Divinity: Original Sin 2 – Definitive Edition

This is better than, or on par with, DOS1 in just about every way. It looks great. The voice acting and tone no longer have the off-putting cartoonish intensity I had complained about, and the game is probably funnier for it. The plot isn’t as convoluted — though it is still messy. And there are too many little improvements to the interface and mechanics to count. That a small studio relying at least partly on crowdfunding pulled off this cooperative CRPG experience is quite hard to believe.

And yet it is a small studio making a deeply ambitious CRPG, which makes it unsurprising that despite the thickness of Larian Studios’ face in rereleasing this as the “Definitive Edition”, it is still as riddled with bugs as the “Enhanced” DOS1 was. It’s an issue, to be sure. But I don’t see anyone else making the next Ultima 7. While Larian is breaking ridiculous new ground with the awkward voice chat moment of entering into an adult romance with a companion in a co-op game, everyone else is just sleeping on the job. The Elder Scrolls? Don’t make me laugh. More like The Elder’s Games. Because they’re stuck in the previous century of game design.

How many bones you need?

The mess´╗┐

There’s a lot of jank, and to make things a little more frustrating, much of it is the same jank from the previous entry in the series. To be clear, this is a much more polished and stable game, but many underlying problems haven’t been solved. We still had desync issues where my connecting friend would not see his weapons equipped, but only rarely. We would also still see attacks, projectiles, and grenades fail to do anything, or get stopped by non-obstacles along the way, maybe at times because we misclicked and targeted the ground due to a finnicky hitbox, and at other times for no discernible reason at all. We’d still sometimes walk to a clicked location instead of attacking there.

And there were new problems: my summoned incarnate would fail to join a combat encounter with the rest of the party, in one instance even exiting the encounter without my noticing, causing its spawn duration to rapidly tick away and be wasted. (I think numerous types of spell and potion effects should have been configured to last until the end of the next encounter or the next rest, rather than ticking away ruthlessly fast outside of combat.) Generally, even by the endgame, we found it impossible to get through a full battle without at least one or two screw-ups or wasted attacks. That’s too many.

And then there’s the story. What makes it so burdensome to stay on top of? To be fair to the writers and to myself as a player, I think one’s reading comprehension is bound to get dulled in a co-op setting. After all, you tend to miss nuances when you watch a movie from a friend’s couch, too — or at least I do. But even if that was the only problem, the onus would still fall on the writers to anticipate it and keep their narrative straightforward. They should understand how people are playing it. And the lore books? No one reads the books in Skyrim. You think I’ll do it in a co-op game, with another player waiting on me? I won’t. But I can’t say it’s all the fault of multiplayer. There are a number of easily conflated MacGuffins (like the Aeteran and Anathema), factions and characters not properly introduced (some being carry-overs from past games in the series I know nothing about), and a half-dozen villains who are, if not competing directly with each other, at least each with their own motives. Perhaps you could say it’s well thought-out that the antagonists don’t all see completely eye-to-eye in the service spreading murder, death, and blood, and that I’m not just being told where to point my swords. But in the execution, it’s a problem when I’m just meeting one of those characters for the first time before the final boss fight, and I’m not completely sure who he is. But there’s some good character writing in there, and I liked the story modules for the preconfigured party members, like Lohse dealing with the doctor, and Fane’s meetings with other Eternals.

I was very impressed, not so much with reactivity, but with specificity. In other words, it wasn’t so much that the game was responding to my choices, as that it was showing me many things that I would not have seen, had my party composition been at all different. I’d argue that in the case of the Pet Pal talent, which provides conversations with animals, they probably should have just let all your characters talk to animals for free, and worked it out on the lore side of things. But I would see, for example, a creature react to my Pet Pal character having the Spider’s Kiss talent. Or I’d have to pass a persuasion check for a specific attribute with an animal, or there’d be a persuasion check only open to elves, or to Fane, or I’d get into some unique situation with an NPC with my premade companion character, whom I might never have spoken to at all if my co-op companion had done so first. And what about the million ghost NPCs you won’t find at all if you aren’t constantly casting Spirit Sense? The further this specificity goes, though, the easier it is, I suspect, for permutations to go overlooked and untested. And we did break at least a few quests, perhaps more depending on your definition of “broken”, although that may have had nothing to do with the specifics of our party composition. Other quests apparently just didn’t make it into the game with a satisfactory resolution in the first place. Sometimes inexplicably fucked up stuff happens, and we aren’t sure if it’s caused by some skewed idea of reactivity, or what.

Mechanics and incentives

There are some pretty cool new tricks here. One problem in DOS1 was an overreliance on crowd-control (CC) effects: if you don’t spend every turn knocking down enemies, stunning, freezing, charming them, etc., you’re giving the enemies more turns to whip your ass, and each of those CC effects would come down in large part to RNG. CC is still hugely important in DOS2, but more tactically now, and not right out of the gate. Units have magical barriers and physical armors that must be destroyed before CC effects can be applied, but when they can be used, they’re consistent (unless the jank happens and your charm grenade just blows up in midair). It makes encounters more thoughtful, as you need to decide which kind of armor to target and to use the appropriate skills.

The theft system is very good, too. As before, there’s no RNG in pickpocketing; only meeting the requirements (by gold value or weight limit) to successfully steal something. Other party members get to participate, by talking to and distracting nearby NPCs who might spot the character in the act. Most interestingly, DOS2 tries something new — once a pickpocketed NPC is no longer distracted by one of your characters, an NPC will quickly notice that they’re missing items, and will demand to search through the inventories of anyone nearby, leading to a little more action on behalf of the party — usually passing a persuasion check if they don’t manage to leave the scene. If I’m being honest, this is not much of a big deal in itself. Warping your party away from the scene of a crime takes about a second, and the NPCs won’t care by the time you come back (even if you sell their stolen item back to them), so it doesn’t add a lot of complexity. But it’s a step in a direction I always wanted to see, where detection of a crime isn’t really about the split-second where the crime is actually witnessed, but the consequences of a valuable item’s disappearance. In this simple mechanic, I can see the makings of that.

What isn’t so good are some of the abilities, especially the civic ones. 5 points in Loremaster is mandatory. Telekinesis is very niche. Stealth is almost useless, doing very little for sneak-attacks, and is only sometimes paired with Thievery when there are a few too many NPCs around to be distracted by your other party members. Persuasion is important, but it absolutely sucks in its implementation, where you have to pass checks on the basis of your ability scores, eg. Strength. Even if you have a ton of points in Strength, you won’t pass the check unless you have the points in Persuasion, too, so your Persuasion character has to do all the talking, and will sometimes not have the right ability scores anyway. This is irritating in co-op if you want to talk to someone or even just be the first person into a room while the Persuader is under the control of your partner. We actually ended up giving up Lucky Find and having both our main characters as Persuaders, but it’s also made vastly more complicated by the fact that NPCs will often initiate conversation with you, and they’ll just pick whomever is nearest to them, rather than talking to the person who could actually pass their Persuasion checks. Furthermore, once in dialogue, they will only care about that one character, ignoring everyone else in the party who is standing two feet away. And this is, I think, my single biggest gripe with DOS2. It should have been that the dialogue box was split into columns, with each player able to interject on a conversation in the order of first-come, first-serve, but each player taking part in the same instance of communication, instead of this weird partitioning whenever one player tries to finish a quest that another had started.

