Monday, February 23, 2015

Let's talk about the changes made to Majora's Mask 3D

I have too much respect for the artistry of writing. As a flailing fanboy of The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, I would love to have spent a hundred more paragraphs discussing the 3DS remake in my review. But no, I've got to make it tidy and presentable. Bother.

So, I've returned to my blog to... assemble some bullet points. See, I'm not even putting any effort into how I word this because that would defeat the purpose of a blog entry specifically devoted to self-satisfaction. I want more opportunities to talk about Majora's Mask, so here's a series of changes made to the 3DS version and what I think of them. (I'm not listing literally every single one because that would take forever and most of the tweaks are incredibly minor.)

There's more explanatory dialog. Majora's Mask is a famously impenetrable game; its mechanics are unusual and its objectives are often murky. A lot of text has been added to point players in the right direction; it's often simply a matter of Tatl chiming in and saying, "Hey, we really should go here next." There's also an optional hint system in the form of a Gossip Stone in the Clock Tower where you begin the game. Nothing wrong with these changes. Accessibility without sacrificing challenge and reward.

The bosses have been overhauled. This is the biggest, most notable change. All four of the game's major bosses have been expanded upon in some way and tend to include multiple stages. They were fine in the original, but slightly one-note. They're more complex now and now revolve around exposing and attacking giant Majora eyes poking out of the woodwork. That consistent visual quirk also reinforces the fact that these bosses represent a persistent menace; they're not just the monsters that happen to be standing there. The Gyorg and Twinmold fights have changed the most radically.

You can now jump ahead to any hour. Another massive improvement, this time done to make the real-time component of Majora's Mask a bit less tedious. There was a lot of waiting around in the original, particularly if you were engaging in certain side quests, because you could only skip ahead to 12-hour increments. Now, you can use the Song of Double Time to jump to any hour. Good for veterans and newcomers alike.

Saving works differently. The original game's save system was deliberately restrictive to prevent players from wasting opportunities. It works differently now. There are far more owl statues (though you can still only teleport between the same ten), and it's now possible to save and reboot without limit. However, the game no longer auto-saves whenever you play the Song of Time. You need to save manually. This might catch longtime fans off-guard, and I very nearly lost progress on a couple of occasions when I nearly turned my system off assuming the game had saved for me.

A couple of the Bombers are hiding in new locations. This drove me up a goddamn wall.

The Happy Mask Salesman gives you the Bomber's Notebook automatically. Majora's Mask has a heavy leaning on side quests, what with the world being more interactive than your standard Zelda game and the characters inhabiting it have, uh, a lot of problems to be fixed. The Bomber's Notebook is a handy way of keeping track of who you need to assist, but it was originally easy to miss - you had to either replay the hide-and-seek mini-game (which no one wants to do) or you had to memorize the code to their hideout and use it in a subsequent cycle (when there's no other reason to return there). Now, the Happy Mask Salesman gives it to you automatically when he teaches you the Song of Healing. An improvement.

The banker is in a more prominent location. This is kind of a huge aspect of the game, since it's the only way to "transport" money from one cycle to the next - you deposit money, he stamps you, and you can then withdraw that amount whenever you like. He was easy to miss or ignore, though, whereas he's now in a more prominent spot right at the base of the Clock Tower.

The Song of Soaring is taught to you a bit earlier. Kaepora Gaebora now teaches you the song, which allows you to teleport between select owl statues, right when you enter the Southern Swamp, whereas previously, you'd first encounter him just outside of Woodfall, right as you were about to hit the game's first dungeon. That's fine, though Kaepora Gaebora is also a bit more polite to Link now, which I don't like. He was originally rather dismissive until Link persisted a bit.

The Great Fairy rewards for the first two dungeons have been swapped. This kinda makes sense. There are 15 Stray Fairies hidden in each of the game's four primary dungeons, and tracking them all down results in some neat little bonuses. Far and away the most useful is the extended magic meter, which is now granted at the end of the first dungeon, which will likely be the only time most people will bother to hunt all of the Stray Fairies (because they get really tough to find after Woodfall). The not-terribly-useful spin attack power-up is now given to you in Snowhead.

You no longer have to hold the action button to do a Goron roll. I assume this is because the game now has secondary analog camera control, which requires a free right thumb. This makes prolonged rolling sequences, like the Goron race or the Goht battle, less painful on the hands.

Swimming as a Zora is much slower now. This is the one change that I genuinely dislike. The default swimming speed for the Zora form is much lower than it previously was. It's still possible to swim at top speed, but only when using the magic barrier. Zipping freely around the Great Bay was one of the original game's basest pleasures, so limiting the ability doesn't make much sense, in my book. This also makes players less prepared on the one or two instances when the Zora dolphin jump is actually required.

There's a new bottle and a new quest accompanying it. There are now seven bottles to obtain. The new one involves talking to Gorman in his hotel room while he's hungover (on milk, of course, as this is a family game), fetching an item from his brothers out by the racetrack, and bringing it back to him in under two minutes. Not much as far as new content goes, but it's something.

The Garo Mask is now modeled after the Garo Master. It didn't make a whole lot of sense for the Garos to mistake you for their master when this mask made you just look like a regular old scrub, so the mask now matches the pink-and-gold decor of the Garo Master, the mini-boss that yields Light Arrows in the Stone Tower Temple. On the other hand, the Gorman brothers are now wearing these when they ambush Cremia's milk cart, which just looks goofy.

The Stone Mask is now hidden in the Pirates' Fortress. This is famously one of the most useful masks in the game, as it makes you invisible to enemies, including the guards in the game's token stealth section. But whereas the (invisible) guard who gives it to you was previously found on the road to Ikana Valley, he's now in the center of the main plaza of the Pirates' Fortress. So you'll at least need to do a bit of manual stealthing in this version of the game.

Ice Arrows can now only be used to freeze water in designated, twinkling spots. This makes the Great Bay Temple considerably easier to figure out since it's always crystal clear where you're supposed to be creating platforms. I think the change makes the dungeon too easy, but that's just me.

The Giant Mask is now given to you midway through the Twinmold battle. Worth noting because anyone who fought Twinmold in the original knows that the Giant Mask is more or less essential for the fight, which means veterans will likely tear their hair out when it's not given to you at the normal time and place and they're forced to enter the battle without it. Don't panic. You'll get it.

Now there are two fishing holes. My opinion regarding fishing mini-games is that they always suck, so I don't know why this is the thing that Nintendo figured would improve Majora's Mask, but here it is. One of them is located next to the shooting gallery on the way to the Southern Swamp, while another is found near the Great Fairy Shrine in Zora Cape. Fishing tickets are now regularly given out as rewards for mini-games, as well.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Here are my Oscar predictions, then


I'm always dreadful at these.

Best Picture: Boyhood
Best Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman)
Best Actor: Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)
Best Actress: Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
Best Supporting Actor: J. K. Simmons (Whiplash)
Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Imitation Game
Best Original Screenplay: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Animated Feature: How to Train Your Dragon 2
Best Documentary Feature: Citizenfour
Best Foreign Language Film: Ida
Best Cinematography: Birdman
Best Costume Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Documentary Short Subject: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
Best Film Editing: Boyhood
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Guardians of the Galaxy
Best Original Score: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Original Song: "Glory" (Selma)
Best Production Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Animated Short Film: The Dam Keeper
Best Live Action Short Film: The Phone Call
Best Sound Editing: American Sniper
Best Sound Mixing: Whiplash
Best Visual Effects: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Indie mini-reviews: Splice, Cubot and The Old Tree

Good day to you, internet. While I've largely spent the last couple of weeks playing either AAA releases that I've already reviewed (Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, Dying Light) or lower-profile fare that I'll review eventually (Grow Home, Castle in the Darkness), I've recently invested a bit of time in a handful of indie puzzlers on Steam. I wouldn't say that any of them quite warrant a full, official write-up, so I suppose now's a good time to defrost the old blog. Let's talk indies.


