Sunday, April 7, 2019

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice review, plus some trendy discussion on difficulty

Sekiro released two weeks ago, and it has since consumed every second of my life that wasn't spent doing things that must be done as a person who is alive and intends to continue being alive. I get like this with FromSoft games. Initially, it's to beat the spoilers, to be among the first to discover the new world that this developer has laid out. Then it's to master everything. A FromSoft game, for me, isn't finished when the credits have rolled. It's finished when there are no challenges left to conquer. With nearly a hundred hours logged and every achievement unlocked, as of today, that's finally happened.

I say this for two reasons. The first is to underline that Sekiro is pretty much everything I want and expect out of a FromSoft game. The second is so nobody can throw variants of the old "git gud" argument at me when I say that I think every Souls game should ship with an easy mode.

The thing about Sekiro is that it's tough even by the standards of a company known for this sort of thing. Dark Souls, for better or worse, is universally recognized as the poster boy of hardcore challenge, yet FromSoft seems to have invested its time since in demonstrating just how good we had it back then, by stripping away failsafe options we once took for granted. Bloodborne took away our shields, and now in Sekiro, it's counters only, plus you can't summon, and dying gives every other character in the game the goddamn plague.

And look, I love it. Going from loathing the original Dark Souls to including it within my top three favorite games of all time is the sort of learning curve and reward you just don't get from any other developer. But when I imagine a game like Sekiro including an easy mode, the effects are only positive. It means more people get to love a thing that I love, because they can enjoy it on their own terms. It means that those who physically can't play Sekiro as-is -- because they're disabled or else just lack the motor reflex skills -- won't be walled off.

I understand some of the arguments to the contrary. This isn't generally a discussion we have with other mediums, and in fact, broadening the appeal of, say, a movie is generally frowned upon. Whenever a studio mandates that a film's content be toned down to secure a PG-13 rating, it's rightly viewed as the compromising of an artistic vision. And if the question was whether FromSoft should lighten the load for everyone, I'd object. These are obviously games designed for a specific type of player, and at some point we need to acknowledge that not everything is for everybody. I get that.

But let's say, for a moment, that Sekiro shipped with an optional assisted mode, given that such an choice hasn't stopped, say, the Bayonetta games from being regarded as hardcore character action magnum opuses. Let's also say that it wouldn't be possible to switch difficulties mid-game, putting to rest the popular argument that players overwhelmed with frustration would be tempted to bump it down in the heat of the moment rather than soldiering through. I still get the experience I want, and more people get the experience that they want.

To say that's not a good thing reeks of gatekeeping to me, especially now that so much of this discussion is being rightly framed as an accessibility issue. Not a lot of people argue that subtitles, colorblind modes, or rebindable controls compromise a developer's vision. No reason this should, either. And besides, I have a strange hunch that the same people panicking over the prospect of FromSoft losing its artistic license also boycotted Battlefield V for featuring a female lead, so I'll continue to point the finger at rush of being part of an exclusive "club" as the driving issue here.

Of course, the reason this argument has sprung up is because Sekiro is far and away the most difficult game FromSoft has ever released, enough so that even a number of longtime Souls fans seem to have been turned off by it. Even as someone who loves the game, I'll admit that it goes a bit too far in places. The final boss in particular is a four-phase marathon against a guy with a goddamn submachine gun where the most effective strategy is to just spend most of the fight running away and luring him into using a jump attack that leaves him vulnerable for a few quick strikes from behind. For as replayable as FromSoft's titles are, they have yet to make a game where I'm not dreading at least one segment upon revisit, whether it's the Bed of Chaos, Yahar'gul or (the newest entry) Snake Eyes Shirahagi.

For the most part, though, Sekiro worked like a charm on me, precisely because its relentless difficulty forces me to master new tricks. Countering is something I rarely bothered with in previous Souls games -- it was always just a showy move where the risks outweighed the rewards -- but here, it's mandatory.

See, while Sekiro is still very recognizably a Souls game on a number of levels -- from the way its world is laid out to the familiar mechanics it transplants from Hidetaka Miyazaki's past work -- the combat has received a massive overhaul to the point that even FromSoft vets will run smack into a wall for the opening hours. Stamina has long been the backbone of Souls combat, but here, it's called "poise" and it only applies to blocking, meaning that both you and your enemies can attack endlessly. So remaining on the defensive until your enemies inevitably need to recharge is no longer an option. They'll wail on you without relent until your guard is broken.

That's where countering comes in. It's a simple act of hitting the block button right when an attack lands, and doing so successfully will drain the enemy's poise rather than yours. Simply standing there, holding the block button and absorbing hits, will eventually break your guard and leave you vulnerable. Instead, the way to win is to redirect that poise damage back at your assailant. Breaking an enemy's guard opens them up to a finisher. It's possible to kill any enemy in the game -- including bosses -- without entirely draining its health meter. While it's a tricky system to learn (as it involves memorizing attack patterns to the point that you can successfully deflect long combos), nailing it is one of the most empowering experiences in any video game I've ever played. It feels absolutely incredible.

I mentioned that FromSoft has been slowly stripping away our options in combat, and it's evidenced in Sekiro's total lack of character builds. Not only are we playing as a named protagonist this time (with spoken dialog and everything!), but we only have one primary weapon and no real leeway over our attributes. Grinding isn't even really a thing anymore, since the means to improve both our attack power and defense come in the form of finite resources. You can slightly customize your play style with a skill tree and a set of limited-use attachments for your robot arm -- oh yeah, your character has a robot arm, by the way -- but for the most part, there's only one way to fight.

