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.



The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Breath of the Wild is a top-class Zelda game, the best since Majora’s Mask at least. If Majora’s Mask had a combat system like this one, and the Sheikah Slate and its runes instead of frequently putting up gates in your path as most games in the series have done, it’d be hard to imagine a better Zelda at all. Move on to the next paragraph before I say something like “Unless you count Dark Souls.” Sorry, too late.

It’s shocking how thoroughly the series dropped what it was previously doing to commit to the open-world genre. With the towers you go climbing to reveal map regions, it seems like Nintendo would have been walking into the trap of the bland, focus-tested Triple-A experience of Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry, which not even The Witcher 3 resisted. This is what I was most worried about before the game was released. But I don’t really think that’s its problem. It hasn’t cut corners on that Nintendo charm; the atmosphere and approach to dialogue is up there with the best of their games. It’s super-Japanese, with NPCs standing outside of stores and calling you to go inside, and just being ushered into the inn in Goron City had me grinning stupidly, to say little of the process of getting into the Gerudo town, or more out-there encounters like the lady cooking mountainous piles of dubious food. There’s a real sense of character to the game, and you see it especially in the tribute to Satoru Iwata as a Princess Mononoke-esque noble beast.

As far as other series go, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dragon’s Dogma was actually the biggest influence on the Zelda team, being a well-received open-world title made right there in Japan, and it also letting you climb all over stuff and follow NPCs from their workplaces to their beds in that day-night cycle I love so much — even though here it’s mostly just used so you can get yelled at for trying to talk to people at 2 AM. Neither game tried to be Skyrim; Link is not a potential criminal. Geralt (in The Witcher 3) is fundamentally a good person too, but his is a rough world where he can be caught on the wrong side of the law for no reason other than that the laws were written by bastards. But Zelda games are bright worlds where the only evil is a reincarnating pig demon. There are no guards in the towns keeping an eye on you while you move between market stalls, and when you try to interact with a pumpkin in a cultivated field in the middle of the night, the game helpfully suggests that you come back in the daylight and try again when there’s a farmer you can give your rupees to. It’s more consistent in its good-heartedness than most games ever try to be, including Dragon’s Dogma.

However, the game is too extreme in its approach to open-endedness. I think this is the central flaw of Breath of the Wild. Yes, I love that you can run straight to Ganon once you leave the starting area and beat the game in an hour without having to glitch through a wall or something, and I love that you’ll most likely get your ass kicked if you do. But they gave up far too much control over the difficulty curve. Since they went as far as ruling that any place in the world can be the first place you travel to, everything is modular and feels disconnected. There are a few good exceptions, namely the forces of climate, which can be both very limiting in the early game, and also can be circumvented if you make the right preparations, such as by creating heat-resistance elixirs. I think this is the best way to do openness: you can go anywhere, but most options are a bad idea unless you really know what you’re doing. But you should just be doing this to get some good stuff early-on before returning to where you were, in your place in the linear questline. Morrowind was another game that let you push beyond your current level of progression by using the right scrolls or potions at the right time. But this only reflects the early game of BotW. Later on, climate means nothing beyond taking a couple tedious seconds to switch armor sets when fast-travelling to the other side of Hyrule. There’s nothing like The Glow from Fallout, where no matter how long you put off going there, you’re going to have to pop a lot of Rad-X and take it seriously.

In BotW you don’t find yourself taking many things seriously at all. It has its challenges (including the Trial of the Sword stuff I didn’t even want to do, because it spikes into being so hardcore that it doesn’t even let you save your game), but as a whole it’s dissatisfyingly easy in a way that can’t be fixed by playing on Master Mode. Frankly, it’s just too accommodating to be letting players teleport out of any situation or safely eat infinite food from the pause menu. And while I think climbing all over the terrain is cool, it wouldn’t have hurt to limit players more in this area without just by using the random element of rainy weather, as they do in shrines. The lead-up to Zora’s Domain, where it’s always raining the first time you make your way up there, feels like kind of the right idea, but I suppose you could even cheat your way around that one if you already beat the Rito dungeon and got the absurd Revali’s Gale power, which just lets you fly up over pretty much everything, and which I did not have when I was activating all the towers.

