Torment: Tides of Numenera

The premise of this Kickstarter-funded sequel to Planescape: Torment is attractive right off the bat. There is an immensely powerful being called the Changing God, who creates a new body for himself every decade or two, and you are some remnant spark of life in the body he most recently abandoned. You still have sporadic access to his memories, and to a number of his mystical abilities… including the fact that you usually don’t actually die when your HP drops to zero, kind of like in the original Planescape. So far so good, right? A good elevator pitch like that one is important here, because at its heart, this game is a book, and how many people will pick up a book if its premise is unengaging?

They’re pretty far out there, I’ll give them that. It’s not the usual fantasy or sci-fi setting. At the start of the game, you’re already in the most exotic reaches of the universe — beyond the beyond — and almost everyone has some innate weirdness. Once more, this is true to the original Planescape. Here’s a sampling of the people you meet in the first town — not even party members, but the inconsequential nobodies who just loiter around: A young boy sent hundreds into the future because there was no food to go around in his time. An man who obsessively hunts a woman, who ran away from him after he’d resurrected her from the dead simply because her corpse was pretty. A little girl from a distant civilization that remotely controls lifelike bodies to explore distant lands, walking around in the body of a warrior, without her parents’ permission. It’s cool, even if I sometimes want to roll my eyes.

tone it down random npc

My dude, you’re a random NPC. You’re not even part of a sidequest. Tone it down.

But ideas are secondary to their execution. A good premise for a word-thick CRPG doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good game; finding a fantasy novel with a killer premise on the back cover won’t guarantee that you’ll want to read a thousand pages of it, even if it does help it get a foot in the door of your brain. Tides of Numenera has a number of things to appreciate, but the thing is, if I walk into a room and see six NPCs, and I let out a defeated sigh right then and there, believing that I won’t be going anywhere for the next two or three hours, then I’m probably not as invested in what’s happening as I should be. It’s the equivalent of compulsively checking a book’s page count. At the very least, pacing is difficult, and if the people you encounter don’t intersect with everything else that’s going on in the story, they’re just… speedbumps. If every obstacle is an A+ story of its own, it’s different, but I wasn’t nearly that engrossed in either the main course or these distractions. I was hoping to spend less time asking needless tell-me-abouts tediously nested in dialogue sub-trees, and more time tripping over my own dick weaving elaborate knots of moral obligation and hypocrisy: the deep, reactive stories this genre is supposed to be getting resurrected for.

I’m certain that some of these interruptions are a direct consequence of the crowdfunding mechanism, which — to echo how I felt about Pillars of Eternity — has proven it can exert just as much useless and undue influence on a creative vision as any traditional publisher. Only so many games will be able to get away with such paeans to vanity as adding a magical endless graveyard map with the thousands of tombstones they promised as a pledge tier (with your own custom name and epitaph!), before all the players catch onto the fact that most will never even find their own tombstone, much less expect anyone else to. In fairness to those people, perhaps they don’t feel they’re “buying” a tombstone so much as contributing to the promise of “deeper story and reactivity” enhanced with every dollar pledged — the tombstone just a bonus — but can one really see success here by that metric, either?

The intrusive fingerprints of backers aren’t as obvious when you step out of the graveyards, but starting with the numenera themselves — little oddities ranging from the harmless to the terrifying, and each beginning as a suggestion from a backer with $350 to spare — there are a million little vignettes of varying complexity in the game. As the bigger picture goes, I found the effect of any “design an NPC” tiers to be far less overt than the “vibrant souls” of Pillars of Eternity, but one spends a big chunk of their playtime reading stories not unlike what you’d get from the SCP Foundation, and I imagine a commensurate amount of dev time (and therefore budget) bled away in the fulfillment of these rewards. If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that some vignettes are quite brilliant, and the game’s writers clearly weren’t averse to the form, given how many little short stories of greater complexity appear in the rest of the game as remnant memories of the Changing God, the tales of NPCs, and of course the merecasters: items that allow you to dive into someone else’s past.

But do your choices affect anything? On a case-to-case basis, yes: quests have multiple solutions, and you can ruin someone’s life to get the item you want, though I usually don’t want to. You can also not bother addressing various calamities happening on the side, and I’m sure there’s a lot of epilogue text I’ll never see about how a lot of people died from earthquakes because I didn’t turn off an earthquake machine, or whatever. There are a couple time-sensitive quests you can fail by resting at the inn, too. I conducted a pretty deep investigation during Inifere’s questline, and even with a protracted dialogue-based solution to his quest, I missed the clean solution and was unable to release him from his torment, which felt more fitting than reloading a save until I could do everything perfectly and walk around guilt-free. This is nice, but these quests are compartmentalized and hardly ripple into others; nothing derails the story. The writing in Inifere’s part of the game showed considerable talent and effort, but there is no outcome in which he storms back in at the end of the game with his own proposal for dealing with the looming threat called the Sorrow: when the quest is done, he’s done. You don’t return to Sagus Cliffs after you leave it; there’s no second round of quests offered there, contingent on how the first ones went, nor any checking up on how the city might have been affected by a plague ship if you successfully turned it away in a merecaster. Tol Maguur, an undying slaver, doesn’t even show up to ambush you later if you kill him once. I’m unconvinced that the original Planescape was truly much better in this regard, but if reactivity was supposed to be a priority, I think they lost sight of their goal.

