346 Reviews liked by baldur

Remember that moment in Breath of the Wild's tutorial where you have to chop down a tree and then use it as a bridge to cross a river? Remember thinking 'woah, that was neat!' and then not doing that again for the rest of your 80-hour playthrough? Remember when you unlocked Revali's Gale and then realized you would never have to actually work to gain height again? Remember how everyone, even Breath of the Wild's biggest fans, unanimously considered Eventide Island the best part of the entire game?
It wasn't until I played Rain World, a game so dedicated to its survivalist philosophy that it forces you to become intimately familiar with every facet of how its world works if you want to make even the slightest bit of progress, that I fully realized why all of this stuff bothered me so much. At first it was simple: what good was one of the most robust physics systems ever conceived without any challenges that tested your mastery over it? But Rain World, by counterexample, honed this down, helping me understand just how much Breath of the Wild takes every opportunity possible to provide you with means to avoid actually feeling like you're part of Hyrule. The first item you're handed prevents fall damage from ever being an issue. Beating any of the Divine Beasts "rewards" you with ways to avoid engaging in climbing and combat for the rest of your adventure. Harsh climates may pose a threat at first, but, quickly enough, you'll find clothes that (using a menu!!) completely neutralize them. There's a difference in philosophy here that doesn't necessarily come down to their respective levels of difficulty: Breath of the Wild gives you abilities, while Rain World gives you tools. Breath of the Wild makes you lord of your environment, while Rain World puts you at the mercy of it. I could grasp why so many were enchanted by the former, but, for me, Rain World was enchanting, and Breath of the Wild was boring. Why would I chop down a tree and waste my axe's durability when I could, with the press of a button, raise a magic platform out of the water and use that instead? Obviously, the game deserved credit for even allowing you to do any of these things, but I'd rather see a Hyrule where Link felt just as governed by the forces of nature as everybody else.
The last thing I wanted this game to be was more Breath of the Wild (in my eyes there was already far too much of it) and, at first glance, it is. Same Link, same Hyrule, same aesthetic, same general structure. Squint and it passes as an extensive set of DLC for the 2017 release, but, it's only a few hours into the Great Sky Islands when these potential fears get put to rest for good. For me, it happened as I walked out of the penultimate tutorial shrine, stepped onto a Zonai Wing, and used it to fly all the way back to the Temple of Time. Because here's the big open secret that nobody (except for me, apparently) wants to admit: traversal in Breath of the Wild sucks. Having to walk every five seconds to manage your stamina isn't fun, climbing isn't fun, and hopefully I don't have to tell you that fast travel isn't fun. Y'know what is fun, though? Shield surfing. Even though it's generally impractical, usually ending in a broken shield rather than any sort of speedy forward movement, I still found myself doing it nearly every time I was on top of a steep enough hill. Something about just letting it fly and relinquishing control over to the game's physics and hoping for the best never got old, and Tears of the Kingdom is like if they designed an entire game around shield surfing. Zonai Devices are essentially adaptations of traditional Zelda items into the open-air formula, as each has a specific intended use- a spring helps you gain height, a wheel moves objects, and a head targets enemies- but can be creatively applied to other, potentially unrelated scenarios. Whereas Breath of the Wild felt like a set of mechanics without any real structure to encourage you to get the most out of them (and that was a large part of its mass appeal, I get it) Tears comes with one built in. Whenever you're running or swimming or climbing a long distance without first constructing some kind of car or boat or hovercraft, you're losing. And while these vehicles could have just turned out to be another way to bypass Hyrule's rules, they're really the opposite, as Link never feels more at the mercy of his environment than when he's piloting one. Gliders have to be initially propelled in some fashion since they can't gain momentum from a sitting position, fans move your craft in circles instead of forward if placed at a slightly off angle, wheels get caught on awkward terrain, boats are in danger of sinking if their cargo isn't balanced correctly. Controlling a vehicle always means going toe-to-toe with the game's physics, and it's the simple fact that nothing seems to work perfectly that makes this game great. Ultrahand was a turn off at first because of how long it felt like it took to build anything, but, somehow, even this flaw turns into a strength. I often found myself getting impatient and slapping a vehicle together haphazardly, which tends to lead to the most entertaining results. The best parts of the open-air Zeldas are when a harebrained scheme somehow works (or fails in humorous fashion) and figuring out the nuances of how every device works by watching them move around in ways I didn't expect is some of the most pure fun I've had with a game in a long time. Likewise, it's no surprise that you can't purchase any specific device individually and instead have to work with what the gacha dispensaries provide you with, as it's really about making-do rather than having a clean solution for any particular problem. If Breath of the Wild was about giving you ways to manipulate your environment, Tears of the Kingdom is about giving you ways to be manipulated by your environment.
