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

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Cabin the Woods

Game: Until Dawn
Supermassive Games, 2015 (PS4)

There’s a lot to admire in Until Dawn’s ambition. Technically it’s a stunning achievement, even if the PS4’s hardware isn’t quite up to the task of rendering its ultra-realistic, motion-captured cast in real time at anything like a consistent frame rate. The idea of applying the Telltale formula to an 80s horror film and throwing a more constant threat of character death into the mix certainly seems right up my alley. After all, who hasn’t wanted to yell at the characters on screen in a slasher movie for their constant stupidity and lack of basic self-preservation instincts? On paper, the idea of directing their behavior from position of cast puppet master sounds like a perfectly fine concept for a game.

Alas, Until Dawn not only mucks up the execution of that concept but falls prey to the same old hoary tropes of the slasher genre itself. Not content just to give you a limited range of choices often stripped entirely of story context, it frequently takes even that power from the player and has the characters do the same old stupid slasher stuff anyway. It’s an insulting way of trying both to blame the players for their mistakes - though good luck knowing what those mistakes are - while wresting control at the most critical moments of consequence. Characters splitting up to investigate clear deathtraps entirely on their own? Check. Leaving crucial weapons and MacGuffins behind out of sheer blind stupidity? Check. Stopping in the middle of a life-and-death chase to argue about petty teen social vendettas? CHECK CHECK CHECK. Frequently the player has no say in anything but how badly the characters will suffer based on a series of quick-time events - though maybe one in a hundred of these quick-time events might be the trigger that later gets someone killed.

I’m hard-pressed to think of many games that have come this close to realtime-rendered photorealism.

Until Dawn also embraces the absolute worst narrative elements of its source materials without the slightest inclination to subvert or improve upon them - this is far more Friday the 13th Part VI than The Cabin in the Woods or Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. The characters turn out to be the same old awful slasher clichés we’ve seen a thousand times over, from the Dumb Jock to the Slutty Slut to the Hapless Nerd to the Queen Bee Bitch to the Virgin Final Girl, and Until Dawn shows not the slightest inclination to bring depth or empathy to these teens* over its grueling 10-12 hours of running time. This would have been a hard task even in the best of writer’s hands, given that the story begins with these characters doing something absolutely vile to one of their friends, but the failure to give them any kind of self-awareness or remorse for the bulk of the narrative prevents any real feeling of player connection to these brats.

In fact the game goes out of its way to goad the player into killing them, reveling in some of the nastiest and most misogynistic aspects of the genre as it gleefully pushes the most egregious elements of their personalities to the nines and literally asks the player point blank whether they wouldn’t enjoy their gore porn more if they would just give this Queen Bee the violent comeuppance she deserves, or punish the Slutty Slut for her slutty sins accordingly. It’s all very gross, very puerile stuff, the kind of thing you might have once taken for granted in genre B-films but would hope a “story game” in 2016 would have moved past by now, particularly given what a debt Until Dawn owes to the much better-written Telltale titles.

If nothing else there’s some genuinely fine cinematography on display from time to time.

Perhaps just as unfortunately, Until Dawn has also failed to learn the fat-stripping lessons from Telltale’s more recent entries. As bad as the story beats of Until Dawn might be, they’re not half so bad as the hours the game forces you to spend shuffling through its fixed-camera environments with Resident Evil-era tank controls as the characters perform literal pixel hunts and struggle to find doors invisible behind blocked angles. Frequently beautiful environments, to be sure, but it’s hard to appreciate the depth of care that went in to the art design when it’s used in service of 90s gameplay relics and equally dated 90s horror game clichés (SPOILER alert: you’ll spend about half your time in a spoooooky old insane asylum, as I’m sure absolutely no one everyone could have guessed). At least the fixed camera means we always get a cinematic view of those clichés.