In DOS1, every living thing was a source of EXP, which incentivized the killing of everything, down to the last rat and villager, all in the desire to be even one level higher than expected by the end of the game. DOS2 doesn’t grant EXP for the killing of simple animals and villagers anymore, but it still has the same fundamental problem. I had been wondering why a forgettable character from the first act (Gratiana) got a shout-out in the epilogue, until I realized that they were giving us the post-script on virtually everyone of note still alive in the world, and she had been one of the few characters we missed our opportunity to murder in cold blood. (In other words, our epilogue could have been a lot longer.) I think there are a number of ways they might have curbed this impulse, but the one I think is best would be to just reward EXP for quests and for specific enemy encounters, so you get nothing for killing a quest NPC if you’ve already resolved their quest a different way.

The next Ultima 7

In some respects, Original Sin is still uncomplicated by the standards of other CRPGs. There’s no day-night cycle. NPCs stand in the same place all the time, instead of moving from their jobs to their beds. Even though I love that sort of thing, I didn’t really miss it too much: while it would have been cool, if you can’t put the time in to do it right, it only makes it irritating to find the questgivers you’re looking for. Larian seems to have decided not to bite off more they could chew there, instead sticking to their strengths. And while the day-night NPC schedule stuff has been in games since at least Ultima 7 in one form or another — which I happened to learn was a huge influence for the studio — so was the ability to just spend an hour crafting bread or some bullshit, or carrying around a stack of crates of everything on a boat, features which have made the cut.

Speaking of crates of everything, that’s another area where there’s room to make me happier. Features like item-stacking, sending a selection of items to a chest, and putting labels on containers would have gone a long way with me. I could easily spend dozens of hours just assembling a vast library and collection of scrolls and crafting materials, and I probably did. As The Real Texas showed, I get weirdly invested in this type of gameplay. I would be thrilled if the aforementioned day-night stuff makes it into the next Larian game, but honestly, if they continue in the direction of “item-collecting open-ended base management CRPG” like this with some ease-of-use enhancements, and additionally let me climb onto moveable objects to get over walls and onto rooftops, as I could in Ultima 7 (or in Breath of the Wild, for that matter), I would gratefully declare Ultima 7 obsolete in a heartbeat, and stop talking about it forever. Ultima’s combat and dialogue sucked, after all. Did I constantly laugh after accidentally setting a cloud of poison gas on fire in every single battle in Ultima 7? No.

Plus, I mean, co-op always adds some fun.

The exploit factor

It’s really hard not to cheese the shit out of DOS2, and Larian made no effort to stop this at all — second verse, same as the first. You can still make chests that weigh a billion pounds and drop them on people. My partner thought to kill a particularly nasty undead enemy by health-linking to it and sprinting into a patch of instant-kill deathfog. I also thought to carry a patch of deathfog around the final act by using the spell Terrain Transmute for all sorts of shenanigans, but let’s be honest here: the devs invented a substance that instantly kills living entities, and then gave players a spell to move that substance around the map. they knew what they were doing.

I discovered another particularly ridiculous strategy after taking the time to teleport a hundred-plus corpses together into a single pile and then using the Bone Cage skill to gather temporary armor from each nearby corpse. If a player does this while another starts a battle elsewhere, the Bone Caged character can teleport to the other, entering battle with fifty times more armor than god himself. Using this with the Reactive Armor skill — which does more damage the more armor you have — you can one-shot basically anything as long as you still have access to your corpse pile (which rules out the final boss). We goofed around with this, but it was ultimately ill-advised, as the corpse pile really strained our load times — not to mention our framerates when we went anywhere near it. Larian, look into some kind of optimization when there are a hundred corpses on screen, please. We’re trying to break your game here, but it keeps breaking.

Not all cheesing is of the combat variety, either: my co-op partner and I spent 25 embarrassing minutes trying to solve a puzzle involving rotating pipes to send fluid into the proper receptacles, when I finally said “Can I just Gordian Knot this shit?” and managed to throw my teleporter pyramid onto the other side of a barrier, allowing myself to just leap down to the other end of the room and generate the fluid with spells and grenades instead of sending it through the pipes. I’m still unsure whether I’m a moron or a genius for this, nor can I truly know if my solution was intentionally permitted, but I think it’s perfect for the design ethos of the Original Sin games. Sure, any combat encounters designed solely to provide challenge to the players can be ruined by this, but at the end of the day, it’s not being done in a PvP setting, and the goal is to have fun. In terms of games that let you have the tools and freedom to thoroughly and creatively wreck the balance, this is the best I’ve played. Better than Morrowind.

So, to reiterate, for the dream CRPG: Simpler character-driven story, expanded crime AI, climb on crates after stacking them, day-night cycles, fix the combat jank, and tighten up the graphics on Level 3. You can do it, Larian, I believe in you.

One more thing

There’s something called Game Master Mode. You can set the stage with prefabricated Divinity assets and play out a D&D-style adventure with other players. If I ever played this game with more than one other person, I think it would be very neat to mess around with. Some of the mechanics I find most annoying in the base game, like the conversation and persuasion systems, could be entirely circumvented by talking them out traditionally over voice chat, and rolling dice. The game master can of course take control of NPCs at will, and control enemy combatants directly in battles. It seems exactly like the sort of video game Wizards of the Coast should have tried to put together for D&D a decade ago, but that’s all I can really say about it.

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

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (Subsistence)

Each Metal Gear game gives players new ways to hide, and compensates by making the guards a little smarter; more conscious of their surroundings. It’s a good direction to trend in. In the first game, you just had to avoid being directly in front of someone. In MGS2, you had to be pretty light on the analog stick even when you were directly behind a guard. In Snake Eater, even this seems impossible, and to get right up behind someone without them sensing anything, you have to use the ultra-light D-pad stalking controls, moving even slower.

Getting the drop on somebody is harder in MGS3’s jungle environments, even if there are no cameras this time, because the areas are more open, and the movement patterns of guards seem less clear than they did in MGS2’s hallways and catwalks. You often have to crawl through the brush. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with getting a guard’s attention in controlled circumstances, especially when a lone guard wants to investigate a moving cardboard box.

