Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance

Moving forward a year from Circle of the Moon, we have Harmony of Dissonance, which tries harder to be Symphony of the Night. That’s an admirable ambition, even though it fails.

There are many mechanics that I was happy to have back, like currency drops and merchants, maps of unexplored castle segments, an enemy encyclopedia listing undiscovered rare drops, and shoulder-button dashes. The execution of these features aren’t perfect. The shoulder buttons let you dash without any kind of cooldown, so I pretty much did all my movement by rapidly clicking them instead of using the regular D-pad moves, which seems like some kind of speedrunner bullshit, except that it’s right there in the open. Merchants are annoying to find and rarely sell anything actually needed; while there are many more items to collect this time around, most of them are just noise; you see a down arrow on a piece of gear and you never look at it again. A few pieces allow you to jump infinitely or regenerate health or some such thing, almost more like certain magic spells in the last game, but I pretty much stuck to high-defense gear and steamrolled everything.

It’s too easy, honestly. I don’t necessarily care about pushing myself with a challenge, and I don’t have the patience for most truly hard games unless they’re absolutely exceptional, but if a game is easy enough that you don’t really need to learn its tricks or make full use of its mechanics (such as elemental affinity) to adapt to different situations, it’s sort of a waste of time to even include those mechanics. A couple things to specify: first, every open-exploration Castlevania is pretty easy when you consider that you can freely pause at any time and eat an entire chicken from your inventory, but most players will at least push themselves to do so sparingly. Also, it’s not as if I never died. But given the “quick save” feature — totally unlike the suspend saves of other portable Castlevanias, as it allows you to get back to a save point with all your progress retained — I was never at any risk, and I never had to reevaluate my strategy.

It’s a shame, because I think the bosses are better than those in CotM, if you can ignore how easy they are to beat, because a few of them took long enough to die that I got to see some interesting attack patterns and tells. There are also twice as many bosses in Harmony, though only a few are memorable.

The magic system kind of sucks, too. When I last wrote about CotM, I mentioned that it had a lot of spells I obtained too late or never found a use for, but Harmony opting to tie them to subweapons — which were already hard enough to give up, not knowing when you’ll next find the cross or whatever if you do — tends to discourage experimentation. I’m sure other people had their favorites, but for me I was set from basically the start of the game when I found the ice-axe combo, which hits the area ahead of Juste, and tends to do about double the damage of a whip swing, at a reasonably affordable MP cost, from a distance, while also giving enough invincibility frames to completely avoid many heavier boss attacks. Even in the unlikely situation that I actually spammed it enough to run out of MP, I could have just turned it off to start actually spending hearts on throwing axes, but that was unnecessary too: I spent just about the whole game at full heart supply.

dash

Animation is more fluid and interesting, especially with enemies that lunge around, drawing out the full potential of the new dash mechanics.

Let’s talk about the visuals for a bit. They’re very different from CotM. Going back to what I said about the priorities of the former game, it’s hard to make a clear stand on whether Harmony comes out ahead with the trades it makes. The animation still falls far short of Symphony of the Night, but not for lack of trying on the GBA. (I considered gathering up some comparison images for this post, but I found that someone else had already done it, so I’ll just link to that.) Sprites are bigger and use more saturated colors now, which gives Harmony a more cartoonish feeling that some might consider garish compared to CotM’s great earthy palettes. But the enemies are far more expressive now, and creative, throwing barrels around, mimicking the player’s movements, twirling weapons around and so on. Many of these were probably lifted from Symphony of the Night: it’s been a while, and I don’t recall what originated where, but there was a lot of direct asset recycling among the DS Castlevanias in particular. But if these were rehashes, they were at least redrawn with new resolutions and palettes for the GBA, and they certainly add a touch of charm that CotM lacks.

Also, the promotional art for this game from Ayami Kojima is absolutely beautiful, but I guess that’s neither here nor there.

The main trade-off is that the graphics were apparently pushed so hard that the GBA had to fall back on the old Game Boy Color hardware to fit the music in there. Voice samples and other sound effects are unaffected, but the soundtrack is only slightly more sophisticated than what an NES can manage, which is jarring, especially on the heels of CotM. It’s a shame, because I’d otherwise like to be positive about its use of original compositions, given that the CotM OST was mostly a greatest hits compilation. This one is pretty good.

sotn

I’m starting to miss Symphony of the Night. It can be interesting to work with constraints, but it’s always nice when you can be this beautiful and don’t have to mess up your audio for it.

A lot of Harmony’s creativity also shines through in the environments. There’s more fun stuff in the maps, like elevators, trap rooms, walls that get smashed apart by enemies, a big room where you race to collect an item before a giant ball rolls into place and blocks it, and various other gimmicks. It makes CotM a little straightforward and boring, but at the same time, gimmicks aren’t a substitute for good level design, and here the maps are confusing and repetitive. The same lack of information in CotM’s castle map hasn’t been addressed at all, but the obstacles to progression are far more obtuse now. It’s one thing to need some otherwise-useless block-pushing power, but sometimes Harmony will just break a wall down on its own somewhere after you kill a boss somewhere else. I’m sure I wasted an hour or two revisiting every formerly inaccessible pathway, trying to figure out where something might have opened up for me. It’s irritating to play without a guide.