The world also feels a little too empty: rings of rocks hiding Korok seeds don’t fill a space the way a good sidequest does, and good sidequests are sorely lacking — hence the early mention to Majora’s Mask and what a good game the marriage of the two would be. And while you’re in for some amazing combat when fighting a lynel, most of the time you’re fighting bokoblins, moblins, and lizalfos. Humanoid enemies that can be killed without breaking three swords in your inventory are ideal, naturally, and the game is way more dynamic than most action games in terms of the way your ability runes come into play — distract the enemy with a bomb, drop a metal crate on their heads, and so on — or the way you can disarm enemies and make them use gimmicky weapons you drop. But these couple species just don’t go far enough to cover the Hyrule map.

There were some clever ideas hidden away in shrines — there are so many cool ways to make use of the remote bombs, stasis, magnesis, and cryonis powers and the shrines take full advantage — but they are the game at its most modular: they interrupt the exploration, rather than feeling like a part of it. Remember the interconnected caves in Link to the Past, where you’d fall down some hole and exit on a different part of the cliffside? Or experiencing the same places with changes when transitioning between the Light and Dark worlds? There’s none of that interconnectedness in BotW. Hell, there aren’t even caves, really. It’s all just surface — literally and figuratively. Hyrule Castle itself is pretty cool with its numerous entry points, waterfall paths, and bombable walls coming out from the dungeon cells back to the cliffside overlooking the castle moat, but that’s just a tiny fraction of the game.

The nostalgic power of the Zelda franchise is a nuclear bomb, with the music obviously right at the front of that. I’ve liked to see the series not rely too heavily on what came before, at least ever since Ocarina of Time 2: Twilight Princess followed the much stranger Wind Waker, but when it comes to the music and all those incredible motifs, it would be a shame not to use them. Unlike the recent Metroid game where I felt like they relied on the power of old tunes too much, BotW’s soundtrack is sparing. They really didn’t phone it in, say, pulling from Wind Waker’s Dragon Roost Island for the new Rito Village. Other favorites include Vah Medoh, the horseback night music (with its original Zelda theme callback), and various offbeat tracks that would probably feel at home in Mother 3.

The DLC also goes in heavy on the nostalgia, especially if you count Amiibo clothing sets, but the Amiibo stuff is kind of ridiculous, and I won’t go much into that. I’m all for dressing up as older versions of Link and checking out the differences in their fashion, but it’s a little sad the way some of the more unique items are implemented. Take Majora’s mask itself. In The Witcher 3, there would’ve been some fantastic sidequest where the mask had already turned up and Link would have had to nip some situation in the bud before some NPC went insane. But instead, it’s just buried in the dirt near the start of the game. And all it does is combine the effects of other monster masks you find in the game. Couldn’t it have added some kind of hexing rune to the Sheikah Slate menu while worn? Something to target an individual enemy with, like the stasis rune? Wouldn’t that have been something?

The big piece of DLC, though, culminates in a whole new dungeon Link is ostensibly clearing because he wants a dirtbike, and for no other apparent reason except maybe to test his own mettle. It’s in line with what the players are in it for, I’ll give them that. The DLC dungeon may be the best of the dungeons in the game (a low bar really), with a rad boss fight and a set of interesting puzzles based around cogwheels that actually have to be lined up and connected properly. The dirtbike itself is fun, but unfortunately seems to use some horse code in determining where the bike is allowed to be ridden, even though the bike can launch off a lot of cliffsides and the horse can’t. Even if using it on Death Mountain would be suicidal, it should be my choice to die, goddamn it.

Perhaps this sounds like I’m leading up to a thoughtful closing statement about open design in the game world and what the freedom of the dirtbike says about the greater picture, but no, not really. They’re conflicting thoughts, if anything. I want tighter design in the game, but the freedom to make the elf boy to ride a dirtbike off the side of a volcano.

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.


Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen

Dark Arisen is a very unique take on the open world action-RPG formula, and I was glad I got to play it. It’s deep in some atypical aspects and shallower than its competitors in others. Compared to Skyrim, it actually has fun combat, for one thing — I don’t remember if I’ve ever played as an archer in an action game before and actually thought things felt right in a sense the melee classes would take for granted. It’s as if the industry collectively decided that bows were these weapons that were supposed to just plink away at enemies from a safe but unsatisfying distance, but then Dragon’s Dogma came along and you were shooting ten arrows at the same time without having to stop moving, and you’re ripping through packs of wolves and harpies just as well as a sword guy doing a big spin move. I love that. It even borrows from those Yasumi Matsuno tactics games I love so much: you can change your class after learning some passive abilities, and equip the warrior’s passive augmentations on a sorcerer and so on. It’s cool as hell, even if your viable options are typically narrow.

It also forces no terrible level scaling in its open world. If you make a run out to the far end of the map at the start of the game, you can get some great gear if you can survive long enough to reach it. And when night falls, that means something in a way I haven’t felt apart from maybe Minecraft, or encountering the ghosts of Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule Field when I was nine years old or whatever and still shit at the game. One of the first things I actually didn’t like about Dark Arisen’s combat was the lack of a standard Zelda/Dark Souls lock-on feature, but then I went through a scary night with something circling around me that I couldn’t keep up with, and really had to look closely in my fading lantern light and strain my ears, and it just finally clicked how good of an idea it was to make me do that manually. It’s that much harder to know how many wolves are in a pack when you aren’t keeping a lock on one until it’s dead. Sometimes that wyvern sweeps over your head and you can only stumble around trying to see where it went before it charges at you. It wouldn’t work in every game, but it works here.

But to the other half of what I was saying, some of the other standard CRPG mechanics (like theft and crime) are basically absent. The statute of limitations applied to your brutality is such that if you leave the map and come back, nobody’s trying to attack you anymore. It’s closer to Ganbare Goemon on the SNES than Skyrim here, and Skyrim’s criminal logic already felt too crude for its purposes. But if Dark Arisen tried to compete in the complexity of its systems and the size of its sandbox, it would have failed. Its quests don’t tend to weave together different NPC relationships with the player into a complicated flow chart; they tend to be “Kill The Thing”. The best thing to do is to just play the game it wants you to be playing, instead of trying to be a bastard as part of some misguided and pointless celebration of free will.

The game’s original ideas, of which there are many, are more aptly described as “creative” rather than “unfathomably deep”. For example, climbing is a big part of combat; you climb directly onto anything bigger than a human, stabbing onto the weak spots on their head, the straps of their armor, whatever. I might have enjoyed a robust code of law and guard AI, but you know, I’ll take crawling on an cyclopes’ back like a little bug, too.

In one quest I cleared out a mine that linked two areas on the world map, and when I revisited later to use it as a shortcut, not only did the enemies not respawn, but I gained the ability to sprint there without using up stamina, as if I were in town. I could even pay a merchant there to open up new mining tunnels for my personal use. That kind of colonization of a space is one of my favorite things to see in games, and I often feel I don’t see nearly enough of it.

In character creation, you can literally just make a child, which was just about the only thing I knew about the game going in. There will be cutscenes where you’re in a room full of adults talking about the dragon you’re supposed to kill or whatever, and you’re in the frame like 140 cm tall, the height of a ten-year-old. The game doesn’t care at all, and that’s hilarious. I later bought an item in-game that let me edit my appearance, and just made my character gradually older and taller as I progressed through Bitterblack Isle. By the time I finished, I was an adult.

Here’s another great thing: there’s a forger in the seedy part of town who will make forgeries of whatever you bring him — keys, magical rings, a letter that you’ve been asked to deliver — and apart from losing their magical properties, they’re duplicated perfectly. It plays ingeniously into several quest outcomes; this guy wants a magical grimoire, so you can give it to him or give him a fake and keep the real one for yourself. What’s great is he comes back and tries to use it in front of you in a later quest, which is a real funny way to get hoisted by your own petard, or relieved that you did the nice thing. (But again, most of the quests are comparatively simple.)

The pawn system, in which you create an NPC to follow you around at all times, has to be the deepest of Dragon’s Dogma’s unique ideas. Your pawn learns from everything you do. If you find a secret passage during a quest, your pawn learns about that passage. If you discover the element a monster is weak to, your pawn learns that. Then other players hire out your pawn and if they do that quest or fight that monster, they tell the player who hired them. It’s brilliant in principle, and it gives you a cool goal of trying to make this personal NPC of yours a walking encyclopedia of the whole game world.

