Friday, January 25, 2019

Dead Space - A 10 Year Retrospective

Dead Space hails from 2008 as a bit of a cross between System Shock 2 and Resident Evil 4, if you were to take the slow-paced over-the-shoulder combat system from RE4 and put it in a space horror setting reminiscent of SS2. According to interviews with the development team, Visceral Games, Dead Space was originally being designed with the hope that it could become System Shock 3, but after playing Resident Evil 4, their eyes were opened to new possibilities, and thus the game shifted from more of an RPG focus to an action-horror focus.

This was around the time that horror games started shifting from more traditional survival-horror games where players controlled a feeble survivor with limited resources, to controlling badass killing machines with a full arsenal of weapons, when the focus shifted more from making the player feel so scared and vulnerable that you might prefer to avoid combat whenever possible, to glorifying the combat and making the thrill of killing these terrifying enemies the main reward. Resident Evil 4 ushered in this new era of action-centric horror games, and Dead Space was one of many subsequent games to pick up that torch and carry the trend onward.

I played Dead Space for the first time in 2010, but that was so long ago that I don't remember much about it. I know that I liked the game, generally speaking, but wished that it could've focused a little more on its horror side of the equation, instead of leaning so heavily on action and jumpscares. With my newsfeed recently filling up with articles celebrating the 10 year anniversary of the original Dead Space, I figured it was time to refresh my memory and see how much my opinion on it has changed, if at all, and to see how well the game holds up a decade later.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Impressions of the Resident Evil 2 Remake: One Shot Demo

The Resident Evil 2 remake is right around the corner, and so Capcom have launched a 30-minute demo featuring a slice of gameplay from the full game, in which you control Leon Kennedy exploring the Raccoon City Police Department fighting zombies and solving puzzles to find a way to advance. As the "One Shot" title implies, you have one shot to play this 30-minute scenario; a timer starts counting down once you launch into the game, and once your 30 minutes are up you get booted out to the menu with a "Thanks for playing" message. You cannot start over for a new 30 minutes, unless you launch the demo on a new account.

I'm not a big fan of the 30-minute time limit, because I usually like to play these games pretty slowly, making sure I'm taking in all the details, exploring everywhere possible, and trying all of the outcomes. The side-effect of the timer is that I played the game a little differently than I would have a normal demo, since I was essentially rushing to get through as much of it as I could, and so my mind was less focused on the game itself and more on my playing of the demo. There's potential with a time limit in a survival-horror game to enhance the stress and tension, and to force more interesting decisions when it comes to risk-versus-reward, but I never really felt that in this demo, so it feels more like a marketing gimmick to stir up hype and get people more interested in the game.

The remake seems to have been done in the engine used for Resident Evil 7, so it has the sleek and smooth feel of RE7, but in a third-person over-the-shoulder perspective (a bit like Resident Evil 4) with Resident Evil 2-style puzzles and exploration. Resident Evil 7 already felt like a return to form for the series, with the Baker estate feeling reminiscent of the mansion from RE1, but RE2 seems to be taking it one step further in going back to the roots, which would make sense since it is a remake of RE2, after all, arguably the best game in the original series. So on first impressions, it seems like the remake will blend a bunch of different elements from three of the best games in the series.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Introducing Live Streaming on Twitch, YouTube

I'm pleased to announce that as of yesterday, The Nocturnal Rambler is now also on Twitch and YouTube, where I'm currently live streaming a playthrough of Gothic, one of my all-time favorite games. Video content had never really interested me in the past, but I've decided to give it a shot as a way to hopefully grow and expand, while also just having some extra fun. Right now I'm basically just doing a live "let's play" format where I talk to myself and give commentary about the game as I play, and I'll be doing that for a full playthrough of Gothic, and for most or all the PC games that I play in the future.