Though cover can be vague in the jungle, there’s the helpful new addition of the camo index, telling players exactly how well-hidden Snake is by a number in the corner of the screen. It’s informed by whether Snake is moving, and by how low he is to the ground, but also by a system of disguises and camo patterns to suit the situation. If your camo index is high enough, even bosses will have trouble finding you in the middle of a fight.

The game doesn’t entirely take place in the thick of the jungle — there’s the infiltration of the enemy stronghold Groznyj Grad, and some high-altitude environments — but there are a lot of jungle maps, and I did start to get tired of them. The level design may be an improvement over MGS2 in some respects, but it still suffers from the limitations of highly broken-up environments with screen transitions, where you can just tackle someone and leave before they get up and sound an alert. Groznyj Grad is quite fun in spite of this; it’s like seeing a precursor form of Ground Zeroes.

The next new big thing is survival. The more work Snake does, the hungrier he gets. You don’t have to worry about starving outright, but hunger affects the recovery of your health, the steadiness of your aim, how long you can hold your breath, and even makes Snake’s stomach growl loudly. I found it trivially easy to keep my inventory full of fresh food, but it’s a nice complication to have to stay on top of while infiltrating. It’s fun to try eating new animals to see what Snake thinks they taste like, and some can even be captured alive, allowing you to throw fish or poisonous scorpions at people. There was a risk that a hunger mechanic would be a tedious distraction more than anything else, as it has been in various other games, but it’s funny here, and it meshes well with the other systems, so it feels like a good move.


Hunting wild animals for food is a key new feature.

The other half of survival is first-aid treatment, meaning actually digging bullets out of your leg with a knife, suturing cuts, treating poison, and so on. It doesn’t add a lot to the gameplay in terms of fun factor, and it would have been a lot cooler and more impacting if you had to hide behind cover and do this stuff in real time rather than from a pause menu. But as a ludonarrative device, it’s already very good. It makes the difficulty of long-term survival in a hostile environment feel that much more real. When Snake is really badly hurt after a cutscene, having to actually patch yourself up makes it go from generic and thoughtless game damage — something that doesn’t actually happen, like desync in Assassin’s Creed — to something real, more reminiscent of John McClane walking through broken glass in Die Hard. It’s also used creatively in special cases, like having to dig a transmitter out of your body.

The “Subsistence” edition of the game also added a new camera angle, allowing the player to toggle to a new third-person view from behind, similar to where other modern stealth games put it, instead of using the series’ traditional view from above. You’d think after coming straight from every other Metal Gear, I’d be used to it, or would even prefer it, but every time I toggled to it, I just got confused. Maybe it just doesn’t work so well in jungles or 3D environments, but in any case it was a relic from 1987, and it was good of them to get rid of it. But it can’t be easy to work new camera angles into a rerelease of an existing game, and I still found myself annoyed by the camera at times. Snake’s directional facing when entering first-person view was a problem, as were the sudden disorienting shifts to what I would have called “vent-crawling mode” in MGS1 or 2, which seem to happen arbitrarily while crawling through the brush. It looks like the regular first-person view, but you aren’t holding the view button down as you normally would be, and you lose the ability to “pop up” with the shoulder buttons, even though you can still stand up whenever you want.

The MGS controls have always been awkward, though, more interested in preserving vestigial forms than in trying to cooperate with what every other game in the world might be doing. Snake Eater in particular makes a new misstep by assigning some awkwardly critical roles to the Dualshock 2’s pressure-sensitive face buttons, which were wisely removed from the Dualshock 4. Not only did this control scheme have to be revised for the Xbox 360 port, but I don’t even like it when games put anything more significant than “toggle minimap” onto a thumb stick, given how easy it can be to press those by accident when you’re in a tense situation. Pressure-sensitive face buttons that can kill someone during a no-kills run? Get the hell out of here.

Other new Snake Eater features include the limited durability of suppressors for firearms, and some iterative improvements to CQC melee combat techniques, including the ability to grab an enemy and make them tell you information as you hold a knife to their throat. There are more features for messing with guards, too, now that they go hungry and can get food poisoning. They can also be attacked by wasps when you knock a nest down. But the mechanical innovations and advancements are probably rather meager compared to everything MGS2 introduced. This entry in the series is more to slow down and apply what has been learned, I think. I prefer to see big ideas, but Snake Eater’s new asshole physics do help players to make their own fun. It doesn’t go as far as MGSV in this respect, obviously, but I always appreciate having some open-ended ridiculousness potential.

The bosses are a lot better this time around, in that they don’t arbitrarily abandon what works best about the gameplay just because those features aren’t typically associated with boss battles. You can usually hide from Snake Eater’s bosses, and in one instance even starve a boss out and throw him rotten food, which he’ll eat. One boss, Volgin, has to be fought out in the open, but even with him, there are all kinds of tricks and easter eggs for messing around. He reacts to Snake in numerous ways, such as becoming distracted or confused if the players puts a mask on, sets tree frogs loose in the arena, or eats a “fake death pill” (a particularly clever new tool in Snake’s arsenal).

Though most of the bosses were quite good, the endgame did get annoying with an unending series of shooting gallery segments from the sidecar of a motorcycle, including an obvious chase with a proto-Metal Gear, so the game regrettably doesn’t always live up to the “don’t abandon your own mechanics” rule. At least there were no forced “alerts”, even when the story put me in open combat.

Also of note is the sniper boss fight with “The End”, a man already so old and close to death that if you save in the middle of the fight and don’t play for a week (or if you set your system clock ahead), he dies of old age. It’s a tense and drawn-out encounter, and yet one that didn’t particularly impress me or live up to Kojima’s vision at all, which I can only say because I’ve been to the future. It’s fascinating how the MGS games have continued to reiterate and perfect on some of the same few ideas, all the while rarely seeing these ideas cross over into the works of other developers. When I was so moved by the fight with Quiet in MGSV, I had no idea I was experiencing the cumulative efforts of a series trying to create the perfect lonely “sniper duel” encounter, one that was in the works ever since outshooting Sniper Wolf on the PSX in 1998.

Reactivity can be found in the most amusing and unexpected places, which is one of the series’ best traditions. One of the game’s “boss fights”, The Sorrow, consists only of wading down a river as you’re confronted with all the people you’ve killed. It’s a very short sequence if you’ve only used nonlethal incapacitations, but I realized early into the game that I had no hope of finishing with a zero kill count, and decided to make liberal use of the lethal weapons in my inventory for once, so when I reached The Sorrow, I had to wade past one or two hundred wailing dead people. They appear in the manner they died in: guards stabbed in the throat have their heads rolled back and blood spurting from their necks, guards shot in the dicks clutch their crotches, guards burned alive still screaming and so on. There was one guard I killed up in the mountains, only to see a vulture descend and start eating the guy’s corpse. I shot the vulture and ate it, amusing myself at the indirect cannibalism, but not really expecting the game to ever make a point of it. I was wrong, as those obscure situations are reflected in the underworldly river too: the guard wades past, still being pecked at by vultures, shouting “You ate me!!”