Where Sekiro opens up, and where it continues to diverge from its Souls brethren, is in the way players move about levels, and the number of options they have in approaching tough situations. The main character is a shinobi, and as such, you're given the option to jump, hang, wall-run, and otherwise just navigate levels in a more three-dimensional sense than we're used to in Miyazaki's games. There's even an Arkham Asylum-esque grappling hook that you can use to quickly sling yourself from various points around the impressively open levels.

The result is the introduction of stealth into a series that previously barely featured it. Sekiro was originally intended to be a Tenchu game. I've never played one of those, so I can't speak to the similarities, but I'm led to believe that there are clear parallels in the ways you can sidestep traditional combat by one-shotting wandering enemies from the shadows.

It's an important balance for a game as frequently rage-inducing as Sekiro often is, where the big climactic boss encounters funnel you into a very specific method of play. I don't think a game as brutal as Sekiro would survive as a straight-up boss rush, where we spend hours making dents in a seemingly insurmountable foe only to start the process all over again immediately for the next battle, but it's the moments of exploration and wonder that keep the Souls games from becoming exhausting, and Sekiro's stealth-centric main levels compensate for the increased challenge of its title fights.

Speaking of which, how does Sekiro stand up to the other Souls games from a world-building perspective? Well, it's a bit of a mixed bag for me, though much of it comes down to preference. FromSoft's usual style of indirect storytelling is in full force, rewarding players who read between the lines and giving important contexts to areas that would be throwaway transitional levels in a game by any other developer.

On the other hand, Sekiro's feudal Japan setting is extremely genre, and it's a genre that I just don't find as inherently fascinating as the entropic fantasy of Dark Souls and the Lovecraftian horror of Bloodborne. Again, it's all just personal taste, but the warring clans and blood of dragons feel like well-tread territory among Japanese games, and so many characters in this game speak in the same solemn grumble that I found myself wishing the subtitles would label the speaker. The opening hours of the game also have the Nioh problem of repetitive, indistinguishable environments (pagodas for days), though Sekiro's second half is a massive improvement in this regard, with the gorgeous vistas of Mount Kongo and the Sunken Valley providing some memorably colorful sights.

But my general indifference to Sekiro's lore is pretty much the only reason I don't quite regard this game with the same awe that I reserve for masterpieces like Dark Souls and Bloodborne, because not only is it at least as tight and satisfying as those games, but with a revised combat system and a Tenchu-esque focus on stealth, it carves out a unique identity for itself even as it shares many recognizable qualities of Miyazaki's previous work. But having said all of that, know that this debate over accessibility hasn't sprung up for no reason. Sekiro wasn't my breaking point, but it left me wondering what will be.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

I've never cared less about the Oscars than this year, but here are my predictions anyway

Best Picture: Roma
Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón (Roma)
Best Actor: Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)
Best Actress: Glenn Close (The Wife)
Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali (Green Book)
Best Supporting Actress: Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk)
Best Original Screenplay: The Favourite
Best Adapted Screenplay: BlacKkKlansman
Best Animated Feature: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Best Documentary Feature: RBG
Best Foreign Language Film: Roma
Best Cinematography: Roma
Best Costume Design: Black Panther
Best Documentary Short Subject: Period. End of Sentence.
Best Film Editing: Vice
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Vice
Best Original Score: If Beale Street Could Talk
Best Original Song: "Shallow" (A Star Is Born)
Best Production Design: The Favourite
Best Animated Short Film: Bao
Best Live-Action Short Film: Marguerite
Best Sound Editing: First Man
Best Sound Mixing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Best Visual Effects: Avengers: Infinity War


My predictions last year.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Resident Evil 2 remake is great, but it flubs the two-character mechanic

So that Resident Evil 2 remake is damn good stuff, huh? Maybe that would come as a bit more of a surprise if RE7 hadn't demonstrated that, after generations of experimentation, Capcom finally remembers what made this series great to begin with. Nevertheless, the updated RE2 is a near-perfect cross-section of old and new. It's fluid, precise and gorgeous, but also confidently boasts the small scale that Resident Evil abandoned after this very entry. Most of the game is set in and around one (very iconic) building, and the claustrophobia is real - the more we try to claw our way out, the deeper into hell we fall.

The remake of RE1 famously consisted of roughly 70% new content, and while that doesn't quite seem to be the case with the new RE2 - the layout is mostly identical, and all of the major plot beats still happen in the same order - Capcom has rearranged enough of the familiar material that even those who have played through the original numerous times, as I have, will be on edge. I trust at this point that I don't need to explain why RE2 is a classic, nor do I need to detail how the remake preserves its legacy - the rest of the internet has you covered at the moment. Instead, I want to focus on one small but crucial way that the new RE2 misses its potential.

The original RE2 featured what was rather eye-rollingly referred to as the "zapping" system, wherein the campaign's full story was gleaned through two back-to-back playthroughs. You could choose to play as either Leon or Claire, and each would offer a slightly different perspective on the same general events. When you finished the game with one character, you had the option to start "Scenario B," a slightly abbreviated version of the same campaign depicting what the other protagonist was doing during all of this. Although Scenario B had you repeating many of the same puzzles and encounters, there were enough new beats to keep things relatively fresh, and the shared continuity between the two playthroughs manifested in surprising ways - say, if Leon doesn't pick up the machine gun, it'll still be around for Claire to retrieve.

