Lazy Sunday

I went too hard at the gym on Thursday, and my back is still feeling it. Getting old is the worst. I’m taking it easy today.

I’m almost 10 hours into Nier Replicant. It’s weird because I played a lot of this game a couple years ago, but it was stretched out over a few months. I don’t remember much and what I do remember comes back in short flashes.

All that isn’t worth much though, as I’m about to surpass what I remember playing. Or maybe I’m already past it.

I caught the fish this time.

Dragon Age: Inquisition

 Sweet Redemption

Quite a while ago, I wrote about what I thought of the Dragon Age series as it was prior to the release of Dragon Age: Inquisition. I won’t say that I was wrong, because I still stand by those opinions, but Dragon Age: Inquisition has absolutely redeemed the series for me.

DA:I takes place several years after the events of Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2 and it starts with a bang. The conclave, a gathering of templars, rebel mages, and Chantry religious figures, explodes, and a huge green rift is ripped open in its place. The player escapes the rift with no memory of how they got there in the first place, and a glowing green mark on their hand. Implicated in the deaths of everyone at the conclave, Seeker Cassandra Pentaghast invokes a backup plan put in place by the now-dead Divine Justinia, and enlists the player and others to close the rifts and stop whatever caused the explosion at the conclave.

Inquisition takes a lot of the best parts of Dragon Age: Origins and combines it with the best parts of Dragon Age 2. It is absolutely enormous. The game takes place in many locations spread across Orlais (a French-inspired state) and Ferelden (typical medieval state). The environments are as varied as they are large, with almost every common biome represented. It’s a huge improvement over the complete lack of variety in Dragon Age 2. It’s even an improvement on the large world of Origins.

Many improvements were made to the core gameplay of Inquisition over the previous games. The flashier, more action-focused attacks in Dragon Age 2 are refined in Inquisition. It’s almost an action RPG, except that it also includes a “tactics” mode, where the game is paused and the player can micromanage their party members to their heart’s content. Complaints against the lack of tactical options in Dragon Age 2 have been largely addressed. What you see is what you’re fighting. No more bad guys teleporting in during a fight, except when it’s to close a rift and then you’re still seeing where they come from. My only complaint about the action is physiological. The attack button on a controller is the right trigger. I spent so much time playing DA:I that I strained a muscle in my right hand from holding down the trigger constantly. This is why I’m poorly suited for racing games. I suffer for you.

Some BioWare tropes are also minimized or adapted to better use in Inquisition. While you still gather a party of character sympathetic to your mission, and your actions still influence how they feel about you, it’s not as overt and game-y as it was in previous games. There’s no light side/ dark side meter. No good/bad. No saint/satan dichotomy. Conversations options are marked by tone, and not even by name. There’s an icon that indicates a stern tone, and an icon for a sad tone, and an icon for a quizzical tone, among a few others. More often than not, conversation options don’t have a tone at all. This makes playing the game feel a lot more natural. It’s hard to say that you’re going to go on a light side playthrough when your “good” options aren’t marked outright. In my playthrough, I tried maintain a consistent point of view and that’s my playthrough. If I were to play it again, I can’t say I wouldn’t make the same exact choices, with a few major, obvious exceptions.

There are no meters on your relationships with the people you attract. The choices you make will either be approved or disapproved to some degree, or cause no reaction from any particular member. For example, Seeker Pentaghast is religious and orderly. These aren’t spelled out in a character profile. It’s just traits I determined by her reactions. When I did things that supported the Chantry, Cassandra approved. When I made exceptions for bad people, Cassandra often disapproved. Again, these contributed to the feeling that the game world is living and that it’s not super game-y about it. These characters have motivations and desires. I couldn’t just buy their happiness.