Last night I played Gothic for about four hours while live streaming on Twitch, and am also in the process of uploading those videos to YouTube, so if you're interested in watching me play and hearing me talk, you can follow me on Twitch to be notified when I go live or subscribe on YouTube if you'd rather watch at your own leisure. I'll be playing most nights and some random afternoons (I'm on the east coast of the US, GMT-5), so be on the lookout because there'll be new videos on a pretty regular basis. And who knows, maybe with this new recorded footage I can start doing video reviews to supplement my written ones. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

A Review of the Majora's Mask 3DS Remake, and Why Majora's Mask is My Favorite Zelda Game

Majora's Mask is a bit of a black sheep in the Legend of Zelda series; some absolutely love it, while others find it too cumbersome and weird to enjoy. As a direct sequel to Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask reuses the same engine and similar gameplay elements while recycling a ton of graphical and mechanical assets from OOT, but places them all in a new world, Termina, with a central gimmick of having a three day time limit constantly ticking in the background as you work to save the world from total destruction while the moon slowly falls on a collision course towards Termina. A bit like the Harold Ramis and Bill Murray film Groundhog Day, all of Termina's NPCs follow the same scripted schedule over those three days, and you have the power to reset time to the beginning of the cycle to do things differently and change people's lives, if only temporarily, until the next reset.

With a fairly dark, depressing atmosphere, a story that has nothing to do with the usual Zelda, Ganon, and Hyrule motifs, and more demanding, sometimes obtuse gameplay, it's no surprise that Majora's Mask isn't universally loved. It's a pretty weird game, after all, and I can totally understand it not being everyone's cup of tea, but it's those uniquely weird idiosyncrasies that make it my favorite Zelda game. It is a bit of an acquired taste, though; I actually didn't like it much at first, because it felt like too much of a weird departure from Ocarina of Time, a game with which I was fanatically obsessed at the time. But over time I came to appreciate its differences, and realized that it's actually better than even the more modern Zelda games in a lot of ways. As I was playing Breath of the Wild, for instance, I couldn't help but occasionally wish I were playing Majora's Mask, instead.

With the N64 quickly becoming more and more obsolete, the Majora's Mask 3DS remake aims to bring Majora's Mask to a new audience on a platform that is both readily available and also playable, while also improving the original game's accessibility with a bunch of quality of life improvements that make it not only easier to play, but also easier to understand. I was inclined at first to say that the 3DS remake is now the definitive way to play Majora's Mask due to the superior graphical quality, technical performance, and user interface, but unfortunately Nintendo also decided to make some radical changes to things like overall difficulty, boss fights, and transformation masks, which leaves me more conflicted about whether I'd actually recommend Majora's Mask 3DS to first time players.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Surge: A Surprisingly Good Dark Souls Clone

The term "souls-like" is starting to catch on as a genre-defining label for games that recreate or otherwise emulate aspects of the Dark Souls games. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much agreement as to what characteristics should qualify a game as souls-like; is it tough difficulty, harsh penalties for dying, strong emphasis on rewarding player skill, a dark and oppressing atmosphere, vague and obtuse storytelling, or still other qualities? The type of games that get described by people as "souls-like" vary wildly from side-scrolling brawlers to top-down boss rush games to first-person horror games to turn-based dungeon crawlers, all of which would seem to have more in common with other, more-established genres than Dark Souls. As much as I like Dark Souls, I find the "souls-like" label to be generally unhelpful in determining whether I'll like a game because so many "souls-like" games seem to be more dissimilar than similar to Dark Souls.

The Surge (2017) is about as close to Dark Souls as you can get without actually being Dark Souls. The similarities are so on-the-nose that I wouldn't even describe it as "souls-like" -- rather, I'd simply call it a Dark Souls clone, if you lifted pretty much everything about Dark Souls and dropped it into an industrial sci-fi setting. Developed by Deck13, who were also responsible for Lords of the Fallen (another Dark Souls clone), The Surge is a third-person action-RPG whose main gameplay loop consists of exploring complexly inter-woven levels and fighting enemies to make your way to the level's boss, collecting tech scrap from defeated enemies along the way so that you can increase your character's level and therefore his stats and abilities. Combat is the main draw, here, and it uses a pretty weighty system with a variety of attacks and dodge maneuvers, all based around a stamina meter that you have to manage while reading enemy attack patterns.

