Category Archives: Reviews

Dark Souls 3

A short while ago, I’d committed to ignoring games described as inspired by Dark Souls. I’d played some Dark Souls and didn’t enjoy it much, played some Dark Souls inspired games like Lords of the Fallen and Bound by Flame and I didn’t like any of them. But this isn’t a consistent dislike. I really really enjoyed Salt & Sanctuary, but the qualities of Dark Souls that inhabited Hollow Knight turned me right off. And almost immediately after I’d decided that Dark Souls-like games were not for me, Humble Monthly gave me a copy of Dark Souls 3. I beat Dark Souls 3. I enjoyed Dark Souls 3.

I am ill equipped to describe what makes Dark Souls 3 so different from Dark Souls, and even less equipped to compare it to Dark Souls 2, but Dark Souls 3 hooked me fairly quick. I know how these games work and they’re very unforgiving, particularly of my overly-aggressive playstyle. With the help of a build guide to direct my efforts on creating a character I would enjoy playing with, a simple melee sword-and-board fighter, I sliced and chopped my way through hordes of monsters. The variety in combat encounters and enemies ensured that even my simple character build was never boring. Maybe Salt & Sanctuary made me a more patient player, but I rarely felt like the fights were unfair, even when I was dying to bosses over and over. I’d eventually learn their patterns and weaknesses, and chop them to pieces with my sword. Where as I found Dark Souls to be a largely frustrating affair, Dark Souls 3 never felt frustrating; it was rewarding.

What isn’t rewarding in the game is the storyline, or lack thereof. It starts with a cutscene explaining that the lords of cinder have left their graves and need to be returned to their thrones to rekindle the dying world. From there, there’s more or less nothing much to offer until you reach the end, and you get a short cutscene for your efforts. Sure, you’ll find other non-hostile people with some “quests” of their own, but there’s no journal. No quest log. Often, I struggled to even remember their names. Most items have a sentence or two of flavor text but that’s about it for worldbuilding. You could go end-to-end through this game and never learn a single thing about the lords of cinder that you’re mercilessly hunting down and killing.

This is a bit of a shame because the world they’ve built, without the exposition, is really interesting in that it’s not standard fantasy or grimdark. If anything, it’s sorrowful. This is a dying world, roamed by undead things, desperate for purpose and meaning. I find myself wanting to go back to Dark Souls again for another try to see if I can fill in the blanks because I want to learn more. Even if I can’t, if I can find in Dark Souls what I found in Dark Souls 3, that’ll be enough. Dark Souls 3 is a challenging game that rewards persistence and learning without feeling cheap.


Reference: From Software. Dark Souls 3 [Namco Bandai, 2016]

Source: Purchased from Humble Bundle as part of a Humble Monthly bundle.

Assassin’s Creed Origins

I tell people I have a love/hate relationship with the Assassin’s Creed series, but I’m going to be totally honest here: it’s mostly a love/annoyed relationship. I find them to be brainless timesinks, and that’s not really a bad thing. They’re a reliable, often enjoyable 20 something hours of game. I haven’t played all of them, and the ones I have played are often regarded as the bad ones, but I almost always get one when I want to kill time. Assassin’s Creed Origins, however, is better than a time killer. It’s a great game.

Assassin’s Creed Origins takes the history-skipping game way back to ancient Egypt, in the times when Cleopatra’s brother occupies her throne, and he’s propped up by a Greek army. You play as Bayek, a Medjay, and you’re hunting down the people who killed your son. This mission will take Bayek all across Egypt and lead to uncovering a greater conspiracy.

Origins bins a lot of hallmarks of the Assassin’s Creed series. In doing so, it becomes a much more enjoyable game, and probably a more accessible game, but it loses some of what makes Assassin’s Creed unique. Origins presents a huge, sprawling Egypt, that you’re free to explore and engage with on your terms.

Origins took a lot of, let’s call it, inspiration from The Witcher 3. It’s very much about having a lot of stuff to do, and letting you do it in whatever priority you want. Often, you can even run off in the middle of a quest to do something else and then come back and pick it right up. While the quests aren’t quite as well written as The Witcher 3, and they rarely do that thing where it acknowledges when you’ve already solved a step in the quest ahead of time, they are competent. They don’t feel like a waste of time. Bayek himself, along with the rest of the cast, is also well written. Compared to some of the rest of the Assassin’s Creed series, this is the best it’s been.