The story is far more sensible and down-to-earth this time, at least by Kojima’s standards. Some things haven’t changed — the Cobra Unit is the latest menagerie of over-the-top freaks that need to be killed off one-by-one to give Snake something to do, just like with the members of “Dead Cell” in MGS2, and Liquid’s FOXHOUND renegades before that. But for the most part, things are more James Bond in style, evidenced by the gadgets, the romantic spy storyline, Snake’s British-accented advisor, and of course the game’s excellent theme song. Being a prequel set in the 1960s, it evades a lot of Metal Gear baggage. Instead of elaborate plots about clones and clownish villains screeching about nothing, the characters tend to talk about the Cold War, and about intelligence agencies hanging their special operatives out to dry. I don’t even care that much about James Bond, but I found it earnest and refreshing.


It’s not like that! It’s for the camo index!

Many of the characters are great, but especially The Boss, Snake’s tragic mentor figure. She’s positioned as the villain, but more often than not, she’s seen trying to deescalate unnecessary violence, and even tries to keep Snake safe, by beating him up if necessary. I enjoyed Snake’s trope-subverting relationship with EVA, and Ocelot’s obsession with Snake. There are references to movies like The Predator and even The Fugitive, and there’s a great fakeout scene about how Snake ended up losing his eye, since Big Boss had to get his trademark eyepatch somehow.

I would call this the “best” MGS game I’ve played in terms of serving up a complete package, though MGSV had the benefit of countless iterative improvements and other new big ideas that resulted in a game with greater highs, but less consistency, and I still like it the most. But MGS3 has a strong and grounded storyline, and it provides a decent balance of solidifying the series’ foundations while exploring a few new ideas in its survival and camo mechanics, though these aren’t earth-shattering additions. It depends what you’re after, but I would say this is an excellent starting place for new players who don’t feel like going as far back as Metal Gear 2.

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


Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (Substance)

Unlike its predecessor, Metal Gear Solid 2‘s gameplay innovations were dramatic. To list the most obvious: Analog movement allows players to move in close to enemies, even on noisy floors, without having to crawl. Bodies are persistent and discoverable. Guards can be “held up” by training a gun on them at close range from stealth. Enemies are not linked as if by hive-mind anymore, and must actually radio for help when sounding an alert, but their radios can be destroyed. Some specific guards have the job of regularly reporting in to the command post, and if these guards are incapacitated, more guard teams will be sent to learn why (though extra guards ought to be moving to the adjacent areas, given how easy it is to leave a strut while the command post is just starting to get suspicious). Nonlethal incapacitations have been added, with new tranquilizer pistol and sniper rifle options. Guards taken out in this manner will eventually wake up, but if other guards find their sleeping friend, it will be viewed as negligence rather than an emergency situation, which means nonlethal players don’t really ever have to bother stashing bodies into lockers.

I’m pretty sure that several of these ideas were original ones at the time. But 2001 falls under an era of gaming that was probably even more awkward than the first batch of late-90s 3D titles. I may be generalizing, but there’s an unjustified confidence in the games of that period. MGS1 had ugly character models, but was aware of it, and avoided framing a scene as such, not relying upon facial expressions except through some great hand-drawn codec screen art. Even though MGS2’s models still aren’t much to look at, the game confidently declares that it is ready for its close-up, so it feels like it has hasn’t held up as well as the previous title, visually and stylistically. (I’m also sad that the codec art is gone.) Games also became more sophisticated at this time, but more confusing too, without the modern on-screen button prompts we have now to get us through those situations. Developers began to take on bigger challenges than simply navigating 3D spaces and clicking heads, often without guideposts to follow: we started to see more “escort missions” with suicidal AI.

And in fact, two characters need to be escorted. It isn’t fun to help either of them, but neither is it terribly frustrating: your charges can die unexpectedly, but their health bars tend to be manageable if your own performance is fine and you’re killing the things that would hurt them. What bugs me more is that these combat situations are mandatory; that I can’t sneak to where I need to be at my own pace, skipping the sword fights with waves of storm trooper ninjas. The combat system is adequate — definitely a step up from MGS1, even if it has some weird movement controls in first-person view — but nobody is playing for it.

There is one boss fight I really liked: Fatman, who skates around planting bombs that have to be disabled by quickly spraying them with coolant, while also doing your best to interrupt and damage him before he can plant more. The other bosses were either grueling or easily exploitable due to blind spots in their AI.

MGS2 takes place on “Big Shell”, a structure of linked hexagons built in the ocean. It looks exactly like the Mother Base later built by the player in MGSV (and apparently in Peace Walker before that). Kojima must have liked the design, and I think it made for a cool base myself, but when it’s the sole location apart from the prologue, the environments seem inflexible, even if the interiors of each strut vary considerably, apart from all of them having roughly the same square footage. At one point, a section of the Big Shell is destroyed, and you have to move along the wreckage, which sort of keeps it from repeating itself, but the narrow, burning catwalks around the periphery amount to an even greater restriction of your options. The last stubborn holdout of the keycard mechanics from the original Metal Gear — having to actively equip the keycard before the doors will open — is now gone, but apart from a few return trips to the warehouse, this barely affects you. Rather than a sprinkling of level 3, 4, and 5 doors to remember the locations of for later in each strut, there tends to be exactly one new route for each security level, telling the player in a clean, linear, gamey way where to go next. When it’s like this, the fun of actually getting your access privileges upgraded is gone anyway.

One bright spot in the level design is that it makes better use of the 3D space than MGS1 did, with balconies and ledges to drop from, but this is only true occasionally.

The collection of secrets and easter eggs are truly impressive, including use of the directional microphone to listen in on distant characters, codec calls made from quirky locations and circumstances, and reactive dialogue about some of the most trivial things I had done. After finishing the game, I looked online to see what little gags I had missed, with the answer being probably 80% of it. They anticipate players doing every remotely perverted thing possible in the game’s engine, like equipping the porn magazines (an item which has the primary purpose of distracting guards if dropped on the floor) while making codec calls from the women’s bathroom. I always admire devs putting in the effort for things most players will never know about.


I really wasn’t expecting Otacon to comment on the rest of my camera roll when I went to upload mission photos, but I loved that he did.

The story of MGS2 goes to a thousand places pretty quickly. In Kojima’s effort to subvert all expectation, Solid Snake is not the main character, but he still has plenty of time on-screen, and I think I like him just as well in a support role. In his place is Raiden, a young anime bishie who lacks Snake’s arrogant charm, often whining about his orders and arguing with his girlfriend each time the player radios her to save the game. From what I’ve read, it sounds like the new protagonist was very contentious when the game first came out, and I wasn’t sure where any of it was going early on — especially his rather mundane relationship problems with Rose — but Raiden’s personal history and relationships are one of the narrative experiments that I think have a better payoff than most of the other things going on.