In practice, however, it doesn’t always work well. There are two voice actors for pawns and they like to repeat stuff a lot. You don’t command them directly, so there’s no telling if they’ll enchant your weapon with the element you want (or if they’ll do it at all), which gets frustrating. They’re also, well… slaves. Unequivocally. They literally go around calling you “master” as they carry all your shit, and it just feels shocking how obtuse the developers were about it. In fleshing out the world, they try to make it seem alright: they tell us that these aren’t human beings like the player character, and they aren’t doing this against their will, as they basically don’t have a will. But it’s these weird excuses, this sanitizing of the concept of a slave race, that actually calls it into such sharp relief. The thing is, half the CRPGs out there have some weird indentured servitude thing where you amass “followers” who hold what you tell them to hold and otherwise do what you say, and we’re used to it, as just another “gaming” quirk rather than an explicitly narrative thing. In video games you tell a companion, “Wait here,” and they stand there until their bones turn to dust without a thought to their own wishes and needs, and that’s fine, because fuck it. But when you invent “pawns,” these funny people who lack the higher cognition of humans, who are better off this way, and who wouldn’t know what to do with freedom even if they had it? The parallels with actual slavery apologia in the real world have to sink in.

There are a lot of annoying quirks when you get into the nitty-gritty parts of the game design, although I think these are mostly forgivable. The worst is probably that chests have large pools of potential items, and you’re incentivized and all but expected to stand there killing yourself over and over until the chest loads with the thing you want in it. Your endgame quest reward is actually a dagger that you can kill yourself with, seemingly for this exact purpose: there’s no quick way to load a save if you’re still alive. How sad does that sound? Although it was standard in RPGs for decades to put a certain rare item in the fancy chest at the end of the secret tunnel or whatever, Dragon’s Dogma reinvents the wheel in the worst way. One of my favorite things about exploration is getting rewarded with unique items; you may never be sent to a small bandit camp as part of a quest, but it’s there, and you can find a cool bandit mask to wear if you conquer it. Fallout New Vegas was especially good about this with its scattered unique variants on all the guns. Dragon’s Dogma has some cool things like this, but the treasure pool RNG takes half the fun right out of it.

There’s also permanent class-based level scaling. It’s not significant enough to ruin anything if you don’t obsessively plan out which classes you need to be at which levels, but if you ignore stat growth and decide in post-game that you’d like to try being a sorcerer, you’ll be a garbage sorcerer with low magic attack. And frankly, I did mess it up a little; your starting classes have worse level scaling but you’re forced to stick with them until level 10. I didn’t find the inn where you can switch vocations until level 11, which meant I had one bad level right off the bat. I think this kind of thing is bad design; it only serves to make players feel bad for being what they want to be, when they want to be it.

I like when a game’s mechanics give me the freedom to break the balance somewhat, but I don’t like it when a game is already given to me broken, especially when the reasoning is that real-world capitalism is leaking into the fantasy space and they want to encourage people to spend money on a new version. The thought of rebalancing the early parts of Dragon’s Dogma, given the new Dark Arisen starting gifts, was apparently met with a shrug. You’re given an infinite warp stone at the start just for playing the Dark Arisen version of the game, but then you still find consumable versions of that item, as if you’d care. It takes a long time to outgrow the “DLC” gear they throw you, too: some players are likely still wearing it when they beat the main campaign’s dragon boss. Sometimes the poor balance doesn’t even have anything to do with DLC gifts, though. I tried using other gear in my jewelry slot, but I found myself wearing Barbed Nails all the way to the end. If you rolled a Master Ring in super-late postgame with the same two bonuses and the very best possible numbers, it still wouldn’t even be half as good. Sure, a Master Ring can be many other things as well, but it just seems wrong to me.

Worse, the game has a pretty insensible approach to its numbers. If an enemy has 1000 defense and you have 1001 attack, your first 1000 attack gets through that defense and you do 1 damage. If you equip just a slightly different weapon, boosting your attack by roughly 10% to 1100, you’ll then do one hundred times more damage to the same enemy. While it’s usually not quite that stark, it still puts way too much emphasis on getting better gear and worrying about the breakpoints you have to meet for the combat to be fun. With the added Dark Arisen super-boss, Daimon, I went straight from doing no damage against him — quickly giving up, as there was no point to trying — to being so strong that the fight was disappointing when I finally returned. I had made a new bow, and learned that you could stack the effects of four Tagilus’ Miracles. And now that I remember the Tagilus Miracle, Barbed Nails hardly seem broken at all.

