Dishonored

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2064: Read Only Memories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life Is Strange

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The Witcher 3 is in many respects the best game in an incredible series, but it’s funny to think that The Witcher 2 was more to my liking in some respects, because I thought the same thing about W1 when I played W2. For all its relative shortcomings, I found myself enamored with W1’s pacing–or lack thereof. And likewise some of W2’s questionable decisions seem somehow endearing in the face of some cynically AAA-standard design strategies in the third game.

Some aspects are nearly perfect. The amazingly nuanced morality and questing that makes fools of its competitors, the subverting of white-knighting and Mass Effect-esque busybodying. Players are accused and interrogated over their biases and emotions. I love it.

Geralt is his own person; he isn’t given the freedom to “be evil” just to allow the game to pretend that it has more freedom. And W3 understands that the weight of the world on its characters’ shoulders has a direct relationship to your immersion: it’s not too easy to get rich or kill your way through the town guard, and as a consequence, poverty seems more real and Geralt is sensibly not so above-the-law in the narrative itself. How many games have you played where you were chomping at the bit in some cutscene that seemed completely limiting and at odds with your mastery of the mid-gameplay world? I can think of several.

It brilliantly improves over its predeccessors in both scale and mechanics, for example in avoiding burdensome potion-hoarding in favor of a system in which potions automatically replenish themselves, which masterfully incentivizes their use. And it’s just a visually stunning game, both in terms of an island’s flora and the dynamic way Geralt might bisect a Drowner from shoulder-to-hip with his silver sword, which is all the more shocking when you’re accustomed to only seeing Gamebryo Engine People pop apart like dolls at the joints.

But the “cynically AAA-standard” remark is a real criticism. One way to call attention to it is my 223 hour playtime on Steam, compared to the 120 hours it took me to beat W2 twice. I didn’t entirely want to spend over 200 hours on the game to get 100% completion. Length comes at the expense of reactive depth, and length also means hours diving to pull up randomly generated smuggler’s cache loot in the North Sea around Skellige just to get some markers cleared from the map. It means bad horseback riding quests.

And it means Gwent–okay, fine, Gwent is really good. I played a lot of Gwent. It’s not balanced well–I don’t think anything is ever going to beat a Nilfgaard spy deck–but the mechanics and card collecting are really nice, and I think Gwent is the exception to the “less is more” argument, because they did a good job of making sure they really had something before shoving their card game down players’ throats. It’s an obvious step up from developers shoving full Texas Hold’em mechanics into Far Cry 3 or Watch Dogs or whatever just to give players something to do and make their game seem like it was worth more money.

I do think it gets a bit cutscene-heavy toward the end, and despite being very invested in the story, I would have preferred something minimalistic in presentation where I’m responsible for more of what’s happening; in dealing with the Wild Hunt and White Frost, I’d truly be thinking, “Hurry up and end this grand spectacle of a cutscene and get back to making me regret my choices.” I saw a few too many “You cannot do that now” messages for my liking. Scenes where I just run along behind someone. Fist fights where I don’t choose whether I’m aiming to kill. In some ways it does feel like it’s lost some of that extremely reactive, extremely agency-friendly CD Projeckt style. The nuanced morality and intelligent writing is better than ever, but otherwise is it really outplaying Mass Effect or Assassin’s Creed at their own game? The expansions definitely felt better about this, and by the time I was wrapping up Blood & Wine, I was actually thinking once more about what I would do in a hypothetical second playthrough. Very hypothetical at this point, given the sizable time investment, but maybe next year… and, hell, maybe just the expansions alone.

Perhaps from how grown-up the writing feels, it really is the game Ubisoft Montreal or Bioware could only ever vainly wish to catch up to. There was some fantastic dungeoneering that I really enjoyed, though this might’ve peaked early-in while crawling through the muck with Keira along, complaining the whole time. There were also parts where I thought they were just ripping off some other AAA game with some idea. This is partly why I wish CD Projeckt tried less to be these other companies this time around.

The story is incredibly solid, for what it’s worth, and the character writing in particular may be the best I’ve seen in games. Despite not having read all the books yet and having had much more time to get to know Triss, I deferred to the Yen route, and I did think she was a tremendously interesting person–standoffish and unfriendly but deeply considerate in her own way, revealed through little things. When she keeps it a secret from Geralt that she’d be mutilating a sacred grove with dark magic in order to find Ciri, she’s saving him from the responsibility for that decision, not to avoid him going against her decision, but because she knew and trusted him well enough to understand that he would have done far worse things for Ciri if he had to, and chose to take on all the guilt and blame herself. I really liked that.

