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 I 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.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Prey's "Mooncrash" DLC Perfects the Immersive-Sim Gameplay Formula of the Base Game in a Unique Roguelite Mode

Arkane Studios’ Prey (2017) was a surprise hit for me, mostly because it was such a great experience but also because it seemed to come out of nowhere with no real hype. I had barely heard anything about it when it was released, but the promise of it being a spiritual successor to System Shock 2 (one of my all-time favorite FPS games and one of the most highly regarded immersive sims ever created) immediately caught my interest. I figured it would be a good game, knowing Arkane’s pedigree (I’ve enjoyed every game of theirs that I’ve played) but I wasn’t expecting to be so thoroughly enamored with it or to have my mind blown by its creative twists and clever open-ended design. Sadly, I don’t think it sold very well, and so I was fully expecting it to be considered done and over with by publisher Bethesda, which then made the sudden Mooncrash DLC announcement even more shocking. After about a year of radio silence from Arkane and Bethesda, they began vaguely teasing something Prey-releated and then a few weeks later made the official announcement the very same day the DLC launched.

Mooncrash is a quasi-roguelite game mode featuring a new protagonist on a new level, the Pytheas moon base operated by TransStar rival Kasma Corp. You play as Some Guy in a small one-man satellite orbiting the moon, running through simulations as various characters trying to escape from a Typhon outbreak on the moon base. As a roguelite game mode, death is permanent and you can't save, while a lot of elements like item spawns, enemy placement, environmental hazards, and so on get randomized every time you start a new run, although the level layouts and the general objectives you’re trying to complete remain the same. The twist, compared to other roguelite games, is that you play multiple characters successively in a shared, persistent world -- what you do as one character affects how things will play out for another character, since someone else has already gone through and changed things by the time the next character’s run begins. Each of the five characters has their own unique skill trees, stats, and abilities which affect how you play the game as each character. Your goal is to find a way to escape with all five characters in one run, but you’ll have to run the simulation multiple times to unlock each of them, as well as to complete their story missions and to figure out a good strategy to ensure successful escape attempts.

This DLC is a very different experience than the base game. While they share similar settings and have a lot of the exact same gameplay mechanics, the base game focused more on slow-burn atmosphere and exploration with a lot of carefully scripted events, a linear main story, and a wealth of side characters, side stories, and side missions to flesh out the rest of the world. Mooncrash focuses less on the story and plays more like an immersive-sim sandbox; you’re dropped into four adjoining maps (which are themselves fairly spacious and open) with a bunch of randomized variables and given a single primary objective -- escape. There’s still a backstory that you can gleam from assorted emails, audio logs, notes, and even the five main characters’ personal story missions, but there’s no “main story” to speak of, since it doesn’t play like a straightforward campaign -- it’s a mashup of gameplay mechanics meant to bring out the best elements of emergent gameplay and fast-paced, improvisational thinking. In essence, Mooncrash takes the gameplay elements of the base game and cranks them up to eleven.

Friday, July 6, 2018

DreadOut -- An Indie Horror Game That's Actually (Surprisingly) Good

DreadOut (2014) is an indie horror game in which you play as Linda, a school girl on a field trip that takes a wrong turn and gets her (along with her teacher and classmates) trapped in a literal ghost town where seemingly every spirit is out to kill or possess you. As the rest of your classmates are picked off one by one, your goal is to find a way to rescue your friend Ira and, eventually, a way to escape the ghost town without succumbing to the ghosts' malicious intentions.

In practice, it plays a bit like a cross between Silent Hill (you're wandering around a creepy abandoned town) and Fatal Frame (taking pictures of ghosts to vanquish them), but without any sort of survival-horror health systems or resource management. Although it has a quasi sort of combat system vaguely reminiscent of a first-person shooter (if you substitute your camera for a gun, it's kind of the same principle), this is more of what you'd consider a "pure" horror game where it's not at all about the action -- it's more about the atmosphere and the scares, with hints of light puzzle solving sprinkled into the equation.

The game is split into three chapters; an introductory dream sequence that acts as kind of a prologue or teaser for the full game, and two full chapters where you're trapped in a location (one is set in a school, the other in a mansion) and trying to find a way out. Each chapter has some kind of vague over-arching goal you're trying to accomplish, but it's really just a matter of "try to find the next thing you have to do to advance the game" while dodging ghosts or taking pictures of them in the right way to vanquish them, solving puzzles (sometimes by finding and using inventory items like keys, or by taking pictures of things from the correct angle), and facing a sort of boss encounter at the end of each chapter.

As a low-budget indie game, it definitely looks the part -- low-resolution textures, blocky models, stiff animations, flat voice acting, weird user interface, stiff and sometimes unresponsive controls, random poor design choices, etc -- but it actually works surprisingly well as a horror game, not just aesthetically but mechanically as well. I went into DreadOut with no real expectations, other than my own desire to enjoy it since I like horror games so much and am always looking forward to finding horror games that are actually scary (or at least entertaining), and came away really pleased with the experience. It's not perfect, mind you -- even in terms of its horror elements, it has some rough spots -- but if you like horror games then this is one I can absolutely recommend.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Get Even: A Uniquely Fascinating Game With a Generically Uninteresting Name

Get Even (2017) is a first-person psychological thriller with elements of FPS action, stealth, and puzzle-solving wrapped up in a science-fiction detective theme, in which you play as a mercenary named Black being sent into people's memories through a virtual reality machine to try to figure out who's behind the kidnapping of a high school girl named Grace, who was being held for ransom with a bomb strapped to her chest. You wake up in a run-down asylum with no memory except that you were sent to rescue Grace, but failed. The last thing you remember is the bomb exploding as you tried to defuse it. With a VR headset permanently strapped to your head, you find yourself guided through the asylum by a man named Red, who communicates with you remotely through computer screens. The rest of the game alternates between progressing through the asylum while the inmates run amok, and going into memories related to the kidnapping, which act as more conventional "levels" that you can replay searching for more evidence you may have missed, or changing your approach to achieve a different ending.