The quest design is rather good, if heavy on collection and fetching. As is typical, the main quest line and the quests connected with party members are the best in the game. They’re varied and expose more of the interesting characters. The party members have excellent in-game banter that seemingly never repeated itself. It lent to me mixing up my party more often than I do in most BioWare games. If there’s one complaint to be made about the main story, it’s that there comes a point where it feels like you’ve walked into a movie that’s already started, and I’m not speaking as a Dragon Age newcomer. It’s not overtly explained, but this feeling comes from having not played the Dragon Age 2: Legacy DLC. I can hardly be blamed for skipping it because I wasn’t a fan of Dragon Age 2, but I now kind of wish I didn’t. Without having played it, it feels like I might have missed out on something that probably should’ve been in Dragon Age 2 to begin with.

As with previous games, DA:I is heavy on lore and there is a lot to dig through, if you want to. If there’s one thing DA:I could stand to steal from Destiny, it’s that there’s so much lore that it should really have come with a companion app/website to read it all outside of the game. It’s interesting stuff, except that when I’m in the game, I want to play the game. Destiny was starved for background and motivating information. Inquisition is the opposite. I get enough out of the story that they give me. I want to be able to read the side/extra stuff when I’m not playing the game.

I went into Dragon Age: Inquisition skeptical, but left it a believer. It’s an excellent Dragon Age game, and very good BioWare RPG. By improving upon video game parts that worked in the series, and making it feel less like video game in the roleplaying parts, BioWare has made something great. If you liked Origins, and you suffered through Dragon Age 2 like I did, you owe it to yourself to play Dragon Age: Inquisition to see the series shine again. If you haven’t played either of them, Inquisition is still a good place to start, even with the middle-of-movie experience at some point.

Revisiting Dragon Age

A Look Back Before Dragon Age: Inquisition

It’s been three and a half years since Bioware released the last major entry in the Dragon Age series. In video game sequel time, that’s about a million years ago. An entire new generation of consoles has been released since Dragon Age 2. Three Assassin’s Creeds and four Calls of Duty were released since Dragon Age 2. Dragon Age: Inquisition is coming next week. I think it’s time for a refresher on Dragon Age, and whether or not we should be excited for Inquisition.

Dragon Age: Origins was the first major game in the series. After Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, and Mass Effect, Origins felt like a return to form for Bioware fans like me, who remember Baldur’s Gate and their older Infinity engine games fondly. Where Infinity engine games were Dungeons & Dragons based, Dragon Age was an entirely original fantasy setting and system. What Bioware brought back with Origins was diverse backgrounds and character selections: different races, classes, entirely different prologue chapters based on those combinations. On PC, it also brought back a more tactical combat system. You could take the camera into an overhead perspective and position your characters to block melee enemies or flank them. It wasn’t strictly turn-based, but almost every ability had a cooldown time. The story was a typical fantasy epic of good versus evil but it also included some civil intrigue. A lot of attention to world-building was given in Origins, and there was a massive amount of text codex entries to flesh out the land of Thedas.

On a whole, I was a huge fan of Dragon Age: Origins. In fact, it was the first proper Bioware RPG I ever finished besides Mass Effect. Beating Dragon Age: Origins felt like a spiritual victory to me. I had played bits and pieces of all of the previous Bioware games, but Dragon Age: Origins pulled me in with a new fantasy world and traditional RPG combat. In the old Infinity engine titles, I would get sidetracked or I’d hit a difficulty wall at about the 10 hour mark, and I’d play something else. Dragon Age: Origins held my attention for the whole 40+ hours. “I can finish a proper Bioware RPG,” I thought to myself. I can do what millions of others have already figured out, but that’s beside the point. I’ve really enjoyed playing those RPGs in the past, and this was the first one I saw through to completion. It felt like a milestone for me and Bioware.

By this time, Bioware was deep into development on Dragon Age 2. Dragon Age 2? Yes, a proper numbered sequel to a game with a relatively dumb title. I mean, Dragon Age isn’t exactly descriptive, and “Origins” is usually tacked on to the prequel, not the first entry. But regardless, we were going to get Dragon Age 2, and it’s going to be a smaller, more focused game than the last! Wait, what? Instead of going for bigger and more, as most sequels, numbered sequels, do, Dragon Age 2 was promising a tighter focus and more compact experience focused on a single character and a single city over the span of several years.

