10 Reviews liked by EphemeralEnigmas
It's the laborer's code, an allegiance to classist logic hiding behind the veneer of a machine. Who's to say you can't pull these blocks other than the rules of the game? These walls and obstacles entrap you, make you feel the claustrophobia that comes with poverty and exploitation. Surrounding these microscopic tasks are naught but void—just the fraught acceptance of capitalism's encompassing reality. Here's a gallery of A-to-Z state machines one yearns to find freedom from, yet masks the possibilities of other, better worlds beyond the transactional paradigm. A purgatory wrapped in darkness, and the only clear way forward is toiling under this system for eternity.
Even then, the original Sokoban is more than it seems. One of the final puzzles tasks you with moving blocks in a seemingly impossible way. That is, until you accidentally push through a wall, destroying a piece of it which lets you finally manipulate the block stack without failure. All future official versions of the 1982 classic would ditch this element. After all, it sounds frustrating to need to discover or know this completely un-telegraphed mechanic, doesn't it? Kind of like how your boss refuses to explain the finer details of your job, or even how to complete a seemingly simple yet elusive task? I can only imagine how the warehouse keeper must feel, hopelessly exhausting every possibility except the most absurd, contradictory one that never worked before. And it doesn't feel like an accomplishment, or a stroke of genius. You either know because someone finally told you, or you accidentally fell into success instead.
Hiroyuki Imabayashi was a retail clerk at the time he got his first computer, a Sharp MZ borrowed from a friend. The games he subsequently played on his later PC-8001 and PC-88 units, as well as an imported Apple II, inspired him to make a little game of his own, reflecting what he saw in his environment. What possessed a well-read, movie-loving record store salesman to make one of the great early pro-labor digital puzzlers? I'd like to ask him myself, though I suspect he'll answer with something like "I never thought about it that deeply". We're all so ingrained in this system of the world that we can feel its pressure and imposition as we grow ("coming of age" indeed), even if we can't always articulate that sensation. Sokoban, with all its elementary yet convoluted mind-twisters, inspires what must have seemed like a revolution in video games as introspection.
It's no surprise to me that Imabayashi soon spent way more time writing and designing graphic text adventures, most often the kinds of pulpy mysteries he grew up with. He still relies on the perennial success of Sokoban's design concept for his livelihood, but in doing so has found time and space in life to just be. What he'd created from a working man's understanding of his favorite childhood card games had forever altered game design for a post-modern era. How does one surpass that? So he moved laterally, handing the reigns of commercial ambition to others at the studio he started in Takarazuka. And Thinking Rabbit certainly did experiment, yet the founder and his co-workers now work for Falcon Co., having sold their company and IPs to a former contractor following the Japan's economic and investment stagnation in the '90s. What keeps them going is, of course, a certain block-pushing Ship of Theseus most often starring some wide-eyed young man trying to buy a car or woo his love, among other bootstraps window dressing.
While Imabayashi's adventure games gained a notable following for years to come, his debut game has long since evolved beyond what he'd been able to match. Why work to reinvent that which will forever morph to other designers' wills, or just slot into myriads of other frameworks as shown by creations like Baba is You? Yet for all the appreciation Imabayashi's earned for his post-Sokoban legacy, the software which freed him has ironically trapped his image in amber. Block puzzles in video games are just too useful and universal—so the death of the author continues. I can go on my mobile app storefront of choice and find a seemingly endless number of Sokoban clones, many from first-time developers learning to code games. There's a whole cottage industry of bedroom coders building off what this once fanciful PC-8801 experiment started. And he knows all too well what it's done for him and shackled him to in the process.
I suppose this florid look at a generally self-explanatory media artifact isn't helping much. Then again, my lack of Japanese language skills makes it hard to dig into Thinking Rabbit's adventures without duress. Sokoban has become a staple of gaming across the world, spanning ages before and after its origins. We're as familiar with its principles, iterations, and insinuations as we are with backgammon or chess! And just as those pastimes silently teach lessons and etiquette pertaining to the social-economic structures birthing them, Sokoban too reflects its environment. This game ran on everything, in even more forms than Doom. It arguably had a predecessor in Nob Yoshigahara's Rush Hour puzzle, and even the lowliest of early digital handhelds like Epoch's Game Pocket Computer featured the block pusher. Ubiquity both made and destroyed Sokoban as an essential distillation of logic challenges previously fragmented across many arcade, computer, and board games the world over.
Takurazuka's greatest software creation gave players the illusion of control over time-space puzzles previously meant to eat quarters in game centers. It transferred the traditions of puzzle boxes and transfixing toys into binary. And from this black box of restrictions, revelations, and repetition comes the final realization: Sokoban invokes a wager of faith for or against capitalist reality. Those who succeed in unraveling or merely memorizing these menial tasks can feel at least a little vindicated. Those who fail will quickly realize the futility and fruitlessness of labor you give but can never keep, even if they eventually succeed under the circumstances. Everyone who's ever complained about "unfun" box pushing in a Zelda game could relate to this. All those who criticized and/or continue to lambast the likes of Papers, Please should consider the power of games as simple as this to provoke praxis in this festering world.
