Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Why Elex is Better than Skyrim and The Witcher 3

Skyrim and The Witcher 3 are two of the biggest, most popular open-world action-RPGs ever created. Both of these games set a new standard for the genre when they were released in 2011 and 2015, with absurdly high metascores clocking in at 94 and 93, respectively. I was not as enamored with either of these games as the general public was, despite having a strong affinity for and appreciation of open-world RPGs; I had a lot of negative criticism to level against Skyrim, and even while praising The Witcher 3 rather extensively, I felt like it, too, had a lot of issues that seriously diluted and detracted from the experience. Both top-notch AAA productions with excellent presentation and smooth, accessible gameplay, that ultimately felt lacking in meaningful depth.

Enter Elex, the latest open-world action-RPG from Piranha Bytes, the small German studio behind the Gothic and Risen series. On a surface level it's actually much worse than either Skyrim or The Witcher 3, largely due to production limitations of being a much smaller studio (about 30 people, as opposed to hundreds) with a much smaller budget (about two million dollars versus 80 million plus). There's a distinct lack of polish across almost every aspect of the game, which on first impression can make it seem like a thoroughly mediocre, undesirable experience, but if you can get past these surface-layer blemishes there's a surprisingly deep, rich, and rewarding gameplay experience. By no means is Elex a perfect game, but I honestly feel like it's better than both Skyrim and The Witcher 3 in some of the areas that matter most when it comes to open-world action-RPGs.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Things Gothic 1 and 2 (Still) Do Better Than Elex

Piranha Bytes have been making open-world action-RPGs for nearly 20 years, starting with the first Gothic in 2001, and now with their most recent game, Elex, released a few weeks ago. All of their games (including the Risen series, released between Gothic and Elex) follow the same general formula with the same components; a big open world full of really tough enemies, where you have to explore, complete quests, and learn new skills to work your way up the food chain so that you can survive and complete the main quest. They've basically been making the same game for almost two decades, with a fresh coat of paint and a handful of tweaks and twists each time, and yet their newer games have never quite reached the level of success that the original Gothic games achieved, in terms of their gameplay design and execution.

Elex is a surprisingly strong effort that I'd say is almost as good as Gothic 2. It has a lot more modern polish, including much more accessible controls, and an actual tutorial to teach you how to play the game (but that's to be expected in this day and age), plus a much bigger world that still contains Piranha Bytes' signature detailed density, and improved quest design that gives you more options and more consequences for how you choose to resolve quests. It's actually better than Gothic and Gothic 2 in a lot of ways, and yet, surprisingly, there's a lot of good stuff about Gothic and Gothic 2 that have somehow never made it into subsequent Piranha Bytes games, and which are sorely missing in Elex. They had a pretty solid formula with those early games, and so it's weird, disappointing, and somewhat frustrating that, about 15 years later, some of the things that made Gothic and Gothic 2 so great still haven't found their way into Piranha Bytes' newer games.

My intention with this article is not to disparage Elex, because it really exceeded my expectations, even though it's still a little rough around the edges, in some ways. Rather, I want to celebrate Gothic and Gothic 2, and also use this as an opportunity to remind Piranha Bytes (if they're reading this) of some things that were great in those games, that really need to make a return in Elex 2

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Beginner's Guide to Elex: Tips and Advice

Helping you get the most enjoyment out of Elex's sometimes rough and daunting beginning.

Elex is a third-person open-world action-RPG from Piranha Bytes, a small German studio, that blends traditional fantasy, science fiction, and post-apocalypse themes. Set on a world 200 years after a comet wipes out nearly all life on the planet, the survivors have split into three factions that use elex, a mysterious substance that appeared with the comet, in their own unique way to fulfill their own goals and agendas. You can be a Dungeons & Dragons-style berserker who wields swords and casts fireballs, or a Mass Effect-style cleric who uses plasma rifles and psionic mind control, or a Mad Max-style outlaw who makes their own gear from scrap and enhances their abilities with powerful stims. It's got a huge world full of diverse environments, tons of quests, lasting consequences for decisions you make, and three different factions you can join, all of which radically alter your gameplay experience by offering unique equipment and skills.