I’m going to be honest here: I think Dragon Age 2 is an awful game. Rather than a diverse selection of backgrounds, you could play a human male or female, warrior, rogue, or mage. Dragon Age 2’s Hawke was a fantasy equivalent of Mass Effect’s Shepard. Like Shepard, Hawke is fully voiced, which is an improvement over Origins’ near silent protagonists. The combat in Dragon Age 2 was also punched up a bit to be more action-y and look less like characters waiting for their turn to swing at you. Those are the almost good things about the game.

The bad parts about it can be measured by what it doesn’t have compared to Dragon Age: Origins. The top-down tactical perspective is gone. That’s okay, because tactical battles are also gone. Enemies frequently warp into combat from thin air, making any kind of positioning irrelevant. Battles became slogs that made me only wish they would end sooner. These battles don’t take place in diverse locations anymore either. Nevermind the limited scope of the game, where you spend most of your time in a single city that doesn’t significantly change over the years, but areas of the game are frequently reused and passed off as entirely different locations. You’ll get very familiar with a particular cave structure. Anytime you go to a cave, it’s the same map, but with different doors blocked off. You can see the rest of the map in the minimap, but you can’t get there. You can see where the doors should be, but there’s just a giant stone block. The companion characters ranged from uninteresting to outright unlikeable. The story is on a clear rail, with no meaningful choices to be made. Dragon Age 2 is the definition of a sequel that was rushed out of the door to capitalize on the successes of Dragon Age: Origins and the popularity of Mass Effect.

Where does this leave Dragon Age: Inquisition? I won’t speculate on the content or how Inquistion looks. However, we can look at the previous games. Origins was a fantastic roleplaying game. Dragon Age 2 was a mess that didn’t come close to living up to expectations. Since Dragon Age 2, Bioware has released the MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Mass Effect 3. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that both of those have been divisive games, and neither of them have been unqualified masterpieces. There’s still a massive amount of Dragon Age materials that aren’t Origins or Dragon Age 2, including the Awakenings expansion for Origins, mountains of DLC for both games, mobile games, comic books, a web video series (featuring Felicia Day), and five novels, among other Dragon Age media. If you want to immerse yourself in the Dragon Age world, there are plenty of ways to do it. It’s a deep, rich world with a lot of interesting characters and stories, but the mainstream games are one for two in terms of being worth playing. In the meantime, I would hold off on making any pre-release purchases on Inquisition until you can play it for yourself.

SOMA

Under the Sea

It’s hard to review horror. Horror is pretty subjective because it relies on making a connection with the viewer. It has to have some strings to pull to be effective. I’m not afraid of spiders. A horror game about spiders isn’t going to bother me much, but it could be really effective for someone else. Frictional Games has been making horror games for quite a while, and they’ve really found a formula that works. They don’t focus on the horror. It’s not the jump scares of Five Nights at Freddy’s. There are no monster closets; you’ll know something is coming for you even if you don’t know what. No, SOMA focuses on dread. They build a sense of dread, and let the dread invoke horror in the player.

In SOMA, you are Simon Jarrett. You’ve recently been in a bad car accident that killed your friend and left you brain damage and cranial bleeding. In search of help, you allow someone who’s explicitly not a doctor to begin an experimental treatment. He’ll make a xerox copy of your brain, treat it until he finds something that works, and then apply that treatment to you. The helmet comes down,the brain copying begins. When the helmet comes off, you’re in an derelict underwater station.

This raises a lot of questions, none of which I’ll provide as they’re half of the point of SOMA. I can assure you that most of the answers are unpleasant. You find them in interactions with the other things at the bottom of the sea. There’s also no lack of logs and recordings to find. Like previous Frictional Games, SOMA is about exploration of your surroundings. You’ll rummage through drawers, and poke around on the workstations still on. It’s a lot of Gone Home (which could be said got a lot of its inspiration from previous Frictional Games) with some hide-and-seek. See, there are also things down there with you that don’t want you to survive.

