Metroid: Samus Returns

There was an unofficial Metroid 2: Return of Samus remake last year; a fangame. It was actually pretty incredible. Nintendo sent the guy a DMCA request and, surprisingly, announced their own Metroid 2 remake shortly after: Samus Returns, for the 3DS. Funny how that works; Metroid 2 came out in 1991, and then few people cared about it for like 25 years. Now we have two new versions. It gives us a pretty interesting way to compare and contrast.

Being on the 3DS hasn’t worked in the favor of the official game: the 3D graphics perform sluggishly at times (at least on my old XL), and the controls are brutal on my hands: Samus Returns has to be quite forgiving for anyone aiming with a circle pad, but AM2R felt extremely tight without bothering with the new free-aim stuff (which actually would’ve worked better with the real control stick I used to play it, or, say, in an official title on the Switch). And it’s no shock which of the two games has more profit-seeking junk getting in the way: I don’t want to buy plastic toys, not to mention the actual plug-in amiibo reader, to unlock all the modes and get all the energy tanks. And I won’t. (Besides, the old Castlevania games always had awesome postgame modes where you played as new characters with new moves, but here? Fusion Suit mode is just regular mode, but you take four times the damage. With these controls? Nah.)

I also noticed some slowdown in a few areas. No doubt this is less of a problem on a new 3DS or 2DS. On my old XL, it’s normally fine, except in cutscenes. In some areas deeper into the game, it gets worse. There’s one boss with two big grinders for arms — it’s actually kind of a neat fight, except for a badly communicated weak point and the 3D effects that drag the framerate down to a basically unplayable state. I don’t think the 3D graphics look very good anyway: if they had just done another sprite game with slightly retouched Zero Mission assets — as I assume AM2R did — I think it would’ve looked great and performed better. It’s a sad state of affairs when Nintendo’s releasing titles for their flagship series which barely run on the systems they are, officially, still coming out on. It’s not like I’m trying to play Xenoblade Chronicles here: this is not a New 3DS exclusive. As I already alluded to, it’s not like they can’t do Metroid sidescrollers on the Switch too, you know? Save the 3D for there, and give us some more pixel art.

I actually saved myself some thumb pain by using a homebrew app that sends control stick input from an xbox controller over wifi. This was really cool, and mostly worked well, but sometimes the wifi link would get spotty for a while — it seemed to get laggy whenever I needed it most. And once I got super missiles and found out I had to use the touch screen to switch to them, that made using an xbox controller a little more of a hassle. Still, whenever the going got tough (like with the aforementioned Big Grinder Arms guy) it helped a lot that I could change to a real controller for ten or fifteen minutes.

Samus Returns definitely isn’t afraid to break from convention, which is nice, because Metroid 2 was kind of crude; an almost blank slate to build upon. If you first look at the gameboy version’s map, and AM2R’s, they’re very close to the same size, but with three entirely new areas added in AM2R. These are probably the coolest parts of the game, but for the most part, as one would expect from a fangame, your path through SR-388 stays pretty faithful to the source material. Though I hardly remember much of my original Metroid 2 playthrough, I think AM2R just made some occasional adjustments to the maps to let you use Super Metroid power-ups that weren’t originally there: the general flow and shape of passageways remained unchanged. The map in Samus Returns, though, seems to completely do its own thing. It’s several times bigger. The designers did whatever they wanted.

Some of these changes are nice. Some are problematic, though, like the fast-travel stations. Teleportation points aren’t worth crying about, but it’s better to have an interconnecting map; when you can just warp to earlier areas, it feels like cutting corners. AM2R’s means of getting back to old areas later — by getting shot through cannons into directly vertically or horizontally aligned rooms far away — was much more clever. I feel the same way about the scan pulse: while it sucks when a game hides things in random tiles and you have little chance of finding everything unless you play with a guide open, I think most Metroid games have already been smart enough about showing the connections to unvisited rooms, and marking which ones still hold power-ups you haven’t collected. As long as the game is straightforward enough about which tiles can be blown up, something like a scan pulse should be unnecessary, and I think putting it in there takes some of the responsibility off the level designer to keep puzzles sensible.

Even with this “corner-cutting” designer handicap, though, I had to look up how to get past one type of obstacle: the ones you propel yourself past with power bombs. The idea that you’ll only get launched if you’re using the spider ball to secure yourself just never occurred to me after realizing it did nothing in non-spider form; it’s the kind of thing that they should’ve tutorialized by locking you into a room right after you get the power bomb, making you use it (both horizontally and vertically) to get out. AM2R had some head-scratchers, but everything was communicated clearly. I don’t like looking things up in a Metroid game.