What is loses is the strict focus on stealth. Bayek can get into a lot of fights and leave most of them alive, where most Assassin’s Creed protagonists would wilt like a flower. Additionally, if you do find yourself in over your head, you can simply run away and it’ll almost always work. This is in stark contrast with other games in the series, where enemies are almost omniscient and ever-preset to the point that being spotted means reloading a checkpoint. Add in that you no longer have the ability, or much need, to blend in with crowds, nor much need to run along rooftops to avoid being seen, means this Assassin’s Creed feels least like a game in this series. If it weren’t in a historical setting, with a single “assassinate” button, and good climbing mechanics, it’d be a different game entirely.

Some people aren’t going to like this shift; I’m not one of those people. I loved it. Like The Witcher 3, it hooked me early on and I spent a lot of long stretches of time playing it. Unplayed games notwithstanding, this is the best game in the series. The extra time Ubisoft put into its development clearly paid off; they made an Assassin’s Creed that I just loved.


Reference: Ubisoft Montreal. Assassin’s Creed Origins [Ubisoft, 2017]

Source: Purchased from Steam store.

Night in the Woods

There’s an audience for Night in the Woods that this game will hit harder than the rest. Here are just a few touch points this audience will identify: instant messenger, away messages, sleeping until 4pm, dropping out of college, being in a band that never plays a show, working in a low paying, low skill job for too long, bailing on said job as often as possible, living in a dying town but coming back because it’s home. All of these things come together to form a picture of Night in the Woods, and it’s not going to connect with everyone.

You play as Mae, who’s recently dropped out of college and returned home. You pick things up with your old friends, learn what they’ve been up to since you’ve left, but there’s something else going on in Possum Springs. Mae has nightmares or visions and strange things around town that cannot be easily explained seem to follow her.

To Night in the Woods‘ credit, the characters are well-defined, and it’s a pretty big cast. Each has a unique voice and the often more to them than their initial presentation. This clarity of character definition extends to the beautiful art of the game. Night in the Woods has a distinct, clean art style that never looks bad or dull.

Where it didn’t quite come together for me was in the narrative and gameplay. It took a long time for the story to build to a point where it had to hooked. It is a slow starter. This may be purposeful, as a lot of the draw of the game is the connection you should feel to the characters, but it felt tedious at times. Adding to this tedium is the gameplay loop.

Here’s the loop: wake up and check your computer for messages from your friends. Talk to mom in the kitchen. Walk all over town, talking to everyone. They’re always in the same places, but they always have something new to say. After you’ve talked to everyone, go back to the one friend you want to hang out with that night and tell them so. Then go to a character specific scene that nudges the story forward a little bit. These end at home where you talk to dad, check your computer for more messages, and go to sleep.

Again, this may be purposeful. They’re replicating some of the tedium of living in a small town, where you know everyone and they’re all going through a similar routine. But it’s not particularly thrilling and I wish there were a way to move a bit faster. Mae’s not a quick walker and I got a bit tired of walking all over town at her slow pace. It plays like Super Mario Bros. at half speed and, instead of squishing dangerous mushrooms, you’re chatting up your friends and neighbors. If it moved a bit faster, maybe it wouldn’t have taken me nine hours to complete a story that could’ve fit within maybe a quarter of that time.

I picked up Night in the Woods because so many people whose opinions I respect loved it. I get why they loved it, because the writing is good and the characters are great. But I found it pedestrian to the point of being just okay. It’s got its moments but they’re deep in there, surrounded by a lot of slow walking and repetitive gameplay. I was honestly quite surprised to find this game has an Overwhelmingly Positive user rating on Steam. It is very much not going to please everyone.


Reference: Infinite Fall. Night in the Woods [Finji, 2017]

Source: Purchased from Steam store.