I had a great time of not knowing where I stood with characters, particularly in the expansions, sympathizing with them and thinking they’d crossed one line or another, but ultimately I think it was the Bloody Baron of Crow’s Perch who felt more real than just about any video game character to date, between his down-to-earth and relatable terrible shit of alcoholism and domestic violence, his guilt, his relationships with his family, and more. So many characters were brought to life.

There’s also some great music, of course. I even enjoyed going over the soundtracks on youtube, seeking out things like Priscilla’s song in Russian, and other curiosities. There’s some great sound design as there is great graphics, and I don’t know where CD Projeckt RED snatches up their talent, but it’s certainly working for them.

Ultimately, purely as it works as a game, I don’t feel at all prepared to say “Move over, Dark Souls,” or any such thing. It’s hugely ambitious, and I respect that. Its central combat mechanics are in very good shape but the state of its other features, in exploration and item management and questing, don’t really stand out, and these invariably occupy a lot of any player’s time. It does do some things with a little more nuance than your typical Elder Scrolls, and in rare instances there will even be some divergence in a quest that can’t be dealt with just by mindlessly following a map marker in the corner of your screen. Though, also, unfortunately, most (but not nearly all) of your choices in dialogue are more about allowing players to skip some secondary questions than they are about truly providing players with different approaches.

There’s not much else that isn’t in every other big modern CRPG. A lot of quests revolve around using Geralt’s witcher senses to identify clues and track footprints, but for a central mechanic, it’s not that interesting. You follow the indicators and Geralt says “Ah, these are Nekker tracks,” or “This blood is about a day old,” and there’s not much in the way of questionable LA Noire-esque solutions to really make attention to detail matter.

★☆★

We could really put an end to the review here, but since I can do whatever I want, what I’d really like to do is get into the minutiae of design. Here are some further notes on the things I’d change, were it all up to me:

Get rid of “combat mode” as an automatic adjustment that changes the controls. Being unable to disengage is bad. Whenever I have to think about “what the game thinks”, this is a sign of bad controls. And if the game thinks I’d rather fisticuffs the enemies who can one-shot me rather than break into a full run with my sword sheathed, it’s not working out. When Geralt decides to engage with a harpy in the sky whom I can’t reach, while I’m jumping from one rock to another, so my jump turns into a roll and I plummet 10 meters, it’s really not working out. I’d associate engagement with drawing weapons–fists only if no sword is equipped at all, still allowing the game to override equipped items if a combat encounter is understood to be “non-lethal”, as in a tavern brawl. To deal with potential issues arising from this change, I’d also make it so Geralt would be unwilling to loot containers while enemies were nearby at all. And I’d make Geralt take critical hits–attacks of opportunity–if struck while sprinting past foes without manually “engaging” in this manner.

Reduce container looting. Players are incentivized to loot through the drawers in every village for old pelts and busted fishing rods. It’s just not fun, though–cleverly hide a chest or two in each village with non-randomized loot that always feels worthwhile–up on a high roof or some gamey place like that, even–and the time investment would feel much better. And while I respect the game for not biting off more than it could chew with awkward stealth mechanics, they might as well’ve not had guards pay attention to looting at all, because villagers don’t call for them and you end up with this backwards and arbitary distinction that looting the outsides of houses is a crime but the insides are fair game. In the meantime, AutoLoot Configurable All-in-One and Alternate Lightsources Interaction are some good mods for reducing frustration or tedium, though AutoLoot sometimes loots containers it shouldn’t, spoiling some chests that may have been inside a locked basement or whatever because you walked past them on the floor above. Luckily, it knows better than to open quest-related chests in this way.

I’d add more stash access points, or better yet, use a Dark Souls-esque (or Darklands-esque) equipment weight system where only equipped items affect the player’s burden, and carried space is infinite–the stash would only function as a means to declutter. Decoctions related to carry-weight, like Fiend and Arachas, as well as Roach’s saddlebags, could always have their purposes adjusted.

I’d make horse trophies a little more interesting, as their effects are typically reused by several species, and usually go unnoticed during gameplay.

The game is terrible at explaining itself–not unlike Dark Souls, really. While this clearly doesn’t hurt the appeal of cult-followings, it’s not a good thing. Instead of confusing toxicity offset and toxicity level, rename toxicity offset to something else, like “immunosuppressive damage”, maybe? The way they compliment each other tactically in gameplay is clever–the way they’re communicated to the player is not. I don’t think it’s explained how toxicity isn’t necessarily bad apart from imposing a limit–unlike overdose, which is actively harmful. I don’t think it’s ever said that toxicity ticks down in seconds even while still under the potion’s effects, whereas offset, this “immunosuppressive damage”, lasts for hours without ticking down at all, either.

