62 Reviews liked by chortles
Hyper Light Drifter
I have been playing video games since before I can remember. I've played so many types of games from all different genres, consoles, companies, directors, and regions. I have no idea what I'm really saying, but I guess sometimes it feels like I've experienced it all; there are so many repeated ideas and mechanics, and I've become so literate in games, so knowledgable about how they work that it gets harder and harder for me to be impressed, harder and harder to feel anything.
Outer Wilds is an anomaly.
No game I have ever played has ever made me feel genuine awe the way Outer Wilds did. The natural wonders of this solar system are indescribable; literally watching gravity in action on the hourglass twins, experiencing the terror of floating past gigantic space anglerfish, delving into the deepest depths of Giant's Deep. You have never seen a sunrise until you've seen a sunrise on Brittle Hollow. There are too many to name, and none that I dare spoil, but I spent the majority of the game excited to wake up and experience what else was out there. It's like a mix of the addictive exploration of Breath of the Wild, the unrelenting atmosphere of Dark Souls, and intriguing mystery of Ghost Trick.
But the more I played, the more of the universe I discovered and the more of the Nomai's secrets that I uncovered, the more that awe turned into hopelessness. The entire solar system is open to you from the very beginning of the game, and the only barriers to progression is your knowledge of the universe and your knowledge of how the game's mechanics work, both of which you must uncover for yourself. And while the drive to learn more kept me hooked for the first 2/3s of the game, the last 1/3 was filled with frustrations at my own failures and lack of answers. With every supernova, it sunk in more and more that I would never be able to escape death. By mere chance, I was fated to be stuck reliving the same 22 minutes over and over again, and no matter what I did, what I learned, or where I went, that supernova would consume me every time, assuming I didn't die by much more tragic means beforehand.
Outer Wilds is the first game since Nier: Automata to make me ask genuine philosophical and theological questions outside the context of the game. Why bother doing anything if I'm fated to die in 22 minutes? Holy shit, how is creation this amazing? Why make an effort to learn more when I know I'm powerless to change my fate, and even if I were, there are dangers in this universe that are greater than I ever could've imagined? Wow, how can a star exploding and wiping out all life be this beautiful? How do I accept the fact that life has become an inescapable prison? Why does life seem like it's worth living when I hear this gorgeous music, and when the music reminds me that there are other people out there making discoveries just like me?
Outer Wilds' openendedness is a double-edged sword, simultaneously encouraging the player to see more, but also beating them down by forcing the player to save the entire universe completely on their own. What a daunting task, and I don't think I've ever played a game (and may not ever play a game again) that is so effective in fulfilling it's intended purpose. My thoughts may change about the experience as a whole with time, but I will never stop thinking about it.
Dark Souls III
Cancel me if you so desire, FromSoft fans, but I have to speak the truth: this is the best Dark Souls game by a significant margin. In terms of world design, bosses, and especially gamefeel, this game is a cut above both 1 and 2. Though it's often described as the true sequel to Dark Souls, 3 departs from (and adds to) the lore and themes of the original to a far greater extent than 2, and many of its characters and levels feel like responses to the first game (most obviously Aldrich's Anor Londo), rather than simply remixing and rehashing the same themes. The two DLCs add more phenomenal bosses to the game, and the "final boss" of the Ringed City is perhaps my favorite in any game, and the perfect conclusion to the franchise. DS3 was unfairly dismissed at its initial release by some hardcore Souls fans. If you're one of them, please give this game another chance. Second only to Bloodborne in the FromSoft pantheon.
I admittedly grumbled when I first saw that all too familiar notebook-writing conjuring itself over the scenery of the opening walk through the garden. In the vein of previous titles, such as Gone Home and What Remains of Edith Finch, Annapurna Interactive return to telling sad stories, about annoyingly twee young people, through mind-bending environments that abstract their changing mental states.
The relationship narrative here is simple but painfully typical of this sort of game. It was only last month PS Plus gave us Concrete Genie, another smug game about sketching hipsters, ugh.
That said, it works just fine, syncing emotionally the enjoyable (and sometimes hard?) puzzle-solving gameplay.
I was hesitant to buy this on release for several reasons—promotional material that made it look like a grimdark misery fest, notorious working conditions at Naughty Dog, the usual ignorant gamer outrage fueled by echo chambers and incoherent YouTube rants masquerading as critique—but the first game was important enough to me in 2013 that I legitimately wanted to see how Joel and Ellie's story would play out, so when Part 2 finally went on sale, I bit the bullet and somehow managed to free up 90 GB on my PS4 to install this beast. Anyhow, what follows is by no means a formal review and more of an assortment of quick thoughts on the game at hand.
