Despite its title this can't help be feel like as much a sequel to Demon's Souls. Partly this is down to the structure of the game, a central hub area branching off into a few different independent linear routes that you can tackle in any order you want before the game ultimately culminates in you finding and killing the monarchy of this land.
Partly this is down to the almost reckless creativity on display. If Dark Souls took the things from Demon's Souls that really worked and cut away the bits that arguably didn't, Dark Souls 2 has not a care in the world instead saying lets fuck around and find out. This was very much to my frustration in my first playthrough, but returning to this game a year later a lot of the things that previously frustrated me are honestly just endearing. As rough edges go, I think there's a lot of charm and personality to these ones.
Returning to this game in a post-Elden Ring world was also a lot of fun to me. People disparagingly compare that game to Dark Souls 2 occasionally, but I feel like playing Elden Ring taught me a lot about how to enjoy playing Dark Souls 2. It turns out a lot of the parts of Dark Souls 2 that are decried as being unfair are actually much more reasonable when you take advantage of all the tools the game gives you. This playthrough I abandoned my usual approach of just two-handing the chonkiest sword I could find all by my lonesome to instead play an extremely-multiclass build (turns out the excessive number of levels DS2 hands you are perfect for enabling you to dabble in everything) with summons alongside me and I actually had just a great time.
That's not to say there aren't some problems with the game even outside of the notorious Dark Souls 2 weirdness, and the last portion of my run was honestly a bit exhausting; I think the pile of dlc the game has is both very overhyped, and kind of excessive considering how gargantuan the base game already is. That said, somehow, I sit here a convert. Despite all its problems Dark Souls 2 is actually a rather delightful oddity.
Aria of Sorrow is a huge step up over its two immediate predecessors - Harmony of Dissonance and Circle of the Moon - with the soul system being decently compelling, a variety of weapons to mix up the gameplay experience as you explore the castle, and for the first time since Symphony of the Night the castle and bosses actually have some personality here. The only really clear step back is that Aria is sorely lacking in regards to secret items scattered around the castle for you to collect, with what would previously have been permanent health upgrades or such being replaced instead with myriad potions. Truly nothing will make you feel so slighted for fighting your way to the end of a hidden hallway just to add another super potion to your inventory that you could have just bought from the store instead.
That said, even at its very peak I can't help but find the wave of GBA Igavanias to be weirdly lacking, and perhaps more broadly I find the Metroid half of Metroidvania to be more appealing than the Castlevania half? These portable Igavanias just feature a whole lot of fighting your way through hallways of identical enemies, lots of tedious backtracking through said hallways that leaves me wishing even a single warp point could please just be placed near a save point, using money almost exclusively to buy potions so that you can brute force your way through any boss in your path. If the Metroid side of this split read as tense, atmospheric games that ask that you pay attention to your environment, then the Castlevania side of it are power fantasies where you make the number go as high as possible and heal-tank your way through anything in your path. Aria of Sorrow is easily the best of the trio of Igavanias found on the GBA, but even then stands as a not-particularly-nourishing experience for me, sadly.
I'm kind of amazed how much this game endeared itself to me considering how much I do not enjoy so many core parts of the gameplay. The mission design is the biggest culprit here; lots of incessantly running back and forth between npcs to deliver information, spamming the talk button on every person in an area until one actually responds to you, ponderous stealth missions that can often be trivialised due to you being able to fly and walk on walls. The combat has you fighting the same five enemies all throughout the game's playtime as you spam your same small arsenal of moves in the same way you did fifteen hours ago, the talismans and level-up system cram in rpg mechanics that are largely superfluous to the experience, and any of the challenges that place demands on your dexterity are undone by the controls being fairly sloppy and imprecise.
