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.
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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.

Unepic

This was a pretty funny game, even though the hero was an insufferable horndog nerd. I liked Zera, as I’m a sucker for magical companions only the protagonist can see, and the voice acting wasn’t bad. Apparently that was a later addition to the game, and it was a little buggy for me: I had to quit and reload sometimes when the audio would stop playing.

Coming from La-Mulana, which didn’t let players choose a difficulty setting, I chose to play on Unepic’s Hard Mode, which disabled autosaving checkpoints. I wished I hadn’t needed to make that choice, since one game’s Very Hard is another’s Normal, and I’m usually in no shape to make an informed decision at the very start. Though I had my share of deaths and troubles, the game was typically on the easier side; every boss had you puzzle out some trick to how you were supposed to attack it, and skill wasn’t usually involved. The trickiest challenges were independent of difficulty, like avoiding falling rocks for 60 seconds. You also have to do a fair bit of pixel-precise platform jumping, which I wasn’t very good at–but that’s mostly a matter of adjusting to the later-than-expected timing and getting over the oddly-vertical jumps. The “game feel”–and I mean stuff like the jumping distances, speed, and hitboxes–seemed a bit awkward and under-polished, but I actually kinda liked it: it reminded me of old ‘90s PC games.

My usual deaths were a result of my greed: wanting to push just a little further when I was running on fumes and could’ve teleported back to the save point, but then dying to a trap or ambush. You can’t pause the game while in a panic and teleport from the menu like you can in La-Mulana. But I appreciate the added difficulty of that, and anyway, it gives value to the endgame skill that lets you establish a recall point that remains even if you save and reload (which respawns enemies). That was my favorite spell. Being able to place a customizable warp point, Morrowind style, even from within a boss room, was a sign of more freedom than most RPGs would allow, although it’s a little trivial by the standards of today’s building games like Terraria.

What was hardest about the game, though, was having to commit skill points to a particular build. It was very easy to screw up my character, and the skills didn’t have equal utility. If I’d known earlier what I know now, I’d have tried dropping Fire and Frost entirely and used Bows. I’d also have dropped Robes and Staves and all melee skills except for Axes, which I never tried and, according to forums, were unequivocally better than the weapons I used. Even though I wanted to try making a magic-oriented character from the beginning, robes and staves had extremely narrow utility. For example, there wasn’t an item that reduced the cost of Alteration spells, or one that increased the casting speed of all magic types across the board. Even after a one-time respec, I made some bad choices, but I was at least able to drop daggers, which could possibly be useful in lower difficulty settings where enemies turned their backs more often, but seemed useless to me in Hard. But in order to deal with all the late-game threats with less frustration, I’d have needed all the points I could get in the cooler magic schools like Alteration, Protection, Light, and Mental (and Arcane just for fun). They were also comparatively overpowered: I got through the last part of the game by polymorphing every enemy into a harmless chicken. They couldn’t resist or dodge the spell, and of course there was no cooldown on it either.

Having to get deep into the castle and unlock better types of magic wasn’t a terrible idea, but it would’ve been far better if you didn’t have to beat the bosses in linear sequence, and if daring players could potion through the tougher areas to nab the best skills at the beginning of the game. I’d have loved exploring randomly and having to turn to one of a dozen other loose ends on my map because some strong enemy totally owned me there. Maybe they could’ve done away with skill points altogether and linked skill progression more to unique pieces of equipment. Some could still be permanent investments, such as from a sidequest where the player chooses one of two rings as his or her reward.

Realism seems to have been a sticking point in the game design: you end up with an empty flask after drinking a potion, swords suck at breaking barrels open, leeches stick to you until you peel them off, you can cast Frost magic on yourself if you’re on fire, and you could even wear up to 8 rings at a time (though none of the rings were especially cool). These realistic touches would’ve been more impressive if the central mechanics and skill balances were in better shape, but I liked some of them, and luckily Unepic stopped short of a hunger system or an inventory limit of two or three weapons. In the case of the potion bottles, it’s probably the best way of doing consumable healing items, as potions can be brewed as many times as you like yet the bottles limit how many you can bring with you, and it’s hard to find the time to drink one in the middle of a fight. I was satisfied to find that I was actually making use of them in my preparations for dealing with certain enemies and challenges, Witcher style.

I played Unepic with the keyboard, sometimes using the mouse in menus, and I couldn’t imagine playing with a gamepad. Hotkeys were troublesome and confusing enough even with a keyboard. I’d have suggested a single horizontal action bar for the number keys, which would swap out to show the Ctrl-# hotkeys when Ctrl was held down and so on. As things stood, I’d have been better off if I rebound movement to WASD (Terraria controls?) and used the mouse to activate hotbar spells. But trying to change keybindings was a nightmare: it wouldn’t detect half my keys, and I’d have to move things off to a blank key it would detect before putting something else on it. Certainly confusing.