To give a taste of those “other things” in the story: Snake is framed for an act of terrorism by the Illuminati. A third clone of Big Boss (and former POTUS) fronts a group trying to destroy the Illuminati through a detailed plan which involves the seizing of an oil spill containment facility, former Spetsnaz mercenaries, a nuclear bomb, and the kidnapping of the current POTUS… and he’s manipulated into every little part of it by an AI, testing its own capacity to make perfect soldiers. It oscillates between beyond-cartoon campiness and the Unabomber manifesto in massive dumps of exposition, sometimes throwing so many insane ideas in a span of thirty seconds that I needed to reload a save before the cutscene in the absence of a pause or rewind button, because if my head ever started to spin, I’d only fall behind.

But some of this content is earnestly thought-provoking, especially looking back now at Kojima’s ideas about manipulation of overabundant information, which seem like a prescient description of not just the scale of modern internet filter bubbles, but more critical events in recent memory, like Facebook’s ad-targeting in the 2016 election. If only these themes weren’t delivered in such a clownishly convoluted package. The MGSV story was also messy, to be sure, but the entire style of storytelling here is so alien to the game I started with that I’ve given up on truly reconciling the eras of Metal Gear into a cohesive whole, Revolver Ocelot especially.

Fourth-wall breaking and pranks are still very much a part of the Metal Gear brand here. A year before Eternal Darkness, MGS2 was pulling even better tricks as Raiden’s world fell apart. I was getting badgered by nonsense codec calls every time I took a step, my map turned into something resembling a woodcut of Dante’s Hell, and my radar minimap got replaced with an image of some woman sitting on a deck chair. I got a fake Game Over screen in the middle of a fight. Raiden finds out that his girlfriend is a lie, and still has to call her to save the game. If saving existed as it does in most games, as something apart from the characters, done from the pause menu, that would not have been possible, and it’s a brilliant device.

An innovative title in the stealth canon. Its artistic vision ranges from bold and subversive to boring and repetitive, and it would have been better off abandoning some spectacle sequences and putting its quiet infiltration mechanics to greater use, which were hamstrung by the modular and isolated environment. But I much prefer this kind of experimental sequel to a safe one.

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


Metal Gear Solid

The Metal Gear series made its transition to the 3D era by copying just about everything the older MSX2 titles did. The resulting game is, to my surprise, far more recognizable from MG2 than from MGSV. It makes for an unexpectedly easy adjustment when playing the games back-to-back, as I’ve been doing.

The controls are identical, and the view tends to be similarly fixed overhead. Yes, there’s some occasional use of first-person aiming, but only in specific contexts, such as when using the sniper rifle, and even at those times barely making use of the vertical axis. Even the structure of play is the same. Progress is still gated by a sequence of keycards, though doors indicate their security level now and you only need to keep the highest-level card. This is what I had been wanting since the first Metal Gear. You still tap walls, distracting guards or listening for hollow sounds where they can be blown apart with explosives. You’re still restricted to a single compound of three or four buildings for the duration of the game, open enough for backtracking at most times.

The bright side of this is that I found myself plenty willing to make my own route through the game instead of following a guide. But while it’s good to be permitted to run back if you missed the thermal goggles or whatever, the backtracking is often forced and frustrating. Being made to leave in the middle of a boss fight to go back to get an item needed to win is a strange thing to ask of players. (The item is also inaccessible before meeting said boss, and requires passing back through a cave full of wolves in both directions.) Worse is when you must continually change the shape of a key by exposing it to different temperatures before using it again (another recycled idea from MG2). Getting back to where this key needs to be used means having to climb over the body of a deactivated Metal Gear something like seven times, and that’s assuming you never screw it up. If you’re too slow, the key loses its temperature, and you’ll have to make the trip a few more times, passing through a couple very long elevator rides along the way. I might have even praised Kojima for such an absolutely, overtly trollish move, except that I was just forced to do it.

There are a few other things that I can only describe as mean-spirited trickster level design. Another recreation of an MG2 scene has you running up like fifty thousand flights of stairs. Only, in this incarnation, there’s a rope in the corner at the bottom, and if you get to the top and didn’t pick it up, the game tells you to go all the way back down for it. Then, in another stairwell, you come upon an unavoidable turret. If you throw a chaff grenade to temporarily disable it and run past, then as soon as you get up enough flights of stairs for the chaff grenade’s effect to wear off, you’re stopped by a turret again, except this time there are two of them. The most obvious response is to throw a second chaff grenade and keep going, but as soon as you’re vulnerable to turret fire again, you come to a section of stairs with three turrets. Then four. It’s like the game is flipping you off, saying, “I hope you brought enough chaff grenades, bitch.” Again, it’s kind of funny, and at least the level design carries an intent, even if it’s a malevolent one, right? I’m not sure if I’m right to think less of the game for it all, but it did convince me to just watch the best ending on YouTube instead of going through all that again, for whatever that’s worth.

There are also little things like Snake catching a cold and randomly sneezing until you find cold medicine, which reminds me of some of the silly features I loved so much in MGSV. It’s somewhat mischievous to have your stealth hero suddenly making noise on his own, but I consider this one more amusing than harmful. And it’s certainly not as if all the humor is mean-spirited. I couldn’t possibly list every tiny little clever thing, but some of the big ones had long since been spoiled for me, like Psycho Mantis commenting on the saves on your memory card, for instance saying “You like Castlevania, don’t you?” if you’ve played Symphony of the Night. Everyone breaks the fourth wall all the time: at one point, the Colonel tells you that to contact Meryl, there’s a screenshot on the back of the game’s CD case that shows the frequency she’s on.


Yup, it’s there.

The combat isn’t really up to the standards of the rest of the game. Snake’s locked-in-place three-hit melee combo is nothing to build a fighting system around, and a lot of bosses come down more to finicky invincibility-frame timing than anything else. Even in stealth, I don’t want to hit those melee buttons if I can help it: the controls for choking a guard to death are pretty unreliable. You need to run up behind them, but if you’re still moving, you’ll execute a throw instead of a choke hold, which is very easy to do by accident. Once you have the silenced pistol, you’re probably better off not trying to break any necks, but the guns can be awkward to aim, too. Especially the assault rife, which can only have its direction changed while firing.

