no schmovement + linear + cringe + ratio
Prime takes its series to new heights in atmosphere, environmental storytelling and polish, but also sacrifices a little too much of Super Metroid's sweaty energy and genius level design structure for my tastes. Morphballing over bumpy terrain, side-stepping around Space Pirates and double jumping between platforms is fun, but is it as fun as it could be when every room is a tiny self-contained box? It sucks ass how you can get the Ice Beam, see eight Ice Beam doors on your map and then realize that seven of them are dead ends.
The wide-eyed little gamer in me hopes Retro will take inspiration from more loosey-goosey schmovement sandbox FPS games like Quake, Titanfall 2 or Halo Infinite for Prime 4. As it stands though, I can appreciate this more rigid Ocarina of Time-style take on Metroid for what it is!
As modern retro-styled 2D platformers go, Steel Assault unfortunately doesn’t offer many compelling reasons to really sink your teeth into it. You can aim your Castlevania electro whip in eight directions, do non-committal double jumps and perform low-profile slides with cooldowns in-between to squeeze through attacks/gaps and close short distances. There aren’t any more intricate enemy interactions outside of just dealing damage to them, like bouncing off of heads in Shovel Knight for example, and power-ups (a shield and a buff to your whip) present linear improvements to your character that you don’t have to meaningfully change your strategy around, like you would in Castlevania. It feels odd how your character will often ignore those cooldowns I mentioned earlier and do consecutive slides in cutscenes, highlighting just how little fun there is to be had with the mechanics outside of what the game strictly intends for you to do.
Steel Assault dedicates its third action button to this zip-line you can launch at any time and hook between adjacent surfaces. You can probably imagine that that makes it a mostly situational gimmick: if you run into applicable geometry, the game will either specifically expect you to use the zip-line to progress, or it’s a random corner in the level design where it serves no purpose. Again, it feels odd how many obvious-seeming opportunities weren’t taken: you can’t hook into basic enemies, and there’s at least one boss where you’d expect to be able to position it between its gigantic hands, only to be disappointed. Its one universal function is to buy yourself extra air-time when not aiming at a surface, but a majority of the enemy patterns are timed with this in mind as well, so it doesn’t exactly lead to more spontaneous gameplay either. It honestly wasn’t until the final boss that Steel Assault started to scratch the surface of its rigid barebones mechanics, where the ground suddenly becomes inaccessible and you have to shift the position of your zip-line at a moment’s notice to dodge attacks.
If you subscribe to the idea that visuals on their own give a game value, Steel Assault’s eye-watering excess of chunky pixel art will please to some extent, but even that raw spectacle was diminished in my experience with how poorly the developers chose to present it. The game’s default “CRT filter” comes not in the form of horizontal consumer television or PVM scanlines, but a strange LCD grid with wide gaps between vertical lines. It’s nonsensical when the in-game pixels are all square, and it’s misaligned with the art enough that it creates a messy impression in motion. It’s even stranger with the added bilinear filtering on top, which obviously isn’t what games look like on an LCD, but also doesn’t match Steel Assault’s art style, since it mostly doesn’t rely on dithering (which would be used to create the impression of smoother blending and shades on a CRT.) It’s preferable to turn all that stuff off, but even then the final output is treated strangely (my guess is there’s some artificial over-sharpening and saturation going on that makes the whole image look grainy.)
As nitpicky as that last paragraph was, I’m sure the developers had their heart in the right place, but I ultimately can’t help but think of the following Matthewmatosis quote as I unpack Steel Asssault: the amount of effort put into something doesn’t necessarily determine its quality.
RESIDENT EVIL - THE MOVIE: THE VIDEO GAME, FEATURING:
- THE VILLAGE (watered-down baby-version of RE4)
- THE CASTLE (watered-down baby-version of REmake)
- THE SWAMP (you walk over some planks and do Uncharted jumps aka MOVIE)
- THE DOLL HOUSE (actually just a movie)
- THE FACTORY (kinda ass but unironically has the highest density of uninterrupted gameplay)
I did a more rambly and detailed review on my YouTube: https://youtu.be/_B-ACzf5ZcA
I'm probably stating the obvious opening my review this way, but whether or not Metroid is truly BACK with Dread depends entirely on what you look for in the series. It's Samus, it's caverns, it's bombing random blocks, but is it intricate world-design and schmovy survival action? Ehhhh.
Mechanically, Dread picks up where Samus Returns left off, which itself picked up where Fusion and Zero Mission left off more than 15 years ago. Samus snaps onto ledges, automatically curls up into a ball when you approach tunnels, accelerates and decelerates immediately and falls like a rock. For the average person, the adjectives that will come to mind when comparing these controls to the "old" and "clunky" Super Metroid are likely "tight" and "slick" and "modern."
I find it interesting to think about Dread in this context, because it illuminates how we often cling to obvious answers for why certain games are the way they are, instead of simply looking at the experience for what it is. And the experience Super Metroid provided was to let the level design essentially act as a blank canvas for your consistent, non-arbitrary moveset. The tiniest bit of wall can still be kicked off of, and the morphball lets you squeeze through whatever gap you feel you should be able to, because so little of Zebes's geometry was put in place specifically to require the use of individual movement mechanics. One of Super's most famous skips involves barely rolling under the metal gate in Brinstar just before it shuts, which works not because it's a set piece specifically crafted for the morphball, but because the collision boxes are so generalized and speed is retained so naturally.
Look at Zero Mission meanwhile and if you try to wall-jump off of a small platform at a low angle, you won't be able to, because for as saucy as its movement tech may look, the game still expects you to contend with its rigid ledge grabs and pull yourself into arbitrarily positioned morph ball tunnels. All the way back in 2004, we were already playing a Metroid game where speedruns end up hinging more on deliberately hidden shortcuts in the level design, rather than deep exploitable movement tech à la Super.