It's surprisingly good, but like other Piranha Bytes games, it has a lot of quirks and idiosyncrasies that can make it difficult for unseasoned initiates to figure out how the game actually works, what you should be doing, and so on, combined with a really steep difficulty curve that makes no effort to hold your hand. For many players, this can lead to a lot of confusion and frustration right at the start of the game, which is never a good thing, obviously, but is especially unfortunate because Elex offers an extremely compelling, rich, and rewarding experience for those who can get into it. As a long-time Piranha Bytes veteran, I still struggled with a few things in my first playthrough, and had some of my expectations subverted when I realized, dozens of hours into it, that I wished I had done things a little differently.

The purpose of this article, therefore, is to help new (or prospective) players with general tips and advice about how the game works and what you should expect, with a few basic, spoiler-free strategies to facilitate a better gameplay experience. A large part of the fun in these games is the satisfaction and reward that comes from exploring the world and discovering things on your own, so I won't be going into specific detail about "go here and get this item, then do this quest as soon as possible, build your character exactly like this, etc," because I want to leave you that room to figure things out for yourself. But some things are tough to figure out without doing a lot of trial-and-error and seeing how things pan out over the course of a 50-100 hour playthrough. So, here are some of my thoughts and observations after pouring 143 hours (and counting) into multiple playthroughs, which I think should be helpful to other new players.

Friday, November 3, 2017

What I'm Playing: Elex

Regular readers may know, by this point, that I have a fondness for Piranha Bytes, the small German studio responsible for the Gothic and Risen series, with Gothic and Gothic 2 (released back in 2001 and 2003, respectively) being two of my favorite games of all time. Sadly, none of their other games have ever lived up to the legacy of Gothic and Gothic 2, with each new release being a case of "one step forward, two steps backward." Though I've enjoyed each and every subsequent game from Piranha Bytes, each one was marred by some critical design or technical problem that made them feel like definitively inferior games, and therefore tough to recommend to anyone but die-hard fans. Their latest game, Elex (released two weeks ago), is without a doubt head and shoulders above anything they've released recently. I've been so enamored by it that I've poured nearly 100 hours into it over the past two weeks en route to finishing a single playthrough.

I could write a full review on it at this point, but I want to save that until I've spent more time in a second playthrough trying different things to see how gameplay changes depending on your faction choice, and how much of an impact certain decisions actually have on the outcome of the story and gameplay progression. I feel confident enough that I could make some pretty reasonable deductions without needing to replay it, but really, I just enjoyed the game so much that I want to run through it again with a different playstyle. So, that's what I'll be doing. I also have a few other articles lined up, that I'm thinking of writing, detailing more direct comparisons to other games in the genre (ie, how it stacks up to Gothic 2, The Witcher 3, Skyrim, etc), so while I'm brainstorming all of that I just wanted to drop a quick update about what I'm up to. Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

This War of Mine - Review

This War of Mine (2014) is a point-and-click resource-management survival-simulator in which you play as a group of civilians attempting to survive as long as possible in a city that's under siege as part of an active civil war. The original hype surrounding this game centered entirely on how starkly it contrasted with typical military shooters (which tend to glorify war and murder) by putting you in the shoes of regular people -- not soldiers -- who have to suffer all of the hellish effects of war, despite being innocent bystanders. Although the game is decently engaging from a mechanical standpoint, it's really just a simple, run-of-the-mill survival-simulator; the real reason to play This War of Mine is to explore its theme of what it might be like to be a random civilian trying to survive a war, and to see a completely different wartime perspective than what's usually on offer in video games.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Mass Effect 2 Sucks

The first game I ever reviewed on this blog was the original Mass Effect, back in 2011. You can go back and read the review if you desire, but the whole thing is crudely written and doesn't really capture the nuance of how I felt about the game. It's been so long at this point that I can't elaborate on those thoughts any further, because I simply can't remember much of anything from ME1, except to say that I remember generally enjoying the game despite being constantly annoyed by simple, repetitive gameplay and obnoxious enemy-scaling and loot-scaling.

For years I've been hearing about how Mass Effect 2 was supposedly better than the original. A quick scan of google search results shows hundreds of articles and forum posts from 2010 heralding it as one of the greatest RPGs -- nay, greatest games, period -- of all time, while more recent articles with years of hindsight continue to sing its praises and laud its place in the pantheon of video game history. Apparently these people have never played good RPGs -- or good games, for that matter -- or else they all have wildly different definitions than I do as to what constitutes a "good" game, because there's virtually nothing about Mass Effect 2 that I can actually praise apart from its slick presentation and general aesthetic.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

DOOM 2016: "Holy Hell, This is Actually Good."