Just running around one castle can be tedious enough — you can go awfully far down a fork before discovering that you don’t yet have the item you need to actually accomplish anything there — but Harmony’s main gimmick is the existence of two castles; the same place in alternate dimensions. Often you might already be where you need to go, but in the wrong castle, so you have to traverse a fair bit of distance to a warp point, switch from Castle A to Castle B, and then get back to where you were. What really sucks about this is that these are literally the same sets of rooms, not even flipped from left to right. The enemies change, and the wallpaper may differ, but that’s it, and there’s no mistaking that this is a way of padding out the game’s length relative to the level budget. At least Symphony of the Night had the self-respect to make its second castle more of an optional postgame affair, and put it upside-down. It’s just not as insulting when you’re walking on the ceilings.

It’s a shame: it actually would’ve been pretty cool if you had some Link to the Past-esque means of switching from world to world on the spot, say, to get around obstacles that weren’t exactly the same in both worlds, and you still only had one map to explore between the two of them. They could have given certain monsters the ability to switch from these Light to Dark worlds, too.

There are a few extra game modes. One is hard mode, which might have helped the game the first time around, but with the two castles padding things out, I can’t be bothered. There’s also Maxim mode, which features a different playable character. That’s my favorite kind of postgame option, but he doesn’t level up, despite the game being balanced with character progression in mind (though they do boost the health of some of the early-area enemies). Also, unfortunately, Maxim doesn’t even have the ability to get full 200% map completition without making level changes that the developers couldn’t be bothered to make for him, which kind of bugs me. (Then again, since you can apparently beat his mode in under 30 seconds, perhaps anything is possible.)

Harmony of Dissonance has some cool ideas that improve on CotM, but I think it’s the lesser of the two games, mostly due to padding and an often-trivial experience. Still, they’re not so far apart in quality, and it takes some healthy steps in the right direction, bringing it closer to the better games of the DS era.

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.

 

Advertisements

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

This was the first Castlevania title I ever played for more than five minutes, and it kind of holds up. As a GBA game from 2001, it lacks some of the refinement from the DS generation, like a backdash ability and a monster compendium. Its age doesn’t fully excuse it, though. Super Metroid, an obvious influence, put little dots where you didn’t pick up a collectible, but here, you have to write that stuff down. Being difficult and being unhelpful are two completely different things.

What I mainly remember about Circle of the Moon is that it’s probably the first game where I was ever happy to run in and out of a room killing the same enemy, hoping for a rare drop. I don’t know exactly what it is about it, but while I hate grinding for experience, and I hate the general ethos of impossibly rare drops in MMORPGs, something about the Castlevania experience works for me despite still being kind of tedious. Perhaps the drops are just cool enough, or the gameplay is fun enough even when I’m repeating one specific kill, or the drops aren’t so countless and troublesome to get that I feel like I’m in some kind of endless Skinner box trying to get some meaningless gold star. I feel the same way when trying to get something like a ghost blade in Dark Souls: at the end of the day, it’s still Dark Souls.

The level design isn’t amazing; occasionally there’s a little puzzle, or an interesting arrangement of enemies, or a well-timed HP-boosting collectible to take you back to full health, but most of it is nothing to write home about. There are a few too many long halls with repeating enemies, and a number of points where I have to gripe: would it have killed the designer to put a little connecting shortcut here or there, not to make a zone less challenging, but just for getting around later? Maybe a little lift you can turn on between the right-hand side of the Audience Room and Eternal Corridor? Or to Chapel Tower? If things had linked up more often, sprinkling around various means of terraforming Dracula’s castle, and picking the right moments to give you abilities to get around weaker enemies — like getting the Pluto/Unicorn combo before postgame — it would have been more satisfying and no less challenging, and I would have been happy to do without warp points at all. As things are, warp points are a must; they’re also awkward to use, and not one of them can ever conveniently come out next to a save point. Some of this is a direct carry-over from Symphony of the Night, this game’s predecessor, which also got messy, and not to its credit.

As is common for the genre, the player explores freely, but everywhere they go progression is blocked by a variety of barriers, some of which are surmounted by changes to the player’s inherent capabilities — like being able to wall-kick over a ledge that can’t be crossed by a double-jump — and some with direct changes to the map, for example, hitting a switch that blows up all of a certain type of gate. I think these external types of barriers are lazy, and here, the internal ones often aren’t much better. You need two separate upgrades just for getting around giant blocks that are just randomly put in your way, which is dull. Getting the power to push a block around does nothing for my general fighting capability, either.

The game has a spell system where you combine two types of cards. It’s an interesting experiment, but the outcome of this is that picking up one card has a multiplying effect as you go, and one card may suddenly give you eight to ten new abilities you may never use. Most are either severely gimmicky or entirely useless by the time you get them, and there’s no balance to speak of. There’s also a completely inscrutable elemental system with three distinct elements for plant, earth, and stone type enemies. What are they weak to? I have no idea; I always found it more useful to give myself something to increase my range or protect me from behind, rather than trying to imbue my whip with a specific element. I think it might have been better to hand out powers one by one, in situations where they’re useful, as some of the later DS Castlevanias try to do.

cotm

Nathan’s face is only three pixels, and the animations use barely any frames, but the restrictive color palette is used perfectly.