Dark Souls has been one of the most influential games of the past decade, and with FromSoftware declaring in 2016 that Dark Souls 3 would be the end of the Souls series, it pleases me to see other developers trying to recreate the magic of those games. As much as I love Dark Souls, those games can feel a little too similar and repetitive between iterations, so having someone else approach the Dark Souls formula with fresh eyes and a fresh coat of paint is a good thing to me. There's certainly a risk that such an attempt would end up feeling merely like a lame impersonation of the real thing, and some may deride it as being purely derivative of other, perhaps better games, but I can fortunately say that The Surge is actually surprisingly good. Some rough edges here and there suggest Deck13 doesn't have quite the mastery of the system as FromSoftware does, but it actually improves on the Dark Souls formula in some key ways, and I feel like it's a good enough experience to stand on its own, despite the obvious connection to Dark Souls.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild -- Better Than Expected, But Still Overrated

Breath of the Wild took the world by storm last year, with many people proclaiming it to be not only the best game of the year, but also the best Zelda game of all time and the best open-world game ever made. Those are some pretty lofty claims, so naturally I was skeptical that it would actually live up to that kind of hype. I've played a fair number of open-world games, after all, and while I generally enjoy the genre, they're difficult to pull off well and usually leave me feeling unsatisfied. Meanwhile, there's only been one Zelda game in the last 15 years that I've actually enjoyed (that being A Link Between Worlds, mostly because of its classic non-linear design and it being an homage to A Link to the Past), so I didn't exactly have confidence that Nintendo would hit such a home run with a new Zelda. Even watching streams and gameplay footage, it all looked kind of boring to me. Still, when the opportunity presented itself to borrow a coworker's Switch for a few weeks (thank you Dom), I couldn't pass on the chance to play it and see for myself.

I'm pleased to say that Breath of the Wild is indeed one of the best Zelda games that I've played in a long time. Although it deviates from the typical "Zelda formula" we've grown accustomed to lately, the open-world exploration feels reminiscent of older games in the series (specifically the original Legend of Zelda, and to a lesser extent A Link to the Past), but on a much bigger and more sophisticated scale. It's also one of the better open-world games to have come out recently, with a world that feels mysteriously intriguing and therefore genuinely interesting to explore; other open-world designers could learn a few lessons from Nintendo. I certainly enjoyed Breath of the Wild, but unlike seemingly every other person in the world, I didn't love it -- it's not my new favorite Zelda game (it might not even crack my top five), and I've enjoyed other open-world games better. And even despite liking the game, it has some major issues that seriously disappointed me.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Board Game Review: The Island of El Dorado

The Island of El Dorado (by Daniel Aronson) is a tile-laying exploration board game for 2-4 players (60-90 minutes) in which players are 16th century explorers discovering the island of El Dorado and competing to be the first to lay claim to all four shrines, which is said to grant the explorer access to untold wealth and power. A typical turn goes through a two-step process of first rolling two dice to determine how many spaces you can move your explorer as well as how many resources you produce at the beginning of your turn, and then going through your “explore phase” in which you move your explorer and/or villagers (who serve double-duty as both army units for combat as well as workers for resource-production) and spend resources to build structures, recruit more villagers, or give offerings to shrines. Players may also confront each other in direct combat by moving their explorer or army figures onto another player's space, rolling dice based on each player's total strength in the battle to determine a victor. Three of the shrines can be found scattered around the island, but the fourth is hidden inside a cave that must be explored separately, and which also houses assorted monsters and dangerous encounters. The first player to control all four shrines wins the game.

In practice, The Island of El Dorado plays like a cross between The Settlers of Catan and Risk, with a tile-laying exploration element like Betrayal at House on the Hill or Escape: Curse of the Temple where you build the map as you play. As a game with relatively light, simple rules and a high degree of luck, it's intended to be more of a family-weight game for families and more casual gamers, though the designer has since published rules for a "Hardcore Mode" intended for more strategic gamers who dislike how much of a factor luck plays in the standard rules. I backed the first Kickstarter because I hoped it would serve as a more pleasant alternative to Catan, since it fits in the same weight class and has so many superficial similarities (plus, I'm a sucker for exploration games) but I find that I just don't like it very much, or at least not with any of the current rules. Even for a family-weight game, the luck element is just too prevalent in this game, and I feel like it runs too long for such a simple, luck-dependent game. The "Hardcore Mode" rules help, but I have some issues with those, too. The bulk of this review will deal with the standard rules, and then I'll discuss the "Hardcore Mode" rules separately.