I didn’t get into the multiplayer, but it looked interesting. From what I saw, it wasn’t just a tacked-on game mode. I’m giving Unepic a rest now, but if it suddenly shows up in a friend’s steam collection, multiplayer is something I’d be psyched to take a look at.

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

Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Director’s Cut

I’m way into stealth, moral choices, non-lethality challenges, and even ideological debate can be pretty fun, so Human Revolution is the sort of game I wouldn’t miss. Unfortunately, none of the things DXHR tried to do were handled perfectly, and the Director’s Cut hardly improves things. Maybe it’s exceptionally difficult in most cases to make deep changes to an existing game. Maybe they team has gotten too close and cross-eyed to see what hadn’t worked. Or, more likely, maybe it’s just typical to put a small team to work on it with a toothless pittance of a budget compared to what the actual sequel was afforded. In any case, I have a number of suggestions that would have made DXHR more to my liking.

Energy is the best change of the Director’s Cut, but it’s a band-aid fix, and it remains an issue. The original game allowed only one energy bar to recover after use without the aid of consumable items, which incentivized terribly boring strategies, like standing behind a corner and throwing a crate at the wall, so that when a solitary guard turned the corner to investigate the sound, you could knock him out without anyone seeing, and then stand still for fifteen seconds while your energy recovered from the takedown. The AI hasn’t gotten much smarter since the original version, and this still remains an effective strategy for creating piles of comatose guards away from the cameras, but now at least there are two recovering energy bars by default, so you don’t have to burn through consumables like a chump in order to do anything complicated, like using two quick takedowns in sequence, or employing a cloaking device to get in closer.

But upgrading beyond the default two energy bars is still a waste of experience points. Why does the game treat energy bars beyond the second one differently? I’m sure there are a number of ways to cheese things if the player constantly has a pool of energy that large, but you could try all sorts of tweaks to keep things interesting. Change the rate of energy recovery, so it shoots back up when Jensen is stationary, but doesn’t recover at all if guards are alert. Change the way the cloaking device functions, so you have to be stationary to remain cloaked.

It would always be satisfying to see guards and security systems get smarter. Laser grids and passcodes are so easily bypassed as to appear condescending, and guards will go very far out of their way to investigate noises by themselves, even when two or more heard the same sound. The game could also be a lot better about communicating their states of alertness, which is particularly troublesome when going for a no-alarms achievement, when some levels trigger unavoidable states of alarm just as part of the story. No-kill progress is also very difficult to keep track of, and a statistics menu to show how many kills or alarms have happened so far in the game would’ve been extremely helpful, if for achievement-gathering only.

I’d also love to see the canned stealth takedown animations disappear, replaced with abilities equipped to some kind of melee augmentation slot. By default, perhaps you could put a guard in some kind of sleeper hold from behind, but from in front the guard might need to take a few noisy punches. Maybe equip Jensen’s fingers with some kind of knockout drug syringe ability to do things with less fuss, or just get messy. Having a melee attack to break glass would be useful too. More useful would be a proper guard-carrying state that you could go into right out of a takedown, instead of just awkwardly pulling their ragdolls around.

DXHR seems to have no understanding of how its mechanics incentivize player behaviors, as the best rewards in terms of experience points are also the most tedious ways to get a job done, like hacking a console the player already has the access code for, or crawling across the room to use a melee takedown when a tranquilizer dart would have worked just fine. Hacking is a lot better than it has been in many games like Mass Effect 2 and Fallout 3, to say nothing of lockpicking mechanics found across countless CRPGs, but it’s also unsatisfyingly RNG-based, as are, surprisingly, the game’s conversational showdowns, in which the correct answers to convince a person are partly randomized.

There was a game called Uplink that would have been a great source of inspiration for a puzzle-oriented approach to DXHR’s hacking mechanics. Particularly the way LANs were handled, where the player could infiltrate a network from different machines with different starting coordinates and access privileges. Rather than rolling dice and reloading until big numbers beat smaller ones, Jensen could potentially rehack into each computer as many times as he likes, trying to find the machine that can directly unlock a door or disable a nearby alarm panel without having to get through some kind of firewall first, and might buy upgrades that help him circumvent a variety of new digital obstacles.

The boss fights went from being frustrating to merely disappointing in the Director’s Cut. While it was neat to see the arenas get extended, all the sneaking and hacking added in still takes place mid-fight, rather than being something that could be used to ghost the whole game. I found that hacking a turret to shoot the bullets at the boss so I didn’t have to do it myself wasn’t any more fulfilling. The mandatory boss fights are still just soldier pawns that aren’t important to the story, and there was little reason the player couldn’t have dragged them onto his escape chopper in cuffs or allowed them to retreat forever in disgrace–at least, not when compared with the contrivances the game’s story routinely did afford itself. With the new changes, it might be harder now for a player to meet an unsurpassable wall with their non-combat build, but the sequences didn’t suddenly become fun or interesting.

