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.

DOOM (2016)

Revisiting old-school shooters isn’t something I have a passion for–you can look at, for instance, what I said about Hard Reset–but it’s good for a change. I didn’t play the original Doom until I was a little older (and even then not all the way through), but it does take me back to Quake 3 Arena. Stepping onto a boost-jump pad, leading a target with the rocket launcher while I fly through the air… the mechanical core of this game was there. DOOM is also not so different from Metroid Prime, though it’s more action-oriented. Each could probably learn a thing or two from the other.

There’s a robust multiplayer mode, but I played a few rounds and it felt a bit dated. I found myself thinking I would be much better off spending the time in Overwatch, so I don’t have too much else to say there.

The different systems are really cool and cohesive–chainsaw kills, glory kills, runes, weapon upgrades with challenge-based unlocks, and so on. Whether your options are balanced is a whole other story: once I discovered the rune to make grenades siphon armor, and paired that with infinite ammo at 75+ armor, things got easy. The weapon challenges were also pretty easily cheesed, but I prefer that to frustration.

The aforementioned glory kills–the melee animation finishers–are something that I’d hate in other games, like the canned stealth takedowns I was made to watch over and over in Human Revolution. But not only are they pretty fast here, you can make them even faster with a certain upgrade, and one can easily avoid doing them when they need to keep moving. It’s probably the most effective example of their mission to blend new and old-school game design.

Some of the earlier levels, like the foundry, are actually among my favorites; later on there’s a bit too much of fighting hordes in giant arena rooms. It’s the natural way to hike up the challenge factor as you progress, but when you clear out a room and then more enemies just start teleporting in, it definitely feels like it’s dragging.

I also liked the levels set in Hell a little less, but that may have more to do with the natural themes of human settings, where variety is endless and yet familiar. It’s like how humanoid enemies with arms and legs are more fun to fight than giant floating heads, something which in my experience remains true whether you’re playing a Doom game or a Castlevania.

Some of the levels have points of no return, perhaps because you have to fall a ways, or a door locks behind you, or they don’t have a consistent visual language for marking the end of a level. (One level even ends in the middle of a fight with a pack of enemies.) It’s not the best way to incentivize hunting down secrets for yourself. The level replay feature is pretty cool–you can redo an old level and have the collectibles you miss count toward your totals and achievements–though I still would’ve preferred not needing it.

DOOM uses checkpoint-only saving, which I generally dislike. I always notice it influencing my behavior: “If I touch this switch it’ll replace my checkpoint, so I should avoid it and grab this thing first, so I won’t have to do it again if I die.” It seems arbitrary and limiting, and I’d generally prefer to have a say in when the save happens, but it’s at least good about letting your secrets and challenges remain separate from your checkpointing… with the exception that map icons for lore entries annoyingly seem to appear uncollected again, despite being in your collection database.

One of the things the game does best is its self-aware tone. There’s a documentary about the game on youtube that touches upon a lot of this stuff: the demons with jetpacks, the metal soundtrack, the security systems that tell you that demonic presence is at “unsafe levels”. It seems like an obvious fit in hindsight, but so many games have some rigid story that avoids asking what it is that the player signed up for: look at the shooters where you think “Why can’t I just shoot this guy?” at basically any point where someone is talking. DOOM itself isn’t fully resistant to that: it does still occasionally lock you in a room for some exposition, sometimes with the lame old trick of putting the villain on the other side of bulletproof glass.

At least these parts are segregated from gameplay, and you never have to do an escort mission or whatever just because the story calls for it. Still, frankly, these scenes should have been skippable, if we’re really taking the best of old-school games with immense replay value. Instead, they seem to have added Arcade Mode precisely for this, though it doesn’t help with getting all those collectibles on your main file. Though the part about some of the later levels dragging on a bit would remain true, this game actually might unexpectedly be worth another playthrough some day.

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.

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.

Life Is Strange

I think this one was a very beautiful game. The drama and its characters are extremely well executed and acted, and I think what surprised me most was seeing the specifics of the medium used remarkably well at times to convey things beyond what could be done with the traditional storytelling. In one scene Max is just lying in bed and it becomes clear as it exits a cutscene that it’s one of those times where you can press a button to actually get moving, but Max is reluctant to move and I actually found myself reluctant to move her… it’s not something that can be easily described, but I thought it was particularly special.