Firstly, it goes without saying that on a technical level, this is every bit as spectacular as I was led to expect. The meticulous attention to detail, the stunning performances and animation work, the breathtaking set pieces, the tangibility of the game world, the almost complete lack of performance issues even on my humble PS4 Slim (I experienced one crash, one glitch, and only two areas with notable frame rate drops over my 20+ hour playthrough), all of this points to a developer staunchly committed to its premier spot at the industry's technical frontier. Unfortunately, this perfectionism comes at a human price, and I would have gladly waited three more years for this sequel if it had avoided the whole crunch issue. I'm not happy about rewarding this kind of work culture and increasing the dividends of Sony's shareholders, but I'm also skeptical of the idea of voting with your wallet and think that exploitative labour conditions need broad structural change more than my individual consumer choice. (That said, I don't view the sentiment that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism as a get out of jail free card to be a reckless consumer, I just think there are more impactful choices I can make.)
Moving on to the narrative, let me start by saying that everything related to Joel here was executed in brilliant and entirely consequential fashion, and that everyone of the 55k clowns who have signed that laughable petition for Sony to change this game's narrative from the ground up is a spoiled baby who wants nothing but lazy and toothless fan service. The most important thing a sequel can do is evolve past the first installment while also meaningfully reflecting back on it, and this is exactly what Part 2 is doing. There is certainly a lot of valuable, thoughtful criticism that can be leveled against this game, but the inane bullshit that Gamers (TM) will regurgitate to avoid having to engage with anything outside their tiny comfort zone only serves to drown out those legitimate criticisms. I know that mocking Gamers (TM) is low-hanging fruit, but jeez, this has to stop, this art form deserves so much better than that.
Anyway. On the level of a realistically told, uncompromising character drama and mood piece in a post-apocalyptic setting, both parts in this series are honestly about as good as it gets. Part 2 is certainly more flawed than the original, but this comes with the territory of being also a much more ambitious work, and at the end of the day, I am tempted to take ambition that largely succeeds over a shorter and tighter package, even if the former carries some uncomfortable flaws with it. TLOU2 is certainly not a literary masterpiece or anything, but it definitely is a lot more nuanced and layered than the countless online caricatures of this being a simplistic "violence is bad!!" morality tale. Granted, director Neil Druckmann talks a lot in interviews about how this game's central themes revolve around "cycles of violence", but Naughty Dog is known to be a highly collaborative studio with significant artistic autonomy granted to its developers, who often bring their own ideas to the table. Besides, although I'm someone who is considerate of authorial intent, I don't let it dictate my own experience with any given text, and to me, the whole cycle of violence thing feels more like a vehicle to drive home what is really at the heart of this sequel: the question of whether Ellie can forgive Joel for his lie at the end of part one. The ending makes this particularly clear, and when viewed from this lens, I started to gain a deeper understanding of Ellie as a character and why she made a certain choice in the final act of the game that I'm sure most people (including me) found baffling at first sight. (Not to downplay Abby's role in this game, whose section is arguably even stronger than Ellie's first half, but I don't feel compelled to write anything about Abby right now. No doubt a daring choice from Naughty Dog and one that largely paid off.)
So, while I think the character drama here is excellent, the real problem with this game lies more in the political subtext that this drama is embedded in. There is a great Vice article examining this game's problematic handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in more detail. There are few things I appreciate more than the ability to examine complicated issues with genuine nuance and perspective, but I always have to roll my eyes when such an attempt at nuance reduces to a centrist "both sides bad" position, and this game is no exception with regard to its depiction of its two rival factions. However, while significant enough to be impossible to ignore, this aspect of the game still felt more like a side show to the character and mood-driven core of the game, which is why its impact on my overall reception is somewhat measured. Moreover, the lazy moral equivalence is largely limited to the aforementioned political embedding, whereas the juxtaposition between Ellie and Abby is definitely more principled than that. While initially both characters share a lot of similarities, their paths notably diverge in a way that makes it clear which path is preferable.
As for being a supposedly cynical, grimdark misery fest, here the game actually positively surprised me as well. While I'm not a fan of monolithically miserable works where characters suffer just for the sake of suffering (one thing I was very apprehensive about ever since I saw the first footage of TLOU2), I do think that a bleak narrative tone and atmosphere can have certain cathartic and therapeutic qualities under the right conditions. This game does indeed largely fulfill those conditions, as I do think it uses its overwhelming bleakness not as an end in itself but to foster empathy and humanity in a sincere fashion, plus it features just enough genuinely touching and earnest character moments to avoid being suffocatingly grim.