Maybe the most actionable thoughts Sokoban leads to now are playing a different, more fun and accessible game. We're so accustomed to what this PC-88 classic offers, and binds us to, that it's nothing worth investing time in. In this sense, Imabayashi's folly has become the kind of effortless un-game or anti-game others try too hard to sell us on. There's nothing glamorous, fantastic, or conventionally laudable about pure, unadorned Sokoban. It's too good at what it does, meaning its spiritual successors must imagine more creative, more engrossing variations on its themes. Hell, the whole idea of Baba is You can basically boil down to "what if we challenged the player to make a new Sokoban game in every single level?". Sokoban transcended its mere game-ness long ago; today it's both a platform and a bad example to follow. More than most "classic" games, this one has morphed into an idol of ludological dreams, nightmares, and ambitions subservient to the possible. Sisyphus would be proud.
For all the ramblings and minutiae I could go on about, I think you should try the original Sokoban and come to your own conclusions. The PC-88 game and its ports certainly show their age, but also how timeless they remain. Without factoring all of what Sokoban was, is, and will be into any discussion of Japanese PC software and beyond, any history of puzzle genres and tropes will be incomplete. Thank you for coming to my TED talk.
Soul Hackers 2
Soul Hackers 2 seems like it’s been the victim of a lot of negative sentiment. People calling it bland, saying it’s missing the heart of something like a Persona game (a criticism also levied against SMT V), and really criticising the hell out of the dungeon design. I can see why people might be dissatisfied with this game, even in those parts specifically, but I certainly don’t get why there’s such vitriol around a game that at worst these people are calling… bland?
For me though, this is anything but bland. It’s not as “loud” as a Persona game in tone or style, but why would it be? Persona games are about 15 year olds. The stories they tell are great and thematically deep, don’t get me wrong, but they’re stories starring children. Soul Hackers 2 stars adults. Adults who’re caught up in something between a gang war and a JRPG plot, who’ve internalized the hate and pain that conflict has brought, and mostly seem built out of coping mechanisms.
For example, you’ve got Arrow, my personal favorite of the main cast. He seems pretty standard for like, a game of this style, an everyman who doesn’t seem off-putting, and I get why that comes across as bland to people, but to me he just seems tired. Tired in a way that he doesn’t complain about, or even acknowledge, because it’s just part of life for him. They’re not drawn, but you can almost feel the bags under his eyes in the way he talks, the words he chooses. And that is infinitely more compelling as a character beat to me than anything from Persona 3-5.
The rest of the cast feels equally mature and understated, even the seemingly loud Saizo, who’s built himself out of noir stereotypes to cover up an unobtainable desire for peace and tranquility, and an idealism to rival any shounen protagonist. Those things don’t fly in the fairly grounded world of Soul Hackers though, lacking the adventuresome nature of Persona and (most of) the philosophical musings of SMT proper. So he builds walls of sarcasm and wittiness to protect himself.
It all feels pretty true to life I think, and the game takes itself rather seriously as well (outside of one joke character in the introduction). There’s a huge focus on not just the philosophical ideal of what it means to “be human”, but on people and the choices they’ve made, the compassion they’ve shown and to whom it was shown to.
Beyond that, I also really loved the dungeon crawling. I don’t think any game since Nocturne has really captured the old school maze-style of classic SMT in full 3D so well, nor has any made it so accessible. The couple of reused themes for dungeons are a little disappointing, but the themes themselves are just as understated-yet-vibey as the rest of the game. If you’ve played Tokyo Mirage Sessions, the dungeon crawling and combat here are heavily based that game, and I think this game is a much more successful use of those mechanics.
That’s pretty much what the whole game is. Just small character moments and dungeon crawling, and if you like the characters and the old-skool-ness of it all, I don’t think you’ll have any issues here at all. Just don’t forget about the side quests if you want the true ending, yeah? Though the non-true ending is really really good regardless, ending on a nice unresolved note (delivered via monologue) like a true noir film would.
Haven: Call of the King: technically, it is marvelously ahead of its time; aesthetically, it is painfully of its time; mechanically, it is dreadfully behind its contemporaries.
Stuff just happens in this game. You platform, you shoot in third and first person, you do rail shooting, jey pack flying, speedboating, driving, and so on. Most of it feels fine, it feels much better than literal shovelware would. Despite the connected environments and lack of loading screens, pretty much everything you do feels completely out of context. After the opening cutscene there is no dialogue for two full levels. You have a narrative goal, but if it weren't for the fact that your current objective is always displayed on the pause screen, you would have no idea what your next logical step for achieving that goal could possibly be.
