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.

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.