Oxenfree

One of the things video games struggle with is human dialog, especially when they introduce player choices. It’s often stilted and flows poorly, if it’s written well at all. Many games can get serious kudos if they manage to get dialog and conversations right. Oxenfree is a game that gets it very right and it might be enough to cover its flaws.

In Oxenfree, you control Alex, a high schooler who’s gone to a beach party on a small island with her friends. However, the island has a dark history and Alex and her friends have to uncover it to find a way to save themselves when the night takes a turn for the worst.

The thing that Oxenfree does best is its conversations between characters. Your four friends are fairly chatty. The dialog is natural and well-written, but what Oxenfree brings to it is that you’re given up to three dialog choices, and when you makes those choices, you can interrupt your friends. Mass Effect did this, but your friends in Oxenfree actually react to it. It’s such a minor thing, but it goes a long way toward immersing you in what is going on.

Night School Studio is comprised of some former Telltale Games developers, so it should be no surprise that your dialog choices affect the story and how other characters think of you. However, instead of an outright “character B will remember this” type statement, you don’t really get a lot of feedback on when you’re changing hearts and minds. The only feedback you get is a little thought bubble over someone’s head with someone else’s face in it. It gives some indication that they’re thinking about that person, but not explicitly why. I like this a lot because it made my own choices feel more natural and less like I’m trying to push a friendship slider in one direction or another.

What might turn some people off is that there isn’t a lot more going on here than walking around this island and talking to your friends about the weird stuff that’s happening. There’s some very light puzzle solving, and you can choose to do a lot of backtracking to find collectible items that flesh out more of the mysterious island, but don’t expect to manage an inventory, or jump on a platform, or shoot anything. I’m not sure there was any point in time I could’ve “failed”, just dozens of opportunities to alter the story in negative ways.

While the gameplay is very light, I could not stop playing Oxenfree. I played it all over the course of a single day with the game lasting about 5 hours. The intrigue-filled story and the immersive dialog kept me around. If I was going to put it down at any time, it would’ve been during some of the item finding I did, where there wasn’t a lot of dialog but still got some payoff by finding another piece of the mystery. It nails a foreboding and dark story without being totally grim or colorless. It’s the perfect way to spend a winter weekend.


Reference: Night School Studio. Oxenfree [Night School Studio, 2016]

Source: Purchased from Steam store.

What Remains of Edith Finch

What Remains of Edith Finch reminds me a lot of Dear Esther, possibly the first “walking simulator”. Maybe it’s the narration, or the tone, or the setting, or faulty memory (it’s been a very long time since I’ve played Dear Esther) but I finished Edith Finch thinking about replaying Dear Esther. That’s not bad company to be in; Dear Esther was good but What Remains of Edith Finch is truly moving.

You are Edith Finch and you are exploring your old family home. Though you’ve been gone from it, it’s where your family always lived, and where you explore their lives and deaths. You see, you’re (probably) the last Finch.

The patchwork Finch home is an experience to explore. Every room is incredibly detailed, and they’re decorated in the manner fitting their occupants. Nearly every family member had their own rooms, and they’re all lovingly preserved. It’s kind of like going through the house of a historical figure, like the Lincoln home. It’s not quite as thoroughly interactive as Gone Home, but this is made up for by the vignettes.

While exploring, you’ll find bits and pieces of your family’s lives that take you to a little vignette about them. They seemed to all have a different style or approach, so no two were the same. Sometimes more interactive than others, these break up the exploration of the Finch house perfectly.

There’s no way to discuss the Finch family without ruining the experience, but I left the game knowing each of the Finchs by name (and there are about a dozen of them) and their personalities. It’s amazing how well their stories are constructed to be memorable and unique.

I really don’t have any criticisms of this game. It’s a beautiful, emotional experience. Pass on seeing a movie this weekend and play this game about family and death.


Reference: Giant Sparrow (developer). What Remains of Edith Finch [Annapurna Interactive, 2017]

Source: Purchased via Steam Store

Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus

The New Colossus is not The New Order. That much should be obvious from the title, but I want to make it perfectly clear. If you go into The New Colossus expecting more of the tone or content of The New Order, you will be disappointed. I know this because for the first half of the game, I was disappointed.