And don't misunderstand; it is cool that these newer Metroids try to specifically cater to that kind of player mentality. But it's also at least a little mistrustful toward those same players, to expect them to learn all these incredibly specific ways the level design can be broken, rather than hand them a deep set of movement mechanics and let them look at any given part of the game world and say "hmm yeah I can probably do that." If anything, these games have to rely on deliberate speedrun shortcuts because the mechanics on their own give you so little to work with.
Dread's exact place in this debate is confusing, as it's already proving to have far more speedrunning tricks up its sleeve than I personally expected. Originally I was going to go off on how dumb it is that the game bars you from using your power bombs if you find them early, how that proves that the game doesn't really work in a systemic fashion (like Super Metroid, where pick-ups function completely independently of each other within the game's logic,) blah blah blah.
Clearly though, a lot of the skips we're seeing in this early stage of Dread's life are simply the result of clever hitbox manipulation and routing. With how many power-ups come as direct rewards for completing set pieces and killing bosses, I sincerely didn't expect people to reach sub-two-hour playtimes within mere weeks of Dread's release; my expectation was that Dread would be too reliant on tight event triggers. For what it is, it's impressive the game doesn't just come apart at the seams when you break its sequence, and it would be short-sighted to dismiss Dread purely based off that earlier power bomb example.
That said, that fundamental philosophical difference between Dread and a game like Super is still deeply felt in every fiber of the experience. Dread is ultimately still a game that tries to restrict you at every turn, with its rigid wall-jump arcs and doors that conveniently lock behind you even when you're closing in on the final boss already. You can go into either experience with a solid grasp of Samus's movement, but no knowledge of specific level design skips, and Super will feel far more spontaneous and freeing than its 2021 successor; that sense of "yeah I can probably do that" is never coming back. And I feel this says a lot about MercurySteam's priorities with Dread: dogged surface-level adherence to Super's tropes, items and hands-off vibe, without genuine mechanical follow-through.
Instead, Dread is a 2021 video game through and through, meaning it's highly concerned with having you go through a tight progression of escalating challenges. Here's the part where you pull out blocks with your Grapple Beam, here's where you Shinespark through a billion walls in a row for a bit, here's where you're ambushed by a mini-boss. And you know what, I'll say Dread pulls off that modern action romp thing as well as you could hope for. The high movement speed, instant acceleration and low input lag make for a game that's immediately fun to pick up, being able to 360-aim or parry while running and slide right into tunnels without ever breaking momentum makes Samus feel like a fresh bar of soap in your hands. Sprinting through ZDR's many expansive rooms, evocative panoramas stretching out behind you, rays of light softly flowing in, thumping sound effects massaging your ears as you light up the entire screen with big neon-yellow laser shots -- it hits.
The bosses are a surprising highlight. They'll often use different types of projectiles in conjunction with each other, which either can or can't be removed from the screen with your own shots, and some even have relatively dynamic movement and spawn patterns. As rigidly as these enemies tend to cycle between individual attacks, there is enough variation and opportunities to stay on the offensive within those attacks for them to stay remarkably fresh over repeat attempts. I was especially impressed with this duo of mini-bosses you encounter a few times over the course of the game: you can freely bait each one of them to any given part of the sizable fighting arena, resulting in dynamic outcomes and spontaneous situations that feel like relatively uncharted territory for this kind of 2D action game.
But Dread's pursuit of action movie bombast comes at a cost. As I said, it's a tight progression of escalating challenges: the game never stops funneling you forward, often going as far as locking anything that's not the critical path behind you, the proverbial carrot always right in your face. In fact, if you've gone through Dread with the creeping suspicion that the game never actually lets you stray from its single intended path (unless you specifically sequence break or backtrack for capacity upgrades,) then I'm here to rip that band-aid off and tell you that that seems pretty accurate. I'd do more serious testing into this if I were writing something a little more legit than a Backloggd review, but: every one of Samus's key upgrades (minus Space Jump and Scan Pulse) has a corresponding type of lock in the world, and it seems there's never a point where getting one upgrade opens up enough paths that you could, for example, choose the order in which to get the next two.
This is my fancy way of saying that Dread is basically a straight line, except for those few cheeky shortcuts that let you adjust the item sequence a little bit. But that's really only shocking if we forget that, again, it's Fusion and Zero Mission that set Metroid on this exact trajectory in the first place. Comparing Dread to its GBA predecessors, I can kinda take or leave individual aspects of either style. Zero Mission for example showed that you can have a pretty linear game without inhibiting wall-jumps so aggressively, but at least Dread has the decency to not put big glowing waypoints on my map. Etc., etc.
Dread is forcing me to accept that I'm a bitter 16-bit boomer and how, for as much as games can't stop using the same ingredients, the particular way the Super Metroid dish is assembled has just not been matched by anything. Everyone who's played Super Metroid remembers making it back to the surface, to Samus's ship, the dreary rain giving way to triumphant horns, after running a whole lap around Zebes and getting all the key power-ups you need to explore the rest of the planet. It's not only emotionally powerful, it's where the real game begins, finally letting you search for the path forward in whatever way you see fit. This is complimented by a whole slew of genuinely optional upgrades like the Spazer or Plasma Beam, which present a much stronger backtracking incentive than Dread's endless supply of Missile Tanks.
This structure -- first a guided tour around most of the planet, then letting you loose to kill the game's remaining bosses -- hasn't been replicated by any other Metroid. But approaching Dread in particular under this lens reveals just how haphazard MercurySteam's approach to level design is, and how it and Super are too fundamentally incompatible to really be compared, even though Dread is constantly setting itself up for that juxtaposition.
