Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Lacking in Street Smarts

Game: Street Fighter V
Capcom, 2016 (PS4 version reviewed)

I haven’t played a lot of Street Fighter since Street Fighter II first rocked my world on the SNES. They don’t seem to have gotten much better since. Even three months of patches and content updates since its initial release, Street Fighter V remains a tragic mess of a multiplayer experience and a cautionary tale of how even the best underlying game mechanics can be ruined by the systems and interfaces surrounding them.

And it really is a tragedy how much SFV does right. Like Street Fighter IV it manages to transition the series’ classic 2D visuals to a vibrant 3D palette, maintaining nearly the same hitboxes and animation frames while adding a level of grace and fluidity to the characters’ motions that sprites could never quite achieve. I can’t ultimately say I prefer the move to three dimensions in a fundamentally two dimensional game - there’s always something about visible polygons I can never quite appreciate on the level of a hand-drawn character, or the seamlessly convincing faux-sprites of, say, Guilty Gear Xrd - but if we have to drag these games into the third dimension, I’m glad they’re still as pleasing to look at as this. 

It’s a tale as old as time...

At its core SFV plays like a dream. I’m no fighting game pro by any stretch - the only series I’ve ever been able to claim even something like competence in was Soul Calibur - but to my novice hands SFV feels just right. Character input is incredibly responsive. The movelists remain refreshingly tiny and put the emphasis of mastery immediately on the fundamentals rather than gating it behind encyclopedic memory of combos. The characters themselves are as varied and entertaining to experiment with as ever, even if their Story Modes are half-baked nonsense.

...a song as old as rhyme.

The shame, though, is that those utterly engaging characters and fundamentals are surrounded by a user-level experience that is anything but. The range of available modes borders on the pathetic. Not only are the 5-10 minute Story Mode “journeys” a joke both in terms of challenge and presentation, punctuated by what appears to be storyboard fan art and snippets of context-free dialogue from a badly translated 80s shonen anime, but SFV fails to provide even the basic Arcade Mode experience that has been the baseline way to introduce players to fighting game characters since time immemorial. Good luck if, like me, you’ve had only limited exposure to this series in the past two decades, because there’s no real tutorial either, and the game shows zero interest in helping players achieve basic competence beyond describing half the control scheme and throwing them to the wolves. Even the movelist menu is a pain in the ass to access and display, to the point that it’s easier and almost necessary to physically print out movelists when learning a character.

What the game lacks in story it makes up for in riveting dialogue.

SFV’s online multiplayer mode, arguably its raison d’etre, has much bigger problems than the game’s general barriers to entry and lack of solo content. While the netcode runs smoothly enough and players are thankfully given the option to limit matchmaking to opponents with high-quality network connections, the amount of time wasted between matches is downright stupefying. It’s probably unavoidable (and very forgivable) that matchmaking itself can take a few moments. What’s not forgivable is the interminable wait between successfully finding a match and actually getting down to fighting. Between loading times and unskippable musical interludes (probably masking more loading times), players are forced to spend just as much time staring at a motionless screen as they are actually playing the game - and significantly more if your opponent leaves after the first bout. These kind of intermediate pauses might be no big deal in games with 30-60 minute match times like Dota, or a minor inconvenience in 10-20 minute round shooters, but in a game whose matches can end in seconds they are pace-killing and frequently just shy of infuriating. 

Consequently, the sum of what might be a technically perfect fighting game is ruined by a functional inadequacy that actively prevents the player from experiencing that perfection. By my own stopwatch timing, I spent as much as five minutes twiddling my thumbs in a session for every one minute spent actually playing Street Fighter V. It is, in short, a tedious and mood-breaking way to engage with any fighting game, however strong its underlying combat. That this seems to be inherent to limitations of the engine is all the more shame, as it’s looking increasingly unlikely that Capcom will ever find a way to patch the problem out of existence. For someone interested only in local matches with enough Street Fighter-playing friends willing to power past the loading frustrations, the failure of SFV’s overall package and online play might be forgivable. For me, it’s a losing proposition whatever way you look at it.

Disliked it.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Dark Souls 3, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Praise the Sun

Game: Dark Souls III
From Software, 2016 (PC version reviewed)

Dark Souls 3 is Dark Souls 2 at heart. Not the Dark Souls 2 that actually exists, mind you - a great game but flawed sequel in many of the ways it parted from its predecessor - but the Dark Souls 2 that might have been had it recaptured the essence of the first and built directly upon its successes. Sometimes it does a bit too much recapturing and a bit too little building, sure. But it gets the balance right where it matters most, and it’s tough to imagine any fan of the series coming away disappointed with its conclusion.