On the surface, the remake offers the same feature - Claire and Leon are both playable, and you'll still need to complete what's now called a "2nd Run" in order to see the entirety of the story. Each campaign has a unique subplot, and the revisit is considerably shorter, mainly since getting out of the police station is a much simpler affair the second time. But the replay still felt a bit more arduous to me than it ever did in the original, and there are a couple of reasons for that.

Firstly, to be fair, the zapping system was just an inherently strongly sell to me when there were fewer games to play. There are games from my childhood that I haven't touched for 15 or 20 years that I still remember more vividly than stuff I played months ago. With more time, less money, and a smaller overall market, we had to get the most out of what we owned in the days of the original RE2. So part of my indifference to the remake's 2nd Run system is a bias in how I consume games now versus two decades ago. I'm not looking for excuses to replay games. If anything, I'm looking for excuses to put them down.

But I can't fault RE2 for giving committed players a bit of extra value. Even without the double campaign, we still get multiple difficulties, letter grading, an in-game achievement system used to unlock costumes and bonus weapons, and some additional modes in which you use limited resources to escape the station as either the last surviving soldier or a block of tofu. There's a lot here, enough to keep diehards occupied for ages while still sticking to what should have been a lean base game.

I imagine Capcom feared that a lot of modern gamers are like me, content to play through a game once and shelve it for good after the credits have rolled. That's probably why, this time, they've refused to tuck some of the game's best material into a return visit that many newbies likely won't be aware of.

The idea of Leon's and Claire's stories syncing up was never going to be airtight. Realistically, in Scenario B, all of the doors would be unlocked, all of the puzzles would be solved, and most of the enemies would be the permanent kind of dead. (Not all of them, of course - in the original RE2, you literally didn't have the means to kill every single enemy in the game.) So you already have to suspend your disbelief a bit.

But in the remake, Capcom seems to have altogether abandoned the idea of these two stories even unfolding in the same timeline. Every major threat that the first protagonist deals with returns for round two. Entire rooms get demolished only to be meticulously pieced back together in time for the second character's arrival. Leon and Claire almost never run into each other, despite following almost identical routes and often witnessing the same events from the same angles.

So what are the differences? Well, as with last time, each of them has a midpoint tangent involving a supporting character - Leon teams up with Ada and we get some setup for the broader lore, while Claire helps a girl named Sherry whose parents shed some light on how this disaster happened. That's the bulk of it. They also have unique sets of weapons, and each has a different final boss. That's about it. Disregarding obvious differences in dialog, the two campaigns are at least 90% identical.

Originally, the biggest incentive for playing through Scenario B came with a name: Mr. X. While Nemesis often gets credit as the progenitor for "stalker" enemies in horror games - nigh-unkillable menaces that routinely hunt the player, an idea perfected with the xenomorph in Alien: Isolation - Mr. X actually arrived one game earlier, hidden away as an extra goodie for anyone who braved Scenario B. Having just completed the game, you think you've got the pattern of things, and then every so often, the towering Tyrant smashes onto the scene and turns whatever you were doing into tense chase sequence. It was a genius way of making a familiar environment foreboding again.

Mr. X is currently the talk of the gaming community, and rightly so, as his upgrade in the RE2 remake is spectacular. In their original incarnations, encounters with Mr. X and Nemesis were heavily scripted affairs. You were meant to feel like you were constantly being hunted when the games were very much in control of when that happened. In the remake, the restraints are off, and Mr. X is a persistent threat. Once he enters the picture, he systematically and unrelentingly wanders the station looking for you. You can hear his lumbering footsteps even when he's in another room. And he can hear you, and will make a beeline for your last known location whenever he does. Since he can't be killed, the only response to seeing him is to turn around and run the other way.

It's sustained horror, made all the creepier by his stiff expression, interesting choice of headwear, and complete lack of a voice. He's pure, unavoidable death in a leather coat. He's good. He's really good. He's so good, in fact, that Capcom didn't have the stones to save him for the second playthrough this time.

And that leaves the 2nd Run disappointingly bereft of surprises, which is irritating, because the game still ends in such a way where there are clearly pieces missing. If you play through the game with Leon, he achieves what he largely sets out to do. But how come we barely heard from Claire this whole time? Who's this little girl she's shuttling about? Where's that one major villain that we never officially dealt with? And weren't there parts of the station that we never found the key for?

Those questions get answered, but only by chugging through a lot of the same material with only the slightest variations. This would have been a perfect time to introduce Mr. X. We spent the first playthrough fearing what was around every corner - even if we'd already played the original, because Capcom wisely shuffled the most memorable scares around. Once we know the layout, RE2 could have put our knowledge to the test with an unkillable enemy that can only be outmaneuvered by knowing detours. We kinda get that when Mr. X arrives in the first campaign, but by then, we've already almost finished our business in the station, and the game's best feature gets less than an hour in the spotlight.

I love the RE2 remake. It'll likely be one of my favorite games of the year, and anyone with even the slightest interest in Resident Evil or survival horror in general owes it to themselves to check it out. But whereas the remake of RE1 was better on every conceivable, leaving no reason to ever return to the vanilla game in given a choice between the two, RE2 actually does lose a couple of minor things in the conversion. Mainly the intricacy of the two-character mechanic, but also that fourth wall-breaking scare where you get attacked during a load animation.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Every 2018 release I played, ranked (and there were 100 of them!)

I've already posted my ten favorite games of the year on both GameCritics and my blog (both articles are identical, so I don't care which one you click on), but here I've compiled a list of every 2018 release that I played, ranked from worst to best. I played a hundred new games this year, which is probably a new record for me, and one that likely won't be topped unless I break my spine again this year.