I urge you to play close attention to how Dread's world is assembled. The game world's elevators always connect to these one-way horizontal tunnels: a dead-end to one side, a door to the rest of the area on the other. Individually, many of the rooms have dense, zig-zaggy layouts, but they're stacked together in a relatively linear fashion: the path keeps snaking West for example, until you reach the end of the respective map and the room suddenly curves backward, to naturally guide you back toward where you started.
This way, Dread essentially always auto-pilots you exactly where it wants you to go. Try any alternative door on this path, and they'll always feed into some kind of dead-end (again, unless it happens to lead to a sequence break.) It's to the point where, sometimes, you're funneled into a random teleporter that connects to a random room in a totally different area that you would never think to visit otherwise, and once you're there, the cycle I just described begins anew. Unlike every other Metroid, even the games outside Super, Dread never actually asks you to backtrack or figure out where to go yourself. The level design always curves and bends conveniently to guide you forward, and at best you might have to intuit which wall to bomb next.
The difference is easiest to explain with Super: here, every area is instead entered via a vertical shaft, which ends up functioning as a kind of hub, with many different spokes on either side. These can fork into one-off rooms, long horizontal tunnels, or even another hub-like vertical shaft. You play around in that set of rooms for a bit until maybe you get a new power up, which is where you're meant to draw the connection that "hmm maybe it's time to go and check out some of those other rooms."
It's not just that Super is asking you to understand its level design as an actual world, it has the knock-on effect that you can understand it in the first place. The layout feels planned and internally consistent, rooms have actual navigational functions (again, singular tunnels and shafts that connect to many different rooms on their own) instead of just being video game levels for you to blast through.
Maybe you also played through Dread and couldn't shake the sense that it was kind of flavorless? That it lacked pacing? And the sense that I'm actually moving through a world? You may find those feelings hard to pin down exactly, but they have real game design reasons behind them, and as much as Dread tries to wow you with visually stunning one-off rooms and events at key progression junctures, the way there can't help but feel hollow. MercurySteam stacked together all these set pieces and micro-challenges in the most seamless 2021 way they could, but once you take a step back and look at the whole picture, it's clear you're dealing with an un-traversable clustered mess of mini-video game levels, rather than a world you're meant to understand every inch of. It's telling you unlock the ability to warp freely between any of the game's previously one-way teleporters in the post-game: the map is just too fucking cumbersome to navigate otherwise.
This lack of commitment to actually capture the essence of those older Metroids is even more evident in Dread's use of a modern auto-checkpoint system: we're at least back to dedicated save rooms to lock in your progress and get a break from the action after Samus Returns, but anytime there's even a slight chance of death, you can expect to respawn just one room earlier. Under that light, you can't help but feel incredibly underwhelmed with how inconsequential the EMMI prove to be to the overall experience, considering they're the game's only major gameplay element not cribbed verbatim from older Metroids.
I suppose this is another aspect that has me thinking on how design and player sensibilities have fundamentally shifted over the years. To me, many of Dread's challenges felt fleeting; often satisfying to learn and execute, but ultimately with no real tension or significant room for error... and that last part is what's crucial. I'm going to state the obvious again, but if EMMI kill the player instantly, that means a single mistake will be enough to erase all their progress since the last checkpoint. It stands to reason then, that as a designer you'd make these runs as short as possible to keep possible frustration at a minimum.
So really, what makes the EMMI fall flat is less the lack of real consequence for failure specifically, and more how that reverberates on the design of the EMMI sections themselves. You never actually spend significant time with the first four EMMI (this does not include the first tutorial variant,) the run to the exit is so short you're actually likely to get it on a random attempt without having had to consciously study their behavior or the level design much. Early gimmicks like having to stand still to raise the room's water level do get the blood pumping a bit, but they're far too infrequent to turn the EMMI zones into something more substantial-feeling.
Here's the contradiction many game designers and players don't seem to want to acknowledge: if you give me a trial & error challenge that lasts a minute, kills me instantly, and will take ten attempts to get past, you actually use more of my time than if you'd given me a more substantial challenge with more room for error that sets me back circa three minutes in the event that I fail (which I might not.) Not only that, while the latter situation actually has stakes, the former will have me go through the motions and get used to it so much that I'll be too emotionally numb to feel much of anything by the time I succeed. It's too easy to forget that the idea behind game design is to elicit feelings from the player; you have to understand that they're going to be way more afraid of punishment than they actually need to be. That's the whole point.
It wasn't until the purple and blue EMMI where I got into extended tugs of war and felt legitimate... well, dread, having to move through their domains. The way water is used to slow Samus down in places is especially intelligent, as it becomes impossible to outpace the EMMI once you enter. You'll have to carefully estimate how long it will take you to get across, and you may even want to lure your predator somewhere else first based on your planning.
Consistently exciting was the use of the Omega Blaster, where you get to flip the tables and need to assess the ideal spot in the level design to shoot at the EMMI from (since you need to deal damage consistently to take out their armor.) It leverages your previously gained knowledge of the room layout back when you were the prey, and having to gauge distances and movement timings in this way feels legitimately original in the 2D game space Dread is occupying.
And UNLIKE Metroid Dread, I don't have a smooth convenient segue into my conclusion for this review. It's ultimately a game that left me excited and disappointed in pretty much equal measure. It's undeniably fun to have Metroid's base mechanics back in this giga-polished AAA 2D 2021 Nintendo game, but Dread is not really any less conservative than Samus Returns was four years ago. And even if all you wanted was "more Metroid," is Dread really meeting that bar when it's following up at least FOUR games that were all incredibly daring, sometimes even groundbreaking in their time? The most disruptive thing Dread does is not giving the normies an Easy Mode.