I really got the sense that the lion’s share of Until Dawn’s resources, fiscal and mental, were poured into its production design at the expense of everything else. Constant frame dips and stutters aside, the mo-cap’d character animation is truly something to behold, with possibly the most nuanced and expressive facial models I’ve seen this side of the uncanny valley. Apart from some audio mixing issues, the voice acting is similarly about as strong as it gets in gaming, and a game cast of film and TV celebrities do their damnedest to elevate the trash that is Until Dawn’s script to something at least vaguely human. For stretches it does feel very much like you’re inhabiting an actual movie. Unfortunately, if at the end of the day the best you can say about Until Dawn is that it’s an especially long and well-produced Friday the 13th sequel, you’re probably better off just watching Friday the 13th. 

* Played here, true to genre form, mostly by 30-year-olds.

Disliked it.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Devil's in the Details

Game: Devil Daggers
Sorath, 2016 (PC)

I used to be one of the worst Devil Daggers players in the world. Now I’m just bad. I know this because it tells me every time I die. (I’ve died a lot of times.)

It’s tough at first to know what to make of Devil Daggers. Best described as a first-person bullet hell (literally set in hell) with mechanical and aesthetic similarities to an early 90s shooter, Devil Daggers probably shares a closer relationship with Geometry Wars in my brainspace than it does with Doom or Quake. You stand on a flat floor over an empty chasm (whose edges you can will repeatedly fall off) and fight off increasingly swarming hordes of nightmare creatures for as long as you can, using fiery projectiles shot from your hand. A single collision with any foe means instant death, so even the first and easiest enemies you face - a cluster of floating skulls spewed out of a Hellraiser spire - are a constantly growing threat to be managed as the seconds tick along.

Alone in the dark...

And my do they tick slowly. A minute is a hell of a long time in Devil Daggers; it took nearly an hour of play before I first survived past the 60-second mark and graduated from uber scrub to plain old mittel scrub. Like any good bullet hell, Devil Daggers is brutally difficult, but the short duration of each round and the immediacy with which you can tap R to restart keeps it from being remotely as frustrating an experience as many of the ones I’ve had with the genre. Making it just shy of your former high score then getting bitten in the back by a laughing skull demon is actually much more energizing than it is infuriating; you made it that close, after all, and the knowledge that you could do it again in a matter of seconds means it’s easy to keep your eyes on the prize.

...but not for long.

The problem came for me when I took a moment to ask, but, uh, what prize, exactly? It was easy to remain engrossed in Devil Daggers when it was all about the thrill of discovery. Its faux-retro, pixelated horrors are a beautiful work of imagination, and it’s always a thrill to hear the unfamiliar sound - and what thrilling, viscerally chilling sound design it is! - of a new demon approaching behind you. But those moments grew further and further apart as I reached my skill cap and I found myself adding fewer and fewer seconds to my top time with each hour of play. Getting off the bottom of the leaderboards was enough additional incentive for a while, but the knowledge that I will never have the skill or motivation to make it within spitting distance of the global high scores quickly removed that motivation fairly soon after I passed into the mid-leagues.

Ah, bloody chunks of demon viscera. The best kind of viscera.

Since binging hours of the game over the release weekend, I honestly haven’t had much interest in returning, other than to briefly watch the replays of the new high score breaking players. And you know what? For a $5 game, that’s A-OK. There’s also something to be said for a game model that sucks you in long enough to learn the basics, then appreciate the Twitch and YouTube appeal of pro playthroughs for years to come. Sure, a part of me wishes there were either a checkpoint system or random-enemy mode that made it more varied and interesting to play through the same ___ seconds of the game over and over, but there’s an argument to be made that those would undermine the competitive and Let’s Play appeal I just pointed out. The fact that I also wish the engrossing gameplay and fantastic aesthetics could be applied to a feature-length narrative game really just goes to show how much love went into this little thing, and is no way a mark against what it is. I may have already had enough of Devil Daggers for a lifetime, but I don’t for a second regret my time spent with it.