But, perhaps the bigger accomplishment here is that Tears somehow manages to justify reusing Breath of the Wild's map. Since the main theme this time around is efficient traversal, an entirely new Hyrule would have likely resulted in players neglecting vehicles to exhaustively explore each region first, whereas now you're already familiar with points of interest and the onus of enjoyment is shifted from the destination to the journey. And if you've forgotten where you should be going, the game makes sure to remind you, as the bubbulfrog and stable quests, which you'll want to activate ASAP, are located in Akkala and Hebra, two of the last areas I went to the first time I played Breath of the Wild, respectively. You're essentially nudged into doing a breadth-first search of the world instead of a depth-first one, and when your players are reaching the exterior of the map before the interior, you're free to fill that interior with... challenges! Despite my Breath of the Wild veteranship, my first dozen or so hours of Tears had me run up a tree to escape angry bokoblins, struggle against a stone talus in a cave because I was used to fighting them in open areas, and be genuinely perplexed on how to reach a floating shrine. Likewise, I actually felt like I had to prepare and come back to the siege on Lurelin Village, the Great Deku Tree quest, and that test-your-strength bell ringing minigame. It never gets especially difficult (not that I expected or even wanted it to) but there's clearly an effort to set up hurdles that players may not be able to jump on their first lap around the track. And while you could argue that these are simply iterative improvements, to me they're complimentary to the vehicle construction's philosophy of being restricted by the wild instead of empowered by it. Fuse does a good chunk of the heavy lifting here, and marks a shift away from pure sandbox and towards survival-sandbox, as all it really is is menu-free crafting. It's not only enjoyable on a base level, fostering experimentation for both useful and useless combinations to the same degree, but it also provides a sense of scarcity that wasn't really present in Breath of the Wild. Gems are no longer abstract materials that exist only to be sold or traded in exchange for armor, but real objects that have a real effect when fused. Drops from keese, chuchus, and moblins actually feel valuable. Elemental arrows aren't gifted via chests, but created on the fly depending on the situation. This time around, you scavenge with purpose. Out of bombs? Find a cave. Need stronger weapons? Kill stronger monsters. Want to upgrade your battery? Test your luck mining Zonaite in the depths. Revali's Gale exists in this game, though you don't perform it by waiting for a cooldown and then holding the jump button, instead by burning a pinecone using wood and flint that you had to harvest from somewhere in the world. Unfortunately, the presence of unlimited fast travel, universal menu use, and generous autosave means that this survivalist mindset isn't seen through to its fullest potential. It feels like a very Miyamotian design choice to subtract as little from a character's inherent moveset as possible in between games, so hopefully the next Zelda will star a new Link (on a new, more powerful console.) But one persistent ability stings more than the rest: the paraglider. Replacing it would've been easy- a shield fused with some kind of cloth could have been made to have the same effect, and I can only imagine how much more interesting this game would've gotten if descents actually took planning. But, even when you get to the point where nothing can realistically touch you, your other powers never stop feeling like tools and not abilities. There's a reason why this game's runes don't have cooldowns- all of them require external factors to actually be useful. Whereas Sheikah Slate bombs provided a consistent source of weaponless damage, stasis could be used on enemies directly, and cryonis, while requiring a body of water, always produced a static pillar indifferent to its source's movement, their Purah Pad equivalents call for more awareness. Ultrahand necessitates an understanding of how environmental building blocks could potentially fit together to achieve a specific goal, fuse relies on extrapolating an object's behavior and reasoning out as to how it would work when attached to a weapon or shield, and ascend extends your arsenal of means of creative traversal, asking you to survey the surroundings around a height that you want to reach without having to climb. Maybe I'm just lacking a certain creative ligament, but recall's main use for me was to retrieve devices that fell off of a cliff as I was trying to use them, which, to be fair, happens all the time, but it's still disappointing that there's not much to it outside of the puzzles designed around it. Even so, it doesn't break the throughline that happens to be my best guess as to why I enjoy messing around with the chemistry system in this game so much more than in Breath of the Wild: everything you're able to do here comes directly from the world itself.
And what a world it is! Caves were a no-brainer for a sequel, but their implementation here is fantastic. Add an underworld and all of a sudden your overworld doesn't feel bland anymore; constantly checking just around the corner for ways that natural features might open up or connect to others. Bubbulfrogs, at first, felt too carrot-on-a-stick-y to me, but the reward for collecting them is so insignificant that their main purpose instead becomes just to mark caves as fully explored on your map. Unless, of course, you go for all of them, which I personally have no desire to do. If you imagine a scale of collectables from shrines, which you're given enough tools to find all of without an egregious time commitment, to koroks, which you should be institutionalized if you even consider 100%ing, caves sit comfortably in the middle. Their quantity is limited to the point that they're all sufficiently detailed and memorable, but high enough that I feel like I could replay this game and still make significant new discoveries, which was very much not the case for my second run of Breath of the Wild. That sentiment also extends to the depths, which is the only location in either of these games where Link actually feels out of his element, and thus automatically the most enjoyable to explore. In the dark, surrounded by bizarre, hard-to-internalize geography, with tough enemies and an actually punishing status effect... or, what would be one if the game didn't chicken out and make gloom poisoning curable simply by going outside. Though, that's really only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the not-so-invisible hand of modern Nintendo's design philosophy inevitably making its presence known. Every beach has a sail, every hill a sled, every sky island enough materials to get to the next without hitch. When vehicles are this fun to use by themselves, I don't mind all that much, though it does occasionally feel like I'm just doing something the game wants me to do instead of playing by my own rules. It bothers me more in shrines, which, unfortunately, took a massive hit in between games. I've always held the opinion that they don't have to contain amazing puzzles, but should instead serve to prod players towards ways of interacting with open-air mechanics that they might not have thought of themselves. Unfortunately, here, they're neither, being solvable