It’s far too easy to miss entire quests when not checking in on certain parts of town before progressing through the main storyline. Inventory management is absolutely tedious, as is mining ores or slowly scrounging through sacks on the ground for crafting materials, which I wish the game could have just skipped making me do. But I felt the same way about picking up bits of twine and broom handles in Witcher 3. It’s everywhere now, and I don’t know why.

The “Beloved” system is a mess: you usually end up finding out at the end of the game that your character romanced someone you don’t give a shit about, because you accidentally maxed your affection with a half-dozen NPCs and it just picked one for you. I went for Mercedes the first time and got Quina. On my second playthrough I went for Selene and got Aelinore, even after reading up on all the stuff about how it works. I finally got Mercedes when playing Speed Run mode, and that came as a surprise to me. They might have at least introduced a point in the main questline where the game asks you which of the top five characters comes to mind, and tagged that one. But when I hear that literally anyone apart from two or three key NPCs can be the player’s beloved — including Feste or Simone — I think I got off easy.

I loved all the little Berserk references, though it felt kind of shoehorned when I was getting thrown in the dungeons for being in Aelinore’s room. As (A) a female character who was (B) way too overpowered for the town guards, acting out that scene made me briefly feel like the world was a lot smaller than the setting of Berserk, especially considering the dungeon Griffith was thrown in, built over the old site of Wyndham.

But there were also the cool nods to the “witch of the forest” stuff, as well as more general European fantasy elements that have been much more poorly executed on by games actually made in the West. Like the enemies: cauterizing the heads of a hydra after chopping them off, hunting a griffin by luring it to the ground, evading the petrifying breath of a cockatrice, or targeting the different body parts of a chimera, where the snake, goat, and lion heads each have their own skills and health bars. You can see that the designers really cared about portraying this part of the adventure just as they imagined it in their minds.

And I can’t forget the experience of dragging myself through a windy canyon at night, surrounded by tunnels filled with bandits who were still powerful enough to kill me, and disturbing a giant golem with brightly-lit magical charms on its body, essentially the only thing I could even see in the pitch-black darkness. That whole expedition felt far more memorable than any encounter I can think of in a number of other open world RPGs, and ultimately, I think it’s because the designers nailed this aspect so well that I have such a highly positive impression of this game.

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

Metroid: Zero Mission

This holds up pretty well. The cutscene art and music seem a little crude on the GBA, though I’m not sure if the hardware’s any excuse. I always thought from games like Circle of the Moon, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, and Mother 3 that the GBA really hits a sweet spot in terms of the instrument fidelity and enforced constraint. Super Metroid‘s soundtrack on the SNES is a minimalist masterpiece, but I didn’t really feel like the music here was anything special.

There’s still quite a bit of content after the point where the original NES game ends, and the additions are interesting. They take away your suit and make you do stealth segments, which is kind of a hard sell, but it kind of works. Getting chased between rooms by space pirates who can kick your ass, and still being able to do wall-kicks and find your own way around, doesn’t make for a bad approach to stealth. Nor is it incompatible with what the series is all about, as far as I’m concerned. I had already been thinking about what else could be done in the Metroid series without just repeating the same formula–the last three Metroid games I’ve played now have been direct remakes (of Metroid 2, 2 again, and 1, respectively), and at times it felt formulaic to the point that I didn’t know what the point was, especially with Samus Returns, which stretched this out over a much larger world map. What is Metroid, really? Am I playing all these because I think it’s important to use 99-unit energy tanks for player health? Of course not. As long as a Metroid game allows me to find my way around for myself, at my own pace, and is open enough to allow for some pretty deep advanced techniques to get some upgrades and abilities early on (while not ultimately skipping whole areas), I think I’m good. I overlooked this in talking about Samus Returns: you tend to have to do things when it wants you to do them, and it was a little joyless by comparison.