There's too much mechanical variety introduced too early on, and while you are initially given some space to play with them your objective quickly becomes so narrowly focused that the range of abilities you have and stimuli you're expected to react to is overwhelming. You have a double jump, a shield, a slide, and a melee attack, and all of these moves can be combined in some way (and that's just the core platforming gameplay!), but few of these more advanced maneuvers are ever useful or satisfying. If you pick up a power-up like a gun or a flashlight, your melee attack becomes unusable until the power-up's time limit runs out.
There are roughly a dozen different types of barrel in the game, most of them are introduced within the first level or two. Some have items, some are covered in spikes and will damage you, some cannot be destroyed and will give you a weapon each time you hit them, some turn into turrets (all of these barrels are the same color). Some will explode when you hit them, some will explode when you get close to them, some contain a dragon that will follow you (but only when your shield is active!) and destroy the otherwise indestructible flaming barrels (all of these barrels are the same color).
Voice acting is shockingly sparse, with many characters' reactions to important events being limited to mugging the camera. Important story scenes have dialogue that is spoken so fast that I wonder how badly the different assets of the game were fighting for disc space. You'll walk into a new area and have a short cutscene that introduces a new character, and the next time you see that character (assuming they reappear at all!) you won't even have the option of talking to them. There is no text based dialogue in the entire game; the only text you will ever read is tutorials and hints. Half of the characters in the game talk in terrible overacted voices clearly imitating various racial stereotypes. Between the silly voices, the fast-talking, and the fact that the game has no subtitles, the story as told in game is almost incomprehensible.
The main collectable, like Mario's coins or Sonic's rings, are these little orbs that make a weird monkey noise when you touch them. I got several levels into them game without understanding what they are, and had to check the manual. Basically, you're poisoned, all the time. These items are an antidote that you need to constantly replenish to stay alive. You basically have two health bars, one that only goes down when you get hit, and one that you need to constantly fill with these orbs.
There's a car section where you're in this map, it's a desert area with some small trenches and two towers connected by a bridge. To progress, you need to destroy five tanks. To destroy the tanks, you need to chase and run over these little blue things that are running around in the sand; when you hit these blue things your car gets a blue aura, and you need to hit the tanks while you have this aura. There's other cars in the area that chase you around, and if they hit you, you lose the blue aura.
The second turrent section is, until that point, the absolute low point of the game. You're on a boat with two guns, one at the back, one at the front. At the very least, you don't actually need to manage the two guns at all, as enemies will only ever spawn on one side of the boat, and you only need to move to the other gun once the area is clear. You can't hold down the fire button for very long, for some reason this is seemingly the only area where your gun has a cooldown. To keep firing without overheating, you need to tap the fire button the entire time. The enemies constantly shoot projectiles, you have to shoot the projectiles in order to destroy them. These projectiles exist for the sole purpose of making sure that you spend most of the fight shooting at something that isn't the enemy, making the fight drag on and on, likely for more than a half an hour. If you die, you start over. You probably will die, and you probably won't even know why. Maybe you were walking between the guns and a stray missile hit the boat and made a massive hitbox, maybe you didn't realize that the shield meter acts as the boat's health meter for this segment. More than likely, this is the first time in the game that the player is stuck in the same place doing the same thing for so long that the poison meter actually starts to be a problem. The boss of the level has so much health that it's basically guaranteed that you will need to abandon your post in order to restock your antidote, and in the meantime your boat will be left defenseless. It's a delicate balancing act that goes on for way longer than it has any right to.
I don't know if it comes across in text, but it's almost impossible to talk about this game's mechanics in plain terms without slipping into a James Rolfe impression. That's what I mean when I say this game already would have felt dated in 2002. Mechanically, it operates on logic so obtuse that each individual part of this game's whole could have been an Atari 2600 game. Even so, even in its mechanics, it still almost feels ahead of its time simply because the "Freeformer" (TM) is basically the blueprint for the modern AAA game. Between Tim Rogers' idea of GTA as an "argument solver" or Nakey Jakey's justification of Naughty Dog's prestige titles, the critical glorification of games that are a jack of all trades and a master of none, I had to wonder if the ideal video game for the average gamer is anything more special than a high gloss Action 52. Here it is. Haven: Call of the King is that game.
However, Haven: Call of the King feels ahead of its time primarily because it is simply a technical marvel. This is a PlayStation 2 game, it has no load times. None. You load once when you boot the game up, it lasts barely 5 seconds. You will never see another loading screen again for the entire play session. It has seamless auto-save, it typically runs at 60 frames per second, it has so many particle effects on the screen that I would think even today's particles (which exist primarily to showcase the fine detail offered by 4K) would blush! It has an enormous consistent world consisting of multiple planets.
There are two problems with this. The first is that the game is so linear that there is simply no opportunity to appreciate it. The second is that as a result the most positive impression that the game can leave on someone can be reached just by looking at the title screen for a few minutes; the title screen shows a zoom into the main planet from space, then soaring through various landscapes. Apparently, if you go through the tedious trial of collecting every optional collectable in the game, at the very end, you gain the ability to freely fly through the galaxy and find a handful of hidden levels throughout all the game's planets. Getting to that point (hell, even just getting to the end of the game without the collectables) is so tedious that I can't imagine any significant portion of the people who bothered to play this game at all have experienced it, nor should they feel obligated to.