But the execution of the time travel and the game’s themes of choice, and loss of control, and feelings of regret over trying to play God (awfully like the movie Project Almanac if you’ve ever seen it) don’t always appropriately deliver. It’s an incredibly hard thing to get right in a game, but it’s one of those works of fiction that will tend to frame things in a limited fashion to make an argument that only sort of works on its own incredibly specific terms. You see a few false dichotomies, lacking the agency to take actions or make arguments that should be there, because the absence of choice is a contrivance that creates more dilemmas. Sometimes choices you might not want to make are made for you, which is ludically unfortunate, although it might make for the best story in the end. And narratively speaking, the limits on your rewind power–being unable to use it during a cutscene, or after leaving a room–can feel sometimes arbitrary. These things were often forgivable but just as often worked against what I feel were the story’s best interests as a work of interactive fiction.

Sometimes it’s a classic Inadequate Telltale Argument situation, not even related to the time travel: like when you’re trying to talk the religious girl down from suicide and eventually you’re lead to three options that all involve appealing to her religion, despite that Max doesn’t even share the religious views at all. To me that seemed like three incredibly fucking condescending choices when I just wanted to make an earnest appeal to a suicidal girl to just slow down, because the rest of her life was worth a few minutes of reasoning if nothing else.

But I think what bothered me most was when our favorite girl Chloe was doing target practice and hit herself with the fucking ricochet: your only choice is to rewind time and tell her to pick a new target, causing them to keep at it right up until the drug dealer enters the scene–unavoidable–and the situation gets worse. I badly wanted to give Chloe a smack in the head and to tell her that it was time to stop playing with guns, that it’s not fun anymore after something like that; to say if the ricochet had hit me instead of her, it all would have been over, because there’s no rewinding that.

Like a lot of fun time-travel films that don’t quite get their logic right, Life Is Strange messes up. Putting aside the other method of time travel that gets introduced later on, Steins;Gate style–in which case I have so many questions and assumptions to challenge that I don’t even know where to start–Max is supposed to be retaining her position in space when she rewinds, which means that when she gets up from her seat at 9 AM, walks out of the room and stands by her locker at 9:02 AM, and then rewinds the clock back two minutes… to any outside observer, for all intents and purposes, she teleported from her seat to her locker. But nobody notices that, and the game is inconsistent with how this works in cutscenes. But… apart from wanting to yell at the game sometimes, I have to admit that the errors didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the story in the end. And I liked Project Almanac more than Primer anyway.

I found the time travel most thrilling when it allowed me to put something I learned to use in conversation thirty seconds before learning it, such as making people like me by saying the things they hadn’t said yet. And before Max’s klutziness got played out a few episodes in and they stopped doing it, it was nice wish-fulfillment to get to undo the occasional error. But I didn’t find myself rewinding much as a result of equivocating on major choices: unless Max said something I hadn’t intended for her to say from a dialogue option (thankfully not such a big problem in this game, for obvious reasons), I basically knew what I wanted the first time around. If there were ever more games based around this premise–and I’d be thrilled to have them–I think the most obvious place to really get more out of the rewind would be in the joys of optimization; speedrunning by virtue of rewinding until everything is done. Entering a building at exactly noon and having teased every bit of info out of every NPC and having all the nearby objects in your pocket before 12:01 PM. Put a clock in the UI and make it matter.

The last episode did drag a bit with the extended nightmare scenarios–I felt like it had all been done before–though the first conversation with the teacher pulls a Hatoful Boyfriend trick with your dialogue options that I was pretty delighted to see again.

Ultimately, and especially with the big (and evidently divisive) choice at the end, for me it was an Orpheus and Eurydice love story. There’s beauty and poignance in petulantly fighting for one person at the cost of everything, even if you have to use your fingernails to dig straight to hell, and even if it’s ultimately greedy or fundamentally self-centered and misguided, like the original Orpheus probably was. But if you already know all your uncomfortable priorities… if you really have your trolley problem shit figured out–like, would Lee drown a baby to save Clementine or whatever?–you can always live with the hard choices you’ve made.