DS3 isn’t shy about its sequel status; in fact it’s constantly celebrating it. From the moment the familiar title screen appears and the music begins, the game revels in its place in the trilogy. Where the first Dark Souls featured only quiet, cut by the harsh slashing noise of the player pressing “any button to continue,” and the second introduced a soft, pensive chorus, DS3 bursts into a full-blown choral requiem not-so-subtly indebted to Mozart’s. It’s a fitting crescendo for a game that is in every way aware of its derivative nature as a sequel while simultaneously being determined to take those familiar elements and push them to their extremes. 

Hello, old frenemies.
The very first boss epitomizes this, a beautiful little fight combining elements of DS1’s Artorias battle with a very Bloodborne-esque transformation phase. It’s hard to think of a more exciting way to welcome veteran players to this new yet familiar chapter while teaching newcomers the core principles of the series, its combat, and it’s themes. On that front, the developers took criticisms of the infamous Souls obtuseness to heart and deigned to supply in the new Firelink Shrine the most helpful and accessible tutorials of the series. The game is probably still opaque as hell to first timers, don’t get me wrong, but it’s nice to see From Software making some basic concessions to mechanical guidance while still leaving plenty of room for discovery where more advanced aspects of DS3’s systems are concerned. 
Bloodborne’s grandiose Gothic architecture returns in spades.

Not all the changes are for the better. It’s hard not to be disappointed that DS3’s Firelink Shrine has reverted to the abstract teleportation hub that is the Nexus of Demon’s Souls, rather than DS1’s central axis from which the surrounding world is unlocked like a puzzle box. But while large stretches of DS3 at first seem to unravel in a fairly linear fashion after Firelink, it quickly becomes apparent that the world is as massive and full of alternative routes and secret paths as DS1, if not more so . The areas are gorgeously crafted, each evoking memories of prior Souls entries or Bloodborne while building something entirely new on those memories. The introductory High Wall of Lothric and the Undead Settlement, for example, while instantly reminiscent of the Undead Burg, turn out to have much more in common with Bloodborne’s terrifyingly hostile Central Yharnam. Rather than the staid, largely passive undead guardians of DS1, these areas are full of frenzied religious mobs, packs of hounds, and nightmare creatures that burst from the shadows, all pushing the player toward Bloodborne’s much faster pace of combat and crowd control skills than DS1’s “Try luring them out one at a time” duel-like approach to encounters. These areas are still meticulously designed puzzles to be unlocked through careful exploration, creativity, and plain old trial and error, but the frenetic new pace and variety of enemies succeed in injecting Bloodborne’s excited fear into the proceedings in a way that DS2’s tedious clusters of identical sword-wielding humanoids so frequently failed to do.

For all the allure of Fashion Souls you might be surprised to see half the player base running around dressed as Raggedy Kylo Ren.
The nods to previous From Software titles can feel overbearing to the point of fan service at first. My emotions at rediscovering old allies and locales peaked in the first hour and almost immediately ebbed after that when I started to worry DS3 was content to be the sequel that rehashes the best moments of its predecessors, then calls it a day. That worry didn’t last long. Without spoiling anything specific, the frequent throwbacks and nods to history do turn out to serve an important thematic purpose that pays off big dividends in the second half of the game, when I was surprised to find myself affected and even disturbed by the places DS3 proves willing to go to both to fulfill and to subvert the themes established by the series. I know this spoiler-aversion makes for a horribly vague way to discuss story, and I’m aware that the effectiveness of these narrative moments is often limited to those who have obsessively explored previous Souls worlds and their surrounding lore,* but all I can say is that I found them deeply satisfying and as appropriate a conclusion to the trilogy as I could have hoped for. 

DS3’s bosses come in all shapes and sizes, but the biggest and baddest are the biggest and baddest of any Souls yet.
Even sixty hours and one ending in, it’s too early for me to speculate where the game stands among the From titles. The full potential of these games isn’t always apparent on a first playthrough or before having had some time to reflect on and live with the experience. Some initial disappointment aside, I had a blast with my first DS2 encounter, and it wasn’t until revisiting DS1 and returning to DS2 that I realized how much less satisfied I was with it as a Souls game, and how much less interested I was in plumbing the depths of its world than I was with its predecessor and Demon’s Souls. But I can confidently say some superlative things about DS3. The bosses are beautiful, hulking creations that prove a thrill to discover and a joy to master, providing challenges to match the most memorable fights in the series. More than in any previous Souls game I found myself not wanting to move past a given area until I had engaged in jolly cooperation with other players dozens of times, learning the ins and outs of these titans and vicariously re-experiencing the pleasure of besting them. A friend I recently introduced to the series pointed out that some of these battles reminded him as much of Shadow of the Colossus as they did of DS1, and I can think of no better compliment to From than that they have succeeded in wedding the titanic scale and puzzle-like design of those creatures with the intense combat intricacies of Souls, accompanied by the simultaneously most sweeping and most personal orchestrations Yuka Kitamura and Motoi Sakuraba have yet composed for the series.