First is Splice, recommended enthusiastically by GameCritics homie Brad Gallaway. Though I hadn't heard of the game, ten seconds of research taught me that it's by Cipher Prime, the same Philly-based (!) studio behind Auditorium. Like that game, Splice uses a minimalist interface to present players with an alien scenario; half of the game's battle is just initially figuring out what exactly you're looking at, how you interact with it, and what the game wants you to do to proceed. The answer is better explained by playing it for yourself, but the best answer that I can give is that you're connecting what appear to be cells in a Petri dish in such a way that matches an outlined patterned, moving, extending, and duplicating them as needed, and where the game allows you to.

I like that there are clearly multiple solutions to many of the puzzles, and I really dig the audiovisual presentation, which looks like someone took the Fringe opening credits as inspiration for a full game. (Having said that, there are no graphical options for the PC version, and I'd have liked to see a sharper image and a higher framerate, though it's not as essential for a low-key puzzler like this). This game came to my attention because it's just recently been ported to PS4, but apparently it's been kicking around on Steam and mobile devices for a few years now. It's creative and provides several solid hours of "frustrating one moment, rewarding the next" entertainment. Recommended.


Second is Cubot, which I came across while browsing the recent releases list on Steam. This one costs two bucks and comes with very positive reviews, and while it's certainly a low-maintenance affair (the options menu even has a glaring typo), it's a perfectly serviceable puzzler about rolling blocks of various properties around small grids. All cubes in a level move simultaneously, and each abides by a different set of rules. Some roll two spaces in a turn, some roll backwards, and so forth. The idea is to get each block onto a space of a matching color at the same time.

It's straightforward and doesn't make me ask, "How on Earth did they come up with this?!" like Splice did, but it's reasonably well-designed, unintimidating and even somewhat relaxing. It's the sort of thing that's easy to play with one eye while you've got the other eye on a movie or TV show; I spent an hour or two with it last night while watching The Theory of Everything. It's only $2 on Steam, so that's a rather easy sell if you ask me.


An even easier sell, because it's free, is The Old Tree. This one is available on Steam for no charge and will take no more than 10-15 minutes to complete. It's a point-and-click puzzler with bizarre, slightly whimsical 2D imagery in the style of something like Machinarium. I didn't like that game; while I initially found it charming, its puzzles grew too obtuse too quickly. That isn't a problem with The Old Tree, which is about a strange, tentacled alien hatching and gradually ascending through a series of bizarre scenes (none of which I'll relate, because it's such a short game and thus describing even one of the scenes would spoil a huge portion of it).

The puzzles are perfectly digestible (some might even argue that they're too easy), and it does that usual indie game thing of portraying the player character as a small, timid being in a big, scary world; note the use of oversized bugs. It's all lovely to look at, though, and while it doesn't have much of a plot, it may serve as a sort of test run for the developer's more advanced ideas. The Old Tree is free and won't take much of your time, so while it's not amazing, there's no harm in checking it out.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Sometimes I like things: My ten favorite games of 2014


Dark Souls II actually isn't even on my list, but I took that screenshot a few hours ago, decided it was exactly the greatest thing in the world and chose to display it here for all who, for whatever reason, wonder what my favorite games of the last twelve months are. It puts an appropriate cap on 2014, too. After a year like this, surely what we'd all love to be doing right now is waving goodbye as we all hideously die in a fire.

Like many, I was not a fan of 2014. Though it wasn't terrible for me on a personal level (which makes it something of a unique year), it was absolute hell for this industry as a whole, partly due to that one big thing that we are not even going to mention by name, and partly due to the games as a whole just not being particularly great. But here's me putting a positive spin on things: Maybe we needed a year such as this one. It's like when your favorite sports team has a terrible season that results in the firing of the head coach who's been pulling the franchise down – yeah, it hurts, but now we can make some progress. Maybe the reaction to all of 2014's botched launches and overhyped misfires results, at long last, in some actual quality control from AAA publishers. Because surely Ubisoft doesn't need another Assassin's Creed: Unity on their record.

Speaking of that, it's customary (by which I mean that I did it for last year's list) for me to rattle off a handful of honorable mentions in this space before moving on to the formal list, but this time I'm just going to issue my honorable mention to every Nintendo-published game released in 2014. No single title made my top ten, but Nintendo's impressively consistent dedication to the polish, stability and purity of their products is refreshing, even heroic. It's rare for their games to bring anything genuinely new to the table, but this year more than any other year, we needed a publisher who's comfortably reliable. And hell, there are far more reasons to own a Wii U now than there are to invest in the other two consoles, if you ask me.

With that said, here's my top ten for 2014. For whatever wrongs the industry suffered this year, let these ten titles be remembered as instances when, for a period of time, video games were pretty damn great.


10. The Wolf Among Us (PC)

For the longest time, I hated point-and-click adventures. To me, they almost always feel like the products of people who would much rather be telling stories than making games, and it's rare for me to play one that benefits in any way from being limited to this medium, the endless string of insert-square-shaped-rod-into-square-shaped-hole puzzles bogging down narratives that would be better told in movies or books.

Telltale Games' The Walking Dead changed that for me, largely by virtue of simply being the first video game ever to make me cry. Indeed, one of the long-running hurdles for story-centric games is that for ages, storytelling in this medium just wasn't reliably good enough. That's improving, and Telltale Games is leading the charge, but even The Walking Dead's pace was frequently hindered by what I've simply started referring to as "adventure game logic."

They've got such a familiar template now that The Wolf Among Us, based on a comic series called Fables that I'd never heard of until now, is unmistakably their work even when it was only the second release of theirs that I played. But they're continuing to refine their formula, even as their art style carries from one series to their next, even as their engine ages, even as characters continue to remember that. By nature of this series being a murder mystery starring fairy tale caricatures, it probably could never hit the emotional highs of The Walking Dead, but it's a shorter, leaner run that knocks out the fat and focuses on what Telltale does best: slick narrative driven by tough decisions which force players to meditate on the necessity of violence. For a company to spark my interest in adventure games is extraordinary. For them to hold my interest in the genre for more than one game is nothing short of surreal. (Review.)



9. Sunset Overdrive (Xbox One)

Let me get political for a moment and brush upon a subject that I'm sure is near and dear to everyone's hearts: the console wars! There is no bigger dead horse to be beaten than the subject of Xbox One getting off to a lousy start, and even after all of the steps that Microsoft has taken to narrow the gap between its own platform and the PS4 – dropping the Kinect requirement and lowering the price were the two big remaining boxes on their checklist – it wasn't until October that Microsoft finally did the one thing that I've been insisting could make or break this battle: release some great exclusive software.