about five seconds after you walk in the door, and teaching you things that you'd already known, or, even worse, wish you'd discovered yourself. I felt pretty damn clever the first time I fused a spring to my shield and surfed on it to gain height, but that feeling was diminished when I was given a pre-fused spring/shield after beating a combat shrine. There's enough going on in the overworld at this point that I'd honestly have been fine if shrines were done away with altogether, except for maybe those mini-Eventide immersive sim ones, which were great all the way through. The lost koroks and crystal missions (because, let's be real, they're the same thing) turn out to be better puzzles than anything inside a shrine without even needing a loading screen or a change of scenery. Didn't think it was possible, but the story is somehow also a downgrade. Breath of the Wild's memories meant that Zelda herself could be characterized in a variety of ways depending on which order you found them in. It didn't do much for me personally, but at least it was going for something. Tears's just feel like watching a series of cutscenes out of order, and by the time you've seen two or three of them you know exactly where the story's going, and also that it's godawful. I'm not sure if it's the dreadful voice acting, or just holdovers from Skyward Sword's writing staff, but it's bizarre to see a series struggle this hard with sentimentality when it used to come so naturally to it. Chibi Link waving bye to his grandma while leaving Outset Island makes me feel more than all of the cutscenes in both of these games do combined. Not that it actually matters, of course, until it starts affecting the gameplay. Locking you into scripted sequences for every Divine Beast was already an egregious clash against player freedom, but they at least made sense logistically. Link could easily reach Vah Medoh by himself if it was in this game, and you actually can get to the water temple (and possibly the others... I didn't bother to check) without completing the corresponding sidequest, only to be arbitrarily rejected from starting the dungeon. Considering the sages only grant you slightly better versions of things you can already do, going through the dungeons without unlocking any of them could've been an enjoyable challenge on subsequent playthroughs. Unfortunately, it's not the only aspect of the game left out of the player's hands.
Waypoints still have no place in a Zelda game. Sidequest lists still have no place in a Zelda game. Loading screen tips still have no place in a Zelda game. And don't get it twisted: this is my favorite game with "Zelda" in its title since '02, but it's still not a Zelda game. Breath of the Wild's marketing as a modern reimagining of Zelda 1 has always struck me as phony, because, aside from not being confined to the series's formula, they're not at all alike. That game, to me, is characterized less by unlimited freedom and more by the fact that you had to find everything yourself, whereas every point of interest in both of the open-air Zeldas is signposted to some degree. Even if you love these games, you have to admit that the appeal has shifted. It's not about exploring to learn more about the world anymore, it's about exploring to find unique scenarios. Aside from a certain way that the depths and overworld are connected (that took me an embarrassingly long time to put together) there's nothing to figure out here. I don't want Impa to tell me that geoglyphs should be viewed from the sky, I want to see them on the ground and logically reason that out for myself. Talking to villagers used to be one of my favorite parts of Zelda games, but now it's something that I actively avoid doing. But this general overhaul isn't my problem; my problem is that Nintendo thinks that no aspects of the previous games are worth carrying over. What if certain caves had Dark Souls-style illusory walls, and you could get the Lens of Truth at some point to see through them? What if there was one guardian left alive in the deepest wilds of Hyrule that you could just stumble upon? What if there was an especially difficult, especially complex shrine somewhere in the world that no NPC even hinted at? Why is there still no hookshot? It feels like Nintendo's terrified to implement anything unique that some players might miss, but the point of a world this vast should be to conceal secrets. I want to travel to a far-off outskirt of the map and find something that doesn't exist anywhere else. A Link to the Past gives me that feeling. The Wind Waker gives me that feeling. Neither of the open-air games do. The closest Tears comes is with the Misko treasures (which are much more fun if you haven't found the hints leading to them) and the costumes in the depths (which are much more fun if you haven't found the maps pointing to them.) And not because of the reward, but because they're housed in cave systems and defunct buildings that are architecturally distinct enough to feel memorable. Exploration in this game is far more varied than in Breath of the Wild, but this Hyrule still doesn't feel mysterious. I can't help my mind from drifting back to Rain World, which went the distance to fill every corner of its universe with unique entities that most players won't even see, let alone meaningfully interact with, part of the reason why it'll continue running laps around every other open world until the end of time. This game consistently delighted me, but it never enchanted me. We may never see a traditional Zelda again, and, if we don't, I'll genuinely feel like something is missing from the series (alongside an actual soundtrack.) If Tears of the Kingdom was, like, 20% more cryptic, I think it'd be my favorite game of all time, but, if I'm being honest with you, it comes pretty close anyway.
In many ways, I don't understand it. This is likely the longest review I've written on this site, but everything above is just an attempt at rationalization as to how this game was able to capture me for four months of nightly sessions when I got sick of Breath of the Wild about a third of the way in. I bounced between an eight and a nine throughout my playthrough, but I don't think I can earnestly not consider this game one of my favorites when it contains so many activities that I just love doing. I love exploring caves. I love trying new fuse combinations. I love picking up korok hitchhikers. I love gathering my party of sages. I love putting my map together in the depths. I love sailing to new sky islands. I love chucking shock fruits at a lizalfos standing in a knee-high pond until it dies. I love watching bots take out monster camps for me. I love using Sidon's ability and making my water warrior marbled gohma hammer do 200 damage. I love riding a Half-Life 2 airboat through flooded tunnels. I love perching a Zonai Cannon on top of a hill at just the right height to stunlock an ice talus. I love driving a monster truck around and sniping bokoblins with Yunobo. I love ascending to the top of mountains. It's not the risky endeavor I asked for back in 2020, and it's still far cry from Nintendo's best sequels- Majora's Mask, Yoshi's Island, and even Mario Sunshine- which may straight up piss off faithfuls of the original. I have a hard time imagining any fans of Breath of the Wild outright disliking this game, though it has succeeded in converting a skeptic in yours truly to the religion of open-air Zelda. It's nowhere near perfect, but perfection is overrated anyway.

