Shelter 2

This is a weird little art game, but it doesn’t make an impact, and in trying to be more (a skill-oriented survival game on top of the artistic narrative stuff), it flounders somewhat. You play as a mother lynx and are tasked with raising your spawn into adulthood. By the time you’ve caught your first rabbit and delivered it to your four mewling cubs, you’ve seen about all the game has to offer, mechanically, but you’re made to tediously keep doing this as they grow up and follow you around and eventually hunt for themselves. They seem to suck at this, though, which means that at no stage of your life do you get to take it easy. Very toilcore.

In ludonarrative terms I sometimes amused myself while thinking about the trade-off between wanting to eat my catches for myself to keep my irritating stamina meter as full as possible, and wanting to feed my cubs as much as I could in the hopes that it would advance the not-fun-at-all game to the next stage sooner. In some sense this is a very real exploration of “Do I feed my hungry kids in the short term, or do I feed myself so I can get the energy to work to bring in more food later?” Only, it’s approached on the most annoying terms possible. Just like real life!

At one point one of my cubs was eaten by a wolf. Getting into the primitive mindset, my only real thought about this was, “Welp, I guess that’s why I had four of them.” The game ended with me encountering a single phantom lynx, though, which I think was supposed to be my own end of life and reuniting with my dead child in the afterlife. “Art Games Gonna Art Game,” for sure, but considering how little of an emotional connection I had, it only seemed mawkish or maybe funny in an ironic sort of way.

Of course, I’m only assuming that’s what was going on there, and that there would’ve been two or three phantoms in that scene if I’d been an even shittier parent. But how should I know?

…Look, I’m not heartless or anything. They just didn’t pull it off.

The game allows you to play again as one of the surviving cubs as it in turn raises its children, and you can view the family tree from the main menu. You can keep doing this, and you also get to name each cub, ostensibly allowing you to branch out down the family tree a dozen generations with cubs named Goku and Hitler. But there’s no incentive to do this. Names only show up on the tree, not in-game, which means I wouldn’t really be able to tell you if the last cub to get eaten by a wolf had been Weedman, or Anime Dragon God. In any case, I don’t think naming them would get me to become more attached.

It’s not terrible. It’s not a huge studio game, it’s got a cute art style, and its ideas are interesting–they’re just not taken far enough to really work. If they wanted to focus on the mechanics they had, taking the generations thing further, they might have sped the game up and added some kind of choice in inherited traits or something–like, of my two cubs that made it to adulthood, do I want to continue to the next round with the stronger one, or the faster one? All the while with some clear endgame goal for however many generations down the line, like Massive Chalice. On the other hand, if they wanted an art game, they might have dropped all the open-ended hunting with its shallow mechanics and just set up a series of five or six pre-designed hunts instead, each with some kind of obstacle and narrative component to coincide with the different stages of life.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.

Dishonored

I’m really fond of Dishonored, even though, as a stealth game, it does a lot of the same things wrong that DXHR & DXMD did. Apparently I was fond enough to play it again in 2017, setting silly rules for myself, and picking up all the achievements I missed last time.

You can screw up a Dishonored no-kills run in the most baffling circumstances; maybe the physics engine decided to get creative, and an unconscious guard you left on a rooftop jittered off the edge and fell to his death when you had your back turned. Or maybe a swarm of rats came by and ate that guy you left in an alley. (From a rules-of-stealth point of view, rats are the most bullshit thing in the game.) Sometimes NPCs kill each other, or die in scripted events. These shouldn’t count, but do they? I can’t say I know for sure, because I had no way of figuring out where I went wrong. It would be incredible if the game could do a simple thing like flashing the words “FIRST KILL” on the screen, so you’d know when the time came to hit the quickload key.

A run in which you’re never fully detected by an enemy is harder to do, but usually comes with fewer uncertainties, given the loud musical sting that plays, and the red alert marks above a guard’s head. Usually. I still managed to surprise myself with failure by the end of a couple missions. I don’t think it’s a problem if bodies are spotted, but in one of the missions in the first expansion, if you linger around too long, enemies spawn in around a corpse and start talking about how they need to find whoever did it. Only thing is, I never left a corpse there. The corpse had been spawned in too, as part of the same event. There should be an understanding between the game and I, but if it narratively pretends I slipped up when I obviously didn’t? That’s the kind of thing people would replace their dungeon master over.

The painted art style is real cool, and I remember thinking at the time that we’d reached a point with video game graphics where we finally had enough power and could start to boldly experiment instead of just pushing for deeper, boring photorealism. After five years, though, the game does show its age: the visual style is still notable, but the character models aren’t the best. And after taking down around six guards, some of the bodies start to vanish. This limitation is probably a bigger setback than the shallow issue of Good Graphix. After all, half the fun I had in DXMD was putting 25 unconscious men in a big pile.

Most of the time, the game is delightful. The blink power–short range teleportation–was a revolution for stealth games. (I’m grateful that DXMD stole it.) There are only about 9 missions, and 6 more from the two expansions combined, and none of it is a drag to replay. You can do each mission in maybe five minutes each while blinking around like a maniac, even without exploiting glitches or being a speedrunning god. Or you can spend an hour choking out each guard from behind and dragging each of them to a big dumpster. Apart from the occasional unskippable bit of dialogue, the game doesn’t waste your time; you only elect to waste it yourself, as a part of your preferred play style.