Even the best Fallout games were largely compartmentalized, but they could have 10 solutions to a quest (many due to more sophisticated mechanics, like stealth and theft, different dialogue if your intelligence was low and so on), and some of these solutions would traverse the boundaries of the modules they take place in, telling the player to get some information from someone in another town, tying you up in its quests. There’s very little available in the mechanics of Tides of Numenera to back up its interactions.

Really, Tides of Numenera’s best efforts at reactivity aren’t so different from the kinds of divergences you’d see in a recent Bioware game. For the most part, I only saw minor lines about how I dealt with earlier events interspersed into bigger conversations. In a few instances I had to fight more enemies because I’d pissed a creature off earlier, but it’s relatively unimpressive to slap a few more monsters into a one-time encounter based on one variable. All the warnings you’re given about how abuse of the Tides will draw the attention of the Sorrow amounted to nothing that I’m aware of. What’s more, I encountered bugs or oversights in dialogue that meant that even this small amount of reactivity could fail to represent me: I was told that I had abused the Tides before I’d even learned the Tidal Surge ability, having actually missed the first chance to get it. And one of my followers actually started telling me the second part of his backstory before I interacted with another character to hear the first, and all my dialogue responses implied that my character knew about the characters and objects he was mentioning. I was able to fill in the gaps with the first part of the conversation a couple minutes later, but this is pretty bad to see, because these interactions are what this kind of game is supposed to be all about.

As far as other sources of “replay value” go, I was unable to get the full stories from each of my companions in one playthrough, as I could only drag three of them around with me at any given time. But I didn’t feel attached to these characters to begin with, especially given that my primary mode of interaction was to barrage each of them with questions, and with the game encouraging me not to divide my experience points, it’s not surprising that I wouldn’t put in the effort to use each party member equally. Frankly, I’m uninterested in hearing their remaining stories. Pleased as I am that this game doesn’t too much of my time on mechanical interactions that don’t belong — as Dragon Age: Inquisition did — it lacks any good mechanics to fill things out, too. This means a replay would be easy enough, but I’d just be running from person to person, only reading the text enough to be certain I’ve already read it before, as I tried to find the missed interactions with my other followers. This sounds entirely tedious. I want to play Fallout 1 & 2 again. I want to pull out a gun and shoot someone in the leg in the middle of town, just to see what happens. I long to do all that because there was none of it here. Alas.

One follower I do truly have to salute was Rhin — the one written by a favorite novelist of mine, Patrick Rothfuss, as a Kickstarter stretch goal. It’s not that her backstory, her homeland or her gods, particularly fascinate me. But I see this young child as a devious little practical joke: she’s the weakest character in the party, unskilled and untrainable in all types of weapons, and she absolutely cannot survive on her own, which means you can’t ever remove her from the party without condemning her to a terrible fate of slavery or death in some god-forsaken hole in the middle of nowhere — not that I was ever even willing to try. Frankly, the guts needed to pull such a bastard move as this is beyond most full-time game designers, and the fact that there are players out there who have been outraged by this makes me love it even more. Combat being such a negligible part of the game, it really doesn’t hurt all that much to be saddled with someone largely useless, but even I’m unsure if I’d be taking as much or more delight out of this if combat was actually something I had to worry about.

Where Pillars of Eternity was a very encounter-focused CRPG — perhaps unbalanced and perhaps underwhelming to level up in, but nonetheless a game in which combat was at the center of everything — in Tides of Numenera, combat is the thing you’re forced to do as a last resort when you’ve failed all your speech checks and are committed to playing out the consequences. It’s entirely uninteresting, and while there are conceivably some differing “builds”, it hardly makes a difference — even if the prologue suggests otherwise by forcing you to make a bunch of choices before you even know what you’re choosing, like not knowing what a “bonded artifact” is, and yet committing yourself to penalties for their use. I don’t recall combat in the original Planescape being any better, and while that’s not much of an excuse, others can reach whatever conclusions they want to from this.

Fighting can be avoided, possibly entirely, depending on which areas you skip and what you walk into an encounter with, but entering the turn-based “crisis” mode cannot, even if you only use it to rush over to and interact with objects in the environment, and never hit anyone back. But I don’t even necessarily want to avoid all the fights: I like to be the good guy, but sometimes, the idea of debating down some crazed madman by defeating them with their own logic is groan-inducing and dissatisfying. It’s one thing if you’re just picking the truly convincing thing to say from a list of options, or you perceptively picked out all the clues in the area before getting into it. But when you just have a high intellect stat or persuasion skill, and you have some god-given ability to make people throw away their own convictions and agree with you? It rings hollow. But I can’t put this entirely on Tides of Numenera when the whole genre seems to love doing it. The sole solution is to hire more tactful writers in the first place.

The only truly cool thing about the crisis mechanic is that (in rare cases) you can still talk to people while you’re in it, and one quest revolves entirely around this: you need to interact with the central computer system on a spaceship without tipping off its crew, and you do this by splitting up your party and asking the captain to give you a tour, having a couple members of your squad follow him around and ask him questions about the ship to stall for time, while one goes through the procedures with the central core of the ship, and another stealthily confirms these actions from a terminal on the bridge. Although it’s ridiculous — you’re likely doing this in the crew’s own interests, having figured out what’s best for their civilization within 30 seconds of meeting them — I’m truly glad it was included, because it was brilliant, and the game never does anything like it anywhere else.