Some have said that the monsters are the worst part of SOMA, but (to me), they’re necessary to keeping up the tension. You never feel safe in SOMA, or at least you shouldn’t. Each of these things has a particular weakness. You’ll never kill one, but this weakness makes it easier to bypass them. They’re not hard to figure out, and there aren’t many of them to begin with. However, you will spend most of the game dreading what comes next.

That’s what SOMA nails. Dreading what comes next. You know the answer before you hear it said out loud, and you still don’t want to hear it. But it’s impossible to put down. The situation continues to get worse and you can’t help but see it to the end. It’s Frictional’s best game, and a new high standard for horror games.

Alien: Isolation

(Almost) Perfect organism.

I’m a huge fan of the Alien franchise. Alien is an amazing movie. The rest of them are mostly good for different reasons, but Alien is the true masterpiece. The video games based on the franchise, however, have largely focused on Aliens and beyond. It’s all marines, and pulse rifles, and “game over, man”, and usually predators too. The next most recent Alien franchise game was Aliens: Colonial Marines and it was a huge mess, but it was a straight-up action game. A bug hunt, if you will. It seemed like Sega had wasted a lot of money and time to make a game that couldn’t do any justice to the movies. Now, we have Alien: Isolation. Note the difference in title. Alien rather than Aliens. Isolation, not Marines.

There is but one alien. There are no colonial marines. There are no pulse rifles. This is a game that wants to recreate the suspense and horror of the original Alien. The game casts the player as Amanda Ripley. Amanda is the daughter of Ellen Ripley, the main character from the Alien series. Amanda’s an engineer and she joins a Weyland-Yutani crew to retrieve the flight recorder of the ship her mother disappeared from in Alien, the Nostromo, from the space station Sevastopol.

Sevastopol, from a cutscene

Isolation is a first-person game, but to call it a first-person shooter would be misleading. Sevastopol is inhabited with scared civilians, scavengers, maintenance androids (known as Working Joes), and an alien. Though the game provides a handful of weapons and constructable devices to combat these threats, in most cases, it’s a better idea to run and hide. In sharp contrast to every single other Alien game ever, this alien is invulnerable. It cannot be killed, only chased off or evaded. The androids are not invulnerable, but they are rather hard to kill. You will waste a lot of ammunition if you try to kill all of them. Fortunately, Sevastopol is littered with cabinets, lockers, and closets to hide in. The AI is not particularly hard to get away from, either. The alien has rather good vision and runs faster than Ripley, but the androids seemed particularly unaware of their surroundings. They were more of a threat in numbers. Human combatants seemed to have the awareness of the alien, speed of androids, and guns. In fact, I was rather put off early on in the game by the first encounter with hostile human enemies. I started the game on ‘hard’ difficulty, and as soon as anyone spotted me, I was riddled with bullets and reloading my save game. It happened about 10 times on the very first enemy encounter. I just couldn’t get around them sneakily. After I dialed the difficulty back down to medium, it was less of a problem.

This mixture of threats lead to some interesting situations. If the alien was around, it could be exploited to clear a path. Most often, if I found hostile humans, I’d use a throwable or other tool to make some noise. It would attract the alien, who would summarily clear the room of all hostile humans. Then I could swoop in, pick ammo off of the bodies, and continue on my way. This never seemed to work with androids, though. I guess the alien didn’t care about them. This ambiguity also affected the constructable items. There are a lot, such as noisemakers, smoke grenades, EMP mines, molotovs, and others. There is no tutorial, which I appreciate, but it takes some practice to learn the usefulness of each item. I never found a situation where the flashbang would’ve been more useful than any of the others. This combined with a save point system to create a lot of tension, but also at least some unneeded frustration.

Some really incredible lighting and effects.