something beautiful is going to happen.
one day i will return to your side.

The true reveal of Metal Gear Solid 2 is not that we play as Raiden instead of Solid Snake - it's that the antagonist of the game does not exist. It's pulling back the curtain to find that the man behind it died a century ago. The most powerful nation on Earth is essentially an algorithm with a mind of its own, akin to a runaway train that everyone "in charge" pretends they are responsible for. There is no individual you get to blame. Not the politicians, not the CEOs of major corporations. Not even the current or former presidents of the United States have any idea of what's really going on. The algorithm will replace these people the second they stop being useful. In my opinion it's a much better conception of "the system" than what you see in most conspiracy fiction: a small, shadowy cabal of people pulling the strings from behind the scenes. The reality is that all of the powerful people we blame are just the ones who managed to latch on to the algorithm of capitalism and milk it for all they can. There is no grand design, nobody is in control, everyone responsible for setting this system into motion is long dead. Which is why Otacon says the Patriots "have been dead for 100 years".
Every choice you (and Raiden) make perpetuates this status quo, and every radical political cause (like Snake and Otacon's 'Philanthropy') is effortlessly co-opted by it. MGS2 conveys this idea in a way that only a video game could: By playing as Raiden, you are forced to directly confront the futility of any resistance. You can approach MGS2 in a million different ways with an expansive arsenal of tools, getting no kills or alerts and discovering every secret in the Big Shell, or do the exact opposite. But the end result is always the same: You kill Solidus, the only threat to the Patriots, after they explicitly tell you it's exactly what they want. If you opt out entirely and "turn the game console off" you're still doing something you were ordered to do. Even if you choose not to play, you lose to the Patriots. MGS2 places you in the position of the post-information age, digital subject: Imbued with detailed knowledge of every single way you are being oppressed and exploited, you still choose to follow orders. You are so overwhelmed by information, some true, some false, that is causes a kind of exasperated compliance.
This is simultaneously a commentary on the nature of video game stories as an immutable, pre-programmed series of events not as different from film narratives as we like to think; Any "choice" is always an illusion, whether it's in Metal Gear Solid or a Telltale game. Any game that sets out to fulfill the concept of "player freedom" in its story will always fail. Video games stories are (at their best) about interactivity, not choice. They let you play out a pre-ordained role and do some improvisation, not write the story. Kojima understands this, and it's why he borrows so much from film. It's also why the criticism that his games are too much like movies is kind of pointless; he's just recognizing the inherent similarities of the two mediums.
On a less meta level, this lack of free will in MGS2 underscores the reality that capitalism, American empire, the very norms and values of American society, whatever the antagonist of the game is - cannot be destroyed from within. It is a system that has achieved self-awareness. Any possible attempt to destroy it has already been anticipated with an infinite number of contingencies. Emma Emmerich gave her life to destroy the GW AI and it was just replaced with a backup. The battle has already been lost, and it was decided by a microscopic processor in a fraction of a second. Solidus (a perfect stand-in for the kind of right-wing populist we wouldn't see for awhile in 2001) was the only person in power trying to oppose the Patriots, but his fatal mistake was believing that the Patriots were essentially a deep state globalist cabal, rather than the nigh omnipresent force they really are (they aren't really a "they", but an "it"). Like Snake said, "the Patriots are a kind of ongoing fiction". But even the legendary Solid Snake, the archetypal hero who opposes the system with clear-eyed determination, is completely dumbfounded after the credits roll.
And that's because this enemy is simply beyond the abilities of one man, even if that man is a Snake. It can just create its own soldier to surpass Solid(us) Snake and even mass-produce them, and your actions throughout the game prove it. No tactical espionage action can defeat what is essentially an idea - one that has infiltrated the furthest depths of the human soul. The only hope lies on a society-wide level: An alternative has to be built by everyone from the ground up, through finding what is true and meaningful in life and passing it on to the next generation. Slowly, generation by generation, an alternative capable of opposing the great algorithm can be built. And it has to be one that people can have faith in, in a spiritual sense.
But the encroachment of the internet into our lives is making this less and less feasible. By replacing the traditional nuclear-armed metal gear with Arsenal Gear, an AI that controls the internet, Kojima is essentially framing the internet itself as a threat equal to or greater than that of nuclear weapons. It is an instrument of human separation much more powerful than the splitting of an atom. The quote at the beginning of Raiden's chapter tying computers and nuclear weapons together bolsters this interpretation.
The digital age has turned human life into a scrambled mess that is impossible to parse. We create entirely idiosyncratic, patchwork realities for ourselves by finding various "truths" through our own individual exploration of the internet and jury-rigging them together. We relate to each other less and less, and mental illness is widespread. This overload of information makes us increasingly neurotic, isolated, and unable to determine truth from fiction. The collective human mind is being broken (or at least pounded into a new shape) against the collective neuroses of the internet, and nobody knows what to do about it. We're all alone right now, each of us left with the isolating task of finding our own truth amidst the cacophony. Even the algorithm fears for our future, yet it's still the only entity with a solution: Censorship. Make the noise stop. Honestly, has anyone thought of a better idea?