But what would have made it better, and made the rest of the game better, is if skill checks themselves weren’t random. I think it’s a damn shame that we’re still doing these dice rolls in CRPGs when there have been better approaches around for years. If you have advanced training in stealth and dexterity, and this guy you’re trying to do whatever to has intermediate training in perception, you should be able to perform x actions without being seen, or get x distance away from him. If you pass the threshold, you can do it, and if you don’t, you can’t. Why does RNG have to factor in at all? It creates far more replay value when there are things your character’s build flat-out prevents them from doing. But this seems to be a recurring frustration with a lot of these traditional tabletop designers. It’s like they have this way of doing things that works when you’re rolling dice in a group, but never seem to realize that the way people are incentivized to react in a single-player CRPG are completely different, and the mechanics must be, too. As mature as I have tried to be when it comes to accepting messier resolutions to quests, I find that if there’s simply an optional door with an item behind it, and the game says, “No, you didn’t roll a high enough number, so you can’t lockpick the door and get the item,” I’m always going to hit quickload.

There’s also Tidal Affinity: mundane dialogue choices you make will attune you to one color or another. I was Gold-dominant, which represents concepts like selflessness and empathy, though I also picked a lot of Red Tide options that represented passion (in practice, this could mean anything from artistic sentiment to making threats or violent outbursts). Tides get talked about a lot in the game, but I found it to be inconsequential: it altered some combat abilities available to one of my followers, and other Gold-dominant NPCs were occasionally willing to help me without first passing a persuasion check that I’m sure I would have passed relatively easily anyway. Honestly, I guess I should be thankful that they didn’t have this affect my ending, because if I had to get into some Mass Effect-style mess — flip-flopping between whatever “Renegade” meant in the moment, from “badass” to “cruel” — just to keep my affinity consistent, I would not have appreciated that.

What does it say that the best parts of the game were the merecaster segments? With combat just an afterthought, and dialogue a tiresomely systematic series of interrogations that rarely ever felt human, is it any surprise that I would rather just throw all of the game’s mechanics aside and play little Choose Your Own Adventure-style episodes of interactive fiction? But I really loved these. In one, I was so intent on keeping a village on the back of a whale from being completely annihilated that I threw a grenade into a crowd of people who were just in my way. In another, I made terrible choice after terrible choice and was fully satisfied with the result, where my own daughter died from some kind of radiation sickness and my robot companion left me to die that way too, instead of giving up the cause: a power source that would keep the robot itself from dying. If I feel positively about this game, it’s largely because of these parts, and the occasional other good throwaway bit, like the time I got a game over because one of my companions grabbed and opened a jar filled with something really terrible before I could even say anything to stop him, which was actually really funny.


You know, this really reminds me of those browser-based games I used to play as a young kid in the early days of the web. Only, I would have had to draw my own crude map, instead of the game’s own art team supplying one of similar quality.

Production values aren’t very high, though I do feel a little bad complaining about this in a crowdfunded project of passion for a genre that can’t rake in huge sums of money anymore. The voice acting isn’t great, but there’s mercifully little of it. The visual art is honestly all over the place, but I saw some very cool painted backgrounds in merecasters, and some nice touches in environments here and there. Bugs and other small annoyances are a bigger problem: needless slowdown, my character shouting “I’m barely hurting it!” every time I hit someone for like two damage from a secondary aura effect that’s not even happening on my own turn, barked follower lines sounding echoed and extremely far away. I even had to roll a save back once when I somehow broke a rather straightforward quest, but just the once. If anything, the low number of post-release fixes, compared to Pillars or Wasteland 2, is telling in itself: this game is simple, and simple games don’t tend to have fifty broken quests where you can get stuck because you handed Quest Item A to Person X after telling Person Y you would give it to them before handing Quest Item B over. Perhaps I would have preferred a more broken game.

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



Dragon Age: Inquisition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

AC4‘s big innovation is free-roaming naval gameplay, especially in how this is seamlessly incorporated into the existing mechanics of the series. It’s a little simple in some ways — you could definitely do more with the player’s fleets and cargo without turning it into a space trading game, which might alienate players with shorter attention spans. But even as it is now, you can step away from the wheel, leap off your own ship, climb onto a Spanish man’o’war, kill everyone on deck with a hidden blade, and then return to your own vessel, taking the enemy ship and its cargo without exchanging a single broadside. And I think that’s miles ahead of what AC3 was doing. Imagine if the first couple Grand Theft Auto games didn’t have vehicles at all and you just ran around doing crimes on foot and shooting people from behind cover. And then the third one introduced the car, but you’d only enter one by starting a mission that moved you to a distinct “street map” where you couldn’t leave the car. And finally a real GTA game came out and everything clicked together.

It’s a little silly, but sort of what it feels like to have ships in the mix here. At the same time, I don’t mean to say that future Assassin’s Creed games would never work again without sticking to the naval theme. But as I said in talking about AC3, I can see why they stuck with it for a while longer: the core gameplay of the series has been too thin. I criticized AC3 for making you do a bunch of miscellaneous pseudo-participation in a checklist of historical events that didn’t map to the gameplay mechanics at all. AC4 thankfully does none of that, and yet, 85% of the missions that take place on land seem to involve some variation on tailing somebody, which I now remember getting completely sick of during the AC2 trilogy. Let’s just say I took some comfort in the new feature where I could “rate” missions individually after completing them. Not that Ubisoft would still be looking at feedback from four games ago, but it’s the thought that counts, you know? Another tailing mission; two stars.