It’s a tough game, even with changes that can make it feel casualized. Power-ups even get sucked in when you’re not holding a charge beam now, which is a little sad. More to the point, though, you can continue from outside of a boss door when you die now. In exchange, though, those bosses tend to be more than you can possibly take without several practice runs, and even then will test your limits, mainly because getting hit by the wrong attack can empty three energy tanks when you have maybe seven total. Blame the framerate and thumb pad if you want, I certainly will, but either way some of those encounters (like Big Grinder Arms guy) took me half a dozen tries. These fights can last several minutes, too.

But to speak some more on departures from the traditional mechanics, let’s get to the obvious one: they gave Samus a melee bash that parries enemies, which is about as out-there as it gets. It’s neat, but you have to play a little too reactively, and I’m not sure that’s the right fit for Metroid. When you’re up close already and need some breathing room, it makes sense to have it, but enemies take far too many hits to die when you’re not killing them with a parry and counter-blast. If you’re not already in a position the enemy will attack from, you have to go out of your way to line one up, making yourself unnecessarily vulnerable, so I found myself resenting the addition at times. It may have been smarter to simply avoid those enemies, but I find you’re usually hungry for at least one kind of ammo or health pickup, or you’re still checking out the room and don’t want to leave the threat there, so it’s best to kill everything outside of a speedrun.

It’s admirable that the game doesn’t try to sell itself purely by repackaging the old, though as I say this I actually feel contradicted by the use of the Lower Norfair music used in the lava areas, which wasn’t actually part of the series until the third game. It seems to have been thrown into Metroid 2 retroactively, for a kind of backwards application of nostalgia. Of course this is a nerdy thing to get mad about, but what better time to actually expand the repertoire of Metroid themes than when you’re going back to a time when there was so little to build from? Like Super Metroid itself did, with such incredible results? (I’ll make an exception for Ridley’s fight music, though a new version of his NES lair theme could’ve been cool too.)

It seems that the only place where Samus Returns and AM2R both really stick to the Metroid 2 gameplay is in throwing in dozens of repeat fights against the same metroid minibosses; first the alpha, then the gamma, zeta, and omega life stages. Both remakes added several of their own completely new bosses, and both got pretty creative there, though Samus Returns definitely goes the extra mile in boss complexity — it probably says something about my preferences as a whole that during a few boss fights in the 3DS game, I found myself thinking about how cool it would be if someone added them to AM2R in a patch. But the miniboss repetition doesn’t seem like something that really needed to be preserved, and we could’ve tried fighting just one metroid at each stage of life — maybe then throwing in a gauntlet of each in a row near the end? — and just getting to kill some more metroids scattered around in their iconic larval state elsewhere — especially in Samus Returns, with its deeper interest in change.

Super Metroid is my favorite Metroid; I think the series only had the barest inkling of what it was supposed to be before then, and it’s lost that inkling numerous times since. I still haven’t played Zero Mission, but it’s safe to say that for players with no existing associations or attachments, AM2R was up there with the best of them, doing what the series has always been praised for, and for bonus points it did it on the best possible hardware, which is to say PC. But this isn’t a review of AM2R. Samus Returns fluctuates between bold and formulaic, but in both the old and the new, it’s a mixed bag. On better hardware, I might have called it a very good game.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die

I think D4 was worth a day’s laugh, but even paying $10 (specifically for it) in a bundle feels a bit steep now. Though it’s called “Season One”, it’s like a third of the length I’d expect from a modern graphic adventure game, at just two episodes. This took me completely by surprise while playing. It seems that things were prematurely cut short; Swery left the studio and there’s no more coming.

The ridiculous characters would fit in well with an Ace Attorney episode, and the same stand-out Swery style is here, but the small cast on D4’s airplane didn’t pull me in like Deadly Premonition’s warm town, which had some of the most relaxing pacing of any game. It’s unfair of me as a reviewer to expect to bond with an incomplete experience, I suppose, but it’s also unfair to be sold one, so, here we are. I’m sorry if things fell apart for the studio, though–I don’t really know the details at all.