Of course, this year, two of Xbox One's biggest exclusives – Ryse: Son of Rome and Dead Rising 3 – both made their way to the PC market, so it doesn't seem far fetched that Insomniac's latest will find new audiences at some point in the near future. Still, you have to admire the craftiness on display here: recruit a team commonly associated with the PlayStation brand to develop the best console exclusive of the generation so far, but for the opposing platform. Not only that, but the game's most prominent inspiration is a Sony franchise, and it's being released the same year that the latest installment of said franchise (Infamous: Second Son) failed to deliver.

It's not like the trick to making a good sandbox game is sealed away in some Aztec temple or something. Just make the sandbox matter. That's it. At any point in Sunset Overdrive, you can set a five-foot radius around yourself and find an environmental object that take you to your next objective quicker than running along the ground would. Grind on something. Bounce from something. Swing across something. The platforming controls are phenomenal, and the game's colorful, manic energy is felt in every second spent navigating. That's energy, sadly, not devoted to the game's awful sense of humor, but I guess we can't have everything. (Review.)



8. Velocibox (PC)

I appreciate the straightforwardness of this game's title. Velocibox. It's about a box that moves at a high velocity.

Straightforwardness, as it happens, is the key strength of Velocibox, probably the first and last runner ever to be featured on a year-end list by me. There are nine stages, and if you're good, you can reach the end in something like a minute and a half. But you are not good. This is a lightning-fast and procedurally-generated arcade game, one in which memorizing the obstacle patterns takes ages and developing the reflexes to actually surpass them takes even longer. I've only ever made it to the fifth stage. Velocibox first came to my attention when I heard two colleagues swapping stories about the game, one reporting that he'd recorded thousands of attempts. Thousands.

That sounds like absolute hell for me, because I'm easily frustrated, a quality tested this year with two of the most difficult games I've ever played: Cloudbuilt and 1001 Spikes. Both games ultimately drove me over the edge for complications relating to an arbitrary lives system; in both cases, the frustration wasn't necessarily in dying, but in what I'd often lose when I died.

I love Velocibox because it's so instantaneous. While basic level patterns are reused, layouts themselves are always randomly generated, and they're thrown at you too quickly for you to patiently recall exactly what's going to happen next. It's a constantly-evolving game of adaptation, but it's immediate. When you do well, a stage is over in moments. When you don't do well, you're thrown back into it in less than a second, no questions asked. It's tight, intuitive and gloriously simple, pulling off the admirable trait of turning frustration into something relaxing, even therapeutic.



7. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (PS4)

To put it crudely, because the subject matter deserves no better, this was the year that Assassin's Creed officially sullied the bed. Ubisoft bought themselves an extra year of goodwill with 2013's surprisingly innovative Black Flag, but then Unity came along twelve months later and unspooled all of that goodwill with the enthusiasm of a toddler who's just come upon a cassette tape. But even if Unity had been technically sound upon release, it still would've been hopelessly outclassed by Monolith's outstanding Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, a popular entry on best-of articles, and not without good reason.

While this game does have one extremely unique feature, which I'll get to in a moment, Shadow of Mordor is notable less for what it does new and more for what it improves. It emblazons the Assassin's Creed formula with the controls of the superior Batman Arkham series and somehow comes out with something smoother than either franchise, and it all boils down to one important trait: flow. Even the Arkham games tended to present combat and stealth as separate entities, the manner in which you take down enemies entirely reliant on the sort of weaponry they're wielding. In Shadow of Mordor, any of your abilities are equally valid at any time, provided you've got the skill to use them.

And you don't always; Monolith isn't afraid to overwhelm you if you overexert yourself. But the skill tree manages to constantly change the way you approach combat. You'll get swarm by literally a couple dozen orcs at a time early on and think the game is being unfair, and then you'll face the same odds after you've gained short-range teleportation, area-of-effect attacks and exploding arrows accompanied by momentary bullet-time, and it's nothing, and the evolution is palpable. That rise to power is only rivaled by the steady progression of the Nemesis system, which has you manipulating Uruk ranks to the point of raising literal armies by the end of the campaign. It's a brilliant bit of emergent personal investment to nullify the sting of the game's somewhat dull central story. Aside from the narrative, this game does pretty much everything right. (Review.)



6. P.T. (PS4)

Let me just present my case for this one right up front. Had P.T. been developed by a no-name studio and released as a short, standalone title at a modest price, with no attachment to any major franchises, it'd still have been one of the most talked-about horror releases of the year. Yes, in the end, P.T. is one of the most innovative marketing stunts the industry has seen in recent times, but it's also an hour of some of the most masterfully crafted interactive horror I've ever experienced. And no, this isn't a demo in the usual sense; it's not intended to be representative of what Silent Hills will actually be. It's simply Hideo Kojima informing a skeptical Earth that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, he can do horror.

I've been scared by video games before – I believe that the horror genre has far more potential in an interactive medium than elsewhere, in fact – but I believe P.T. is the first video game to prompt an audible reaction from me. I screamed. I screamed loudly. Had anyone else at my residence been sleeping, I most assuredly would have woken them up. Kojima sets the stakes early and hard, and then, for the remainder of the experience, he strikes a delicate balance between jump scares and making you think there are going to be jump scares. The setup alone (having to walk through a continuous loop of the same hallway, over and over again, with something changing on every reset) is maddening, and the "game" constantly toys with players' perception of where they're supposed to be going, what they can interact with, and what they should be paying attention to. It does tenfold what most horror games can't even do once. It's outstanding.

But beyond that, yeah, it is an awfully intriguing marketing experiment. Bear in mind that it's not even revealed that this is a Silent Hills teaser until after the player bypasses the game's final, deliberately obtuse puzzle. It took over a week for the collective minds of the internet to nail down a method for successfully triggering the ending, and the solution is mind-bogglingly complicated. But that's what's cool about it. It's the social experience of gaming being used to everyone's benefit. You entice us with a free game, blow us away, and then get us working together. The success of P.T. isn't that we were talking about it; it's that we wanted to talk about it.



5. Dragon Age: Inquisition (PC)

Another popular choice among year-end best-of articles (a fact that EA's marketing team won't be letting us forget anytime soon), Dragon Age: Inquisition is probably the safest entry on here, but no less deserving of its placement for hitting all of the right notes with me. It's an open-air Western RPG with outstanding world-building, exciting combat, great character work and an overwhelming amount of content. See you in 75 hours.

I seem to be one of the few longtime BioWare fans who hadn't already given up on the company, having excused Dragon Age II as a fluke and still generally loving Mass Effect 3 in spite of whatever happens in its last ten minutes. Having said that, I never in a million years expected to come out of Inquisition hailing it as the best of the series, yet it is. It benefits from two prior games' worth of lore establishment, recapturing the epic-scope formula of Origins but fitting it with a vastly superior cast of characters and further exploring the thematic issues that distinguish this particular universe from the billion or so other existing Tolkien riffs.

I'm a sucker for massive time sink WRPGs like this, but you can't truly engross me in a world such as this without getting me involved. I found myself actually walking around my hub between missions and striking conversations with my party members, actively looking for excuses to open new dialog with them. That's a quality that this game shares with the Mass Effect series, and by golly is that ever a favorable comparison. I had tremendous fun with the game, and I think nearly anyone who played it unearthed at least one of their favorite gaming moments of 2014 within (for me, it was the first time I took down a high dragon), but in the end, Inquisition's true triumph is making me care so deeply about this world and the conflicts that drive it. Which means its truer triumph is getting Freddie Prinze, Jr. to throw an emotional punch. (Review.)