From Symphony of the Night in ’97 through to Order of Ecclesia in ’08, for a while there the 2D Castlevanias were some of the only titles keeping the art of hand-animated pixel sprites alive, and there’s no way I’d avoid talking about it. Circle of the Moon has some cool sprites, but looking specifically at its animations, it falls far short of Alucard’s beautifully-flowing moves on the PlayStation, or even what the GBA is capable of: Nathan’s run is a pathetic 4 frames, and they’re flipped when he turns, so he ambidextrously whips with whichever arm is in the foreground. Contrast with Metroid: Zero Mission, where Samus has a 10 frame run cycle, doubled to 20 if you include her running in the opposite direction. The difference couldn’t be more apparent.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that fluid animation would be a greater priority for a character swinging a whip than for one firing energy blasts from a gun arm, but priority really does appear to be the issue here, given that Circle of the Moon apparently wasn’t holding back on the GBA hardware. As it is, when enemies and spell sprites start to fill the screen, the game slows down (this might have more to do with the resolution of these sprites than how many frames they need to cycle through). Metroid is a little more zoomed-in and doesn’t put as many big creatures on screen, making it kind of an apples-to-oranges comparison. But I do think Metroid finds a better balance.

On the bright side, the soundtrack is absolutely one of the best on the GBA, with stuff like The Sinking Old Sanctuary, Clockwork, Clockwork Mansion, and Aquarius never leaving my head for long in the fifteen-plus years since I last actually played this game. I had no idea until writing this up that these were all remixes of older Castlevania songs — the SNES version of Clockwork Mansion was especially cool to hear — but the bass-driven GBA versions are absolutely fantastic. (It honestly boggles my mind that Vampire Killer still gets so much attention when these other tracks are so good.)

There are several extra postgame challenge modes, and I think I beat at least a few of them when I was a kid, but I didn’t bother getting into them this time. Magician mode offers an opportunity to use some cards that were picked up too late to be useful in the main game, but none of these reinvent the wheel the way wholly new playable characters can, and do in many other Castlevanias. Still, as the game thankfully doesn’t drag out playtime too much to begin with, only taking some ten hours to beat, it’s a reasonable way to mix things up if you still want more.

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.

 

Final Fantasy XV

The last game I played to completion in the flagship Final Fantasy series was VII, and of those that came after, I skipped most of them entirely. FFXV‘s reinvention of the wheel draws some obvious parallels to what Breath of the Wild accomplished for Zelda, and even more than ten years ago, it was plainly apparent that these series were getting stale. But for these two long-standing, conservative pillar franchises of the industry, it took a long time to push past “readily obvious” to actually doing something about it. For either series, it was easy to be skeptical about a shift to “open-world” gameplay: vast free-roaming gameplay is, at its worst, already long stale; a buzzword that means little on its own. So how did they fare? Zelda took the meaning of “open world” more to heart than I ever expected, while FFXV set a linear story within one, but both are undeniably good games. No matter what else, you’re bound to see some interesting things happen when an old and legendary IP gives you a whole world to explore, bringing cactuars (or octoroks) and limit breaks (or heart containers) with them.

1-missile

The “open world”
In truth, FFXV is not so open. You don’t drive a car wherever you want so much as choose which lane to be in, and where to turn. Even the flying car — unlocked in postgame — ridiculously throws up a “game over” screen if you attempt to land in an open field instead of directly on an authorized road. There are chocobos to take to the fields, but you tend to only take them the rest of the way from the road to the point you’re trying to reach, rather than circumventing the paths laid out by the roads entirely: there are just too many obstacles in the form of insurmountable cliffs and impenetrable thickets of trees and even invisible walls. A later update to the game added a fully-manual offroad monster truck, kind of the car and chocobo in one, and to its credit, it feels more fun to drive than the standard car, if just by virtue of being able to crash into things. But it suffers the same problem: the map is unchanged, lacks shortcuts, and doesn’t accommodate the joy of stubbornly declaring, “I don’t want to take the road, for it bends several times before getting to where I want to be, and I just don’t feel like bending today.” Here in FFXV, you are not God. The Road is God.

I’m not sure why they tried to patch in the truck as an answer to player’s cries for freedom in the first place, frankly. The designers, bless their strange Japanese hearts, showed rare authorial intent instead of inadvertently designing the next Just Cause game by committee. The car is not meant to go wherever you want for the same reason why the game opens with you pushing your busted-ass car down the road: they wanted to evoke a kind of laconic Americana road trip, complete with diners and gas stations in the middle of nowhere. These road trips don’t typically feature jetbikes. I’m not entirely defending it; it might have been a misguided creative direction. But sitting in the passenger seat, listening to music on the car stereo, watching trees and guard rails recede and raindrops slide down the windshield… I feel like I can understand what they were going for. And the strange juxtaposition of realistically filling up the tank at the gas station and then pulling over a few minutes later to fight a tonberry in the middle of a highway is kind of beautiful. It was at least unique, and they might have done better in sticking to their guns, rather than awkwardly trying to do both with their post-release patches.