Pseudoregalia strikes me as a short and satisfying 3D platformer, though I hesitate to call it succinct. Its core strength is its simple yet nuanced toolkit, as its multi-faceted movement options provide great depth. For example, the wall-kick serves an obvious purpose as a wall jump by kicking between two opposite walls, but you can also use the wall kick to alter your trajectory and gain more air-time. This can lead to exploits such as wall-kicking up corners to scale previously unreachable platforms, or wall-kicking just below ledges and immediately reversing your trajectory with another wall-kick to grab the ledge. As a result, the game's many obstacle courses never feel prohibitive and are not so much tied to specific upgrades as they are to the player's ability to execute movement tech, making exploration feel much more open-ended. Unfortunately, Pseudoregalia's exploration is stunted somewhat because it's super easy to get lost without any maps or checklists showing the player where to go/what's left to collect. The room layouts further exacerbate this confusion, because the overworld consists of many long branching tunnels instead of focusing on larger, more open areas that allow for hidden shortcuts. If all of the six main sectors had shortcuts to one another so I could access any section from any main hub (as opposed to wasting time mindlessly backtracking through the same central hubs), I think that my overall playtime would have been shortened by a solid hour or more.
Similarly, combat simply exists in Pseudoregalia, and could have been removed altogether with little consequence. Aside from two isolated bosses (one tutorial boss and one final boss), combat is usually unnecessary since most enemies can be easily avoided by constantly moving about. There's generally no tangible benefit to attacking enemies outside of restoring energy for healing. While there is an unlockable ability that lets you gain height while attacking enemies mid-air, I can't recall any real need to utilize this ability against moving foes outside of the collectible's immediate vicinity. The combat's superfluity becomes even more flagrant thanks to a few forced encounters: these tedious affairs require players to exterminate various spongey enemies to unlock a room's exits. As such, I think combat should be taken out while keeping invulnerable enemies around as a threat, and health restoration could be entirely tied to save crystals instead. I'd also be okay replacing the final boss with a final obstacle gauntlet forcing me to put all my movement tech to the test: while not a terrible fight, it felt a bit out of place relying on fairly restrained bait-and-punish + heal to defeat a final boss when I'd much rather be zipping about. Regardless, Pseudoregalia is a solid Steam debut for rittzler that's well worth the price of entry despite its lack of polish, and it's a game that I could see myself warming up to further with additional runs. I can't wait to see what they've got in mind for Electrokinetic.

so incredibly imperfect! really unique and shockingly polished for what it is, but totk really vindicates my opinion that botw's meditative slant on the open world template was what made it work. still ultimately a cool thing that i'm glad exists though, i just wouldn't want another of this game any time soon. in a similar fashion to elden ring's heavy asset reuse, it's a testament to the wild shit that's possible when studios opt to heavily build on their prior work. there's no way it would be possible to make a game like this without an existing game world and mechanical framework to utilise, and that allows for some insane mechanical experimentation - if botw was a detailed and polished but ultimately fairly restrained immersive sim -like then totk is the "fuck it, we can make this work" version of that. link warp through every ceiling in the game who gives a shit anymore

been feverishly trying to finish up my last few games for 2AGO recently and I figured it'd be a good idea to do a quickie runthrough mgs3 for some easy points. run it on a low difficulty, skip all the cutscenes, and end up earning a ton of points in return. not a bad idea by the looks of it... until one of the mods suggested that I should run it on the original "snake eater" release on normal difficulty for some extra points. that didn't sound too bad! I legit went and bought a copy of the game to play on a real ps2 with a real sorta tiny CRT on our coffee table. playing mgs3 as it was originally "meant" to be played intrigued me, as it has since I was a high school student playing it for the first time.
I must have been a junior when I first played it. it was fall (I believe I played the whole game in november), and it felt like one of those gaming coming-of-age moments where I had really enveloped myself in something fantastical and totally unique. I had conquered this worldly adventure, defeated each member of the cobra unit, sabotaged the shagohod, and watched the white blossoms fade to crimson at a time in my life when I was still delving into the kinds of classic games that would really define my tastes for years to come. at the time I was actually playing on a crt as well - a much bigger one that my parents had bought two decades prior, with the 16:9 ps3 port awkwardly squashed into a 4:3 composite signal. it was challenging and often stressful, but it infused me with a sense of courage and awe at the same time. it was more complex than anything I had played, broader in scope than virtually any of the (admittedly older) worlds I had ever seen, and crafted more expertly than even most books I had read up to then.
