Vampyr & Eating NPCs

2020 was something else, wasn’t it? With the pandemic and so much civil unrest, there were parts of the year that seem like a bad dream to me. March marked one year of working from home and I’m one of the lucky ones to have a job that can be done from home. My main hobbies of reading and video games are also inherently solitary ones, so I don’t mind staying inside a lot. But after a year, even I’m starting to go stir crazy. Not helping is that I’ve been playing Dontnod’s Vampyr over the past few months, a game that reflects the pandemic and people’s suffering because of it in a very surreal way. It’s interesting then that the biggest threat to the characters in the game is not the pandemic they face, but the player themselves.

At first glance, Vampyr looks like just a standard pseudo-open world, action RPG. The meat and bones of the game are based around stamina focused combat and exploring London as Johnathan Reid, a doctor turned vampire, while the city is being eaten alive by the effects of the Great War and the Spanish Flu simultaneously. While the setting is fascinating, combat feels clunky and loose, especially in boss fights when it is thrown into focus, the visuals tend to be muddy and character models particularly suffer, and the story is not especially well written, leaving the body of the game feeling malnourished. But the heart of the game is still strong, pumping blood throughout the rest of it and keeping it alive—that being the NPC’s and their lives being subjected to the player’s decisions.

Nearly every NPC in the game can be interacted with and spoken to—all of them have problems they are dealing with, secrets they are keeping, fears, dreams, desires that help them and the city of London both feel alive. They can be killed by Johnathan too, used to feed his vampiric thirst for blood. Feeding on an NPC gives the player a shot of experience points, making it the fastest way to get some quick levels and improve your skills. The trade off is that the character killed is obviously dead, never to be spoken to again, merchants cannot be traded with, and the district’s overall health will suffer. You can also gain experience by completing quests for characters and beating basic mobs and bosses, but the quests and bosses are finite and the common enemies you could grind against give such a pitiful amount of experience that it’s not worth the time. The combat in the game is not complicated enough that you will be at a huge disadvantage if you are under-leveled, but to get a variety of skills and improve them, eating NPCs is by far the most effective way to level up.

The game smartly encourages the player to interact with the story and get to know every character you wish to kill before committing the crime. Every character has aspects of their personality or past that can be discovered through dialogue trees, information learned from other characters, notes and clues scattered around, even spying on them occasionally by using your powerful vampire hearing to listen to their private conversations. Slowly learning about characters through conversations feels natural and makes them feel fleshed out and able to surprise you. A character you initially distrust or dislike turns out to be a good person tried by difficult times. All the while, a character you liked at first might confess to committing some horrible act or hold some disgusting views. It’s up to you as the player to navigate the gray, foggy streets of London and its residents to decide which character is the best (most deserving, in a way) to be fed on. But Johnathan Reid is a man of two opposing ideals and it is also his desire to keep the city alive and healthy.

Before his fate sank its fangs into Johnathan’s neck, he was a doctor and compelled by the Hippocratic Oath to treat all the sick he met. While this is still the case, he is obviously conflicted by his need to feed on the blood of the living, leading to another mechanic in Vampyr. The same way you must converse with and discover all you can about a NPC, you are also incentivized to treat their illnesses. If a character is sick, then their blood is weaker when feeding on them, meaning the player gets less experience points from killing them. The sicker they are, a bigger chunk of experience is missing. So while a player is going around speaking with NPCs and learning more about them, they will also inquire about their medical needs, craft medicines, and dole them out like a health concerned Santa Claus. It’s important to diligently treat the citizens of London and think carefully about who you feed on because the foundation of any community is its citizens and they all have knock-on effects on the city’s health.

It’s easy to think of London in Vampyr as an old cottage and the NPC citizens are the stones in the walls: the more of them you take out, the weaker the house will become overall—susceptible to the outside elements like weather and predators. The city is divided into districts and the health of each is displayed in a scale ranging from sanitized to hostile. A district’s overall health determines the price that merchants will sell their wares at and the amount of enemies that will appear in the streets, along with their levels—the worst the health in a district is, the more high level enemies you will face. During my playthrough, I had only one district fall into hostile and that was due to a choice made about the fate of Aloysius Dawson.

Dawson lived in the wealthy West End district of London. He is the richest man in the city and the pillar of his community. He is terrified of death and thinks his money makes him the most powerful man in the city. A seperatist at heart, he wants to build a wall around the West End to prevent the plague from reaching into the rich homes and let the poorer neighborhoods fight for themselves instead of helping them. I hated Dawson much like I hate the real-life, mega-rich capitalists he is an analogue for. So when it was time to decide if I would turn him into a vampire or let him die, I chose the latter and convinced him to accept his death. He did so and died that night, donating medical supplies and money to the community resulting in everyone returning to a health state for a while. I took advantage of that bump to the city’s health to go on a spree of sorts, eating the NPCs on my list I didn’t like and raking in the experience. When I was finished, the West End had fallen into the critical range and I then learned that meant all NPCs I spared were killed anyways and the district was overrun by Skals and vampire hunters.