Some of my favorite missions include infiltrating Lady Boyle’s masked ball and figuring out which of the masked sisters is your target, or the one in the first expansion where you target the City Barrister and can pop in and out of his four-story manor from various balcony doors. Partly I think the estates of nobles are more appealing locales for stealth and robbery than sewers and prisons and magical mazes–something that also really worked to Thief 2’s advantage–but these missions also have some interesting options and variations. The non-lethal approach to taking out Lady Boyle is quite creepy, insinuating that while you might be able to keep the blood literally off your hands, there’s no way to achieve your goals with purely moral behavior. And with the barrister pacing around between the floors of his house, one approach is to find a way to get close and swap the items in his pockets without him even figuring out that you exist. This is fun stuff; it’s more pure and (I think) to the point of why you’re playing than some of the pretentious nonsense you get up to in the Deus Ex games.

As with other games that give you the option of being non-lethal, or the option of remaining silent and undetected, a lot of the tools you’re given will never be used. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I suppose it would be better if you were given a mine casing and got to decide whether to make a lethal or nonlethal tool out of it, which is something DXMD handled pretty well, apart from the tradeoff of its irritating inventory management. Nonlethal mines and grenades didn’t even exist until Dishonored’s expansions, though, sort of like how DXMD revisited DXHR’s Typhoon augment by adding a nonlethal version. The expansions also add numerous passive runes that would have allowed for some cool gimmick play styles if not for the fact that you were basically done with the game by the time you obtained them. Without the ability to do a New Game Plus where you can play the original campaign again with the expansions’ choke grenades, or with the runes that took away your mana recovery but let you gain mana by drinking water and made you invisible while standing still, it’s really a lost opportunity.

Dishonored’s guards aren’t terribly bright, but at least they aren’t easily lured away into a dark corner, away from the eyes of the other guards. In truth, most of Dishonored’s guard innovations are in making them speak like magic 8-balls to each other. But they will sometimes wonder why another guard you’ve already dragged away isn’t patrolling where they’re supposed to be. At most they change their patrol route slightly when this happens, but in a more perfect game I think this should make them become a lot more panicky, especially when they finally notice that they seem to have become the only human being left in the entire complex. As always, I want to see stealth games become more difficult, but only in the fairest ways. (And I’d like to see the return of a Thief-style UI that communicates how well hidden I am, instead of dealing mostly in direct lines of sight.) I still haven’t played Dishonored 2 yet, and I have no reason to expect AI miracles from it. But I have heard that you can see how many people you’ve killed so far from the pause menu. For that alone, I’m itching to play it.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

2064: Read Only Memories

Here’s an interesting point-and-click investigation game. Ace Attorney isn’t a terrible thing to liken it to, but also stuff like Policenauts, given a couple clunky shooting segments. I liked it: the characters are endearing (the voice acting varies but it’s surprising work for such a small development team), there’s some good music, and the drama–while not totally gut-wrenching or unpredictable–managed to draw me in. But to be clear, this is not a challenge or a puzzle game. You have a path to follow.

There are quite a few funny throwaway lines, but you have to do some digging through the noise to find them. For any inventory object listed in an interaction with someone or something else, there are at minimum two lines of text in response to that interaction. That means that rather than a generic “I can’t use those things together!” when you try to use your ID card on a shrub in the park, they encourage you to use your ID card on that shrub twice–and then to use your carton of milk on the shrub, and then to use the ID card on the bench next to the shrub, and… well, suddenly the game takes twice as long to finish as it would have otherwise. Luckily–and this is something I’d like to see for all games in this genre, Ace Attorney included–if there’s nothing unique written about using an object in a certain situation, it won’t appear in the list when you try. Rather, the problem is that too much is written. It’s anyone’s choice not to participate in all these shrub interactions if they just want to move forward in the game, but I don’t want to miss something, y’know? I think in the end, much of it is a waste of both the writer’s and my own time. Especially the ones that just scold me for trying to use an item on something. You’re the ones who put the button there, man.

Since there are often more than two interactions when looking at or touching some object, it may have been helpful for completionists if buttons became greyed out once a player had cycled back around to the first response again. This is a nitpick, of course, but when you’re talking about UI and experience, a lot comes down to nitpicking. I also would have moved through the game with less frustration if, say, clicks were properly detected in times where my mouse was already over an icon before it appeared. A hold-and-release approach might have been better for this mode of interaction, too; I’ll say without complete certainty that Full Throttle worked like this. You tend to click a lot more in sequence than is honestly necessary. As a final design criticism, a dedicated text skip button would have been great.

I had a pretty annoying save bug where my game wasn’t overwriting an old save reliably, which is a pretty scary thing to get wrong. Once I discovered this problem, I just decided to beat the rest of the game in one stretch so I wouldn’t lose any more progress, but I also noticed that the devs have still been patching this game over a year and half after its initial release. I’m uncertain whether to be pleased that it’s still being given care, or to be disturbed that 2064 still can’t save reliably despite that care. At the very least, I’ll send my save file in to help with the debug, if they want it.