This review contains spoilers
When asked about how the title “No More Heroes” relates to the game itself, director Goichi Suda confirmed that it’s in reference to how protagonist Travis Touchdown thinks of assassins as heroes; the game depicts him growing past his need of such idols and taking them down one by one — using all the “life lessons” he’s picked up through anime, video games and wrestling.
I’d argue the title is a bit of a double entendre though, with perhaps the even more obvious interpretation being that Travis himself is a break from the types of heroes we’re used to in games: an uncompromising display of what it would actually look like if an American weeb really did buy a lightsaber off eBay and went out to murder people to fulfill his fantasies of rising to the top of a real life-highscore board. Tired of cookie-cutter agreeable heroics? Well, here’s a game for you.
Looking at NMH in the context of Grasshopper’s previous game Killer7 is fascinating, because the evolutionary and thematic chain between the two is a lot more logical than you might first expect. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that Killer7 is Suda’s first international release, while also being explicitly about anti-Eastern xenophobia and the disturbing ways the West will impregnate the minds of following generations with their toxic ideas. What we know for sure based on interviews is that his new audience was a major consideration for Suda when designing Killer7’s absurdist control scheme, essentially asking “if you’re only walking in straight lines anyway, why not boil that process down to just holding a gigantic-ass green button?” With the controls now totally in the background, your mind is free is to fully take in the game’s sights, sounds and themes.
If Killer7 was a game about using the GameCube pad’s in-your-face A button to run through corridors and shoot at nightmarish abominations, then No More Heroes is a game about using the Wiimote’s equally in-your-face A button to slash away at regular people and do janky mini-games. If Killer7 was a game about fear of Eastern culture, then No More Heroes is a game about the commodification of that same culture. The ways that manifests may not be quite as explosive as what’s depicted in Killer7, but the implications are no less disturbing if you stop to think about them.
NMH predates the words “Gamergate” and “incel” entering our everyday vocabulary, so replaying this cold-blooded takedown of nerd culture with a 2021 perspective is almost eerie in its predictiveness. In her final phone call, Sylvia’s finally 100% blunt about the fact that Travis never had a shot with her in the first place and that he’s an idiot for ever thinking otherwise: “You are a dopy otaku assassin. The bottom of the barrel. No woman would be caught dead with you… unless she was a desperate bitch.” Given that Sylvia’s calls are delivered through the Wii remote’s speakers, which you have to hold to your head to hear, meaning she’s speaking directly to you, the connection to actual real life video game players couldn’t be more explicit.
I just used the word “predictiveness,” but it’s actually more illuminating to think about how this game, in reality, has to be a reflection of how Suda perceives our consumption of his country’s culture. It’s interesting that Travis is regularly referred to as an “otaku” by different characters; today and in the West, the word we’d instead use is “weeb” (I already have in this review,) because it’s more strongly connoted as specifically in reference to obsessive Westerners, whereas the word “otaku” is more understood as a descriptor for a “general” nerd in Japan.
From that (and some cursory research I did,) it’s safe to assume “weeaboo” doesn’t really mean anything to most Japanese people, and yet Suda clearly understands the concept and is able to portray it at its most alarming extreme. Over the course of the game, you and Travis spend mountains of cash on surface-level obsessions: you can get dripped out, buy a goofy new laser sword or dummy grind to enter your next ranked fight, but Travis’s life will never actually meaningfully progress, he’s never moving out of that motel, the game’s rigid structure of ping-ponging between work and play is never broken. The significance of either of the two endings (Travis being doomed to be continually challenged by new assassins + him and Henry literally saying they can only keep running now, never to find the exit) didn’t really hit me until I wrote down this paragraph.
Under that light, it’s NMH’s combat that warrants more detailed analysis. Again, very much like Killer7, No More Heroes is a piece of extremely impressive interface design in how the control layout, camera and general mechanics correspond into this vehicle for beautiful kinesthetic violence, but as an actual fighting system it’s fundamentally ill-fit to make for compelling engagements: having to shift between high and low stances to connect attacks and maintain combos doesn’t result in meaningful choices, you basically wail on the enemies until they decide to not take hit stun anymore, at which point it’s time to dodge roll away and look for another chance to get back in. The parry system is so free (you hold one button to block and then wiggle the analog stick) that the game has to sometimes arbitrarily decide to not reward you for it because fights would otherwise be over in like two seconds.
It’s cool that contextual QTE finishers can hit multiple enemies — there’s very little in gaming that’s as satisfying as taking out an entire crowd of NMH goons in a single strike, fountains of blood gushing from where their heads used to be, your Nintendo Wii completely shitting itself as the frame rate hits single digits. Creating opportunities to make that kind of carnage happen by spacing correctly or singling out problematic foes with a dash attack knockdown is engaging enough. The problem is that this dynamic with its periodic cathartic payoffs isn’t whatsoever present in boss fights. Instead they only highlight the rigidity I mentioned previously: you chain as many parries and basic attacks together as the game will let you, until the boss runs away for a minute and throws out gimmicks for you to dodge roll; rinse, repeat.
It’s easy to see how the game’s creative fighting scenarios and audacious violence wowed players (myself included) back in the day, but on my most recent playthrough it’s been kind of difficult not to be underwhelmed with pretty much every single boss fight here — which is ironic when eccentric bosses are the number one thing you associate No More Heroes with. This game is for all intents and purposes a boss rush: it spends a vast amount of its runtime edging you for the next ranked fight, only to never really let you cum.