Perhaps if Square were able to back time to create this game again from the beginning, keeping in mind all the player feedback they got, they would have just revised their original vision to be more about doing sick nitro rocket league jumps over big chasms between quest hubs. But I think you can do laconic, strange, and free and satisfying at the same time. Changing the map would have been the best place to start: Let me drive through the occasional cornfield. Have city environments to break things up, keeping the driving slow, like LA Noire and its clunky antique automobiles. The rules of traffic are what make a driving experience complex and satisfying, and there are almost no rules on an empty stretch of highway. For the record, there’s no city driving in FFXV at all: the couple of cities accessible in the world of Eos are like those old European ones with roads too narrow for cars, where it’s confusing as all hell to get from point A to point B because nobody was willing to bother flattening a hill or building along a grid.

The open-endedness of the combat works a little better than the exploration itself: You can be in the middle of a tough fight with a pack of beasts only to have magitek troopers drop down from an airship flying overhead, causing further chaos, which speaks to a dynamism which was the exact sort of thing lacking from the Final Fantasy series in many of its stale and skippable incarnations. In the earlier parts of the game, I was running into (and obviously away from) creatures that had 60 levels on me. That’s very thrilling. So is a day-night cycle that a player is actually forced to work around, because giant demons venture out onto the roads themselves when it gets dark. You can’t even quick-travel at night, at least at first — it becomes disappointingly less scary after hitting level 30 or so, when your party member Ignis decides he’s okay with driving at any hour, thereby opening up quick-travel at all times. This comes far too early and easily, and makes the world feel that much smaller afterwards, but there are great ideas here nonetheless.

The world feels unfinished, especially as you move into later parts of the story. Your party only flirts with the idea of ocean travel for a few scant minutes, and then literally goes on rails, riding a train to each of the later chapters, each consisting of small linear areas that are entirely isolated from the open world. I’m almost certain this evinces what was a rapidly diminishing budget, but the full vision the developers had for FFXV will probably never be realized, even with DLC filling the occasional gap.

2-ardyn

Narrative and story
The narrative structure of FFXV seems simple enough — at any point in the game, you’re either trying to find royal arms, or summons, or a magic ring, or a crystal — but these games invariably get more convoluted than they have to, and I often had no idea what was going on, or didn’t care. Bizarrely, I was expected to watch a feature film before playing the game, called “Kingsglaive“. I did not. I always try to follow what’s going on, but I don’t play these sorts of games expecting a capably-told story, so I was uninterested in watching more of it in a pure-story form, at least not when said film has a 13% score on Rotten Tomatoes. This film is technically optional, but from a brief synopsis I know it explains who many characters are, and more importantly also introduces the Ring of the Lucii: an important item, frequently mentioned, which meant nothing to me until late in the story, well after the hero Noctis obtained it.

I also failed to memorize the names of countries and cities, and I often lacked any real understanding of where I was, even as the game fed me details about the political struggles of these places. Several non-party characters got killed over the course of the game, and at many of those times I would think, “I barely even know who this guy is.” Characters would appear in cutscenes but would barely amount to anything, and I’d only later learn that their roles wouldn’t be resolved until DLC side-episodes. My theory, once again, is that production ran into a deadline, and that much of this content was originally supposed to be in the base game, but was reworked later when development ran up against a production deadline.

What actually does work effectively is what’s communicated outside of cutscenes, including getting to know the four members of the party just by coexisting with them for hours. Yes, it can be heavy-handed. Prompto takes Noctis aside to tell you, rather than show you, that he’s got insecurities deep down inside, and that he’s more than just a fun and wacky comic relief character. But the simple things — like bickering about how much leg room they have in the car, or heckling Prompto for taking selfies — are what bring these people to life, and give weight to their later emotional punches. The central villain, Ardyn, is also a lot of fun, though he’s essentially just a madman, with an awful lot of confidence for someone whose master plan seemed to consist of making Noctis insanely strong and then winning a fight against him anyway somehow. The rest of the cast aren’t worth much thought, including the few women, pleasant as their company may be. Lunafreya’s cutscenes were gorgeously rendered with wonderful art direction, but I can’t say I was emotionally invested in any of it.

Elsewhere, though, there’s some very effective ludonarrative interplay — it was better in this respect than I was prepared for, with some caveats: in one chapter, there’s a dialogue option to bring an injured party member along instead of having them stay behind at a diner for a while, which I did. As his injury came to affect the party’s performance, I found myself thinking I’d made a stupid and dangerous choice and not even really knowing whether I thought I was making it for his sake or to assuage the feelings of the rest of the party’s, and my own. As it turns out, you can’t even leave him behind even if you choose the other option, so as far as your choices directly influencing the story, there’s absolutely nothing. But the feelings were true.