The futuristic setting is very Shadowrun, which is alright, but it’s that kind of sci-fi that assumes the word “otaku” will be used by more people in fifty years. (I would assume, optimistically, that there will be fewer.) There are parallels with DXMD, given the mistreatment of cyborgs and people with hybrid DNA by conservative groups, but I’m generally more aligned with 2064’s political slant: they reveal who this game is made for right away, when the destitute player character is getting email offers to do freelance writing “for exposure”. And while the game doesn’t really put Silicon Valley directly in its sights any more than DXMD does, there is a small element of dystopia in the world lore when it comes to the pretty scary privatization of public infrastructure. The social politics of gender identity, pro-choice, and so on are less subtle.

It’s probably better not to delve too deeply into the story, but I didn’t have a terribly hard time figuring where I stood with the characters, or otherwise tend to be wrong when going with my gut. For instance, I found it an awfully big coincidence that Fairlight was just put in the same hospital room as the player character by chance, although that hardly gives anyone the whole picture. While distrusting Fairlight was allowed in dialogue, it did feel a bit contrived that I was forced to continue to communicate with him as the story developed anyway. The scenario might’ve better accommodated this demand by making me feel more deeply in need of his help.

I probably liked what was done with Jess the most, although that’s not quite the same as liking her personality. Her help is needed at a few points in the story, but since she’s initially rude to the player, it’s normal to respond in kind, thus making her aid a little more awkward to come by. To me, her rudeness wasn’t so much my problem as her inability to dish it out but not take it, and it was only when she started treating me like a bigot that I actually felt we’d gotten off on the wrong foot. I thought it played out well in the chapters that followed.

There’s a little bit of reactivity in these character choices as well, as some characters decide to lend their support to you, or won’t, in your final objective. Few of these differences seem to affect the outcome beyond a few friends/not friends achievements, but there are some shallow plot forks for bad ends. I only played through once–and won’t likely do so again for a long time while there’s no means of skipping text quickly–but I failed to recruit Starfucker & Oli on the basis of calling for police backup in an earlier chapter, and it seemed apparent from their dialogue that it didn’t distinguish between doing that or just frequently being an asshole in conversation, which I never did. I suspect having their full friendship doesn’t terrifically affect things either.

On the other hand, I discovered some interesting variations in how to progress through a quest at one point when I reloaded a save: I could knock a security guard out with a stun gun, or talk my way past him. There’s still only one story, but you can definitely leave your fingerprints on it. It’s not a bad story, either.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

The gameplay of DXHR didn’t see a whole lot of change in DXMD. The XP system still incentivizes nonsense like hacking doors you have the codes for–if it were up to me, I’d only award XP for reaching new areas and finishing quests–and hacking is still the same RNG-heavy minigame that falls far short of its potential. I wanted more: a system where you give yourself wireless access to a building’s network after physically interacting with machines once, and gradually increase your privileges with a combination of both digital and physical intrusions. Maybe you knock out the security personnel to steal a phone, because there’s two-factor authentication on the turret system. Or maybe you can hack the phone itself from a few meters away, without touching anybody. I liked some of the new stuff where you used someone’s instant messenger app to try and casually ask their coworkers for a password, and I think that’s a start as far as digital intrusions go, but I still want to see more in the manner of Uplink.

The energy system is slightly different now, but I would argue it needed a deeper overhaul. Previously, any energy consumed above your minimum charge would not be returned at all; you’d always be refunded just enough to execute a melee takedown, and wouldn’t get any more energy than that until you used a consumable. In the sequel, your maximum charge is only lowered to a new slightly lower cap each time a skill is activated, which has the same result after several skills have been used, but before then it allows you to do things like keeping a cloak active until all your energy is drained, because you already paid the true cost as soon as you turned the cloak on.

But if anything really makes it less annoying than the older version of the system, it’s that you can lug around an absurd number of biocells, you can earn more money than you know what to do with in the first act, and you can always craft more biocells (or other consumables) on the fly with scrap metal. This makes the game far too easy, really, as you can completely cheese your way through any encounter if you’re willing to eat a few biocells and silent-cloak-sprint past literally anything, but assuming you still have an instinct to hoard those resources, you’ll still usually tend to scrimp on energy costs by sticking with the minimum bar. It’s still the most cost effect strategy to just throw a crate at the wall and then take out anybody who comes to investigate the sound, because the guards are still dumber than shit and will never notice that their friend who went to investigate a noise never came back. It feels patronizing when you’re this well-equipped and they’re unwilling to even send guards at you in pairs.

There are all kinds of things they might have dabbled with: individual skill cooldowns, for instance, or the reworking of skills. What if instead of having a silent-running aug you can turn on or off at will, it always only activates for 4 seconds, and then cannot be reactivated for another 10? What if you can’t cloak and move at the same time, unless you get a mod for the Icarus Dash, and only move with it? And while I couldn’t say for sure what would and wouldn’t work, I think there are possibilities with dynamic energy recharge rates, where you have to make do with a non-recharging bar until the player shuts down some kind of emitter or whatever. And it would be nice to have full energy with fast recharges when you aren’t trespassing and have no real reason to be delayed by a recharge.