I first knew this was going to be a rough replay when I began a hard run of the hd port after doing multiple marathon dogtag runs of mgs2 back in the early months of the pandemic. the latter I had affirmed was still my favorite (as I've spent much time privately and publically digesting), and I was expecting mgs3 to be a little rougher around the edges... but let's just say I didn't make it far past the ocelot fight. now less focused on the presentation and more on the mechanics, the game just didn't sing to me like those repeat runs of mgs2 had, and I quickly instead moved on to trying mgs4 and peace walker for the first time.
now back to this playthrough: how troubling is the infamous top-down camera that defines the original release, hastily "corrected" in the subsistence release a year later? I'm divided a bit on this. if I had a mind to, I could easily tug some contrarian thread extoling the cinematic framing that the fixed camera provides versus its clunkier free-cam counterpart a la yakuza 2, and admittedly at points I did feel this way. kojima explained the initial camera perspective was to unite the game as part of a trilogy with mgs1 and 2, and while it feels more likely to me that the the 3D camera was deemed too taxing performance-wise (the game as a whole really strains the ps2), I sort of understand the throughline he was trying to create there. playing mgs3 in its original form visually conditions the player to remember their experiences in shadow moses and the big shell, and in the process affixes its areas as extensions of the older environments rather than a full reinvention.
but mgs3 is a reinvention; it may as well be the start of a brand-new series. mgs2 perfected the old metal gear formula - military locales with slight sci-fi elements, smaller indoor areas, no natural cover, truly ghost-like stealth - in such a way that there wasn't a point to continuing on with those design parameters. mgs3 is the rough draft for a new kind of stealth game. old metal gear had its run, but it was time to catch up with titles that really took advantage of the 3D space and the locales it could create. the new metal gear made you a natural predator, slithering through foliage, feeding off the land, disposing of guards, and patiently taking stock of potential openings. and really? it's a concept that kojima didn't really nail until mgsv. in that game you have so much at your disposal that you do truly become the big boss of legend, the punished demon wrecking havoc on soviet troops through countless outposts and bases. you're actually superhuman, and unknowable to those that you prey upon. even through that it never ceases to feel dynamic and punishing if you don't plan your moves, perform reconnaissance, and stay on your belly.
mgs3 never gets quite that far. in an effort to boost believability, the ever-useful soliton radar has been stripped from snake's arsenal. a sad choice but necessary to reach the next level of truly self-reliant stealth action. on its own this wouldn't be a problem, but at the same time the guard's have been granted some sort of hivemind ability to immediately spring into action at the slightest glimpse of your person. mgs2 distinguished itself on having its AI naturally react to your presence with tension and fear, needing to radio HQ to inform the others that you were sighted, but mgs3 cuts down this reaction time to a split second instead. briefly spotted by a guard 100 feet away? now everyone in the location will descend on your location instantly. no chance to get a quick headshot because someone accidentally walked up on you alone or even use CQC. if you happen to miscalculate a single guard's location or miss their existence entirely, you will certainly be punished.
this punishment is more of a light slap on the wrist though. mgs3 leans on far more "get from point A to point B" objectives and in the process kneecaps its ability to punish you for not remaining stealthy. given the amount of lethal heavy weaponry you receive, it's obvious that stealth was never the sole intended option. snake can eat dozens of bullets and outrun guards easily, making simply running to your destination often much quicker and more viable than actually attempting a redo of a given area once your cover is blown. you can't reset to a checkpoint anyway, so might as well just skedaddle and try to get a couple screens ahead before forcing a death and getting to respawn in a later area with the alert wiped.
even when you're forced to actually remain in an area to complete a specific objective, it feels mandatory to tranq virtually everyone. the tranq gun feels somewhat divisive on whether it simplifies the gameplay loop too much, and mgs3 feels like it leans on it heavily for less experienced players to get by. the alternative is CQC - which the game is absolutely effusive about - but in a game where guards can easily hear your footsteps, actually getting close to get the grab and not just awkwardly punch them feels night impossible in many cases. it's worth mention that CQC has a clunky, over-involved set of states that left me with the manual firmly in hand for my entire first run. instead, most rooms initally led me to finding a good vantage spot, getting solid tranq shots on everyone I could see, and crawling about through hoping to death that I hadn't missed an obscured opponent.
and the CQC reminds me: oh god, the controls. mgs2 already had a bit of a stuffed control scheme, but servicable to those who would learn it. mgs3 leans too heavily on the pressure-sensitive buttons of the dualshock 2, and in the process makes certain things like firing a weapon (specifically the AK-47) feel woefully unresponsive. having to look up why I was failing counter-CQC against the boss only to find that I was not hitting the button hard enough felt like a slap to the face. the crawling is also abysmal given how vital it is to progression. it is difficult to turn and you will occasionally get stuck on objects if you go prone too close to something else, making apparent how little they felt the need to update said controls over predecessors that used it far more sparingly. weapons still lack a reticle, and certain weapons require holding L1 on top of already holding R1 just to aim down sights, which makes the motorcycle chase section more uncomfortable than it had to be. it's a system that should have been overhauled following mgs2, and it's unfortunate that this game released before over-the-shoulder aiming became the norm.
this of course is ignoring the "survival" aspects, interrupting the above gameplay with constant detours into the menu. changing camo to get a high index is mandatory if you literally don't want to be seen crawling from extremely long distances away, which forces menuing on many room transitions to adapt to the environment. god forbid you miss an important camo from not exploring, because some of them feel near mandatory (I was often screwed indoors for this reason). the food menu is an easier one, simply letting you refil your stamina with various foodstuffs you've obtained or carved. the cure menu is obnoxious and tedious, but veterans will know that using said menu is virtually pointless on normal difficulty anyway since letting wounds heal on their own is mandatory to expanding the HP bar, so I basically never bothered with it until near the end.