The narrative is also creatively expressed by gameplay, or changes in gameplay: making camp is as routine as it gets, but when things have been going wrong and the four are tense and angry with each other, it absolutely drives the point home when you go through the ordinary mechanic of making camp, as the party eats cup noodles in graveyard silence instead of the usual cheery tallying of experience points. Story progression also makes subtle, creative use of the day-night cycle, too, which took me far too long to notice. And the simple act of selecting Prompto’s best photographs each night — ostensibly just to curate what the AI has thoughtlessly saved to exercise your own creative tastes — keeps you from taking the things you’ve done for granted, I think, and eventually becomes an honestly powerful experience, as you look through the photos at the end of the game — or even a hilarious one, depending on the photos you kept.

It’s certain, though, that for every success of subtlety, there are a few instances of the game locking you down because it doesn’t want you doing something absurd — like trying to play a game, for example — while it’s trying to make you experience what it has in mind. I enjoyed taking Iris along for a ride in one chapter, for example, making little pit stops I wouldn’t ordinarily make, but not only must Ignis drive while this is happening, but you don’t even get your usual ability to backseat-drive by commanding him to slam the breaks or do a U-turn with no warning. Alas.

3-train

Performance and feel
FFXV is the debut of the Luminous Studio engine, and it’s pretty to look at, but it pushes my PC nearly to its limits on relatively low graphics settings, which hardly seems necessary. I had a few crashes to desktop, and fell through the ground a couple times as well, but generally the game didn’t give the impression of being “buggy” at all, though controls for warping around and interacting with objects in the environment often felt finicky. For some of these issues, it may be that they had to hack things together in an update, as with using warp on the field to quickly traverse a short horizontal distance, which I was shocked to read was only added with the so-called “Crown Update”, released on the game’s launch date, but ostensibly not programmed in until after the game had gone gold. I noticed that I could sometimes warp several times in midair without landing, and sometimes only once, and I never figured out why. The warp was also often arbitrarily taken away entirely, including within dungeons that require you to jump across platforms, which is only makes sense when viewed as a late design problem: they must have arranged the dungeons before deciding to give players a tool that would allow them to potentially break them. The lack of point-warping outside of combat, also arbitrary and bizarrely inconsistent, probably came about in a similar way.

The button used to jump is also the interaction button, used for opening doors or climbing onto a chocobo or picking up loot, which usually means doing fifty accidental hops every time you want to do anything else outside of killing. I’ve seen that in other games and I always hate it, but what bothers me more is how Noctis can be positioned such that the interaction prompt appears on screen, yet may still jump instead of interacting. I don’t know if this was an issue with how they built the engine or what, but it’s something I take for granted when done right, and terribly frustrating when not.

The basic controls are thankfully more reliable elsewhere — I feel qualified to say this having cleared the jumping puzzle dungeon Pitioss, as well as having a jolly time sparring with Arenea at camp, or with Cor in Episode Gladio — but I often wouldn’t get blindside attacks when I expected them, which required some whim on the game’s part in determining whether I was actually “behind” an enemy. Sure, Dark Souls has dodgy backstabs too, and it may be that if I put a million more hours into FFXV, I would have become the Mozart of blindside attacks like I am in Dark Souls, but I doubt it. I inexplicably missed a lot of counters during the Noctis sparring battle in Episode Ignis as well, and it could be that I needed more time directly controlling the character to get used to it — or that the developers needed more time working out the kinks — but I eventually managed to win the fight, with a score of A+ to boot, so it can’t be that bad.

The general layout of the control scheme posed its own problems. The shoulder button mapping in particular is a nightmare, constantly put to differing purposes as they piled new mechanics on through updates. (It can be an ordeal for newer players like myself to figure out which features weren’t always a part of the game.) The left bumper places a targeting icon for ally techniques that is independent of the actual targeting system used with the right bumper, and they also try to fit character-switching and the armiger ability in there; they would have been better off with some kind of radial menu for switching weapons, especially when you keep wanting to take spells off your D-pad to equip some kind of passive stat-boosting royal arm (which probably shouldn’t have been a thing). Summons waste the entire left trigger but are rarely available, and could have been used from the menu like a potion when they were. There are also differing effects from holding and tapping a button, which took me a while to wrap my head around, particularly in regard to dodge-warps, context-sensitive point-warps, and targeted warp-strikes. But as confusing as it is, these can at least be reliably executed after learning them.

I do love the overall shape of the combat. It brings to mind the dramatic aerial-dashing combat of the Dissidia games, while being a little less tedious, and opting for a balance between cinematic style and giving the player a high level of manual control over what they’re doing. Some of it is inscrutable, but I was impressed by the complexity and variety. This came most notably in the form of the character-switching ability, where each other party member had their own combat system distinct from how Noctis worked when manually controlled. As I later found out, these individual sets of mechanics were released over the course of a full year as each character’s personal DLC episode was released, but getting them all at once as a new player in the main campaign, I was shocked by how distinct and interesting each of them were, and how much there was to learn.

I would have preferred more control over certain abilities. Cross-chains are technically performed after warp-striking a prone foe, but this makes it sound like you have control over when you get to do one, when it really only happens when the game decides to give you the opportunity. Summons are more or less in the same category, somewhere between random and when conditions are met. The fights are obviously fun either way, but without that reliability, there’s less for the player to improve upon in terms of their own performance, and from the bigger picture, I think that makes it less satisfying.