The game still commits a cardinal stealth sin in not really being too clear about alarm levels. I pulled off no-kills without screwing up, but the dialogue sometimes made it sound like I killed some people when I put everyone in the level to sleep, and I always considered the terrible possibility that I had dropped a crate on some guard a little too hard and didn’t notice. And I did fail my no-alarms challenge without being too clear on where I went astray. Was it okay to be seen by those guys in the prologue? Otherwise, I was pretty sure I reloaded any time someone so much as fired their weapon. Was it when a camera saw a broken wall in a store, while I wasn’t in a story mission, and the store’s bodyguard came to investigate? It’s far too nebulous for my liking. I badly wanted a stats page in the pause menu to tell me how many times I’d been spotted in my current run, but there was nothing, and it sucked.

The game’s underlying systems felt too crude for stealth in a sandbox world where I’m not already plainly in a mission at all times. If you stand next to some civilian and throw a case of beer at the wall beside his head, he’ll do nothing, but if you slip through the door across from him into a restricted area, and throw the same beer case at the same spot, he’ll suddenly think the noise is something that needs to be investigated. Is this the best we can do in a 2016 game? Prague is a well-built city, not too big and with lots of stuff to meander around and climb over, but the shallow mechanics work against it. When you can build a Foolproof Mobile Stealth Unit by surrounding a cop with vending machines and kicking his ass five meters away from his partner without him finding out, the world feels emptier for it, although to be fair it’s also funny as hell.

I was satisfied with the length of the game, but I felt that too much of that time was misspent in the sandbox parts, which felt padded. I mean, I dug through a lot of trash in vacant buildings in the hopes of finding a praxis kit, and buildings without people tend to be boring. Of course, guards who are dumber than cameras are a little boring, too. Their sandbox focus here reminds me of some of Thief 3’s missteps, but then I also remember the time a Thief 3 guard said “Maybe he’s hiding behind that chair,” before actually checking the chair out. In the intervening dozen years, we may have regressed, if anything.

Like most AAA games, the design is sloppy, but the things that can be made better just by throwing a lot of labor at them are very impressive: the people at Eidos who designed the architecture and decorated the apartments clearly weren’t phoning it in, and I’m sure that every time I walked past a cluttered office bulletin board without reading it, I was walking past a day’s work for somebody on the development team. But advanced decorating skills aren’t going to save a mediocre experience. I also gave up on reading all the ebooks and emails: it just wasn’t rewarding.

I think the game definitely made some strides over its predecessor when it comes to lethal firearms, ammunition types, modifications et cetera, and I suppose I’ll play with those some more if I ever convince myself to do another full playthrough, seeing as I already got the no-kills run out of the way. There were also a handful of new non-lethal options, which is always great to see, but I never really bothered with “loud” non-lethal options like the Typhoon or PEPS. I think the best thing for non-lethal variety is just that I think you now get as much XP by tranqing a guy in the head as you do with a melee takedown, which I don’t think was the case in DXHR. I didn’t watch nearly as many long, canned kung-fu moves this time around. But it would’ve been so much better to not have to deal with XP micromanagement at all.

The debate showdowns are still cool, but still stubbornly refuse to let you skip lines of text for people replaying the game, or just reloading to see what the other outcomes were. Luckily, I tended to get the result I wanted the first time around, although the CASIE aug felt a bit like one might when predicting the weather by tossing animal bones around. I have no idea if there’s still an element of RNG in terms of people accepting or rejecting your arguments. I totally missed out on Otar’s conversation though, ostensibly because I didn’t enter the room through the door I was supposed to, so I just hit him with a stun gun and missed out on his sidequests. This might be why, throughout the game, Radich Nikoladze never really seemed to amount to anything, but I don’t know.

The story was… well, once again I found the overall premise hamfisted and requiring frequent suspension of disbelief. People look at the Six Million Dollar Man with contempt, because augmentation is associated with a poor lower class–and when you consider that migrant worker slaves and prostitutes are sometimes forcibly augmented and then made to spend what little they earn on neuropozyne, this doesn’t come completely out of left field, but looking at the bigger picture, it’s still insane. People are also afraid that these cyborgs are vulnerable to security risks and might go on a killing spree at any given moment, which is justifiable, but strangely they don’t extend this same fear to the militarized police officers who walk around in powered exoskeletons. Nevermind that there’s no need for a robotic leg to be connected to the internet, or to otherwise have any component vulnerable to malware.

I don’t want to get carried away writing about the themes, but as with DXHR, I found its dystopian messaging and by extension its politics to be shallow and uninformed. It touched upon adversarial journalism and activist hacking in a very gormless, middle-of-the-road way, and portrayed collective action as inherently cultish or unpalatable. None of this is terribly surprising for a $70 million spectacle game.