On the other hand, the fact that the game is technically so well crafted makes it so uniquely playable. There are so many egregious instances of bullshit in this game that if dying carried the penalty of a 20 second reload, I would have dropped it so much earlier. But because there's so little downtime, because the loop of feedback and retrial is so fast, flaws that would usually be inexcusable become more tolerable. It's damn good thing you don't need to worry about lives either; most of the time when you respawn the actual game-state hasn't even changed, you just get moved back to the checkpoint, and sometimes you can even still see the thing that killed you in the exact same place it was before.
One of the other reviews on this site calls Haven a "Jak and Daxter rip-off" (and from various other sites this seems to be a common observation) and while the game isn't good enough to necessarily call this a "disservice", I do think it's inaccurate. Haven is very much of its time, but in a more complex way than ripping off a single game. The aesthetic is a combination of tacky 00's fashion and post-late-90's gross-out cartoon humor that could have easily manifested on its own. There are hints of Lord of the Rings, there's a lot of the Star Wars prequels, and C.S. Lewis (Narnia) was explicitly cited as an inspiration in interviews. It's a piece of media that very obviously comes from the perspective of contemporaneous Christianity; like a video game adaptation of Angel Wars.
The reason for this is that this, perhaps more than any other Traveler's Tales game, seems to be Jon Burton's baby; going by his credits, this appears to be one of the last games that he had a direct hand in programming. It has both a weird sort of heart and an off-putting uncanniness that I would usually only expect to see from outsider art, from random eccentric individuals online. Again, narratively inspired by C.S. Lewis, which "has a clear gospel allegory while still featuring proactive characters". Aesthetically, the concept art was done by one of the artists who did album covers for the supergroup Asia. Mechanically, it was inspired by ambitious Amiga games like Mercenary. The game was meant to be sort of deceptive about its own scope, to slowly open up and surprise the player.
Well, congratulations, we were deceived. Players were so utterly deceived that everyone thinks the game is a boring, linear, lifeless, empty action game, and frankly, they aren't even really wrong.
That final optional space-faring completionist journey is so interesting, because if that had been the game's core loop this could have been something truly groundbreaking. Haven was so damn close. Even if the game opening up had been a more gradual process, it would have made all the difference; for example, there's a moment where the player escapes a prison satellite and crash lands on an unfamiliar planet. If the player landed in a wilderness and had to organically search for civilization, that could have been interesting. Instead, Haven conveniently lands in the only place on the planet where he can find a ship to get back up into outer space.
The popular comparison is to No Man's Sky, another overly ambitious game about going to different planets, but in the actual playing of the game, this is not the experience I think most people will have. Here are a few comparisons that I think are more appropriate:
Imagine if all of Sonic Adventure's mechanics, the platforming, the flying, the pinball, the fishing. Imagine they were all just a little more polished. Imagine that the tradeoff is that half of the game's voice lines, most of your favorite songs, and ALL of the game's flavor text and NPC dialogue were completely removed.
Imagine if Bethesda made a game as big as Daggerfall, but literally every area that wasn't directly relevant to the main quest was completely empty. Imagine that if you managed to replay the entire game without taking damage, you could unlock half a dozen sidequests, and none of them were anything special.
Imagine if The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was ugly, and you didn't get a single new piece of equipment after Windfall Island.
Haven: Call of the King is not good, but it is interesting. Apparently, this game's failure is one of the main reasons that Traveler's Tales is where they are today; with this game flopping so hard, the team that would have worked on a sequel got assigned to a Lego: Knights Kingdom game that the studio would have otherwise turned down, a game that never materialized because Lego would quickly request a Star Wars tie-in in its stead.
Fun fact, if you do a bit of googling you can find out all kinds of things. I'm like 90% certain that the only reason Burton is making a Funko Pop game with his newly formed studio 10.10 Games is because Steve Jobs' widow wants his mansion, and if he's gonna have to move into a new one he'll probably need a few more million for his house-hunting budget. Not to mention Funko probably has about as much access to different IP's as Lego does, Funko is bigger right now than ever, and Burton's favorite game to work on was apparently that Lego Dimensions crossover game. Video games are stupid and I hate them. Our entire hobby really does just mutate to suit the whims of distant multi-millionaires. Very cool.
The story is so flimsy and skeletal that it's hard to truly glean any thematic substance from it at all, but if I were to try, I would focus mostly in the juxtaposition between the Golden Voice and whatever the hell that magic rock was called. Basically, they are functionally identical objects, each made to facilitate a cry for help. One exists to summon the fictional world's Messiah figure, the other for asking Haven to aid Chess, the game's damsel in distress who ultimately betrays him. If only Haven had simply done what all true Christians do, ignore a friend in need. Only then could Athellion have saved humanity.
