mind the weirdly satisfying bonk when hitting an opponent. Not only that, but you can roll up into a ball and be thrown yourself! Innovative.
Of course the game has all the dirty tricks to try to coax people into spending money on cosmetics, so there's that. I'd say it feels grimier because it's not a free to play game...but I got it “free” on PS+, so it's no grimier than anything else these days. At least until EA announces their own NFT thing (I wrote this section the day after Ubisoft announced theirs, for your information) and that's wormed into this game or something.
Anyway, grimy monetization (that plagues so many games these days) aside it's a fun little game, and one I find myself hopping into when I've got some time to kill, but not enough to really dig into a proper story focused game. I'd say worth checking out, but it's back to being paid by now, haha, so I dunno! But I enjoy it.
8. Immersive Simulation of the Year: “DEATHLOOP”
2021 has been a bit of an odd year in the frequency with which I played new games, and particularly ones that I really, really enjoyed. The bulk of the year I was mostly catching up on games from older years, and only played a few from 2021. That picked up a bit after I got my PS5 in the summer, but it wasn't really until the fall that I played a bunch in close succession. Almost each of which at some point I found myself thinking, “is this my game of the year?”
The first of those, through luck more than anything else, was “DEATHLOOP.” A game that I could barely contain my excitement about in the moment, as was evident in the blog I wrote right after finishing it. It'd been years since the last time I played an “immersive sim” style stealth game, and combined with the great sense of styyyle, the dynamic between Colt and Juliana, and the novelty of the time loop (in this genre), that game just consumed my thoughts at the time. By which I mean when I wasn't playing it, I was still thinking about it. Wondering what deeper secrets there were to uncover, how to go about accomplishing certain things, the best combinations of powers, etc.
Conversely, you may notice “DEATHLOOP” is fairly low on the list. Also that I did not specify how low so I wouldn't need to go back and rewrite it if I change my mind at the last second, haha. Certainly no higher than middle of the pack, which is still a ways to fall from seriously thinking it was going to end up my favorite game of 2021. But I don't mean that to imply that I've soured on the game. Aside from the lackluster ending being more disappointing the more I've thought about it since then, I don't have any significant issues with the game. And it doesn't change that I had a blast with the game in the moment.
Problem is, as I'm trying to write about it without just regurgitating my previous blog, I'm not quite sure what to say. I guess in some way it'd be fitting to time loop and repeat myself. Colt and Juliana have a great rivalry, and their antagonistic dynamic was one of my favorite parts of the game. I loved exploring every nook and cranny I could find. Learning levels, enemy placements, how best to infiltrate, best powers, etc etc etc etc etc. I'm even repeating what I already wrote here!
I still think “DEATHLOOP” is a great game, and even if there's valid criticisms to be made about the AI and other things (I definitely read the comments on my previous blog, even if I didn't reply (writing this year has been hard enough, let alone responding to other people, haha)), I'd still readily recommend it. Regardless of where it lands on this list, it's still among my favorite games of the year.
I know I don't play dozens of new games every year like some people who make (or try to make) a living talking about video games, so saying everything on my top ten is “one of my favorites of the year” doesn't carry as much weight as it might from someone like that. But 2021 isn't like last year where it felt like I had to scrape the bottom of a barrel to get to a full ten games. I had to think a lot about the placement of every game on this list, and honestly, so many of them I liked so much they really could be swapped around and I'd still be happy. Never mind the games that didn't quite make the cut but were good enough that I could have made this list longer than ten and still feel great about every game on it.
Which is all to say, I had a great time with “DEATHLOOP.” I just would have had a greater time with it had some things like the ending been...better. That, and I do wonder if playing most of the game single player (so I could pause whenever) did rob me of some cool encounters with human players. Or maybe it saved me from frustration, who can say?
“DEATHLOOP” also wins:
Time loop of the year.
Rivalry of the year: Colt vs. Juliana.
Nail gun of the year.
Stealth game of the year.
Hack tool of the year: Hackamajig.
Best in world floating text of the year.
Machete of the year.
New Loot Game of the Year: Outriders
Outriders is one I definitely have mixed feelings on. In a lot of ways it's pretty fun. The different classes have fun abilities (though I really only played Trickster in the final game), a lot of the weapons feel good (especially the shotguns), and there's lots and lots of interesting perks and mods that allow for cool ways to build out your character. On the flip side, I think the enemy variety is fairly lacking, the story/writing are mostly bad, and perhaps most damning, the crossplay the game is advertised as having doesn't work.
Well, at least that was most damning for me, because one of my friends that I wanted to play this with was playing on Xbox, because he had gotten a Series X (also a PS5 at that time), and the game launched on Game Pass. Obviously “free” with the subscription is a better deal than sixty bones (or whatever the absurd UK pricing was), and with the promise of us still being able to play together, it didn't seem like it'd be a problem. Turns out that, I think also due to the fact that he lives in the UK and I live in the US, that transatlantic divide made the game basically unplayable for whoever wasn't hosting. And that's frustrating because plenty of games don't have issues like that for us. Destiny 2 has never been a problem, and in fact that's what we ended up playing together instead of Outriders. Not just big games like that either, we played Overcooked 2 online this year with no issues (speaking of, we should play more of that, Tom!).
Regardless, even if I played through most of the campaign alone, I did have fun with Outriders. And now after recent balance changes/updates to the endgame, a different friend and I have been poking around in the game again, and it's still fun! Just not enough to sneak its way onto my top ten.
Outriders also wins:
Time blade of the year.
Glitch of the year: Dying in the second phase of the last boss fight, then it counting as me beating the boss after it loaded back in, fully playing the end cutscene and credits, giving me the Trophy, and putting me into the game's end game.
7. Most Dependable Game: Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
Ratchet & Clank is one of those franchises that I would describe as “dependable.” I know I've only played a few of them, and in a way they're all kind of samey, but they also excel at what they do. They're fun! And at least since I've started playing them (Tools of Destruction on PS3), they're very pretty games too. Turns out, when I've just bought a new console, a dependable game that's a lot of fun, and shows off the new hardware well was exactly what I needed.
Aside from using the new hardware to load things at ridiculous speeds, Rift Apart doesn't really do anything new. It's the same dependable formula, but it's just as fun as always. And fun enough that I played through it multiple times, which is something I don't do nearly as much as I used to. Not only that, but when I recently got a new TV (finally bringing me into the era of 4K and HDR), one of the first things I loaded up to see on it was Rift Apart. Aside from the game looking even better than it had before (even still in the performance + RT mode, which I know isn't full 4K), I just got straight back into the groove, and felt myself wanting to play through it again a third time! I haven't yet though, because there's still other stuff I haven't beaten twice already that I'd like to finish first.
I don't think I wrote about Rift Apart earlier in the year, so I should probably write a bit more than just this now. One new thing it does, is how it uses the DualSense triggers. Or, at least new for the series because the way it uses them is mostly just emulating how the GameCube R and L worked. Those had that inner click that could be used for a separate function from only pulling in the button partway. The only example I remember offhand from back then is Rogue Squadron II, where a light pull would speed up your ship, but a full pull would make it go even faster by putting an X-Wing into closed wing mode.
In Rift Apart, it's basically the same principle. Half pulls of the trigger (which you can feel with the trigger creating like a stop point) do one thing, and pulling past that does something else. The sniper rifle will slow down time with a half pull, and shoot with a full one, there's a minigun (that also creates black holes) that a half pull spins up the gun/cools it down, and full pull shoots. A lot of grenade style weapons where the half pull aims, full throws, etc.