The New Colossus picks up immediately after the events of The New Order. You’ve dealt the Nazis a defeat, but not a killing blow, and they’re still in charge. But instead of liberating Europe, you’re moving on to free America. America surrendered after the Nazis dropped an atomic bomb on New York City, so you and your team of misfits are going to start a new American revolution.

I think maybe I have rose-tinted glasses when thinking back to The New Order, because I recall handily beating that game on “I am Death Incarnate” difficulty (the highest you can start with) and loving it. I started The New Colossus the same way and immediately died over and over until I realized that this isn’t fun and dialed the difficulty down to their version of “medium”. Even with the difficulty turned down, the game is still very challenging because you die very quickly if you don’t have armor. Even when you do have armor, there isn’t much indicating you’re being shot or where you’re being shot from until that armor has evaporated, and then you’re essentially done for.

However, the shooting and action does feel great. Enemies visibly react to being shot, weapons all have an appropriate punch to them, and heavy weapons can make you feel invincible. When you’re not sneaking around( which is still an option), you can run, dodge, shoot from cover, and melee, all of the options you want from an solid action game.

Thematically, The New Colossus is about revolution, and not the dour, grim game that The New Order frequently was. It rapidly switches from Nazi oppression and fascism on display to humor and humanity. It’s more rollercoaster than whiplash though, handled in a manner that few games can pull off. It’s a game that will shock you sometimes, but the shocks aren’t meaningless. They serve a purpose.

I’ve heard plenty of other people say that anyone wanting to play Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus should turn the difficulty down to easy and run through it, which I don’t particularly agree with. The action is fun and worth engaging with, even though it does suffer from lack of feedback. And running through the levels to get to the next cutscene neglects the wealth of background information in the well-done collectibles as well as the beautifully designed levels themselves. Maybe take one approach or the other, but play it. It doesn’t quite live up to The New Order, but it’s still an excellent addition to the series.

Below the cut are some thoughts and notes that will contain spoilers. This is your only warning.


Reference: Machine Games (developer). Wolfenstein 2: The New Colosssus [Bethesda Softworks, 2017]

Source: Purchased via Humble Store

Continue reading Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus

Brigador: Up-Armored Edition

GREAT LEADER HAS DIED. SOLO NOBRE MUST FALL.

Neon lights, an authority violently overthrown, and buildings that crumble like they’re made out of ash under your mech’s stomping feet, all to a synth soundtrack. Brigador knows exactly what it wants to be. The good news is that it mostly achieves its vision, with a couple hiccups.

You play as a mercenary collecting a paycheck by completing missions in support of the Solo Nobre Concern. They’re offering a ticket offworld if you can help them overthrow the factions controlling the city of Solo Nobre. You’ll do this in an isometric action game from a variety of mechs, tanks, and anti-grav vehicles with dozens of weapons.

At first look, Brigador might remind you of the classic Strike series (Jungle Strike, Desert Strike, Nuclear Strike, etc) of helicopter action games, due to the vehicle selection and third-person isometric perspective. That’s not a terrible comparison, but Brigador offers a lot more. Not only is there more vehicles, weapons, and pilots, but more depth to the combat.

You’re armed with two weapons, and an auxiliary ability. Each weapon has its own fire rates, and their own behaviors. There are the standard machine guns and cannons, but also mortars, lasers, and shotgun-type weapons. Your mouse controls not only set the direction of fire, but also the range of fire, so you can launch mortars over walls, spray smoke canisters in semi-circles or lines, and shoot over or past enemies. This is cool in a lot of ways for the level of control it gives you over the destruction you’re going to rain down, but it complicates what is otherwise a fairly simple action game. Instead of just pointing in the direction of the bad guys and firing away, you’ve got to actually consider their distance and aim so that you’re not shooting in front of or over them. If you can’t get this and just treat it like any twin-stick shooter, you’re going to have limited, frustrating success.

The campaign mode offers a couple dozen missions with premade pilot/vehicle/weapon combinations that are fun, but it’s kind of training wheels for the operations mode, which is much more freeform. Operations mode lets you select any pilot, vehicle, weapon you desire, and go on a multi-map romp with an open set of objectives and building difficulty. Early options and low level pilots offer easy difficulty and a couple maps to stomp through, but unlocking high level pilots will greatly increase the resistance and later operations become endurance runs to see if you can manage to keep up your health and ammo count across several sprawling maps.