Anyway, Haven is so out of touch, out of time, that I'm not sure if it's a wicked artifact of a darker alternate timeline, a shining example of what video games could be if developers cared more about optimization and minimizing bloat, or a caricature of exactly what the AAA industry aspires to at this very moment. Whatever.
NOTE: Will not discuss spoilers, but will offer my take on the overall game with very broad references to the narrative.
So, I love Xenoblade. Xenoblade Chronicles is an incredible JRPG that combines fantasy and sci-fi excellently. I bounced off of X, its first sequel, because it took too long to get going (though I want to try again). I love Xenoblade Chronicles 2 so much, even more than the first. It's weird and messy, but I adore its cast of characters and it was a blast to explore.
3 is...weird. I'll start with the good though -- the setting is amazing and devastating and sad, enabling a gripping story and some moments of beauty when love and courage find a way despite harrowing circumstances. Some of the story beats here are series highlights -- I will spoil none of them.
A couple other positive notes. One, it's Xenoblade, so there's --- as expected -- an extremely compelling grind and fun position-based MMO JRPG battling. There are also big scary Level 80 monkeys and some fun vistas to explore. ALSO, compared to 2, everything looks better and runs better on Switch. Looks real pretty on my OLED.
Now the other shoe: This game is sloppy. Really sloppy. Like, sloppy even compared to XC2. Across the board. Monolith Soft tried very hard to smooth out the user experience of 2 by making menus straightforward and including detailed tutorials that explain how each bit of the game works, but they overcorrected.
The tutorials in the first 10-15 hours are out of control, leaving you on rails like you're in Pokemon Sun and Moon. The tutorials feel a bit wasted too, because once you have a good party makeup of 3 healers, 2 defenders, and 2 attackers, you can more or less button mash and strategically activate chain attacks for maximum EXP. This is the same as 2 in some ways, but having seven characters on the screen with different roles and classes makes it a chore to keep track of everyone at all times. I hoped the battle system would have been smoothed out from 2, but it honestly feels even more bloated, with too many equips and too much micromanaging asked of you for what ultimately turns into a mess of pixels on screen.
Next, the leveling. The EXP is handed out like candy on Halloween, and unless you make significant personal modifications to the difficulty (like choosing hard mode/turning off overkill/not using rest stops), it is incredibly easy to overlevel. Once I hit chapter 2, I didn't hit a main story enemy at a higher level than me until the final boss, and I basically mainlined this game with 5 hours of hero quests and a couple diversions.
A side effect of this poor balance is that once you get way overleveled, going back to explore the map can get boring due to slow walking, environments that retread previous Xeno games, and swaths of enemies in new areas that are far weaker than you.
In Chapter 5, I actually changed the difficulty to hard for a bit, but all it did was slow down a battle system I didn't really love engaging with in the first place. I went back to Normal.
Lastly, the story. I said a lot of kind words about the story that I mean, but it is also, once again, sloppy. Cutscenes are strung together a la Metal Gear Solid 4 regularly, including a sequence that may have taken as long as MGS4's ending. I don't remember previous XBC games going this ham with it.
The pacing also gets wacky, as the game gives you extremely interesting plot developments and then chases it with a non-optional fetch quest or diversion that feels like padding/bloat. This is done regularly.
The main cast of characters is quite good (better than 1, worse than 2 maybe) though with the villains, the more the curtain gets revealed the more everything gets messy and obtuse. I don't know if I'm bad at story comprehension or if the truth of this world was confusing. I found myself zoning out in certain late game cutscenes due to verbose dialogue that just goes on and on with wording that feels unnecessarily strange. Moments of the game's script feel like a poor localization, though this is Nintendo so I don't know.
The themes also feel under-baked to me. Two or three times in the story, the game changes or clarifies what it is trying to communicate to you in ways that feel more scatterbrained than thoughtful. Again, no spoilers.
There are a lot of powerful, emotional moments here that made me choke up, but aforementioned issues put a small damper on these parts. I'm not a Tales fan per say, but I played Tales of Arise (which is quite similar to XBC3 in multiple ways) this year and enjoyed it more than XBC3 overall.
As I play (or don't play) more of this, my thoughts may change.
Ys I Chronicles+
Often released as a bundle with its immediate sequel, Ys I really is just one half of a bigger whole. However, since it still works as its own standalone game, I decided to review them separately. As the first Ys game I ever played, there was an initial sense of confusion as I tried to figure out the somewhat archaic combat system and lack of explicit guidance. Thankfully, once it clicked, I enjoyed my short time with it and made me eager to check out the rest of the series.
Story: Adol Christin is a young, wandering adventurer who happens to come across the town of Minea, in the land of Esteria. Here, he meets a fortuneteller named Sara, who informs him of a terrible evil that he must ultimately bring an end to (nothing new, amirite?). In order to do this, he must find the six Books of Ys; text which contains the history of the ancient land of Ys and the knowledge needed to bring an end to the dark forces at bay.