Another common criticism is that TLOU2 is a heavy-handed attempt at shaming the player for indulging in video game violence, but this indicates a lack of understanding of the different types of interactive protagonists that are possible in this medium, which I would roughly categorize as player-as-author and player-as-actor. Games that belong in the former category typically feature branching narratives and/or protagonists with sparse writing in order to let the player project their own fantasies and moral ideals (or vices) onto the character. However, the games in The Last of Us series belong firmly in the second category, telling linear (in terms of player choice) narratives with a fixed, canonical cast of characters, akin to traditional narrative media. Yes, you can do amazing things with player agency and interactivity that are not possible in film and literature, but not every game has to do that. If a developer wants to make a mechanically straightforward stealth TPS interspersed with absurdly high quality cinematics and a heavy focus on written characters, by all means, they should go for it. But this also means that this is very much Ellie's story (and Joel's, and Abby's), not the player's. So, no, the game is not trying to shame you for enjoying its very own gameplay (which is excellent) and the virtual violence that comes with it; it is critiquing its characters for the real violence they inflict in the fictional universe they inhabit (and whether there is value in that depends entirely on what the larger narrative wants to achieve). This has always been my understanding of games like The Last of Us, and accordingly at no point in my playthrough did it feel like the game was using its interactivity to question my moral character. This is something for each one of us to investigate for ourselves while reflecting on the story just witnessed, not from the act of playing it. Give me a stealth shooter in a different context and I am likely to consider a pacifist route for my playthrough. In this case, however, I was naturally compelled to play in-character as Ellie and go on a violent murder spree, because that's the story being told here, and I wanted to stay true to it and see where it leads.
I don't have much to say about the LGBTQ representation in this game; it certainly leaves room for improvement (with one particularly questionable narrative choice), but overall I'd still consider it a step in the right direction and a significant plus for the game. I don't see how unequivocal condemnation here is anything other than an attempt to keep up with this game's immense hype and toxic discourse. Yes, throughout fiction there is a long history of queer characters being condemned to horrible fates for being queer, but don't confuse the grimness of the world of The Last of Us with a continuation of that history. There is one (out of three) significant LGBTQ characters here who plays way too heavily into that trope, but the character itself is still written in a meaningful and reasonably layered way, not to mention that the final destination is a resolutely positive and affirmative one.
The pacing gets a lot flak, which is not entirely unjustified. Mechanically the game is super tight, but the core gameplay loop is indeed very repetitive and occupies a large chunk of the total play time. I still largely enjoyed the gameplay sequences because the game really succeeded in immersing me in its post-apocalyptic atmosphere and because I largely appreciated the meticulous level design, but even so I think this game could have been about five hours shorter (others might argue for ten hours).
Last but not least, Naughty Dog really went above and beyond in terms of accessibility options here, which is also covered in Game Maker's Toolkit excellent 2020 accessibility retrospective. This was actually the first time I realized that I could use some of these options myself for quality of life improvements, so I disabled all button mashing quick time events because that shit fucking sucks. Credit where credit is due, here Naughty Dog really did an unambiguously great job, raising the bar in a way that ought to become an industry standard (especially in countries that still lag behind in this area, such as Japan, which is a damn shame because they obviously make some of the best games).
I don't need a closing paragraph since this is not a formal review, but the tl;dr boils down to this: TLOU2 is a technical masterpiece and ambitious character drama that gets a lot of things right as a sequel to the original while also being bold enough to explore new territory, though it must be noted that the game is tainted with bad political subtext, moderate pacing issues and some mixed but still largely positive and valuable LGBTQ representation. Also, Gamers are babies, more news at eleven.
It's a step up from the first game in enemies and bosses and the combat got some nice improvements, but I found myself still not caring about it as much as I thought I would. Probably also cause it doesn't really fix the things that annoyed me about the first game like the obnoxious loot system or how fugly its aesthetics are with encounter/level design that left me feeling uninterested. Great combat system, but the stuff outside that combat system I don't really care for that much.
The Souls games are, quite simply, arrogant.
Even in this first entry, the brutal difficulty and lack of concern for explaining the behaviours of each trivial item and character "tendency" go without saying.
As you spend hours, maybe days, gritting your teeth and grinding through a single annoying foe, you are met not with a 'well done' but rather a 'fuck you' - often in the size of a dragon.
So why is it so good? Is it stockholm syndrome? Yes, maybe.
It could very well be to do with its strength as an RPG, a more linear one than most. As with most games in the genre, your gameplay benefits from taking risks, sometimes losing it all, exploring every route for secret items and siding with the right allies. Before long, or perhaps shortly after, you will find JUST the right tools to overcome a small bit at the time. As you slowly stack in souls and stats, things become easier. To put simply, I've never felt more powerful than when I wiped out the goddamn Grim Reaper himself with the swing of a big old sword, or when I gave the plague to a room of pathetic soldiers with the swipe of a magic wand. Moments such as these kept me coming back.
It also certainly helps that the world design is simply irresistible, particularly in this stunning reimagining. From the red heat-illuminated tunnels to the filthy, oozing chasms in the dark, the worlds radiate life beyond even their immaculately vivid creatures. It might be a stretch for some players, but it makes dying and revisiting these breathtaking sights all the more bearable!