It’s not quite enough to sell a game on. But what else is there? For the most part, the series sticks to its underwhelming guns. There’s often more than one way to climb a thing, but it’s mostly fake. And combat is too simple. I’m not saying I’ve never screwed up fights in AC4, but for the most part it doesn’t matter if there’s one guy coming at you, or twenty. Sure, the big bruiser enemies don’t always cooperate with your kill streak, but throw them aside and hit them in the back once and they’re dead just the same; throw in a smoke bomb or something when you run out of room. And I don’t think this is in the game’s best interests, given the ludonarrative dissonance that pops up whenever some guy points a gun at Kenway in a cutscene and he’s expected to care again because there’s no player controlling him anymore. And let’s not forget that it’s ostensibly a stealth game. When I got one objective, “Sabotage all alarm bells,” I thought, “Oh, good. It doesn’t say I can’t let them ring the alarm.” And so I bodychecked a few guards so hard that even Mr. Magoo would have seen me, allowed them to ring it, quickly comboed together like thirty kills in the resulting hullabaloo, and only then cut the alarms. Complete success. I think this is ridiculous: they don’t seem to know what kind of game they want to make.

So, not really knowing anything about the subsequent AC games that have already come out, how might they fix this? Assuming they care in the first place, they could either turn up the threat so some fights become infeasible to win, or play right into it, and make every villain a simpering coward who shouts (from behind the equivalent of six NFL teams’ defensive lines), “Kill him, you imbeciles! He’s only one man!” At this point I think the latter makes more sense. Give enemies some more variations on how they attack, such as with horizontal and vertical swings that have to be dealt with differently.

The series could play around with time more, too. Who says you have to be the same ancestor the whole game? Visit the same city as three of them, swap around like it’s Ocarina of Time or Day of the Tentacle, and pick up an item with one character after burying it with another. Even if you’re cornering the market on the distant past, and as a consequence, your gameplay can’t benefit from the tried-and-true complex but satisfying mechanics of an aircraft or a car in traffic, there’s a lot more open to you than just listening in on people’s conversations and then stabbing them.

So far the position I’ve taken is that the gameplay isn’t deep enough, but to elaborate on that, I often think it’s not deep enough relative to the time a player is expected to put in. This is a common gripe I have with high-profile open-world games, but it’s no less true for that. Even if you make the wise mental health decision that there’s no way in hell you’re going to sail to every meaningless collectible gewgaw on every Far Side Island on your world map — I actually did follow through on that bullshit, but only after muting the game and putting on an hour or two of a podcast — if you’re going for the optional sync objectives, treasure maps, and contracts, I think the lack of respect the game shows for your time is clear. First there are sync objectives which, on rare occasions, won’t show up the first time through a mission, which is great when paired with unskippable end-mission cutscenes. But what really galls me is having to make two or three runs on the same deep-sea dive that was tedious the first time through, because I’ve found a map revealing buried treasure back where I’ve already been, or some assassination target took up residence in a little cave there. Swimming is really unsatisfying too, with Kenway refusing to dive in any reasonable timeframe, or turning poorly, or swimming on ahead past the reef I put him in to hide from a shark. And while taking away your equipment is intended to add to the challenge, I think even more importantly, it gives me fewer ways to have fun. I can’t stab a shark? I can’t get my blow darts wet?

There are also the Mayan stelae things, a bit of busywork which if forced to be called “puzzles” would be an insult to even a chimpanzee’s problem-solving abilities. And while they’ve streamlined the hunting from the last game, throwing harpoons at whales gets dull fast — at least in that Resident Evil 4 boss fight on the lake, you got to control a speedboat while you were at it.

Chests should be far rarer and more memorable, highly guarded or difficult to reach. Collectibles should always be unique; a point I’ve been hammering on about since Deadly Premonition — the only thing that satisfies the requirement here are the ship upgrade plans and the sea shanties, which are amazing, but probably make up about 1% of collectibles. I learned a lot of good sea shanties while playing the game, like Fish in the Sea, Hi-Ho Come Roll Me Over, Leave Her Johnny, Lowlands Away (my favorite), Padstow’s Farewell, Randy Dandy-Oh, Stormalong John… these are clearly the most substantive thing I’ve come away with for all the time I sunk in over the course of about five days straight playing.

There are little improvements; the map and UI for instance. I also like that there are alarm bells for guards to ring now — maybe I should have said that upfront — and I like the way they’ll try to tackle you to let their friends catch up during a chase. But they’re still far too dumb for any kind of system that involves meaningfully interacting with them outside of combat. They forget you instantly, and don’t react to gunshots that are well within hearing range, among other things.

There are a few proper sidequest chains with little stories this time, and that’s cool, but for the most part they’re just more tailing missions. I guess it’s about on par with what you did for the homestead villagers in AC3. While there’s probably a greater variety of side content when looking at the bigger picture, there’s nothing as good as AC3’s base building, which was one of the very few things I really liked about it, flawed as it was.

As for the story itself, I found it immediately more engaging than AC3’s. Connor wasn’t a bad protagonist — he had a great shouting voice on the seas — but Edward Kenway’s “I killed an assassin and took his hoodie thing, and I have no idea why people are talking about templars but I’m going to bilk these jerks for as much money as I can” plot is fucking good right of the gate. Even the Abstergo stuff outside of the Animus had me invested, giving me loads of questions right away. Was I still Desmond? Catching sight of Rebecca on the first floor was a great touch. Who was to say if she was undercover or if Juno pulled some Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure shenanigans on the whole universe? Having no idea what was going on (and for once it not being because I forgot who the characters were or how they got there) felt pretty good.