Sadly, the actual mode of interaction is gimmicky and unenjoyable; you do little unnecessary “tilt the control stick” QTEs whenever you want to open a door or whatever, and you do longer, annoying scored sequences of QTEs when the action heats up. Life Is Strange did amazing things just on the basis of exploration and interaction and a simple time control mechanic as well, but where in its case it didn’t feel the need to throw pointless tests in to distract you from the story, D4 doubly overcompensates. There are also a few timed interaction challenges and a bad minigame where you touch objects that fall from the top of the screen before they reach the bottom–the latter of which just feels pathetic as ideas go. I’m trying to imagine this game if you just walked around like a normal person and looked at things, and it seems nice.

There’s a million collectible objectives, and I do think it’s kind of cool to have characters commenting on your outfit or saying they don’t like your beard or whatever. The Tales From The Borderlands model of this stuff, which also put currency and items in a graphic adventure, was certainly better. I’d prefer fewer missable items and associated achievements, but it seems they had some bigger ideas they couldn’t quite deliver on. We see hints of the game as a New Game Plus-minded thing, including one quest that can’t be solved unless you replay the chapter with an item from later in the game. I found it tedious getting past the content I’d already played even just to do that one sidequest, though: I could skip dialogue, but the mission structure was still pretty locked up and there were still various little motions you had to go through. This chapter-select replay for scores and other junk is far better suited to games like Resident Evil 5; graphic adventures like D4 are better off keeping their eyes straight ahead.

It’s not all bad. The mechanic that lets me shove people at any time is extremely good. Some parts are really funny, like the crazy passenger making a scene about how the plane is going to crash and who needs calming down. Or the overtly stupid sidequests–like travelling through time just so the player can check a shelf in their house and find out which James Bond movies Timothy Dalton was in, simply because the question was bugging somebody. That’s the kind of game this is, and I can definitely appreciate that.

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.

Watch Dogs 2

It’s always a bit striking how these Ubisoft games seem to spend more than enough money but feel shallow and fail to really execute on their ideas. There’s some good stuff here: the cheery young black Oakland hacker protagonist is way different from the usual design-by-committee junk they took a whipping for with Watch Dogs 1, and while I roll my eyes at their execution on a lot of the “hacker culture” stuff, I have to admit it’s at least not a totally overused aesthetic.

The weirdest thing about the game has to be the killing. You aren’t a gangster, an undercover cop, or a space marine or anything–I can’t see any reason to think that Marcus here is supposed to be someone who has ever held a gun in his life at all. And your typical objective isn’t “get payback on the cartels”–though they certainly shoehorned that kind of standard fare in there in places–but “sneak into the Google offices and put a virus on their computers”. And, yeah, like, I get it–murdering everybody who works at Google with a grenade launcher doesn’t technically mean you can no longer plug in the USB stick. But what the hell’s the point anymore? How doesn’t that immediately become the way bigger story than the evil data you liberated or whatever? Nobody mentions your body count at all and it’s way more fucked and narratively unsettling than some silly moment in GTA4 where they suddenly pretend life is sacred and that you didn’t mow down 10 people on the sidewalk minutes before the cutscene started.

A part of me wonders if there had been a point in development where guns weren’t planned at all, until some focus group said they wanted to shoot people, but either way it’s weird. WD2’s combat is unfulfilling and frustrating. When you melee a guard in a room while others are around, you can get locked into a hour-long takedown animation where you’re still hitting the guy like six more times after the other guards have seen you and started shooting you. You also die after about two seconds’ exposure to bullet fire, which would support the whole “stealth is the intended way to go” theory, except that the stealth is no better.

Putting aside that a “clean hands” run is more or less taken off the table by the decision to have your stealth takedowns count as kills, it gets in the way of even violent stealth. You can’t move bodies around or hide by any means other than velcroing to cover opposite the guards. You can’t shut off alarms and they go off constantly on their own as objectives during the story missions. These are the sorts of things we wouldn’t accept in a proper, dedicated stealth game. And I think proper stealth really would’ve made the game something else. Make the takedowns non-lethal. Tell me when I’ve killed. Don’t alert the whole building when I stungun somebody head-on: just because the guard got to look me in the eyes before he went down doesn’t mean he radioed in, unless he’s wearing some kind of special Silicon Valley camera contact lens I wasn’t told about. And though the occasional quirk in detection logic may be inevitable, communicate to me what the consequences of these quirks are: tell me conclusively when the rest of the building has started freaking out. That’d be a good start.