A deliberate series of anti-climaxes, then? My honest answer to that is “probably not;” I’m unconvinced any mainstream developer would specifically set out to make something that’s shitty in this particular kind of way. Either way, entertaining these debates is pointless with no insight into the actual process. I feel the real achievement here is to have a game that’s interesting enough to make you question the developer’s intentions in the first place. The point isn’t that the feeling of dissatisfaction I got from most of NMH’s gameplay necessarily brings me more in tune with its themes, it’s that the specific combination of elements here is distinct and interesting enough that I find my mind regularly trailing off of the nitty-gritty procedures and instead trying to untangle the experience as a whole while I’m playing. If this reminds you of what I said earlier about Suda’s intentions with Killer7’s mechanics, now you know why I keep comparing the two games.
In an odd way, No More Heroes being so much more conventional than Killer7 on the surface does an even better job of making you let your guard down. That lack of abstraction makes it hit all the harder whenever you follow Travis into yet another dingy, blood-tinged fighting arena where only one more psychopath awaits; to say a couple words, give you a shitty fight and then die without leaving a meaningful mark. I not only appreciate that it balances that darkness with comforting levity, I’d argue it kind of needed just enough anime antics to be interpreted as a celebration of that culture by at least some of its playerbase, rather than the uncompromising condemnation it actually is. The way it walks that fine, almost satirical line is so much of what drives my interest in the experience. Under that light, it’s hard not to consider No More Heroes a resounding success, even if it’s not a game I will revisit much in the future.
This and RE7 are the two series entries I hadn't played the longest and was the most curious to revisit, and with RE8 featuring Chris + many similarities to 4 and 5, I thought this might be a good opportunity to refresh my memory. In the case of 5, I decided less than halfway through that I'd quit because I was honestly kind of bored and time is a little too precious right now.
Under that light, this 3 out of 5 score may be surprising; I'm coming away from RE5 feeling there's enough of interest going on here on paper that warrants a quick write-up. You could chalk it up to there being way too much of RE4's DNA in 5 for it to be straight-up bad, but that's a little cynical when it actually does elevate itself meaningfully from its predecessor in a few ways. Being able to quick-select weapons and items with the D-Pad is an obvious QoL improvement that, in practice, legitimately incentivizes more creative play and quick thinking. But it also goes hand-in-hand with a now real-time inventory that's still one of the most elegant, yet tense solutions I've seen for this kind of thing. While RE4's attache case has become far more iconic, RE5's grid takes that fun novelty of freely positioning your items and turns it into a legitimately relevant choice: your 3x3 item grid directly corresponds to the four D-Pad directions (so a shotgun on the leftmost square can be accessed by pressing left, while the First Aid Spray in the top right can't be equipped the same way,) which is both intuitive and something you'll have to regularly manage intelligently while under the active stress of combat. From that perspective, even putting ammo on your quick-select and being able to hand it to Sheva more quickly that way becomes a valid consideration.
Which brings me to the game's most divisive aspect. I actually feel deciding what weapons to give Sheva and how to manage her inventory space adds sincerely novel layers to the game that I haven't quite seen like this elsewhere. I recall giving her a sniper rifle being a good way to keep her from getting hit constantly back on PS3, which is both sort of interesting? Because it's a logical result of the mechanics presented? (it's obvious that she aims extremely well but is also very trigger-happy, so giving her a weapon with high damage, long reach and slow fire makes natural sense to optimize her AI’s behavior) While also coming across like a weird unintuitive hack that serves as a band-aid over an ultimately frustrating system? I'm not sure what the ideal way to handle this would've been, but in a game where damage taken is so relevant, Sheva getting hit randomly never stops being annoying.
Which begs the question of whether RE5 would've been better off as a solo-game. Sheva's inclusion has much deeper implications on the flow of the campaign than is initially evident, and it's clear that a lot of the encounter design flat-out isn't as good with Shinji Mikami no longer being involved. It's most obvious with bosses, where a lot of interesting elements get thrown at a wall, only for the game to not capitalize on them. There's this extended on-rails sequence early in the game, at the end of which you fight one of those El Gigante type enemies from RE4 by targeting its weak spots. You dodge some of its punches with QTE prompts, then watch it pull this long pylon from the ground to hit you with... only for that attack to be avoided the exact same way. In a game with so much smart design, those kinds of flubs (which there were many of in my playtime) kept surprising me in the worst way.
Those two scenarios also serve as such obvious points of comparison for how RE4 always went the extra mile with its encounters. The El Gigante fights in either game speak for themselves, clearly being able to run around and choose weapons freely and having to scrounge for ammo as shit goes down is more engaging. But even RE4's take on an on-rails sequence, the mine cart set piece, where you get to move between carts freely, have enemies jump in from all sides, and need to avoid multiple kinds of obstacles, takes such a gigantic dump on RE5 that it's kind of hard to believe it was made five years prior.
While all that sounds pretty negative, I hope it comes across that RE5 is more just... boring, rather than offensive. I couldn't find a smooth segue into the weapon upgrade system for this review, but that shit is still exemplary (love how upgrading capacity restores your ammo) and something more looter-shooter type games should take serious note of more. So while RE5 does overall present something substantial and different from its predecessor, I wouldn't say it's engaging enough to really warrant more than one playthrough when you could be playing that game instead.
(footnotes: the headshot context melee attack being changed from Leon's wide-reaching roundhouse to a more linear punch kinda sucks and doesn't really allow you to take as many risks with crowd-control)
“Really sorry about your ass.”