Is it anything revolutionary? Nah, but it feels good. And the same with the feeling of the haptics in the rumble, this game just does absolute magic with that. Like the Pixelizer HD (a shotgun that turns enemies into voxels). A half pull charges, and while charged, the gun plays a little song, and the controller not only rumbles in time with the song, it changes the pitch to match. Like literally, just using the rumble (because I have the speaker turned off), the controller plays music. It's bananas.
Tech gimmicks aside, I did also enjoy the story and characters in Rift Apart. Rivet and Kit particularly are, in one game, more interesting than I remember Ratchet or Clank really ever being. Okay, maybe that's a bit of a stretch, but Rivet isn't there just to be “lady Ratchet,” even if in the lore she is explicitly the alternate universe equivalent of Ratchet. Her past encounter with Kit without realizing it was also kind of a darker plot beat than I would have expected from this series, but not too dark. Just enough to be interesting.
And like I said, even if Rift Apart is just “more Ratchet & Clank,” it was dependable, and another great entry in that series. Again, I think the best praise I could give it is that even after playing it twice this year, I still want to go through and beat it a third time. Just a good old dependable fun time.
Ratchet & Clank Rift Apart also wins:
Biggest and most creative arsenal.
Most robot friends.
Kraken of the year.
Best use of DualSense triggers/haptics.
Best traced reflections of the year.
Best use of SSD.
Best looking game.
“Brainpunk” Game of the Year: Scarlet Nexus
On paper, Scarlet Nexus sounds like the sort of game that I should love. A dystopian future (apparently referred to as “Brainpunk” by the developers) where a military force comprised largely of teens with special powers are kept from aging through drugs. Naturally you form a crew of misfits from amongst the ranks and build up the found family trope that I find so endearing. And said super-teens (the Scarlet Guardians) are conscripted to fight creatures literally called “The Others,” and said Others being some of the most bizarrely designed enemies I've ever seen. The only consistent thing I could tell about them is their weak spots are light bulbs.
That all sounds like an interesting premise to a game, and to some extent it is. Scarlet Nexus tells a tale (or rather, two tales) that touches on things like government surveillance, what does it mean to be human, can fate be changed, the lengths that someone would go to save a loved one, and all the found family tropes you'd expect out of a game with a cast of party members alongside the protagonist. All that, and as mentioned, two versions of the story, depending on if you pick Kasane (like me), or Yuito. As best as I can tell you get all the major plot beats either way, but some of them just through being told they happened, rather than seeing them yourself.
Story wise I think it has its moments, and overall I liked the characters in Kasane's crew, though less so the ones in Yuito's when they showed up. But none of it ever really gelled in a way that elevated it from enjoyable in the moment but ultimately forgettable in the long run.
Where Scarlet Nexus shines is in the combat. While Kasane and Yuito have different melee weapons (Kasane uses flying knives, and Yuito a sword), both have telekinetic skills, which allow them to lift and throw objects at enemies. If there's anything that I love across games, it's the ability to throw things with my mind. It was one of my favorite things in Control, and though this one's a lot more dependent on lock-on than that, it's still a lot of fun here. And it's not just simply throwing objects, there's also special ones that have different interactions, and require additional inputs (mash a button, spin sticks, etc) to do. Controlling a spinning chandelier, driving a loader machine into foes, or crashing something so huge it made my controller rumble loud enough that my dad heard it in another room are just a few examples.
And the telekinesis can be comboed in with melee attacks, and accentuated by the squadmates' skills. Shiden's electric powers buff both Kasane's knives and thrown objects with extra damage, and even more so to enemies splashed with water. Add in Kyoka's duplication skill, and every thrown object is doubled (as are Kasane's melee attacks (and later tripled once the bond with Kyoka is leveled enough)). For the most part the game isn't super difficult (at least on normal), so you could get through without really getting too deep into skill synergies and the like, but I think they give the game enough depth to raise it above just being another generic melee action game.
Scarlet Nexus game has a decent sense of style to it too. A lot of the characters themselves are a bit generic anime-esque design, but the world has a great use of holograms. Like there's a restaurant the characters frequent where the floor ripples like water, and holographic fish swim around, both floor and fish reacting to your foot steps. Holographic ads atop buildings tower over the streets, and one of the cities even features more holographic fish floating around some walkways. Listen, I think the fish are cool!
So that's Scarlet Nexus in a nutshell. It's a good game, just not quite a great one. Definitely glad I played it, though I will say I'm glad it doesn't lock a true ending behind beating it with both characters, or anything like that. Kasane's crew was a fun bunch of dumbasses (I genuinely do not know how else to describe them, just know I mean that endearingly), but Yuito's seemed a bit...blander, to be frank. Maybe that's only because they obviously got less screen time. Either way, fun game.
Scarlet Nexus also wins:
Telekinesis of the year.
Strangest enemy designs.
Best use of holograms/holographic fish.
Best use of flying knives.
6. High School After School Club Adviser Simulator of the Year: Lost Judgment
More so than maybe any other game this year, Lost Judgment is a tricky one to write about. In some ways, it's “another one of those games,” with an evolution of the previous Judgment's combat, minigames, etc. In regard to those aspects of the series (including the Yakuza games), I think Lost Judgment is the best they've ever been. All of Yagami's fighting styles feel great, and even have some good synergy between them once the right skills are acquired, letting him get buffs from using certain skills, then swapping to the next style, getting another buff, etc. Just wish I had figured out/gotten those upgrades sooner in the game.
And again, I think it has the best collection of minigames. The boxing is just about as fun as the main combat, but distinct in its own way. The skate park is a little underwhelming, but the street skate racing is a lot of fun, definitely more so than Dragon Kart was in Like a Dragon. The drone races are fun too, and there's even a dual stick shooter hidden in Lost Judgment that's probably better than a lot of the games of that ilk released back during its heyday in the early days of the Xbox Live Arcade. All that, a rhythm dancing game, and more!
Then there's the story, which doesn't really come close to reaching the heights of its predecessor, but still...it tackles subjects that I never expected this series to, and even though I don't even if it handles them as well as it could, I still can't help but admire it for trying. But maybe it isn't that surprising considering the first Judgment was a game ultimately about big pharma trying to cover its abuses made in the attempt to find a “miracle cure,” because now Lost Judgment is a game about bullying, suicide, and what happens when the justice system fails to do its job.
The driving force in Lost Judgment is about a student who was bullied so badly he committed suicide, and then the lengths his father went to in an attempt to get justice after the legal system failed to do anything at all. I gotta be clear here, I don't know anyone who ever committed suicide, and I wasn't/don't know anyone who was bullied to the point of it being traumatic. If I had, maybe I wouldn't be able to get through a game like this, or maybe not even want to. And I definitely understand why some people wouldn't like this game because of that, and that's fair.
Even beyond the bullying and suicide, the focus on the justice system being more interested in sweeping its own mistakes under the rug than actually doing the right thing, it resonates. Because let's be frank, that's most likely how these things really work. And I know Lost Judgment is about the Japanese legal system, but I'm gonna guess that there's lots of people with issues with the Japanese government, considering this is I think the fourth game published by Sega in two years that I've played that has some beef with how things are run.
So, I appreciate what Lost Judgment is going for, and ultimately I had a great time with the game as a whole, it's just...gosh does it have a slow start. And kind of a slow middle. Seriously, I know the Yakuza games always had a reputation for being slow starters, but I swear it's not until literally halfway into Lost Judgment that the story picks up and does more than alternate between spinning its tires and driving in circles. Had the story been good from beginning to end, I could have seen Lost Judgment being a game of the year contender like how the previous game was (and honestly, as much as I love DMC 5, in retrospect I think Judgment may have been the right choice). As it is...a stronger second half and a good ending aren't enough to make up for the glacial pace of the beginning.