Hell is other people's skulls.

Liked it.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Prepare to Die (and Not Know Why)

Game: XCOM 2
Firaxis, 2016 (PC version reviewed)

Let’s deal with the elephant in the room first: XCOM 2 is a fucking mess. Continuing the alarming trend of day one technical disasters in high profile releases, at the time of this review XCOM 2 is buggy to the point of brokenness if you’re lucky enough to be able to run it, and reportedly unplayable on a large number of rigs that otherwise ace the listed system requirements. Among the more stable, non-crash-to-desktop bugs are such constant joys as: enemies and allies alike disappearing or teleporting at random. Entire turn phases failing occurring invisibly. Vanishing cursors. Menu items becoming unselectable until a reload. Doors and windows failing to render, leading to your units breaking through them by surprise and eliminating your stealth cover or falling to the fire of hidden foes. Animations hanging constantly and the cinematic camera freezing as often as it functions, sometimes permanently. Clipping errors causing your units to wind up dozens of tiles away from your command point. Items disappearing out of your inventory without a single use.

The lack of an instant-undo button means your only remedy to some of these issues, if any, is a quick quit to desktop. And these are, again, just some of the glitches that don’t result in your GPU melting down to a pool of alien slag. Whether any game is worth putting up with that kind of aggravation, particularly at a $60 launch price tag, is a question very much worth asking.

“Deep Six” refers to the number of point black shots she’s missed in a row.

So why, despite of all that, am I standing at the end of a brutal 45-hour campaign reflecting on how much I enjoyed the experience and whether I’ll play another? Chalk it up to the magic of XCOM, I guess. There’s just something so engrossing in the core formula Firaxis has found in reinventing the series that I find myself sucked into “just one more mission” hours after a squad-wiping series of bugs, personal errors, and trademark XCOM bullshit made me declare that was my last mission, now and forever. And there is oh, so much bullshit to that formula. Part of the weird XCOM paradox is that the things that make it such an interesting procedural narrative experience are the very things that make it a shoddy strategy game. As refreshing as the new squad stealth mechanics are, there’s still a constant element of unpredictability and unfairness in the enemies’ ability to appear out of nowhere and receive a free turn, or the fact that virtually every encounter with a new type of foe ensures you will lose soldiers discovering those foe’s unknown skills, or the glee with which the game flatly refuses to clue you in to which elements of base strategy will lead to a long term win or loss without painful trial and error. Enemy line of sight is a constant mystery. Mission difficulty ratings are largely useless, as a “Very Difficult” op might be a complete breeze if filled only with familiar unit types, whereas an “Easy” one might wipe your entire squad through the appearance of unknown elements without warning. Even many of the more predictable elements seem to have been included frankly just to annoy, such as the stupidity of multi-enemy targeting abilities like the Gunslinger’s “Face Off” forcing you to attack units you have mind-controlled into submission.

Dr. Tygon’s not afraid to let you know how this Archon makes him feel.

The truth is, however, that most of the masochistic pleasures of XCOM 2 are a result of these bullshit elements; some of the most satisfying moments in the game would likely never happen without them. The unpredictability of the abuse is as organic to the player experience as the stories that form around your beleaguered troops and their fallen comrades. You come to value these procedurally generated personalities precisely because of the awful experiences you have “shared” with them, and the constant threat of permadeath lends a weight to your choices even when they turn out to matter less than your luck of the draw (as anyone who’s ever missed an entire turn’s worth of shots can attest).

Bugs aside, XCOM 2’s improvements on the Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within formulae provide a strong framework for those stories to take place in, even if the changes are mostly iterative - and owe an undeniable debt to the fan-made Long War mod for Enemy Within. The base management tools and Pandemic-inspired world map exploration, if poorly explained and overwhelming at first, make for a much deeper and more satisfying strategy experience outside of the missions themselves, to the point where I found myself wishing the battlefield wouldn’t so frequently pull me away from management.