I did come away appreciating a lot of people in the cast, and women stole the show in particular, including Alex Vega, Delara, and Daria, who would’ve felt right at home in an Ace Attorney game. I did find it unfortunate that Malik didn’t make a return appearance, as she was a favorite from the last game–we get Chikane shuttling us around instead, who can go fuck himself–but Eliza does return, which is cool.

Apart from the encore of some of DXHR’s most irritating design choices, my biggest problem was with gameplay bugs. On the DirectX 12 version, objects were constantly godtrashing, but when I switched to DirectX 11, I had my controls frequently locking up for 2 to 5 seconds at a time, a problem I learned to live with instead of actually fixing.

The game has eye-tracking support, and it went largely the way my experience with it in Watch Dogs 2 did. I enjoyed messing with it, although it was gimmicky and didn’t make me a better player. Getting the Icarus Dash to send you to the ledge or cover you were aiming at is hard enough when you do it with a mouse you have no trouble keeping still, so that particular functionality was quickly turned off in the eye-tracking menu. I left Aim At Gaze on, which probably would’ve frustrated me if I ever allowed myself to get into a firefight, and I also used it for the Tesla aug, which pretty much always had me starting my aim in the wrong place. That said, considering that you have to hold down the F4 key to aim the Tesla while still moving about with WASD and mouse controls, I think the game’s default control scheme was a bigger impediment than my eye-tracker ever was. Having UI elements go transparent when I wasn’t looking at them was probably the coolest trick the game had, and also probably the simplest one.

I haven’t played the expansions. I might pick them up down the road, at a discount, but to sell DLC without fixing some pretty rough bugs in your game doesn’t please me at all. Also, the way the DLC item packs are handled is staggeringly greedy: it pulls them off a server when you claim them, so you can never claim them again–if you erase your save file or start a fresh game, you’ll have to make do without them, unless you buy the damned things again with microtransactions. Frankly, this disgusts me, so it’s a good thing it has no bearing on the expansions, and their actual new mission content.

I haven’t messed around all that much with the Breach mode, and I didn’t download the useless-seeming mobile companion app. Breach might be an interesting way to expand the game with more pure challenge for those who want it, but with the game stripped of many of its assets–the characters and story and beautiful city environments–I doubt I could stay interested in sneaking around polygonal Tron-looking platforms for long. I wish they had invested the Breach development time into the main campaign instead.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.

Invisible, Inc.

Invisible is unique; an FTL-styled roguelike stealth game that’s more XCOM than Thief. It’s an inventive combination, but to me it’s not one that proves to be more satisfying than a more traditional stealth game. That’s up to a person’s tastes, but I like to take my time and completely ghost a place. In Invisible, that’s off the table from turn one: your break-in is immediately detected and your alarm level is steadily rising, no matter what you do (or don’t do). The distinction isn’t simply about taking it easy; in many stealth games I often wish the guards had smarter behavior, responding more appropriately when losing sight of an intruder in the building. But Invisible’s approach is certainly often harder, too, and if you’re more interested in a challenge than in a state of mind, this might be for you.

Communication
Invisible might not be designed specifically for me, and I wouldn’t hold that against it, except that I also think it’s not a perfect execution of what it tries to be. One of my bigger contentions is with the lack of crucial information conveyed. “But Zack,” you might say, “you gave Dark Souls a 5/5 and it doesn’t explain shit.” True, but Dark Souls isn’t a tactical stealth game. Is the challenge supposed to come from putting together a cohesive set of character skills, items, and programs from what you’re able to find in the seven or eight corporate buildings you have time to plunder before the campaign’s end, and flitting through guards and managing your power with the right timing? Or is the challenge supposed to come from not understanding where you’re allowed to stand, or what the rules are?

I would have liked to see movement ranges of guards when hovering over them, like in Advance Wars or other combat-focused tactical RPGs. I never really picked up on what would cause a guard to shoot me if I stopped on or passed through a specific tile in his vision, and this is something that could be put in a tooltip when you hover over a tile. I often had no idea how an item or program worked before I bought and tried it, because the description wasn’t self-explanatory, or it didn’t list the cooldown time in the store. I didn’t understand that guns weren’t reloadable without consumable items, even between missions. I once carried an augment around in my inventory between several missions, thinking I needed to hit up a grafter in a cybernetics lab to install it, when it was actually usable out of the inventory. I didn’t know if the alarm level would rise if I stepped directly in front of a guard and then knocked him out while it was still my turn. I didn’t know how guards would communicate or what would set them off. I didn’t know how many turns a daemon would last, even if I had it identified, and that’s the sort of thing a person might want to plan around.

Communication is basically the most important thing in a stealth game. What’s the level of light where you’re standing? How much noise will you make with a certain action? Are guards globally alerted to the presence of an intruder in the building, or is the alert still restricted to the guards in the room? Invisible communicates some of these elements well, but still fails to explain a lot of its mechanics. Does hacking a drone make the drone alert when the hack ends? If I move a hacked drone through a door with a shock trap on it, will it be destroyed? Will a shock trap shock me if I open the door myself? What if a guard opens it while I’m in range? Do EMPs take out a guard’s shields? Does Net Downlink cap at 6 AP per turn, or per mission? If I step directly onto a sound bug, does it alert guards? When I have 8 hours left on the clock, what happens when I fly directly to a mission that’s 12 hours away instead of picking the 5-hour one? If this were a board game, every player would have to come up with their own unique way to resolve the guards’ turns, because the explanation is never prepared.