But the whole “fake assassin” thing came to an end I think sooner than it should have, because once the game settled into petty conflicts between pirates and templars, I felt that it was dragging its feet. A number of characters took a little too long to be dealt with. Apart from liking James Kidd and the Sage stuff, I didn’t much care about the sequence-to-sequence chain of events. Doing more with pretending to work for the templars would have been a better direction. At least the writing was generally snappier; Kenway had less patience for debating morality with dead guys than even I do, and the conflict was far more interpersonal than the usual philosophical, self-righteous drivel the series had offered. I enjoyed the Abstergo audio tapes too.

The main thing AC4 has is its open-world sailing and piracy, and while I’ve found a kind of mellow enjoyment in Windward, and played a few space games like Escape Velocity when I was younger — boarding ships and stealing cargo — I’ve never quite had this experience. And yet it’s disappointing to learn that’s all there is setting it above AC3. It’s a little less glitchy, but still glitchy. It has a more captivating story, but it doesn’t retain its momentum. Meanwhile, the climbing and fighting systems aren’t getting any younger.

Oh, and there’s a companion app, but it sucks.

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.


Assassin’s Creed III

I’ve put this one off long enough that Assassin’s Creed IV has been given away for free, but I’m still a little interested in seeing how the franchise has developed, so here we are.

AC3 does have a few good ideas. Namely the naval combat. Just about everything else has been executed sloppily. The bugs are endless. I had to limit my framerate in Rivatuner just to interact with horse wagons. I’ve rocketed up into the sky to die from a fall. I’ve been stuck in rocks and other objects until I reloaded from a checkpoint. I’ve crashed on loads, and in one case, had to finish a cutscene on youtube after it autosaved past it. Icons have randomly disappeared from my map, including the ones I needed to quick travel to. Geddan.

Screenshot (1)

hello darkness my old friend

Even putting aside the overt bugs, the game is a full quality pass short of where it should be. Goals are sometimes unclear and mechanics are poorly explained, especially returning AC2 features I’ve long forgotten about. Objectives can be failed before you’ve been told about them. Sometimes, when imploring you to take a straight linear route to an objective, the devs failed to properly fence off the rest of the world, and you end up instantly failing because you stepped on the wrong wooden beam.

The interface feels sluggish, although I remember simple things like opening the map taking even longer in AC2. It takes a couple seconds to switch weapons. Coming from Breath of the Wild, where Link’s weapons pop up instantly on clean white tiles without first wasting a second on small flourishes, AC3 felt rather intolerable. And this is only by the standards of BotW, which was hardly unwilling to waste the player’s time. I can’t list every little thing or I’d be here all day, but one clear example of shoddy interface design would be custom map markers vanishing after quick-travel. It doubles the number of times you need to open your map.

The elaborate parkour animations feel underwhelming after some no-frills free-climbing in more recent games, too. Honestly, I don’t think it’s so bad in Boston or New York when you’re making the choice to get on top of a house, but when you’re asked to leap between a linear path of stalactites in some cave, what’s the point? You’re just looking for a crack on the wall and pushing one direction on a stick. It’s sad, and it makes me feel sad.

Although I’ve generally appreciated the Assassin’s Creed control system for delineating high- and low-profile actions with the right trigger button as a control modifier, the fact is that it’s a bit absurd that I spend 90% of the game holding it down. An analog run is a bit interesting, but probably unnecessary. I’m sure every Assassin’s Creed player has experienced the goofy jumps onto stair railings when they’re just trying to climb down some stairs, or failed-scrambles up a featureless wall when trying to turn a corner during a chase, but rather than hoping players will learn not to be pressing the right trigger in those instances, they should really be dedicating a button to those climbing actions.

Guns are a thing now, and looking for human shields does keep the combat from being too mindless. There’s really nothing to it other than learning which guards have to be disarmed, and fighting proactively enough to get a good kill-streak going (another unexplained feature I forgot about from AC2). Animal hunting diversifies the experience a little, but it’s not much worth talking about. You can whistle to lure guards, something I don’t remember from before, but there’s weird gaming logic that arbitrarily determines when Connor is capable of whistling, which is irritating, because a lure would be useful anywhere.

The homestead development was a nice improvement over what Ezio was doing in Monteriggioni. I appreciated the cast of characters and the effort that went into giving them jobs, places to be, and conversations with each other. But it’s another example of sloppy execution, too: your only real interaction with this system is the clumsy sidequest task of documenting them at work, and it seems to be based as much in RNG as time of day.

Mission quality varies; the good ones are still a little open, and, when they get difficult, you can still puzzle it out. Swimming out to a couple of ships and blowing them up is tough without being seen, but you can find your moment to isolate one guard and start opening up greater gaps in the patrols. Lesser missions are interactive cutscenes. Or they’re just chaos, like when you’re chasing after Thomas Hickey, and every NPC in the crowd chooses to leave Hickey alone and do their best to shove you to the floor. The next time you do the mission, maybe you get lucky, and Hickey takes twice as long.

And while I mentioned how I liked the cast of the homestead, the story was mostly vague morality talk without managing to sell or explain much of any position on what the assassins or templars really do or stand for, which is tiresome enough even without the long-winded death speech every jerk in the series gets. The only real takeaway the game tries to provide is that the founding fathers of America got up to some reprehensible stuff and weren’t pure heroes of good, having owned slaves and the like. I’m no history buff, but this is rather obvious. They barely even begin to cover the full extent of the Native American genocide — Andrew Jackson was a ways off, but there’s nary a word of what’s to come from the guy who puts all the cringingly unfunny diatribes in your database entries. He’d rather go on about how British colonialism wasn’t so bad. Gross.