4. The Talos Principle (PC)

This is exactly why outlets need to stop handing out their GOTY awards a month before the year is even over: because, out of nowhere, the developer and publisher of the rebooted Serious Sam franchise might get together to release a downplayed, philosophically-minded indie scene puzzler in mid-December that happens to eclipse most of the high-profile titles that have no thirst for further year-end coverage anyway. (I say this as I've just given Shadow of Mordor and Dragon Age two of the top honors, naturally.)

The Talos Principle draws an unsubtle but effective parallel to the Garden of Eden, this time featuring an android being introduced into a new world and guided through maturity, all the way to lost innocence, by an ethereal voice. Much dreaming of electric sheep ensues, and Talos waxes philosophical plenty on the definition of life, emotion, free will, and all that jazz. But it's only ever as thought-provoking as the player wants it to be. You could double your play time investigating the remnants of the fallen civilization that this world seems to be built upon, and you could spend just as much time leading conversations with a mysterious AI who issues Voight-Kampf-esque empathy tests and aids your android in forging its (his? her?) identity. You could also just disregard all of that and simply dive into one of the most satisfying puzzle games in years.

The narrative material on display here is the sort of thing we'd commonly see in what some circles refer to as a "walking simulator," something like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (to name a 2014 release that attempted such minimalist storytelling in a manner that didn't work for me). But beyond being thought-provoking, Talos is just clever and fun. Its puzzles are beautifully designed, all revolving around using recurring devices to manipulate and bypass security systems. It trains players well for what winds up being properly mind-straining material, and its flow and narrative involvement make it impossible not to compare to Portal, and, surprisingly, in a good way. The only hitch is that its visual style is a bit cluttered and indistinct, but hey, if it were that easy to make a game as tight and perfectly constructed as Portal, everyone would be doing it.



3. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc (Vita)

There are about a thousand reasons that I adore my Vita – seriously, if you love video games, you should own a Vita – but one of the handheld's biggest strengths at the moment is its continuing role as a fount of niche Japanese imports. There was a massive influx of that this year, ranging from great (yay Monster Monpiece) to not-so-great (boo Demon Gaze). All of them seem to be pretty heavy on fan service, too, but never mind.

Leading that charge was the Danganronpa series, a particular critical darling. It's about a group of high school students in a confined environment who are forced to kill one another – and get away with it, via an investigative process and trial – in order to "graduate." It's a visual novel, essentially a manga with only the barest minimum level of interactivity for it to be labeled a "game," and in fact, its occasional attempts to involve the player beyond simply reading text are the few moments when developer Spike Chunsoft comes up short. But it's stylish, heartbreaking, colorful, grim, swift, patient, and everything in between. The murder mysteries themselves are brilliant. while the overarching plot that holds it all together teases new details at just the appropriate rate to keep you personally invested.

We actually got two localized Danganronpa games this year, and I've seen numerous people bundle them both together on year-end lists. Unfortunately, the sequel, Goodbye Despair, was a bit of a disappointment for me – while the murder cases themselves were still top-notch, the central driving story was presented in an excruciatingly slow manner and then trips over itself trying to tie all of its loose ends, all at once, in the final chapter. (The mini-games were more obnoxious, too.) But whereas the second title strained the formula a bit, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc stands as one of 2014's freshest pleasures, and features the most memorable villain of the year in Monokuma (who may soon be joining my residence in plushie form). It's not much of a game, but it's a thing that I put into my Vita and enjoyed, so what do you want from me? (Review.)



2. The Banner Saga (PC)

And now we come to 2014's token miserable game. I love The Banner Saga to death, but it is absolutely brutal. Not in terms of difficulty, mind – the game actually has no fail state until its final boss, and that's weirdly part of its bleak genius. This is a game about war, and a game about loss. We're conditioned to believe that "loss" in this medium translates to a game over screen, but in The Banner Saga, when you lose a battle, you're expected to pick yourself up and carry on regardless. The campaign is wildly (and deliberately) unpredictable, sometimes going for over an hour with no conflict and then throwing you into two difficult battles back-to-back. No time to recover? Too bad. War doesn't wait for you to be ready.

Developer Stoic is apparently comprised of ex-BioWare employees, and as we've already discussed, BioWare can do world-building like no one's business. That's critical here, because The Banner Saga would have been nowhere near as effective without the oppressive bleakness of its Viking-themed fantasy universe. It's a cold place, the gods are dead, and the sun has literally disappeared. The hordes of invading golems that threaten your land have no immediately apparent motive, and their leader is immortal. I'm not exaggerating – he cannot be killed. When a someone finally formulates a plan for defeating him, she emphasizes the fact that he'll never be gone for good, and that this is only a temporary solution. The Banner Saga is smart, mature and never self-serious, but people don't joke around much in this mythos. There's very little reason to smile here.

It's painful, and it's wonderful. This is a turn-based strategy game at heart, and while that particular element is fine, it's the Oregon Trail-esque convoy mechanic tying it all together than gives Banner its uniquely grim edge. Random events are a constant menace and deaths are as many as they are unavoidable. "Beating" the game barely even feels like a victory, even disregarding the knowledge that this is only part one of an ongoing series. I doubt that the recently-announced Banner Saga 2 will be any less miserable and I can't wait. (Review.)



1. Divinity: Original Sin (PC)

Despite it being far and away the best game that I played in 2014 (it's seriously not even a contest), I somehow managed to get through the year without publishing a review for Divinity: Original Sin. I will assume that its lack of an official blessing from me is the sole reason that this magnificent title has been absent from so many year-end lists.

That's not it, of course. The issue is that Original Sin is unwelcoming. I applaud it for the lack of hand-holding, of course, but anyone who's not a CRPG enthusiast will stumble through the first few hours lost, confused, and overwhelmed. How do I recruit more party members? How do I repair weapons? How do I even know where to go? Original Sin doesn't even have quest markers. Players are simply expected to listen to what they're told and surmise on their own where they're supposed to be going. They're expected to poke hot surfaces to figure out what they can handle and what they still can't. And if they're stuck, players are expected to put their current objective on hold and engage in one of the countless other activities available in what must be one of 2014's largest games.

If you put in the effort, what do you get out of it? Well, for one thing, you get, bar none, the best turn-based combat I've ever experienced in a game. It's acutely balanced, unique (get a load of what this game does with environmental effects) and, most critically, never breaks its own rules. But on top of that, you get an imaginative high fantasy universe that is funny and charming without sacrificing depth. I did not expect this game to have the sense of humor that it does, and I was doubly surprised that I still found myself engaged in the particular workings of this universe and the struggles of the two protagonists, despite them both essentially being player-made blank slates. (You can get them to argue with each other. You can get them to play rock-paper-scissors with each other.)

This is an incredible game. Huge, colorful, deep, and never anything less than the most outright fun I've ever had with a CRPG. It sets the bar high for upcoming releases like Pillars of Eternity and Torment: Tides of Numenera, but even if this is the best we've got, I couldn't be happier to have it. (Update: I finally got around to writing that review.)

And now the obligatory miscellaneous awards.