You can’t save anywhere, only at emergency terminals. These terminals helpfully beep continuously, so they’re easy to find. However, there is a delay between when you use it, and when the game saves. This means that if the alien is chasing you, you can’t run to the save point to save your progress before it impales you from behind. There were also a couple situations in which the next save point is far enough away that dying before you reach felt like a real loss of progress. A particular section had me navigating a stairwell while stopping to turn on lockdown systems. The stairwell was littered with androids, and the alien was lurking around. Combat makes noise, so engaging the androids meant also engaging the alien, which I was not equipped for at that point. I died more than a few times because I had gotten two of the three lockdown systems turned on, but an android stumbled across me, and the alien ate my face in the ensuing struggle.

So the AI isn’t great, the save points suck sometimes, and the story is thin, but Alien: Isolation is fantastic to play. All of the environments are ripped straight from Alien, and amazingly detailed. Sevastopol looks lived-in and falling apart. It almost decays in front of your eyes. Every work area is filled with tools and containers. One of the best parts of Alien is that the set design is amazing and it’s just as good in Alien: Isolation. Human enemies talk to each other. Working Joes mutter to themselves constantly. The alien hisses and crawls through vents. All of the screens and monitors and computer interfaces look perfectly early eighties. The environment in Isolation is unparalleled.

This weapon isn’t going to do anything to the alien.

This level of detail is also enhanced by the immersive controls. They’re fairly simple, but the game combines them in interesting ways. Door bars need to be removed, maintenance hatches need to be cut off with a torch, security systems need to be hacked. These are all done with two mouse keys, a use key, and the movement keys. You can look around while you’re performing most of these actions, so you can see if an android is approaching or if the alien is in the distance. Even though it was often too late to escape if you did notice such thing, being able to keep an eye out felt right for this game.

I love the eighties technology aesthetic in this game.

Most first-person games clock in under 10 hours. The bigger budget games can get even shorter, such as Call of Duty games. Alien: Isolation does no such thing. I clocked 15 hours into it. It may have gone on a little longer than it needed to, but I never felt like it was outstaying its welcome. In fact, the more I played, the more I wanted. After getting past the frustrating stairwell bit, I was hooked.

“I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”

The bottom line is that, despite some minor flaws, Alien: Isolation is an amazing game, probably the best Alien franchise game ever.

Bonus DLC Review: I had a chance to play through the “Crew Expendable” and “Last Survivor” DLCs for Alien: Isolation before posting this review. These two DLCs are short (maybe 30 minutes each) but replicate some of the intense parts of Alien, taking place on the Nostromo and playing as members of the crew. It’s cool in the way that walking through a movie set is cool. The ship is lovingly recreated and there are audio logs from the crew scattered about. There’s not a ton of new game to play in here, but any Alien fan should play them.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

The best Assassin’s Creed game yet!

I love Monolith. I’ve loved them since way back when they made Blood. They have always made solid games with interesting twists, such as F.E.A.R. and first-person slow-mo, and Condemned: Criminal Origins with its melee and crime investigation focus. They did it again with Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.

Shadow of Mordor is a third-person action game that plays like a combination of Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham Asylum. In the Assassin’s Creed vein, there is a lot of climbing on buildings, sneaking around, stabbing orcs, interrogating informants, and finding collectibles. Shadow of Mordor does all of these better than Assassin’s Creed has in the past. The climbing feels better and it’s more obvious where you can and cannot climb. The stealth makes more sense, as breaking line of sight gives a ghostly outline to show where you were last spotted. This makes following enemies seem less omniscient and not unlimited in numbers, while still presenting overwhelming amounts of enemies. The informants are also better done in Shadow of Mordor. Taking a page from the Arkham games, information on your particular target can be gained by grabbing a particular orc, instead of tediously following NPCs, or (even worse) innately somehow knowing everything about your enemy from the start. This last one is something Assassin’s Creed has botched badly in the last couple games.

Taking pages from Arkham, the combat in Mordor is very much influenced by those games, with the same attack, counter, evade, and stun face buttons. It’s a well-done imitation, and I found that my skills learned from the Arkham games translated perfectly to Mordor. Also taking a page from Arkham‘s books, the collectibles include bits of Middle-earth lore which makes them something that (as a Middle-earth fan) I want to collect, rather than just boxes to check to completionists.