(Personally I can’t wait to see the series clumsily address the French Revolution, maybe with a concurrent reading of the Eighteenth Brumaire. Unfortunately, I’m still like three games behind that one.)

Politics aside, the character arc wasn’t much better: young native child playing hide-and-seek and coming back to a burning hometown felt like the most cliched thing in video game plot history. Nobody could have thought that was a good idea: it was just one of those things writers force themselves through to get to the parts they actually care about. I mean, I get it: writing is hard, and filling in those bothersome gaps between your good ideas is like eighty percent of the job, but come on. When it’s this lifeless, you have to try something new, or have the guts to skip past it and find some other way to have the narrator tell you his mom died in a fire later.

Let’s get to the crux of it. After Breath of the Wild, with the insane open toolset potential (magnetic control, octorok balloons, korok leaves and all that) — and with Metal Gear Solid V still relatively fresh in my mind too, with its ridiculously polished and robust mechanics (see: cardboard box, D-Walker mech) — what does Assassin’s Creed, as an open world stealth combat series, really have going for it? Purely as a game, and not just as a historical odyssey? Here in Assassin’s Creed III, we do QTE fights with bears. We push two control sticks to try and keep two irate villagers from punching each other. We get a checklist of period events and look on in disbelief as these are crammed awkwardly into missions, with little care as to whether these events might be mechanically suitable… such as tagging along on Paul Revere’s ride, or that joke of a mission where you trot between groups of soldiers and command them to shoot their guns (as if they couldn’t possibly have figured that out for themselves). I’m not at all surprised to see from a cursory glimpse at Wikipedia that both subsequent Assassin’s Creeds — Black Flag & Rogue — stuck with the naval combat theme. After all, it was their only good idea.

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.


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.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

MGSV has the best mechanics I’ve seen in any game to come out in the past couple years. They’re so robust and varied that I don’t even really mind invading the same outposts several dozen times each — which I am expected to do — given that I can have an entirely new experience by changing a few items in my loadout, or by bringing a different buddy along. Still, this is a big part of the game’s weakness: its failure at times to build a larger package around its better qualities. It particularly falls short when these core mechanics aren’t in play at all, such as when you’re forced to fight a gunship or a giant robot, when suddenly there’s no stealth, no fulton extraction; just a rocket launcher and a demand.

Those annoying parts aside, it’s staggering how much work this game puts into your toolkit. I suspect the cardboard box is more sophisticated than the mechanics of certain other stealth games in their entirety. You can slip out of the box and leave it behind as a decoy, you can pop out like a jack-in-the-box, slide down hills, add camo patterns to match your environment. You can slap posters on it, some of which are oriented for when you’re standing vertically, while others are horizontal, meaning they continue to work after you leave the box behind. These can also change the behaviors of guards, who can actually try to open the box instead of shooting it once they’re a couple meters away, or stop and turn around because they hilariously mistake the poster on the box for another guard. The results might change based on the time of day and the distance you attempt this from. The box has durability, and might lose one of its cover flaps, compromising the camouflage from some angles. There are waterproof boxes and ones that release smoke. Depending on the level of alertness in the base, the Command Post might laugh off reports of a moving cardboard box, or you might be shot on sight. It’s a complex system.

Again: that’s just the cardboard box! Something you can play the whole game without using! This is to say nothing about D-Walker’s drift mechanics or how you can pair him with a shield on your back slot. I could talk about the crazy stuff you can do with decoys or fulton devices, too, but frankly, it’s unnecessary.

As ridiculously deep as the mechanics can be, the game is not commensurately good at explaining itself, leaving players perhaps never finding out that they can ride a shipping container back to base, or keep a guard on the ground with their hands behind their head indefinitely, or add your own MP3s to Snake’s cassette tape collection and set them to be blasted from your helicopter’s loudspeakers, so all your foes know that the Vengabus is coming when the chopper arrives to extract you.

Not only is MGSV so open as to allow you to break it — which any diehard Morrowind fan will tell you is your divine right in gaming — but it even sometimes anticipates this breakage and gives you a nod for it. In missions where you’re told to tail somebody until they lead you to some commanding officer or prisoner, there’s really nothing stopping you from going off-road at the start of the level and taking a straight line to their ultimate destination. The adviser talking to Snake on comms will say something like “How did you know he’d be there? Do you have psychic powers or something?” but the game does absolutely nothing to stop you and even rewards you with an S-rank for beating the level so fast. (It’s rare to see Japanese devs tackle this kind of Assassin’s Creed sandbox gameplay, and here it’s exactly the opposite of what I remember being forced to do in Assassin’s Creed 2, the last one I played.) S-ranks tend to always be pretty easy to get: apart from cloaking devices and other things that always automatically disqualify you from an S-rank, missions do not restrict you by the level of gear available to the player at the time, which means you can rescue prisoners with wormholes and insta-kill bosses with the upgraded rocket launcher. I wouldn’t have thought it unfair if they had limited you further by gear level — and the fact that all items come with a numerical rank in the first place might mean this was originally intended — but I quite like just being able to do what I want, and letting hardcore players self-police themselves if they want a greater challenge.