Best DLC: The Last of Us: Left Behind
Most overrated: Valiant Hearts: The Great War
Most underrated: The Evil Within
Most overlooked: Monster Monpiece
Most visually striking: Metrico
All-out best-looking game: Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes
Best original soundtrack: Transistor
Best licensed soundtrack: Forza Horizon 2
Biggest surprise: Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA f
Biggest disappointment: Destiny
Most enjoyable bad game: Entwined
Least enjoyable good game: Cloudbuilt
Game that I spent the most time with: Dark Souls II
Game that I spent the least time with before judging: Worms Battlegrounds
Game that I most wanted to play, but didn't: This War of Mine
Game in my Steam library that I most want to play, but still haven't: Circuits
Best game that I still haven't finished: Bayonetta 2
Best game that I received a review key/copy for: Velocity 2X
Worst game that I received a review key/copy for: Natural Doctrine
All-out worst game that I played: Z-Run
Best non-2014 release that I first played in 2014: Silent Hill 2
Best remake/re-release: The Last of Us Remastered

Saturday, December 27, 2014

My ten favorite concerts of 2014

I did a blog entry like this last year, and I suspect this'll be my last time writing one. The simple explanation is that I just don't think I'll be going to enough concerts in 2015 to justify another list like this. At this point, I've seen the vast majority of my favorite bands live and have recently either cancelled or entirely skipped many shows that I would've attended without hesitation. Comes with adulthood; I'm just busier and less energetic these days. So let's take a look back at what will probably be the last notable year of a very important and very memorable phase of my life.

10. Jack White @ Governors Ball 2014 (6/7)

Anyone who's still despairing over the breakup of the White Stripes probably hasn't seen Jack's solo act and doesn't realize how much better off he is with full creative control. Over the last few years, he's been touring with top-shelf musicians who gel so smoothly with the guy that he plays every show without a setlist, picking songs on the fly and simply expecting his band to follow his lead. I'm torn on both his new music and his off-stage shenanigans, but he's reliably one of the best guitarists on the planet, and his shows still lean heavily on enough on classic input from both White Stripes and the Raconteurs that even if his live act wasn't an emergent thrill to watch, it'd still be a delight to listen to. The only disappointment of the set was the lack of a Dead Weather team-up, since his bandmate, Alison Mosshart, was also on the festival's roster under her primary project, the Kills. (Standout: a riveting end-of-set rendition of "Icky Thump," which he didn't play the first time I saw him.)

9. Neutral Milk Hotel @ Union Transfer (1/30)

A few years ago, the idea of seeing Neutral Milk Hotel's music performed live in any sort of authentic capacity was absurd. Two miraculous things happened. First, lead singer Jeff Mangum returned to the concert scene for an extensive solo tour, performing his music for the many fans who either weren't old enough to experience it in the late '90s or were simply happy to see the guy back. Then, out of nowhere, the full band got back together. I was lucky enough to attend their very first reunion show in Baltimore last year, but sadly, the sound at the venue was awful. This year, they played at Union Transfer, my favorite venue. As much as I loved Mangum's solo shows (two of which I went to), nothing compares to hearing this material performed with a full band. Like a good indie fan, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea ranks among my favorite albums of all time, and being around for a reunion like this is a privilege I never thought I'd have.

8. TV on the Radio @ Governors Ball 2014 (6/6)

The first day of GovBall had the one-two punch of Phoenix and Outkast playing back-to-back on the main stage, which meant that the crowds elsewhere were pretty thin. That probably sucked for the artists themselves, but it was great for me, as I had no trouble securing a spot front and center for my first majorly anticipated set of the festival, TV on the Radio. I'd already seen them once at FreeFest a few years ago, and they still hold their spot as one of the tightest, most confident bands performing today. My only real gripe with their show is that they generally seem to stick to the same set of songs, and a few of my favorite tracks from Dear Science and Return to Cookie Mountain seeming destined never to be performed on stage again. Nevertheless, they're exhilarating. I missed the chance to see them in a proper club later in the year, so their dominating GovBall performance will have to do.

7. The Knife @ Terminal 5 (4/30)

The weirdest show of 2014 for me and probably anyone else who attended it. The Knife's music has always been political, but my image of them had been dark and moody, and not, as my concertgoing buddy described them, "like a gay West Side Story." She wasn't being facetious: Band co-founder Olof Dreijer has basically admitted that their Shaking the Habitual tour was essentially a pride celebration, albeit performed in front of groups of people who had never attended anything like this and probably just came to hear music. The often sexually-charged dance choreography took such center stage that some of the music was even blatantly prerecorded, which defied expectations for better or worse... but one way or another, this was a performance, and one unlike any other I saw this year. MVP: Light Asylum's Shannon Funchess, whom I'd previously seen sing backup for LCD Soundsystem's final show, and who joined The Knife for their first proper North American tour after only three prior concerts on the continent.

6. The Strokes @ Governors Ball 2014 (6/7)

To be honest, the Strokes are one of those live bands, the kind that sound excellent but don't diverge from their studio work in any way. From a performance standout, a live setting adds nothing. This set makes my list for pure event status, however. It had been years since their last show, they'd never toured for their most recent album (Comedown Machine), and they were headlining a festival in their hometown. The turnout was unreal and the energy level was through the roof, to the point that GovBall's medical staff wheeled dozens of people away throughout the course of the show and security spent the whole thing frantically spraying surviving fans with crates and crate of water bottles. It was full-on Beatlemania, and while it was one of the most exhausting concerts of my life (not helped by the fact that I'd been camping the stage since the festival gates opened and was unable to sit for essentially the entire day), it was also one of the craziest.

5. Death from Above 1979 @ Union Transfer (11/29)

I was actually supposed to see Death from Above 1979 twice last year: once at GovBall, and again at an afterparty the same weekend. For reasons still unclear, the band cancelled both appearances, and my dreams of seeing the long-defunct two-piece were shattered until they finally releases their follow-up album and announced a proper tour. That the crowd was off the chain goes without saying (this was the first time I've ever seen a blow-up sex doll being flung around at a show), but the band itself sounded fantastic, bolstering both classics and new material with extended and often tantalizing intros. The only letdown of the night was the omission of "Black History Month," but that makes me all the more hopeful that there's a next time. Just crossing my fingers that it doesn't take another decade.

4. Damon Albarn @ Governors Ball 2014 (6/6)

Poor Damon wound up being scheduled against Outkast, which meant that there was absolutely nobody there; I approached the stage while he was beginning his second song (having just seen TV on the Radio across the field) and I wound up maybe eight rows back. He didn't seem phased. In fact, he rewarded his most devoted fans with a rare treat when he brought De La Soul on-stage to play an authentic rendition of "Feel Good Inc.," which may just have been my single favorite concert moment of the year. Beyond that, his backing band aptly clarified why his ticket prices have been so high and the show was heavy on Gorillaz hits both expected and unexpected. Would have been nice to hear more Blur material (this was around the time he retired "This Is a Low," one of my favorite songs of his), but what a cheerful, energetic and unforgettable performance this guy turned out. The highlight of an altogether great festival for me.

3. Kishi Bashi @ Mauch Chunk Opera House (8/16)

It was essentially happenstance that I saw Kishi Bashi live. He was playing in the middle of nowhere, one town over from someone I was dating (whom I've since become official with!), and I suggested it essentially as a convenient activity, even though I was already a fan of the guy. His live show was great in every way that a show can be great. He's both a wonderful singer and a spectacular violinist, and his band was equally capable. Notable for a relatively unknown artist, he played for nearly two hours, thanks to both a lengthy setlist and heaping dose of enthusiastic stage banter, much of it unique to this specific show: comments about the town, jokes about the various quirks of the venue (like a weird smoke machine that fired up at rude moments), and numerous interactions with audience members, including a couple that got engaged at the show. I can't imagine anyone seeing Kishi Bashi and not becoming a lifelong fan. He's incredible.