XCOM 2 continues to tease with so many toys and so little cash with which to buy them.

Missions, too, have received major improvements. The new manual evac mechanic not only feels so right but provides a thrilling and life-saving way to pull your team out of a botched mission or rescue incapacitated comrades. Unit skills have been revamped almost completely, with familiar classes progressing in ways that provide much more interesting choices between abilities and team composition. There’s much more variety in the enemies you face as well, with familiar foes showing off reconfigured tactics and newcomers finding all sorts of novel ways to make your life a nightmare.

There’s a flashy, neo-dischoteque vibe to the alien propaganda materials that would’ve been nicer to see more of in the 3D visual design. 

Some things haven’t changed at all. The writing’s just as earnestly awful as ever - even if it is part of the charm - and the story unfolds in ways not only predictable but downright repetitive of its predecessors. A few of the non-timed mission types still try to bore you out of Overwatch creep into making stupid decisions. Visuals have been touched up only a little, and certainly not enough to justify the new technical problems, but the bigger improvements are stylistic, particularly in the now much more varied environmental design. Mechanical improvements notwithstanding, XCOM 2 is an obvious evolution on Enemy Within, and it can struggle to justify its packaging as an independent, fully-priced sequel rather than the sort of thing a studio like Blizzard regularly puts out as a discounted expansion pack. But if you’re anything like me, you may just find XCOM 2 is exactly what you wanted more of out of the series, and all the bugs in the world won’t keep you from that “one last mission” at 3 AM on a Monday.

Liked it.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Game of the Year #4: About a Girl

4. Her Story
Sam Barlow, 2015 (PC and iOS versions reviewed)
It’s that time of year again: the time when everyone who writes about games feels compelled to catalogue their experiences into top ten lists and award some lucky contestant the meaningless title of Game of the Year. It’s a fun way to collect our thoughts, reflect on how the medium advanced (or didn’t advance) since the last time around, and, most importantly, argue endlessly about why everyone else’s list is wrong. So without further ado, here’s the #5 title on my personal countdown: Sam Barlow’s Her Story.
I don’t suppose there’s much left to say about Sam Barlow’s breakout FMV hit that hasn’t been said, so I’ll keep it brief and reflect on my more recent follow-up experiences with the game as opposed to my original playthrough. For those who missed this high-profile indie gem or the months of heated discussion around it, Her Story is a digital detective simulator wherein you sift through an aging computer database of interrogative police video clips from 1994. Only the interviewee tapes are preserved - nothing of the detective’s (or detectives’) questions can be heard - and the archaic metadata transcription system means that, while you use simple word searches to sift through these videos for content, you are limited to viewing the top five results for any given term. Other than clicking around the virtual desktop and tagging videos with your own notes, this search bar is basically the game’s sole mechanic, but boy does it get a lot of mileage out of it.

Her Story unfolds in completely unique ways for every player due to this open-ended progression system and the near infinite number of possible search sequences that can be entered. I didn’t realize just how uniquely, however, until I began introducing the game to friends and discovering how utterly distinct the narrative can be depending on your pace and path of the discovery, the preconceptions individual players bring to the table, and sheer luck. As rich as these individual experiences can be, Her Story’s true potential shines nowhere more brightly than in a group setting. It’s engrossing to play the detective on your own and let yourself sink into the flow of your personal investigative narrative; it’s downright enthralling to do it as a party, feeding off one another’s speculative energy and bouncing your crazy theories and stratagems off one another like a bunch of drunken McNulties playing-acting couch Poirot. Pencils fly off of notepads, suspect profile are spouted, and the gaps between searches are filled with impassioned attacks or defenses on a particular character’s honesty or dishonesty, innocence or guilt, as all the strands of your thoughts and impressions begin to form the web that is your group’s Her Story narrative.