* games I'm still working on
^ games I've shelved but may come back to
° games I gave up on

100: Immortal: Unchained (PS4)
99. Fallout 76 (PS4)
98. Extinction (PS4)
97. Castle of Heart (Switch)
96. Shadow of the Tomb Raider (PS4)
95. Metal Gear Survive (PS4)
94. Underworld: Ascendant (PC)°
93. Agony (PC)*
92. Lust for Darkness (PC)
91. Detroit: Become Human (PS4)^
90. Seeking Dawn (Vive)
89. H1Z1: Battle Royale (PS4)
88. Secret of Mana (PS4)
87. Ash of Gods: Redemption (PC)°
86. Rifter (PC)
85. Outbreak: The Nightmare Chronicles (PC)°
84. Ambition of the Slimes (PC)°
83. Omen of Sorrow (PS4)
82. The Perfect Sniper (Vive)
81. Darksiders III (PS4)
80. BombTag (PC)
79. The Flood (PC)
78. Tesseract VR (Vive)
77. Guacamelee! 2 (PS4)
76. Just Cause 4 (PS4)
75. Robo Boop (Vive)°
74. Ashen (PC)°
73. All Walls Must Fall (PC)^
72. Call of Cthulhu (PS4)°
71. Jet Island (Vive)°
70. Infernium (PC)°
69. Iconoclasts (Switch)°
68. Pokémon Quest (Switch)°
67. Dawn of the Breakers (Switch)^
66. QuiVR (Vive)^
65. Laser League (PC)
64. Cold Iron (Vive)°
63. Shadow of the Colossus (PS4)
62. Warhammer: Vermintide 2 (PC)°
61. Overload (PC)°
60. Conjuror’s Eye (Vive)
59. La Camila (Vive)
58. Earth Wars (Switch)
57. Kirby Star Allies (Switch)
56. Roguemance (PC)
55. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon (PC)
54. The Messenger (Switch)°
53. Donut County (Switch)*
52. Sacred Four (Vive)
51. Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption (PS4)
50. Vampyr (PC)^
49. Squidlit (PC)
48. Marie’s Room (PC)
47. Dead Cells (Switch)^
46. Sairento VR (Vive)
45. Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom (PC)°
44. Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner – MARS (Vive)°
43. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (PS4)*
42. State of Mind (PC)
41. Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee (Switch)*
40. The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories (Switch)*
39. Picross S2 (Switch)
38. Downward Spiral: Horus Station (Vive)
37. Attack on Titan 2 (Switch)^
36. Pixel Ripped 1989 (Vive)
35. God of War (PS4)
34. Candleman: The Complete Journey (PC)
33. Youropa (PC)
32. Subnautica (Vive)*
31. Moss (Vive)
30. Shenmue I & II (PC)
29. Dusk (PC)*
28. Paratopic (PC)
27. Black Bird (Switch)
26. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (Switch)
25. Ghost of a Tale (PC)
24. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice VR Edition (Vive)
23. Dandara (Switch)
22. The Council (PC)*
21. The Gardens Between (Switch)
20. Minit (PS4)
19. Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise (PS4)*
18. Project Warlock (PC)
17. Return of the Obra Dinn (PC)
16. Octopath Traveler (Switch)*
15. Death’s Gambit (PC)
14. Gwent: The Witcher Card Game (PC)
13. Lumines Remastered (Switch)
12. Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales (PC)
11. Dark Souls: Remastered (PC/Switch)
10. Tetris Effect (PS4)
9. Monster Hunter World (PS4)
8. Gris (Switch)
7. Spider-Man (PS4)
6. Firewall: Zero Hour (PSVR)
5. Far: Lone Sails (PC)
4. Yoku’s Island Express (Switch)
3. Red Dead Redemption 2 (PS4)
2. Into the Breach (PC/Switch)
1. Astro Bot: Rescue Mission (PSVR)

Monday, January 7, 2019

This is just my top ten of 2018 is what this is

Let 2018 forever be remembered as the year in which I was bed-ridden for several months due to a back injury and still couldn’t work up the energy to finish Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. Indeed, 2018 was a year so full of misfires that I can’t even confidently state that Metal Gear Survive was one of the five worst games I played.

But enough about that. These are bad times, and it’s as vital as ever that we celebrate the escapism most successful in giving us much-needed respite from the horrors of the real world. I’ll get to my ten favorite games of the year in a moment, but first, a few honorable mentions:

 Beat Saber (Vive). Unquestionably one of the best things I played in 2018. Sadly, it’s still in Early Access, and thus ineligible. Maybe next year.

• Death’s Gambit (PC). I still say that this is the best Dark Souls clone out there. Surprised that more of the industry didn’t agree with me.

 Project Warlock (PC). Retro-style FPSs had a strong year, and this one gets to represent the pack for actually getting a full release. And yeah, Dusk is good, too.

 Return of the Obra Dinn (PC). A terrific game that I’m too stupid to appreciate. I had to look up about 75% of the answers.

 Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales (PC). The one game that I’m gutted to omit from my top ten. Witcher 3-quality writing and characterization, though you gotta like Gwent.