But despite all of this, I actually had a pretty good time and even checked out some of the side-content after completing the main storyline. Part of this is the wonderful art direction, the charming characters, the moments of wacky creativity, the game certainly has things going for it outside of the actual gameplay, but mostly the big draw here is the vibes. A bit of a weird comparison, but Gravity Rush 2 actually reminds me pretty strongly of Super Mario Sunshine; sloppy and often frustrating gameplay, especially when you're trying to engage with what the game wants you to actually be doing, but such a relaxing, fun atmosphere to everything that just existing in these spaces carries a certain joy to it regardless. The big difference here is that whilst Sunshine has enclosed levels, and is always nudging you along towards your next accomplishment, Gravity Rush 2 is an open world game that is very content to let you just fly around achieving not-very-much if that's what you really want to do. The moment I escaped the starting area and found the open world I legit spent over three hours flying around it, weaving my way through pieces of largely-meaningless currency that were strewn about, rather than engaging with any of the actual Content, because the vibes were just that good and left me actually able to relax for a while.
Sometimes all you need is some chill music, some enticing locales, and the freedom to gently flop through the skies wherever your heart desires.
A pretty big upgrade over the first attempt at a GBA Castlevania game, Circle of the Moon. Most notably areas of the castle have much more distinctive visual identities here (they're a bit cheesy but I loved both the moments of psychedelic backgrounds, and the fast-moving clouds of the Sky Walkway), and whilst the castle isn't as memorable, cohesive or surprising as Symphony of the Night's it still has a bunch of cute ideas and fun moments in store and is much more engaging that CotM's mess of copy-pasted hallways. I've seen some complaints about the movement, but I personally enjoyed this aspect too, most notably the pair of dashes have impressive enough range and compliment each other well enough that they became a core part of combat for me.
Despite that there's still a bunch I'm not really on board with here; Castlevania's warp-point placement continues to be maddening prompting a lot of tedious backtracking, the second-castle gimmick is very cool initially but ultimately leads to you spending a substantial amount of the time exploring close-to-identical versions of the same places (the second castle isn't nearly as distinct as in SotN), playing optimally (changing equipment and elemental damages based on context) is constantly in conflict with convenience (realistically everything is going to die approximately as easily even if you don't micro-manage these systems), the economy of the game sets up the best approach to the mid/late-game content to be just heal-tanking everything, despite having a ton of bosses almost none of them are all that memorable and those that are are pretty much just copies of bosses found in SotN, the game desperately wants an additional button or two most notably to streamline the usage of your magic.
I mostly dig the vibes of this game, and it's a step in the right direction, but as I continue playing through these games in order I am left very much hoping that Aria of Sorrow learnt a lot from the failings of Circle and Harmony.
38 pages. That's how long our Google Doc was for this game, myself controlling the leading archaeologist Lemeza whilst my girlfriend assembled this fastidious record of game text (some parts given to us, others hand-translated), environmental clues and ancient drawings; seeing this document come together is like living inside that Pepe Silvia meme, bizarre connections constantly being drawn between disparate hints scattered several zones apart, a riddle from the second area of the game still highlighted halfway through the game because we somehow haven't found a use for it yet, a note saying to return to that statue for the twelfth time at some point because goddamn did it ever look at us funny. The thing is though that in La-Mulana all those moments that make you feel like you're going crazy are just true; hints or strange inklings that have bugged you forever will turn out to be helpful 30 hours later halfway across the map, no flavour text or background detail is safe from turning into critical information, and against impossible odds seemingly everything is interwoven into such a beautiful, fascinating, maddening tapestry in ways that were at times genuinely mind-blowing.
La-Mulana is a hard game to recommend. I think its reputation in regards to mechanical difficulty and unfairness is overstated, and the game has such a brilliant sense of humour that even its meaner traps tended to elicit smiles and laughter more than anything else, but it does ask a lot of the player in regards to patience, perseverance and thoughtfulness. Its reputation in regards to the difficulty of its puzzle-solving, however, is well-earnt; we did manage to complete the game largely without looking at hints or a guide (with the exception of checking what the various computer programs actually do about two-thirds of the way into our playthrough) so it is certainly very possible, but the game asks for a level of perceptiveness, deeply outside-the-box thinking and even just logical leaps of faith that you'll often feel like it is breaking you.