Sure, the FMV search mechanic is an “novelty,” but Her Story is so much more than the disposable diversion that label has come to represent re gaming mechanics. It’s a meticulously crafted, one-of-a-kind experience representing no technological evolution beyond a mid-90s adventure game but glowing with ingenuity in the way that simple tech is used to create something intellectually and emotionally investing.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Firewatch With Me

Game: Firewatch
Campo Santo, 2016 (PC version reviewed)

Sometimes you just gotta get away from it all for a while, you know? Firewatch is a game about escape, both physical and emotional, and it just so happens to be a lovely little escape itself.  In a brilliant and moving interactive opening sequence, you learn you are Henry, a troubled man whose life is falling to pieces. Henry has opted to spend the summer of 1989 working as a fire lookout for a national park to escape that life and spend some time reflecting on his next move over the gorgeous vistas of Wyoming.

From the starting moment, Henry’s first major means of interacting with the world is exploration as you hike the two days to his lookout in time lapse, then get acquainted with your new tower home and time period through interaction with objects in the environment. His second means is by way of direct player choice, beginning with a series of life decisions about Henry’s history and followed by the radio dialogue with his new boss, Delilah, that forms the core of his human connection in the midst of the Wyoming wilderness. The real-time conversational system feels like a more subtle, natural, and omnipresent evolution of the “ABC” Telltale menu integrated with a more mature and believable variant of the BioWare dialogue wheel. It’s an intuitive and fluid way to anchor the player to Firewatch’s story and characters, augmented all the more by a near perfect set of vocal performances and some genuinely funny and touching writing.

Yes they are, Firewatch. Yes they are.

The third major means of player interaction, and the one that feels both most beholden to and iterative upon Gone Home, is the direct control of Henry’s body and his second-to-second physical choices in the world. Having just recently experienced SOMA for the first time, I was almost giddy to find so quickly another game that captures the tactile feeling of its controls, extending in design philosophy here to a minimalist UI and a Far Cry 2-style in-world map and compass. The physicality of Henry’s animations and his freedom of environmental manipulation also go a long way toward grounding the player’s sense of presence and investment in his story. Like Gone Home and SOMA, much of that object manipulation is used to read inscriptions or gather narrative clues, but most of it exists to further that sense of player presence by fleshing out Firewatch’s natural grandeur with lifelife (mostly human) details.

A man could get lost in this world. Especially if he has my sense of direction.

It’s just one of many ways in which Firewatch succeeds at the level both of, if you’ll forgive me, the forest and the trees. The natural grandeur is truly goddamn grand, making Firewatch a gorgeous game to explore and snap screenshots of, no doubt about it; the devs wink about this by quickly providing the player with a cardboard disposable camera with which to take in-game photos, yet another tactile anchor into the UI-free world. It somehow manages to evoke real awe at its colorful mountains and burning sunsets even while being hyper-stylized in a jagged, angular cartoon way reminiscent of Team Fortress and Wreck-It Ralph, particularly in the character design. It would be nice if your journey were a little less constrained to trodden paths, and the narrative progression through them a little less linear, but given its production limitations Firewatch provides a commendable degree of freedom to explore.

The only fire I need to watch for is the one you set in my heart.

Yet for all that big picture beauty, Firewatch’s true heart lies in the almost stream-of-consciousness flow of walkie-talkie dialogue between Henry and Delilah, to whom you can “Report” not only fires but a staggering number of verbal observations about the world. Mad Men’s Rich Sommer and The Walking Dead game’s Cissy Jones thoroughly sell their roles across thousands of lines of criss-crossing dialogue that shift shape and tone in impressively subtle ways depending on the player’s actions. Conversations and character outcomes are affected by choices as small as whether to pick up an abandoned bottle of whiskey or accidents as quotidian as taking a wrong turn to a dead end on your patrol, in addition to the slightly more obvious “big decisions” for which a Telltale game would’ve provided the reminder “Delilah will remember that.”