As a story-heavy game (with often-unskippable dialogue) it’s important to spend the time looking at what that story offers, too. It’s enjoyably absurd at times, but just as often contrived and obtuse. While it’s obviously trying to paint over conventional ideas of futurism with a morally grey, nuanced, and potentially bleak picture, it misses nearly every good point it could have made, such as drawing parallels with real-world detrimental effects of narrow-minded Silicon Valley tech bros and anybody who ever gave a TED talk about how to solve Africa. Manufacturer exploitation to the point of slavery. Environmental damage and conflict minerals. Gentrification. And so on.

Instead DXHR pins crimes on “unchecked scientific experimentation”, which, for the most part, seems a bit more like a 20th-century problem to me, and for counterpoint we’re asked to believe in the merits and likelihood of a religious organization which posits that nature knows best and having a robot arm pollutes your soul. Never mind that Nature Is The Worst Thing and social darwinism is the opposite of what society needs, I couldn’t care less if some Southern Baptist one day invoked God against the prospective of me having a shiny prosthetic arm with my wallet and MP3 player inside of it. Neither would anybody else I’ve ever met. We’re even expected to believe Jensen is a real person as he laments the awesome billion-dollar body he was given but “never asked for”. In the first place, any player who’d sympathize with that viewpoint wouldn’t have bought a game with a badass cyborg on the cover.

Essentially, much like a media network which puts a climate change denier in the room, the game seems to congratulate itself in its attempts to show an honest picture, by adding extreme and insane points of view to an open-and-shut case while avoiding the harder problems.

Their grim anti-futurist take is only truly successful when it’s introducing us to neuropozyne: a drug used to prevent the body from rejecting augmentations, which is expensive and must be taken regularly. Without requiring a deliberate scheme on the part of anybody, this exacerbates the already stark line between the rich and poor, and soon creates new twisted models for forced prostitution and indentured servitude in a capitalist system. But even this problem is shown to be an obsolescent one with the very plot point that the game uses as a starting block, so why would the audience be anticipated to hold back in this world?

These aren’t the only places where the story shows weaknesses, either. Notably, I still have no idea why Sarif needed a backdoor in his company’s security network just to communicate with a private investigator about a potential hire. I suspect it was some contrivance to try and get the audience smoothly from “investigating the attack on the company” to “learning about the hero’s backstory”, but they could’ve done better.

Now, I don’t mean to say that every idea and piece of writing in the game is bad. Augmentation is also shown to make people vulnerable to having their own bodies “hacked”, which is frightening (though, I might argue, probably not as much as a number of diseases a cyborg body could also prevent). Naturally building the player’s suspicion against the biochip recall was very well-handled. And the Harvesters–an organized Chinese street gang whose muggings leave people in alleyways bleeding out from the stumps where their augmented legs used to be–are also a creative and scary notion. Malik is a wonderful character and I couldn’t imagine leaving her to die in any playthrough. While I couldn’t say the same for too many others, I did come around to liking Pritchard, as I was supposed to.

As is often a problem in spectacle games like Tomb Raider, DXHR uses cutscenes to railroad its protagonist into doing things nobody would do, and while it’s pretty annoying when Jensen doesn’t punch Zhao’s lights out as soon as he meets her for the first time, thus allowing her to cause trouble for him, it’s far more frustrating the second and third times it happens and he shows that outside of player control, he doesn’t learn his lesson at all. This one stands out for me among the story’s problems, because it’s a clear problem unique to games, and yet games obstinately refuse to stop doing it.

I really wanted to like the conversational debate system. Certainly, it stands out, and they recorded a lot of voice acting to segue into different arguments and respond in multiple ways to the same player input. But I already mentioned the unskippable dialogue and randomized elements, and combining these together, this can mean actually being forced reload and listen to five minutes of dialogue again even if you know exactly what you’re doing (I suppose you’re supposed to roll with the punches and not succeed in each playthrough, but this is the wrong way to go about it). I was amazed that it functioned this way in the first place, let alone that the Director’s Cut did nothing about it. Once combined with the game’s generally weak ethical positioning that becomes the source of these debates, they’re just another creative idea that fails in execution.

That’s Human Revolution in a nutshell. It’s a little fun. Really, it’s not bad–there are some very cool environments and great visual design, memorable sidequests and interesting characters. But it wears out, and I’d be surprised if many people got to the endgame without feeling that it was becoming a traipse, crawling through vents and incapacitating guards with the same canned animations they were using in the beginning. The over-the-top story could’ve been fun if it took itself less seriously, but it would’ve been even better to keep certain outlandish aesthetic elements while writing something that was socially aware on a less superficial level. I wish the Director’s Cut had been bolder, but I’ve seen enough “enhanced” rereleases of games to have realistic expectations by now. And while it’s harder to say where my expectations should be for the sequel, I’m still very interested to see what that game brings.

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.