It's such a gorgeously crafted game though, one where you can feel the passion and love that went into it, with a killer soundtrack, one of the most deeply and rewardingly interlinked maps in all of gaming history, and a sense of imagination so vivid that it never ceases to surprise and inspire. La-Mulana is something special.
It's truly baffling to me that you can make a game about dreams and perception of reality and have such a huge proportion of it be just making the player walk down bland hallways, the same uninspired motifs plastered everywhere over and over, whilst the player desperately hovers their cursor over everything they come across to find whichever object the game arbitrarily deems interactable.
It feels like so many developers misunderstood what made Portal great, thinking that it was just the light spatial and physics puzzles accompanied by silly, fun voiceovers, when actually it was the fact that that game pushed into territory that felt legitimately experimental, surprising and exciting in the context of mainstream videogames fifteen years ago. There are a handful of cool moments in Superliminal, more than my rating really implies, but it genuinely left my imagination feeling sapped from the experience as I longed for it to stop telling me to think outside the box until such a point as it had actually done so itself.
On one hand Chicory is possibly the best 2D Zelda game ever made. The paintbrush is such a cool concept to design little mini-dungeons around, and the expanding move-set and list of mechanics play with this idea beautifully and make for some simple but enjoyable puzzles and some pleasing tests of whether you understand your environment. These parts of the game are modest, joyful and fun, are thankfully free of any combat, and when they do culminate in boss fights these make for emotionally intense audio-visually spectacular highlights.
On the other hand Chicory is such a charming, genuinely thoughtful little game. It has a lot of things to say about the process of making art, a lot of different perspectives to share and investigate regarding inspiration, motivation and how to take healthy attitudes towards your artistry and treat yourself with kindness. The game handles all of this so tenderly that I ended up tearing up at a few points, especially during one particular side-quest that explored the frustrations artists can go through trying to get their art seen, measuring themselves against others, and feeling pressure to become known and how those frustrations can lead to losing track of why they loved making art in the first place. More than anything Chicory just wants, for a moment, to get you excited to be creative, and to help you find enjoyment in making messy and imperfect (the way the brush works feels like it has been designed precisely to make sure you can't be a perfectionist) art.
I love these quiet little towns, each with their own little identities, each with a collection of silly little animals all with just enough personality that you'll recognise them as they migrate around the map. The vibes are often very comfy, aided by the lovely musical score, so much so that when the game veers into darker or more disconcerting territory it genuinely got under my skin. I also adore this game's attitude towards how you engage with it; you can hand-paint every single screen if you want, or ignore that completely and make a beeline through the story, the rewards for completing side-content are (with one minor quality-of-life exception) only ever aesthetic in nature meaning there's no mechanical pressure to complete them and it's just a case of whether you want to do so, and there's no visual counter pointing out how many more collectibles there are to go find. You are simply presented with the tools to play with, the space to play within, and are allowed to engage with that to whatever extent you wish; this might not be a lot to ask for, but in a world where so many modern games bombard you with quest lists, daily challenges and collection completion trackers it's such a relief to play a game with such a plethora of side-content that doesn't feel the need to pressure you into doing any of it.
Of note, as someone who generally prefers controllers I strongly recommend playing this game with a mouse-and-keyboard instead of a controller if possible due to the nature of painting in-game. I was lucky enough to get to go one step further thanks to owning a drawing tablet, making for one of the most enjoyable experiences I've ever had in regards to controlling a game, and whilst I can enthusiastically recommend this way to experience the game it is hardly necessary.
Just a lovely little game, through-and-through, overflowing with heart.