The original Doom games from 1993 and 1994 are some of my favorite first-person shooters of all time, but I haven't really enjoyed anything that developer id Software has put out since. Quake (1996) felt a little too bland and uninspired to hold my attention and I quit part-way through its second episode; Doom 3 (2004) was alright but felt too much like a System Shock-inspired survival-horror game, and less like a Doom game; and Rage (2011) inappropriately and ineffectively tried to cash in on the open-world post-apocalyptic FPS-RPG fad that was already running strong with Borderlands and Fallout: New Vegas. So when id announced DOOM (2016), which was supposed to be a reboot of their beloved series and a return to the style of fast-paced, no-nonsense action shooter that they single-handedly invented back in the early-90s, I had little faith that it would actually be any good.

As it turns out, DOOM (2016) is actually a solid FPS. It's one of few reboots that supposedly "goes back to its roots" and actually delivers on that promise; DOOM un-apologetically bucks many of the trends souring modern FPS games and offers a gameplay experience that focuses on intense action blended with complex level design. It feels very much like the original games, but with the added benefit of some modern polish and extra features. Even disregarding the legacy of its predecessors and how it stands up against them, DOOM works great as a stand-alone game with a decently long campaign that offers a ton of satisfying variety, challenge, and progression. This is a quality game from top to bottom that, for once in a AAA game, deserves all the praise it's received.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Red Faction: Guerrilla Sucks

Red Faction: Guerrilla is one of the worst games I've ever played. That statement's a bit hyperbolic, I admit, but even when I don't like a game I can usually find some sort of redeeming value, some reason to maybe like it in spite of its problems. I can't do that with Red Faction: Guerrilla. Sure, the Geo Mod 2.0 system, which allows you to reduce towering buildings to piles of rubble through a full-fledged physics-based destruction system, can be a lot of fun, but literally everything else in this game -- vehicles, combat, missions, the story, the open world -- is either underwhelming or completely rubbish. It's like they had this idea for a great destruction system and then slapped a bunch of stuff together to make a game out of it, without bothering to make sure any of the actual game was any good.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Armello Review: A Poorly-Designed Board Game Dressed Up Like a Video Game

Most digital board games are merely adaptations of actual, physical board games; they keep all the same gameplay elements and components of the physical game and simply add a digital interface so that you can interact with the components, and therefore actually play the game. Platforms like Board Game Simulator and Tabletopia are just physics engines with digital versions of board game components that play virtually identically to the real thing, with you picking up and moving your pieces across the board and dragging cards into the play area, substituting your hands for a mouse cursor. Armello -- successfully Kickstarted in May 2014 and released on Steam in September 2015 -- may be the only digital board game without a physical counterpart, since it was designed from the ground up to be digital. As such, it's basically a hybrid game with the design concepts of board games and the functional feeling of a video game.

Armello is a fantasy-themed turn-based strategy game for up to four players, in which everyone plays as different anthropomorphic animal clans (represented by their hero) vying for control of the animal kingdom after a dark poison known as the Rot has overtaken the land and driven the lion King mad. The game lasts up to 20 rounds, with the king -- positioned in the palace at the center of the hex-based board -- losing one health from Rot poisoning every other round, at dawn, until he eventually dies. If it comes to that, the player with the most Prestige (ie, victory points) wins the game by being the most worthy successor to the throne. However, players can also end the game early by breaching the palace and assassinating the weakened king, or by collecting four spirit stones and bringing them to the palace to cure the king. A player who kills or cures the king wins, regardless of prestige.

You'll be rolling dice based on your stats to complete quests, survive perils, and to fight monsters and other players, while using limited action points to move across the board towards specific objectives and to maneuver past obstacles. You'll also be managing a hand of cards, drawing up to your hand limit every turn. These cards consist of different types of equipment, spells, and trickery cards, all of which have some type of cost to use. Equipment cards can be permanently equipped to your hero for various benefits, while spells and trickery cards can be played at any time (even when it's not your turn) on enemies, tiles, or other players. You'll complete quests to increase your stats, claim settlements to increase your income, defeat monsters to earn prestige, explore dungeons for random rewards, and play your spells and trickeries on other players to influence and control the board.