Papers could and have been written on the From design philosophy and what makes their worlds tick so distinctively. We can point to numerous core elements and speculate to what extent they’re the “secret sauce” imparting that unmistakable Souls flavor no one else has yet managed to imitate. The brutality of the combat and the careful precision it demands. The unique sense of accomplishment that comes from mastering something so challenging and precise. The mystery of an ancient world largely uninterested in the player character or in giving away its secrets. The thrill of putting together the pieces of those secrets and beginning to discern patterns in the dream-like chaos. The visual design that is equal parts familiar and alien, historically gothic yet otherworldly in its proportions and inhabitants.
You won’t want for excuses to stop and take in the view...
Maybe it’s some of those things; maybe it’s the careful combination of them. I haven’t even touched upon the multiplayer component that, PVE and PVP alike, is so singular to this series in the ways in which it seamlessly integrates with the “solo” game experience, now expanded and perhaps even perfected in DS3. I certainly haven’t spent the time I should have complaining about the state of the PC port, which a month after its initial Japanese release remains as plagued by network bugs and online instabilities as on day one. 

...buut you’ll be taking in this slightly less welcome view quite a lot as well.
But I could talk about one or another aspect for this game for pages and still have volumes to write,** so on some level this review was always going to be a half-assed summary. I haven’t made any secret that Dark Souls was my favorite game of its generation - and maybe ever - so maybe it’s enough  to say Dark Souls 3 is the sequel I always thought it deserved. If last year’s Bloodborne wasn’t evidence enough of the difference it makes to have Hidetaka Miyazaki at the helm, this should be plenty for anyone. It may not be as exciting to see the director retread familiar ground as it was to see him build an entirely new world, but it’s remarkably fulfilling to experience the way he puts an end to the old. 

* A not-small percentage of the Souls fan base, to be fair.
** And hopefully will, one of these days.

Loved it!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Game of the Year 2015: The Final Three

It’s surprising to probably no one that my decision to revisit and review my ten favorite games of 2015 was a hubristic one. Yet here on this twenty-ninth day of March in the Year of Our Lord 2016, I’d say it’s about time to sit down and seal the deal on the old year to get on with the new, even if that means giving the biggest players the shortest shrift. So without any further foot-dragging, my top three games of last year:

3. 80 Days
Inkle, 2015 (PC and iOS versions reviewed)

Inkle are national treasures. Well, someone’s national treasures, anyway, since I’m not a citizen of their native UK, but thank god for these guys and their ability to breathe new life into the text adventure genre so many of us adored as kids. They got my attention with their conversion of Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! series into a brilliant open-ended mobile RPG some years back (now available as a PC port), but they won my heart with their more recent Jules Verne tribute, 80 Days.

80 Days looks simple enough at first. You are the beleaguered Jean Passepartout, dragged into a globe-spanning adventure by your new master Phileas Fogg’s gambling proclivities. Turns out, though, this isn’t quite the Victorian world you remember from Verne’s novel, but one in an alternate steampunk reality where gyroscopic airships have taken to the winds, mechanical horses pull mechanical carriages across vast distances, and AI-driven automata have begun to encroach upon the livelihood of the late 19th century working class. As Passepartout you will have to chart your and your master’s course across the continents by these transit and means and more, deciding how far you will go and what you’ll be willing to do to ensure your master makes it home to London and wins his money in the eighty days allotted. Or, at least, to ensure he makes it home alive.

High concept flourishes aside, it’s on the personal level where 80 Days thrives. Your adventure unfolds both on a delightfully animated globe and on a series of dialogue and city screens wherein which Passepartout can chart a course, explore the town, bargain for travel implements and services, and (more than anything) spend time talking to the colorful cast of characters he encounters on the way. I can’t stress enough just how terrific the writing of these conversations is. Sure, a few familiar faces and iconic scenes show up from Verne’s novel, but the vast majority of this content is original and utterly engaging. You are constantly choosing dialogue options that shape Passepartout’s personality and tendencies in ways unique to each playthrough, and the sheer breadth of available encounters is reason enough to keep coming back to the game and finding different routes to your destination - or anywhere else, should your Passepartout decide to take his master’s adventure off the literal rails.

A core element in each of these interactions is your relationship with Fogg and just how attentive a servant your choices make Passepartout out to be. Will you head out into the New Orleans nightlife to seek transit opportunities and expand your horizons, or will you remain at the hotel to see to Fogg’s needs and secure your finances for the journey ahead? Do you take a chance with the experimental flight option offered to you by someone with whom you had a midnight tryst, or stick with the safer and slower rail route you had already planned to follow? Do you get involved in the plight of a politically persecuted group seeking to overthrow the local tyranny, or place your loyalty to Fogg’s mission about your personal morals?