It's easy, sometimes, to forget that FromSoft is at this point a triple-A studio. The games in their Souls quasi-series are so idiosyncratic, and remain so true to the personality of Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, that even as budgets would bloom in size they still kept much of that original slightly-janky charm. Even Elden Ring, a game whose colossal size makes its budget clear, and that unfortunately teeters into open world design industry standard bloat, still flies in the face of a lot of other industry standard design philosophies in such an intense way that other triple-A developers were up in arms upon the game's release at the notion that people were actually enjoying it so much.
Then, there's Sekiro. Don't get me wrong here, Sekiro is still undeniably a FromSoft game; obtuse, thematically deep and unusually challenging. That said a bit of me wonders how much influence Activision might have had on this game's final form, with the mass of skill trees and weapon unlock trees, something that makes my eyes glaze over at the very sight of, feeling both wholly extraneous to the experience the game is trying to provide and reminding me of the way that trash like God of War slaps on rpg systems into a decidedly not-rpg game just because that's the industry standard. There are hints of this design philosophy elsewhere with quick-time events, platforming based more around hunting for symbols to click on rather than thoughtfulness, even the bizarre inclusion of a boss rush mode, and whilst none of this was as objectionable to me as the tacked-on rpg aspects it still all hints at a design approach that is very much at odds with FromSoft's other output and which lands as off-putting to me. Even the game's insistence on having picking up an item cause in turn a pop-up, listing in entirety what an item does even if you've picked up said item ten times beforehand, to take over the screen and interrupt the gameplay feels like it may have come from an Activision higher-up tapping on Miyazaki's back to say that expecting people to go into their inventory to read what the items do there is a step too far.
At the same time there's an assured artfulness to Sekiro that excels beyond their other work, too. I adore the thematic exploration of this company's work just generally, and in particular I am very drawn to the almost tone poem nature of the Dark Souls trilogy, but Sekiro manages to use more exact language to tell such a wonderful and engaging tale about devotion and commitment, corruption and the nature of family. This aspect of the game is something I was not able to fully appreciate at the time for reasons I will get into shortly, but re-watching some of these cutscenes now and taking a more vested interest in the lore in the past day or so has revealed a real, subtle and powerful emotionality to the game, and I do find aspects of Sekiro quite beautiful as a result of this.
The biggest diversion from the Souls games is of course Sekiro's combat system, built around deflection, parries, posture, and the notion that you must not hesitate, must be prepared to be relentless. At its very peak this leads to some of the best fights FromSoft has ever presented; one-on-one fights with other warriors-with-swords like Owl, Genichiro and the final boss, or even mini-bosses like the Lone Shadows, O'Rin and the Ashina Elites, present such intense battles, that mechanically encourage you to never let up and that carry this almost rhythmic joy to them once, after many iterations, you start to truly understand the timings of those deflections and how to respond to your opponent's actions. Genuinely thrilling, adrenaline surging stuff, and immensely rewarding to gain a handle on after the steep learning process.
Conversely, when Sekiro's fights deviate from this structure I found the combat honestly lacking. Demon of Hatred might well rank below Bed of Chaos as my least favourite FromSoft boss ever, and fights like the Guardian Ape encounters, Headless Ones, Chained Ogres, Shichimen Warriors and the Bulls all attempt to mix things up, to encourage you to engage with the full extent of what Sekiro's combat system is capable of, but I find many of these fights frustrating in how they don't feel like they actually play to Sekiro's strengths, and tedious in some of the play-patterns they can encourage. This is emphasised by the game's difficulty; for me Sekiro was the hardest game this company has released by a substantial margin in part because the Souls games allow a lot more means for you to influence their difficulty, but mostly because the Souls games largely ask for your patience, for you to be willing to learn and meet the game on its own terms, whereas Sekiro asks, undeniably, for impressive reflexes and dexterity. I found myself mostly able to meet the game on these terms, and I legitimately enjoyed a large part of the process involved in learning to beat some of the more imposing bosses here, but the moment Sekiro deviates from its strengths and asks you to beat up some rampaging ape, whilst still keeping the difficulty high for these ill-fitting encounters, it starts to really lose me and leave me, for the first time since Dark Souls 2, genuinely frustrated (and honestly; baffled).