2. Slowdive @ Union Transfer (10/23)

This is a great time to be a shoegaze fan, with so many notable reunions happening seemingly out of the blue lately. Last year, I was fortunate enough to catch My Bloody Valentine, and I've already got a ticket for Ride's first tour in two decades. This year, the star player was Slowdive. I'm a bit embarrassed to say that my fandom of theirs is a somewhat recent occurrence, but it isn't going anywhere, thanks in part to this absolutely spellbinding show. Of course the music is fantastic (seriously, if you're into shoegaze and swelling guitar work altogether, don't wait on this band like I did), but the visual element of the show left my eyes feeling the same way that my ears did: overwhelmed in the best possible way. They hit every end of the spectrum: sometimes unbelievably heavy, sometimes catchy, sometimes tranquil, and always beautiful. They were away for two decades and it's amazing how little was lost. 

1. Arcade Fire @ Barclays Center (8/22)

This was overdue. I saw Arcade Fire on their tour for The Suburbs, but I was a mile from the stage. I sought to rectify that earlier this year when I got a pit ticket for their Reflektor run, but I had to drop out, no thanks to my unwillingness to take my newly-purchased car through snow (which I still believe was the smart decision). So when I made a final attempt to see Arcade Fire properly, I went through hell to ensure that the experience was as good as it could possibly be. I worked until 3am the night before, and only a couple of hours after my shift ended, I jumped on a train to New York, reached Brooklyn by late morning, and spent the rest of the day with a friend of mine crazy enough to accompany as the first two people in line for the show. I slept when I could (on the ride up and in the streets), drank a power shot right before entry, and snagged a front-row spot.

It was 100% worth it. Even putting aside the fact that Arcade Fire are absolutely one of the best bands in the business, it was a night of unforgettable moments. I bumped into, and shook hands with, Spike Jonze. I saw Buster Poindexter lead a rendition of "Hot Hot Hot." I got to hear Win Butler sing the opening few lyrics of LCD Soundsystem's "All My Friends," my favorite song. I shook hands with Win when he walked down the barricade and thanked fans at the end of the show. I got to see some of the greatest songs ever written performed with the enthusiasm and production values fully justifying a near-hundred-dollar ticket, and it was worth every penny. There's really no other show that could top this list. It's an all-timer.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Spec Ops: The Line is better than you think it is (a spoiler-filled discussion)



I've been meaning to write this article for almost two years now. I played Spec Ops: The Line around the time it was first released, and it had a profound impact on me in ways I've been hesitant to describe. My original review skirted around spoiler territory as well as it could, and I know that I managed to convince a few people to play the game. That's great, of course, but it also means I've never had the chance to truly discuss why it is that I so deeply admire this game. So, tonight, I'm going to do that, and I'm going to do it for people who have already played Spec Ops from beginning to end. I've already done the service of selling the game, so now I'd like to explain to people who have already bought it why, in my opinion, it's better than they realize.

If you have not played the game, you can read my original review here or, if you trust me enough, just go out and play it cold.

This article contains massive spoilers and is intended only for people who have already completed Spec Ops: The Line. If you haven't finished the game, do not read any further. I'm not joking here. The scene that I'm about to discuss involves a moral choice being made under pressure. If you know about the situation and are mentally prepared for it, you'll miss out on the reactionary element of this sequence that made it so powerful for me. I'm serious. Stop reading if you have yet to complete Spec Ops, even if you think you don't care about spoilers, and even if you don't plan on playing the game. It might wind up in your collection someday, and you might find eight free hours in which to play it, and you might have a profound moment ruined forever.

Now then. The scene in Spec Ops that has sparked the most controversy is a midway turning point in which Walker and company fire upon an enemy encampment with white phosphorous and then discover that the soldiers had been sheltering innocent civilians. While there's a lot to take away from this scene - since there's no other way to progress through the campaign, many have argued that this reveal is a cheap guilt tactic - it's not what I want to discuss. No, the scene that I want to discuss is an incident in which I most certainly did have a choice.

Let me set it up, just as a refresher, because of course you would not be reading this if you haven't already seen this for yourself. You're near the end of the campaign. Walker and company just invaded the radio tower, killed that annoying DJ, and then tore the whole building down in a turret sequence that's supposed to be exhilarating until you realize what a maniac you've turned into. Their helicopter crashes in the ensuing chase and Walker becomes separated from his two squadmates, Adams and Lugo. He locates Adams easily enough, but as the two communicate with Lugo over the radio, they learn that he's being surrounded by some kind of mob. Walker and Adams rush to help him, and they discover that he's been hung by the locals of Dubai. They shoot the rope, but it's too late. Lugo is dead.

Now the crowd turns to you. They have you surrounded and there's no reason to believe that they don't want you just as dead as Lugo is. Adams knows this. He has his gun at the ready and is begging Walker to give him the word. Walker gets up and readies his own gun. And then control is handed back over to the player.

As far as I can tell, there are four possible reactions to this scene. The first is to do nothing, which results in you getting killed by the mob, so that choice gets the boot right away. The second is to fire above the civilians' heads, which effectively scares them away and avoids any further death on either side of the conflict. The third possible reaction is self-defense: You don't want to kill these people, but you're under pressure and they've just murdered your teammate, so you're not really left with much choice. Unfortunate, but also understandable.

I didn't do any of these things. I went with the fourth option, which was to raise my gun, open fire, and not stop until every civilian in front of me was dead. I wasn't doing it out of self-defense. I was doing it out of revenge. I had forgotten that Walker's original mission was to observe the situation and report back. I hadn't realized that Walker's failed attempts to save Dubai were all the direct result of him disobeying orders and trying to be the hero he wasn't. I'd grown increasingly frustrated that the situation in Dubai only seemed to be growing worse the longer I stayed, in spite of everything I thought I was doing to protect its citizens. I was frustrated that American soldiers were turning on me, that CIA agents were trying to bury the mess, and that locals seemed to regard me as the villain.

I played most of Spec Ops in a single sitting, and experiencing a game in such a manner can leave you physically and mentally drained, as I'm sure any gamer can relate to. I was even playing it on the highest difficulty available at the outset, which made the experience an often frustrating grind. As has been said, Spec Ops isn't actually a great third-person shooter, nor is it even really supposed to be. It's not supposed to be fun or rewarding. It's supposed to be exhausting. It's supposed to be wearying. It's supposed to be maddening. As Walker's stamina decreased, so did mine. I'd fallen into the mindset that if this is a video game, I must be the hero. So why were my efforts failing? Why was I putting myself through this only to be rewarded with anguish and misery?

Lugo's death was the tipping point. From an outsider's perspective, there was plenty of moral grey. Lugo was lynched, yes, but from the civilians' point of view, the three of us were responsible for essentially dooming the entire city, regardless of what state it was in before we'd arrived. But I didn't see it that way. I saw my heroics being rewarded with the senseless torture and murder of my friend. When I was surrounded by a mob of civilians ready to pounce on me, I was not scared. I was angry.