I’m not a fan of the checkpoint system. The game doesn’t restrict you from walking back out to the outskirts of an enemy outpost to give yourself a checkpoint after silently taking out five or ten of the twenty guards posted there, and it doesn’t keep you from screwing yourself if you cross that threshold a split-second before a mission-critical target leaves the area or before a prisoner is executed, either. And if you had to use a toilet or something for a checkpoint, it’d be one thing, but the weird way checkpoints occur at a semi-random radius around outposts incentivizes weird player behaviors. If you’re not near a guard post and you’ve just extracted some S-rank guard you really like, you might run around for five minutes looking for a checkpoint, all the while hoping you don’t walk over a landmine or fall to your death or something, losing him.

And there are too many arbitrary rules involved with when things are saved, whether it’s events at Mother Base (which exists in a sort of non-linear time), mission tasks (which can be saved without a checkpoint by opening certain menus and then aborting the mission, but aren’t if you die without a checkpoint), or your ammunition (D-Walker gets its equipment refreshed, but the state of your own equipment is preserved). Extracted guards are sent to your base at a checkpoint, but reloading the checkpoint respawns the guards if (and only if) they’re mission-critical, which means that every player learns how to clone tanks and reroll the stats of human beings, once they grasp the weird logic of the game. It’s quite strange already that if you take out 8/9 side-op targets and go hit a checkpoint, all 9 targets will be back on the field again, forcing you to take them all out in one stretch, which doesn’t seem to happen in main missions. But it’s even stranger that you can repeatedly extract 8 of them, as long as you never turn in the last one and finish. Some of this feels like oversights that there wasn’t enough development time to straighten out, especially D-Walker, which can also be deployed at the start of a mission for 5,000 GMP and then swapped on the field to its 50,000 GMP loadout for free.

The game’s story has a lot of interesting ideas that are executed a bit poorly. Everything’s insanely convoluted, and while there tends to be an explanation hammered out for why every situation has to be so outlandish, the explanations themselves are unconvincing or silly. I thought that the game’s convoluted central twist was entirely pointless and unnecessary in terms of what it actually accomplishes for people who reexamine the entire narrative through that lens. You find out that Bruce Willis is a ghost in The Sixth Sense, and while maybe this forces some contrivances along the way, these are justified because the payoff is big, and changes the viewer’s perception of everything else that happened in the movie, right? Now, I’m not saying Snake is a ghost, but I am saying I saw no payoff, and nothing really changed.

I have to note: I since talked to a friend of mine who knows more about the series, and he told me that the twist explains something that happened in the original NES game. So as it turns out, there is a payoff, but it’s like having to watch five other Shyamalan movies to appreciate The Sixth Sense. Isn’t that something?

The character called Quiet, a woman who reveals a lot of skin and doesn’t talk, got a ton of pushback, and most of it was deserved. Quiet was unmistakably an object, whose primary character trait and motive was loving Snake, but her storyline was probably one of the more effective parts of the narrative — she doesn’t entirely need to speak when she can communicate with her actions, which is refreshing in an otherwise-overwritten (read: Japanese) game where everyone else talks in cutscenes and on audio tapes for ten hours about Weapons To Surpass Metal Gear. But there’s also very little justification for some of Quiet’s plot points, like her not getting the Wolbachia treatment, or even being forced into it back at Mother Base. It mainly serves to keep the gimmick going.

Quiet also has one of the most memorable parts of the game: the boss fight against her. It’s not good in the Dark Souls sense of what makes a good boss fight, where everything is really tight and you gradually gain intimate knowledge of what can and can’t be done in your situation. In fact, the cover system is kind of shit, and I constantly had trouble attaching myself to walls and looking over them to scope out Quiet’s location. But it comes as such a surprise and is so different even from the other forced boss fights. My first time doing it, I was nervously belly-crawling large distances and taking forever; the sun went down and came up again before I finally took her down. But that adds to the drama of it; no music playing in the background, just two snipers playing out this long-range duel, patching up wounds behind cover and trying to find the other by the sounds they make. I thought it was brilliant… although I also never thought to just air-drop an armored personnel carrier on her head.

What probably worked best about the story was a more ludonarrative performance involving the training of soldiers back at Mother Base and their expendability. When my soldiers were being made to die off, I felt a real anguish and discomfort that was successfully tied into the story the game was intending to tell. But this is all tied into a base management mechanic that plays a huge role in your ability to research new gear, quickly request supplies on the field, gain intel about unseen enemies on your map, make money, and several other things. I’ve seen other sandbox games do base and resource management, but never to such good effect.

A game like The Witcher 3 tells a profoundly better story overall, in a much cleaner package; the ending of Blood & Wine still has its hooks in me. But that was also an incredibly by-the-book sandbox by many other respects, to the point of sometimes feeling boring. And remarkably, the point-of-interest checklist stuff that I found tedious in The Witcher 3 actually tended to feel rewarding in MGSV. For one thing, you always want fifty times more money and resources than you have. You incur so many operating costs just getting around on your helicopter, keeping weapons stocked and maintained, presumably feeding your dog, and so on. You don’t get your grenade budget refunded if you don’t use up the ones you bring, which is the perfect incentive design both when it’s time to decide whether to bring those grenades, and when you feel like being thrifty about actually throwing them.

On the other hand, there’s not a lot of incentive to ever use more than a couple of the guns you have, even after spending 800 billion dollars researching hundreds of them. Some of this research leads to good weaponsmithing parts for the gun you will use, but most doesn’t.