I’m happy for you, Firewatch, and I’mma let you finish. But first I’m gonna sit and stare a while.

I’m loathe to discuss details of these conversations and thereby spoil discovery of any of these little moments, so suffice it to say Firewatch, for all its tremendous sense of humor, goes some Deep Places and asks the player to question, along with its characters, some serious stuff about relationships, human needs, selfishness, personal responsibility, and social connection. It’s almost paradoxical that a game could manage to be such a surreal escape from real life while forcing us to confront some of its harshest realities and the very real consequences of escapism, but that’s kind of the point of Firewatch, or it would be if I were forced to say it has just one.*

You mean you’re actually gonna make me work to get places?

If Firewatch has one glaring flaw it’s that it doesn’t really deliver on all this emotional buildup. It crescendos to something of an anticlimax after unsuccessfully attempting to pull off Gone Home’s same narrative bait-and-switch, which now looks even more like a clever once-and-done “trick” of genre subversion that can never again be called upon with the same effect. There are other signs that development might have gotten a bit rushed in the final act, with environmental bugs showing their ugly faces for the first time, conversation becoming much more sparse for what feel like slightly contrived reasons, and narrative choices playing out in the finale in hasty and somewhat unsatisfying ways.

Don’t mind if I do.

Disappointing conclusion notwithstanding, Firewatch has occupied my thoughts almost constantly since the credit rolled. I’m tempted to hand-wring about its problems keeping it just shy of greatness or make some equally silly and premature judgment about its place in gaming history vis-à-vis release proximity and superficial similarities to something as affected as The Witness. The more honest truth is that I found Firewatch easy to love at its best and difficult not to recommend at its worst, and it doesn’t need favorable comparisons to a diametrically opposed game in order to shine.

* It doesn’t.  
Really liked it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Game of the Year #5: Which Witcher Whipped Which Witch Hunter?

5. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
CD Projekt Red, 2015 (PC version reviewed)
It’s that time of year again: the time when everyone who writes about games feels compelled to catalogue their experiences into top ten lists and award some lucky contestant the meaningless title of Game of the Year. It’s a fun way to collect our thoughts, reflect on how the medium advanced (or didn’t advance) since the last time around, and, most importantly, argue endlessly about why everyone else’s list is wrong. So without further ado, here’s the #5 title on my personal countdown: CDPR’s The Witcher 3.
I have a strong bias in favor of interesting games. Not just good games, but games that push or break boundaries in novel ways. Games that take risks and diverge from formula. Games that aren’t afraid to be weird or to flout conventional design wisdom if it makes for a more uniquely engaging experience.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is none of these things. There’s hardly a piece of it we haven’t seen a hundred times before. It’s an iterative evolution on The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings, mostly in that it follows the trend of trading discrete levels or load areas in favor of an almost completely open-world map design - sometimes at the expense of detail and intentionality in the design of individual areas. The combat has been modified from an awkward hybrid of point-and-click MMORPG combat and a Diablo-style action RPG to an awkward hybrid of Arkham-style rhythm combat and direct input Souls combat. The interface and menus are are only slightly less byzantine and unwieldy than before, or just as unwieldy in different ways, an RPG vice we’ve less gotten used to than just learned to accept. The basic open-world RPG formula of “follow map to quest giver, follow map to quest cutscene, kill/gather quest MacGuffin, follow map back to quest giver” remains the sole script in play.

So why is something as uninteresting The Witcher 3 one of my favorite games of 2015? Because it knows what it is, it knows its strengths, and it throws money and manpower and talent at those strengths until they’re stronger than anything else like it. This is most immediately apparent in the production values: The Witcher 3 is a gorgeous game, not only in its breathtaking technical facsimile of real cities and real people, nor in its colorful art design and sense of haute-renaissance-meets-high-fantasy style, but in the sheer awe it generates through combination of these elements in a gigantic, vividly lifelike world. This fidelity constantly tempts you to stand in the middle of a city watching the crowds mill by with purpose that would put Assassin’s Creed to shame, or to stop and stare at a tangerine sunset at the end of a long day’s journey and enjoy the best melancholic orchestration a big studio budget can buy.