Zero Mission‘s design can be a little obtuse, though. Usually you have some indication of what area you’re supposed to be in, but even on the primary path you might need to bomb some subtly-different ground tile to progress onward. I got stuck for a while because of this. Mind you, because it was early in the game when I didn’t have too many other places to be, I was bound to find that tile sooner or later. And on the bright side, it got me to adjust to how Zero Mission likes to hide things. But it was far from the only time I got stuck. In Ridley’s area I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do until I gave up and turned around, only to find out that backtracking was the way to progress: a defeated boss moved away from its arena after I’d left its room, creating a new path for me. It’s as if some designer said, “Let’s have it so in this area, players have to butt their heads against a wall and then give up in order to find the way forward.” It’s a minor thing, I suppose — every player would eventually turn around, even if they could think of no other new place to visit with their current gear — but I can’t imagine a world in which that was the ideal way to have the player’s path through the level flow.

But that’s only regarding the main path. When it comes to optional ammo pickups, the missile caches, finding those gets far less intuitive. There are clever sequence-breaking tricks that the game never teaches you, but which the faithful Metroid players would already know about going in, like wall-kicking up a single wall or doing infinite bomb-jumps. I found it thrilling to use these to get up to hard-to-reach areas early on, assuming I’d otherwise be forced to wait until I had the space-jump to do them. But you don’t get to use the space-jump at all during the original NES stretch of the game. At some point these advanced tricks seemed to stop being the quick-and-dirty way to do get these pickups, but the only way. Many secrets I couldn’t find at all: I was convinced I’d be able to keep exploring Crateria after blowing up Mother Brain, despite anticipating the self-destruct timer, because there were power-bomb-yellow doors on the map, and I hadn’t found power bombs yet. Oh, I hadn’t entirely been wrong: you aren’t normally introduced to power bombs until after Mother Brain, in the new Zero Mission content. But you don’t get to keep exploring Zebes after it blows up, either — at least, not without loading up Super Metroid. So what gives? Well, if you see something to power-bomb on Zebes, the only way to do it is by using some esoteric diagonal ballspark move I never would’ve thought of, to get a different power-bomb pickup early. You know how in Super Metroid, you could use the mockball trick to get super missiles early? Imagine needing to approach that same level of esoteric nonsense for 100% completion: that was roughly how this felt. It also explains none of it. Super Metroid actually had animals that showed you the wall-kick, assuming you were willing to stop and watch. But there’s nothing like that here. I find that a little strange, given it’s a remake of the original game. Where else should a player expect a fresh start, with no foreknowledge of how things work?

To some extent I think it’s kind of cool and old-school to have secrets I’m not going to find, but I would’ve only really gone in for that if I could reload a save after the credits or something and get to return to before Mother Brain died, letting me do it at my own pace. I also resented the use of the shinespark for these. There were multiple occasions where the levels felt too cramped for it, and I had some trouble with the controls, at least in using the 3DS D-pad. (The GBA, unlike the SNES or the sort of controller you’d use playing AM2R on PC, also lacks X and Y buttons, and has to cram more functionality into what’s left.) Shinesparking is also used in more complicated ways than before, often requiring you to chain them by using a new mechanic where your launch gets interrupted on slopes, while retaining momentum. You tend to have to do things in a very specific and calculated way, hitting precise but ambiguously-textured blocks.

Even when you found the secrets, collecting powerups gets pretty challenging sometimes, but this was the kind of challenge I happened to appreciate. One room I just barely noticed near Ridley, with two missile packs in it, required basically all the skill I felt I had, even after I figured out how I was supposed to do it. I had to manage rolling into a shaft, clearing away blocks with my beam, and shooting missiles upward, before the blocks at my feet crumbled away. It was getting frustrating, but I felt extremely gratified when I pulled it off. This was ten times harder than any of the Zero Mission bosses, and ten times harder than the skill level needed for obtaining any pickups in Samus Returns: there’s no time-slowing power here to make a joke out of the crumbling floor tiles. And yet at the same time, Samus Returns had bosses that required extreme precision, being hard as hell and the highest-quality aspect of the game. Strange.