I think the Dontnod team managed to match Telltale at their best on this one. (And there are no QTEs, which was even better.) In all seriousness I was hit pretty hard by this game, and I would have very likely given it a 5 if it had done better in just one area between its occasional weak choice options, the pacing of its final act, and the low level of mechanical ambition. It’s still, I think, a must-play title.

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.

The Witness

The Braid Guy came back with another game for the suckers at IGN to take too seriously. Braid had a decent Prince of Persia-esque mechanic where you never run out of the going-back-in-time potion. It also had some walls of text that people gave far too much credit to. In The Witness, you solve line puzzles. That’s the whole game. It kind of reminds me of the circuit-board routing puzzles I saw in System’s Twilight as a kid–they were quite a bit different, but mostly because they were just one small part of a diverse game that didn’t cost 6 million dollars to make, wasn’t sold for $40 (it was shareware), and never made me want to vomit.

The motion sickness is a real problem. People have blamed all kinds of things, some of which was adjusted in post-release patches, and obviously didn’t stop me from feeling it, a year late to the party. I think most of the so-called causes were harmless; when you’re starting to feel ill, every little thing you sense just exacerbates that. So, while the annoying humming sounds coming from every object in the world aren’t going to cause anyone to throw up, they’re especially unwelcome when your head’s already spinning. One interesting root cause I heard suggested was that the camera pivots on the face of an imaginary sphere when you turn, instead of on a point. It could also just be the the coasty way you move that calls the original Half-Life to mind. What I can say is that this revolution in motion sickness is certainly the most obvious thing to show for the immense costs of the new game engine. God forbid Blow could’ve made this game in Unity and saved me a few helpings of Dramamine.

The most charitable thing I can say is that some of those line puzzles are very cleverly set up. Often, though, it doesn’t even feel like a good puzzle game, in the manner of Portal, where you feel like you’re a genius for solving something. Often my reaction to figuring out how to do something was, “Are you fucking kidding me?”Some puzzle mechanics are just awful, like the sunlight-glare puzzles where you have to look up from an incredibly small area to know that there’s even anything to see. Even worse are the ones where trees cast shadows on a line puzzle and you have to incorporate the shadows into the solution, or the silhouettes of other objects. And a lot of the game’s difficulty is just keeping arbitary color and shape rules straight in your head. Okay, so the different colors of asterisks are allowed to share space, as long as they remain in sets of two of their own color, but if colored dots are in the same space, then…

I can offer up no substantive reason for this to be a big open-world 3D perspective-changing game when its best puzzles would work as well stripped of their context and used in a bargain game for phones. You’d never have to squint at some Piccassoesque interpretation of a path, frustrated and unsure if you were tracing it correctly even after finding the hints, and you’d always encounter puzzles in the best order, instead of tripping over the advanced combo-forms of something you’ve never seen before.

And what a load of shit Blow’s idea of interactive storytelling is. Even Braid seems earnest and true after the absolute nonsense here. The audio logs, talented voice actors aside, are just the most Blow-esque drivel imaginable if the couple I found were an accurate sample of the whole, which I can be reasonably sure of. Then there are the film clips and other little easter eggs, like that embarrassing ego trip of a secret ending. The less said on that, the better.

But is it art? Are games art now? I think it’s funny to suggest that we could ever be boldly treading new ground with a line puzzle game where you walk past pretty sculptures and architecture. Games where you’re endlessly shoved around by people trying to reduce your hitpoints, where you never speak a word, or where a couple of loosely-defined systems interact, things break, and hijinks ensue–these can be a hundred times more boldly creative, useful, inspiring, thought-provoking, and so on. But I’ve probably said this stuff a thousand times by now.

The reviewer strongly discourages spending time or money on this game–it is bad. It could still have a good point or two. But whether it’s a short piece of shovelware or a long, high-profile game where each hour feels like some kind of dubious psychological trap, expect a torturous experience where none of the good even begins to make up for the bad. It is the antithesis of what the reviewer looks for in a game.

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.