So: shooting and stealth both are poor, but it’s the combination of both, combined with ample hacking, that can actually make these infiltrations enjoyable. Usually this means whipping out the remote control hopper and whizzing past guards while they’re staring intently at goatse or whatever the heck it is you send to them when you hack their phones. Carpet-bombing groups of enemies from the quadrotor drone also works pretty well. Even so, the balance between infiltration strategies is nonexistent: you can sprint right past a guard in the middle of the most secure server room on the planet if he’s just been texted a jpg. In the final mission I would die if I poked my head out for more than a second, but a bit of feedback blasted into everyone’s headsets and I sprinted right past several dozen heavily armored dudes with assault rifles.

The remote control toys are generally executed better than most of the other stuff, and aren’t seen as often in other games. You could make a whole game out of puzzles where you have to position yourself and other objects in order to get your hopper to unlock a door for you, and if they had, it would’ve been a better game than WD2. In practice, it feels a little contrived sometimes how you can never borrow a helicopter or pick up tiny objects with the quadrotor, because most of the time the challenge is just about scouting out the circuitous route up to a rooftop where a collectible is. And trying to find a way up onto something only to discover that you were supposed to use a scissor lift or a crane always sucks. But they could’ve done tons by setting up puzzles where, say, Marcus has to be actively standing on some kind of pressure plate to keep a grate held open for the hopper. And they could’ve made the hopper smaller, so there might be passages it could move through but the drone couldn’t. Maybe the quadrotor could even be made to pick up the hopper. Probably the coolest one actually implemented was when I remote-hacked a scissor-lift on the second floor of a parking garage from the hopper cam, and drove the lift off a ledge so I could use it to raise Marcus up from the ground floor. But it’s clear they could’ve gone much further.

They might have done more with those puzzles where you rotate nodes to bridge a connection, too: the best ones already in the game have you think outside of the digital space by making you do something physical, like moving a car out of the way. But they might’ve had these connections go longer, but be less tangled and mazelike, and require you to physically interact with different types of nodes in the way, tying whole buildings together. You might interact with these nodes through an app on Marcus’ phone instead of craning your neck around and overlaying them on physical space: once you bridged a connection to the elevator icon in the phone app, you’d be able to use that elevator in physical space (and gain access to a new set of nodes on the new floor that became available). And things should definitely, definitely be left unlocked for good if you already poked around a building long before doing a story mission there while hunting for collectibles.

The tasks where you hack into a camera feed and switch between other cameras you have line-of-sight on are boring. There was one on a cargo ship where you could hack into some guy’s bodycam from a stationary camera he would walk by, and you had to follow him until he moved to an otherwise-inaccessible part of the room where you could hack another guy’s keycard, and I thought, hey, maybe there’s something here. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough to get interesting, and these segments are much too partitioned from the rest of your activities. If you could remote-hack a bodycam and then close doors in peoples’ faces and otherwise distract them, in order to get two patrolling guards to fall fully out of sync from each other–so you could knock them out while they were isolated from one another–that would be really cool.

There’s also a short series of missions where you use camera data to find out exactly where a bunch of people routinely park their cars and stand guard, so you can show up early and drive forklifts full of explosives right where everyone’s going to stand, and then find some nearby cover to wait in until the appointed time. I thought that was a really fun twist, and it just goes to show how many clever ideas really were used in the game, but only ever shallowly.

The Dark Souls-esque always-active multiplayer was good. The hack invasions were tense and unique, and the co-op wasn’t half-bad either: it doesn’t beat being able to do a full playthrough with a co-op partner, but I had some memorable encounters. I dance-emoted while ghost-riding the whip, took some selfies with the randos whose games I joined, and even had some cool gameplay moments, like one where my partner distracted a guard by hacking their phone while I climbed a ladder up to said guard and silently knocked them out. When that happened, I did a cheer emote across the building to where my partner was crouched, and ended up drawing the attention of another guard… beautiful.

There’s a lot of little, annoying things in the game. The gamepad controls suck and I died several times because I hit the wrong direction on the D-pad and got shot to death while my character was locked in the animation of pulling out his laptop to control the quadrotor. My thumb got sore pushing down the left stick to sprint all the time, and god knows why they couldn’t just put that on the A button. Putting the cars I summoned 300 meters away sure as hell didn’t help either. The radio controls have you hold the select button, but this is also what you do to skip a transmission of story dialogue, and also what you use to warp to a multiplayer activity–god knows that backfired a few times. I also died or got hit by a car or something with bad timing at least once and ended up having the game skip a story-mission phone call altogether. This felt especially sloppy.