10. Tetris Effect (PS4)

Look, I don't actually believe that Tetris Effect's much-hyped PSVR support makes or breaks the experience. Maybe it's because I'd already begun replaying the campaign on Expert by the time I'd bought my headset, and was thus more focused on the falling blocks than on audiovisual splendor I'd already experienced. And yeah, at the end of the day, this is just a game we've all played a billion times before, gussied up with swirling colors and cheesy songs about how we're all connected, man. But given that I've often claimed that Tetris is perhaps the only perfect video game, maybe this is genuinely the only way to improve upon it. Tetris is immortal, and if nothing else, I appreciate that Tetsuya Mizuguchi (combining the particle-heavy visuals of Rez Infinite's Area X with the dynamically synchronizing scoring of Lumines) has given us an excuse to rediscover that.

9. Monster Hunter World (PS4)

Despite being the entry that finally broke through in the West (and would go on to become Capcom’s best-selling game ever), Monster Hunter World wasn’t exactly the revolution some of us were expecting, and I know plenty of people who gave this title a shot and still find the series impenetrable. But even if it’s not the massive leap forward that I was anticipating, its many small (but crucial) quality-of-life enhancements make it that much easier to settle into a groove for dozens – possibly even hundreds – of hours. It’s by far the best-looking Monster Hunter to date and offers its most integrated multiplayer experience yet, even if the online functionality still needs some serious work. We’re at the point now where whenever a new Monster Hunter releases, we can just assume it’ll be my most-played game of that year. (Review.)

8. Gris (Switch)

There’s no way to describe Gris without sounding pretentious. With no real story or central gameplay gimmick, the selling point of Gris is its beauty. And I’m not just talking about the visual style, which itself is a breathtaking blend of pencil and watercolor that’s somehow even more stunning in motion than in screenshots. I’m talking about how the game feels, how it plays as elegantly as it looks, how each color that this girl restores to her world seems to bring with it some physical property that slowly morphs Gris’s 2D landscape into a breathing world which its own abstract-yet-consistent purpose. I spent most of this game wondering where developer Nomada was going with this, then stood awestruck during the final 20 minutes, when the music, animation, movement and exploration come together to create a climax that’s moving and uplifting without shoving a statement in our faces. Sometimes art is just lovely to observe and take in.

7. Spider-Man (PS4)

Insomniac demonstrated in their underrated Sunset Overdrive that they’re capable of developing fluid, rewarding open-world movement systems. So it’s no surprise Sony selected them to carry on the legacy of the franchise that more or less invented fluid, rewarding open-world movement systems. But while the webslinging in Spider-Man is absolutely ace – enough so that Insomniac could have forgotten to include a fast-travel system and I wouldn’t have cared – it’s everything else that makes this, retroactively, the only Spider-Man game worth caring about. The combat is full of dastardly toys that players find constant opportunities to use. The set pieces are wild and climactic. And against all odds, one of the most emotionally resonant stories to come out of the triple-A scene this year was in a Spider-Man (anchored by Yuri Lowenthal, doing a damn convincing job of playing a character half his age). It’s just the complete package that we’ve always wanted out of a Spider-Man game. It’s easy to see why so many people fell in love with it. (Review.)

6. Firewall: Zero Hour (PSVR)

This was the year that I got into VR, and while I was frequently awestruck by mechanics that wouldn't have been possible in another format, Firewall is proof that VR can also drastically improve some of what we already have. Really, this is just a low-budget version of Rainbow Six: Siege, yet ten times out of ten, this is the game I'd rather be playing, for the sheer thrill of physically peeking around corners, closing one eye and looking down my sights, and killing dudes by actually pointing a damn gun at them. Not everything translates fluidly to VR, but shooting absolutely does, and this tense squad-based experience (enhanced, as a cooperative experience, by the guarantee that everyone playing has a microphone) is one of the most revelatory examples of that to date. Just be sure to pick up an Aim Controller with it, because it's kinda silly otherwise.

5. Far: Lone Sails (PC)

There was a moment in Far when I’d just survived a violent hailstorm and my ship was barely still in one piece. My sail was broken, my tank was empty, and I’d run out of items that I was willing to burn for fuel. (I couldn’t sacrifice my beloved radio, just in case I’d happen upon another mysterious broadcast.) The engine wouldn’t budge, and I couldn’t even power my repair module without more juice. So I got out, unspooled the winch rope, and just pulled the ship, slowly, up hills and across barren landscapes. I think it was even raining. Few developers could bring their game to a halt like that and call it a win, yet that’s exactly how strong my connection was with this magnificent piece of machinery. Fittingly for a game about a two-way relationship, give Far your time and it’ll give back. (Review.)

4. Yoku's Island Express (Switch)

I’ve never been a pinball fan. I find it incredibly stressful. Things unfold at too fast a pace with too little of my own input to feel as though my failings are my own fault. Maybe I’m just awful at it, but that doesn’t make Yoku’s Island Express any less brilliant for finding a way to make pinball suit my playstyle. Although players are still expected to pull some crazy stunts with the flippers, the near-nonexistent penalties for failure and almost total lack of combat meant that I could finally enjoy these mechanics at a relaxed pace. The gorgeous titular island would be a joy to explore even with more conventional methods of getting around, but combining pinball with a Metroidvania is one of those ideas that sounds crazy until you’ve tried it, at which point you wonder why no one attempted it before.

3. Red Dead Redemption 2 (PS4)

While I can totally understand why not everyone gelled with RDR2’s, um, unhurried pace, I’m a little surprised that this is the Rockstar game that so many people turned on. This company has been itching to tell serious, long-form stories for a while now, but the satirical caricatures that fill the Grand Theft Auto universe demonstrably aren’t capable of exhibiting meaningful growth. RDR2, meanwhile, is populated with what may be the strongest cast of characters in any video game I’ve ever played. And since Rockstar recognizes that the conclusion is largely forgone – it’s a prequel, after all – they slow the tempo considerably, running the plot not on the suspense over its destination but on the strength of the relationships at its core. I maintain that RDR2’s monster-sized epiloque didn’t need to be there, but this is nevertheless one of the richest open worlds ever created, and I loved sharing it with these fascinating people. (Review.)