Remove the often-necessary mid-combat pausing, and make oils and potions take a full second to be used if consumed while an enemy’s nearby. Have the player find them in the menu without stopping time for them, like in Dark Souls. Time could still come to a stop in the settings menu where you also adjust your Gwent deck, or while meditating and doing alchemy. Oils should last forever, as putting a use limit on them only encourages more pausing. To make it a little more interesting, force Geralt to do an oiling animation if you oil your weapons in mid-combat, so you might do something like setting down Yrden to slow and distract enemies while you take the few seconds to do it.

Drop the unnessary horse racing quests. It might be nice if the game made better use of the game’s broader mechanics while you rode, such as by dropping caltrop bombs or using Axii on other people’s horses to befuddle them. Personally, I think the game is better off without the horse-racing at all. How does it fit, aside from as AAA gamedev bloat? At least in a couple races without horses, like when Geralt gets into a rock-climbing contest with Cerys, there’s ostensibly some pride to be found on the line–he didn’t go through all those mutations as a kid so he’d lose to some brat in a personal athletics contest. But who cares about his horse mastery? He’s not supposed to be some Skyrim-esque simultaneous thief-lord and dean of the magic school–he’s Geralt of Rivia.

The water parts need work, both in terms of what’s to be done on boats and the swimming controls themselves. Despite assigning two buttons permanently to rising/sinking in the water, Geralt’s “Swim Forward” button also aims toward the camera–be it pointed up or down, rather than swimming at level height. Somehow he’d sink back down sometimes as I tried to make it to the surface for air. And combined with shifts in the combat-engagement control scheme, I ended up having Wind Waker flashbacks of loops of getting knocked out of my boat by monsters… so, ultimately, I wasn’t a huge fan of the water parts. Of course, one ought to get rid of the very “Ubisoft Montreal” smuggler’s caches, too. It’s the ocean; it doesn’t have to be full of anything other than fish and water. Given that swimming combat is mercifully just one-shot crossbow kills, CD Projeckt probably realized that it was far too terrible otherwise and didn’t have time to impliment a nicer solution, but in a perfect world it would’ve been nice to have a Geralt who could really fight in the water, and could interact with some unsunken boats, different kinds of sea creatures, or best of all: gnarly tidal waves.

Adjust character skill-speccing–either entirely toward or entirely away from the numbers. I find it unfortunate when one choice gives me something interesting, like a new gimmick ability, and another gives me +25% damage all the time or whatever. There may even be a possible best scenario where skill builds are removed from the game entirely, and all of Geralt’s customization comes from better armor set bonuses, more unique weapon properties, your chosen armor weight class, runewords, decoctions used, and better horse trophy passives. I think Geralt should always be encouraged to use his whole arsenal–signs, bombs, potions, swords. W3 smartened up over W2 when it came to the exclusion of mandatory abilities–like “rolling” and “parrying”–from the skill trees, but it should’ve gone further.

Show a little more care to quest items–where they’re sorted, whether they still remain unsellable after their quests are done. I had old keys and masquerade ball masks cluttering up one of my tabs through to the end of the game, and while their combined weight was probably about a single pound, that they had weight at all and couldn’t be dropped was somewhat annoying.

Make the crossbow more useful, and more fun. Blood & Wine does make it a little more viable, but really getting the most out of it does come at the cost of some other useful abilities. Most importantly, I think having a separate button to reload from the button used to shoot would have been really nice. If that’s left up to Geralt, the player is robbed of a good tactical choice.

Disable the storybook loading screens, at least as an option, or allow you to tap the skip button to go straight to a silent loading screen. I eventually opted for a mod called Disable Intro and storybook videos to remove them, as the repetition was pretty annoying–and frustrating, when I was failing at some Gwent game or whatever and had to keep reloading. Ever since I did, it felt like I was blowing through loads in a fraction of the former time, but it’s sad that a person needs to turn to mods at all for such a thing.