Oh, and lest I forget, there's also an enormous subplot about this high school being taken over by organized crime (more or less, it's complicated). So Yagami has to go undercover as an adviser for every conceivable after school club there is, and solve all their problems in order to get to the bottom of that. Even if some of that stuff (robotics club) got tedious, just the joy I got out of seeing how ridiculous the clubs started to get (there's an eSports one where you need to play Virtua Fighter 5), and I think there's a lot of good side stories in there. And I think the ending is good, even if I did predict who was going to be revealed as the nefarious Professor pulling the strings from behind the curtain.
So, that's Lost Judgment. I think the game part is the best RGG Studio has made yet, and while I greatly admire the things the story tries to tackle, I wish they'd gotten it going a lot faster than it did. Especially now that the future of the series is in jeopardy over whether or not Yagami's Japanese voice actor/likeness (most people reading this probably know me well enough to know I play these with the english dub, haha) will return. I like Yagami a lot as a character, even if he isn't as goofy as Ichiban, Yagami's still my favorite of the two. I think the series could continue without him, but I really question who they'd try to replace him with. I don't think Kaito could carry a game on his own, and given he's getting a DLC expansion for Lost Judgment, that's probably who they'd pick.
Personally? I think they should let Saori be the lead in the next game. Just say that she started taking martial arts lessons between the games, and take it from there. She definitely deserves more than being the go to undercover person whenever Yagami needs to get intel from a night club.
Regardless, it has its faults, but I still had a great time with Lost Judgment. You can walk a dog who is also a detective.
Lost Judgment also wins:
Terrestrial dog of the year: Ranpo the Detective Dog.
Dog walking of the year.
Most pettable cats.
Moosey and Ajay present the award for most traffic cones.
Hand to hand combat of the year.
Best finishing moves.
Best made up kung fu style of the year: Snake Style.
High school club of the year: Mystery Research Club.
Dancing minigame of the year.
Skateboard racing of the year.
Boxing of the year.
Motorcycle racing of the year.
Best use of a forklift.
Best in game arcade machines of the year.
Russian ninja of the year: Borscht Kalashnikov.
Best series I'm glad I gave another shot: Hitman II/III
Back in 2016, I spent the better part of the year watching along as Giant Bomb played just about every bit of the Hitman soft-reboot (Hitman, 2016) as they reasonably could. But when I got around to actually playing it myself, I ended up banging my head against frustration, and coming away from it ultimately disappointed. Both at the game, but to some extent also at myself for not enjoying it as much as everyone else. Especially because I love stealth games, and on paper Hitman should have been something I enjoyed, but it just never clicked. Because of that, I just skipped Hitman II entirely since at the time I figured the series just wasn't for me, and that was fine.
Then jump to 2021, and after watching Vinny and Brad speedrun through Hitman III on stream, I felt a weird urge to give it another go. But jumping into III without playing II would be silly, so instead when the opportunity arose (aka, the price was low enough), I decided to finally give Hitman II a shot.
And you know what?
It finally clicked!
I think it was a combination of things that led to me having a lot of fun with Hitman II, as opposed to frustrated. One of the biggest ones being the levels themselves. I know general consensus seems to be that Paris and Sapienza are most people's favorites from the trilogy, but I think I had more fun with every level in II than I did anything in the first game. II feels like it's operating on a bigger scope, with sprawling levels and still tons and tons packed into every one. Even the DLC levels are great!
Another thing, and this is more to do with my mindset, is that I went into II knowing the game's limitations. My biggest issue with the first one at the time was that it felt limiting. Everyone talked about that game having so many possibilities, and so much room for experimentation, yet when I played, I just kept bumping into limitations. Any time I tried to think of something, it wasn't something actually implemented in the game.
The best example I remember, because it was the last time I ever played that game, was in an elusive target. He was a restaurant critic, so naturally my inclination was to dress as a waiter and poison him. But, my idea of delivering poisoned food to him was impossible because the game simply didn't have a way to deliver food. So if you wanted to poison him, you had to know to poison a cake in the kitchen that the critic would go and taste on his routine. Of course you wouldn't know that without waiting like five minutes for him to get up from the table, walk around, then go back to his table where he'd wait again, and so on.
Point being I knew better this time, and went into II knowing I'd have to play by its rules, and that was for the best. The slapstick nature of some of the more ridiculous “bespoke” assassinations is my favorite part of these games anyway, so just focusing on trying to see all of those was a better way for me to play.
And the last issue I had with Hitman I was I ran into a lot of bugs. Things like AI completely breaking, and forcing me to reload saves, or worse, restart levels entirely. Not fun.
So, thus having found my way into being a Hitman enjoyer, naturally I wanted to play III. Which I did! And it's also good! I don't think as good as II, and I think a lot of that comes down to what feels like a significantly reduced scope. Or rather, I get the impression that going fully independent left them with fewer resources, but they not only didn't want to compromise on the visual presentation of the game, they wanted to push that even further. So the levels had to be smaller, and fewer in number to compensate (I don't consider the train to be a proper level). Again, just a theory, I have no idea.
Fewer in number, and I think on average they don't have as many “bespoke comedy kills,” as I like to call them. Things like dropping a moose statue onto someone, or pushing the target into the pool of a blood thirsty man eating hippo. Mendoza (the winery level) has some great stuff on the wine tour (lots of comically large machinery), but overall the game feels a lot more restrained. Not enough to ruin it by any measure, but enough that II is definitely my favorite of the trilogy.
I will say though, that the ability to have the levels from all three integrated into one game is very cool. Especially since IO Interactive managed to optimize the game's files to the point where all three games (on PS5 at least) are smaller in size than II was on its own.
I'm glad I decided to give these games another shot, even if Hitman III couldn't cut it and get into the top ten. I did have a lot of fun with Hitman games this year, just more so with the one that came out a few years ago.
Hitman III also wins:
Most immersive nightclub (the haptics in the controller vibrate in the direction of, and in sync with the music).
Winery tour of the year.
Hit of the year: Grape press.
5. Castletroid of the year: Metroid DREAD
Of all the games in 2021, I think Metroid DREAD is still the most surprising. Out of nowhere did Nintendo not only announce a new Metroid, but one done in the classic side-scrolling style, rather than the floundering in development hell Metroid Prime 4 (I wish the best for those devs having that level of expectations on their shoulders, especially after that other team had to just give up). And on top of THAT it was releasing just a few months after the announcement, and the game itself was none other than the long rumored and presumed dead Metroid DREAD. I'm not exaggerating at all when I say that during the announcement trailer, I genuinely gasped. I could not for the life of me believe that they were finally making good on that after what, fifteen years??
Yet here we are, with the first fully new Metroid game in eleven years, the first good fully new Metroid game in fourteen years, and the first fully new side-scrolling Metroid in nineteen years!! I should probably clarify and say that because I don't have a 3DS, I didn't play the Samus Returns remake from a few years ago, so I really had little idea of what to expect from DREAD, considering both are Mercury Steam games.
Metroid is a series that ever since I jumped on with Fusion, I have just absolutely loved. Exploration focused games with a super cool space aesthetic? What's not to love? And on top of that, Metroid Prime was the game that convinced stubborn twelve year old me that actually first person games can be good and worth playing (to be clear Metroid Prime is also an all time favorite of mine, just like Fusion, I'm saying twelve year old me had a lot of bizarre opinions and Prime helped me fix one of them).