Many ideas were cooler in theory than in execution, like the way 90% of your cash is stored online, where it’s vulnerable to theft by other players. But it doesn’t sync nearly often enough, and you can find yourself running your offline reserves into the red while still having millions online, risking morale drops and not being able to buy anything else. The servers or netcode or both are terrible, as you can get locked in menus for minutes just waiting for some online communication.

Despite so many systems being executed well, the package is unfinished. The story isn’t fully resolved — there are bits on youtube of cut content from Mission 51 — and it goes on long enough to have justified a third sandbox region, but instead you’re asked to endlessly repeat the same rescue and elimination side-ops in only slightly different configurations. And while the game is fun broken, there are some areas where the game feels so crude that even a bastard like me felt a need to police myself, like when driving tanks around in side-ops and finding that guards had no idea what to do when I drove right into the middle of their base and started opening fire on everything. I don’t mean that they weren’t equipped to fight a tank. I mean they literally could not conceive of the tank. They ran around in circles, wondering how their radar dishes were being destroyed, as if I’d planted C4 on each of them earlier, and was blowing them up from far away.

The game needed a deeper system for replaying missions with imposed restrictions and rewards, but instead, it just tacked on new instances of a handful of missions. As a consequence, if you’re trying to do all the mission tasks, you have to senselessly repeat even ones like listening to guard conversations again. It can take a few minutes just to skip through all the cutscenes at the end of a mission you were only replaying to knock off that one last task. One repeat mission even has you redo the shitty prologue, where you basically just limp around on the floor for twenty minutes while Kiefer Sutherland makes Moby Dick references, all for the reward of an extra cutscene at the end. Because I have no life, I played through this three times. It would’ve been four if I hadn’t looked up what the hidden tasks were in advance of playing the “Truth” version.

Naturally, spreading the objectives over more outposts or a third sandbox region would have made it feel less repetitive. Side-ops should have been at least as diverse as some of the objectives provided in bonus mission tasks, if not more so. And the animal-collection system should not have relied on RNG or had players waste time catching creatures that didn’t even have an in-game model. But these are useless criticisms, all solved with “more time” and “more money”. Maybe if they had tried to build a robust PC modding scene instead of creating Metal Gear Online, fans might have filled in the gaps. But most mods never go very far, and it’s not something I propose with any real conviction.

Apart from the need to have made Kojima subordinate to a no-nonsense editor who could also keep the game focused on its strengths, and maybe putting more thought into the checkpoint system and a couple other little things, there’s really very little that might have been done better with the resources they had. As it stands, it’s still pretty amazing.

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.

Shelter 2

This is a weird little art game, but it doesn’t make an impact, and in trying to be more (a skill-oriented survival game on top of the artistic narrative stuff), it flounders somewhat. You play as a mother lynx and are tasked with raising your spawn into adulthood. By the time you’ve caught your first rabbit and delivered it to your four mewling cubs, you’ve seen about all the game has to offer, mechanically, but you’re made to tediously keep doing this as they grow up and follow you around and eventually hunt for themselves. They seem to suck at this, though, which means that at no stage of your life do you get to take it easy. Very toilcore.

In ludonarrative terms I sometimes amused myself while thinking about the trade-off between wanting to eat my catches for myself to keep my irritating stamina meter as full as possible, and wanting to feed my cubs as much as I could in the hopes that it would advance the not-fun-at-all game to the next stage sooner. In some sense this is a very real exploration of “Do I feed my hungry kids in the short term, or do I feed myself so I can get the energy to work to bring in more food later?” Only, it’s approached on the most annoying terms possible. Just like real life!

At one point one of my cubs was eaten by a wolf. Getting into the primitive mindset, my only real thought about this was, “Welp, I guess that’s why I had four of them.” The game ended with me encountering a single phantom lynx, though, which I think was supposed to be my own end of life and reuniting with my dead child in the afterlife. “Art Games Gonna Art Game,” for sure, but considering how little of an emotional connection I had, it only seemed mawkish or maybe funny in an ironic sort of way.

Of course, I’m only assuming that’s what was going on there, and that there would’ve been two or three phantoms in that scene if I’d been an even shittier parent. But how should I know?

…Look, I’m not heartless or anything. They just didn’t pull it off.

The game allows you to play again as one of the surviving cubs as it in turn raises its children, and you can view the family tree from the main menu. You can keep doing this, and you also get to name each cub, ostensibly allowing you to branch out down the family tree a dozen generations with cubs named Goku and Hitler. But there’s no incentive to do this. Names only show up on the tree, not in-game, which means I wouldn’t really be able to tell you if the last cub to get eaten by a wolf had been Weedman, or Anime Dragon God. In any case, I don’t think naming them would get me to become more attached.

It’s not terrible. It’s not a huge studio game, it’s got a cute art style, and its ideas are interesting–they’re just not taken far enough to really work. If they wanted to focus on the mechanics they had, taking the generations thing further, they might have sped the game up and added some kind of choice in inherited traits or something–like, of my two cubs that made it to adulthood, do I want to continue to the next round with the stronger one, or the faster one? All the while with some clear endgame goal for however many generations down the line, like Massive Chalice. On the other hand, if they wanted an art game, they might have dropped all the open-ended hunting with its shallow mechanics and just set up a series of five or six pre-designed hunts instead, each with some kind of obstacle and narrative component to coincide with the different stages of life.

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.