Dragon Age: Inquisition

Much like The Witcher 3, the third Dragon Age game offers value in (1) storytelling and (2) its core gameplay loop in unequal proportions. In other words, the gameplay can’t quite keep pace. But while the proportions may be similar enough that DAI could invoke The Wild Hunt in my mind, less value is present in DAI all-around.

The Witcher’s story was phenomenal, but the gameplay was staid; refined, respectable, but by-the-book. Likewise, the better parts of DAI’s writing are its best quality: I have a lot of praise for the character writing, and its approaches to relationships, romantic and friendly. If that’s expanded to include the player’s relationship with the world they’re trying to save, and the tensions within the player’s organization, I think it’s even more true. At the same time, the story, the plot, is trivial; the bad guy is a monster of the week with no character, and your fate is to fight him, because, before the game started, you apparently walked into the wrong room while looking for the bathroom or something. Amnesia is involved, and not even as a device to explain the world to unfamiliar players. Placing that tripe on the same pedestal as The Witcher would be frankly unfair.

And that’s the good side of this story-gameplay dichotomy I’m pushing. The central loop of exploration and combat is mediocre, tedious, physically dissatisfying, even frustrating. To describe it, there are a few parallels with Dragon’s Dogma: both are content with some crude and absent systems playing out in their open-worlds, though DAI lacks even the passing of time. Both games have you loot and level up (and give too much influence to character level in a world where you’re ostensibly encouraged to explore for yourself and to be challenged and find useful rewards as you go). Both have you unlock skills and fight with a maximum of 6-8 abilities that can easily be mapped to a controller, along with those of some NPC followers, who can be dressed up to your liking. But in DAI, there’s no value in the moment of what you’re doing. Combat is a slow exchange of numbers. Shooting an arrow from a bow in DDDA had more impact than a big blow from a heavy sword has in DAI. Fighting a group of DDDA’s bandits was a vastly different experience from a pack of wolves, or any number of huge mythical creatures with distinctly targetable body parts. In DAI, you go about fighting anything the same. Sure, as a warrior, you might hook and drag an enemy over if they can be hooked. Kill the mages before the tanks if you can be bothered. But generally, you clash, dump the skills that are off cooldown, and let the computer do the math. (Then someone knocks you down, and you draw out a sigh for 4 or 5 seconds, unable to do anything with your active character.)

Mechanics in depth: combat & exploration
DAI was generally easy and unengaging, despite playing on Hard. My party got wiped out occasionally in some tougher areas, but I still never had to bother using the tactical view and controlling my whole party, which I thought was even more tedious, especially in trying to get my followers to avoid engaging enemies. I only played on Hard in the first place to avoid getting to a point where it wouldn’t matter if I was fighting 5 or 50 enemies, and losing narrative tension as a result (I talked about this a bit recently when talking about AC4). Usually these games are more enjoyable if you actually have to get invested in your party’s composition and skills, and I don’t regret picking Hard over Normal or Easy in what would have been some misguided attempt to blow through it faster. It rarely mattered in the moment of a fight, but even if it just got me to pay a little more attention to weapon crafting, that counts for something.

I did like the potion system, given that it was a little different, with its automatic refills and slots that could be used for either defensive tonics or grenades. There are some pretty cool options in the skill trees, too, and looking at a few builds online, while some options definitely come out ahead over others, players definitely had some room to be creative. I think that’s nice, but then I spent most of the game rolling into every enemy because it would do five times more damage than a big, slow swing from a two-handed maul while leaving me less vulnerable to enemy attacks. It felt extremely clumsy to have worked out that way, but “clumsy” is a recurring theme here. The controls felt unresponsive: I would try to turn off a buff that would drain my stamina while it was active, and I would have to hit it 3 or 4 times before it would finally turn off, possibly because my character was in some kind of subtle post-attack animation phase, possibly because the game hates its players. And the same button is used both for interacting with objects and jumping, which usually meant I would jump around like a lunatic when trying to open a chest. Occasionally it also meant I couldn’t jump onto a platform because there’s something interactive next to it, which is as ridiculous as it sounds.

More to the point, I found myself asking why there even was a jump button. There are no aerial attack skills. Jumping sucked. You run into invisible walls trying to climb onto rocks. You can’t climb steep surfaces except with a ladder. Open-world without any real means of traversing the environment — apart from walking, or trying to awkwardly parkour around the game’s intentions by rapidly jumping and rolling — is joyless and pointless. There’s one very beautiful landscape of an oasis among canyons in the desert, and all the verticality those canyons offered would have been really cool in a totally different game, like Breath of the Wild. In DAI, every surface you need to climb poses the most boring possible question: “Will it be less tedious to find a ladder/ramp if I try circling around from the left, or from the right?”

It’s also buggy — not just of the game-crashing sort (I did have my share of those), but even just a certain level of jank in the background. When 6 horses in a stable all lift their heads at once because nobody thought to insert some randomness into their animation timing, you notice these things, and it shows a kind of carelessness. Just as you’d (hopefully) notice the opposite in the Witcher 3, by no means a game without bugs, but staggeringly fine-tuned in its little details. Bioware is just falling behind on technical sophistication: I have some ridiculous M.2 SSD and not only was I getting load screens that were 15 seconds longer than I’d have been seeing in the Witcher 3, but they showed lore and tooltips for about 2 of those seconds, and spent the other 13 on a black screen. Let’s not get bogged down talking about the exploits, either, which practically fell into your lap and were never patched out. The only reason I didn’t have infinite skill points a third of the way through the game is because I showed what I feel was remarkable self-restraint.

I could write ten more paragraphs about problems in exploration, but it boils down to dissatisfying feel, and the vast emptiness of it all. It feels bad when you have to bend down and play an animation to harvest an herb, or pick up a tiny amount of gold. And it’s empty because there are no systems beyond yourself clashing in that space. Time does not pass; there’s no wrong time or untimely weather to influence your crossing of a bridge or hunting of wildlife. You aren’t worrying that your appropriation of a village’s goods will make them less cooperative to your inquiries. The lands you pass through aren’t changing hands as you make political decisions. Instead, most of the time, you collect trinkets, wiggling a control stick around to see the glimmer that gives away the location of a “skull shard”. It’s not as if I didn’t try to stop and smell the roses, either: I look at the grand vistas, and the old, crumbling statues. But it was worth little when I couldn’t enjoy moving through and interacting with these spaces. Who would think this is fun? Or that a completely isolated activity like drawing lines in the sky would be the one mechanic that would really tie the game together?

There was one thing in the exploration that I really appreciated, though. I have a fascination with the idea of “colonizing” wild spaces in a sense, by taking a place that is hard to traverse, and then making your mark there; imposing a little order. DAI actually (sort of) does this: you might come across a broken bridge or collapsed tunnel, and you can mark it for your Inquisition’s engineers to come by and fix up. I think they should have run further with the idea. The only limit is that it’s never used for shortcuts; just places that can’t be accessed at all otherwise. The act of making your way through some temple and then knocking down a few walls for the next time you have to come through can be strangely satisfying. Or even just kicking down a ladder after making your way up with a much longer route.