All of this is to say that even if I told myself I was keeping expectations in check, I knew a lot was riding on DREAD here. Thankfully it's about as good a comeback for the series as I could possibly imagine happening. Everything I loved about the old games is back, and just enough is modernized around the combat and traversal that it feels fresh too. When everything clicks, there's a fluidity to this game that feels so good. A flow to the level design in combination with Samus' moves that is a lot of fun to pull off.
Of course it wouldn't be Metroid if the game was just a platformer, without there needing to be more to the exploration than simple traversal. In some cases DREAD relies a little too much on fake walls that need to be shot to open up the path forward, but for the most part it has a lot of really great, intricate level design. In some ways it's a bit on the linear side, but in the moment it doesn't feel like it. It's so intertwining once all the upgrades are had, and the warp spots connecting the zones unlocked that I'm really impressed with what Mercury Steam pulled off.
The combat too, with “new” (again, I know it was from the 3DS remake) things like the counter, add just enough to make things fresh and exciting. Some of the controls are a little wonky at first (plus the lack of ability to remap anything when Super Metroid had that in the early 90s is unfortunate), but once I got the hang of it, it all felt great. And it's good that it does, because DREAD is a challenging game. Like to the point where spending time scouring the world for power-ups will only get you so far, because at some point if you can't properly dodge the bosses' attacks, you're not going to last.
And they're not just huge, screen filling monsters, more than I can remember from any previous Metroid, DREAD has a lot of fights that feel like duels against similarly sized/equipped bosses (or maybe mini-bosses in this case). They're not quite on the level of say, the Raiden vs. Jetstream Sam duel from REVENGEANCE (you know, everyone's first thought in the duel style boss fight realm), but it was still refreshing and fun to have to use Samus' agility to the fullest to get through so many fights.
Speaking of her agility, for as much as I loved DREAD, there is one part of the game that I think holds it back. Namely, the source of the dread in Metroid DREAD, the E.M.M.I. robots, which stalk and hunt down Samus whenever she dares enter one of their zones. Now, upfront, I don't hate the E.M.M.I. sections, and I didn't find them as frustrating as a lot of people seemed to. But that's also not to say I didn't find them frustrating, because some of them I definitely did. For as cool of an idea as they are, and for as tense as the E.M.M.I. zones feel when I managed to get through them, there were enough moments of getting caught, the randomly timed QTE not going my way, that eventually I did start to lose my patience with them.
Thing is, on the whole with how great the rest of DREAD is, I still loved the game. It's everything I wanted from a new Metroid and so much more. Even the story is interesting! That's the last thing I expected from a new Metroid, especially after... *shudders*... Other M. Really, there's so much more going on in DREAD's story than I thought there would be, and it was a great surprise. Going into more depth about the Chozo, the X parasites, and even filling in some more details about Samus' past! I won't spoil anything, but there's even some funny memes floating around there relating to a late game reveal, and some of the motivations behind a certain character that I found to be very funny.
As much as I love DREAD, and think it really is a fantastic game, the pain of doing these numbered lists is eventually you wind up with games that had things been a little different, it could have been your game of the year, but then winds up in fifth place. That's mostly to say that 2021 had a lot of games that I really loved, and I'm so happy that a new Metroid got to be one of them. With Prime 4 (hopefully) on the horizon, maybe this means a new dawn for the franchise, and we might not have to wait a decade plus for new entries anymore. I can hope, can't I?
Metroid DREAD also wins:
Best ominous robots: E.M.M.I.
Wall jumping of the year.
Best boss fights.
Best counter attacks.
Most fluid movement.
Fluid dynamics of the year.
Orb form of the year: Morphball.
Best long rumored game from when I was in high school to actually be real and release.
Air dashing of the year.
Grappling hook (beam) of the year.
Cutest parasites (listen in 3D the X look like Flubber).
Best intertwining maps.
Deltarune Chapter 2???
So, Deltarune. This is one that I'm not entirely sure how to handle for Game of the Year purposes. Technically speaking Deltarune released in 2018, and Chapter 2 is a free update to that game. So me, being Captain Literal whether I like it or not, I feel like it shouldn't be eligible for Moosies Game of the Year. On the flip side, however many years from now when all seven(?) chapters are released, I'll probably be upset at myself for being so stubborn over semantics.
So, a compromise: Every time there's a new chapter for Deltarune, I'll include an update during the Moosies, assuming it remains good and worth writing about, at least. And then when the whole thing is finished, I'll re-consider it for that year's Moosies (never mind that Chapter 1 on its own was in my top ten in 2018), and in all likelihood it'll be that year's GOTY. Again, assuming it remains good throughout, based on how it's been so far.
Even if I felt the need to establish all that, I do continue to think Deltarune is something special. Chapter 2 was probably the funniest thing I played all year. It also almost gave me an existential crisis, which I think I touched on in the blog I wrote earlier this year but don't think anyone read? Which is fine in that case, haha.
Anyway, I know Undertale was a game special to many, many people, and as much as I did really love that game, my short take on Deltarune Chapter 2 is that Deltarune is on track to be, long term, the better of the two, even if it might never fully escape the shadow of Undertale. Definitely plays better, and I think is overall paced better. And the episodic format seems to work well enough, despite it taking three years between chapters...this as a seven parter is going to take...a long time...
Deltarune Chapter 2 wins:
Moosey and Ajay present: Best Video Game Traffic Cone of the Year: Dog Cones.
Funniest game of the year.
[[BIG SHOT]] of the year.
Award for coming the closest to giving me an existential crisis.
Best game to theorize the future of.
Game that most sent me down a wiki hole.
4. Most Ridiculous Game of the Year: Resident Evil VILLAGE
Over the years, I've come to accept that I'm really only a fair-weather Resident Evil fan. I'm one of those people that jumped on with 4, and while I have dabbled with some of the previous games, it's really only been in the last few years that the series has excited me in the way that 4 did. Now granted, that's partly because after 4 being a groundbreaking game, the series went in...a direction. One that at the time I had fun with, but now feel bad about because of the...you know, the fact that 5 is a game about a white dude shooting his way through African villages full of infected people turning into monsters. And then 6, while less immediately racist, was very much not a good game, so that didn't help.
Now though, I think the series is in an exponentially better place. The Resident Evil 2 remake is my new favorite in the series, and tied with The Evil Within 2 as my favorite survival horror games of all time. Again, fair-weather fan of the genre, I know, but it is a genre and style of play that I've grown to really, truly love in the modern era. To the point where just earlier this year I finally got around to playing Resident Evil VII, which was the game that salvaged the series after 6's multiple train wrecks. And I liked it a lot!
One of the reasons why I finally got around to it was because I really wanted to play the newest Resident Evil, VILLAGE, but with that being a direct sequel to VII, I had to do the thing and play that game first. And I'm glad I did, because VII being such a tense, and gripping survival horror experience focused so tightly on ammo and inventory management, that it helped make VILLAGE seem all the more ridiculous once I got into it.
Resident Evil VILLAGE is a silly, ridiculous, absurd game. And I love it. I had such a great, dumb time with this nonsense game, that I'm almost surprised at how great it is. VILLAGE isn't the honed to a razor edge almost perfect realization of the genre like RE2 remake is, but its sensibilities and the logic it operates by are just so out there that I cannot help but love it.
This is a game where the antagonists main character Ethan deals with are, in order: A vampire giantess, a living doll, a fish man, and I kid you not, a character that I can only describe as, “off brand Nic Cage Magneto.” Plus the main antagonist cult leader lady, but I still can't believe that someone decided what this game needed was someone with Magneto's metal objects control power, and then also what if that character was played by the closest they could get to Nic Cage? AND also written like the sort of hammy Nic Cage we all love to see?