Developed by The Farm 51, the company behind Necrovision, Painkiller: Hell & Damnation, and Deadfall AdventuresGet Even is predominantly a "story game," the type of thing where narrative presentation takes priority over gameplay systems, as you're mostly there to take part in the story. There's plenty enough gameplay elements involved as you periodically sneak or fight your way past enemies, solve puzzles, and search for hidden evidence, that it doesn't garner the pejorative "walking simulator" label, but you do spend a lot of time simply walking around and watching scenes play out, or reading emails and listening to phone conversations, as you try to piece together the story and solve the mystery. While the gameplay is perfectly fine and serviceable (it even has a few innovative features, like the "corner gun" that lets you aim around corners or use it like a periscope), the story and the atmosphere it creates are the real reasons to play this game; these elements are absolutely top notch, and they work together to create a pretty unique and memorable experience.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

On Role-Playing Games: How I Define "RPG" and What I Expect From RPGs

The term "role-playing game" has become somewhat nebulous and unhelpful these days when it comes to categorizing video games, in large part because so many games have started implementing RPG elements in their gameplay designs, causing the line between "RPG" and "not-RPG" to blur. Sometimes the distinction is easy to make, if the RPG elements are obviously secondary to some greater gameplay emphasis, but the advent and popularity of hybrid games (like the Mass Effect series, for instance, which are equal parts RPG and action-shooter) have raised serious questions about how we should classify RPGs, since nearly every RPG these days now falls on a wide spectrum based on "how much an RPG" it actually is. When thinking of what games I'd put in a "Top 10 Favorite RPGs" list, for instance, I struggle with deciding whether certain games should even be on the list; for example, is Deus Ex actually an RPG? What about Dark Souls? In both cases, my gut says "no," but you could make an argument for both games, based on how you actually define what constitutes a role-playing game.

A key issue with this debate is that different people have different definitions; for some, the simple presence of a leveling system makes any game an RPG, while others insist that it's more about choice and consequences, while still more people would say that it's about being able to make a character (or an entire party) and explore a large open world, playing the game however you want. In truth, there are a lot of specific mechanisms and general concepts that go into making an RPG, but it's probably not appropriate to draw a hard line in the sand and declare that "if a game doesn't have have these specific elements, then it's not an RPG." As the folks at Extra Credits have pointed out, mechanics don't define genres; why we play them, or what we're looking to get out of them, does. And as the classic Potter Stewart quote goes, "[I can't define it], but I know it when I see it." Which is to say, there's an inherently subjective logic about how we perceive and classify these games, and it's not always easy to put into words. But I'm going to try.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Fallout 4: A Case of Simultaneously Being Pretty Good and also Sucking Hard

It's no secret that I harbor a great deal of contempt for Bethesda Softworks. Every game of theirs that I've played (Daggerfall, Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout 3, and Skyrim) has majorly disappointed me, usually feeling like a soulless shell of some better game that might've been (or in some cases, that actually is/was). That disappointment stems generally from a combination of their shallow world designs and repetitive gameplay, both of which tend to feel lacking in meaningful depth or interesting systems, all in worlds that are so big they wear out their welcome well before their playtime runs out. A chief criticism of mine, especially lately, is that they just don't feel like very good RPGs, and yet ironically they've been generally improving by progressively devaluing the RPG side of things.

Fallout 4 is, to this point, the pinnacle of Bethesda taking a step back and essentially deciding that they're not even going to try to make role-playing games anymore -- they're just going to make open-world action-adventure games. As such, Fallout 4 is by far the most "dumbed-down" (ie, "streamlined") game Bethesda has ever made, but that's a good thing I feel. These were already pretty simple, mindless games to begin with, and so now it's easier to appreciate these games for what they actually are, instead of pretending they're something they're not and then feeling disappointed about it. As a result, I actually kind of liked Fallout 4 and sunk an unfathomable amount of time into it (235 hours, to be exact).

And yet, despite all the time I put into it, and despite saying that I "kind of liked" it, there's still a lot that's critically wrong with Fallout 4, to the point that I honestly can't say it's a good game. Sure, it's pretty good for what it is (a Bethesda game, and certainly not a Fallout game), but the bar is so low with these games that being "pretty good for a Bethesda game" isn't really much of a compliment. It still has all the inherent problems of a Bethesda game, and somehow, some of those problems are actually worse than they've ever been. It's hard to believe that, while Bethesda's games have steadily gotten a little more polished and a little bit fancier with each release, they've never really evolved when it comes to the core game design (you could even argue they've actually devolved over time), while Fallout 4 stands strong as an iconic example of just how questionable and misguided Bethesda's design decisions can actually be.