2. Into the Breach (PC/Switch)

You may note a conspicuous lack of Dead Cells on this list. That, to me, demonstrates just how played-out the side-scrolling roguelike action-platformer is, that we can get one as beautiful and polished as Dead Cells and it still barely makes an impression on me. Into the Breach, on the other hand, is precisely how to breathe new life into the oversaturated roguelike scene. The premise itself – a tactical game in which players see enemy moves one turn in advance – is wholly original, but the way it perfectly maps to procedural generation and permadeath takes Into the Breach to a whole new level. Every battle feels unique, every loss is fair, and every victory makes you feel like a tactical mastermind. I only stopped playing this game when I’d literally done everything there was to do, which should tell you how endlessly replayable it is. I nominate this for best roguelike of all time. (Review.)

1. Astro Bot: Rescue Mission (PSVR)

This game delivers the joy, purity and innovation of Nintendo’s best games with the one thing Nintendo refuses to almost ever give us: the excitement of an actual new franchise. While VR is still very much a niche scene on PC, Sony is doing its best to market PSVR as an affordable, accessible gateway into the technology for mainstream audiences, and the warm embrace of Astro Bot should be at the center of the charge. Every stage of this wonderful platformer is its own sales pitch on how the format can be innovative, absorbing, amusing, or (most often) some combination of the three. To spoil any of its many surprises would be criminal, so I will simply say that I came out of Astro Bot convinced that VR is the biggest leap forward in gaming since the transition to three dimensions.

Now, for the miscellaneous awards and stats.

Most overrated: God of War
Most underrated: Death's Gambit
Most overlooked: Youropa
Most visually striking: Gris
All-out best-looking game: God of War
Best story: Return of the Obra Dinn
Best writing: Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales
Best character: Arthur Morgan (Red Dead Redemption 2)
Best performance: Yuri Lowenthal (Spider-Man)
Best moment: Entering Saint Denis for the first time (Red Dead Redemption 2)
Best original soundtrack: Gris
Best licensed soundtrack: Rifter
Biggest surprise: Attack on Titan 2
Biggest disappointment: Guacamelee! 2
Comeback of the year: Spider-Man
Best multiplayer game: Firewall: Zero Hour
Most enjoyable bad game: Just Cause 4
Least enjoyable good game: Paratopic
Best free game: Gwent: The Witcher Card Game
Game that I spent the most time with: Monster Hunter World
Game that I spent the least time with before dismissing: Outbreak: The Nightmare Chronicles
Game that I most wanted to play, but didn't: Frostpunk
Game I literally own that I most wanted to play, but still haven't: Usurper
Best game that I still haven't finished: Octopath Traveler
All-out worst game that I played: Immortal: Unchained
Best non-2018 game that I first played in 2018: Superhot VR
Best remake/re-release: Lumines Remastered 
Most anticipated game this coming year: Doom Eternal / Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (tie)

2018 releases that I played: 100
2018 releases that I completed: 63
2018 releases that I'm still working on: 11
2018 releases that I've shelved indefinitely: 8
2018 releases that I flat-out gave up on: 18
2018 releases for which I've won every trophy/achievement: 4
2018 releases I've reviewed: 26

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Shadow of the Tomb Raider review: "All that for another riddle"

Shadow of the Tomb Raider feels like the last dying breath of a particularly insufferable breed of AAA game, one that goes well beyond the old "dark, gritty re-imagining" cliché that we've been mocking since 2004, when the Prince of Persia screamed "YOU BITCH!" at a woman in a steel thong. That was just lame and embarrassing. Shadow is grimy, unpleasant and gross.

To discuss Shadow as a game feels like a waste of time, because it's exactly like the last two, which is to say that it flits so haphazardly between genres that it lacks an identity of its own beyond its desire to showcase elaborate environments. And even that's more of a nuisance than anything, since the levels are so visually cluttered that we need to keep activating detective mode to highlight all of the interactive objects in bright orange. Every time we do, Lara blurts out the objective, over and over. Have to raise that bell somehow. Have to raise that bell somehow. Have to raise that bell somehow.

You may have noticed something peculiar about the screenshots I'm using here. Right out of the box, Shadow comes with several alternate skins for Lara, one of which transforms her into the vintage low-poly-count version from the PS1 days. I highly recommend that you take advantage of this. It's the only hint of self-awareness present in Shadow, and the only thing that kept me sane as I was beaten relentlessly with the melodrama stick.

I don't know where these new Tomb Raider games got the idea that they have anything interesting to say. Their plots are pure serial, no weightier than an Indiana Jones or an Uncharted or any action-adventure in which an explorer traces a series of riddles in order to uncover some mystical artifact that houses a terrible power and, yeah, probably should have just stayed buried. The difference is that those two franchises are lighthearted in tone. Their heroes don't take any of this seriously because they don't inhabit the real world.

Tomb Raider, bless its little heart, actually wants to say something profound about violence. The material is certainly there. When the villain inevitably gives Lara the whole "And how many people have you killed?" spiel, he's got a point. Her actions in Shadow result in the deaths of thousands of people - not just gun-toting mercenaries, but actual innocent bystanders. She's a maniac. She notices it, as does everyone else. Yet the game brings this up repeatedly without having the stones to address it in any meaningful way. Nothing is learned - not by Lara, and certainly not by Crystal Dynamics, who end Shadow with a blatant sequel hook as if another mass-murder crusade with this selfish asshole is something we want.