And so I killed all of them. Not to save my own life, but because I wanted them dead. I mowed down dozens of them. When I finally stopped shooting, I spotted a couple of wounded civilians trying to crawl away. I thought to myself that I'd wasted enough assault rifle ammo, and that I should probably save the rest of it for any more soldiers I might bump into around the corner. So I pulled out my sidearm and shot the wounded civilians in the head with that instead.

And then, as I was walking away, I felt absolutely sick to my stomach.

I've done terrible things in games before. I've killed people who didn't deserve it and in some cases condemned entire civilizations to doom. But in every other case, it had simply been role-playing. I was in character. When I play Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and choose the path of the Dark Side, and when I'm robbing shopkeepers and Force choking innocents, it never occurs to me that such behavior is in any way a reflection of my true nature as a human being, because that's ridiculous. Star Wars is fantasy and we know that from square one. We're presented with dialog options and are afforded all the time in the world to make choices. Hell, in most cases, you're just trying to maintain a consistent character; an inherent flaw in many games with moral choices is that they don't allow for much middle ground. You're either sickeningly sweet or cartoonishly evil. It's silly. It's unrealistic. It's "just a game."

What scares me about my reaction to Spec Ops is that it wasn't a conscious choice. It was instinctive. I just underlined every possible way in which this sequence can play out, but developer Yager doesn't. They place you in a tense situation and give you no time to reflect, to examine your options. These people just killed your friend and now they have you surrounded. Act.

And what's truly profound about this sequence isn't how I reacted, but why. You could kill these people and feel totally justified for doing so simply considering the knowledge that you were in mortal danger, and no, firing over everyone's heads wouldn't occur to everyone on the spot. Killing out of self-defense is okay. But that's not why I killed these people. I killed them because I wanted them dead. I killed them because I felt wronged. I killed them because I was a monster.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Spec Ops is revolutionary. Countless movies and memoirs have told us that "war is hell," that violence is senseless, and that people are driven to madness over it. And while those of us sitting on our sofas and sipping coffee will never truly understand what that's like, video games, as an interactive medium, bring us closer than we ever have before. I fought Walker's battles. I had a personal stake in his "mission," self-appointed or otherwise. I experienced the ongoing frustration of seeing my hard work backfire tremendously. And I spent hours and hours working alongside Lugo, growing to like him as a person. I was emotionally wracked over his death and I committed an atrocity over it, as I'd been driven to do. As cliché as it sounds, Spec Ops really did awaken a darkness in me that I didn't realize was there.

Obviously, I know many have
walked away with different reactions to Spec Ops, and more will follow. As I've said, some people will never even see this particular sequence play out the way I did. Spec Ops really is the sort of experience that everyone will take something slightly different away from. That's art.

[This article was inspired by a recent suggestion I made on Twitter that Spec Ops: The Line is perhaps the greatest game of the last ten years. No one agreed, which is to be expected, and to be honest, I'm not sure that I agree with it, either. But I might someday. The more I think about this game, the more appreciation I have for it. Two years have passed and nothing has slowed.]

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Dark Souls II boss battle scorecard

Before Dark Souls II was released on PC this past Friday, I'd already finished the game twice on Xbox 360 (once on New Game +). It'd be madness to purchase the game again and beat it a third time just for the privilege of playing it at 60fps in 1080p, especially since I wasn't all that crazy about Dark Souls II in the first place, right? Absolute insanity.

So, yes, my third playthrough went swimmingly, completed in just over nine hours (a testament to how quickly these Souls games go when you actually know what you're doing and where you're going). I was considering doing a double dip review of the PC version to complement my first write-up, and that's still on the table, but for now, I thought I'd have a little fun and assemble a scorecard for the game's bosses, much like I once did for the first Dark Souls. This playthrough marked me finally encountering and killing Darklurker, meaning I've officially fought everything on this list.

Since I've completed the game three times, including once on NG+, there will be a slight point deduction for any boss that I never died against. 'Cause, y'know, these games are supposed to be hard. (Pictured above: Looking Glass Knight.)

The Last Giant
          +5 for having an anus for a face
          +10 for breaking off his own arm and hitting you with it
          +3 for not being terribly far from the nearest checkpoint
          +5 for being an all-around good starter boss
          -3 for taking so long
                    total: 20

The Pursuer
          +5 for being optional
          +2 for being a big armored guy; I'm sure that won't get old
          -5 for showing up earlier in the level and terrorizing unsuspecting players
          +1 for reappearing in the Smelter Demon arena later on
          -1 for not dropping many souls for that battle
          +12 for being shuttled around everywhere by a giant bird
          +3 for guarding the shortcut into the Lost Bastille
          +3 and the Drangleic Armor set, which kicks ass
          -10 for the impale attack
          +5 for being extremely vulnerable to ballista fire
          +6 for letting players troll each other with the ballistas
                    score: 21

Dragonrider
          -8 for boss I never died against
          +3 for that trick with the rising platforms
          +2 for at least setting up shop in a pretty area
          +5 for being a guy who apparently rides dragons
          +1 for showing up early and therefore not feeling redundant
                    score: 3


Old Dragonslayer
          -8 for boss I never died against
          +5 for being optional
          +6 for being Ornstein!
          -3 because that's lazy
          +2 for guarding the Tower Shield, which I used a lot
                    score: 2

Flexile Sentry
          -8 for boss I never died against 
          +5 for being optional (technically)
          +6 for being a two-headed pirate bastard
          -4 for that annoying switch hunt required to summon the ship
                    score: -1

Ruin Sentinels
          +5 for being optional
          +5 for only being optional if you explore thoroughly
          -10 for making me fight three of these damn things
          +3 because at least you can fight the first one solo
          -4 for shield-throwing
          +5 because the shield-throwing renders them lower on defenses
          -8 for being guarded by something like a dozen quick soldiers
          -5 for showing up later in Drangleic Castle and being annoying
                    score: -9

Belfry Gargoyles
          +5 for being optional
          -3 for being a repeat of the Bell Gargoyle fight from the first game
          -10 which everybody freaking hated
          -10 for there being five of them this time
          -12 which you'll fight simultaneously if you're not quick enough
          -12 for constant invasions in the area directly preceding this
                    score: -42

Lost Sinner
          +8 for the bug crawling out of the eye socket
          -2 because this is where I started to get sick of bipedal armored guys
          -3 for being insanely quick
          -6 for making me wade past a bunch of exploding zombies to get here
          -10 for summoning two phantoms mid-fight on NG+
          -1 for being an underwhelming Great Soul holder, all things considered
                    score: -14

The Skeleton Lords
          -3 for being more a collection of small enemies than a boss
          -5 for those damned skeleton wheel guys
          +1 I don't hate this boss
                    score: -7

Executioner's Chariot
          +5 for being optional
          -6 for sure as hell seeming mandatory
          -7 for the stupid skeletons
          -8 because the stupid skeletons respawn
          +4 because at least you can kill the necromancers
          -10 for getting run over basically meaning an instant death
          -10 for having two phases
          -12 for the hassle it takes to get back every time you die
          -30 for not even guarding anything interesting
                    score: -74

Covetous Demon
          -8 for boss I never died against
          +8 for looking like Jabba the Hutt
                    score: 0

Mytha, the Baneful Queen
          -20 for the battle being set in a pool of poisonous water
          +5 because at least you can drain the water
          -5 because no one would figure that out without help
          +9 for attacking by throwing her own head, which is awesome
          -2 for regenerating health while standing in the poison pool
                    score: -13