A huge effort was put into the codec conversations. It’s without a doubt the most iconic thing about the game, which isn’t two discs long on the PlayStation because its levels are big. Everything is voice acted, and everyone has something to say, or even several things, in the middle of each boss fight and anytime you make progress in your objectives. They’re all a very likable bunch, whether it’s the first-generation American weeb Otacon, or Snake’s relationship with the Colonel. There are also like four hot women advising Snake over the radio, and they have quite interesting histories, though one of them is unavailable for most of the game, and another just gives one-sided lectures about nuclear disarmament and the clusterfuck that was the collapse of the USSR.

So what the hell is actually going on in this game? Is Kojima a genius? I still don’t know, man. He can actually be subtle sometimes: I remember hearing a theory — or maybe it was something Kojima said himself, I don’t know — that as straight as the Metal Gears are played, with the series never directly making light of the threat of these nuclear bipedal mechs, it’s all an ironic comment on American defense spending; they’ll spend a trillion dollars developing some gigantic robot that can ultimately be taken out by one guy with a Stinger missile. It’s extremely clever if it’s true, and I can believe it. On the other hand, it’s a very Kojima thing to go on for way too long about nothing, like Liquid Snake ranting about DNA and evolutionary psychology, which reminded me of Skull Face in MGSV making a twenty-minute speech about language to a guy who just sat there not even pretending to give a shit, probably because Keifer was too expensive.


This is exactly the question I would expect from a guy about to shoot me with a big fucking chain gun.

Though Solid Snake wasn’t the one voiced by Kiefer, his story has more of the trappings of a 24 storyline, though an ’80s action movie is the more apt comparison. I’m sure Kojima wanted to make something in the genre, which typically serves as propaganda for the American state, with the hero carrying out the orders of the US government to stop terrorists — “bad guys”. It’s not quite satire, but the US foreign agenda isn’t portrayed as a benevolent or altruistically motivated one — just one that is temporarily aligned with a good cause. Snake isn’t very patriotic, either, so there’s more than just a name tying him to Snake Plissken. But it’s very different in tone from the Big Boss prequels. The dark forces in American politics are still treated as lone actors.

As an individual, Solid Snake seems easier to get a read on than Big Boss: he’s arrogant, and he doesn’t care too much about goals or ideology. He’s someone who has lost his ability to put trust in other people. By this point in the series, at least, we aren’t told much about his childhood or past.

As for Ocelot and Miller, I don’t have a clue what’s going on with them. It’s hard to look at Ocelot the same way knowing what he does to Meryl in this game, regardless of whichever ending is canonical — I recall him doing some torturing in MGSV as well, and not even necessarily for a good cause, but Meryl is far more straightforwardly innocent. At the very least, it’ll probably take a few more games before I can understand them as the people they (retroactively) came to be in MGSV.

Metal Gear Solid has some dodgy combat sequences, mean-spirited setups, and a script which tends to babble. It also relies a little too hard on the ideas and features of a Metal Gear 2, which had been played by approximately none of the people who loved MGS when it was released to the world in 1998. But it’s still an excellent step for the series, and an extremely inspired, lovable work.

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


Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake

Metal Gear 2 came out in 1990, but incredibly, it wasn’t released in English in any form until 2006. The improvements over the original Metal Gear are obvious at a glance. It looks great, especially with the PS2 port’s beautiful new portrait art and detailed opening cutscene. Then you gain control and begin to see what this game did for the stealth genre, which is nothing short of amazing.


Yeah, man.

For a start, enemies have sophisticated patrol patterns now, moving across the larger map. They can be tracked over a mini-map radar of the adjacent screens, as the game keeps track of everyone in the current zone. It’s ambitious, to say the least. It also means you can step out of a room and walk right into a guard if your timing is bad, because they don’t snap back to default positions each time you change screens.

By making noise, for example by punching a fence, I can put guards into an investigative state, drawing them away from their posts. If I’m seen, they enter an alarmed state, and guards continue to hunt me until I break line of sight and crawl into a hiding place (crawling is new, too). Guards have more reasonable visual fields now, and at times will even turn their heads independently from the rest of their bodies. Sometimes there are sections of flooring that are made out of different, noisier material than the rest of the ground, forcing me to watch my step.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because I’m describing the fundamentals that have been present in every good stealth game to follow. The first Metal Gear had you avoid cameras and lines of sight to make your life easier, but it didn’t invent those ideas. The features in its sequel are entirely original, though, as far as I can tell. I didn’t know any of this stuff had existed before the stealth games of the 3D era, like Thief: The Dark Project. I’m pleasantly surprised by the history lesson.

I actually did try to do this one nonlethally, only using my weapons for the boss fights. It would have been nice to have been given a few weapons that worked in no-kill runs, as even the rather niche gas grenades are deadly, but since it’s just an optional challenge, I guess I brought it on myself. (Also, I get a feeling of deja vu complaining about this…)

Another nice change is that radio responses are based on whatever you’ve last done and what your next obstacle is, rather than where you happening to be standing when you call in.

Many of the Metal Gear franchise mainstays (which I got to see for the first time in MGSV) got their start all the way back here, as well. Cassette tapes to mess with guard AI, for example; playing the national anthem to make every guard stand perfectly still. While the cardboard box was in the first game, it was only really used to remain stationary while waiting for a moving camera to sweep past, but now if it’s left out in the open, guards may take a few casual shots at it, allowing you to stay undetected by remaining still, as long as you’re willing to lose a bit of health. There’s also a bulletproof variant which makes more noise when you move. It falls far short of the absurdly complex MGSV system which had cardboard box durability, waterproofing, the ability to leave empty cardboard boxes behind, an upright walking mode, anime decals and all that ridiculous stuff, but it’s a giant leap forward.

It also has a very Metal Gear storyline, unlike its predecessor. Story plays a much bigger role. There are cutscenes; we learn who people are and what motivates them. The basic themes are established: Big Boss is already preaching about how he was built for conflict and can’t handle peace and all the rest of the stuff he went on about in MGSV.


15 years earlier, this old-ass eyepatch guy looked like Kiefer Sutherland, but Kiefer is like fifty, so… sure, I guess.

I’ve been effusive so far in my praise, but there are some nasty bumps in the gameplay, mostly in area design. Some unfortunate features return, like ridiculous instant death traps that can only be avoided by dying and repeating through trial and error (or by following a guide). Some areas are just tedious, as you spend an eternity tailing a single soldier through a Lost Woods-esque jungle, or wading through a swamp, or navigating spiral-shaped hallways, as if Big Boss built his base to trap a minotaur, rather than for efficiency or for any benefit to security.

The annoyance of keycard-swapping makes a return as well, likewise based on no predictable security principle, apart from maybe one instance where you get into a bathroom with the lowest-security Card-1. There is one minor improvement with the introduction of master cards, which replace your keycards with a colored card in groups of three, so you can get a red master card to get into a Card-1 or Card-3 door more conveniently, but this shouldn’t have been necessary at all, and you still have no way of knowing which card will open a door. If, for example, you have the first five keycards (there are nine in total), you still might have to scan the red card, then Card-4 and finally Card-5 before actually getting a door open, if any of them even open it in the first place.