What Mordor does that neither of those games do is introduce the nemesis system. You see, true to Middle-earth lore, Uruk-hai lead the orcs and they are nasty. They’re mean, they fight each other, and power is the rule of law. In the game, there are around 20 Uruk captains. They all have unique names. They all have a unique mix of strengths, weaknesses, fears, and hatreds. For example, a particular captain might be invulnerable to stealth attacks, weak against fire, afraid of Caragoar (large four-legged beast), and a hatred of losing. This would mean that stealth is useless against him, and he will regenerate his health if you take his health down but not out, but fire will do more damage, and he’ll lose all of his strengths and hatreds if he sees a Caragoar.

Controlling the 20 something Uruk captains are five warchiefs, with more power and unique attributes themselves. They also have bodyguards, which are Uruk captains. Taking on a warchief without accounting for their bodyguards is a good way to find yourself fighting a lot of powerful Uruk. But you don’t know any of these attributes or command hierarchy from the start. You don’t even know these Uruk’s names. You have to collect intel to learn these things. You can go into these fights blind, but it’s much easier when you know what to expect and who might show up. Later in the game, you can exploit the command hierarchy by turning bodyguards against their warchief, or turning warchiefs and captains against each other.

Reading this, none of it might sound particularly compelling, but it is so well done that it makes the entire game. The named Uruk must have thousands of lines of dialog because repeat encounters result in them bringing up things that I had done to them in the past. Where Assassin’s Creed forced me to collect intel just to put me in the same sneak, murder, run away cycle, Mordor made intel optional, and made the unique Uruk attributes a way of forcing me to be creative with my approach. The nemesis system created stories in Mordor that few games can replicate even with crafted encounters. I’ve written up a great example of one of these stories involving Orthog the Crafty at my blog.

Despite all of these strengths, Mordor isn’t perfect. In fact, where it is lacking is in the crafted story. You play as Talion, and, right from the start, your wife and son are fridged and you’re killed by a minion of Sauron. However, you learn that Talion can’t die because he’s possessed by a wraith. The wraith doesn’t know who he is, but his power keeps Talion from dying in his quest for revenge. The story isn’t particularly bad in itself, but it suffers from too much fan service. You run into a handful of antagonists modeled accurately from their characters in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy who seem to just pop up for no good reason. Or at least, not good enough reasons. It’s a bummer, because I loved all of the collectibles and their stories and found them much more interesting than dragging out movie characters for the apparent purpose of saying “HEY THIS GAME IS LIKE THOSE MOVIES! REMEMBER THOSE?” It’s the movie poster cover art on the latest print of a classic novel. Tacky and unnecessary. The game itself stands alone great without the ham-fisted cameos.

The game ends weakly, and leaves the doors wide swinging open for the sequel, and I personally cannot wait. Maybe they’ll get the story right next time, but if they don’t, I’ll hope to make my own, better stories with an improved nemesis system. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is one of those rare games where the gameplay mechanics create better, more interesting stories than what was written for it, and I hope that we see more of the nemesis system in these type of open world action games in the future.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

Shattered Glass

Koji Igarashi was responsible for a handful of my favorite games, namely Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. When he left Konami and landed on Kickstarter with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night and a promise to deliver an Igavania game like he’s given us before, I was 100% on board. Symphony is over 20 years old now, but it’s a timeless classic, and his other Castlevania games could be spoken of in the same breath. Could Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, a spiritual sequel to a beloved classic as we’ve seen crowdsourcing attempt to replicate countless times before, live up to those sorts of expectations? The answer is no but it’s complicated.