The narrative possibilities of 80 Days aren’t endless, but they can often feel that way, and Inkle has even added tremendous new content and destinations to the game free of charge since launch. It’s a lovingly crafted and uniquely personal experience that (at least for now) is like nothing else out there. I can’t wait to see what this team will do next, but I have a feeling I’ll still be discovering fresh and exciting things about 80 Days by the time their next title drops.

2. Bloodborne
From Software, 2015 (PS4)

If there was any doubt that director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s absence was the key element that left Dark Souls II a more hollow experience than its predecessor, albeit a technically tighter one, Bloodborne seems to clear it up. A vast gothic labyrinth of Lovecraftian nightmares, Bloodborne exchanges Dark Souls’ profound loneliness and quiet dread of the world’s end with a more visceral terror that there might be things worse than death waiting beyond.

Some things have changed - combat is less a cautious duel in Bloodborne than a frenetic brawl, the Estus healing system has been replaced by an unfortunately grindy consumable alternative, and the central teleporting hub from Demon Souls makes a return - but Bloodborne retains all the best of Dark Souls’ atmospheric detail and the thrill of exploring its twisting, secret-laiden landscapes. There are a few missteps here and there, an inevitably unfair segment or two and the occasional deadly bug, but as in Dark Souls every nook and cranny (other than the optional randomized Chalice dungeons) drips with craft and intentionality. However indebted this series may be to predecessors like Castlevania and King’s Field, and despite the mixed attempts of imitators, there are no action RPGs out there at quite the caliber of Miyazaki games, and Bloodborne is as great as any other of his Souls.

1. Undertale
Toby Fox, 2015 (Mac version reviewed)

Undertale remains as difficult to talk about as the day it launched. Describing exactly what makes this little indie JRPG so much more than the simple Earthbound tribute it appears to be at a glance is almost impossible without spoiling some of its biggest surprises - especially since its first hour reflects the most tired, frustrating aspects of that game and its genre. But Undertale is more.

I can sing a few of Undertale’s praises without spoilers. It’s genuinely hilarious, with a sense of humor simultaneously so broad-ranging and esoteric that it had me laughing aloud more frequently than any game last year but Tales from the Borderlands. Its characters, despite all being broad cartoonish caricatures of video game and geek tropes generally, reveal themselves to have rich emotional lives and cores so genuine it’s damn near impossible not to fall in love with all of them. Its bullet hell combat, while challenging to the point of frustration at times, keeps encounters fresh and encourages creative problem solving in a way few JRPGs ever bother to. Best of all, Undertale tells a story I hadn’t heard before, a story that unfolds in drastically different ways based on not only overt player decisions but on the little choices made moment to moment and battle to battle.

It feels a little odd to extol a game I can only talk about in the most obnoxiously vague ways - especially a game I’m calling my favorite of 2015. But lemme tell ya, in the most obnoxious way I can, man you gotta play it. Gems like Undertale don’t come around every day - or even every year.

- Honorable Mentions -

There were, of course, a lot of games I missed last year, but I thought it worth mentioning those I played after originally deciding on this Top 10 that probably would’ve made the cut had I gotten to them sooner.

SOMA is flawed as hell - I got so tired of its “boss” sequences breaking the flow of the story that I used a fan mod to alter their behavior -  but it’s nonetheless an enthralling piece of existential horror that’s stuck in my brain for months since my playthrough. One about which I’ve got a lot more thoughts to share here one of these days.

I played Dark Souls II on console back in 2014, and I only ultimately jumped into Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin on PC this year to co-op through with a friend. It’s a great update to an already great game that, while failing to measure up to Dark Souls or Bloodborne as a complete world and narrative, stands nonetheless a head above every other action RPG out there.

Divinity: Original Sin: Enhanced Edition is also both an update to a 2014 title and a fantastic co-op RPG, one that I haven’t yet had the time to give the attention it deserves.

I’d also love to spend a lot more time with the brilliant systems of tactical espionage RPG-ish thing Invisible Inc. before rendering a final verdict.

Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is the brain-bending party game to end all brain-bending party games, and I only wish I’d discovered it sooner.

- Dishonorable Mentions -

Most Disappointing Game / Best Child Neglect Simulator: Fallout 4
Most Broken Thing I Didn’t Even Want But Got for Free with My Video Card: Batman: Arkham Knight
Most Morally Repugnant Murder Porn, AKA the Jack Thompson Game of the Year Award: Until Dawn
Most Pretentious Execution of a Genuinely Cool Concept: The Beginner’s Guide
Most Frustrating Lack of Split-Screen Multiplayer: Halo 5: Guardians
Most Abusive Digital Marketplace Pricing Practices: the entire Nintendo eShop