The music of Brigador is also notable for perfectly pairing this dystopian mech action with Vanity and Makeup Sets synth sounds. It’s a beautifully drawn game with a moody soundtrack that comes together very well. However, some of the weapon sounds could use some work. In particular, big cannons don’t really sound like the size they are. They nail the whirring sound of very large machine guns though, which is great.

Brigador is a great action game after you’ve figured out its quirks. It’ll frequently overwhelm and stomp on you, but rarely to the point of frustration. Your implements of carnage come in a large variety, so there’s a ton of action to be had. It’s only slightly marred by disadvantaged by doing more than action games of this nature normally do when it comes to weapon control, but that’s a gift once you’ve got the hang of it.


Reference: Stellar Jockeys (developer). Brigador: Up-Armored Edition [Stellar Jockeys, 2016]

Source: Purchased via Steam

ICEY

ICEY calls itself a meta game in disguise but that disguise is real thin. When the game exits the prologue, there is a narrator constantly commentating on your actions. The narrator is the meta game part of this otherwise familiar 2D action game, and one of its biggest detractors.

You play as ICEY, a clone in a tank, or maybe a cyborg, and you have to find and kill Judas. He’s the bringer of the apocalypse, that wicked devil. At the start, that’s it. The narrator and environment reveals more of the story, sort of.

The gameplay is simple sidescrolling action. Move to the right, mash the light or heavy attack until the enemies die, then use money to upgrade your combos or life meter. It’s competent and mostly fun without getting too repetitive, but the game is rather short.

What makes ICEY unique is the Stanley Parable-esque narrator. He tells you where to go or not to go, what to do, sometimes even why you’re doing it. The narrator frequently breaks the fourth wall and addresses the player directly. He talks a lot, and the game touches on a broad range of stuff from player choice to the elder gods.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It feels like there’s something to it, some message, but it’s all given to you in bits and pieces. None of it really adds up. Also, the voice acting on the narrator is bad. It’s lifeless, and stiff. Worse, the narrator is ever present. The bad narration follows you everywhere. If you can’t get over it, you’re never going to enjoy the game.

Some of the ideas may have been lost in translation. The developers are Chinese, so it may make more sense if it were played in Chinese. But there’s not a lot of excuses for the narrator. He’s a central figure in the game and one of the least enjoyable parts. Despite these problems, I enjoyed ICEY. It’s got enough weird in it that I wanted to press on to see what else it’d do, and the action is fun. But it’s hard to deny that the time wouldn’t be better spent on The Stanley Parable and Dust: An Elysian Tail, both of which do well the narration and action parts (respectively) of what ICEY tries to accomplish.


Reference: FantaBlade Network (developer). ICEY [X.D. Network, 2017]

Source: Purchased via Steam

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

If Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is anything other than an enjoyable video game, it’s a value proposition. Developers Ninja Theory are no stranger to big budgets; they made Heavenly Sword for Sony, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West for just about every platform, and the most recent Devil May Cry game for Capcom. They know how to spend money, so it’s interesting that they’ve separated from big publishers to develop and publish Hellblade at a $30 price. The end product is mostly good.

In Hellblade, you play as titular Senua, traveling deep into Nordic territory to rescue the soul of your murdered lover. In the vein of what Ninja Theory does best, it’s a third person character action game. What makes Hellblade unique is that Senua suffers from hearing disembodied voices and seeing things that don’t exist.

A lot of the marketing around the game has to do with the challenge in trying to portray a character with mental illness. Plenty of games have tried and it’s almost always a flat portrayal of someone who’s zany or unpredictable without a lot of nuance. With the help of consultants in the neurological sciences, Ninja Theory has crafted a tortured, sympathetic character in Senua.

Another aspect of the game that reflects Ninja Theory’s experience and skill is in the look of it. It’s a beautiful game with some really incredible motion capture, particularly in the faces. They don’t look like video game faces; they’re expressive and emotional every time you see them. This really helps with connecting to the characters and feeling what they feel.