Now let’s look at some things that would really help in the UI:

  • See how many of something I already have when looking at it in a shopkeep’s inventory.
  • Pin specific missing ingredients, and from multiple incomplete items.
  • Buy missing ingredients directly from an alchemy supplier’s crafting screen the same way one can with blacksmiths. (I do think I saw a mod for this.)
  • List potion effects I’m under in greater detail on the character screen; for example, Basilisk Decoction bonus.
  • Don’t put a badge on the icon of new items if it’s just an increase in quantity of something you already have, thereby improving the signal-to-noise ratio.
  • Subsort items alphabetically under type, so all your stacks of white myrtle petals or whatever are kept together. (The Sort Everything mod helped a lot here.)
  • Have a same-cost buyback option in stores when accidentally selling something.
  • List items with text instead of simple icons that are impossible to remember, especially given that all the wraith decoctions (and so on) share the same icon. (In the meantime, the Better Icons mod helps a lot.) When using a keyboard, allow you to start to type somewhere to filter this list, including keywords–let someone find their White Raffard potion by typing “Whit”, or “Vit” for the vitality it restores.
  • Add sorting for books. And sort finished quests, by level, location, or most recently completed first. Sometimes I need to read the descriptions to refresh myself on some detail.
  • Turn minimap directions to quests off by default, and don’t automatically choose a new quest to have active on the UI when the active quest is finished. Let me have nothing active.
  • When an ingredient is tagged, highlight junk items in your own inventory that would give you those ingredients when dismantled. This would make dismantling a little more useful, as you wouldn’t need to manually check if there’s actually some need to spend money dismantling an item when you could just sell it instead–as a consequence, I only ever dismantled to get runestones back from an obsolescent sword. You could also simplify some blueprints so you only need to provide metals and magical/specialty ingredients, to reduce the need for junk items, such as no longer needing to buy a cloth shirt to make light armor.
  • Have an option to pathfind to custom markers or nearest quicktravel signs, instead of just active quests (when enabled). I’d sometimes set a quest in another region as my active one just to get it to point me to the nearest quicktravel sign, so why not make this an option all the time?
  • Split decoctions and potions, to better illustrate their distinctive use cases.
  • Mark levelled-up potions with ☆ to ☆☆☆ ratings, instead of giving them the same rarity as decoctions when maxed and putting “Enhanced” or “Superior” in their names. Do the same for weapons and armor. This is just about conveying information as simply and clearly as possible.
  • Mark stairs or points of elevation changes on the minimap, as these things often currently look like dead ends. Add a view of whole cave structures on the world map, at least while you’re in them.

For now I remain a loyal acolyte of CD Projeckt RED and hope for the best from their next big game–Cyberpunk 2077 or whatever it will be. (And here’s hoping standalone-Gwent becomes at least as F2P-friendly as Hearthstone.)

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.

Tales from the Borderlands

This one was Telltale done right. Really good. Compared to Game of Thrones, I felt like I was far more involved. For one thing, there’s a lot more freedom to act in the Borderlands world, both in terms of licensing and in tone. I know they won’t kill off Ramsey Snow, but they could always go kill Moxxi. You can act out and get away with more. And it became clear at the end that some of the interactions I’d had with certain characters could’ve gone down a lot differently.

I’d be hesitant to replay the game, especially with no option to skip lines of dialogue, or to set the controller down without having to frequently rapid-tap some button to pretend I’m participating in a cutscene. The QTEs would be a lot better if they were only in there when they provided options. Are there really any Telltale players who wouldn’t be alright with just watching a movie until it’s time to talk again?

Still being a Telltale game, there are some occasional hiccups and areas that could’ve used a quality pass, but it’s really not too bad this time.

The Borderlands series isn’t for everyone. I’ve watched a couple friends get burned out on those games. In the flagship shooters, the storyline has just sort of been there. And I’ve personally felt that the forced attempts at being wacky fall flat a lot, in the same way I thought the Lego movie was sort of charming but not funny at all (see “Everything Is Awesome”). We get it: Torgue likes explosions. But there’s a lot of extremely funny stuff, too, and the Telltale collaboration is the cream of that crop. It’s got a fairly classic but polished story structure, and makes good use of the multiple protagonists/perspectives (including having a conversation with yourself). And it’s twisted: if you’re going to do a QTE, it may as well be to peel a psycho’s face off.

If there was a standard Borderlands shooter that kept the stuff that really worked, like neat builds and cooperative skill synergy, but where they dropped a lot of the MMO questing loop stuff and had players take turns taking action with Telltale-style choice mechanics outside of combat, that could be quite amazing.

There was great use of a money-spending mechanic, generally for cosmetic purposes, but which let you show some personality throughout your run. And while I haven’t played The Pre-Sequel, I liked a lot about how the existing characters were used: the existing Vault Hunters are fearsome figures whose actions (and the size of their bounties) completely dwarf yours. Even Borderlands 2 couldn’t manage to do that, where your low-level characters made the original heroes look like fools. It’s a nice touch.