Metal Gear 2 was absolutely ahead of its time, extraordinarily complex for a game released in 1990, both mechanically and cinematically. But it’s essentially required to play through it with a guide, which is the main thing keeping me from calling this a 5-star classic masterpiece on par with Super Metroid or Chrono Trigger or something. I recognize that my impression of those titles has been colored by my playing them as a child, and I might’ve been more likely to put Metal Gear 2 on the same level if it had actually been available to me at that age, but it wasn’t, so I can only review it as I see it. Just remember that scores are fake anyway.

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



At first glance, Hacknet is a latecomer clone of the 2001 game Uplink. To wait 14 years for another pure hacking game — 16 for the DLC — and to find an ultimately derivative experience there, even lacking some of Uplink’s coolest mechanics at that, how could that be anything other than a disappointment? Two out of five stars, we’re done, pack it up.

But no, I’m not done. It does often feel like a lesser imitation, but it finds its own footing elsewhere. For one, having to type commands like cd ../log and rm * and upload /home/virus.dll just feels more hackery than Uplink’s click-and-drag GUI menus — which were probably made cumbersome on purpose, so the game wouldn’t feel too easy, but honestly weren’t great.

But Hacknet’s biggest advantage is in its audio and visual presentation. First, the music is very good. Great, dramatic events take place: a hacker breaks into your system and deletes a file that’s core to your GUI, forcing you to work purely from the terminal to break into another system and replace the file with someone else’s. (Your UI changes when you do so, giving you the fun and entirely self-directed task of collecting more themes from other systems.) And when you take too long to hack something and your IP is traced, the screen goes red as you’re put into an emergency panic mode; you have to hack into your own ISP and change your IP address before they connect it to you. In one quest, you hack into someone’s pacemaker to euthanize them, and you silently watch the monitor flatline. These are moments of clever storytelling that don’t interfere with the gameplay.

These things are, impressively, all optional. A very good player might never fail a trace, and might be able to use a shell to kick the hacker out of their system before anything is deleted, or else kill the ForkBomb process before your PC crashes, replacing the x-server.sys file before losing their GUI — though I don’t imagine many would think fast enough to do so on their first playthrough. Players might also reject the pacemaker mission on moral grounds, which isn’t an option for any of the other quests. But it would suck to miss out on any of this. The mechanics are still relatively crude, but Uplink didn’t have these cool things.

There are other ways make your own fun, too, such as by breaking into the KFC website and altering some text on the index.html page. You can even change the background image from a picture of chicken to your favorite anime waifus or whatever, as the paths to the images refer to files in the game’s steam directory. I like this.

The DLC expansion, Labyrinths, adds needed complexity to the hacking, helping Hacknet stand apart further from its predecessor. But let’s start by describing the basic original gameplay in more concrete terms. Essentially, it’s a fast-paced game about remembering which terminal commands to use, and budgeting for time. A hack might go like this: you first overload shells on your network of hacked PCs to break through proxies, close the shells to free up RAM, and run software to exploit specific vulnerabilities by looking at the port types and numbers, like “FTPBounce 21” or “SQLBufferoverflow 1433”. (You’re not the one who writes these executables; you’re just a very nimble script kiddie.) Since RAM is limited, you can’t break every port at the same time, but you might use “analyze” and “solve” commands to break through a firewall while you wait, as this doesn’t require RAM. Once you’re into a system, you search for networked systems, copy or delete whatever files as needed, wipe your logs, and get out.

Or, well, don’t. Despite being constantly warned about passive traces from logs, I was never once passively traced, and apparently, it wasn’t actually a thing in the base game. You can begin to see why I called it “crude”.

Also, unlike Uplink, you don’t have a lot of control over the time a trace takes, as there’s no bouncing your connection several times around the world to force a corporation to slowly hack its way back to you. (There’s still a connection map, but it’s just a frustratingly messy way of finding servers, when what you really need is a list with a search bar.) You don’t allocate more RAM to a task to get it to finish faster. You don’t upgrade your hardware either. There’s not even money to buy said hardware with, as nobody seems to paying you for the jobs you do for them, except maybe in some abstract sense, in that you don’t have to worry about paying your electric bill. I actually think it’s fine to have different priorities, to eschew currency and hardware-based progression — especially when the game’s difficulty curve is actually pretty good — but it feels a little barren without the inclusion of personal gain, especially in the absence of hacking banks and transferring money into your own account, which is a big part of the fantasy in the first place.

Conversely, Uplink didn’t bother so much with filling PCs with personal emails and chat logs, which was to its credit: Hacknet has some funny jobs and security holes, but its writing isn’t as funny as it thinks it is, and not one character knows the difference between “it’s” and “its”, which drives me crazy. Otherwise, it just randomly populates PCs with actual Bash.org quotes, which, I mean, some of them are good, but I’ve seen them before, and I’d rather see good original content. If you can’t do that, can you not just forego this entirely and save everyone some time?

Thankfully, the DLC steps it up in every department. The mechanics increase in complexity: The SSLTrojan hack only works through an already exploited port, which has to be specified, so in the console the player has to type “SSLTrojan 443 -f 21” to use the FTP server as an entrypoint, for example. The BitTorrent hack works quickly, but then takes a long time to close itself and free up RAM, so you’re encouraged to type “ps” to get a list of processes and kill it as soon as it’s done. While you’re not hacking something, the phase of investigating for IP addresses and passwords is expanded into a game in its own right, having the player send password reset emails to a mainframe administrator’s account, joining IRC channels, or deliberately appending a whitelist.txt file with your own IP address when you’d otherwise be trying to remove every trace of it.

The DLC’s story is also better. Hacking into Neopets — and it being considered one of the more impregnable websites on the internet — is actually hilarious. There are interesting ambiguities about the motives and history of the person you’re working for, and an interesting moral choice, leading to different endings. It’s your basic trolley problem scenario, except that you’re taking someone at their word that more people will die if you do nothing, and you’re actually doing nothing in place of racing against the clock to do one of the toughest hacking challenges, which is also a rare idea in games: it has the interesting effect of making you feel like you’re making the wrong choice because of the impression that you have to work hardest to get the best ending. I’m still not entirely sure where I stand on it, because it was kind of ambiguous, but I liked it. (It would have been better if the game didn’t try to use its borked autosave system to keep you from quickly getting the other ending, though.)