I play a lot of video games, obviously, but I'm also an avid board gamer. I've actually spent more money on board games over the last three years than I have on video games (which includes money spent upgrading my computer), and I've even reviewed a few board games on this blog. It's safe to say that I'm exactly the kind of person this game is intended for, and yet I just don't like it very much. Perhaps that's in large part because this just maybe isn't my type of game (I'm not a huge fan of dice-chuckers, although many of my favorite games use dice and I do enjoy games like Run Fight or Die and Cosmic Run), but Armello features several rules and gameplay features that I and a lot of gamers consider to be objectively bad. While I can tolerate or even embrace some of these things in the right context or in small doses, Armello takes some of them to the extreme, with too much prevalence in a game that's a little too long and serious for what it ultimately is.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Darksiders: Derivative, Redundant, Uninspired

Darksiders (2010) is essentially the love-child of The Legend of Zelda and Devil May Cry. Picture, if you will, a Zelda game in the vein of Ocarina of Time or Twilight Princess, set in modern times after a war between Heaven and Hell has wiped humanity off the face of the earth and left its landscape a ruined mess, in which you play as War -- one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse -- trying to clear his name after he's framed for prematurely bringing about the apocalypse, by going into Zelda-style dungeons to solve puzzles and unlock special items that will help you defeat the boss and unlock new areas of the world map, while fighting enemies using a combination of a giant sword, scythe, and pistol to build combo-chains Devil May Cry-style. That's Darksiders in a nutshell; it's a carbon copy so similar to those two games that a cynical person might say it straight up plagiarizes them, while others might say that it is more of an homage in the style of those two games.

I certainly qualify as a hardcore cynic, but I generally enjoy Zelda games and there aren't enough 3D Zelda-clones out there to scratch the Zelda itch while waiting years on end for a new Zelda game to come out (on a brand new console that you can't afford until the price drops several more years later). I was looking forward to playing Darksiders, hoping that it would offer that same Zelda feel but with a more mature theme full of grimdark imagery and bloody violence. Darksiders succeeds on both fronts, but at the same time it feels a little too rote and mechanical, as if the developer, Vigil Games, was so focused on reproducing the Zelda and Devil May Cry formulae that they forgot to put any of their own creativity into the game, thus leaving us with a perfectly functional and decently enjoyable game that's ultimately too derivative, redundant, and uninspired for its own good.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Problem With Open World Games, or "Why Open World Games Suck"

The joint release of Horizon Zero Dawn and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild -- two of the biggest and most ambitious open-world games ever made -- within days of each other has spawned a lot of discussion about which game handles the open world formula better, and which represents the future of open world gaming. I've not played either one so I won't be commenting on that issue directly. Instead I'll be giving my thoughts on open world games in general, based on observations and trends I've noticed in the open world games I've played over the past 15 years.

As the title already states, I have some major issues with open world games. It's not that I don't like them, or that they're all bad across the board -- in fact, many of my all-time favorite games are open world, or at least semi-open world. There are a lot of good things to like about open world games, hence why they've become so popular lately, but I feel like very few developers do the open world concept justice. It seems like most of the mainstream AAA open world games that I play end up subtly or outright disappointing me, and consequently I've grown apprehensive of games that consider their big open worlds to be their main selling point.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Dark Souls 3: The Ringed City - DLC Review

The Ringed City is the second and final DLC for Dark Souls 3, and supposedly the final piece of content that will ever be produced in the Dark Souls series. Its story continues where Ashes of Ariandel left off; after defeating the final boss of the Painted World of Ariandel, you gain access to a bonfire that warps you to a new area, the Dreg Heap, where you go on a brief journey through the dilapidated ruins of past Dark Souls environments en route to the Ringed City, where Slave Knight Gael (who beckoned you into Ariandel) hopes to find the Dark Soul of Man so that his niece, the painter from Ashes of Ariandel, can use it to create a new world.

This DLC introduces two new areas (the Dreg Heap and the Ringed City itself), four new bosses (one of which is optional), a new covenant, all new enemies, plus a bunch of new weapons, armor sets, and spells. As part of the release, FromSoft also released a patch for the base game which tweaks some balance issues (mainly buffing strength weapons and heavy armor) and which also adds two new maps to the PVP arena, which is only accessible if you've purchased either of the two DLCs. The first DLC, Ashes of Ariandel, felt a little too short and underwhelming to recommend to anyone but die-hard fans; for the same price, The Ringed City offers over twice as much content, a lot of which is pretty unique stuff that's never really been seen or done before in a Souls game, so it's pretty easy to recommend.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Great Games You Never Played: Wizardry 8