Randomization
Good use of RNG is about being able to adapt meaningfully to what you’re given. “Let’s find out which threat you’ll have to experience today” is much better than “Let’s see if you something good happens to you, or something bad happens.” Invisible is a mixed bag here. I thought item-shopping and map generation were decent mix-ups: they didn’t always conform to what I needed, but didn’t really screw me, either. There’s good and bad for sure; I’ve seen some breezy, linear levels and some where I had to double back. I’ve also done levels where I had to let a camera see me before I could hack it, which kind of sucks. But these are manageable and don’t have terrible long term consequences; there will be other shop terminals, and even if items don’t really mesh with your overall team strategy, they always seem to have a use somewhere; here, one man’s trash is definitely another’s treasure.

But chance plays a role in too many things, including awfully major stuff, and I’m not into that Snakes and Ladders shit. It absolutely sucks when you break into a detention center and find the guy with a slight bonus to ranged weapons (unarmed in his cell, of course) when you could have been given the guy who opens safes for free–especially when your program setup hasn’t left you with much spare power to get safes open. There was also a time when I hit a cybernetics lab only to find two augmentations that both did nothing for me; they had a chance to give spare power per turn or something, but at the time I was swimming in power, and I would’ve killed for extra actions or melee armor piercing or whatever. It would hardly be crazy to give me a few choices at the grafters.

Daemons can also absolutely screw you, especially if you’re foolish enough to run Faust and Brimstone. When you do that, there’s really nothing to keep the game from just spawning extra guards or locking your hacking down each turn. I’m seriously thankful I don’t have to deal with some 25% chance to miss on a sleeping dart or whatever, because it would’ve just kept me from using one more thing in my arsenal.

The game seems to generate its seeds early enough that there’s no chance of save-scumming around this stuff. I’m actually grateful for this, because I’d hate to feel incentivized to tediously use my rewind actions to avoid bad luck. I think the logic is that you’re supposed to be alright with getting dealt a terrible hand for an entire campaign sometimes, because campaigns are short and you gain experience toward unlocks even on failure. But I found this grindy and would’ve vastly preferred creative challenge-based unlocks like the ones in FTL, like unlocking a non-violent specialist by playing without knocking any guards out.

Suggestions
The geoscape felt a bit sparse, especially when 12 of the 72 hours of your campaign can vanish in a single click. I’m not necessarily trying to say that because it resembles XCOM, you should have to spend a full third of the game managing bases on the world map. But you could certainly have some more options. Maybe all the cloaking device manufacturers are in Asia, but the companies in North America have a monopoly on ranged weapons, and you can choose to do all your work in one place instead of flying around, but you still have to wait 8 hours for nightfall or whatever. When a detention center mission pops up, show me three of them simultaneously, tell me who’s in each of them, and only give me enough time to hit one, so the other two agents die. This could even be how agents are unlocked.

I was really fond of the cooldown-based items, but I almost never used ammo-based weapons or consumables. Even if guns gave you a limited number of shots per mission, they could still be freely reloaded when missions are over. Ammo packs could give you one mid-mission reload, but still be replenished between missions, too. My problem is that, strategically speaking, unless I’m absolutely screwed unless I throw that grenade, my instinct will be to hold onto it, because I’m afraid of getting screwed more for not having it in the future, as the difficulty increases. Your goal is to gain resources, not to consume them. Essentially, I ended up selling everything, because money that can be put toward levelling up my character’s speed always looks better in the long-term. But that’s boring.

I mentioned challenges or achievements as a means of unlocking new characters or starting programs, but I’d also have been more motivated to attempt some extreme challenges if I earned some extreme characters for pulling it off. If the hardest challenges specified which characters you could use to accomplish them, it would be kind of fun to get some people with really overpowered abilities to use when just messing around. I can’t say what would be too overpowered off the top of my head, but rather than just an extra point of armor piercing here or there, I would like to see more dramatic variety. What about someone who could sprint soundlessly, or turn sprint on and off at will?

I got a few enjoyable campaigns out of Invisible, but I burned out before trying Expert Plus, Endless Mode, Time Attack, Iron Man or any of that. Once I saw the various threats and used a good chunk of the playable characters, and felt like I had a good handle on the limitations of the game, I was more or less done. There is a DLC expansion that adds more of everything, including new enemies, which would might shake things up for another couple runs. But as long as the primary formula is unchanged, I think I’ve had my fill.