Some of the sidequests out in the wild are incredibly dull. If you’re familiar with “single-player MMO” drudge work, there’s plenty of it in DAI. I stopped taking requisition quests as soon as I realized that they repeated infinitely, just asking me to gather more junk, but even some of the quests with named and voiced NPCs can be kind of galling. One guy asked me to find and disarm 5 traps by sight, and then sent me back to rearm the same traps again. That was a low point. Not that there weren’t good ones: one quest tasked me to vanquish a demon (a member of a group who have apparently made an appearance in every Dragon Age game thus far), and when I cut through his minions and walked into his room, he started talking to me, out of cutscene, about how he could offer me a deal. I just started swinging my greataxe at him and to my surprise it actually interrupted his speech and flustered him, and started combat prematurely: that was hard-coded, the only time in the game I was allowed to do anything like it, but in that moment it was exactly what I needed to actually enjoy myself. The game can be good when it really tries: there’s just so little trying.

The last purely mechanical thing to talk about is the war table, which is alright, I guess. You could consider it a different take on the war preparation mechanic from Mass Effect 3, being more hands-on, and used to unlock the main missions rather than just to get a better ending. Essentially these are assignments that are nothing more than a paragraph of text and a choice, and then a real-time countdown until the task is done, maybe 10 minutes, maybe 20 hours. I just went with my gut on these, rather than using a guide to extract the best treasures, as I might have driven myself crazy otherwise. What’s awkward about it is that you get quest chains at times, which are just another paragraph following up on the paragraph you read 20 hours ago. Naturally, by then I’ll have forgotten what the hell the job was about, in part because I was doing several others at the same time, but there’s no history of past assignments. The war table’s inclusion makes the game a little more unique, but had to have been a rushed feature. If it interacted with other mechanical systems — say, Leliana gaining too much organizational power over Josephine and Cullen, or Cullen’s brute-force approach changing the interactions with NPCs in the region the assignment involved, or having to fight denser packs of enemies because you sent Inquisition troops elsewhere — that would have been great. But once again, systems were not much of a consideration for DAI.

If this had been a shorter game, I probably could have written one or two paragraphs about the core loop instead of however many I’m up to now. I would rather talk about the writing. But it’s not a short game, and it would have been dishonest to keep the review’s focus off of where I actually had to spend the bulk of my attention and energy. If the gameplay had been sharper, I’d have happily wasted all that time on it, but if DAI had been 20 hours and called “Telltale Games Presents: Dragon Age Without The Combat And Exploration Parts“, that wouldn’t have been so bad either.

The writing: lore, dialogue, characters, & story
I wasn’t able to jump into DAI with the enthusiasm I had for Mass Effect 3 back when that came out. To put it in perspective, I was 19 and 21 when I played the last couple Dragon Age games, and only played them once each. I’m 28 now and just hitting the third. In other words, I barely remember this stuff. And it’s extremely dense with terribly dry high fantasy nonsense lore. I read a lot while playing this game, but I didn’t even attempt to read every last codex entry. My brain thanks me for making this decision. On the one hand, I feel that if you suffer through enough trivial crap about anything, you’ll be grounded in some sense, and it’ll be that much easier to be invested in the story the next time they bring up the Second Blight or Emperor Drakon or whatever. (This may be called Stockholm syndrome.) On the other hand, if I pick up a book and I see that it’s the third recounting I’ve found of some Orlesian succession dispute or that the constellation Fervenial may represent the elven goddess Andruil and the tenet of Vir Tanadhal, my eyes just kind of automatically glaze over in protest. They don’t make it easy to find the gems when the series is so dense with shit nobody cares about, but some of it is good, and even just knowing Nevarra from Antiva can help the player settle into the rest of the game.

The first real point where I took a deeper interest in what I was playing was probably after settling into my own base in Skyhold, and maybe not really until heading into the Winter Palace, a lengthy quest that mostly revolves around talking to snooty nobles and my own party members at a masquerade ball, while also doing some snooping around. Seeing Morrigan from the first Dragon Age there (and in the process realizing that there actually would be more of a thread of continuity between the games than I first thought) certainly helped, but it’s no coincidence that you spend most of this quest out of combat. I do think the main questline is better than the side-offerings, but even it has a terribly cliche structure. Most of my positive associations come from getting to interact with my party members in more substantive ways than I ever could while traipsing around the Hinterlands. Likewise, the final postgame DLC had several opportunities to just chat with your associates, and lacked wide-open areas, and it was quite good. That said, the Jaws of Hakkon DLC was the most open of the bunch, but since it had a little town to come back to and a lot of interesting characters to meet and see new cultural and historical perspectives from, I enjoyed it considerably more than the DLC set in the Deep Roads.

The dialogue isn’t without flaws. Of course, it is a Bioware game, and that means most of your interactions involve cornering someone to ask twenty questions in a row of “What can you tell me about [opposing political faction]?” “What can you tell me about [this city]?” “What can you tell me about “[You]”? It’s clumsy, and they never quite have figured out how to do exposition, or to get a specific character’s opinions without flat-out interrogating them.

I wouldn’t call the non-expository interactions perfect, either. Even putting aside Vivienne (who appears to be engineered to be the most unlikable one), the humor feels forced and cringey. Sera’s “wacky” character traits are grating, despite some good voice acting and the reasonably interesting ground-up commoner’s movement she’s involved in, a kind of anonymous network of Robin Hoods. (And thank the Maker it has no former power structure, as she’s far too unqualified to be making choices for anyone else.) The mage Dorian is charming, with an engrossing personal arc, but his “funny” lines were in the same vein as Sera’s; just when you thought he was a person, he’d suddenly say some wacky internet mainstream subreddit level shit. You could also take Cole, a great character, but whose disjointed dialogue is a poor and annoying introduction when the game still has earned little currency with the player, and feels like no more than a gimmick. I didn’t necessarily come to see a full eye-to-eye acceptance with every last member of the Inquisition, but they’re all at least highly interesting once you come to know them better (again, maybe excepting Vivienne): at one point I found myself saying, “Well, Blackwall is just a Warden,” and that was right before his character arc took a big step forward and proved me wrong.

I’ve forgotten most of the companions from the previous Dragon Ages, but I don’t think they were as complicated or endearing, nor do I feel as strongly on average about the party members in other Bioware RPGs, including the Mass Effect series, where the vast amount of time spent with some of the cast breeds some lingering affection that other games would have trouble finding. Mass Effect certainly had some legitimate high notes, but nonetheless had some real dud characters too. I’ve played quite a few CRPGs, from Bethesda and Obsidian and elsewhere, and I’ve come to expect gimmicks and clashing perspectives in every big party that assembles to save a world, but I really felt like DAI brought an unusually consistent level of substance there. Even your non-party member advisory team are fully realized individuals. (And Scout Harding is cooler than anyone who’s actually in your party, for whatever little that’s worth in terms of character substance.) And I have absolutely no complaints about the voice acting from any of them.