Having complained that Samus Returns’ map-revealing ability was too much, it might seem a little silly to be making a strong complaint in the other direction here, but Zero Mission has classic map stations, and they just don’t reveal enough to really matter. The desired middle-ground should be obvious, though: add map stations that take some effort to reach, but which actually reveal gaps on the map tiles where there are entrances to rooms you’ve never been in. It’s odd to me that Samus Returns did away with the map stations and just let you see everything around you in a giant radius when this other option is here. Starting blind in an area, and having the map room as an objective in itself, has always been a great way to design the levels.

I liked this one a bit more than Samus Returns. It had its own strengths, but where it didn’t offer enough to justify its longer playtime, Zero Mission tried new things that worked, and has stronger fundamentals. The openness with which you could use tricks to get over ledges early or do a sequence of rooms in reverse — without doing some directionless amorphous design where you have no sense of where you’re going at all — is top-tier among the other games in the series. But I’d have loved it if it were ported into AM2R with some changes here and there, like adjusting the shinesparking a little and benefiting from a more informative map screen. Mainly, I have some regrets that the game’s post-Mother Brain sequence got in the way of me finding everything for myself. It’s not a long game, but I’d rather not start over anytime soon. I’ve never been a Metroid speedrunner, and I think doing things slowly, in one go, at my own pace, should remain a core part of the Metroid series, 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.


Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dark Souls 3

DS3 looks and plays fantastically, and for better or worse, most of its changes to the formula have been pretty safe ones: for example, the arcane rules of covenant-switching and equipment upgrading have been streamlined. Good things about Dark Souls 1, like the lack of an Agility stat, three distinct equip load brackets, and Soul Level-based matchmaking, have returned. Dark Souls 2’s better mechanical innovations are here too, like the engine itself, aspects of PvP, and more situational freedom with four equippable rings.

There are bigger changes, too, like the new weapon arts, and a mana system for spellcasting (the flask allotment is a great touch). These are especially good for PvP; this way a weapon can have standard, reliable attacks, and also be as gimmicky and weird as one could ever desire, and the attunement stat gains a little value even in strictly melee builds. And nobody can just count out how many casts of Crystal Soul Spear you have left.

For these and other reasons I had more fun in actual PvP combat than ever before, though I found it an incredible hassle to actually rank up in most covenants, whether I was trying to fight honorably or just grief my way to 30 wins. Mound Makers was hilarious, but in Rosaria’s Fingers I was likely to get beaten up by a gang of allied phantoms or the host would just hide somewhere, and this after waiting a long time to successfully invade without a connection error, etc. Some, like Farron, just had to be grinded out from monster drops. It also seemed terribly pointless that Sentinels and Darkmoons shared a purpose; the way I would have done Darkmoon would be to have a revenge covenant with no indictments, but to put a counter on any player that used a red eye orb, which would open them to a retaliatory Darkmoon invasion. Wouldn’t that have been cool?

Even with this being the third installment, the same terrible seams in the netcode/online experience do appear. I’ve found myself stuck, unable to quit the game or use a bonfire for several minutes as the game tried to connect me to some imaginary invader. And the new thing I’ve found to dislike about the matchmaking is the separate weapon-level limit. For one thing, this fragments the pool of available players, making things seem more dead than they really are. They could’ve fixed this by just temporarily downscaling one player’s weapon level to that of the other. The other thing is, I felt pressured to never change my weapon until very late in the game. If I had a +10 weapon and I switched to a +6, I’d still be matched up with an invader with a +10. Disincentivizing experimentation like this is pretty bad. You could solve this problem too: if the matchmaking only checked for weapons in your inventory and ignored the bonfire box, you could lower your weapon scaling at any time, and not unfairly.

I didn’t enjoy managing the sidequests, and without deeper changes to the gameplay formula, I don’t think the Souls games are suited to elaborate ones with narrow windows to interact with characters. Dark Souls to me is supposed to be very friendly to a blind run of the game–you die a lot, but you make progress and you aren’t disincentivized from continuing without help–but I think NPC questlines where someone dies because you didn’t talk to them before killing a boss or whatever is kind of bullshit. DS1 had Solaire and Siegmeyer but that was about it; in DS3, it’s everybody, and they’re often interconnected.