Despite containing a simple plot, it’s still impressive to note how it exceeds expectations for a game released in 1987. In the same year that The Legend of Zelda released for the NES in North America, Falcom was creating an ambitious duology that not only contains plenty of dialogue, but also fairly interesting lore in the way of solid worldbuilding, interesting NPC conversations, and a fairly detailed and expansive backstory for the main hero in the original game’s manual; a backstory containing locale and event descriptions that would continue to be referenced in future games to this day.
Gameplay: This was the biggest roadblock upon starting the game. The infamous “bump” combat is a weird system that, although easy to understand, is incredibly awkward to execute for a first-time player and takes a bit of getting used to. But once I did, I was making mincemeat of enemies left and right. The bump combat simply involves running into enemies at an off angle in order to minimize damage received and increase damage taken. There is no attack button involved for this. The main limitation to this is the lack of variety. Even during bosses, it’s mainly a matter of learning its attack pattern and just bumping into their weak spot when possible. Still, the game is short, which helps a bit with its inevitable redundancy. Not to mention, the boss designs are damn cool and the fights themselves are still fun and challenging.
As with any RPG, you level up after gaining enough experience points. And trust me, if you feel like you are doing next to no damage to a boss, then you have to grind. Because here’s the thing: The level cap is 10. That’s right, you can only reach level 10 in this game, which means that each level gives you quite the significant boost to strength and defense. With each new area, enemies give a lot more EXP, so grinding isn’t much of a problem in this game, as it’s fairly quick.
Apart from this, there’s also a shop where you can buy better equipment, as is typical for the genre.
Through this short journey, NPC’s will give you hints on certain items you must find and use in order to make progress. None of these are usually too cryptic but, backtracking and traversing some of the maze-like dungeons can be a bit of a chore unless you look up a map. The final dungeon is especially huge and can be a bit of pain. And um… if I can just vent for a second…: WHAT WERE THEY THINKING WITH THAT FINAL BOSS? All I can say is, prepare your butthole.
Through this short journey, NPC’s will give you hints on certain items you must find and use in order to make progress. None of these are usually too cryptic but, backtracking and traversing some of the maze-like dungeons can be a bit of a chore unless you look up a map. The final dungeon is especially huge and can be a bit of pain. And um… if I can just vent for a second…: WHAT WERE THEY THINKING WITH THAT FINAL BOSS? All I can say is, prepare your butthole.
Music: Um… yeah… There is no reason for the music to be this good. Honestly, all the Ys games I’ve played have had great soundtracks, but it’s especially impressive to hear these tracks from a game released 35 years ago. Granted, with this being a remaster, the soundtrack has been re-recorded and remixed, but even after listening to the original soundtrack, it’s amazing to hear the foundation of a wonderfully melodic and haunting track list that perfectly captures the sense of adventure. Not much else to say here. The music is fantastic.
Ys is a series that usually flies under the radar of many RPG fans, and even with the recent success of VIII and IX, many would still be hard pressed to return to the series’ roots. I believe it’s well worth it, though. Ys I (and II) may not be a perfect experience, and it is admittedly not for everyone, but with its short playtime and classic Falcom charm, it just begs to be given a chance and experienced.
Final Score: Light 7/10
As one of the last games on the Dreamcast, which was SEGA’s last real contribution to the console market before they just gave up in general, Skies of Arcadia is certainly a lost gem in its own regard.
For a game like this you sorta have to wonder how this even managed to string up a cult following when it was pretty much set to fade into history around the time real JRPG heavy hitters started rolling around the corner. And on a surface level, Skies of Arcadia really doesn’t have much to offer against the lot in terms of doing something really “unique” or “boundary pushing”, especially in terms of its story. Many of its plot points were obviously taken right from Final Fantasy 7; Valua is a dead ringer for Midgar, Fina and Ramirez are akin to Aerith and Sephiroth, you fight kaiju-sized personified weapons tied to an ancient civilization in this world, and Moon Stones might as well have just been called Materia.
It might even be a stretch to call a JRPG taking inspiration from the biggest game changer in the genre of the time a mere “rip-off” when in reality it’s taking these elements to provide a sort of alternative to what was available. In that sense, it’s almost like a response to FF7 and the impact it would leave on JRPGs trying to recapture or play into its existential and melodramatic pathos. Skies of Arcadia stands firmly against this wave of JRPGs by just being a simple, soul filled adventurous experience of a straightforwardly charming good dude who just wants to do good as a pirate.