Apropos of nothing, I’d love to say something nice about the card art shown for each of the followers when you choose who to bring with you on an outing. The art changes as they go through momentous events in their personal lives, and I think there’s nothing quite like it to really drive the nail in on some of those changes in their circumstances, and how they might feel about the Inquisitor, or how they might regret getting involved in the plot at all. It’s a great touch.

There are numerical “approval” scores for each of your followers, which I think is unfortunate, but in my one playthrough, I didn’t get the impression that this system caused anything particularly unjustified or absurd to happen, such as being permitted to shack up with someone who opposes everything you stand for by racking up easy points with “Nice Guy” politeness. I still think this is a bad system, but I think a nuanced execution has mitigated the inherent faults of it here. The characters are well-realized; they tend to know the difference between the nicest thing you could say to them and the thing that might affect a change they want to see, and they won’t allow their grievances to be cancelled out later with gifts of flowers and chocolates. Some followers do have quests with options for massive approval gain to outweigh anything said to them, but crucially, that too is character-driven. You can probably more than make up for any bitter conversations with Blackwall by hunting darkspawn or taking him artifact-hunting, but it makes sense, because those things are clearly just more important to him than friendly words. The same can’t be said for someone like Solas, to whom ideology is paramount. I can’t say for sure if my experience was universal here, but I kept the respect of my entire party just by trying to apply my beliefs consistently.

My approach might have varied a little more in the one-on-one conversations, allowing myself to swagger and claim to chase glory a little more with Iron Bull than say Cassandra, where it was all for the righteousness of the cause. But I think that level of changing yourself depending on who you’re talking to is normal, and I didn’t go directly lying to anyone about what I felt was the right thing to do. Sometimes there were great disapproval penalties, and I didn’t always want to suck up to Vivienne, or Sera when she was being petulant, and I was never punished for being true to myself in this sense. I romanced Cassandra despite my generally acting in the interests of mage rights and being open-minded about interactions with spirits and demons. But because I respected the vision she presented as a reformist of no half-measures, and because I took responsibility in my own dealings as well, I neither saw it as out-of-character for my Inquisitor to be interested in her, nor out-of-character for her to reciprocate (although it might have taken longer to get there as a result of some of my choices). And I would like to believe that the various individuals and histories encountered while travelling with her in my party helped her own perspective grow as well. Anyway, she’s a fantastic character, and has the best accent too, whatever the hell it is. (German? Austrian?)

When I used to play these sorts of games, I felt more pressured to save-scum for the best outcomes. It would take someone out of my party if I was going to do something they didn’t like, which is manipulative, but also unrealistic, seeing as you’re making choices with peoples’ lives and entire countries, and word is obviously going to spread. (Thankfully in DAI, a person doesn’t have to be in your party to take approval penalties.) My approach with DAI from the outset was to jump through no weird hoops to minmax everyone’s love for me, and if that meant I ended up hated by a character, all the better. If anything, I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get at least one person bailing on me, but I did feel like I had a healthier relationship with the game this way. Ultimately, I still prefer an approach like The Witcher’s, which never reduces your relationship with a human being to “+20 points”. At times, talking to non-party members like the advisory staff felt like “purer” interactions, because you aren’t getting “Slightly approves” messages popping up in the corner of your screen. If I didn’t just happen to like Cassandra more than non-party characters like Josephine, I’d have rather avoided the points-based romance entirely.

Another flaw these games often stumble into is a halt in the romance after a “courting” phase, as though getting to fuck someone was an end goal and there was far less of value to explore with that partner afterwards. Mass Effect 3 had been partly forced to confront this by setting an entire game after you’d already been through these decisions with your (second) party, meaning they had to at least try to do something interesting with existing relationships from the start of the game. DAI introduces a new protagonist and new characters, but it didn’t have much of a problem here: you can hook up with a companion well before the endgame, and the real opportunities to chat with them in cutscenes after major missions contain spouse-locked dialogue choices that do help flavor the relationships afterward. There may also be entirely extra cutscenes for romanced characters, but this is unclear to me, as not every member of the team would get a new cutscene at the same time. Bioware also previously had the issue of some companions’ scenes running out early because they weren’t romanced, while unromanceable characters continued on with content until the end of their games. I would not be entirely surprised if this happened in DAI, but if so, it wasn’t as overt. The postgame DLC definitely had some interesting content about the romance my Inquisitor had with Cassandra as well, particularly as I supported her in becoming what was basically the pope, which kind of got in the way of the relationship, but seemed to be the right choice both for her and for the state of the world.

I couldn’t possibly talk about Dragon Age without talking about the way it addresses inclusivity, and matters of sexual orientation and gender. I never felt like the game was pandering or just checking off boxes for the sake of it: I suppose the difference would be if I felt that Krem (a non-party member) had no value apart from his being trans, but I thought that the player character’s gormless reactions and questions to his trans identity coming up as a subject was interesting in itself, even in not taking them (I often liked exercising my right not to ask dumb questions just because they were on my dialogue wheel). Apart from Dorian, I basically had no idea who was gay and who wasn’t until after beating the game and looking it up, as I made my pick and didn’t try to play the field beyond that. It was interesting to find out that my flirting options wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere with Sera, because she was gay, or Cullen, because he wasn’t. In Dragon Age 2, I think they just made everyone bi. That was interesting, but limiting in a ludonarrative sense: if you wish to make a no-judgments wish-fulfillment fuck paradise, go ahead and do it, but the real world has people who will say no to you on the basis of what you are, and that’s something to explore in itself. Most fascinatingly here, as a Qunari or dwarf you have a couple fewer sexual options in the Inquisition than a human or elf does, and that’s something I’ve always wanted to see attempted. It would be ballsier yet if the skin tone you picked during character creation could restrict you like this, but I could see how it would kind of suck for some players.

Generally, there are a lot of parallels in the series with real human rights issues, which is another thing that helps ground the series and make the moral choices thrust upon the player feel important if they care about these causes in real life. At the same time, mage rights thankfully aren’t a direct substitute for talking about gay rights. Nor do elves represent a skin color. Sure, it’s clear to see that people are born as mages; it’s not a “lifestyle choice”, and they’re often locked up, mistreated, even lobotomized. That said, crucially, the real gay rights analogue is simply gay rights: Dorian’s dad actually tried to use some fucked up magic spell to make his son less gay, like some fantasy electroshock conversion therapy. If you’re going to address the subject, who needs nuanced metaphor or layers of tactful abstraction? After all, it’s still a medieval setting where every old man of means is obsessed with siring heirs. It’s going to come up.