He has my favorite line of dialog from any game this year, partly because it's such a specific reference (and said during a boss fight where it's easily missed) that I bet a lot of people didn't notice it. In reference to Chris Redfield, he says, “That boulder punching asshole!” If that doesn't mean anything to you, don't worry about it. It meant enough to me that I cackled at that line enough for all of us. I had to pause the game during that boss and message a friend (hi Ajay!!) about it, it was just so much.
Also I can not bring myself to spoil the context of that boss fight because it is unbelievable and I don't want to ruin it for anyone that hasn't gotten there yet. Just trust me, in a game full of bizarre, ridiculous occurrences, the Heisenberg fight is the one. It's the most ridiculous one, and I'm just so happy someone came up with that idea for a Resident Evil game, and it got in. Thank you Capcom for letting this game be this silly.
That's really the vibe for most of this game. It's just so over the top, and in the best possible ways. It's also still a really good playing game too, even if the dial is turned more toward “action shooter” than “survival horror,” but at least it's closer to the “survival horror” side than RE4 was back in the day. VILLAGE is definitely a game where you can shoot your way through just about every situation, but at the ammo counts are such that I was at least close to running out, or running out with some weapons after most big fights. As opposed to 4, where I'm pretty sure I was just a walking armory a few hours in.
There's also parts of the game where Ethan is...disarmed, thus forcing you to have no options but running or hiding. I'm not really a big fan of that side of the horror game genre, but I can't write about this game without mentioning what was probably the single sequence in any game that has unsettled me the most. Like, seriously, out of all the games I've ever played. Even more than that bit with the eye in Dead Space 2.
That would be the dollhouse, most of which was just your usual, campy RE fair. The doll is trying to get into Ethan's head, and mess with him, and all that stuff's fine. It's really just typical RE find some keys, solve some light puzzles, etc. No combat, because Ethan's guns are gone, but that's fine. At least until the...thing appears. It's, I mean I guess this might be a spoiler (but not really because it doesn't affect the story but I'll white it out anyway), but a giant human fetus appears and starts chasing after Ethan.
Now I know what you're thinking, that's gross, and yes, it is. Also it creeped me out and left me rattled so much that despite the fact that I want to New Game Plus this game to go through it again, I keep hesitating when I remember I'd have to play through that sequence again. I'd like to go through shooting werewolves with my magnum revolver named Wolfsbane, but then I shudder thinking about that creature in the dollhouse.
So much happens in VILLAGE that I cannot possibly hope to cover it all and do any of it justice here, so I'll just quit while I'm ahead. As much as I want to write about all the things that happen to Ethan's hands, because this game is just so much. Like, is it a perfect game? No, I'm still disappointed that when it came time to finally bring a new merchant to the franchise, the best they could come up with was, “what if we made him so fat that the first time you see him it's just his belly fat bulging out from these wagon doors,” but that one fatphobic character design is really the only actual issue I have with the game. Otherwise, it's silly, and over the top, and nonsensical at times, but I love that they really went for it this time.
And for as ridiculous as it is, I do think Ethan Winters ended up endearing himself to me as my new favorite Resident Evil protagonist. Not that that's a high bar to meet, but still noteworthy, I think. To paraphrase my friend Ajay (a much bigger RE fan than I), “he's the closest to resembling an actual human being of them.” And I agree with her, he does resemble a human being, haha.
Again, maybe not my favorite Resident Evil, but a close second to RE2 remake, and absolutely earned its place in my top five games of the year. So much silly fun.
Resident Evil VILLAGE also wins:
Trophy name of the year: “Not Lycan This...”
Survival Horror game of the year.
Collectible of the year: Traditional wooden goat bobble heads.
Guy you have to HAND it to the most: Ethan Winters.
Off brand Nic Cage of the year.
Most crystal skulls.
Best cooking noises.
Silliest boss: Propeller Man.
Most inexplicable [REDACTED] fight.
Best retcon: [REDACTED].
Destiny 2 Yearly Check in.
Like with Deltarune, Destiny 2 is one that gets a bit of a special treatment. There wasn't even a singular big expansion in 2021, and yet here I am writing about it. Why? Well, because after taking all of 2020 off from playing the game after Shadowkeep and (from what I've heard) the ensuing seasons were bad...Destiny 2 got...good again.
Granted, that probably started with the Beyond Light expansion, which was 2020, and not 2021 (when I played it). But, after my friends got back into the game, I followed, and I'm here to report that I am fully back into Destiny 2.
Beyond Light was a pretty good expansion, and I enjoy the new Stasis subclass. At least for Warlocks, because I don't think I've touched my other characters since...Forsaken? But it's not just that it was the one good expansion, I think the seasonal stuff, while still having its FOMO-infused faults, is a good way to continue the story throughout the year. It's an ongoing story that updates every week after doing a weekly activity, which is probably enough for some people, but for the loot lovers out there like myself and my friends, well we typically played more than that.
And the story's been mostly interesting too. All the stuff with Caiatl and her faction of the Cabal was neat, then there was Mithrax and his group of refugee Eliksni allying with the Vanguard and all taking residence at the Tower. The Eliksni, of course, being the proper name for the “Fallen.”
Then there's Crow, formerly Uldren, and his journey to becoming a guardian (which I actually missed the start of in whatever season that was before the Caiatl stuff), and now coming back into contact with this sister Queen Mara, and Savathun... It's good! Certainly enough to keep me paying attention, and make me want to see what happens next in the Witch Queen expansion.
Of course, there's also the fact that, as I mentioned, I missed out on one of those seasons, so as far as I can tell, that's not something I could ever go back and do if I wanted to. Just like how the original Red War campaign is gone, and Forsaken (still my favorite time in Destiny 2) is being “vaulted” in February, just in time for Witch Queen. The Dreaming City and a couple of the Strikes are apparently surviving, but The Tangled Shore? That campaign? Soon it'll be gone, and unable to play.
And honestly? That sucks. I hate it. Not even just from a “I paid for that” perspective (and right now Forsaken is free for everyone who didn't buy it), but from a games preservation perspective. I hate how easy it is for games to just disappear. Especially how frequently it seems to happen, usually for licensing reasons. As best as I can tell in Destiny 2 it's for technical reasons more than anything else, perhaps being held back by last gen consoles? But I can't in good faith say Bungie should just immediately abandon those when there's likely more people playing there than current gen.
So that's why I think the current situation of Destiny 2 is just good. In terms of the game, it's some of the most fun I've had with it in a long time, but the removal of large swathes of content just rubs me the wrong way. Clearly not enough to get me to stop altogether, but enough for me to write about it.
On the other hand, as of this writing the Bungie 30th Anniversary event is going on, complete with blatant nostalgia grabs like bringing back weapons from Halo. The Halo CE pistol is finally back...as The Forerunner. After Bungie was cowardly enough to not include it in Halo 2, they're finally brave enough to bring it back in Destiny 2...and it's great. I love it.
Also Xur is running a game show with a space horse??? Its name is Starhorse and it seems to be the one running the show? I don't really understand what's going on, but I like it.
Okay, as one last addendum, also as of this writing, an article had been posted to IGN detailing some info about things that have happened at Bungie over the years, and I felt bad writing positively about the Bungie anniversary event without at least mentioning this. You know I care about the people who actually make games, and I think industry wide huge amounts of work need to be done to get it where it needs to be. I still like to think Bungie is sincere about trying to improve, and I hope they keep improving. And that's all I really have to say about that, given I don't have any special insight or anything.
Destiny 2 wins:
Game Show Hosts of the Year: Xur and Starhorse.
Celestial Horse of the Year: Starhorse.
Best new gun of the Year: Forerunner (the Halo CE pistol returns!!!!!!).