Wizardry 8 is a first-person party-based dungeon-crawling three-dimensional open-world role-playing game. Released in 2001 as the final entry in the long-running Wizardry series (which began in 1981 as one of the very first computer-RPGs), Wizardry 8 completes the "Dark Savant" trilogy that began with Wizardry 6, throughout which you're trying to stop an evil villain known as the Dark Savant from gaining access to the Cosmic Forge -- the tools used by the gods to create the universe, which hold the power to create, destroy, or change anything in the universe by simply writing its history into existence. Despite being a continuation of the story from the previous two games (your save files can be carried through all three games), Wizardry 8 works fine as a stand-alone title, although you'll miss a lot of references and it might take you a little longer to understand the backstory.

As part of a game series borne of the 1980s, Wizardry 8 definitely has that vintage, old-school vibe to it, but with the advantage of a much more modern skin which makes it a much easier game to get into. That's absolutely crucial, because this is a truly great RPG that easily ranks among the best RPGs ever made. It's not perfect, mind you -- there's one crucial problem that made me almost want to quit, and it's a little rough around the edges due to developer SirTech's dwindling budget -- but it's got one of the most robust party-creation systems ever implemented in a video game, and one of the best turn-based combat systems of any RPG. Not to mention a fairly sizable open-world with an interesting blend of fantasy and science-fiction elements, and a non-linear main-quest-line that allows for a lot of rewarding exploration and discovery.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Pathologic: The Marble Nest - Demo Impressions

The original Pathologic, released back in 2005 by Russian developer Ice-Pick Lodge, is one of the most unique and interesting games ever made. I reviewed it five years ago and had a lot of high praise for it. The legacy of the original game is so strong that Ice-Pick Lodge took to Kickstarter a few years ago planning a remake that would fix some of the original's critical problems while re-imagining and improving many of the story elements and gameplay mechanics. As part of the process in developing the new version, they've recently released a free playable demo called The Marble Nest, which consists of a stand-alone scenario meant to showcase some of the game's more prominent gameplay mechanisms while condensing the full game experience down to two hours. 

For the uninitiated, Pathologic is a type of survival-horror adventure game played in first-person, in which you take the role of one of three different healers who have arrived in a strange town with a bunch of bizarre and mysterious customs just as a deadly plague breaks out. The game takes place over the course of 12 days, with the town changing dramatically as the plague spreads and more and more people become infected. Each day comes with a main quest that must be completed while the clock continues to tick, leaving you a limited amount of time each day to complete your tasks. Meanwhile, you have to manage your own condition on various statistical gauges, which involves scrounging the environment for resources and manipulating a fickle economy where sometimes your only hope for survival is to sell your only weapon for a few slices of bread.

The Marble Nest maintains all of these ideas, but trims some of the more complicated survival systems and economy management down while putting you in a scenario that spans only one day. In it, you wake up some time after the plague has already wiped out most of the population, after your final quarantine zone has been breached. With seemingly all hope lost, you watch as the city collapses around you, and then the game flashes back to 14 hours prior, giving you a chance to possibly prevent the catastrophe from happening, although you'll most likely fail and everyone will die horribly, as is the true spirit of Pathologic

Monday, March 13, 2017

Titan Quest: The "Neapolitan Ice Cream" of Action-RPGs

Titan Quest is a hack-n-slash action-RPG based on ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Chinese mythology. It seemed to fly under the radar back in 2006, and yet somehow, for some reason, publisher THQ decided to release a massive free update for it 10 years later in 2016. Dubbed the "Anniversary Edition," this new version is a complete overhaul of the original game with performance tweaks, improved functionality, new features, and better balancing while also throwing in the Immortal Throne expansion. The core gameplay follows the traditions of Diablo, where you work your way through a series of levels fighting enemies, collecting randomized loot, and investing points in skill trees when you level up, all in an overhead axonometric view with a mouse-driven interface and real-time combat.

Action-RPGs aren't usually my cup of tea. I played some of the original Titan Quest back in 2007 (the "Gold Edition" box is still sitting on my shelf) as well as a few others in the genre (Diablo, Diablo 3, Dungeon Siege, Dungeon Siege 2, Path of Exile), but in each case I only played for a few hours and then lost interest. Titan Quest: Anniversary Edition is the first of this type of game that I've actually played to completion, and even then, I still technically haven't completed it because I stopped shortly after finishing the base game's campaign, having no desire to continue further with the expansion content. That should give you a pretty clear idea of how I felt about the game: I enjoyed it enough to play it through until the end, but not enough to keep going when it tried to get me to stick around for more.