Choices & consequences
I don’t intend to play DAI a second time, but I have looked up a few things, and there have been some notably different outcomes to some of my choices. It was pleasantly surprising to see that I wouldn’t actually end up travelling into a hypothetical future where we didn’t save the world, for example, in siding with the templars over the mages, which really did have some reactivity — my expectations here were so low that I thought they would have cheated me around even that being unique to my playthrough. But even that choice doesn’t put you in a different place in the end, and no choice ripples out with meaningful consequences. Many options won’t even necessarily affect a single conversation; they’re the kind of illusory choices that I think can at best feel meaningful in the moment, as long as you don’t think too hard about what they mean. It’s not Alpha Protocol, and that goes without saying, because I can beat Alpha Protocol in 5-8 hours, and this game took me more like 140. But you can still import history from the earlier games, and the protagonist of Dragon Age 2 (who cannot die) even shows up for one mission. Just don’t expect anything to come from it. In the original Dragon Age, the player could die nobly or impregnate a witch with an ancient god and cheat death, which sounds like just about the most earth-shattering divergence you could possibly have, except that it of course means nothing, and the writers probably now regret ever allowing the player that choice at all. According to what I’ve only seen on youtube, if a save is imported, the ancient god baby really does come back into the series in DAI, finally, only to have his godhood neatly stolen away in one cutscene that has very little to do with the player’s quest. Still, it was good to see Morrigan again.

Mass Effect 3’s big trick was to have all these knock-off unkillable characters waiting in the wings — like understudies in a theatrical production — to jump in whenever you killed off the A-listers. Wrex had his brother Wreav, while Mordin had Padok Wiks, his fellow STG operative. That kept the story from ever having to diverge. DAI, on the other hand, is even more flippant in its disregard for your personal history: I completely forgot, or never knew, that the player could kill Leliana in the original Dragon Age by making evil bastard choices. Turns out she literally gets resurrected from the dead, which would make her about as much of a mythical Christ figure in the Dragon Age world as it would if it happened in the real one, and yet goes more or less completely uninterrogated. That’s staggering.

Conclusions, and the future of the series
Ultimately, as much as I may spit on this game for all its mechanical emptiness and filler, extolling other titles like Dragon’s Dogma as I do so, I still believe there is a very clear place in this world for DAI. DDDA, after all, was the game that clumsily invented a slave caste to solve a problem that didn’t really exist, and would make your fated significant other literally just about any NPC you had the best relationship with, including children and old shopkeepers who became your true destiny because you regularly bought goods from them. Great as it was in some respects, it wasn’t the game to tackle social issues, and it’s heartening that there’s at least one major developer making this a priority, and doing so with a bit more tact every time around.

Dragon Age 2 still had the best narrative structure of the series so far, and while they wore out the one city map where the game was set, it was a breath of fresh air to just be embroiled in local events instead of preventing the whole world from exploding. In the next Dragon Age, I wouldn’t mind a return in that direction, paring down the shallow-breadth approach, but with more of an emphasis on the feel of play in the moment. If they could do so, sticking to their strengths in character writing, while putting even half the effort into structural systems bigger than loot or crafting, they’d be off to a great start. There are already too many big franchises doing the open-world thing just to chase trends, and my advice to Bioware would be to avoid competing on a field where they can’t win.

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.



The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Breath of the Wild is a top-class Zelda game, the best since Majora’s Mask at least. If Majora’s Mask had a combat system like this one, and the Sheikah Slate and its runes instead of frequently putting up gates in your path as most games in the series have done, it’d be hard to imagine a better Zelda at all. Move on to the next paragraph before I say something like “Unless you count Dark Souls.” Sorry, too late.

It’s shocking how thoroughly the series dropped what it was previously doing to commit to the open-world genre. With the towers you go climbing to reveal map regions, it seems like Nintendo would have been walking into the trap of the bland, focus-tested Triple-A experience of Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry, which not even The Witcher 3 resisted. This is what I was most worried about before the game was released. But I don’t really think that’s its problem. It hasn’t cut corners on that Nintendo charm; the atmosphere and approach to dialogue is up there with the best of their games. It’s super-Japanese, with NPCs standing outside of stores and calling you to go inside, and just being ushered into the inn in Goron City had me grinning stupidly, to say little of the process of getting into the Gerudo town, or more out-there encounters like the lady cooking mountainous piles of dubious food. There’s a real sense of character to the game, and you see it especially in the tribute to Satoru Iwata as a Princess Mononoke-esque noble beast.

As far as other series go, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dragon’s Dogma was actually the biggest influence on the Zelda team, being a well-received open-world title made right there in Japan, and it also letting you climb all over stuff and follow NPCs from their workplaces to their beds in that day-night cycle I love so much — even though here it’s mostly just used so you can get yelled at for trying to talk to people at 2 AM. Neither game tried to be Skyrim; Link is not a potential criminal. Geralt (in The Witcher 3) is fundamentally a good person too, but his is a rough world where he can be caught on the wrong side of the law for no reason other than that the laws were written by bastards. But Zelda games are bright worlds where the only evil is a reincarnating pig demon. There are no guards in the towns keeping an eye on you while you move between market stalls, and when you try to interact with a pumpkin in a cultivated field in the middle of the night, the game helpfully suggests that you come back in the daylight and try again when there’s a farmer you can give your rupees to. It’s more consistent in its good-heartedness than most games ever try to be, including Dragon’s Dogma.

However, the game is too extreme in its approach to open-endedness. I think this is the central flaw of Breath of the Wild. Yes, I love that you can run straight to Ganon once you leave the starting area and beat the game in an hour without having to glitch through a wall or something, and I love that you’ll most likely get your ass kicked if you do. But they gave up far too much control over the difficulty curve. Since they went as far as ruling that any place in the world can be the first place you travel to, everything is modular and feels disconnected. There are a few good exceptions, namely the forces of climate, which can be both very limiting in the early game, and also can be circumvented if you make the right preparations, such as by creating heat-resistance elixirs. I think this is the best way to do openness: you can go anywhere, but most options are a bad idea unless you really know what you’re doing. But you should just be doing this to get some good stuff early-on before returning to where you were, in your place in the linear questline. Morrowind was another game that let you push beyond your current level of progression by using the right scrolls or potions at the right time. But this only reflects the early game of BotW. Later on, climate means nothing beyond taking a couple tedious seconds to switch armor sets when fast-travelling to the other side of Hyrule. There’s nothing like The Glow from Fallout, where no matter how long you put off going there, you’re going to have to pop a lot of Rad-X and take it seriously.