There are some other issues I have with the game also; a small handful of mini-bosses necessitate the usage of consumables that are very limited in quantity until late into the game, the scaling up in difficulty of areas reaches the point that by Fountainhead Palace I was finding some of the encounter design quite unpleasant especially when the game asks that you fight multiple enemies at once that are fundamentally designed to be fought one-on-one with deflects and parries (all too often my response to this was just to run past them, which is equally unsatisfying), the game is just frankly over-long which makes its insistence on recycling large amounts of content feel even more bothersome.
There are points where I look back on Sekiro and feel like I could rate the game even as much as a full star lower and not have that much regret, yet at the same time it feels undeniable that some of FromSoft's very best work exists within here also and the moments when it shines it is glorious. I wish I liked this game more than I do.
Somehow went from exclaiming "this is the perfect videogame" multiple times in my first several hours in Rune Factory 4, to being 20 hours into it and pretty happy to never play it again despite only being around about halfway through the main storyline.
Rune Factory 4 really has everything. Effortless, overflowing amounts of charm with every character leaving some sort of positive impression, an expansive farming system with so much depth sprawling in seemingly every imaginable direction, arpg goodness with a ton of different environments each with plenty of personality and unique touches, a ton of weapons (some delightfully goofy) with meaningfully different movesets for you to go chew through all manner of environments with, the ability to turn almost any enemy in the game into your own personal Pokémon and either set your army of critters to work on your farm or take them out adventuring with you, loads of secrets, loads of polish (I can't really overstate quite how impressive the level of polish is here), always something exciting to be working towards both narratively and in terms of building up your home/farm/town.
Rune Factory 4 really has everything. My mind freezes up as I use my magnifying glass to see so many stats about the soil quality of this specific tile, half of that stats feeling like they mean nothing. Five different crafting systems, a few of those with several different subcategories of crafting system associated with them, all of which need to be levelled up individually, and you better engage with these myriad mediocre crafting systems because you have to sell all this pointless garbage you're making to get the shipping rate higher. Stats you can level up for literally anything you can imagine, from using a specific class of weapon, to walking, to bathing. Storage boxes and fridges stuffed full of literally anything and everything you've found that you haven't had to either sell for money or use up in crafting. Yellow speech bubbles above characters indicating you haven't talked to them yet today, begging you to go find every single one of them every single day because of course the game expects you to befriend each and every townsfolk. Endless rooms of enemies where you just resort to bashing the same two buttons over and over to grind experience. Vegetable and flower seeds that start at level 1 and which you can specifically go out of your way to individually grind up to level 9 one growth cycle at a time. A princess points task system that gave me nightmares of Animal Crossing: New Horizons' Nook Miles for all the pointless busywork it encourages. The same handful of trees and stones you have to return to day after day to get the ever crucial lumber and ore you need mountains of in order to build anything.
Leaving you drowning amongst its menagerie of empty compulsion loops, Rune Factory 4 is the perfect abyss. I loved a lot of my time with it, the game is genuinely beautifully made in many regards and it's hard to imagine a game really being better at the specific thing Rune Factory 4 is trying to accomplish, but despite this fuck I'm glad I got out when I did.
Summer Games Down Quick just finished a few days ago, and as per usual I had the event's Twitch stream open basically any waking moment of the day that I wasn't either working or hanging out with one of my partners. It's partly that I love the atmosphere of the event and what it stands for, partly that it acts as a showcase for all sorts of cool stuff, but also that watching speedrunning is just immensely fascinating to me. People are honestly just incredible, and high-level speedruns act as this really impressive display of commitment, knowledge and skill.