(some spoilers for OG FF7’s first ten hours, no spoilers for FF7R)
I started this review series by listing my absolute favorite games; both because being positive feels good, but also to provide a kind of baseline for what to expect here, I suppose. In that same vein, I feel it’s also important to show contrast: if my favorites are all about pure mechanical expression and smooth, organic interactions, then FF7R, conversely, represents everything that holds games back to me. This thing is so rigid and limited that it somehow manages to feel more outdated than the turn-based 90s RPG it’s remaking. While FF7’s original design-ethos was built on detailed one-off environments, contextual storytelling and intuitive yet flexible battle mechanics, FF7R completely tears down all of these pillars, leaving in their place the kind of nightmare-hyperbole-parody that weebs are describing when they talk about the latest Call of Duty or Uncharted.
Action-adjacent Square RPGs like Dissidia or Crisis Core can have this tendency to not ground your actions in the game world very much — it’s the difference between button presses triggering canned interactions between actors, or throwing out an actual hitbox that I need to connect with the enemy. FF7R feels like the final form of this in the worst possible way: for as gnarly as the impact of Cloud’s flashy sword combos on enemy grunts may look on the surface, there isn’t actually any real physicality to how your attacks throw them around, nor does the addition of square-mashing add anything meaningful mechanically when compared to FF7. You quickly realize that your standard attacks don’t actually do appreciable damage and solely exist to pad out the time between ATB moves, a process that previously moved along on its own. No amount of alibi-action disguises the fact that this is, at its heart, still a turn-based RPG, where enemies weak to fire need to be hit with the fire spell and damage can’t be reliably avoided. You get about five hundred different ways to “parry” attacks, none of which actually require any careful timing on your end, but interact with enemies in ways that are completely arbitrary. The final boss in particular is a hilarious display of just how bad this game wants to look like a Devil May Cry, while still working under NES JRPG rules and refusing to adopt things like consistent telegraphing or hit reactions. In those instances, it’s some of the most shallow and repetitive action-gameplay imaginable.
Countless FF7R skill videos do show how much this new combat system can pop off, since it gives you control over when and how to queue up party attacks and provides some unique states for active positioning on the battlefield. What those videos all have in common though is that they're exclusively shot in the game’s VR challenge missions with precise Materia setups; ideal conditions for the system to shine that flat-out don’t exist in the rest of the game. Campaign mob fights run the gamut from boring to soul-crushingly tedious (those goddamn sewer fish guys,) while any fun you could be having with bosses is knee-capped by absurd damage gating and forced cutscene transitions that will eat any excess damage you put out that moment. This aspect should’ve been a top priority with the boss design considering how much combat revolves around slowly building up this Stagger bar, where the majority of the fight is spent purely setting up the boss for when you can finally lay the smack down (which, just like for FFXIII, already does a lot to make individual actions feel linear and meaningless.) The way all that damage will regularly evaporate into nothing due to factors completely outside your control feels like having a bag of Tetsuya Nomura-shaped bricks dropped right on your nutsack just as you’re about to cum.
Under that light, the proposition of digging into the Materia system and trying to get the most out of it is absolutely laughable. I can’t even begin to tell you how many boss fights I went into only to realize halfway through (after some kind of form-change or mechanical switch-up) that my setup wasn’t optimal, forcing me to either slog and fumble through the rest of the battle, or back out and start from scratch with this new knowledge. All that’s on top of the godforsaken menus you’re forced to work with that hit this abominable sweetspot between clunky stone-age level interface design and the suffocating swathe of meaningless skill trees you’ve come to expect from modern AAA games. How is it possible that healing outside of battle literally takes longer in this game than it did in Final Fantasy (just Final Fantasy. 1. the first one.) on the NES?
FF7R’s final Shinra HQ invasion has to be one of the worst isolated parts of any game I’ve ever played and represents a microcosm for how little it respects your time. Every issue I’ve discussed so far is amplified now that your party is split in half, with no way to quickly transfer setups between the two teams. Fights are now sandwiched between “””platforming””” sections that have Tifa monkey bar-ing by transitioning from one excruciatingly slow canned animation into the next. To get back to what I was saying in that second paragraph: for as much as Uncharted’s climbing for example is brain-dead easy, it at least provides some vague sense that I’m in control of a character in a physical setting, instead of giving commands to a robot on the fucking moon. The least you could say about Uncharted, also, is that it gives you shit to look at. What is the point of remaking the most popular JRPG of all time as this PS4 mega-game when that entails turning all of its handcrafted backgrounds into featureless copy-paste tunnels and compressed-to-shit JPEG skyboxes, all of which now necessitate what feels like hours upon hours of squeeze-through loading?
All that begs the question: what exactly did I push through this trash heap for in the end? I categorically reject the notion that a game this mechanically regressive can still come together purely as a vehicle for cutscenes or something, but even entertaining that idea for a minute has me confused over what the big deal is. My impression is that FF7R managing, against all expectations, to not be some Advent Children-level train wreck sapping any and all life out of these characters, is enough for it to come across as this masterful reexamination of the original story to many players (also that the whole cast is hot.) The reality is that, while some of the dialogue and character interactions does hit, this game is 40 hours long and naturally a lot of that extra time is padded out by your party members giving each other directions to hopefully not get lost in this FFXIII-ass level design. It’s pure filler and adds little of value to the existing story.
FF7R’s most crucial mistake, and why I’ve now realized this remake-series was an awful idea to begin with, is to think that just knowing wider information about a character will automatically make us care about them more. I first played the original in 2015, and back then, the deaths of Biggs, Wedge and Jessie legitimately shocked me. And it’s not because I was particularly attached to those characters — instead, it was all in the execution: sudden, unceremonious, unfair and way too soon. That’s the whole reason it worked, and it was a way to make you hate the faceless corporation that was Shinra that actually felt earned. FF7R not only tries to endear us to Avalanche by giving us exponentially more time with them, it bone-headedly draws out their deaths in a way that’s so corny and obvious it borders on parody. You’d think giving the villains more screen-time would be a harmless at-worst change, but presenting them as these hot badasses only makes this feel even more like some generic Shounen anime and less like the systemic fight against capitalism that was the original.