In BotW you don’t find yourself taking many things seriously at all. It has its challenges (including the Trial of the Sword stuff I didn’t even want to do, because it spikes into being so hardcore that it doesn’t even let you save your game), but as a whole it’s dissatisfyingly easy in a way that can’t be fixed by playing on Master Mode. Frankly, it’s just too accommodating to be letting players teleport out of any situation or safely eat infinite food from the pause menu. And while I think climbing all over the terrain is cool, it wouldn’t have hurt to limit players more in this area without just by using the random element of rainy weather, as they do in shrines. The lead-up to Zora’s Domain, where it’s always raining the first time you make your way up there, feels like kind of the right idea, but I suppose you could even cheat your way around that one if you already beat the Rito dungeon and got the absurd Revali’s Gale power, which just lets you fly up over pretty much everything, and which I did not have when I was activating all the towers.

The world also feels a little too empty: rings of rocks hiding Korok seeds don’t fill a space the way a good sidequest does, and good sidequests are sorely lacking — hence the early mention to Majora’s Mask and what a good game the marriage of the two would be. And while you’re in for some amazing combat when fighting a lynel, most of the time you’re fighting bokoblins, moblins, and lizalfos. Humanoid enemies that can be killed without breaking three swords in your inventory are ideal, naturally, and the game is way more dynamic than most action games in terms of the way your ability runes come into play — distract the enemy with a bomb, drop a metal crate on their heads, and so on — or the way you can disarm enemies and make them use gimmicky weapons you drop. But these couple species just don’t go far enough to cover the Hyrule map.

There were some clever ideas hidden away in shrines — there are so many cool ways to make use of the remote bombs, stasis, magnesis, and cryonis powers and the shrines take full advantage — but they are the game at its most modular: they interrupt the exploration, rather than feeling like a part of it. Remember the interconnected caves in Link to the Past, where you’d fall down some hole and exit on a different part of the cliffside? Or experiencing the same places with changes when transitioning between the Light and Dark worlds? There’s none of that interconnectedness in BotW. Hell, there aren’t even caves, really. It’s all just surface — literally and figuratively. Hyrule Castle itself is pretty cool with its numerous entry points, waterfall paths, and bombable walls coming out from the dungeon cells back to the cliffside overlooking the castle moat, but that’s just a tiny fraction of the game.

The nostalgic power of the Zelda franchise is a nuclear bomb, with the music obviously right at the front of that. I’ve liked to see the series not rely too heavily on what came before, at least ever since Ocarina of Time 2: Twilight Princess followed the much stranger Wind Waker, but when it comes to the music and all those incredible motifs, it would be a shame not to use them. Unlike the recent Metroid game where I felt like they relied on the power of old tunes too much, BotW’s soundtrack is sparing. They really didn’t phone it in, say, pulling from Wind Waker’s Dragon Roost Island for the new Rito Village. Other favorites include Vah Medoh, the horseback night music (with its original Zelda theme callback), and various offbeat tracks that would probably feel at home in Mother 3.

The DLC also goes in heavy on the nostalgia, especially if you count Amiibo clothing sets, but the Amiibo stuff is kind of ridiculous, and I won’t go much into that. I’m all for dressing up as older versions of Link and checking out the differences in their fashion, but it’s a little sad the way some of the more unique items are implemented. Take Majora’s mask itself. In The Witcher 3, there would’ve been some fantastic sidequest where the mask had already turned up and Link would have had to nip some situation in the bud before some NPC went insane. But instead, it’s just buried in the dirt near the start of the game. And all it does is combine the effects of other monster masks you find in the game. Couldn’t it have added some kind of hexing rune to the Sheikah Slate menu while worn? Something to target an individual enemy with, like the stasis rune? Wouldn’t that have been something?

The big piece of DLC, though, culminates in a whole new dungeon Link is ostensibly clearing because he wants a dirtbike, and for no other apparent reason except maybe to test his own mettle. It’s in line with what the players are in it for, I’ll give them that. The DLC dungeon may be the best of the dungeons in the game (a low bar really), with a rad boss fight and a set of interesting puzzles based around cogwheels that actually have to be lined up and connected properly. The dirtbike itself is fun, but unfortunately seems to use some horse code in determining where the bike is allowed to be ridden, even though the bike can launch off a lot of cliffsides and the horse can’t. Even if using it on Death Mountain would be suicidal, it should be my choice to die, goddamn it.

Perhaps this sounds like I’m leading up to a thoughtful closing statement about open design in the game world and what the freedom of the dirtbike says about the greater picture, but no, not really. They’re conflicting thoughts, if anything. I want tighter design in the game, but the freedom to make the elf boy to ride a dirtbike off the side of a volcano.

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.


Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen

Dark Arisen is a very unique take on the open world action-RPG formula, and I was glad I got to play it. It’s deep in some atypical aspects and shallower than its competitors in others. Compared to Skyrim, it actually has fun combat, for one thing — I don’t remember if I’ve ever played as an archer in an action game before and actually thought things felt right in a sense the melee classes would take for granted. It’s as if the industry collectively decided that bows were these weapons that were supposed to just plink away at enemies from a safe but unsatisfying distance, but then Dragon’s Dogma came along and you were shooting ten arrows at the same time without having to stop moving, and you’re ripping through packs of wolves and harpies just as well as a sword guy doing a big spin move. I love that. It even borrows from those Yasumi Matsuno tactics games I love so much: you can change your class after learning some passive abilities, and equip the warrior’s passive augmentations on a sorcerer and so on. It’s cool as hell, even if your viable options are typically narrow.

It also forces no terrible level scaling in its open world. If you make a run out to the far end of the map at the start of the game, you can get some great gear if you can survive long enough to reach it. And when night falls, that means something in a way I haven’t felt apart from maybe Minecraft, or encountering the ghosts of Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule Field when I was nine years old or whatever and still shit at the game. One of the first things I actually didn’t like about Dark Arisen’s combat was the lack of a standard Zelda/Dark Souls lock-on feature, but then I went through a scary night with something circling around me that I couldn’t keep up with, and really had to look closely in my fading lantern light and strain my ears, and it just finally clicked how good of an idea it was to make me do that manually. It’s that much harder to know how many wolves are in a pack when you aren’t keeping a lock on one until it’s dead. Sometimes that wyvern sweeps over your head and you can only stumble around trying to see where it went before it charges at you. It wouldn’t work in every game, but it works here.

But to the other half of what I was saying, some of the other standard CRPG mechanics (like theft and crime) are basically absent. The statute of limitations applied to your brutality is such that if you leave the map and come back, nobody’s trying to attack you anymore. It’s closer to Ganbare Goemon on the SNES than Skyrim here, and Skyrim’s criminal logic already felt too crude for its purposes. But if Dark Arisen tried to compete in the complexity of its systems and the size of its sandbox, it would have failed. Its quests don’t tend to weave together different NPC relationships with the player into a complicated flow chart; they tend to be “Kill The Thing”. The best thing to do is to just play the game it wants you to be playing, instead of trying to be a bastard as part of some misguided and pointless celebration of free will.

The game’s original ideas, of which there are many, are more aptly described as “creative” rather than “unfathomably deep”. For example, climbing is a big part of combat; you climb directly onto anything bigger than a human, stabbing onto the weak spots on their head, the straps of their armor, whatever. I might have enjoyed a robust code of law and guard AI, but you know, I’ll take crawling on an cyclopes’ back like a little bug, too.