That said, I've never really understood what would make someone actually want to pour thousands of hours into a single video game both just generally, but more specifically in search of making your time as low as possible. When I think of the things that draw me towards video games, their strengths as an artform, I think of the potential for self-expression, the depth of worldbuilding, the manner in which they can provide experiences and stories that feel unique to you. The thought of getting to grind the same route through the game many hundreds of times to shave off a few seconds doesn't really crop up there.
I'm not sure I'll ever really get it, but my early days with Neon White are the closest I've come. It starts with you figuring out the route for the level, getting a silver medal on your first try, and thinking "huh, why not push for gold then?". Upon attaining the gold medal the game gives you a hint for how to get the platinum, a shortcut you maybe missed, so you feel compelled to go back and add that to your run. Suddenly you're only a couple seconds behind someone on your friends list leaderboard so you return again, tightening up your lines, lining up a shot you didn't think of, and before you know it you're fighting to claw up the overall leaderboard, a flurry of F-space-F-space-F-space as you try to get the perfect opening. That iterative fight to become the best you can be.
It wore off for me, ultimately. As the game goes on the levels get longer in a way that makes fighting for a good time much more of a commitment, and the longer the game has been out the more ludicrously competitive the leaderboard has become to the point where the best times are at once both mind-blowing but also demoralising for anyone who hasn't spent years honing pinpoint accurate mouse-twitching. The rest of the game after I crashed back to reality was a solid enough romp, before a genuinely thrilling final 15 or so levels that explore really cool mechanical territory. The magic was gone, and my interest in grinding out good times is unlikely to come back, but it was a fun moment whilst it lasted.
Unrelatedly, I feel like the response to the writing in this game has been a tad harsh. The "social link" style hanging out portions are quite bad, to the extent that even I started skipping them at the halfway point (and I read visual novels), but the various backstories are solid enough, I liked the characters when the game wasn't straining itself to be funny, and the final third of the story is legitimately pretty good. Faint praise, but I certainly didn't hate this aspect of the game like a lot of people did.
The real reason Bloodborne owns is that there are a truly absurd number of wives in this game, including;
- Lesbian Wife (Lady Maria)
- Other Lesbian Wife (Eileen)
- Likes-Biting Wife (Thiccer Amelia)
- Eldritch Monstrosity Wife (Ebrietas)
- Dollification Wife (The Doll)
- Medfet Wife (Iosefka)
- Breeding Kink Wife (Rom)
- Lesbian Wife (Lady Maria)
- Other Lesbian Wife (Eileen)
- Likes-Biting Wife (Thiccer Amelia)
- Eldritch Monstrosity Wife (Ebrietas)
- Dollification Wife (The Doll)
- Medfet Wife (Iosefka)
- Breeding Kink Wife (Rom)
Anyone who was shocked by Miyazaki admitting he's a masochist really wasn't paying any attention
In Defence of Bloodborne
The notion of Bloodborne needing defending is patently absurd; it's one of the ten highest rated games on this site, one of the most beloved games of the last ten years, and seems to be the most common answer when people are asked for their favourite FromSoft title. That said, whilst I really enjoyed the game first time round it was with considerable reservations (a 4 star rating and no more), and only on my recent New Game+ playthrough did the game flourish for me as all my former complaints, amounting more or less to a list of most of the common complaints held against the game, melted away. This review won't address any of the already widely praised strengths of the game (the stunning art direction, atmosphere and level design; FromSoft's best collection of weapons; the kinetic, fast-paced combat brought alive by the rally system; etc etc etc), but instead just seeks to talk through my change of perspective on those weaknesses.
The two most widely criticised aspects of Bloodborne are the blood vial system and the chalice dungeons, and these are both aspects that bothered me in my first playthrough too. Blood vials are very thematically effective, periodically putting you in this bloodthirsty place when you run low on them, desperately searching for sustenance by slaughtering early mobs over and over, truly making you the hunter, but they also necessitate grinding and are ultimately pace-breaking when you're forced to abandon a tough boss fight to go scavenge. Chalice dungeons stand in stark contrast to the tight, creative, intentional level design that FromSoft is known for to instead be more like a Souls roguelike with even the premade chalice dungeons feeling procedurally generated, and it's easy for them to be disappointing with this in mind.