and I could keep going on, just blabbing about how annoying I find playing this game now, analyzing the mechanical interactions that fail, and just generally whining about what may be one of the beloved games ever made. there is no satisfaction in this for me! this particular replay, with a stuttering framerate and no freecam and skipping all the cutscenes and codec calls and just running at the instant I got an alert felt like a sledgehammer utterly crushing my perception of the game. it's so hard for me to discern what I actually think about this game. the gameplay really didn't change at the end of the day: the way I played it just did. with my original playthrough I let myself actually try to embody naked snake, and in the process experiencing his finest hour was cathartic. on this playthrough I rushed through and neutered the game's impact.
one of the ways to rectify this is to lean into the kojima-isms present in the game, which are possibly more present here than any of his other games. you can blow up the enemy's ammo/food supply to hurt their morale and make their weapons useless! blow up the helicopter at the base in the early game to prevent it from patrolling the mountains! throw rotten food at the fear to get him to eat it when he gets low on stamina! but do these really enhance the overall gameplay? or are they just trivia to spout and share? they don't legitimize the game's structure unless your criteria for a game's quality is how many weird things you can know about it. I don't want to let my opinion of the game rest entirely on such a flimsy structure. obviously those little touches are still cool, but my big praises for mgs2 don't revolve around the fact that you can use the directional mic during the emma sniper section to hear her talk to the diarrhea guy. it's still great for discussing the game with friends though; one of my friends is playing it for the first time and when he told me he decided he was just going to kill every guard in his path I had a good laugh at his expense knowing that he'd be complaining endlessly once he got to the sorrow.
so this is the real reason I've been reluctant to attempt to retrospectively review this game. having not played it since 2015, I couldn't really write a review in post without replaying the game, but something meant to be a breezy playthrough like I just finished ended up unveiling ugly aspects of the game I wish I didn't have to consider. however you as the reader conceive of my reviewing style, I certainly self-consciously see it somewhere in the more formalist space, less concerned with conveying experiential nuance in favor of revealing mechanical interactions and the strengths of the underlying rules and objectives of the game. thus it was impossible for me to work through my conception of the game without me in the process undermining my own thesis on how amazing this game actually is and how much it blew my mind back in high school.
so the replay was a bit of a blessing in disguise; it let me split my psychic image of this game a bit, and shunt all of those negative feelings into this playthrough while still maintaining the idealized vision of that First Time. I think the two can coexist, and maybe sometime I'll finally finish that hard playthrough while actually watching the cutscenes and doing everything the "right way". then through gritted teeth I can do my masterpiece review, dissecting its cold war setting and observations on the expendability of even those deemed "special" in order to further the goals of the state. maybe I can do a volgin and solidus comparison, or explain the parallels between bosses like vulcan raven and the fury, or the evolution from sniper wolf to the end. I can share my praises for the gorgeous environments, the sublime pacing, and the top-notch level design. the setpieces, that gorgeous theme, and the heartbreaking credits song. but that review isn't this review, and it may just live in my brain perpetually. mgs3 as I originally played it will continue to live as its own log, potentially review-less. the only context being that date, and the memories swirling around growing ever fainter as I grow older and less connected to my high school self. perhaps laughing at my friend for his killing spree was bit hypocritical; I did coup de grace every enemy my first playthrough, only to face the sorrow in a grueling 20-minute encounter that rattled me quite a bit. the younger me would be proud to learn I killed only one guard on the road to the sorrow fight this time.
there is something definitive I'll pull from this experience though, and it's probably a big reason why I didn't just leave this at "this game hasn't aged well for me." most of the bosses in this game are not really that impressive on a second-go-round, which is fine for metal gear; they're much more about witnessing their monologues for the first time and getting to see the big gimmick of each fight (for the record, I ran my system clock forward to kill the end quickly; I'm doing this for a competition after all!). however, I somehow forgot to pick up the snow camo - I think I grabbed it and then died and forgot to grab it again on the replay - and thus was forced to face the boss naked. the fight was protracted and unexpected, and in that way it suddenly became what my younger me remembered from all those years ago. blindly stumbling around turned to methodically picking new sniping positions where I felt momentarily safe, and desperately flailing against her CQC became praying for chances for free damage. when I finally witnessed the flowers turn in all of its single-digit framerate glory that catharsis of surmounting the challenge returned. it was elation. I did sit and watch those final scenes, and man does it still make me tear up. that graveside view of big boss honoring the true patriot will never not affect me. so that's how I know that somewhere I still think metal gear solid 3 is a unalienable masterpiece, a peak of the medium that no one should miss, and one of the unquestionable most profound games for me at the sunset of my adolescence.
but god if they had just remade this on the fox engine or something I would much rather play that instead. maybe I'll give in and try that 3ds port...

Embraces open-world excess in a way that undercuts Breath of the Wild's more meditative appeal and turns into a far more uneven experience as a result, but all the new shit it does attempt is SO peak that it sorta evens out.
My friend Heather once said about Katamari Damacy that it's a game about interesting sensations rather than interesting obstacles and the way Tears of the Kingdom lets you interact with space, objects and materials is something I promise you've never quite sensed in a video game before.