You might stop and take a moment to enjoy the view. Probably many moments.

The Witcher 3 finally delivers on the promise Oblivion made and broke a decade ago when it introduced us to a superficially huge and beautiful world that then immediately fell apart at the seams when we met its dead-eyed robot residents, mechanical encounters, and suffocating lack of personality or variety. The Witcher 3’s residents not only appear alive but act alive, both in their mundane habits and reactions and in their shockingly human expressions and dialogue when interacting with one another or with Geralt, our titular Witcher. The writing and acting aren’t themselves groundbreaking - we’ve seen similarly high quality in BioWare and Obsidian’s work for some time now - but combined with such stunning graphical fidelity and animation it all makes for an extraordinarily engaging experience in CDPR’s environments and with their characters.

You don’t need Ciri to solemnly swear she’s up to no good.

Geralt himself is transformed from the unrelatable, emotionless cypher he was in the previous titles to a genuine human being  (albeit a mutant one) simply through the subtleties of his expressions. A slight grimace at his mouth’s edges here, a glint in his eye or raised eyebrow there - each reveal something of the inner life of a person who’s not so devoid of feeling as he’d like the world to think. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in Geralt’s relationship with and search for his adopted daughter Ciri, the driving central quest of the narrative as she flees from the Ringwraith-like Wild Hunt. We can speculate some meta reasons why fathers seem to have become the de facto protagonist of AAA games, but there’s no denying it carries tremendous emotional heft for a leading man as detached as Geralt had always been, and that it grounds the narrative in intimate realities in a way I wish more fantasy games would.

(Secretly a huge softie.)

That’s the Witcher 3’s core strength, really. It’s this vast and sprawling and epic thing, a dauntingly realized universe filled with more quests and characters than you could start or meet in a hundred hours. Yet for all that the game never loses sight of its humanity, even in its monsters. It’s as much the little things - the tiny touches of life - as the big ones that make The Witcher 3 great.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Ceci N'est Pas Un Jeu

Game: The Witness
Thekla Inc., 2016 (PC version reviewed)

I can’t be fair to The Witness. Not that it needs me to, mind you; despite avoiding reviews it’s been impossible not to hear about the heaps of critical acclaim being showered upon Jonathan blow’s seven-years-in-the-making follow up to Braid. But it’s worth saying right off the bat that I came to this game already fed up with the hype, less than enamored with Blow’s cult of personality, and frankly a little shocked by the $40 asking price. This left me disinclined to be charitable to it. It’s also worth saying that I liked Braid quite a bit and should be exactly the overly-analytical, found-narrative-obsessed target market that The Witness seems to be looking for.

But I really didn’t like The Witness; in fact I kind of hated it. That’s confusing, because I liked quite a few things about The Witness. I love the way it looks, for starters. You’re dropped onto a blazingly colorful island best described as a giant Myst puzzle box thrown into the middle of The Wind Waker’s archipelago. It’s completely deserted save for a few biblically ominous salt pillar people, and immediately brimming with mystery and mystique just begging to be untapped. I love the sense of atmosphere this mystery creates. I appreciate the loneliness and desperation for discovery it imparts. I like the way it sounds, invisible animal ambience interrupted only by the soft hum of derelict electronics left behind for your repair. I like walking round through this world, gravel crunching convincingly beneath my feet as a fully model-rendered shadow trails behind me, a sole reminder of my lonely humanity.