Crystal shards, demons, a person wronged, and a labyrinthine castle; those are the ingredients of Bloodstained’s story, which is wholly ignorable for 99% of players. It’s just not particularly interesting nor is it the focus. This is an action platformer in the same exact vein as previous Iga-produced Castlevania games, but more namely, the Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow games. Both of them have a mechanic that’s copied almost wholesale into Bloodstained, which is the collection of enemy abilities and enhancements. Killing enemies will sometimes result in a “shard” ability. Sometimes this means you will be able to replicate an enemy’s attack, like throwing a bone. Sometimes it’s a stat boost. Sometimes it’s a little familiar that floats along with you and helps in some way. Regardless, beyond the collection of weapons, armors, consumable potions, food, and crafting ingredients, this shard collecting gives the game a “gotta catch them all” feel as you repetitively slaughter these demons to collect their goodies.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night delivers on the promise of a Koji Igarashi style Castlevania game with an intellectual property that isn’t owned by Konami. You could do a few name swaps and this game would feel right in line with that series. The game itself feels like those prior games. The platforming and action are tweaked just right to rarely feel loose or cheap. It’s got responsive platforming, lots of enemies to kill, and lots of ways to kill them. It’s got the soundtrack that’s fairly close to those games and the gothic feeling and look. It’s 3D on a 2D plane done with Unreal engine, which sort of gives everything a shiny look. It comes off as a bit cheap when compared to how rich and expensive the fully 2D Symphony of the Night looked, but it’s far from bad. Stripped to its bones, the core gameplay is fun. Platforming, tons of weird enemies, and a lot of nooks and crannies to explore are what make these games enjoyable.

There’s a whole raft of non-gameplay bits that don’t have too much effect on that core loop. There are three side quest paths that simply involve getting particular items or killing particular enemies for item rewards. There are two crafting systems; one for items, another for food. Enemies drop ingredients for both systems, and they’re both of dubious return. I found that the weapons and items dropped by enemies alone were mostly sufficient to make numbers go up and get through the game. The food grants one-time permanent stat boosts, and some repeatable boosts by eating it, but I was collecting ingredients solely to complete the food side quest. Some of those ingredients are painfully rare. There’s also a ton of appearance customization options that you can only get by finding style books and delivering them to an in-game barber. I made a few changes when I found the barber the first time, didn’t make note of where he was, and never found him again. I spent the rest of the game running around with a pocket full of unused style books. This stuff exists, and it’s almost entirely optional.

Where the game stumbles is in this particular labyrinth. It just doesn’t seem to flow as neatly as previous games. As usual, progress is gated by a collection of core gameplay upgrades (like a double jump), but there were times where the way forward wasn’t clear and wasn’t gated by some kind of obvious upgrade. There was one particular obstacle that halted all progress and it was gated by finding and killing the right demon, but there were some extra steps in between. In other places, progress is simply slowed by throwing a ton of high damage, high hit point enemies in a long path to the next save point. The last third of the game really suffers from this.

The game also has the Stink of Crowdsourcing, which is stuff in the game that otherwise wouldn’t be there if it weren’t crowdsourced. The most obvious of these are paintings with the faces of Kickstarter backers, but the Kickstarter campaign sold a lot more:

  • Backer gets a special message in the credits
  • Backer face as a painting in the castle
  • Backer designed weapon
  • Backer pet as enemy in the game
  • Backer designed enemy
  • Backer designed hidden room

Going over this list, the least noticeable were the backer designed weapons. This game is so jammed full of weapons that I couldn’t tell if I ever used one that a backer designed; they simply blend in. Backer designed enemies also didn’t really pop out at me. But the backer faces as paintings were super obvious, and the pets as enemies were rather out-of-place. Is someone really that excited to know that I killed a digital representation of their dog a dozen times so I could get its shard? The backer designed hidden rooms were almost always exceptionally tough, optional boss fights. They weren’t necessarily bad, but often out of place with their location, and gated by finding a key somewhere in the rest of the castle. This key gating is itself out of place with the style of these games; I can only think of one particular key needed in all of Symphony of the Night. I was feeling like the night janitor with my ring full of keys by the end of Bloodstained.

I put down Bloodstained for a few days in the last third of the game because I got frustrated by the labyrinth. I couldn’t tell whether I was moving in the right direction, and this style of game still uses hard save points. Dying during a long exploration run means losing all that progress, and it sucks. I had very mixed feelings about the game at this time: was it really any better than those previous Igavania’s? Is this game fun and I am bad at it or does this particular labyrinth suck? I went back and pushed through to the end, and I’m glad I did. The game ends in spectacular, classic Castlevania fashion. But it’s not quite enough to pull it up to greatness.