3. Road Trip of the Year: Persona 5 Strikers
Considering Royal was the Moosies Game of the Year for 2020, Strikers being here is the least surprising thing. All those characters I got so attached to going on one last adventure, and this time it's a road trip across Japan? Yeah, of course I was going to have a great time with this game! The only question in my mind was how high on the list was it going to be, and considering how the first three fourths of the year went, there was a long time where it felt like Persona was going to be the first two-peat in Moosies history, and win GOTY twice in a row.
Despite the fact that I really did genuinely have a blast hacking and slashing across the Metaverse (no, not that one, the good one that Persona 5 did years ago) with the Phantom Thieves again, it didn't quite make the cut to make that two-peat a reality. But honestly, this is one of those years where I went back and forth on the games in my top five so much that even while writing this, I kept moving some of them around!
Strikers' storytelling ambitions might not be as high as the original Persona 5/Royal, but in some ways the (at least initially) lower stakes of Strikers was comforting. Just a bunch of good friends going on a road trip for the summer, getting up to hijinks, and having fun. Of course even before they hit the road they had to resume their Phantom Thieving ways, but the more relaxed vibe is there. The whole gang is already together without having to go through their traumas like in the first game, just ready to have a good summer vacation. Even now, as I'm re-listening to Strikers' soundtrack to get myself back into the mindset of playing the game (I always try to do this with every game as re-installing and replaying stuff is too time consuming to be practical), I'm feeling that comforting feeling again, and just remembering how much everything about the Phantom Thieves means to me.
Granted the game still has issues, some of which are the same sort from P5/Royal (there's not one but two clichéd hot springs scenes in Strikers), and some of which are new to the P5 “series” (I'd be remiss not to mention this is the second of two games in my top five this year with a character that has a really fatphobic design for absolutely no reason). But between the fun road trip, the good Persona 5 vibes still vibing, the characters being as charming as ever, the story being compelling, and the combat being a lot of fun, it's still a great time.
I'm honestly still impressed at how well the combat works, and just how fun it is. That many playable characters (even if it's small compared to what you'd get in a proper Dynasty Warriors), that many Personas, and all the different systems from P5 integrated into a real time action game! FF VII Remake is still the pinnacle of integrating mechanics from turn based RPGs into action combat, but of the games I've played this one's second. It's just fun to dash around, swapping characters, and using the right combos to get the Persona attacks flying without draining the SP meter. Especially on Hard it's demanding enough that you really need to be on top of things, and maximize those Persona weaknesses and strengths.
What's not to love about a game that lets you summon a supernatural motorcycle and use it to plow through swarms of enemies? It was great when Dante did it in DMC 5, and it's great here when Makoto does it! Plus new character Sophia (who I found delightful) uses yo-yos to fight, and again, I think that's cool. Yes, Joker was the character I played the most because he is the main dude, and being able to switch between so many Personas on the fly is usually more useful than a supernatural motorcycle...but I still appreciated being able to play as (almost) all the Phantom Thieves (Futaba still doesn't fight directly), and that they all had their uses throughout the game.
Plus I want to give a shout out to my favorite boss fight of the year. That being the two stage fight against...a giant mech. Stage one is a lot of darting around the arena, dodging attacks, and using giant rail guns to knock it out of the air, and eventually put the robot out of commission. Stage two then, the mech's pilot steps out, draws an energy sword, and the fight turns into a frantic duel amongst the wreckage of the mech, and it's just such a rad, fun fight. And listening to the stage two music again (it was a big enough fight to get a unique track) just has me SO pumped up all over again. What a great battle.
And the music, I can't write about a Persona game without mentioning music. I know some amount of Strikers' music is either from P5/Royal, or rocked up remixes with more guitar, but hey, it works! Plus the wholly new tracks are super fun and great too. Whether they're chill beats to road trip/vibe to, or ripping guitar backing you up as you shred through hoards of shadows, it all fits, and I'd say that even if Persona 5 didn't get the GOTY two-peat, it got the best music two-peat.
Also, still surprising no one, the best styyyyyyyle two-peat. What can I say, they're stylish games! The higher framerate, even on PS4 (at the time) was nice too, just to make everything look and feel that much more fluid. Some of the aliasing was a bit rough, but I wonder if playing on PS5 in the higher res mode might improve that? Or the PC version I'm sure helps. Not Switch though, I've heard that's not a great port.
Anyway, I just need to reiterate one more time that I just had so much fun with Strikers. In some ways it was bittersweet to have this great adventure with the Phantom Thieves again, knowing it was the last one...but on the other hand, considering they're still re-releasing the Persona 4 spin-offs, I really should not assume anything about P5 being at its end. Either way, Strikers met and well exceeded my expectations, and it was without a doubt one of my favorite games of the year.
Persona 5 Strikers also wins:
Most styyyyyyylish game.
Anime intro of the year.
Most Jacks Frost.
Most frantic combat.
Boss fight of the year: Konoe and his mech.
Remix of the year: Last Surprise Scramble.
AI of the year: Sophia (aka Sophie).
Best DLC for a game not released in 2021: Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye
As with the original Outer Wilds, this is tricky to write about without spoiling anything. And, I do think it's worth playing Echoes of the Eye without knowing too much about what's in there...even as much as there's a couple of extremely cool things that I do want to write about. Like, some of the coolest stuff in the whole game levels of cool.
So as one might extrapolate from that, I like Echoes of the Eye. It's still got some issues, though. At its best, this is more Outer Wilds doing what Outer Wilds does best. It lets you explore, and uncover piece by piece what happened to an ancient civilization, all while exploring one of the coolest “planetary bodies” I've visited in a video game. The magic of discovery, the wonder at what happened and what lies beneath the next discovery, that's all here, just as great as it ever was.
The problem lies in the fact that the developers decided to also include...stealth sequences. Where you not only need to evade enemy AI, but also do so while stumbling around in basically pitch black areas. I did not enjoy these sections. To the point where eventually I looked up how to get through them as quickly as possible. Also, a pro tip for anyone else struggling, the “reduced frights” option isn't just there to make the game less spooky, it also makes the AI less aggressive. Thus easier to evade.
I hope that doesn't dissuade anyone from playing the DLC, because I still think it's well worth playing. My jaw literally dropped when I entered the new area, and realized what it was. It's just such a cool, incredible thing to see done in a game like this. It's worth coming back to the game for, and worth buying, I'd say.
Outer Wilds Echoes of the Eye also wins:
[REDACTED] of the year.
[REDACTED] of the year.
2. Game that most left me with a warm and fuzzy feeling: Life is Strange: True Colors
Life is Strange games are always some of the hardest ones to write about, at least without feeling like it's okay to just go full out with spoilers. But this isn't the place for that, this is a GOTY blog, so instead I'll try to focus on how the game made me feel, which is appropriate given main character Alex Chen's empathy related power.
I felt a lot of trepidation going into True Colors, partly because this series holds a special place in my heart (despite not playing LiS 2, which I swear I will some day). The first game I initially experienced through watching GB East play, but that was during a particularly rough time in my life, when watching stuff like that was...comforting, and helped me get through a lot. A couple years later we had the Chloe focused prequel Before the Storm, which came closer to matching Breath of the Wild (aka the greatest game ever made (or at least my favorite)) for my game of that year than anything else. Both the original and Before the Storm have plenty of issues (they both end pretty poorly), but they mean a lot to me.
So seeing people saying True Colors was the best Life is Strange yet, well that sets expectations in an interesting place. Having played it I'd agree with them, it's the best one I've played, and my overall favorite of the series. In so many ways it feels like what these games should be. It's got the melodrama, and while there is still a supernatural power, it doesn't overtake and consume the more interesting parts of the story like it did in LiS 1.