Something widely commented upon about Elden Ring was how the various caves and catacombs allowed you to scale the game to your liking. If you're really experienced with these games already you only had to do a handful of these excursions to stock up on smithing stones, whilst those who are struggling, held up from making story progress by Margit or some other imposing boss, would have a lot of this optional side content to go grind through in order to gain a few extra levels, find a couple nice new pieces of equipment, and return to face The Fell Omen more prepared than before. I think this is how the chalice dungeons are actually meant to be treated. If you vibe with them then cool, go chalice it up to your heart's content; the level design might be a bit janky, but Bloodborne's combat is good enough that the chalice dungeons are still honestly more solidly fun to wander through than I originally gave credit. But if you're getting murdered by a boss so much that you have nary a blood vial left then it's possible what you need isn't just a vial refill, but also a couple extra levels or another good gem to plug into your weapon. People who find places in Souls games to go grind out souls and get those extra levels is already a well-recorded phenomenon, and chalices are honestly the perfect answer to that; near-endless content for people who do want to grind out those extra levels. The blood vial system is the one part of the game I still regard as Decidedly Not Perfect, but I've grown to appreciate the way it says "hey maybe stop just bashing your head against this clearly-too-difficult-for-you-right-now boss and go level up a bit first?", and think that actually listening to those cries and taking breaks from Orphan of Kos to go do chalice dungeons for a couple hours would have led to a better experience than thinking all I needed was to go grind enough blood vials in a mid-game area for a few more attempts at beating that very screamy child.
On a minor note, Bloodborne is the FromSoft game that most wants to support the existence of New Game+ with the last couple chalice dungeons, leading up to a super secret bonus boss, very clearly being content that is meant to be scaled to a New Game+ (or higher) character, and with progress on chalice dungeons being retained between New Game+ cycles. Whilst this might not excuse some of the frustration of running out of blood vials on your initial playthrough, the moment you enter New Game+ and proceed through the game for a second time you'll be earning enough echoes that it becomes trivially easy to have 100+ vials available to you at all times. These frustrations are unfortunate but are also only temporary.
The bosses of Bloodborne are also a point of contention, and I found them uneven initially with some standing out as all-time great boss fights whilst others end up being far less mechanically engaging and even a bit awkward at times. To circle back around to Elden Ring again, one strange thing that game did for me was make me appreciate the boss design of Demon's Souls a lot more. Elden Ring's boss designs follow a very consistent style, and that certainly suits what that game is, but with less than a handful of what could be referred to as puzzle bosses a lot of this content can blur together. Demon's Souls definitely has a bunch of bosses that are not very mechanically challenging or that read as gimmicky, but there are maybe only two or three bosses in that entire game that wouldn't count as memorable. I think the best bosses in these games being ones like Artorias, Gael and Lady Maria, combined with the SoulsBorne reputation of being challenging, has brain poisoned us to want every boss in these games to match that template. All of this is a long-winded way of saying that playing through Elden Ring has turned me into the kind of person that will die on the hill that Rom, One Reborn, The Witches of Hemwick and Micolash are all genuinely good bosses, despite not being that challenging nor testing your combat skills particularly, because they all stand as memorable experiences. A year after originally fighting Micolash I would still quote his lines, the visual design of the Rom encounter remained seared into my brain right up until the start of this New Game+ playthrough, and ultimately the fact that these bosses contrast against the rest of Bloodborne serves as a strength rather than a weakness as it stops the overall experience from homogenising.