While the Legends port (remaster?) fixes and adds a bunch of things to make the game feel more expansive and “complete”, I still think there needs to be more ironing out for the gameplay. Like many turn-based RPGs Skies of Arcadia falls into the unfortunate archaic trappings of battles feeling too slow which isn’t helped by the random encounters. The real culprit here comes with the ship battles, which while really fun on paper, definitely feels too sluggish and drawn out to really feel engaging after a while. You just hold out against your enemy long enough until you see the option to just blast your special cannon which usually instakills everything. There’s no real tension in combat up until the last stretch where the game really tries to get you on your toes. The actual mechanics for regular combat are a bit lopsided in how they’re designed, like adding an entire new layer to combat on enemies having elemental color weaknesses and changing your weapon’s color to abuse that is weird, but when it works it becomes worthwhile. I also like how Magic is still its own system with its own energy to use independently from Special Moves which only requires a shared meter that the entire party charges and uses to perform what’s basically just Limit Breaks.
But I think the real appeal that the developers intended for this game is the exploration. A lot of it feels condensed by modern day standards but for a DreamCast/Gamecube title the world design for flying your ship in is still great. It really drives home the grand sense of adventure as throughout the course of the game you upgrade your ship to get pass areas you weren’t able to before, creating shortcuts from one part of the map to the other, and even completely negate random encounters by flying high on top of the map or below it.
Gotta give props to the music tho. Gamecube port basically butchers the audio through decompression but it’s not enough to flush out how great the sound can still be, especially during boss battles where the boss theme dynamically changes rhythm and melody depending if you’re close to winning or losing the fight. It’s a really simple thing to do but it’s so damn effective especially during times when you finally prevail against the heavy hitters.
While this game would realistically never get a sequel I still liked to see it getting a new modernized port on something like the Switch with all the QoL features emulation helped provide to make this a smoother experience. Ideally, a remake would be better for overhauling the gameplay to re-balance the combat and maybe even fix up the over-world more. Other than that, unless you can fork over 100 dollars for a physical copy for your Gamecube, this is stuck in Emulation Hell.
This review contains spoilers
Elden Ring was my most anticipated game since its announcement at E3 2019. I can happily say that I’ve enjoyed my time with the game, though it is far from flawless.
As someone who took the time to fully devour the open world and clear out any cave, mine, ruin, or dungeon I came across in my travels across the Lands Between, I can’t help but feel like I missed something reading so many people talk about how Elden Ring has fully transformed the genre of open-world games, or how Elden Ring’s open-world feels so different from others. I fail to see what truly differentiates Elden Ring from others in its genre beyond the unmistakably unique vibe that the Dark Souls games inherently have. As we’ll get into later in the review, the non-open-world areas of Elden Ring are the peak of its gameplay and level design, so I’m a bit lost as to how the game meaningfully benefits from an open-world.
The game’s opening regions, Limgrave and the Weeping Peninsula, give an absolute breathtaking first impression, and I believe serve as the peak of Elden Ring’s open-world experience. There is an incredible variety in the opening zone, showcasing mines, ruins, abandoned churches, a traveling caravan, a giant walking mausoleum, at least 3 incredibly detailed and fun to explore castles, and by my last count, a whopping 38 bosses. Once you expand into the wider world beyond Limgrave, into Liurnia of the Lakes, Caelid, and beyond, it is a sad realization to find out that you have pretty much experienced 80-90% of what the open-world has to offer already. Every single region is a mish-mash of similar looking caves full of rats and wolves, mines full of rock-human miners and upgrade materials, tombs full of zombies and skeletons, 4-5 abandoned churches with identical layouts featuring a Site of Grace and a Sacred Tear, and the same dozen or so field bosses that feel unique the first time you fight them, then like busywork when you’re tasked with killing the Tibia Mariner for the fourth time or the Burial Tree Watchdog for the seventh.
Even Elden Ring cannot avoid falling into the same traps of every open-world game before it. This, I think, is its biggest and most fatal flaw. The exploration feels like it should be very rewarding, but once you delve into the 40th cave and fight the Crucible Knight once again (but this time there’s 2! How interesting!) just to receive another Ash Summon you won’t ever use (or worse, crafting materials, the biggest slap in the face), it just starts feeling like a waste of time. You start feeling like just skipping the boring dungeons and riding as quickly as you can to the next main story area. It feels like massive filler, and the countless people praising the Lands Between as “the evolution of open-worlds” just has me scratching my head.
Boss design in general is another point of contention for me. While there are a few standouts I’ll discuss in a moment, I feel overall, Elden Ring’s bosses are incredibly underwhelming. They feel creatively stretched thin over the 100+ encounters throughout the game’s immense length. Many encounters feel reminiscent of Dark Souls II, the game in the series most infamously known for “quantity over quality”. Simple basic enemies scaled up and presented as “bosses”, unimaginative monsters that flail around in tiny rooms and send the camera into a whirlwind, and possibly the largest amount of duo- or gank-fights in the series. Bosses are also reused constantly, leaving each additional encounter feeling staler than the last. I wouldn’t have too much of an issue with the field bosses, such as the Night’s Calvary being reused, but Astel, a major boss from an important side quest, whose initial encounter feels very special, is inexplicably reused in a random mine towards the endgame. Why? What purpose does this serve? It cheapens the original fight for no reason when they could have added another Stonedigger Troll and avoided this altogether. Bafflingly, main story boss Godrick is also reused in an Evergaol challenge, same voice actor and all.