And I think importantly, both the performances and the writing are good and consistent enough that I never found myself wincing at goofy “teen” dialog (I think about the watch Spirits Within on a “tasty plasma” line too much), or finding the voice acting beyond the main cast to be on the lacking side. It does something I can't think of any other game doing so well, which is having intentionally awkward conversations feel awkward in the ways they do in real life. Not like the dialog was timed wrong, or the performances don't quite sell it. It's not something I can describe in text, but particularly some of the early conversations between Alex and Charlotte. I know I've had conversations just as awkward as theirs, I bet most people have, and it was just weirdly relatable to see in a game.
One last thing about the performances, but Erika Mori's performance as Alex is genuinely one of the best I've heard in a game in a long time, which is even more impressive because as far as I can tell this is the first thing she's acted in? At least the first one noteworthy enough to be Google-able (note for anyone else, she's the second Erika Mori that shows up, not the one that was in Kamen Rider). In a game that's all about emotions, and talking to people, Alex runs the gamut of just about everything a person could feel, and I think Erika Mori did an incredible job that made this game what it is.
I'd say I felt pretty happy with the game as a whole, and I do, but it's still Life is Strange. It's meant to tug at the heartstrings, to make you feel people's pain at the loss of a loved one, feel the void that leaves. Feel the anger at betrayal, but also the desperation at being caught in a seemingly hopeless situation. For a game that isn't super long, there really is a lot crammed in there, but I think it all accomplishes what it sets out to do.
And it's not all melodrama (to be clear, I mean melodrama positively), a lot of True Colors is bright, and happy, and heartwarming. It's funny, and goofy, and silly too. It's a game where an extended sequence is dedicated to running a LARP to cheer up a depressed kid, and while it's every bit as corny as that sounds, I loved it. During that LARP the “fights” turn into JRPG styled turn based combat, just with Alex and Ethan (the kid) saying what they're doing instead of literally attacking the “monsters” (just another character wearing a costume). Though most of the fights are actually avoidable if you find the right items, which is a nice touch.
True Colors is also maybe the first and only game I've played with optionally “romance-able” characters where that stuff not only feels like it would happen naturally, but also both of them seem like good people that I could see Alex actually being in a meaningful relationship with. Of course, of the two, Steph and Ryan, naturally I went with Steph. I mean, Ryan's nice and all, it's cute that he's a forest ranger, but Steph's a radio DJ lesbian. Hard to compete with that.
Honestly though, there are some genuinely touching and beautiful moments in the game around this trio, and particularly down the relationship path. There's one scene that I'd like to describe as, “a lesbian kiss so powerful it created an Aurora Borealis,” but I bet the Aurora happens with Ryan too. Still, it's a nice moment in a game full of them.
I went back and forth a whole lot on where to put this game on my list. Should it be number one? Maybe? But what if it was lower on the list, because I don't laugh every time I think about it like I do with VILLAGE, or it doesn't quite give me the same bittersweet feeling I get when I think about Strikers.
Then I remember the afternoon after I finished True Colors, and just the welling of true happiness. Like, legit, the happiest I've felt in years, and for the longest, most sustained amount of time. Now part of that may have been I went from finishing this game to playing the new Destiny 2 event with a friend, so some amount of nostalgia for Bungie was in there (they brought the pistol back!), but it was mostly thinking about how good the ending of True Colors is. Truly Deck 9 did the impossible, which was not only give one of these games a good ending, but a happy one. Or at least the potential for one, I could see there being a sad, or melancholic ending depending on how some of those choices go.
So yeah, I think I picked the right spot for True Colors on my list. It's very close to being my game of the year, but just not quite. As for what that game is? Well, soon ye shall see...
Life is Strange True Colors also wins:
Best new character of the year: Alex Chen.
Best performance of the year: Erika Mori as Alex Chen.
Most idyllic scenery.
Gnome of the year: Cool flower shop gnome.
Valkyrie of the year – Record store cat.
Air (broom) guitar of the year.
In game musical performance of the year: Alex and Steph at the Spring Festival.
OTP of the year: Alex and Steph.
Gayest Aurora Borealis of the year.
Foosball of the year.
LARP of the year.
Old Games of the Year: Showcase?
So, I'm handling the old game of the year thing a little differently this time. Normally I pick a winner, and just write about that, and then maybe a runner up or two. But since my two favorite “old” games that I played (for the first time) this year were Marvel's Spider-Man Miles Morales, and 13 Sentinels Aegis Rim, both of which I already wrote about extensively, I decided to instead highlight a few games that might not be as well known as, you know, Spider-Man. Even though Miles does win the Award for 2021 Moosies Old Game of the Year.
I don't blame you if you haven't heard of this one. The only reason I had was that it was amongst the thousands of games in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality last year. The one that was only $5, contained literally thousands of things, and went to a good cause. Despite almost never playing games on PC, I still got the bundle, and this year (yes, a year after the bundle was new) I got around to trying a handful of games from it. It was really nothing more than pure luck that I happened to give this one a shot, though of the ones I tried, this is the one that stuck out in my mind.
It's very much like the old style of Zelda games, except just about everything in the layout of the world is procedurally generated based on the name of the save file. It's neat, and while I think the combat and dungeons aren't...that great, the game has a lot of charm, and some interesting stuff in the story/lore. Even if I did see the big twist coming a good ways away, I still thought it was a good twist. That, and there's some abilities late in the game that are legit cool, and made me feel like I was breaking the game, but in a good way. Despite the fact that very clearly everything with said abilities was intended, it still gave that feeling of breaking it.
All that said, my favorite part of the game was the music. It has two different versions of every song (because the game has two separate art styles that can be toggled (I left it on the GBA inspired one because that's an aesthetic I have more nostalgia for)), and they're all good! The boss music especially was one of my favorite songs I heard all year, it's just a good piece of boss fighting music.
Definitely give this one a shot if any of what I wrote intrigues you. I don't know how much it costs, but I'm sure it's affordable. And again, if you bought that bundle last year, you have this game on itch, just go get it there! (I think that's how that works?) It's neat, and a good reminder that there's a whole world of indie indie games that I don't spend nearly enough time with. I know I should but...well, you know how these things go.
Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling
You ever find yourself thinking, “what if there was a new Paper Mario, but all the characters were cute anthropomorphic bugs?” If so, then Bug Fables is the game you've been waiting for! In all seriousness, this is a game that I really didn't know much about, aside from the Paper Mario inspiration, and the fact that I know a few specific people who really, really love this game. So, I decided to finally give it a shot.
And I like it a lot! At first it feels almost litigious in how it's “inspired” by Paper Mario, with so much of the combat, the look of the game, and so on feeling like the devs were almost copying those first two Paper Marios. But as I got deeper in (and it's long for an indie game; it took me 38 hours to finish, and that unlocked a few post game side quests!), the game's own charm, and its own characters kept growing on me, so I had a great time with it.
Don't just brush this game off as a cheap knock-off of those old Paper Marios. There's some really compelling and touching stuff that happens in the story, and I grew really attached to the main trio. Vi, Kabbu, and Leif make a great team, both in and out of combat. Speaking of, there's some neat things in the combat, like being able to just switch the order the team goes in on the fly, that I think more turn based games should have. I'm sure this game wasn't the first to do that, but I think it should be a standard feature of the genre.
All that, and the game is adorable. I don't really think bugs in real life are cute, but the ones in this game are, and there's a whole lot of them. If like me you thought the lack of varied character designs in Paper Mario The Origami King was disappointing, this game does not suffer a similar fate. Aside from some repeats used for generic guards, as best as I can tell every NPC in the game is a unique character sprite, and there's a lot of them, which I think is super impressive for an indie game.