Shadow begins in Mexico, where everyone is wearing skull masks. Does it strike anyone else as a tad racist that Mexicans are only ever depicted as wearing skull masks? Do people really think Mexicans celebrate Day of the Dead year-round? Do Crystal Dynamics think we won't believe it's Mexico if we don't see any skull masks?

Anyway, Lara wears a poncho and a skull mask to blend in, but then wanders around a town square asking people questions in English, so good job. Her old pals Trinity are looking for an ancient dagger that, when combined with a special box, transforms its user into a god. Lara's good at solving puzzles and deciphering languages by now, and she ascertains from some Mayan murals that removing the dagger will create cataclysms - storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, anything that can cause the environments around Lara to collapse in a very over-elaborate and heavily scripted way while the player holds up on the analog stick, pretending to be involved.

She takes it anyway, of course, because she doesn't want it to fall into the wrong hands. Then she loses it because she gets hit once. Really. During an encounter with Dominguez, the main bad guy, one of his goons steps up behind Lara and strikes her with the butt of his rifle. She drops the dagger and Dominguez picks it up. After all of the punishment this series has piled onto Lara, a single pistol whip, it turns out, is all it takes to turn the tables.

And then a whole bunch of innocent bystanders die as the dagger brings to Cozumel its first cataclysm, a tsunami. The water that floods the streets is immediately dotted with fresh corpses. Lara has to actually push some of the bodies aside as she's swimming to safety (all while we're holding up on the analog stick, pretending to be involved). As she climbs to a safe rooftop, a child falls to his death. Lovely.

Now, look. A lot of horrific things happened in the 2013 reboot, but the context was different. Lara was new to this sort of thing and she was stranded on an uncharted island full of lunatics who wanted to murder her. She didn't have a choice. But she escaped, and now lives in a mansion with a cushy inheritance. That she chooses to re-enter this world of grisly violence tells me that she enjoys it, and certainly doesn't mind rolling over thousands of locals in search of her latest adrenaline fix.

Anyway, having decided she's killed enough people in Mexico, she flies to Peru, where she brings with her a plague of destruction. Seriously, her plane hasn't even landed before a massive storm rolls through and rains hell on the Amazon. The planes crashes, and the one character on board whom we hadn't previously met dies. Lara is fine, but she loses all of her gear. So, conveniently, she has to go re-acquire all of the stuff that she obtained in the first two games.

She finds one of those "hidden cities" that always show up in stories like these, i.e. a city that's in broad daylight and therefore managed to stay hidden because, I guess, no one flew over that area with a plane or helicopter. Curiously, it's still close enough to civilization that an oil refinery is right downriver, though I suspect it's there purely so Lara can blow some stuff up in a frenzied rampage when she thinks her dumb friend has been killed.

Right, Jonah's back. Do me a favor and describe Jonah without mentioning anything about his appearance. You can't. I hate this character, and I hate that rash decisions are constantly being made for the sake of keeping him out of harm's way. Lara doesn't even flinch over the deaths of probably a quarter of the population of South America, but point a gun at this one guy with zero defining characteristics and watch the hell out. Anyway, one of the bad guys tells Lara over the radio that he's killed Jonah, and she believes him, because she's the only person who thinks that anything of consequence can happen to important people in this world.

The main villain has set up a cult in the hidden city, so some of the inhabitants want to complete the ritual while the rest side with the other psychopath. Some Gollum-like subterranean creatures are involved, and Lara spends a lot of time underwater, either engaging in stealth sequences wherein players avoid schools of piranhas (yes, really), or really struggling to fit through a very thin crack and acting as if she's in any danger so long as players are holding up on the analog stick, pretending to be involved.

The villain eventually completes the ritual and becomes Kukulkan, the god of glowing. Lara justifies her presence by shooting him a bunch. After the credits roll, we cut to a scene in which Lara is back at her estate, writing a letter to (who else?) Jonah, contemplating her role in these affairs: "I thought that taking control of my life meant venturing out to do something extraordinary. I thought I had to fix everything. But the mysteries of the world are to cherish more than to solve."

Yes! Finally we're getting somewhere. To quote one of my favorite games, a corpse should be left well alone. Yes, Lara, maybe this is more trouble than it's worth. Maybe it's pointless and you should just stop inserting yourself into every--

"I am just one of their many protectors."

Oh, go to hell, Lara. This is all your fault. You just obliterated half of Mexico and Peru because you're too rich to not be the center of attention. If you'd just stayed in bed that day, maybe Dominguez wouldn't have found the artifacts he needed to ascend to godhood. Or maybe he would have, in which case someone else with a gun inevitably would have stopped him, because apparently that's all it takes.

She's not done: "I'm not sure what the future holds in store, Jonah. But whatever adventure's on the horizon, I can't wait to meet it."

I mean, I have a rough idea of what the future holds. There'll be another ancient artifact for you to "protect," and you'll fail to protect it because Jonah got stung by a bee or whatever, the villain uses it, and then either his greed will bring about his downfall, or bullets will. Hundreds of locals will die in the process, but as long as upper-one-percent Lara and her space-wasting best friend get off scot-free, they'll be primed for another one of these wacky population-wiping adventures.