I’d be lying if I said the way they contextualize this remake within FF7’s overall story wasn’t kind of clever, but my gut tells me this twist is only gonna feel more lame as time passes. It’s already at the point where it derails any and all discussion about the game; where somehow being a little bit meta means all the shit about it that makes me want to off myself is actually intentional and smart. The literal first numero uno side-quest I did in FF7R involved crawling into some back-alley, killing a pack of rats, going back to the quest giver to be told I “didn’t kill the right rats,” heading to the same spot again and finally killing the new rats that just spawned there. The starting area this quest takes place in has to be one of the ugliest sections I’ve seen in any AAA game, with hazy washed out lighting and NPC animation that hasn’t evolved a bit from FFX on the PS2.
The most poignant experience I had in my time playing FF7R was in Wall Market. It's easily the most gassed-up part of the game online, mostly to do with the fact that it’s a vehicle for wacky anime cutscene shenanigans and how the characters ramp up the horny to the max of what a Square Enix game is comfortable with (that Don Corneo confrontation is cringeworthy with all the awkward pauses between lines.) In Wall Market, you can enter this bar. The barkeeper will ask you to sit down and have a drink. You can’t do either of those things; you just stand there as the NPCs around you gaze into the void.
FF7R is not the fully-realized mega budget dream version of Midgar we've all been salivating at the thought of, and it’s not some clever meta commentary either. No, I’m pretty sure it just sucks.
The Pathless's most eye-catching feature has to be its movement system: I know I was instantly drawn to the game when I saw footage of its main character sprinting over this huge grassy field, then going into a slide as she draws her bow, gaining a huge burst of speed on hitting one of the floating targets dotted all over the screen. There's actually a little bit more to the system than you initially expect: targets can be hit with more precise timing to get an even bigger speed boost, and those exact windows are naturally dependent on your current distance to each individual one, keeping you active and constantly trying to intuit when to let go of the trigger. Going for a more difficult shot and then fucking it up will slow you down more than if you'd just gone for the easy shot in the first place, and while none of the game's challenges ask you to think about it that hard, maintaining your momentum with no awkward breaks is intrinsically satisfying and presents you with a perpetual guessing game of how best to approach each target, which specific ones to go for and how to smoothly transition between grounded and airborne traversal. A lot of that natural pacing translates perfectly into the boss fights; even though they're not nearly as varied or surprising as I would've ideally liked, they provide meaningful shots of excitement, as well as a glimpse at just how special The Pathless could've been.
Because ultimately, the experience feels sadly torn between all the obvious potential of its overall premise and general execution, and all the different elements that are so painfully undercooked. The four area bosses that you will eventually fight also roam the world as you're exploring, and coming into contact with them triggers a stealth sequence where you need to dodge lights as you try to get back to your eagle companion. Mechanically, it saps the game of all its appeal, while also failing to illicit any sense of tension or worry for your pet with how bland and rigid the execution is (not to mention that the punishment for being spotted is inconsequential.)
This brings me to the much larger issue in that the bond between the hunter and the eagle feels incredibly anemic. It's clear The Pathless is specifically trying to fill the shoes of both Shadow of the Colossus and The Last Guardian, but it doesn't do itself any favors with how much less organic and elegant it comes across by comparison. There's never a point where the eagle steps up from being a gamey mechanic existing solely for your convenience, to anything even resembling a living creature in the vein of Aggro or Trico. Moments of implied peril will just leave you cold when the eagle is so clearly artificial, always there at the touch of a button and with no unique behavior arising naturally from play. The way you're reliant on the eagle feels so specifically gamey and rigid that it actually ends up running directly against a lot of the story's themes: as you explore, you begin to understand that the people's over-reliance on the Gods and clear instructions for how to lead their lives is what lead to the slow decay of the world; but the way the game's message ends up boiling down to "find your own path or whatever" doesn't hit when, mechanically, the way you conquer every new obstacle is through some Deus Ex Machina power-up for your eagle (most evident in the final rematch you have with the main antagonist, where the game isn't asking anything new from you mechanically to overcome this previously unbeatable challenge, instead you just get buffed to shit in a cutscene.)
The game's impact ends up being so much weaker and more generic than it could've been, I feel, though from my perspective it also seems difficult to reconcile a lot of that potential without significantly more time spent in development. I can point out all these avenues for improvement, but making players feel shit is hard, and just like with the game's overall message, you can't follow a set blueprint if you want to move forward. While The Pathless gets too caught-up trying to reference surface-level aspects of more powerful games, I can give it some credit for at least trying.
(Footnotes: flaps are bad and hurt level design, having different arrow types to let you choose what an orb does rather than different orbs might've been more fun, puzzles are bland but it's cool how organically you can enter different locations from unique angles)
Bayonetta has been my number one favorite game pretty much since I first played it back in 2010, but when I had that initial realization I’d honestly barely even scratched its surface. To this day I’m still finding new ways to play and improve my strats, which speaks to just how hard it nails that sweetspot between mechanics that are intrinsically satisfying, malleable, but also highly intentional; somehow it’s the one action game that does everything. The control system is so smooth and flexible it’s influenced every genre title since; knocking dudes into each other or tearing through the battlefield with Beast Within offers a sense of physicality other comparable games still don’t come close to; the enemies are some of the most aggressive, varied and polished you’ll ever encounter in a melee combat game; and all of that is wrapped up in a scoring system that miraculously manages to give you clear rules to work with while still allowing for a huge degree of expression. Even the ridiculous Angel Weapons make sense from that perspective — they give you a generous buffer to use whatever playstyle appeals to you in and still earn a Platinum combo in the end.