When the bosses aren’t being egregiously reused or being otherwise completely forgettable, I think there are some excellent boss fights in Elden Ring. Margit, likely the first major boss players are going to fight, is an intense, shockingly deep battle for such an early encounter. Margit’s true form, Morgott, fought towards the back half of the game, improves this fight even more, adding a deeper movepool for the boss and some amazing visuals. The battle with the Fire Giant in the snowy Mountaintop of the Giants is one of From’s greatest spectacle bosses in the franchise. Weaving in and out of the absolutely monumental giant’s attacks as he rains fire down upon you is breathtaking and feels like a boss out of God of War. The battle against Rykard in the Volcano Manor is the ultimate evolution of the Storm King, Yhorm, and Divine Dragon boss fights and makes you feel truly powerful. The game’s penultimate major boss, Godfrey (and his alter-ego, Hoarah Loux), is a fast and frantic duel that shows you the true power of the Elden Lord.
I would also like to heap some praise on what the game calls Legacy Dungeons, aka traditional zones from previous Souls games. Stormveil Castle is a masterclass of level design and would stand among the best areas from the Dark Souls trilogy. The new jumping mechanic allows Fromsoft to go absolutely nuts with level verticality. It feels like you have half a dozen potential paths ahead of you from almost every point. The levels are also immense, with Stormveil alone feeling about the size of half of the Boletarian Palace from Demon’s Souls. While unfortunately I feel like Stormveil is the peak of these Legacy Dungeons, all of them feel like they have a lot to offer and are fun to explore and run through.
Build variety is at perhaps its best here, with every type of character feeling not only viable, but powerful. An arsenal of gigantic weapons await strength builds, dozens of daggers, spears, and flails are here for dex builds, and the greatest variety of spells are here for definitively the most interesting and fun caster builds in the entire franchise. After the disaster that was Dark Souls 3’s magic system, it’s great to see it being viable and strong.
The newest additions to the Souls combat system are Ash Summons and Ashes of War. Ash Summons cost MP (most of them at least) and summon in ghostly versions of enemies you’ve encountered throughout your journey to fight alongside you. These can range from a pack of wolves, a band of skeletal warriors, some minibosses you’ve fought, like the Black Knife Assassin, or even a clone of yourself that fights with your currently equipped gear in an absolutely brilliant twist on the Mimic from previous Souls games. I love this addition and feel it’s a great boon to the player against Elden Ring’s general increase in difficulty. It helps you balance the game’s harder fights closer to your favor in a way that doesn’t feel as cheap as summoning a co-op partner.
Ashes of War are the evolution of Dark Souls 3’s weapon arts. Whereas each weapon in DS3 had its own unique ability, Elden Ring allows you to mix and match them, purchase new abilities, and find hidden ones in the field. You can then apply them to any non-unique weapon you wish, allowing for even further build variety. The level of customization you have on your character in Elden Ring is truly staggering.
I’m super happy to say that while the multiplayer system is still needlessly archaic and convoluted, it’s an absolute massive step-up from the previous Souls games. Instead of requiring single-use, annoying-to-farm items like Humanity or Embers to engage in co-op, all you need is to craft one using a couple of extremely common flowers. At any point I could just open my crafting menu and whip out 20-30 of them. Additionally, playing online spares you from invaders in single-player, only opening you up to attacks when you have a partner with you. I think these are great changes and make the MP experience a lot smoother and accessible than in previous titles.
Though I complained about the game’s open-world and boss design, I want to stress how wonderful of an experience Elden Ring has been. The game completely devoured me for over two weeks, and while I can’t say I enjoyed every last second, Elden Ring was a brilliant package that will stick with me just as long as From’s other projects. Having this much to say (I could write another page on this game) is testament to how important and interesting FromSoft and Miyazaki’s contributions to the industry are. I hope they never stop releasing games, and I can’t wait for Elden Ring 2.
I've never liked comparing this game to Super Mario 64, because there is so much different about them that it inherently is unfair, even once you get past the simple fact that this is a childhood-defining game for me, whereas Mario 64 just isn't.
But one thing I think both games share is that when you are willing to engage with them on their terms, they are fantastic and fun games. There's a genuine earnestness and sincerity to them, even within the constraints of early 3d, and that is something that I think no amount of teraflops and traced rays can really replicate.
Sonic Adventure does live up to its name. It's an adventure, a game that feels absolutely massive, with three hub worlds and levels that span these hubs, visited by each character at different times, interacted with in different ways. Mario 64 can feel like a big game, but I think when you are shown tangible connections between each part of the world and the levels, it adds something to the scope of the map. Eschewing the traditional act structure of earlier Sonic games for one larger level, defined more by the moment to moment and the setpieces you visit, adds to this, but certain levels can have their superfluous moments.
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