In short, some more goals and choices would have gone far, particularly choices on the world map and those reducing the impact of the RNG. Info could be conveyed better, especially when it comes to guards noticing and firing upon you, which tiles they can hear you sprinting from, etc. I’m still not describing a game I would score a 5/5, but there’s untapped potential here.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel

Apart from some decent environments, The Pre-Sequel feels incredibly phoned-in. You have an air tank with a jump boost and ground slam now in place of your old relic slot. These don’t do nearly enough to make the game feel different. Everything else is the same, including everything I didn’t like about Borderlands 2. A number of quests are recycled: Help the guy put up the flag again. Safeguard another freight container for the moonshot cannon again. The postgame “raid boss” is just the end boss again with more health and damage, which is particularly insulting. With the game as empty as it is, I couldn’t imagine buying DLC to raise the level cap for NG+, or to add more characters to play the game with, but those are things that shamefully exist.

There are some legitimately funny lines, but the success rate is probably about 10% or less. A lot of the humor is referential–THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT STAR WARS–and a lot of it is just people shouting and being goddamn wacky. It’s not all bad, and there are some likeable people, like Janey and Pickle. Jack still has some of the best dialogue as well. But this doesn’t nearly carry the game. It also doesn’t bother to do anything funny from the perspective of gameplay–I’m not a fan of the direction the Saints Row games have taken, but those were probably most effective when they had you do something ridiculous, rather than just having you listen to ridiculous things. Borderlands mostly talks at you, and it does so in a format that often gets in your way. Audio tapes get interrupted by quest dialogue, and quest dialogue interrupts itself.

As with previous games in the series, it often does a poor job formatting itself best for cooperative play or repetition. You’re made to listen to repeat dialogue even more so than in Diablo 3 (and Borderlands doesn’t share Deebs’ non-campaign game mode). Even on your first playthrough you’ll find yourself standing around at doors waiting for characters to finish their wacky unskippable exposition so you can move on, as if you’ve listened to it three times already. Story shouldn’t ever be an obstacle to the player, but there’s also just nothing especially engaging here. You go deliver a parting message from Zarpedon to her daughter, and I find myself trying and failing to imagine someone who has possibly found enough in this character to give a shit. This game may be closely tied to the Telltale one, but they’re miles apart.

The combat itself does offer a fair number of diverse and enjoyable enemy mechanics, damage types, skill builds, and so on, but it’s far from perfect. Game feel is a hard thing to express, but the best example is probably the awkward collision detection, which makes every moment of jumping up rocks or walking up a steep slope or whatever feel like you’re trying stupidly to break the game, even when you’re taking the only path available to you. An object you’re standing on starts to move, and you just sort of vibrate until you’ve fallen off. Characters in Overwatch are similarly cartoonish and attacks are also expressed in that game in terms of hitpoints and damage values–you bounce off roofs and generally feel awkward trying to parkour around there, too–but The Pre-Sequel, and the Borderlands games before it, just feel a lot less right.

There’s also a lot of the old dated MMO mechanics kicking around–the game can’t even cope with the thought of communicating the details of two quests at the same time–and these are of course incredibly shallow experiences in single player. I did not (and would never think to) solo this game.

If I were to spend any more time in The Pre-Sequel, it would only be as something mindless and dull to occupy myself with while listening to a podcast. Getting even a couple friends together at the same time to play something is difficult enough already when the game is good.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.

Dark Souls 3

DS3 looks and plays fantastically, and for better or worse, most of its changes to the formula have been pretty safe ones: for example, the arcane rules of covenant-switching and equipment upgrading have been streamlined. Good things about Dark Souls 1, like the lack of an Agility stat, three distinct equip load brackets, and Soul Level-based matchmaking, have returned. Dark Souls 2’s better mechanical innovations are here too, like the engine itself, aspects of PvP, and more situational freedom with four equippable rings.

There are bigger changes, too, like the new weapon arts, and a mana system for spellcasting (the flask allotment is a great touch). These are especially good for PvP; this way a weapon can have standard, reliable attacks, and also be as gimmicky and weird as one could ever desire, and the attunement stat gains a little value even in strictly melee builds. And nobody can just count out how many casts of Crystal Soul Spear you have left.

For these and other reasons I had more fun in actual PvP combat than ever before, though I found it an incredible hassle to actually rank up in most covenants, whether I was trying to fight honorably or just grief my way to 30 wins. Mound Makers was hilarious, but in Rosaria’s Fingers I was likely to get beaten up by a gang of allied phantoms or the host would just hide somewhere, and this after waiting a long time to successfully invade without a connection error, etc. Some, like Farron, just had to be grinded out from monster drops. It also seemed terribly pointless that Sentinels and Darkmoons shared a purpose; the way I would have done Darkmoon would be to have a revenge covenant with no indictments, but to put a counter on any player that used a red eye orb, which would open them to a retaliatory Darkmoon invasion. Wouldn’t that have been cool?

Even with this being the third installment, the same terrible seams in the netcode/online experience do appear. I’ve found myself stuck, unable to quit the game or use a bonfire for several minutes as the game tried to connect me to some imaginary invader. And the new thing I’ve found to dislike about the matchmaking is the separate weapon-level limit. For one thing, this fragments the pool of available players, making things seem more dead than they really are. They could’ve fixed this by just temporarily downscaling one player’s weapon level to that of the other. The other thing is, I felt pressured to never change my weapon until very late in the game. If I had a +10 weapon and I switched to a +6, I’d still be matched up with an invader with a +10. Disincentivizing experimentation like this is pretty bad. You could solve this problem too: if the matchmaking only checked for weapons in your inventory and ignored the bonfire box, you could lower your weapon scaling at any time, and not unfairly.