Between Witch Time, the equipment system and Dodge Offset, Bayonetta makes it easy to name-drop its most obvious gimmicks and leave it there, but those last two in particular are an insane step up for the genre when it comes to freedom and intentionality. How to trip an enemy up, where to launch them, whether to use magic or not: no other action game makes you consider these questions so actively at this fast of a pace, and I can’t get enough of it.
RE4 is a game designer’s wet dream. If you really break it down, all Leon can do is point and shoot; and that simplicity is part of how it immediately gets you into this mode of consciously analyzing situations and being intentional about everything you do. Corralling enemies into a single spot and headshot-ing one of them to set the whole group up for a juicy roundhouse kick seems so basic, but having to actively look for ways to achieve that scenario never stops being engaging.
All the different weapons, the upgrade system, enemy types, random loot drops: they add to the basic formula in a way that’s so elegant and immediate that it makes every modern action RPG looter shooter whatever the fuck hybrid look like a dry, convoluted Excel spreadsheet by comparison. It’s so no-nonsense that I honestly struggle to come up with more ways to explain why it’s so good that aren't insanely obvious. RE4 is endlessly polished and pure and exciting and one of the most perfect games of all time.
I’ve had this experience a few times now where I’d play Symphony with someone who’d already had their hands on it at least once, and they’d repeatedly go “oh shit I didn’t know you could do that.” I think it’s easy to look at this game as this perfect package of unmatched visuals and music, tight controls and a big-ass non-linear world to explore, but that’s probably part of what makes the case for it seem so deceptively simple at first.
The way spells are implemented is still wild to me and a perfect example for what I mean: Alucard technically has access to all of them from the start via a series of fighting game commands, but the game doesn’t actually divulge the necessary inputs unless you purchase the respective scrolls from the shop or stumble upon them by accident. I don’t know how exactly to relate this sense of spitting-your-drink-out surprise that I got whenever I’d trigger some new crazy move, but it’s exemplary of that natural curiosity Symphony inspires that draws me to it so much. Do we even need to talk about the inverted castle? It’s hard to say whether it was some kind of last minute addition (Bat Form means the level design doesn’t actually have to “work” upside-down and a lot of the mob enemies here can fly around too,) but the fact the devs seized that possibility at all is so impressive to me. The pacing in this second half is completely different from the first, letting you experience familiar locations in a way that’s nothing short of alien.
It’s honestly odd how Metroidvanias made in the wake of Symphony haven’t replicated this idea of giving you a dedicated endgame to actually flex with all your new abilities in (instead of just the token collectible item hunt with no new enemies or obstacles to make that process more interesting.) That’s on top of all the insane technical bullshit Symphony lets you overpower its challenges with, from Bat-Dashing over slopes to all the wild effects you get with the Shield Rod, another itch most modern genre takes don’t scratch. If you wrote this game off because you felt it didn’t have enough substance, I encourage you to give it another look and dig into its bottomless treasure chest of secrets and painstaking details.
As hard as Breath of the Wild hit on release, there actually were a few aspects that disappointed me about it, and it’s not the stuff people usually discuss. My initial expectation was that this would be a full post-apocalypse in the style of the original Zelda, where the pacing is completely hands-off and dungeons are just random caves you stumble into. As well-done as Breath’s towns and set pieces and characters were, it all ran pretty directly against what I wanted out of it.
Still, the game’s magic would draw me back in for another replay time and again over the years, and it wasn’t until I sincerely held it up against its rigid and limited predecessors that I started to appreciate just how much it did get right. I still consider myself a fan of the larger series, but whatever tonal preferences I may have with some of those older games, they’re so effortlessly eclipsed by Breath’s smooth free-form mechanics that bring the whole experience together in a totally new way. It’s wild to think this game may still be topped by its upcoming sequel, because it’s already making the whole rest of the industry look dated and combines virtually everything I look for in games in a package that’s entirely unique.
Shigeru Miyamoto has gone on record saying that Mario “isn’t the kind of game you necessarily have to finish, it should be fun to just pick up and play,” and as a kid I often really would boot it up solely to jump around Bob-Omb Battlefield for a bit and feel myself or whatever. A pattern I’ve observed with a lot of gamers is that, as they get older, they slowly prioritize finishing games over simply the inherent fun of playing them — and while I definitely feel that was accurate for my late teens/early twenties as well, I’ve since returned to craving those more innate pleasures.
It’s wild how much Nintendo got right about Mario’s animations and the overall sound design on this first attempt, conveying that perfect sweetspot between weight and nimbleness, something I honestly don’t get as much out of 64's successors. Similarly, the level design also manages to find this nebulous since-unmatched middle-ground between open-ness and tight pacing, with many of the stages presenting you with vertical, spiral-shaped layouts, made up of multiple digestible paths that intersect so seamlessly that you never stop to think about them as anything other than one cohesive whole.
Aspects that feel like obvious limitations, like being booted out of the level when grabbing a Star or the rigid camera, end up aiding the game’s pacing and overall structure the more you actually think about it. The way you bounce between different paintings within Peach’s castle, completely at your own leisure, mirrors how you tackle the obstacles inside those worlds; loose and free-form and whichever way seems enjoyable to you at the moment without even having to think about it. It all seems so simple, and yet I’m still waiting for another platformer that is this immediately fun and endlessly replayable.