Or perhaps the future holds yet another reboot, in which one of gaming's most iconic female characters goes back to being one.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Review Shots: VR Edition

Hello there. If you follow me on Twitter, you've likely caught on to the fact that I recently bought an HTC Vive. The technology's a couple of years old, so I doubt I have anything new to contribute to the conversation as to the future of virtual reality, but here are some quick reviews for a handful of the games I've been playing since I got the thing.

Doom VFR (PC)

I shouldn't have been surprised that the blazing pace of 2016's magnificent Doom reboot doesn't translate well to an environment where you're just statically repositioning yourself like a chess piece, but here we are. I'd have settled for the awkward movement system - and, more importantly, the fact that Doom doesn't feel like it's been adequately re-balanced for it - if the game were to fill my long-standing desire for more Doom single-player content. But while Doom VFR technically features a new "story," all of the levels have just been pulled from the original game. So what you're getting is a version of Doom that's a fraction of the length and nowhere near as satisfying to play. It's a rush job, and I don't know why it exists. 5/10

Superhot VR (PC)

Now this is how you do it. The driving concept behind Superhot - that time only moves when you do - is still in effect, but this is an entirely separate campaign composed of scenarios in which you don't have to move from the spot you're standing, allowing you to focus purely on the combat. The process of punching a guy in the face, grabbing his gun out of midair and using it to shoot down several of his buddies is all the most invigorating when you're actually making the hand movements yourself, and moving your head to the side and hearing a bullet whiz past your ear in slow-motion never gets old. (Not that it has time to - Superhot is as lean as the original.) Even the clean, extremely readable visual style is a perfect fit for VR, which doesn't allow for strong detail or a particularly clear picture. I'm a huge fan of the first Superhot and I daresay this one is even better. It should be one of the first purchases for anyone who buys a VR headset. 10/10

Sacred Four (PC)

This is basically an arcade light gun game straight out of the late '90s, but instead of shooting (as is done in an awful lot of VR games, I'm noticing), you're actually slinging blades on chains, Kratos-style. The physics are super wonky and the entire aesthetic feels several generations behind, though not, I hasten to add, in a way that detracts from the game's enjoyment, and the unique motion controls kind of lend it a feel distinct from the games it's mimicking. Sacred Four goes down very smoothly and the bosses, particularly the last one, are big and bombastic. Don't go in expecting a AAA-quality release here - even the audio quality is kind of charmingly bad - but taken for what it is, a five-dollar arcade game full of dumb thrills, I had a good time with it. 6/10

Job Simulator (PC)

This is probably one of the best introductions to virtual reality I've played, as it's a cute, funny little game with zero tension or stakes. After robots (which just look like floating computer monitors) have taken over and everything is done by automation, museums attempt to emulate the old-timey experience of having a boring job - office worker, store clerk, etc. The simulations are amusingly inaccurate, however, and the whole thing is essentially a physics playground in which you can toy around with objects and see which combinations and effects the developers prepared for. (Can you put a non-paper object in the printer and duplicate it? Yes! Can you make fire extinguisher soup? Also yes!) It's simple, and it's not so much a "game" as an interactive VR showcase, but I had fun burning a couple of hours with it. 7/10

Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality (PC)

Made by the same team that did Job Simulator, and it's the same general concept - a physics-based screwing-around showcase, this time as a Morty clone performing chores in Rick's garage while he and the real Morty go off on adventures. I'm a fan of the show, and Virtual Rick-ality aptly recaptures its sense of humor, even if it made me smile more than laugh. I'd say the big issue here is the value proposition, since you're basically paying $30 for barely more than an hour of content, accompanied by a B-grade Rick and Morty story. Some of the puzzles and set pieces are a bit more intricate than the ones found in Job Simulator, but I ultimately found that game better-paced, more varied and ultimately funnier. Fans of the show will get a kick out of the references, but I recommend they wait to catch this one on sale. 6/10

The Perfect Sniper (PC)

You'd think sniping would be a natural fit for VR, since you're shooting and standing still, but actually holding a gun steady with motion controls is inhumanly difficult. Even real-life snipers are propping their rifles against something when they shoot, but in VR, you've got nothing to lean on. The Perfect Sniper is aware of this, and compensates by being dull and virtually free of stakes. Save for one mission near the very end that involves killing someone who's in a speeding vehicle, your objectives are unsatisfyingly quick and easy, and the plot - narrated by a handler who sounds distractingly like Aaron Paul - fails to make you care about what you're accomplishing. If sniping can be made both playable and exciting in VR, this game doesn't pull it off. 4/10

Sairento VR (PC)

Essentially a Matrix simulator with some of the most fluid movement controls I've yet experienced in VR, morphing the usual "blink" teleportation system into effortless wall runs and double jumps. The combat here is absolute bliss and manages to make bullet-time fresh again by giving you such a direct role in the killing - it never gets old to leap over a soldier, trigger slow-motion midway through, look down, and plant a couple of bullets in his head. Sairento VR's mechanics are wonderful, which is why I wish it were a more fully-featured game, one with greater enemy and objective variety, levels that don't feel like they belong in a PS1 game, and a story that doesn't unfold almost entirely off-screen. The core combat is terrific enough to make Sairento VR worth checking out, but with a proper budget behind it, this could have been a masterpiece. 7/10

With that done, here are some actual reviews, of acceptable length, that I've recently written.

PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (PC)
Seven: The Days Long Gone (PC)
Monster Hunter World (PS4)
A Normal Lost Phone (Switch)
Secret of Mana (PS4)
Castle of Heart (Switch)
Ghost of a Tale (PC)
Minit (PS4)
God of War (PS4)