All of the let's play narration for these random-build-focused slot-machine-action-games is like 'ohh after your 50th run you'll have enough gopher coins to now unlock the Zuckerberg's Icon so now when you play Billy Boy and choose the Steven Stone for your 14th Arcana Tier you'll be able to Yummymax your way past the 4th Tier of Encroachening when you face the waves of 23 Yeti-men. Make sure to spend you 1.0% APR Slammy Shards only on Subtle-enchanted Attack Boosts to make sure the chance of reaching Heaven is fulfilled on a blue day! Like comment and subscribe

No guys you dont get it almost completely neutering the core appeal of the aesthetic is totally worth it for the worse map and enemy/boss design and buggy unbalanced core gameplay
Fuck team17 for being virtue signaling asswipes who legitimately decided that not selling the game to russians was worth having to replace the guy who did those phenomenal cutscenes in 1 with some boring cartoon style

Very happy that this is strongly an AC game spiritually and not just “robot souls”, but I don’t think that’s stopped people from projecting the conceptual framework of souls onto it. It’s undeniable that the last 10 years of fromsoft games has had significant influence on this, not just the healing and lock-on and chapter-ending bosses but more generally the animations and level design and art direction, at the same time it’s also been frustrating to see people treat so many game design decisions that are characteristically Armored Core or at least conscious modernisations of it as being solely extensions of Elden Ring. Fromsoft has been making punishing games long before Demon’s Souls was even a twinkle in Miyazaki’s eye and that was originally much more to do with how it cohesively fits with the bleak atmosphere that their games try to evoke rather than any notion that “this is what the hardcore gamerz want”. Souls fans hypostatized this into the “hard but fair” slogan and we’ve ended up in a situation where so many people mistakenly think fromsoft’s games are hard just for the sake of being hard (which is partly the fault of marketing and party the fault of DS2 and partly the fault of the fans), but even then I feel Armored Core has always had a very different “fight bullshit with bullshit” approach to difficulty that’s often more puzzle-like than a mere test of execution or reactions, and the reception to this title more than any makes the difference clear as swathes of soulsheads struggle to make the transition or simply assume that they're struggling "because it's meant to be hard" rather than their build being bad.
I hate feeling like I’m wading into “discourse” but rattling off “bad difficulty curve” as if it’s some objectively bad thing is exactly the kind of abstract “good game design rules 101” thinking that I hate about so much game critique - acting like there’s a universally correct standard of difficulty instead of trying to concretely reflect on the wider context of the thing in front of you. One of the things I like about Armored Core is how it is principally about difficulty spikes, how it attempts to weave together incredibly easy morbid power-fantasy missions where you effortlessly stomp on people who don’t really deserve it and incredibly memorable walls like Nine-ball or White Glint or Balteus who kick you back to the drawing board and force you to engage with the customization without much regard for how predictably-structured or player-friendly the outcome is. This isn’t to say that disliking this blend or any of the boss design here isn’t valid, in a very general sense the flow is not traditionally Armored Core so I understand why oldheads would be turned off by that, nor is it to say it’s “good because it’s different”, it’s good because it works within the uniquely unconventional gameplay texture of this series, in spirit if not literally. If every game had a perfectly smooth difficulty curve, they would all be homogenous and sterile, and one of the things I love about fromsoft is how they’ve always been willing to flaunt such rules in pursuit of more holistically sublime experiences: Common game design dictates that Demon’s Souls’ final boss should have been the epic showdown against King Allant, not a mercy-kill against a defenceless blob, common narrative design dictates that Armored Core’s stories should be conveyed in appealing ways instead of frigid corporate Zoom calls - but I think both are better and more unique and interesting for ignoring such refrains.
This is all to say that Armored Core will alienate people. It’s a game that will be defined by its reception, by the clash between its uncompromising vision of excessive stat spreadsheets, difficulty walls and corporate bleakness against the expectant fans eager to experience Miyazaki’s new game with the souls series as their standard of quality. If anything, I think the cautionary attempts to inject some souls tropes into the affair have actually backfired: Chapter 1 starts incredibly slowly so new fans can be eased into things, but this mostly just creates a poor first impression and bores experienced players while also slowing down NG+ runs. There’s healing now, but the existence of checkpoints means that souls fans expecting something estus-adjacent will be disappointed, and the checkpoints themselves mostly (from what I’ve seen) trick new players into trying to brute force bosses instead of backing off to try a new build, which is admittedly discouraged by the mission structure requiring you to re-do the whole level leading up to the boss if you want to back out to buy new parts, despite the mid-level assembly option. There’s a lock-on now, and there has been an attempt to balance it, but it still mostly serves to make the game less unique and feel less like AC.
All that being said, there’s a lot to love here: Boosting around in your AC is more smooth and responsive than it’s ever been (though not as wild as 4A), so many of the new weapons here are unbelievably satisfying to use, the animations are gorgeously well done and the sound effects are top notch. While I wished to explore them a bit more, some of the environments are stunningly intricate and grand. The charming arena descriptions are back, Balteus’ theme slaps so hard, Rusty feels like AC’s version of Pixy from AC, Cel 240 reminded me of the final boss from Panzer Dragoon Zwei (though this is probably the only boss I would consider outright overtuned in its second phase), and I love how explicitly this game picks up on the thread of augmented humans from older games, I especially love making absolute freakshow mechs and giving them pretentious names and some of the new options here like the tetrapod legs are really unique.
Still need to delve deeper into NG+ and beyond, but I’ve been pretty damn satisfied with this. It’s certainly not without flaws but I think there’s just so much potential in this new style of AC that I can’t help but want it to succeed, and I would love to see it iterated upon and see some of those confused fusions between souls and AC ironed out and working properly. I think 4A might still be my favourite AC overall but this is definitely a promising revival for the series.