Since I'm not a super-seasoned aciton-RPG person I can't get into much detail about how Titan Quest stacks up to other games in the genre, but even with my limited familiarity with these games I still find it difficult to talk about Titan Quest as its own entity because it seems like such a bog-standard, formulaic action-RPG that most of what I'd be saying about it could apply to all action-RPGs in general. I feel like this is the type of game that I could just say "it's Diablo but set in ancient Greece, Egypt, and China" and you would intuitively know if you'd like it or not. Still, I have some observations that might help shed some more light on the game and perhaps explain the Neapolitan ice cream comparison in the title.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Resident Evil 7: Banned Footage DLC Review

The first wave of DLC for Resident Evil 7 consists of two separate packs: Banned Footage Vol. 1 ($9.99) and Banned Footage Vol. 2 ($14.99). Each pack comes with two video cassette "flashbacks" plus a bonus game mode, for a total of six scenarios. Volume 1 features "Nightmare," in which you play as Clancy trapped in the basement trying to fight off waves of molded; "Bedroom," in which you play as Clancy locked in a bedroom trying to solve puzzles to escape; and "Ethan Must Die," an ultra-hard rogue-lite mini-campaign in which you play as Ethan exploring the main house and green house before fighting a boss. Volume 2 features "21," in which you play as Clancy forced by Lucas to play a sadistic version of high-stakes blackjack; "Daughters," in which you play as Zoe on the night that the Baker family starts to turn; and "Jack's 55th Birthday," in which you play as Mia in a comically bizarre time-trial scenario about searching the Baker estate for food to bring to Jack.

Since each scenario involves a completely different premise with its own unique gameplay, I'll be reviewing each scenario individually, grouped based on how they appear in the two DLC packs. I'll give my overall thoughts on the value and balance of content for each DLC pack -- essentially, whether either of them is worth buying or not -- in the conclusion section at the end of the article.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Serious Sam Sucks. Seriously.

Serious Sam hails from 2001 and alleges to be a no-nonsense, to-the-point action shooter that's simply about mowing down hordes of enemies with a full arsenal of machine guns, shotguns, and explosives while frantically running around spacious ancient Egyptian levels collecting armor, health, and ammo drops and searching for hidden secrets for extra powerups. The series is often mentioned on message boards as being one of the best 90s-style arena-shooters ever made, with people absolutely loving it for its frenetic, over-the-top action. I have a fondness for these types of games, with Doom, Painkiller, and Ziggurat ranking among my favorite FPS games. I also remember enjoying Duke Nukem 3D and Shadow Warrior back in the day, though I never finished them and haven't played either one in almost 20 years.

I went into Serious Sam: The First Encounter (as part of the Classics: Revolution version, available on Steam Early Access) fully expecting to enjoy it, based on a combination of its esteemed reputation and my appreciation for this style of game. I started out thinking "this is pretty good," but as I got further into the game it started to annoy me, and after a while I started to actively dislike it. After completing nine of its thirteen levels, I just have no desire to continue playing it any longer. The game is too tedious and repetitive to be fun, for me, and there's nothing inspiring about its weaponry or level design. Despite the promise of bombastic, over-the-top action and all-around whimsical silliness, the game feels bland to me, and it doesn't feel worth the hassle for me to push forward just to finish it.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

SOMA Review: Somewhere Beyond the Sea

"From the creators of Amnesia: The Dark Descent comes SOMA, a sci-fi horror game set below the waves of the Atlantic ocean. Struggle to survive a hostile world that will make you question your very existence." That's the product description on Steam, which labels SOMA specifically as a horror game, and even goes so far as to imply that it's not just horror -- it's survival-horror. That's kind of misleading, I feel, because SOMA really feels more like an adventure game first and foremost. The story is clearly the main point of emphasis, with you spending the bulk of the game learning about what happened to the doomed crew of the futuristic underwater research station, Pathos-II, and solving light puzzles to progress. The horror elements are definitely there -- a few monsters show up to impede your progress, and there are some good scripted scares and moments of genuine tension -- but the horror in SOMA is really more of a theme than a core gameplay mechanism.