In one quest I cleared out a mine that linked two areas on the world map, and when I revisited later to use it as a shortcut, not only did the enemies not respawn, but I gained the ability to sprint there without using up stamina, as if I were in town. I could even pay a merchant there to open up new mining tunnels for my personal use. That kind of colonization of a space is one of my favorite things to see in games, and I often feel I don’t see nearly enough of it.

In character creation, you can literally just make a child, which was just about the only thing I knew about the game going in. There will be cutscenes where you’re in a room full of adults talking about the dragon you’re supposed to kill or whatever, and you’re in the frame like 140 cm tall, the height of a ten-year-old. The game doesn’t care at all, and that’s hilarious. I later bought an item in-game that let me edit my appearance, and just made my character gradually older and taller as I progressed through Bitterblack Isle. By the time I finished, I was an adult.

Here’s another great thing: there’s a forger in the seedy part of town who will make forgeries of whatever you bring him — keys, magical rings, a letter that you’ve been asked to deliver — and apart from losing their magical properties, they’re duplicated perfectly. It plays ingeniously into several quest outcomes; this guy wants a magical grimoire, so you can give it to him or give him a fake and keep the real one for yourself. What’s great is he comes back and tries to use it in front of you in a later quest, which is a real funny way to get hoisted by your own petard, or relieved that you did the nice thing. (But again, most of the quests are comparatively simple.)

The pawn system, in which you create an NPC to follow you around at all times, has to be the deepest of Dragon’s Dogma’s unique ideas. Your pawn learns from everything you do. If you find a secret passage during a quest, your pawn learns about that passage. If you discover the element a monster is weak to, your pawn learns that. Then other players hire out your pawn and if they do that quest or fight that monster, they tell the player who hired them. It’s brilliant in principle, and it gives you a cool goal of trying to make this personal NPC of yours a walking encyclopedia of the whole game world.

In practice, however, it doesn’t always work well. There are two voice actors for pawns and they like to repeat stuff a lot. You don’t command them directly, so there’s no telling if they’ll enchant your weapon with the element you want (or if they’ll do it at all), which gets frustrating. They’re also, well… slaves. Unequivocally. They literally go around calling you “master” as they carry all your shit, and it just feels shocking how obtuse the developers were about it. In fleshing out the world, they try to make it seem alright: they tell us that these aren’t human beings like the player character, and they aren’t doing this against their will, as they basically don’t have a will. But it’s these weird excuses, this sanitizing of the concept of a slave race, that actually calls it into such sharp relief. The thing is, half the CRPGs out there have some weird indentured servitude thing where you amass “followers” who hold what you tell them to hold and otherwise do what you say, and we’re used to it, as just another “gaming” quirk rather than an explicitly narrative thing. In video games you tell a companion, “Wait here,” and they stand there until their bones turn to dust without a thought to their own wishes and needs, and that’s fine, because fuck it. But when you invent “pawns,” these funny people who lack the higher cognition of humans, who are better off this way, and who wouldn’t know what to do with freedom even if they had it? The parallels with actual slavery apologia in the real world have to sink in.

There are a lot of annoying quirks when you get into the nitty-gritty parts of the game design, although I think these are mostly forgivable. The worst is probably that chests have large pools of potential items, and you’re incentivized and all but expected to stand there killing yourself over and over until the chest loads with the thing you want in it. Your endgame quest reward is actually a dagger that you can kill yourself with, seemingly for this exact purpose: there’s no quick way to load a save if you’re still alive. How sad does that sound? Although it was standard in RPGs for decades to put a certain rare item in the fancy chest at the end of the secret tunnel or whatever, Dragon’s Dogma reinvents the wheel in the worst way. One of my favorite things about exploration is getting rewarded with unique items; you may never be sent to a small bandit camp as part of a quest, but it’s there, and you can find a cool bandit mask to wear if you conquer it. Fallout New Vegas was especially good about this with its scattered unique variants on all the guns. Dragon’s Dogma has some cool things like this, but the treasure pool RNG takes half the fun right out of it.

There’s also permanent class-based level scaling. It’s not significant enough to ruin anything if you don’t obsessively plan out which classes you need to be at which levels, but if you ignore stat growth and decide in post-game that you’d like to try being a sorcerer, you’ll be a garbage sorcerer with low magic attack. And frankly, I did mess it up a little; your starting classes have worse level scaling but you’re forced to stick with them until level 10. I didn’t find the inn where you can switch vocations until level 11, which meant I had one bad level right off the bat. I think this kind of thing is bad design; it only serves to make players feel bad for being what they want to be, when they want to be it.

I like when a game’s mechanics give me the freedom to break the balance somewhat, but I don’t like it when a game is already given to me broken, especially when the reasoning is that real-world capitalism is leaking into the fantasy space and they want to encourage people to spend money on a new version. The thought of rebalancing the early parts of Dragon’s Dogma, given the new Dark Arisen starting gifts, was apparently met with a shrug. You’re given an infinite warp stone at the start just for playing the Dark Arisen version of the game, but then you still find consumable versions of that item, as if you’d care. It takes a long time to outgrow the “DLC” gear they throw you, too: some players are likely still wearing it when they beat the main campaign’s dragon boss. Sometimes the poor balance doesn’t even have anything to do with DLC gifts, though. I tried using other gear in my jewelry slot, but I found myself wearing Barbed Nails all the way to the end. If you rolled a Master Ring in super-late postgame with the same two bonuses and the very best possible numbers, it still wouldn’t even be half as good. Sure, a Master Ring can be many other things as well, but it just seems wrong to me.

Worse, the game has a pretty insensible approach to its numbers. If an enemy has 1000 defense and you have 1001 attack, your first 1000 attack gets through that defense and you do 1 damage. If you equip just a slightly different weapon, boosting your attack by roughly 10% to 1100, you’ll then do one hundred times more damage to the same enemy. While it’s usually not quite that stark, it still puts way too much emphasis on getting better gear and worrying about the breakpoints you have to meet for the combat to be fun. With the added Dark Arisen super-boss, Daimon, I went straight from doing no damage against him — quickly giving up, as there was no point to trying — to being so strong that the fight was disappointing when I finally returned. I had made a new bow, and learned that you could stack the effects of four Tagilus’ Miracles. And now that I remember the Tagilus Miracle, Barbed Nails hardly seem broken at all.

It’s far too easy to miss entire quests when not checking in on certain parts of town before progressing through the main storyline. Inventory management is absolutely tedious, as is mining ores or slowly scrounging through sacks on the ground for crafting materials, which I wish the game could have just skipped making me do. But I felt the same way about picking up bits of twine and broom handles in Witcher 3. It’s everywhere now, and I don’t know why.