One of the more unfortunate things about DS2 was the arrangement of the environments; to put it another way, the lack of any arrangement. You quick-travelled around and never had a sense of how deep you were the way you did in DS1. It had its creative ideas too, mind you, and I miss the way you’d colonize a space in that game by spreading fire to its sconces. But for all the places DS3 backpedalled to DS1, I’m kind of shocked that they kept the weird warpy design of DS2. It feels at times lazy, even if some of the level designs are very good, like the way the Cathedral of the Deep forks around and continually leads back to the Cleansing Chapel bonfire in inventive ways. I don’t think it’s masochistic to take away bonfire warping: DS1’s shortcuts worked great, and if there was any problem there, it was with running around to four distinct blacksmiths to get your weapons upgraded, and that certainly wouldn’t be a problem now that everyone just obediently hangs out in one hub. I’m also curious about other possibilities: what if you could warp to an isolated hub region and back, but other than that, had to get around completely on your own, and the game world had been designed to accommodate that?

Some new innovations in Dark Souls design felt gimmicky rather than really taking the formula to the next level. There were areas where enemies would fight each other, and you were given opportunities to sneak around a patrol, but this could sometimes feel out-of-place. I remember a big demon in the catacombs who must have one-shot me a half-dozen times, and mind you, one of the things I love about the original game (which probably made my SL1 run possible) is that you’re almost never in a situation where you will die in one hit; it goes against the game’s design principles. I later found out that the enemies in this area would attack this demon for you; you could lead it around and even let a mimic kill it. It was designed as such, but it seemed so against the brave face-to-face encounters I felt Dark Souls was all about that it didn’t even cross my mind; I just got annoyed that the skeletons were getting in my way and kept stubbornly throwing myself at the demon until it died the old-fashioned way.

And at times I felt like maybe these ideals of challenge and personal achievement were all in my head, because the game didn’t really seem structured to support them. Was it really True Dark Souls to do every boss without ever summoning another player for aid? Or just another self-imposed bragging rights challenge, no different from the ones people come up with in any other game? I’m not sure anymore.

But the bosses were, for the most part, a nice step up from DS2. Wolnir would be an example of a boss I really don’t like: the goal is always “Easy to learn, hard to master,” right? Wolnir is hard to comprehend, but easy to master: I kept dying at the start from some aura attack I couldn’t even see, and I had no idea what the hell was going on, but once I figured out where to stand, the fight was a joke. On the other hand, some of the best bosses include Soul of Cinder, Gael, and Midir, but here I start to notice something: these, while being polished and impressive in their own right, are somewhat derivative rehashes of Gwyn, Artorias, and Kalameet respectively. The game is, in a word, derivative, and this derivative gaze is focused in one place: DS1. From that, I can see why a new property like Bloodborne could make people more enthusiastic.

I honestly see DS3’s constant looking-backwards, both mechanically and thematically, as a deliberate statement, an Art Game if you will, but actually having more to say than most Extremely Art Games ever do, and through the perspective of AAA development no less. I think there’s no mistaking that it’s one of the bigger flaws of the game, but it’s also, possibly, the whole point. Hidetaka Miyazaki is a very idealistic and committed game designer and here I feel like he’s inserted his feelings about being told to Come Back to a game he already made by turning the whole thing hollow and sad, which is, when you think about it, very Dark Souls. This is what becomes of a world when you linger and stagnate instead of moving forward–something like that. I can’t be sure.

But is it fun? In some ways, yeah, absolutely. I literally laughed out loud the first time fighting Soul of Cinder when he started using sorcery, pyromancy, and miracles interchangeably in addition to all his weapons. And even traditional enemies like Silver Knights (whether they should be making a return or not) have been subtly refined in ways I appreciate. Even so, I’m certainly not planning to do another SL1 playthrough. I don’t have half the enthusiasm for it, even if someone were to tell me that the full game is as fair at low levels as DS1 had been.

I also think I may inevitably come down harder on DS3 because whether or not I want to admit it, the magic of a person’s first Souls game will probably never come back. This doesn’t wipe away the flaws I’ve already named, but it’s very possible that people who never played DS1 would feel like they discovered what video games were all about by playing this, because the pace of its combat is an elaborate dance, because it doesn’t baby you with tutorials, because the lore is sad and beautiful… whatever the reason. But me, I’ve seen that already.

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