You play as Simon Jarrett, a man suffering from a traumatic brain injury as the result of a car crash. The game begins with you agreeing to meet a researcher to take part in an experimental brain scan for a developing technology that he thinks might be able to help. You sit down to perform the brain scan, your vision goes black, and then suddenly you find yourself in another place, surrounded by metal walls and high tech computer terminals. It's dark, and there's blood on the floor. A few dive suits hang in the nearby corner. No one else seems to be around. You stumble upon a call log, in which two people talk about sealing the doors to keep "them" out and making sure everything is set to run on standby for when they evacuate. The rest of the game is a matter of finding out what this place is, what happened to it, how you got there, and how you can get back home -- if you even can at all.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Resident Evil 7: "Survival-Horror's Back, Baby!"

I used to consider myself a fan of the Resident Evil series, from the slow-paced adventure-style gameplay of the originals to the stronger action focus of the fourth main installment. But ever since Resident Evil 5, which I found to be an underwhelming letdown, I've found myself cynically jaded by the barrage of sequels and spin-offs to have been churned out by the grand corporate machine. Revelations seemed promising, but ended up subtly disappointing me on every front. I never even bothered with Resident Evil 6, and I was super skeptical of Resident Evil 7 at first. Claiming that it was taking heavy inspiration from the series' roots while adding a modernized twist on the classic formula (in the form of the first-person perspective, a series first), I was a little worried that it was going to be just another haunted house jump-scare simulator with little in the way of actual gameplay.

It certainly seemed that way for the first 30 minutes, but once I got past that introduction sequence and starting exploring the main part of the game, it really started to shine, and I realized: this is the most Resident Evil-feeling game I've played in a long, long time. It really does capture that old-school vibe of exploring a spooky house, searching for convoluted keys to ridiculously locked doors and solving puzzles to progress, while managing a limited supply of ammunition and healing items, and occasionally fighting or running away from enemies. A handful of boss battles cause the intensity to spike periodically, but Resident Evil 7 is much more of a true survival-horror game than an action shooter, despite the "innovative" first-person shooter perspective, which I might add actually does a lot for the game's atmosphere and immersion.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Shadow of Mordor: "Eh, It's Aight"

I didn't like Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor at first. In fact, there were times when I actively disliked it. For the first two hours I was so confused and overwhelmed that I just wasn't having fun with the game, and so I stopped playing for a couple weeks. I came back to it later, put another two hours into it, and started getting the hang of things; I could see some of the game's appeal, but it still wasn't catching my interest. I stopped playing for a few more weeks, then came back for another two hours and decided that I just wasn't interested in finishing the game. I was ready to start writing a negative impressions review, but after giving it some sleep I decided to give Shadow of Mordor one last chance. That's when everything finally clicked for me, and I finally started having some fun. I finished the game two days later.

It's safe to say that I liked Shadow of Mordor overall, but I'm certainly not on the "best game ever" hype-train that a lot of people were riding back in late 2014 and early 2015. Shadow of Mordor definitely has its problems, and although the core gameplay is really satisfying and addicting (if you can get into it), it proves to be awfully shallow and repetitive. This is an open-world game where the open world doesn't even matter, and where all you ever do is kill orcs. This is a mechanically-solid game that successfully blends the Assassin's Creed-style free-running parkour and stealth-action systems with the Batman: Arkham Asylum-style attack/counter-attack combat system, that unfortunately doesn't have much character or soul beneath those mechanics. It could've been great, but the end result is a game that's just a little bit better than average, and ultimately still kind of disappointing.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Impressions of The Last Guardian

I had the opportunity over the last week to play several hours of The Last Guardian, the third and latest game by Team Ico set in the same world as Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. I wasn't able to finish it, unfortunately -- I was out of town playing on a friend's PS4 -- but I made it a little more than halfway through, which I feel is sufficient to write a partial review of the game.

The Last Guardian feels a lot like Ico, with you playing a young boy trying to navigate his way through dilapidated fortresses while escorting an NPC-ally through the environments. Except, instead of escorting a helpless young girl around, you're working together with a giant beast named Trico who needs your help as much as you need his in order to progress. Working with Trico feels, at times, like playing Shadow of the Colossus, because of how you often have to climb and manipulate Trico in order to get around. As the third game of this quasi-series, The Last Guardian feels like a pretty good mixture of everything that came before it. And if the first two games were good, then The Last Guardian must also be good, right?

The answer to that question is, of course, a bit of "yes and no."