I didn’t enjoy managing the sidequests, and without deeper changes to the gameplay formula, I don’t think the Souls games are suited to elaborate ones with narrow windows to interact with characters. Dark Souls to me is supposed to be very friendly to a blind run of the game–you die a lot, but you make progress and you aren’t disincentivized from continuing without help–but I think NPC questlines where someone dies because you didn’t talk to them before killing a boss or whatever is kind of bullshit. DS1 had Solaire and Siegmeyer but that was about it; in DS3, it’s everybody, and they’re often interconnected.

One of the more unfortunate things about DS2 was the arrangement of the environments; to put it another way, the lack of any arrangement. You quick-travelled around and never had a sense of how deep you were the way you did in DS1. It had its creative ideas too, mind you, and I miss the way you’d colonize a space in that game by spreading fire to its sconces. But for all the places DS3 backpedalled to DS1, I’m kind of shocked that they kept the weird warpy design of DS2. It feels at times lazy, even if some of the level designs are very good, like the way the Cathedral of the Deep forks around and continually leads back to the Cleansing Chapel bonfire in inventive ways. I don’t think it’s masochistic to take away bonfire warping: DS1’s shortcuts worked great, and if there was any problem there, it was with running around to four distinct blacksmiths to get your weapons upgraded, and that certainly wouldn’t be a problem now that everyone just obediently hangs out in one hub. I’m also curious about other possibilities: what if you could warp to an isolated hub region and back, but other than that, had to get around completely on your own, and the game world had been designed to accommodate that?

Some new innovations in Dark Souls design felt gimmicky rather than really taking the formula to the next level. There were areas where enemies would fight each other, and you were given opportunities to sneak around a patrol, but this could sometimes feel out-of-place. I remember a big demon in the catacombs who must have one-shot me a half-dozen times, and mind you, one of the things I love about the original game (which probably made my SL1 run possible) is that you’re almost never in a situation where you will die in one hit; it goes against the game’s design principles. I later found out that the enemies in this area would attack this demon for you; you could lead it around and even let a mimic kill it. It was designed as such, but it seemed so against the brave face-to-face encounters I felt Dark Souls was all about that it didn’t even cross my mind; I just got annoyed that the skeletons were getting in my way and kept stubbornly throwing myself at the demon until it died the old-fashioned way.

And at times I felt like maybe these ideals of challenge and personal achievement were all in my head, because the game didn’t really seem structured to support them. Was it really True Dark Souls to do every boss without ever summoning another player for aid? Or just another self-imposed bragging rights challenge, no different from the ones people come up with in any other game? I’m not sure anymore.

But the bosses were, for the most part, a nice step up from DS2. Wolnir would be an example of a boss I really don’t like: the goal is always “Easy to learn, hard to master,” right? Wolnir is hard to comprehend, but easy to master: I kept dying at the start from some aura attack I couldn’t even see, and I had no idea what the hell was going on, but once I figured out where to stand, the fight was a joke. On the other hand, some of the best bosses include Soul of Cinder, Gael, and Midir, but here I start to notice something: these, while being polished and impressive in their own right, are somewhat derivative rehashes of Gwyn, Artorias, and Kalameet respectively. The game is, in a word, derivative, and this derivative gaze is focused in one place: DS1. From that, I can see why a new property like Bloodborne could make people more enthusiastic.

I honestly see DS3’s constant looking-backwards, both mechanically and thematically, as a deliberate statement, an Art Game if you will, but actually having more to say than most Extremely Art Games ever do, and through the perspective of AAA development no less. I think there’s no mistaking that it’s one of the bigger flaws of the game, but it’s also, possibly, the whole point. Hidetaka Miyazaki is a very idealistic and committed game designer and here I feel like he’s inserted his feelings about being told to Come Back to a game he already made by turning the whole thing hollow and sad, which is, when you think about it, very Dark Souls. This is what becomes of a world when you linger and stagnate instead of moving forward–something like that. I can’t be sure.

But is it fun? In some ways, yeah, absolutely. I literally laughed out loud the first time fighting Soul of Cinder when he started using sorcery, pyromancy, and miracles interchangeably in addition to all his weapons. And even traditional enemies like Silver Knights (whether they should be making a return or not) have been subtly refined in ways I appreciate. Even so, I’m certainly not planning to do another SL1 playthrough. I don’t have half the enthusiasm for it, even if someone were to tell me that the full game is as fair at low levels as DS1 had been.

I also think I may inevitably come down harder on DS3 because whether or not I want to admit it, the magic of a person’s first Souls game will probably never come back. This doesn’t wipe away the flaws I’ve already named, but it’s very possible that people who never played DS1 would feel like they discovered what video games were all about by playing this, because the pace of its combat is an elaborate dance, because it doesn’t baby you with tutorials, because the lore is sad and beautiful… whatever the reason. But me, I’ve seen that already.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.