Oh, and the soundtrack! Leave it to Borderlands to put the Dub in the Steppe, and leave it to Telltale to license some fantastic stuff for each episode. The orchestral menu theme really stood out for me, too. It’s really hard to come away from this displeased.

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.

Game of Thrones

Of the post-Walking Dead Telltale games I’ve seen, this one’s the worst. I didn’t hate it, but it was often frustrating, and felt rushed (not to mention somewhat buggy). With The Wolf Among Us I said that they needed to do some focus-testing with the scripts if they wanted player choice to carry the nuances of intent and circumstance. Instead, they were completely flagrant here about how little these things matter. The flowchart for this game is a straight line.

Taken as such a straightforward tale, it’s better than watching some of the more unnecessary and boring or gratuitous TV episodes. There’s action and treachery, cowards, cunts, smug people, naive people. A dragon shows up to do more than just snarl at Emilia Clarke. They wrote some good stuff. But it’s not a TV show. Here, lots of action means lots of QTEs. Nobody plays these games for the QTEs.

It felt formulaic in many spots. It’s hard to feel guilty when the guilt-traps are obvious, like when you know someone’s just waiting to jump out from behind a corner and say, “I saw you try to steal that thing!” Why would you take that risk, especially once you’ve realized how little a difference it’ll make? You can try not to metagame, but the game itself never hides the idea that you’re making choices as a Telltale gamer, not as a human being. The toughest choices are probably the ones where you decide between making a promise you’ll have to break later, or putting yourself in an awkward social position by refusing to promise things in the first place.

Moving onto the specifics and spoilers. The worst thing may have been the contrivance of one of Royland or Duncan being a traitor to the house (neither was very believable in my run), but one thing that stood out to me, personally, as a farce, was in avoiding lethal blows in the fight against Britt: the next episode didn’t even bother to put the wounds on his corpse’s arms, much less allow Gared to make his case. And when Finn lied about what he’d seen of their fight, it just became one more of those inexplicable character moments.

In terms of the player’s involvement, I think Sera might have been the most complicated and interesting character. She’s very easy to dislike, as from the beginning, her clowning around poses an obstacle for Mira. She also tends to ask things of Mira without really offering anything in return. Even Sera’s sideways glances when you’re talking to Natalie Dormer give the impression of a busybody at best and a spy at worst. If you value your privacy at all, she acts as if you’ve wounded her. Telltale needs these sorts of characters. But later, at a point when you’ve likely resolved yourself to blackmail her in order to get her help, she decides to risk her own standing to help you when you simply ask. (Honestly, I know this is just another contrivance: if she hadn’t helped despite you blackmailing her, Mira’s story would be completely derailed. But I liked that moment anyway.)

Several other choices don’t even pretend to matter. Nothing in King’s Landing amounts to anything for the family, and the North Grove was just baffling in its supposed importance. I chose not to burn a letter, and it never came up again. I kept a dagger in case Mira had to use it, and when a time came where she was alone with Morgryn, she didn’t have it on her anyway. The dagger only exists to be sprung on her as evidence, and even then, only a few episodes later, when presumably weeks or even months have gone by. She just kept it in her drawers, covered in blood all that time?

Most troublesome of all, you’re made to bend over every time Ryon is pulled out as a hostage, no matter what sort of assassination plot you’ve promised to carry out or have committed yourself to. This may sound cold-hearted, but the whole family is torn apart piece by piece every time you let them hold that over you. Pretty much everyone dies while they fret over the fourth-born son. Not having the chance to cut our losses was really irritating.

It’s especially insulting when they make you reload from a “bad ending” where Rodrick kills Ludd in his own keep, and as a consequence, Rodrick is killed there along with his mother, and Arthur Glenmore. And then I finished the game only to find myself in a situation where Ludd was still alive, Rodrick and his mother were dead anyway, Arthur was tortured to death, and Asher was on death’s door on top of it all. Fuck you, I want the bad ending back. Maybe Ramsey would’ve taken everything in that situation, but I’d have liked to play it out. It was the sort of choice Telltale was too gutless or lazy to allow.

I give this one a passing score because I’m a masochist and I enjoy stories that make me miserable. Game of Thrones is a pretty good show and Natalie Dormer is hot. In conclusion, Game of Thrones is a land of contrasts. Thank you. [a sudden gust of wind catches my Bristol board with magazine cut-outs of Game of Thrones stars glued to it; somehow, it lands in a fire.]

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.