What I hope happens is that the team of studios that made Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night can take this momentum to make a better sequel, absent of the muddy last third and silly crowdsourced additions, and Bloodstained 2 is a great game. Today, I’m glad I’ve got one Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night but it’s a flawed experience. It’s a good game that looks cheaper than it is, has a pile of bolted-on distractions, and really loses itself in the last third.

Tom Clancy’s The Division 2

Trouble in the Capitol

After the wreck that was Anthem, I was ready for a better shlooter. After playing the open and closed beta, I knew that The Division 2 was that game. But having spent ~30 hours in the game, I’ve come to learn it improves a lot of issues (compared to Anthem, but also The Division) but it still isn’t perfect.

The Division 2 is a third-person cover shooter with loot collection. It picks some time after The Division, but in Washington, DC rather than New York City. Like NYC in the previous, DC was ravaged by the Green Poison (a manufactured smallpox variant) and is in a state of rebuilding rather than the simple survival focus of The Division. But there isn’t a whole lot of plot here either because it also retreads a lot of “reestablishment of society” beats from The Division.

The Division 2, if anything, has a lot to do and collect. Every area of the map is simply littered with missions and landmarks, and these tasks give you plentiful amounts of loot. The world of The Division 2 has knee pads, backpacks, body armor, sanitary masks, and other protective gear everywhere. And guns! It’s like a prepper hive lives in every basement, and most of them exploded up to the surface in the ensuing disaster. All this gear has a handful of levels of rarity and numbers go up in a satisfying fashion if you’re compelled by seeing numbers go up.

The Division 2 improves on the first game’s skill selection (which are things that you can do in combat on a timer, like drop a turret or pull up a shield) and enemy tactics. In the first game, a solo player like myself could do very well simply by dropping an automated turret and then flanking the enemies as they take cover from the turret. That doesn’t work so well in The Division 2, because enemies outnumber and flank you, and tougher ones will simply rush your turret and kick it to death. To compensate, you’ve got a much bigger selection of tools to adapt to enemy tactics. Where The Division had four, The Division 2 has eight, and each of those has three variants. You can only pick two configurations out of the possible 24, and it’s a hard choice. That turret that draws enemy attention is still useful, but sometimes I’d rather have the grenade launcher that drains enemy armor, or the drone that heals me.

This variety in gear and tactical options doesn’t change the basic gameplay loop though, and it wears on after a while. With some exceptions, weapons are just bullet hoses, and the enemies are just more goons with a guns shooting at you. A lot of the missions take place in museums and DC landmarks, which is cool because they’re beautiful environments with neat set pieces, but what you do in the missions rarely changes. You enter a room full of enemies, take cover, and then shoot at them until they die. That sounds like an oversimplification, but it really isn’t. The action feels good but I’ve mowed down hundreds of enemies. This isn’t a big change from the last Division, where I also cleared rooms and mowed down hundreds of enemies with automatic weapons.

The huge amount of stuff in the game but limited variety in core gameplay has worn out my interest in playing it more. I’ve honestly not completed the main mission branch, and I’m going to need to take a break and come back to it later before I start to resent this game. It’s a fun game for the first 20 something hours and numbers go up, but numbers going up isn’t cutting it for me anymore. It is more fun to play with others, and matchmaking exists for every activity, but even playing with others doesn’t change the core gameplay loop. The good(?) news is that this is a “live service” type game that will be getting more stuff over time, and Ubisoft has demonstrated their dedication to supporting their games with The Division (which markedly improved over time), and other titles like For Honor and Rainbow Six: Siege. I’m fairly confident I’ll come back to The Division 2 in a couple months, wrap up the main missions, and play more of the new stuff they add to it. The Division 2 is fun but wears out its welcome before you finish all of what it offers.