And wow, why did no one tell me how goddamn scary this game can? My body shivered in abject terror at my first sightings of those man-centipedes; and what the HELL are those vile jellyfish things in the Swamp of Sorrow? Ugh!
As I start a New Game+ after an uncertain anti-climax of an ending, my relationship with the game is still a complicated sado-masochistic one, but certainly one I'm keeping strong.
I was not entirely sure what to expect from Warrior Within considering I was told it went in a different direction from Sands of Time. It def makes some changes that I’m not all happy about, but I still think it is very much worth trying out.
To start with the polarizing part of it, the presentation change just stinks of mid 2000’s edgelord vibes from the eyeliner to the gratuitous fetishization of its female characters. It definitely put a horrible taste in my mouth starting out especially when most of the lines from the Prince are just pure pain to listen to, tho he does mostly shut the fuck up. The story here has the Prince facing the consequences of his actions at the end of Sands of Time and he is on a journey to defy his fate. While it does give some credence to a change of tone, what is here has been off the rails. Honestly the edgy tone is enough to understandably push people away, which is a shame cause the gameplay changes I was way more fascinated in.
The biggest change was in the combat. It’s unquestionably a step up from Sands of Time thanks to actually giving the player options, but stuff like improved hit sounds and enemy reactions to swings helps a lot on a kinesthetic level even if the animations aren’t really improved much at all. You are given more options to abuse the environment to you advantage for attacks which can work for either evasive action or a way to initiate a fight. It’s a neat way that the platforming and the combat blend together that I don’t see in other games. The Prince also has strings with some that can work ok as a crowd control option to keep enemies in stun, dual wielding with weapons you pick up even letting you throw weapons to use as a ranged option, and even a throw which can work for ring outs or as a crowd control move as it can knock down other foes. While I really do appreciate having an actual toolset now, the combat still feels like it misses its potential.
The major weakness to the combat here is the enemy design being extremely poor. The roster here has very one-dimensional attack patterns and don’t really have much of a difference to them at all. This leads to enemy mixes not really having any effect on how you use your tools which is unfortunate as it can be surprisingly fun even with its simplicity. Thankfully the boss fights mostly pick up the slack.
Outside the first boss being nothing much of note, I was surprised at the competency in their design here. They have a decent set of attacks to threaten the player well as I felt most in danger of dying in these fights than I did in normal enemy encounters. The final boss of the good ending in particular is my personal favorite. Not only has the combat been generally improved, but the platforming is also even better.
Platforming sections in Warrior Within are a bit more demanding as the layouts are far more perilous. It adds a few new elements here and there to spice it up more such as ropes which add a fresh timing challenge for the sections it gets used in as you traverse the castle.
I ended up being surprised that the castle layout went in a more metroidvaniaish layout. While I generally do think that traversing it in the platforming is fun, I don’t particularly like that I ended up backtracking a lot for the good ending since it is laid out as a bunch of linear sublevels. And the time travelling only amplifies the problem further.
Overall, while it makes some very controversial changes I think Warrior Within is a good game worth playing. It has interesting combat ideas, better platforming, and some fun boss battles that even in spite being caked in a tone change that veered off the rails, I found to be well worth my time to play.
My revisit of this game has been pretty incredible for how much it hits me more and how well it holds up today. Its aesthetic beauty, simplicity, and intimate nonverbal systems leaves a powerful impression of how minimalism in games can be handled. The greatest thing about it is that the memories of that journey are entirely unique to just that playthrough alone as only games can create such systems for this experience.
Hyper Light Drifter
So I decided to give this game a replay after a few years to see how I felt about it. The aesthetics are still incredibly top notch to me and steal the show. From the amazing pixel art to the soundtrack that effortlessly fits the mood for gameplay beats. Gameplaywise I find it to be simple with a neat idea. The game has melee attacks be the way to recharge your ranged attacks and said ranged attacks put you in place to aim and fire. This along with some environmental hazards managed to get solid mileage out of simple mechanics with an emphasis on smart positioning to survive especially as you can die quickly if not careful. I think it could have gone for more complexity to it, but I found it enjoyable enough for my playthrough. The attempt to tell its narrative entirely by visuals with no dialogue is noble and ambitious, but I found myself not feeling that emotionally invested in it thematically as I thought it would be. You get a definite sense of general decay of the world around you with the remnants of titans and collapsed civilization and the dark figure hunting you representing the drifter's encounter with his own decay, but I feel as tho the game could have gotten way more mileage using stronger symbolism even tying in lead dev's health issues in a more impactful way through this. So in the end I found myself enjoying the game again, but left feeling like it could have been something more. Hopefully Solar Ash ends up delivering for Heart Machine as I am looking forward to what they have in store with it.
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