The “Beloved” system is a mess: you usually end up finding out at the end of the game that your character romanced someone you don’t give a shit about, because you accidentally maxed your affection with a half-dozen NPCs and it just picked one for you. I went for Mercedes the first time and got Quina. On my second playthrough I went for Selene and got Aelinore, even after reading up on all the stuff about how it works. I finally got Mercedes when playing Speed Run mode, and that came as a surprise to me. They might have at least introduced a point in the main questline where the game asks you which of the top five characters comes to mind, and tagged that one. But when I hear that literally anyone apart from two or three key NPCs can be the player’s beloved — including Feste or Simone — I think I got off easy.

I loved all the little Berserk references, though it felt kind of shoehorned when I was getting thrown in the dungeons for being in Aelinore’s room. As (A) a female character who was (B) way too overpowered for the town guards, acting out that scene made me briefly feel like the world was a lot smaller than the setting of Berserk, especially considering the dungeon Griffith was thrown in, built over the old site of Wyndham.

But there were also the cool nods to the “witch of the forest” stuff, as well as more general European fantasy elements that have been much more poorly executed on by games actually made in the West. Like the enemies: cauterizing the heads of a hydra after chopping them off, hunting a griffin by luring it to the ground, evading the petrifying breath of a cockatrice, or targeting the different body parts of a chimera, where the snake, goat, and lion heads each have their own skills and health bars. You can see that the designers really cared about portraying this part of the adventure just as they imagined it in their minds.

And I can’t forget the experience of dragging myself through a windy canyon at night, surrounded by tunnels filled with bandits who were still powerful enough to kill me, and disturbing a giant golem with brightly-lit magical charms on its body, essentially the only thing I could even see in the pitch-black darkness. That whole expedition felt far more memorable than any encounter I can think of in a number of other open world RPGs, and ultimately, I think it’s because the designers nailed this aspect so well that I have such a highly positive impression of this game.

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.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dark Souls 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

This is a really unusual game, but only in that you wouldn’t expect to find a really dynamic mechanic in what is otherwise such a publisher-safe, Triple-A standard-fare, Assassin’s Creed knockoff. The idea of having the foes in the game act within this semi-permanent Orc hierarchy that you can totally stop at the source lends itself more to a kind of shorter game that you replay indefinitely, which is probably why it feels like something out of an indie roguelike instead of what it is. It’s also probably why you’re made to conquer the ranks twice, and then twice more in the DLC, padded out with tedious collectible hunting and the occasional bad escort mission.

For whatever publisher-friendly reason, they couldn’t just completely focus on the good stuff they had and build some kind of FTL-like replayable challenge game out of it. Something where you’d ramp up the difficulty across multiple runs as you also gathered higher-tier runes by trying to accomplish objectives with the runes you unlocked last time.

Instead there’s a secondary “Trials of War” challenge mode, which is better than nothing, but only insofar as you get to do the good part of the game some more, assuming your patience for it hasn’t totally worn thin. It’s like skipping the story and other bad stuff, like the cheesy boss battle against a giant troll, where you roll sideways as it idiotically charges forward and then hit it while it’s stunned. You know the one I’m talking about: you’ve already beat that boss eight million times. Even if you’ve never heard of Shadow of Mordor.

But the challenges are largely pointless as they are. Try to kill some guys within 40 minutes. What does that mean? Maybe a lot of luck; running around in circles in an Orc captain’s designated zone until you can finally see his red ass in Wraith mode. Then you either get a pathetically easy kill (which might be fun), or the enemy has resistances to everything and no fears, so you just gotta do a terrorize move to make his underlings flee, and then do the one sword combo that damages everybody, over and over, until he’s weak enough to be grabbed, or he dies. That’s not so terrible by the expectations of the story campaign, but it isn’t interesting enough to draw people back to the captain-hunting parts in Trials of War. I don’t need the captain fights to be Dark Souls boss battles, but dropping the QTEs and making combat a little less all-or-nothing would be a good start. Do some more stuff with strategic troop deployment. I occasionally got intel that certain captains would be rattled by the appearance of a specific rival Orc they hated, but I never really got to see that stuff. That could be another direction to take things in: taking people out in an order that lets you strategically exploit them more along the way. Or getting them to help you in very limited circumstances without mind control, because of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” type stuff, like with Ratbag in the story missions, but more dynamically.

Plus, even in the Trials of War section, you still have to start “missions” to attack certain targets, which clean the map of anything already on there. Logistically it makes things pretty simple, but it limits your ability to really try to break the game in the sort of way great games always allow, like luring a giant monster into the enemy camp before the fight breaks out. If you can fail a mission because you tried to walk over to something you wanted to interact with, and the game scolds you for going off the path, someone’s made a sequence of terrible design decisions.

There’s still a lot that’s appealing about the Orc captain mechanics. Enemies have names and personalities, even if you haven’t had the chance to learn them yet. A grunt kills you and suddenly you find out he has a name; he’s been promoted. He mocks you for having lost to him the last time around, which is an incredibly interesting thing to do with player death. Rewinding time whenever you fail something just isn’t fun. Shadow of Mordor shouldn’t have even had story missions.

The stakes could’ve been higher, though. It’s an easy game. You can advance time through death as much as you want. It’s not XCOM. The enemies aren’t going to get trolls with laser cannons mounted on top just because you died so much that you ended up in the month of Girithron. Thing is, you probably won’t die that much anyway. The game threw some captain at me at the end of the campaign and told me to fight my “nemesis”. I wasn’t sure if I remembered the guy. If he’d really foiled me all across the game, it would’ve meant more to see him there. I will say that it was oddly satisfying to nurture and protect my enemies until they were at max level so I could get better runes from killing them. If the sequel wanted to go all-out in a Harvest Moon: Orc Farmer direction, I think I’d be decently happy with that game, too.

There’s always more to complain about. The controls were awkward. Mashing two of the controller’s face buttons to do a special attack was awkward and unreliable. You’d be lucky to get the right guy with an auto-targeted grab. Getting up or down from a ledge could be frustrating. And the “going into the Wraith world” thing could have been a lot more than just a batman detective mode. It should have been your stealth, in place of your weirdly effective crouching.

But I can come away somewhat positive about the experience: after so many games where you can honestly feel a kind of malaise in dealing with an enemy who can hold you up for a while but isn’t worth killing at all, because you know they’ll automatically respawn when you turn the corner–Batman: Arkham City to name one clear offender–it feels nice to simply look at a list of 25 ugly dudes, mind-control them, and keep them from being easily replaced.

Plus you’re a ghost who can warp behind a sentry and suck the life out of him like a vampire, so that’s kind of neat too, I guess.

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.

Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin

A lot has been said about what made Dark Souls work so much as a game. I said some of it myself. And Dark Souls 2 is great, because most of that is still there. Some things are different.