I wasn’t very pleased with the magic system, which has to be drawn from points on the map and upgraded with consumable items. As designed, it’s overkill for annihilating enemies, while requiring too much upkeep to be brought out in casual encounters. I used it a lot more in the early-game, when I had a tougher time without it, but looking at the bigger picture, I would have preferred if magic were always available, like any other weapon: weaker, but faster and using up nothing but MP, with perhaps a limit of 3 or 4 spells to be built at camp by applying the effects of monster drops, ideally without even consuming those drops as resources.

4-swim

Supplementary gameplay
The sidequests are, mechanically speaking, the kind of garbage you’d expect to find in Borderlands games. Go to a point on your map, kill something, and return. I thought I was being clever with my time by skipping most of the monster hunts, but I still found myself sent on this kind of quest more than I liked by fully-voiced NPCs who asked for my help with one thing or another, without any Witcher-esque charm. Worse than monster hunts are the ones where you have to find interaction points within a circle on your map. One quest told me to gather 5 red frogs. I turned it in, and the questgiver said, “Okay, now do the same thing again, on a different point on your map, and this time, the frogs are yellow.” That felt like an insult.

There’s also no effort made to reconcile the open-world sidequesting with the difficulty curve of the main storyline, as if they had no idea that there would be a need for such a thing. Typically you would reward very little EXP from sidequests, but have some cool item rewards or bonus story content. You would also dish it pretty carefully, so you don’t have ten sidequests in a row from the same NPC before advancing even one more step in the main questline. FFXV doesn’t bother with any of that, though, and I found myself at level 76 while my next main quest had a level recommendation of around 30. I didn’t do any grinding in the process, but I often saved up experience points and doubled or tripled them by sleeping in expensive hotels, a mechanic that’s just asking for players to overlevel themselves.

The game also pulls you away from what works about its core gameplay mechanics at times to do something that isn’t really fleshed out and doesn’t work at all. One part in the main quest has you hunt a Behemoth, and forces you to sneak through an area beforehand. I assumed that the fight would be harder if I failed the stealth segment, but instead, it was an instant game over. Talk about terrible gameplay practices from a former era. The fight against Leviathan is another example of what an AAA game shouldn’t do: you fly through the air the whole time with none of your usual abilities, essentially holding down the attack button with no real risk of losing, but moderate risk of having to do QTEs, even though the regular combat system usually manages to look cool and cinematic enough without making you do them.

The dungeons are a little too simplistic, mostly a question of killing monsters. However, with some of them stretching pretty deep down, and the inability to save inside, players can catch a glimpse of a somewhat more hardcore game within them. It’s not necessarily bad to rely on the strengths of the combat: Costlemark had a puzzle of sorts, but I found it annoying and obtuse, and Crestholm was mostly combat, but I was somewhat underleveled for it and wound up enjoying myself more due to the risks I was taking. Still, the infamous Pitioss was the most cleverly designed by far, and while it stressed me out (mostly fearing the slight risk of a crash that would make me lose hours of progress), I was glad to see something so different for once.

There are also minigames, namely fishing, as they have to fill the sandbox with something (other than sand). The fishing is complex, and I quite enjoyed it, at least once I figured out how to do it properly. I was uninterested in completing my fishing collection; there are like a million of them, there’s a significant luck element as some fish only show up in the rain at a certain time of day, it can be a real hassle getting to some spots while the conditions are right, and I wouldn’t want to sit there for 30 minutes hoping for the rain to start up again and not stop before 5AM (or whichever hour) rolls around. Luck and/or extreme patience is sort of what I expect real fishing to be about, and I’m not terribly interested in real fishing either, but it’s surely one of the better fishing minigames I’ve seen anyway.

Apart from curating Prompto’s photos, you can take your own by looking through a camera in-game, but the game does nothing with them, and I much preferred messing around with the Nvidia Ansel mode, which allows the player to position the camera to take screenshots while messing with depth-of-field, HDR, and other photo-ruining filter effects everyone knows and loves from a childhood of playing with Photoshop. I must have spent hours just framing these screenshots for my own amusement. Between this and the compendium photos I obsessed over for no reason in Breath of the Wild, it should be obvious that photography as a game mechanic is woefully underutilized, something with fun and complexity on par with pointing guns at people’s heads. Even if the game doesn’t have the slightest clue what separates a bad photograph from a good one, there are answers to this problem. Some games could use online connectivity and have other players judge your photos, but as with Breath of the Wild, it’s sufficient just having a bad photo stick around long enough to make me judge myself.

There’s one more interesting photography thing here I want to bring up: You can assign a photo technique to Prompto in combat instead of having him use one that deals damage, if, say, you want photos of a specific type of monster in Prompto’s gallery for some reason. If he crits while using this technique, he takes a selfie with the enemy. It’s exactly the sort of charming feature that makes me love a game, and I wished there were more like it.