It’s very rare that a game’s DLC is so much better as to raise my opinion of the game as a whole, but that was definitely the case with Hacknet & Labyrinths. It still loses out in a few big ways when put side-by-side with Uplink (awkward given the age gap), and with a recent resurgence in hacking- (and actual programming)-themed games, there’s a greater diversity which I think proves that it could have distanced itself from that comparison. (I’m speaking of games like Hackmud, Quadrilateral Cowboy, and Exapunks, though I don’t really know much about any of these.) But I think it’s beyond adequate in making up for those shortcomings, and the parts that I found too simple actually serve as a good warmup for the DLC, provided that players don’t accidentally put themselves on the DLC questline early. When things trend so clearly in a positive direction, it makes me very interested in the possibility of a Hacknet 2.

Hacknet also has an appreciable sense of its responsibilities as a game, including clever uses of self-directed play, and not forcing story beats down the player’s throat. So that’s cool, too.

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


Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow

The Castlevania retrospective continues! Well, this time around, it’s the year 2035, and you’re Soma Cruz, the cool teen reincarnation of Dracula. A welcome excuse to turn into a bat again! There’s actually a story this time, and I like it, too, even though every other character — including the legendary Alucard — spends the whole game doing basically nothing.

We’re still without X and Y buttons here, but Aria of Sorrow already feels like Castlevania’s Nintendo DS era. A lot of mechanics come together, sticking around for at least a few games: a reasonable backdash, a variety of primary weapons, and a ditching of the subweapons system, finally daring to mess with the heart-counter that was there since the NES, even though its inclusion hadn’t always made sense. I may be a little biased on that last front, as I always tend to hoard consumables for some ever-distant rainy day, even when I know it’s foolish. But Aria gives you back all your regular resources at the save point, and I like it: I think it’s better suited for meandering exploration.


This has little to do with anything, but after Aria of Sorrow came two games with shitty generic anime art, so I want to appreciate Ayami Kojima while I’m in the moment.

Aria also manages to improve the visuals without sacrificing sound quality as its predecessor did, which might lead me to believe that it was just an excuse, but word is that the team redeveloped their audio tools for Aria and dedicated “more cartridge space and processor cycles” to sound. This might mean that it never draws quite as many big sprites and effects on screen at a given time — I never really noticed — but it’s impressive that it looks as good as it does, and falls more in line with the Metroid games on the system.

I love the new soul-gathering system: you basically go around obtaining every monster’s ability, as if catching Pokemon, and you equip these as magic spells and passive abilties. It’s hard to describe the joy of killing a “Kicker Skeleton” and stealing its flying kick move. But the execution is unnecessarily grindy. When I wrote about CotM, I mentioned that I was kind of okay with that grind — and I welcomed the opportunity to catch up on some podcasts — but rare items are enough for that, and there was a missed opportunity to do something more creative here than simply killing the same monster until its soul randomly shoots out. If it had taken the form of a thief skill, or a “Blue Magic” type of ability where Soma needs to be hit by the skill in question, it could have lead to some interesting puzzles where specific conditions had to be set up, like getting a monster to low health, or placing some kind of trap down that the monster has to attack, or anything else, because they really could have done whatever they wanted with this.

There’s a ring that boosts drop rates for souls, and because I didn’t have the money to buy it, I chose to wait until the end of the game to fill the gaps in my soul collection. This meant I missed my best chances to play with some fun-looking abilities. And some of the abilities I did have were too similar to each other, like Devil, Manticore, and Khali, where the only difference seemed to be cosmetic. Even so, as it stands, it’s a vast improvement over CotM’s card combination system, and I probably found actual use for 60-75% of them, which was far better than letting one spell carry me through the whole game, which is what happened during Harmony.

you get a cat

“YOU get a cat! And YOU get a cat!”

I used a variety of weapons, too. You’re not just looking for the biggest stat stick here. I didn’t use the heavier weapons like hammers, but I would alternate between typical horizontal swords and vertically swung broadswords as the situation demanded, or even switching to a sword of another element if the situation called for it. Though we’re not quite in the DS era in this regard — you still only have one attack button, and the single-screen interface makes it tedious to pause and check what an enemy is weak against — if I were fighting something that seemed to be taking many hits to die, I found that for the first time in the series, I was willing to make that change. Sometimes.

It’s the little things, too. I can pause the game without stopping the background music. I can time an attack to land just before I hit the ground to preserve my momentum, and cancel the end of a heavy attack’s animation with a backdash, which elevates the combat to a more interesting level. Suspend saves made their first appearance here, too.

It’s not a hard game, particularly, though you do see the return of extremely rude rooms with conveyor belts that lead into spikes and medusa heads that petrify you so you fall onto the conveyor belts, so all the ingredients are there. You also never get your constitution so high that you won’t take meaningful damage from spikes, which is a little mean, but just good design. On the whole, it’s probably a little easier than CotM, in part because you’re likely to overlevel while killing everything for its soul, but I suspect the diverse weaponry and spells also mean it just isn’t going to be as tight. (It also depends on whether a CotM player is willing to turn on the stationary heal spell and put the GBA down for a few minutes.)

Though it can annoying to switch between the power that makes you sink in water and the power that lets you stand on water, the use of water is far more creative than the barriers found in Dracula’s last two castles. Though you don’t get to wall-kick this time around, there’s generally more of a focus on movement than on finding the right keys for a series of bland doors, such as the ability that makes Soma fall very slowly, allowing him to extend the horizontal distance of a jump. I’m certain Aria has the best castle design of the GBA games.

Aria’s boss battles are inconsistent. Some were decent takes on classics, like Death. Many were immediately forgettable. Legion was standard, but the lead-up, featuring creepy clay dolls in the nearby chambers all collectively shuffling over to the boss room, was an amazing touch. Seeing as you’re Dracula, the final battle was probably doomed to be anticlimactic — a boring affair against a big skeletal mass with some orbs you need to shatter — but the penultimate boss is Julius Belmont, wielding Vampire Killer and all the usual subweapons, and it’s absolutely a cut above any fight in CotM or Harmony.

This time around, postgame content includes Hard mode and an actual New Game Plus. Who doesn’t love New Game Plus? It’s possible to kill at least one boss without getting its soul, in which case NG+ is a good way to get to 100%, but I managed to do it the first time around and already claimed the ultimate reward — a piece of equipment which gives Soma infinite MP — so even on Hard, NG+ would just be a way to bully all the monsters in the castle while constantly stopping time or making yourself literally invincible. If I had played this in 2003, I might have done it to get the exclusive NG+ weapons (such as Death’s scythe), but as of now I’d prefer not to linger.

There’s also a mode where you play as Julius Belmont. It’s a great idea, and he’s fun with his MP-based subweapons — he carries the holy water, axe, and cross at all times, instead of needing to find one to switch to it — but as with Maxim mode in Harmony, it’s been shoehorned into what’s supposed to be a progression-based game. I remember actually leveling up in the DS bonus modes, but Julius still doesn’t seem to here, and the first boss dies in about two hits. I think I’m good.

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