I enjoy feeling like I’m “colonizing” a world, which is why lit sconces which last forever are a nice idea, and so is bringing most of the NPCs together at one convenient hub. In the case of Souls games, I feel that the world should resist me to some extent, and occupy a sort of fixed geographic reality in my head, but I’ve always liked kicking down ladders and opening up shortcuts the most, and quick-travel in particular invalidates the purpose of a lot of that. I don’t like that you can freely warp all around in DS2. On the other hand, I’d like to see more purely physical forms of making my mark, like a stonecutter NPC who cuts a tunnel through a mountain or carves staircases out of the rock in exchange for some favor. It’s not all for the sake of my convenience, but the feeling of accomplishment and ownership. It could even be accompanied by a very Souls-esque unwelcome twist, like bringing stronger monsters into the opening areas of the game.

Despawning enemies once you’ve killed them a dozen times is another new and somewhat interesting idea, but I think what it mostly does is incentivize a grinding period, especially in that first run where you’re not intensifying any bonfires and you really benefit from clearing out a high-traffic passageway. Why not a difficult-to-pull-off Dark Hand-esque effect which taints a specific spawn of an enemy, so it would never reappear there until you reapplied the effect to another? That could be really fun, especially with the ability to gain a few charges or slots of the technique, to repress the two or three most troublesome foes along the way to a boss.

Many of the multiplayer changes are great, specifically the ease of matching up with other people, and the many new spells, with friendly AoEs and sharing passive buffs and so on. Players are encouraged to help each other, which is probably great for advanced challenges like No Death runs, but acts against the traditional experience of really learning to understand the subtleties of a boss before being able to defeat it. I might suggest staying away from help during the first playthrough, but with some of the covenants being more appropriately cleared at low Soul memory, and with specially-awarded NPC gear being tied to summoning them to help with bosses at every opportunity, it’s easy to feel penalized for trying to go it alone. I also think that the ability to freely restore humanity and flask charges on the spot just by helping another player in their own world for a little while feels almost like an exploit.

Many of the bosses also feel too easy. Some show a lot of variety in their moves and combos, like The Pursuer, or Fume Knight, but there are always a bunch more like Old Iron King, which are kind of a joke. Other times, the difficulty comes from just doubling up on the dangers. I felt pretty tense fighting Darklurker, but I checked a wiki after my fifth death and found out that with AoE pyromancy, double the targets just meant double the damage inflicted, and once I knew that, I was done that fight in seconds.

There’s still room to die a million times while exploring, but I came away feeling like some of those deaths weren’t my fault. It could happen all of a sudden. You lose all your health in one shot, or you get grabbed. You open a mimic chest and die immediately. On the other side of things, if your adaptability stat is raised high, you’ll have so many invincibility frames that you’ll roll through something that your instinct tells you should’ve smashed you into pieces, and the only thing you can really say about it is “lol, okay”. The stat was a bad idea. The thought of doing a low-level playthrough and having fewer iframes than other players is frankly a bummer. There was nothing like that in the original game. There was one roll and it was all you had.

I could talk forever about every little tweak and system here, but I’m trying to keep this short. A few others need some mention, though. Durability was actually something I really liked the changes to. In DS2, gear repair isn’t something you have to concern yourself with the tedious aspects of. All gear is freely and instantly repaired when you sit down at a fire, unless it was fully broken, in which case it costs a meaningful amount of souls to fix. It becomes an aspect of gameplay, rather than just a tacked-on feature that is largely ignorable, as it was in DS1. It ties into other systems. Enemies that degrade your items are a real concern. There’s a secret weapon you get by “breaking” another weapon with a large boulder on the end of it, uncovering the true weapon underneath. Rings of sacrifice will break and remain in your inventory instead of acting like consumable items and simply disappearing, which I think is good: after all, I never once used a ring of sacrifice in the original Dark Souls. I’m neurotic about wasting things when supplies are forever limited. It’s not to say that the system couldn’t possibly benefit from further experimentation: the costs are static; it’s set up so the cost of repairing a ring of sacrifice will become relatively less compared to the amount of souls you’re protecting over time. Maybe instead you might require titanite to repair a ring. Maybe if you used the ring to protect or recover a bloodstain with hundreds of thousands of souls, you might need to repair that ring with a titanite slab instead of a smaller chunk or shard. Food for thought.

A few quick systems I’m less impressed by: Dyna and Tillo, who are more RNG-based than anything in DS1. Lengthy grind-based challenges, like collecting Loyce Souls. And the changes to illusory walls, so you have to tap the interact button to open them. It felt esoteric in a way that wasn’t really conducive to discovering things for yourself. I don’t know–maybe it was always like that. But I did like Pharros’ contraptions.

I have to admit I gave up on parrying, despite doing a bit of training and pulling it off a couple times. The variable wind-ups just bugged me and ruined what I enjoyed as a purely reactive technique in the original Dark Souls. I’m glad to hear that the change is being reverted for DS3, which makes me even less willing to grow accustomed to it as it stands now.

Soul Memory was another unfortunate idea. In the long term, meaning the point where I’d expect to have 4 million souls or more and move into NG+, either I decide to max out all my stats, or I wear the Agape Ring 99% of the time to prevent gathering any souls at all. Would it have been possible to prevent tweakers at very low Soul Level from hunting newer players without making the grim totality of all souls ever gathered weigh on everyone like an arrow of time, like entropy? I think so. Maybe the matchmaking could only measure the number of souls dumped into a character’s level plus the cost of upgrades into their equipment, or a system which applies a score to pieces of gear, with high-scoring pieces found only later in the game, all for the sake of using that as another matchmaking variable–the player who farmed for the ghost blade maybe has more going on than the guy with just the basic hand axe. Or maybe Soul Memory should be simply considered as a secondary variable between matchups of players of the same Soul Level first, so tweakers play with other tweakers first. But ultimately, tweaking is too small of a concern to the health of the game to have messed with everything else.

Places feel disconnected, and not just because of the quick-travelling and warping into the shrines and the memories of old trees. The environment artists really knocked it out of the park, and I love the gorgeous vistas of ancient ruins, but in the original game it was all far more cohesive. You didn’t see anything quite like the view from the wyvern’s room of Aldia’s Keep in DS1, but you saw the Undead Parish, so meaningfully far away from Anor Londo. Coming up a long elevator ride from the Earthen Peak tower overlooking a poison swamp, and seeing lava all around you, just doesn’t make sense–it hasn’t tried to make sense. The endless rows of tall trunks of numinous trees deep below the earth in The Great Hollow weren’t so detailed in appearance, but it meant something, having just bravely ventured down only one such tree. It made you understand the nature of the world, and it made you feel small.

Dark Souls 2 is in many ways an enhancement, an iterative improvement from the original. Exploration is still a delight, and the game is huge. I still want to keep playing, to find things I missed. The PC version of DS1 was a shoddy port in a handful of respects, which is clearer than ever when the better-looking DS2 performs just as well on the same hardware. But you can also plainly see where the heart isn’t quite there.

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.