You gather botnet resources to recharge your hacking meter by focusing on somebody for a hack with LB and pressing A, but it only provides resources for some people, whereas for others, it steals a few pitiful dollars from their bank accounts, or starts spying on their phone call or text message. Botnet recovery absolutely needed its own fixed place on the command wheel, because whenever I ran low on hack power during a police chase or whatever, all I could do was drive by while rapidly tapping A at every pedestrian until I found some, and this would mean constantly putting text messages I didn’t want to see overtop my UI, and listening to the first second of countless phone calls before interrupting each one with another press or driving out of range. It was a terrible way of handling it.

Menus take too long to open, and loops of loads and warps get pretty annoying, which makes me wonder if Ubisoft even learns anything over the decades about game design: I remember getting annoyed by the way restarting a mission in some early Assassin’s Creed game would jerk me out and back in with two separate load screens. Imagine the scene in WD2: I’d be working as the equivalent of an Uber driver, I’d ding up my car, restart to get a better driver rating, and it would load to the “pick up your client” stage of the mission, but drop me where I already was, meaning, nowhere near the starting point of the drive. So I’d go to quicktravel to the start of the drive, but it would tell me quick travel was disabled during a mission. So I’d go back into the main menu, cancel the mission, wait out another load, and then quicktravel and load that before finding a new nearby and viable car and getting the rest of the way back to the start of the mission. I was playing on an SSD and all, but Christ–Ubi needs to have a long conversation with the CD Projeckt RED guys.

Finally, there’s another subject I wanted to talk about: WD2 has eye-tracking functionality. As it so happens, I have a Tobii EyeX. And there’s some interesting stuff going on there. The EyeX doesn’t support head-tracking like the newer 4C, and it doesn’t have nearly what you’d call pixel-perfect accuracy, especially toward the edges of the screen. It’s early-adopter hardware, and can be awkward, but if an application uses it intelligently, it’s an amazing input device that requires no effort on the part of the user to accommodate it–unlike, say, learning how to hold or waggle a Wii remote. You already use your eyes–it’s just a matter of having hardware that doesn’t waste that valuable data. So I’m a huge fan of the idea.

The WD2 eye-tracking is pretty neat, and pretty close to the ideal when it comes to tech at this stage. I think the rule to follow here is: when you can’t do what I want you to do, don’t be worse than nothing at all.

A good example is Aim At Gaze: your gun’s aim doesn’t actually follow your gaze as you hold and adjust it, but only determines the initial place you’re aiming at when you first press LT and the gun is raised. Because the resolution isn’t pixel-perfect, this can’t reliably snap your aim right to the enemy’s face unless it cheats and picks a head for you, but it points you much closer to the headshot than you otherwise would be if you had no secondary input and your crosshair started off dead-ahead. It’s up to you to fine-tune the shot, but this is much less of a maneuver than panning across the whole screen with the control stick would be. Even if you’ve leaned too far forward in the heat of the moment and your eye tracker has lost your gaze–which happens just a little too often with my generation of eye-trackers, admittedly–it’s no real setback, because if it doesn’t find you and you bring up your gun without the eye-tracker taking you close to where you want to be, it doesn’t take even a second to realize that you have to aim fully by the old-fashioned method.

Hack At Gaze was similar. It worked well, but I found that it typically prioritize focus on other cars instead of pedestrians while driving, so I’d have to manually center the screen on someone to hack their phones during the aforementioned efforts to use the botnets to recharge my hack power. I was really reluctant to believe that this would have been my only way to aim a hack at all if I didn’t have the eye-tracker but used a gamepad anyway, which means that, A, the eye-tracker must be working its magic if I couldn’t imagine playing without it, and B, the gamepad controls really are crap.

The eye-tracker’s “extended view” option for the game is a bit more annoying, because your camera will pan down as you look to the UI at the bottom of the screen, read subtitles, or whatever. If it were a little smarter it’d disable itself during those safehouse conversations where you can’t move around, at the very least. Luckily, you can turn each setting off individually, and adjust sensitivity, so I ended up leaving this one on, but limiting the sensitivity and reducing the maximum angle that the eye-tracker was allowed to pan by.

All in all? Loads of promise in this series, but I don’t see Ubi fulfilling that promise. It would basically take another stealth-hacking IP stealing its ideas, or the license switching hands in the manner of Fallout: New Vegas. There’s a good thought for a laugh and little more, but I’m far more hopeful that eye-tracking will really take off, because it’s dope as hell even if it’s not totally there yet.