5-selfie

DLC
The Windows Edition release already came with over a year’s worth of paid console DLC baked in, and this means they put a bunch of balance-breaking gear in your inventory from the start, whether you want it or not. The gifted weapons aren’t very good, but I’d say differently about a free recipe which players can cook at camp with zero ingredients, or the infinite-use 50% discount coupon on all hotels, which can amount to absurd savings of hundreds of thousands of gil. Craziest of all is the presence of an armor suit that literally makes you invincible for a limited time — certainly long enough to beat any boss — before needing to recharge. This is basically sticking a cheat code right in the player’s inventory, although it doesn’t work for all the DLC content, and the main story is easy enough already. (I didn’t use it anywhere cool myself, but I sometimes put it on when I was getting bored.) Some of the other content proved to clumsily integrated as well, such as the “alternate Chapter 13”, which is fine in terms of the new story content it adds, but never should have been accessible to first-time players during the main story.

The bonus character episodes were well worth the time. Each DLC episode proved to be willing to try new things. Gladio’s was more of a linear brawler, while Prompto went exploring on a snowmobile and doing over-the-shoulder shooting combat. Ignis was given a hookshot and tasked with taking control of city districts by defeating soldiers in groups on its map, and he could even do a classic dragoon spear-jump onto rooftops, landing on enemies, which was awesome to see. While none of these were quite sophisticated enough to stand apart as their own games, they certainly warranted an hour or two each, especially with the optional one-on-one fights in each episode, which were the most challenging and rewarding trials of combat in the whole game, requiring mastery of their respective techniques, and only doable with the items provided, resulting in a more interesting challenge than some hours-long raid boss with 99 phoenix downs saved up.

I had assumed that, by now, there was surely no more content coming, only to check while writing this review to learn that more DLC episodes are planned for release through 2019. This seems a little crazy, but they’ve been worth it so far.

I’ve seen the main story estimated to be around 30 hours, which is by no means dragging on too long by the standards of a JRPG. If anything, I feel that it should have been expanded, incorporating more of the content from the film into itself — though ideally not in the form of an hours-long cutscene. The great combat system does provide a starting foundation for a full-length game, but with its content stretching from 60 to 100 hours — perhaps 150 or more for a true completionist — it’s somewhat barren. Livelier sidequests, in the manner of The Witcher 3, would have kept things fresh a little longer, but the absence that is most strongly felt here is an absence of more dynamic systems. Apart from my self-directed time with photography, I didn’t see a lot of freedom to experiment.

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.

 

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.

rinkworks

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.

 

Metroid: Samus Returns

There was an unofficial Metroid 2: Return of Samus remake last year; a fangame. It was actually pretty incredible. Nintendo sent the guy a DMCA request and, surprisingly, announced their own Metroid 2 remake shortly after: Samus Returns, for the 3DS. Funny how that works; Metroid 2 came out in 1991, and then few people cared about it for like 25 years. Now we have two new versions. It gives us a pretty interesting way to compare and contrast.

Being on the 3DS hasn’t worked in the favor of the official game: the 3D graphics perform sluggishly at times (at least on my old XL), and the controls are brutal on my hands: Samus Returns has to be quite forgiving for anyone aiming with a circle pad, but AM2R felt extremely tight without bothering with the new free-aim stuff (which actually would’ve worked better with the real control stick I used to play it, or, say, in an official title on the Switch). And it’s no shock which of the two games has more profit-seeking junk getting in the way: I don’t want to buy plastic toys, not to mention the actual plug-in amiibo reader, to unlock all the modes and get all the energy tanks. And I won’t. (Besides, the old Castlevania games always had awesome postgame modes where you played as new characters with new moves, but here? Fusion Suit mode is just regular mode, but you take four times the damage. With these controls? Nah.)

I also noticed some slowdown in a few areas. No doubt this is less of a problem on a new 3DS or 2DS. On my old XL, it’s normally fine, except in cutscenes. In some areas deeper into the game, it gets worse. There’s one boss with two big grinders for arms — it’s actually kind of a neat fight, except for a badly communicated weak point and the 3D effects that drag the framerate down to a basically unplayable state. I don’t think the 3D graphics look very good anyway: if they had just done another sprite game with slightly retouched Zero Mission assets — as I assume AM2R did — I think it would’ve looked great and performed better. It’s a sad state of affairs when Nintendo’s releasing titles for their flagship series which barely run on the systems they are, officially, still coming out on. It’s not like I’m trying to play Xenoblade Chronicles here: this is not a New 3DS exclusive. As I already alluded to, it’s not like they can’t do Metroid sidescrollers on the Switch too, you know? Save the 3D for there, and give us some more pixel art.

I actually saved myself some thumb pain by using a homebrew app that sends control stick input from an xbox controller over wifi. This was really cool, and mostly worked well, but sometimes the wifi link would get spotty for a while — it seemed to get laggy whenever I needed it most. And once I got super missiles and found out I had to use the touch screen to switch to them, that made using an xbox controller a little more of a hassle. Still, whenever the going got tough (like with the aforementioned Big Grinder Arms guy) it helped a lot that I could change to a real controller for ten or fifteen minutes.