While they nailed the characters and look of the game, the game parts are kind of lacking. Each level of the game will have you doing one of two things: finding hidden objects in the environment, or fighting. The hidden object stuff is mostly clever, but it’s almost always boiled down to aligning objects in the right perspective to find the symbol you’re looking for. It doesn’t change much from beginning to end.

The combat is also not very robust. There are five enemies, excluding bosses, that you will encounter in small groups. The challenge is to keep them away from your back as they’ll try to flank you to attack. With infinite ability to dodge, and most attacks blockable, the only thing that has to be figured out is reading attacks to time blocks (or dodge), and how many whacks it’s going to take to kill the enemy. It’s fun for a while, but it really wore me down by the end. You’ve got one weapon, so once you’ve figured out how to use it, combat loses its shine.

But the thin combat and environment puzzles couldn’t keep me from seeing it through to the end. Senua and the darkness that haunts her was compelling enough on her own to keep me playing. What Ninja Theory set out to do, make a high quality game at an indie price point, is successful as long as you keep your expectations at the sub-blockbuster level.


Reference: Ninja Theory (developer). Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice [Ninja Theory, 2017]

Source: Purchased via Humble Store

Non-Review: Destiny 2 by Bungie (developer)

Nameless Midnight is my favorite weapon. It’s a scout rifle with explosive rounds and decreased recoil. It’s good in PVP, but it’s amazing in PVE. Every shot is a bloom of damage numbers. With sixteen rounds, I can empty a room with it. Dump a whole magazine into an elite enemy and I’ve probably killed it. Since it’s a scout rifle, it’s second only to a sniper for range too, so I don’t even have to be close. It’s not even an exotic weapon, so I can still carry my Hard Light as a backup. They’re an amazing pair.

One of the most damning things I can say about Destiny 2 is that it’s more Destiny. Outside of dozens of quality-of-life upgrades (like not having to level weapons or worry about stat rolls), it’s very much the same game in function. There are about a dozen storyline missions, twice as many sidequests, and an almost limitless number of background activities. There’s PVP multiplayer with a handful of modes and maps. You still can’t matchmake into a Nightfall strike (a more difficult three-person mission), and you still can’t matchmake into a raid (a time-consuming dungeon crawl for six people), but they’ll give you some tools you can use to find people to play with. Instead of relying on grinding out strikes in the hopes of getting a good roll on a reward weapon, you get a weekly list of activities that promise better equipment with a relatively short time commitment. But the game is mostly the same.

There are two reasons this is a non-review. The first reason is that Destiny 2 is so similar to Destiny that I may as well copy-paste that review into this one. If you didn’t like Destiny, it’s really unlikely Destiny 2 is doing anything to win you over. The core of the game is the same. And if you’re a Destiny fan, good news! Here’s another 30 hours of new Destiny to play. It has cutscenes and a story now. It’s great!

The other reason is that part of the game that is reportedly the very best it offers is the raid, and I’m not ashamed to admit that, as an adult, I can’t glue five more friends together to commit to something like six hours of consecutive game time. I’ll be lucky if I can get two more to join me for a Nightfall strike. I understand the reasons why Bungie didn’t include matchmaking for the raid, but I’m so very disappointed that I’ll never experience it because it requires such a high bar of commitment. The raid might be the thing that pushes Destiny 2 from a very solid 8 to a 10, but not everyone is going to get that experience.

Compared to Destiny, it feels like a gift that Destiny 2 only requires about 5 hours of time to check the boxes on some weekly tasks to get loot worth chasing. I’m happy with Nameless Midnight and I’ll keep feeding more powerful weapons to it because I like Nameless better. But there are things in this game I’ll never see, and that sucks. It ultimately hurts the game that it tries to strike a balance between people who only have 5 hours to play per week, and those who have 5 hours to play per day. It’s “fair” for me to review Destiny 2 without ever seeing that stuff, but I won’t. You should know what you’re getting into when you play Destiny 2, and that means reading all these words I wrote about it.


Reference: Bungie (developer). Destiny 2 [Activision, 2017]

Source: Purchased via Microsoft Store