And yet I hate the way it plays. I hated almost every minute of it more than the last. Almost immediately upon arrival, you learn that your movement through this island is impeded by a seemingly infinite series of locked doors and contraptions, all (with unmentionable exception) opened by solving a sequence of two-dimensional line drawing grid puzzles reminiscent of the ones you used to find on the back of cereal boxes, only infinitely more fiendish. And that’s basically it. You solve these line-drawing puzzles on a screen to power a second screen. You solve the line-drawing puzzle on that screen to power another screen. Eventually these screens open a door behind which there are more screens. And you keep solving line-drawing puzzles to power more screens to open more doors, and hours later when you realize it’s never going to end you start to scream.

No buts about it, this is lovely, lovely looking game. But.

Now I have it on good authority that The Witness does in fact end. All these hours of attempts later, I have no intention of finding out for myself. If you enjoy these endless line-drawing puzzles on any level, those days of investment might be worth your while. If you despise them as much as I do, you quickly learn that the reward for enduring misery in The Witness is...more misery. 

I do mean misery. The puzzles start out simple enough but, thanks to often woefully insufficient tutorials and my own lack of skill, quickly become inscrutable. There’s generally nothing interesting about them from a uniquely game-specific perspective; most of them (again with limited exception) could just as easily - probably more easily - be played on pen and paper, preferably in short bursts, which may lend better to the eventual iOS port. As the core mechanic for exploration in a massive exploratory simulator, they are perhaps one of the most frustrating pieces of game design I have ever encountered, and their absurd degree of conceptual simplicity almost seems to mock the player for wanting something more at every turn. At least if you’re as bad at figuring them out as I am. In that sense it is every bit the Anti-Portal, whose puzzles not only serve as gateway to a rich and humorous narrative experience but which develop and evolve in ever-increasingly conceptually interesting ways. These mazes exist to teach you more mazes.

Get used to this. You’re going to be staring at it a lot.

I say this as someone who’s otherwise a glutton for punishment in games, assuming that punishment pushes me to self-betterment and serves as the gateway to a more rewarding gameplay experience, as in Dark Souls or Dota. The Witness’s puzzles serve no such purpose. Mastery of one particular type of puzzle only means the introduction of a new and utterly alien type of puzzle whose solution spits on any wisdom you might have gleaned from previous experience. There is no joy, no satisfaction in conquering these puzzles - only relief, quickly cut short by the arrival of another. There is no narrative reward for your progress beyond access to more empty areas, no promise of rich storytelling of the Souls variety or even of a Firelink Shrine at which to rest and reflect on your visible progress. At best you might after many painful hours unlock a few faux philosophical audio logs and rejected TED Talk videos from Jonathan Blow’s tumblr. At worst, the reward for your misery is, say it with me: more misery.

Maybe that misery is the point. Maybe Blow is the mad genius The New Yorker and a sizable cadre of followers proclaim him to be. Maybe the message of The Witness is the misery, the cold and uncaring judgment of an absent Designer God who has condemned you to suffer through a superficially lovely purgatory to teach you a lesson about the Meaning of Games and the ascetic need to remove from them the concept of fun or player engagement on that quest for Meaning (the rather unsubtle reading Blow himself has pointed toward in interviews and pre-release teasers). Maybe these audio logs and textual tidbits aren’t the pseudointellectual, bombastic drivel they seem to be or that Braid’s heavy-handed storytelling frequently was. On the other hand, there’s some indication in the text that Blow is in on the joke and thinks this is all every bit as ridiculous as I do, and maybe that is the point. If so, it’s a cruel one, albeit one plenty of people are happy to be a part of.

“Are gamers willing to pay $40 for a series of $4 iPhone puzzle games dressed up in pretty environments so long as those environments proclaim themselves to be Meaningful?”

The Witness promises much and delivers little, unless its core and only puzzle mechanic happens to click with you. It’s a sad, tantalizing, almost beautiful glimpse into a world of imagination that instead reveals itself to be full of nothing but half-baked ideology, somehow more self-important in its failures than Braid’s (largely ignorable) writing ever managed to be.

But hey, your mileage may vary.

Hated it!