Smelter Demon
          +5 for being optional
          -3 for being another damn armored guy
          -5 for burning players who stand too close
          +5 for guarding a handy checkpoint
          +3 for being a good point of reference for locating Zweihander
          -1 in memory of players everywhere with low fire defense
                    score: 4

Old Iron King
          +5 for basically being a Balrog
          -5 because a big goat demon rising out of lava is kinda clichéd
          +8 for the massive, creepy idol immediately preceding this fight
          -10 for just standing there and pounding the ground like a goof
          +6 for having a hand beam
          -6 for having a hand beam
                    score: -2

Royal Rat Authority
          +5 for being optional
          -3 for being more a collection of small enemies than a boss
          +10 for being the weirdest boss of the Souls series
          -7 for the constant status afflictions
          -5 for the actual boss not showing up immediately
          -5 for the "grey spirit" invasion nonsense preceding this fight
                    score: -5

The Rotten
          +10 for being made of bodies
          +8 for the genuinely intriguing intro cutscene
          +5 because you can chop his arms off
          +10 because he'll still swing at you with the stumps, adorably
          -6 for the grab attack
          -4 for the fire pits
          +20 for being a social reject and a big, lovable doofus
                    score: 43

Scorpioness Najka
          +5 for boobs
          -6 for boobs with no nipples
          +8 for being a giant scorpion lady
          +8 because she's got a friend called the "Manscoprion"
          -10 for that burrow attack
          +5 because you can chop her limbs off
          -4 for the toxic attacks
                    score: 6

Prowling Magus and Congregation
          -8 for boss I never died against
          -3 for being more a collection of small enemies than a boss
          +1 pity point for being statistically the game's least-killed enemy
                    score: -10

Royal Rat Vanguard
          +5 for being optional
          -10 just rehashing the Sif fight
          -20 and removing everything that was cool about it
          -15 for the charge attack
          -10 for having rat cronies
          -10 who give you toxic
          +7for being a rat so massive it looks like a dog
          +12 for the bonfire being extremely close
                    score: -41

The Duke's Dear Freja
          +20 for being a giant two-headed spider that shoots lasers
          +10 for the title "Duke's Dear"
          -5 for the little spiders
          -10 who respawn
          +8 for having one of the game's few cool "lairs"
          +12 for the neat little dragon memory it's guarding
          +9 for surprising you at an earlier spot on NG+
                    score: 44

Twin Dragonriders
          -5 for just being a repeat of an earlier boss
          -10 and now there are two of them
          +14 because you can trick one into knocking his buddy down
          -8 for no nearby checkpoints
          +3 because they still ride dragons
                    score: -6

Looking Glass Knight
          -5 for being another damn armored guy
          +10 for being the best battle against an armored guy in the game
          +20 for the gorgeous location and weather effects
          +6 for the pretty shield
          -6 which he uses to summon phantoms into the battle
          +25 for summoning lightning from the sky like freaking Thor
                    score: 50

Demon of Song
          -8 for boss I never died against
          +16 for being a giant foreskin frog
          -8 for no nearby checkpoints
          -9 for being preceded by the most annoying section in the game
          +10 because at least you can listen to some lovely singing
                    score: 1

Velstadt, the Royal Aegis
          -6 for being another damn armored guy
          -8 for attacking so quickly with such a heavy weapon
          +12 for guarding the most poignant scene in the game
          -5 for being guarded by a roomful of those respawning bell ghost things
          +3 for helpfully standing still while powering up
                    score: -4

Guardian Dragon
          +25 for the prettiest boss arena in the game
          +25 for guarding the prettiest level in the game
          -20 for coming after Aldia's Keep, which is awful
          -8 for no nearby checkpoints
          +15 for being a good, old-fashioned fire-breathing dragon battle
          -1 for being a drake but calling itself a dragon
                    score: 36

Giant Lord
          -5 for basically just being a repeat of the Last Giant
          +18 for being the centerpiece of the best grinding spot of the game
          +5 for being protected by a massive rolling head
          -6 because this whole endgame stretch feels pretty rushed
          -7 for that downward swing attack
          -3 for excessive splash damage
          +5 for guarding a Giant Soul, which makes the Vendrick fight easier
                    score: 7

Throne Watcher and Throne Defender
          -8 for boss I never died against
          +8 actually, scratch that; I think I ran off the cliff once
          -10 for being more armored guys
          -12 for confusing me into thinking I was done with this area
          -20 because seriously, why was this boss even necessary?
          +6 for each showing some devotion after the other falls
                    score: -36

Nashandra
          -10 for the curse nodes
          +11 because the curse nodes can be destroyed
          -16 because the curse effect is insanely powerful on NG+
          +8 for being made of skeletons
          -9 because why did Vendrick marry someone who's made of skeletons?
          -5 for generic "you've proven yourself, now die" speech
          -7 because most of her attacks miss if you're up close
          -10 for being an all-around disappointing final boss
                    score: -38

Ancient Dragon
          +5 for being optional
          -15 for the outrageously difficult trek back every time you die
          -10 for the instakill area-of-effect attack
          -8 for an extremely limited moveset, all things considered
          +20 because the Gower Ring of Protection makes this fight a joke
          +12 for being surrounded by bloodstains from other players, like a boss
          +5 for guarding a Giant Soul, which makes the Vendrick fight easier
          +2 for setting up shop in a gorgeous area
                    score: 11
Vendrick
          +5 for being optional
          -14 for basically being impossible if you don't know the trick
          +15 because it's satisfying once you do know the trick
          -18 for making me fight a bunch of those damn anus-faced giants
          +20 for providing the game's most poignant image
          -25 because it honestly would have been cooler if you didn't fight him
                    score: -17

Darklurker
          +5 for being optional
          -8 for the ridiculous hoops you need to jump through to fight it
          -30 for making you waste a Human Effigy every time you fight it
          -5 for the fireballs
          -5 for the lasers
          -5 for the smoke bomb
          -20 for splitting into two halfway through the fight
          +10 because the first half of the fight is simple enough
          -3 for existing to make strength build players cry
                    score: -61

And here are the results:

31. Executioner's Chariot (-74)
30. Darklurker (-61)
29. Belfry Gargoyles (-42)
28. Royal Rat Vanguard (-41)
27. Nashandra (-38)
26. Throne Watcher and Throne Defender (-36)
25. Vendrick (-17)
24. Lost Sinner (-14)
23. Mytha, the Baneful Queen (-13)
22. Prowling Magus and Congregation (-10)
21. Ruin Sentinels (-9)
20. The Skeleton Lords (-7)
19. Twin Dragonriders (-6)
18. Royal Rat Authority (-5)
17. Velstadt, the Royal Aegis (-4)
16. Old Iron King (-2)
15. Flexile Sentry (-1)
14. Covetous Demon (0)
13. Demon of Song (1)
12. Old Dragonslayer (2)
11. Dragonrider (3)
10. Smelter Demon (4)
9. Scorpioness Najka (6)
8. Giant Lord (7)
7. Ancient Dragon (11)
6. The Last Giant (20)
5. The Pursuer (21)
4. Guardian Dragon (36)
3. The Rotten (43)
2. The Duke's Dear Freja (44)
1. Looking Glass Knight (50)