Samus Returns definitely isn’t afraid to break from convention, which is nice, because Metroid 2 was kind of crude; an almost blank slate to build upon. If you first look at the gameboy version’s map, and AM2R’s, they’re very close to the same size, but with three entirely new areas added in AM2R. These are probably the coolest parts of the game, but for the most part, as one would expect from a fangame, your path through SR-388 stays pretty faithful to the source material. Though I hardly remember much of my original Metroid 2 playthrough, I think AM2R just made some occasional adjustments to the maps to let you use Super Metroid power-ups that weren’t originally there: the general flow and shape of passageways remained unchanged. The map in Samus Returns, though, seems to completely do its own thing. It’s several times bigger. The designers did whatever they wanted.

Some of these changes are nice. Some are problematic, though, like the fast-travel stations. Teleportation points aren’t worth crying about, but it’s better to have an interconnecting map; when you can just warp to earlier areas, it feels like cutting corners. AM2R’s means of getting back to old areas later — by getting shot through cannons into directly vertically or horizontally aligned rooms far away — was much more clever. I feel the same way about the scan pulse: while it sucks when a game hides things in random tiles and you have little chance of finding everything unless you play with a guide open, I think most Metroid games have already been smart enough about showing the connections to unvisited rooms, and marking which ones still hold power-ups you haven’t collected. As long as the game is straightforward enough about which tiles can be blown up, something like a scan pulse should be unnecessary, and I think putting it in there takes some of the responsibility off the level designer to keep puzzles sensible.

Even with this “corner-cutting” designer handicap, though, I had to look up how to get past one type of obstacle: the ones you propel yourself past with power bombs. The idea that you’ll only get launched if you’re using the spider ball to secure yourself just never occurred to me after realizing it did nothing in non-spider form; it’s the kind of thing that they should’ve tutorialized by locking you into a room right after you get the power bomb, making you use it (both horizontally and vertically) to get out. AM2R had some head-scratchers, but everything was communicated clearly. I don’t like looking things up in a Metroid game.

It’s a tough game, even with changes that can make it feel casualized. Power-ups even get sucked in when you’re not holding a charge beam now, which is a little sad. More to the point, though, you can continue from outside of a boss door when you die now. In exchange, though, those bosses tend to be more than you can possibly take without several practice runs, and even then will test your limits, mainly because getting hit by the wrong attack can empty three energy tanks when you have maybe seven total. Blame the framerate and thumb pad if you want, I certainly will, but either way some of those encounters (like Big Grinder Arms guy) took me half a dozen tries. These fights can last several minutes, too.

But to speak some more on departures from the traditional mechanics, let’s get to the obvious one: they gave Samus a melee bash that parries enemies, which is about as out-there as it gets. It’s neat, but you have to play a little too reactively, and I’m not sure that’s the right fit for Metroid. When you’re up close already and need some breathing room, it makes sense to have it, but enemies take far too many hits to die when you’re not killing them with a parry and counter-blast. If you’re not already in a position the enemy will attack from, you have to go out of your way to line one up, making yourself unnecessarily vulnerable, so I found myself resenting the addition at times. It may have been smarter to simply avoid those enemies, but I find you’re usually hungry for at least one kind of ammo or health pickup, or you’re still checking out the room and don’t want to leave the threat there, so it’s best to kill everything outside of a speedrun.

It’s admirable that the game doesn’t try to sell itself purely by repackaging the old, though as I say this I actually feel contradicted by the use of the Lower Norfair music used in the lava areas, which wasn’t actually part of the series until the third game. It seems to have been thrown into Metroid 2 retroactively, for a kind of backwards application of nostalgia. Of course this is a nerdy thing to get mad about, but what better time to actually expand the repertoire of Metroid themes than when you’re going back to a time when there was so little to build from? Like Super Metroid itself did, with such incredible results? (I’ll make an exception for Ridley’s fight music, though a new version of his NES lair theme could’ve been cool too.)

It seems that the only place where Samus Returns and AM2R both really stick to the Metroid 2 gameplay is in throwing in dozens of repeat fights against the same metroid minibosses; first the alpha, then the gamma, zeta, and omega life stages. Both remakes added several of their own completely new bosses, and both got pretty creative there, though Samus Returns definitely goes the extra mile in boss complexity — it probably says something about my preferences as a whole that during a few boss fights in the 3DS game, I found myself thinking about how cool it would be if someone added them to AM2R in a patch. But the miniboss repetition doesn’t seem like something that really needed to be preserved, and we could’ve tried fighting just one metroid at each stage of life — maybe then throwing in a gauntlet of each in a row near the end? — and just getting to kill some more metroids scattered around in their iconic larval state elsewhere — especially in Samus Returns, with its deeper interest in change.

Super Metroid is my favorite Metroid; I think the series only had the barest inkling of what it was supposed to be before then, and it’s lost that inkling numerous times since. I still haven’t played Zero Mission, but it’s safe to say that for players with no existing associations or attachments, AM2R was up there with the best of them, doing what the series has always been praised for, and for bonus points it did it on the best possible hardware, which is to say PC. But this isn’t a review of AM2R. Samus Returns fluctuates between bold and formulaic, but in both the old and the new, it’s a mixed bag. On better hardware, I might have called it a very good 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.