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.

Stardew Valley

Acknowledging that the last one I played was Friends of Mineral Town on the GBA and that there have been probably thirty new ones since then, this is probably the best Harvest Moon game that the Harvest Moon people never made, seeing as this is an unrelated indie title made by just some guy. It does some pretty satisfying things–I wish the SNES Harvest Moon had the inventory options, fishing mechanics, control over building placement, and other things seen here.

It’s impressive that one person made this, but not entirely unbelievable–the art’s not really to my liking and the writing is worse. The characters are flat and boring, and the romance system is awful–you are a Nice Guy; nobody likes you, but showering them in gifts and saying sycophantic things to appeal to a their existing worldviews will change that. It’s an old-fashioned video game thing, of course, but coming from a Witcher 3 playthrough, where all the characters felt so deeply real, it feels especially pathetic. Ultimately I married Abigail–a girl too manic-pixie and probably too young. (Or are they all children, making Harvey the one of a deeply unsettling age?) I still was somewhat fond of her, at least, and the part where you co-op an NES game in her house was one of the only things I did with anybody that seemed authentic.

Given how much I like games with scheduled NPC life stuff, where each character has some routine where they walk to the store every Thursday at 2PM in the Fall season unless it’s raining, Stardew isn’t the sort of game that would generally be forced to win me over from a starting point of zero hearts, so to speak. But without really sympathizing much with the cast or otherwise showing a ton of depth outside of the different methods I could choose to get extremely rich, I found myself using this game to form my own conclusions about what the Harvest Moon franchise has most critically lacked.

The setting brings an expectation of a kind of idyllic and casual, pastoral, rosy-life-riding vibe, but the emphasis on time communicates the opposite. Much of the gameplay loop is about planning things out–not necessarily because you need them done by a certain date, but so you don’t miss the recipe that’s only available on the 21st day of summer or whatever. It’s telling that I found Persona 3–a supposedly hardcore Dungeon crawler that constantly clocked your actions–far more chill and forgiving than this farm game. But I found myself with little to hurry for in Stardew Valley. Was I supposed to be trying to rush into a marriage after knowing a girl for three months for the sake of some evaluation score? Why? Instead, what held my interest longer was the sense of progression in pointlessly upgrading my watering can and having more resources to put toward the structures on my farm, nice-looking footpaths and other details of customization that didn’t really feel like they were the developer’s central focus.

I was probably starting to see the gameplay as unwanted busywork before the end of the first year. As I neared my evaluation at the end of year two, I was just sleeping through whole weeks. Postgame, as it turns out, is about making absurd amounts of money to buy things you only needed in the beginning of the game anyway, like a warp item to reach the beach once you’ve already caught all the fish, or a statue that generates gifts for villagers who have already been reconditioned to love you.

The combat is overly simple, and made worse by the weird mouse controls that influence the player’s facing direction up to a certain arbitrary distance. It certainly doesn’t bring what Recettear brought to the table, which is a shame. There’s also some unfortunate RNG. For one thing, killing hundreds of bats in the hope that a scroll will drop just isn’t fun.

Now, just having my crop quality be random is fine–although I admit I’d probably prefer it if it were solely determined by my Farming skill level and fertilizer used–but when I spend a whole year waiting for my duck to drop a stupid feather I need that I can’t simply pluck off the little fucker for some stupid reason–in other words, when RNG is the gatekeeper of progression–that’s bad. Why not just say that a feather is dropped every 4 weeks if the duck is at 2 hearts, and every 3 weeks if at 3 hearts, or whatever? All of the final three artifacts I was missing in the museum also came down to RNG. The only reason I even got out of bed in the latter parts of the second year was to look for artifact dig spots around the map each day, and this was about as satisfying as repeatedly losing at the slot machines in the casino. I have to say, though, that I do like the way the game already has these things determined at the time of the daily autosave, so you aren’t incentivized to reload your game repeatedly to get the good drops from your animals in record time.

It’s really not a bad game at all–I liked trying out some of the many alternative approaches to making money. It has one of the best fishing minigames I’ve seen, despite being a simple challenge of pushing a bar up and down to line up with an icon, and not having nearly as much charm as the one in Breath of Fire 2. And as long as I was able to plan out the collection of bundle items, bundles were a great form of progression, with some pretty interesting rewards.

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.