Finally, the lore of Bloodborne stands out as the one part of the game I wasn't completely onboard with on my first playthrough that most everyone else seemed to love, but this is an aspect of the game that really comes alive with repeat visits. I don't want to go too deep into this, people have done this enough already and this review is long enough as it is, but two things to consider are; what initially seems like a fairly simple condemnation of the church and the power institutions can wield over people gains a lot more depth when you realise that Bloodborne is less about supernatural critters and madness than it is about eugenics, classism and the myth of intelligence; most of the supernatural critters in Bloodborne were initially harmless, just kind of vibing and doing their own thing, and only became so dangerous because people made them so in our lust for knowledge and power.
Anyways, Bloodborne kind of just whips.
It's very impressive how Chapter 1 of Deltarune manages to simultaneously embrace the love people have for Undertale's characters and the emotions that game made its fans feel whilst also being something very unique and different that doesn't want to just live in Undertale's shadow. How it manages to subvert Undertale's subversions and play with your expectations in delightful and meaningful ways. How it stands on its own as a genuinely affecting self-contained story, whilst hinting at the larger themes and story-beats just enough to entice you and yet not so much as to really give you a clear idea of what to expect next.
There's a lot of heart here, especially in regards to Susie's character arc which is very well-realised and almost brought me to tears. As a result of being one chapter of a longer tale some of the more gamey elements don't quite have enough time to realise their full potential (Jevil rules, however), and it's possible that once the later chapters are out I'll revise my score upwards especially as it's hard not to believe that the full picture won't make some aspects of this Chapter come into clearer focus, but this was lovely and I'm very excited to play Chapter 2 soon.
Going from playing Banana Mania, to playing Super Monkey Ball 2, to finally playing this game, has been a strange experience; each later game individually good and enjoyable on their own merits, only for their flaws to become more apparent when compared with what came before.
The issues with Banana Mania's physics have already been excellently laid out by Pangburn. They're the exact sort of things that I didn't really notice at the time, but that become very clear the moment you play the earlier games with the original physics engine; Banana Mania is weirdly frictionless in a way that leads to a lot of issues, and whilst as someone relatively new to the series I wrote off me getting stuck on some levels for as long as half an hour as me just being inexperienced and playing badly, the moment I returned to these older games it became so clear that it actually wasn't really my fault after all but rather that the newer physics engine sets you up to fail by just not being suited to some of these challenges.
Super Monkey Ball 2's physics engine is night-and-day better than Banana Mania's, and I enjoyed the game a lot, but again the moment you compare it to the first Super Monkey Ball game issues start to rear their head. SMB2 leans hard into gimmick levels in an attempt to make itself stand out, and whilst some of the gimmick levels rule a lot of them either lack the replay value (especially ones where the entire challenge is to figure out a specific timing or route) or are just explicitly not fun to try and master in the way that the more physics-focused levels are; Launchers is such a heinous example that I couldn't bring myself to try and complete that game's harder arcade modes. Some of these gimmick levels also push at what you're really capable of in-game with the game's fixed camera, which I assume is a part of why Banana Mania would go on to have camera control; I think both these outcomes are not really ideal.
And then you come to Super Monkey Ball and in contrast it's just this perfect little package. Every level has a fun little idea or challenge to it, the game is so focused on the physics and execution that replaying earlier levels is a joy as you see how far you've come, whilst learning the later levels is this constant process of having things click into place in your head. The gameplay loop is also just effortlessly effective; you play through an arcade mode level selection only to get stuck on a specific level and have your run end, so you go work over that stumbling block in practice mode learning its intricacies so that next time you'll get a little bit further in arcade mode, every time getting a bit more practice on the earlier levels you find harder too and seeing your performance constantly grow. Expert mode is kind of nonsense, but just as you start to hit your limit the game starts slowly feeding you more continues as if to say you can do this is you just stick with it.
I also love the aesthetics of this one. The giant bomb at the top of the screen would probably be considered 'objectively' bad, it takes up a lot of screen real estate and just obscures your vision, but damn if it doesn't just ooze personality.