So yeah, again, highly recommended, and a great game.
Baba is You
Baba is probably the most well known of the games here, so it doesn't really need me to tell anyone to give it a shot. It's also somehow the game I spent the most time playing on my Switch this year, despite the fact that I never actually finished it. And at this point I'm too afraid of having forgotten how everything works to ever go back and finish it. Especially considering I was already resorting to looking up solutions, which kind of defeats the point in these sorts of games. Of course, the alternative was just stopping altogether, which wasn't good either.
Regardless, it's a very good game. And I think it recently got an update with new stuff? Maybe it's time to check out again...
And finally, it's...
The 2021 Moosies Video Game Awards Video Game of the Year: Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy
In a lot of ways, I'm just as surprised as you. Never in all my out there, jokey predictions would I have thought that not only would a Guardians of the Galaxy game be my favorite of any year, but that it would be because of the story. I'm not a big fan of the GotG movies (they're okay), I've never read the comics, and for this game specifically, it had a really poor unveiling at E3 that left me, and everyone else I know convinced the game had little chance of being better than mediocre. At best.
On the flipside, looking at this game now, it's so many things that I love that it absolutely fits in amongst the pantheon of Moosies Games of the Years. A ragtag crew of misfits that grow to be the found family each of them needs (even if they don't realize it), an almost shockingly heartfelt and touching story (that I swear had me tearing up in one scene near the end), a cool sci-fi aesthetic (I'm still blown away by the art design as a whole), and of course lots of genuinely funny humor along the way.
Even the combat, while not as good as some other big budget comic book games of late, has interesting ideas in it, and that's good enough for me. Like I said, this is a game about the Guardians growing as a team, and a family, so the combat being focused on teamwork, on combining abilities effectively to take out enemies with smart tactics, rather than just brute force makes a lot of sense. Now granted the game is never really hard enough, or smartly designed enough to make the combat feel like more than interesting ideas, but that's the sort of classic video game-y “they could iterate on this in a sequel and make it way better” thing that I really appreciate. Even if there isn't a sequel, at least they didn't make this just a generic shooter with Starlord or something.
Speaking of, one of the unsung triumphs of this game is that they not only managed to make Peter Quill a great character (the movies didn't), but also believable as the glue that keeps the Guardians together. A motley crew whose natural inclination is going to be bickering and fighting amongst themselves, especially when you have things like the adopted daughter of “The Mad Titan” Thanos working alongside a man whose main goal in life was avenging his family killed by Thanos. Though as one would guess, and as Peter would try to remind them, their shared hatred of Thanos is more of a connection than anything else that would try to get in their way.
Really though, for as much as Peter is still a goofball, he's also an empathetic guy who really, truly believes in every member of his team, and that together they have what it takes to make the galaxy a better place. And to make a few bucks along the way. Maybe it's just because the MCU interpretation was particularly poor, or maybe it was because of Chris Pratt (likely both), but this game's version of Peter is just such a better character than I ever thought he could be.
One of the main plot threads is about the idea that Peter might have a now teenage daughter he didn't realize he had, and for as boilerplate and generic a story that could be, it works. As I'm writing this out, trying to convey how much I loved this game, I bet some of this stuff just seems eye-roll worthy. “Oh it's just another game about sad dads?” I mean, sort of, but in the game, it works.
“Found family” stories are a dime a dozen, and I know I'm a sucker for them, but this one got me hard. Every member of the Guardians has had some sort of traumatic past, and for as grim as it sounds in writing, that's part of what draws them together. Drax lost his family to Thanos, and almost lost himself to his quest for vengeance. That pain and loss is felt in him throughout the story, but it's not just there for him to be sad, and mope. And thankfully it's never there to be the butt of a joke, because again, I'm genuinely shocked that a game about a group known for wise cracks and jokes takes these things as seriously as it does.
There's a scene, I think technically it's optional dialog after finding a collectible, where Gamora confides in Peter that she's had suicidal thoughts before. Peter's response is to basically say he has too, and even if their lives were different enough that he can't truly know how she literally felt, he understands it. The game doesn't make a huge deal out of it, it's just a conversation between friends comfortable enough to share this sort of thing, and like so many other things in the game, it really hit me.
That the game takes the time to focus on things like this, without trivializing them, without just making them one off things to be dealt with and then never mentioned again, again, I just really appreciate it. It feels like a game that understands that these aren't things that you can just magically move on from. It takes time, and work, and sometimes most importantly of all, the support of the people that care about you to learn to live with what's happened, and do your best to move on.
The fact that this game manages to ride the line between the basically nonstop goofy wise cracking banter and the serious moments, while doing both so well I think is incredible. It's hard enough to get one tone right, let alone two, and to be able to switch between them without it ever feeling forced is one of the most remarkable feats in game writing I can think of in recent history. Like what other game can handle the discord between the deep pain of losing your family and also a rude raccoon and his walking tree friend?
Even Rocket, for as much of a wise-ass as he is, and for as much as he sometimes feels like he enjoys causing problems for everyone else (aside from Groot), even he's just trying to cover up his own insecurities. Trying to act tough and cool to cover up his own fears, even though he really just wants to find a place he can be happy, and part of a real family. And again, to also make some money doing it.
I've managed to write all this without directly addressing what the main A Plot of the story is, but honestly I don't think I need to. Like I've said indirectly, it's a story about the pain of lost loved ones, and the lengths some would go just on the promise of bringing them back, trying to fill that void with anything at all...even if it's just empty promises. Of course, as a counter to that, it's about a group coming together as a new family to help themselves heal those past traumas, at least as best as anyone can.
Anyone who hasn't played this game, I really cannot recommend it enough. Assuming you don't hate the idea of these characters bantering with each other. I personally like it, but if you don't it'd definitely be grating during the running through the levels doing video game stuff portions of the game. The story and characters are all so good that it clicked with me more than any other game this year. In ways that I never ever would have guessed a Guardians of the Galaxy game could. There were a lot of games I really loved in 2021, but at the end of the day this was my favorite. It just has so much heart, and character, and a deep love for a bunch of characters that just want to be loved and accepted, despite all their flaws, and if that isn't relatable, then I don't know what is.
Plus, there's a psychic Russian space dog and one of the most incredible, “oh they're making good on that bit from earlier in the game” moments I've ever experienced. I'm not going to spoil it, and not ruin the surprise. What a tremendous game.
Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy also wins:
Mass Effect of the year.
Best story of the year.
Motliest crew of the year.
Tree of the year: Groot.
Hunky but sad middle aged man of the year: Drax.
Ex-assassin of the year: Gamora.
Rudest “raccoon” (in an endearing way) of the year: Rocket.
Teen character of the year: Nikki.
Worst hair of the year: Young Peter's mullet.
Russian space dogs of the year.
Most endearingly Canadian game of the year.
Space llama of the year.
Chewbacca of the year.
Most unreliable refrigerator of the year.
Best fake band of the year: Starlord.
Scanning visor of the year.
[REDACTED] of the year: [REDACTED].
And that's 2021, and the Moosies! I definitely noticed a theme in my top games of this, and also that probably bled back into last year's too. Regardless of that, thank you for reading, and sticking with me after all these years. Especially when I all but gave up on actually writing about games for a good chunk of the year. I can't make promises that I'll write more frequently in 2022, partly because even if I have it in me to, it's still dependent on my playing games worth writing about, but I'd like to get back into the habit of writing more often. So, we'll see!
With that, thank you once again, and take care of yourselves out there!
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.
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.
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.
[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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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...
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.