Losing all NPCs in the West End was the only real time the game had an emotional impact on me. I felt like garbage because there were characters in the district I truly liked and didn’t want to die. Like Charlotte, the love interest Lady Ashbury’s adopted daughter. I thought Charlotte’s death would have repercussions with Johnathan’s relationship to Lady Ashbury, but it was never mentioned in any future conversations. I still didn’t want her to die though. She was one of the many folks just trying to survive in the chaos of the pandemic. She wasn’t trying to profit off it or willfully ignore the suffering of others or a danger to other citizens like so many others and even Johnathan himself.

Treating patients to keep the city healthy is a great way to show Johnathan as a doctor through gameplay and allowing players to devour NPCs shows his vampiric side. However, I feel the latter is not pushed enough by the game. It would make Johnathan’s melodrama of being torn between wanting to save lives and his need to end them to survive a lot more poignant and relatable if the game really pushed players to eat folks to survive too. As stated above, the game is not difficult enough where being under leveled from abstaining to feed on NPCs is that big of a detriment. I thought it would be interesting if the game had a mechanic similar to that of Dark Souls 2 where a small chunk of your overall health is knocked off every time you die. It’s negligible at first, but after multiple deaths the player will start feeling their missing health points more and more. With this idea, the only way to get these health points back is to feed on someone, pushing players even harder to feed on the NPCs while also requiring more thought about when and who to devour.

I’m only disappointed because everyone else I’ve talked about Vampyr went with a no kill run to shoot for the good ending of the game when the mechanic of eating NPCs is such a great idea. It’s a problem not just with Vampyr, but pretty much every game with obvious good/bad endings. Players are more likely to shoot for a good ending and can miss out on mechanics and stories a game has to offer when pushed towards one goal. I knew of the multiple endings when booting up Vampyr the first time, but I didn’t care about which one I got. To me, the strength of the game and its most interesting aspect is the choice given to players about which NPCs to feed on. I wanted to interact with this mechanic, to see how it was utilized and how far it could be pushed, to see the benefits and drawbacks, and what differences it brought to my experience compared to others. When the West End fell and everyone there perished, I felt horrible, but it was thematically in tune with the game. You should expect a game named Vampyr to make you feel like a monster.

Super Mario Galaxy: Critical Miss #25

Shoot for the Golden Stars

I’ve always loved Mario games. From the colorful, cheery art styles to the depth of the movement mechanics to the sheer creativity displayed in the games, Mario is the undisputed king of video games. But there are still major gaps in my experiences with his games. I never had a Gamecube growing up so I missed out on Sunshine and The Thousand-Year Door until recently. While I had a Wii as a teenager, I didn’t really play it all that much. This means I also missed out on Super Mario Galaxy, the debut 3D Mario game on the system released in 2007, still widely considered to be one of the best games in the series, until the recent rerelease of the game in the Super Mario 3D Allstars on the Switch. 

The core game of Galaxy appears to be untouched with its port to the Switch, but what has changed are the controls. Since the game was made to be the marquee 3D Mario title of the Wii, Galaxy was designed to be a showcase of the new Wiimote and its features. The pointer was used to collect Star Bits, grab blue stars to pull Mario to them, and sometimes even an air horn looking fan that blows Mario in a bubble. Motion controls were utilized too, of course. Wagging the Wiimote made Mario do a spin attack and specific levels, like the manta ray racing and ball rolling levels, have unique controls that all involve twisting the Wiimote around. The Switch port allows the player to substitute the motion controls for standard button and analogue stick controls, but offers the player two options for how to control the pointer. In handheld mode, you use the Switch’s touch screen to guide the pointer. In menus or simpler levels, this works fine, but in long Pull Star sections, you will find your hand blocking most of the screen, making it impossible to see what’s coming up ahead. In docked mode with detached Joy Cons, you can use the right controller to aim the pointer and this is how I would recommend playing the game. Since the Joy Con uses gyro motion instead of infrared sensors like the Wiimote, you will have to recenter the pointer often, but this is easily done with a quick press of the R button and is never a hassle.

I wanted to mention the differences in controls because that’s the only major difference in the version of the game I played. Besides those, Super Mario Galaxy is the same game at its planetary core. After Bowser steals Peach along with her entire castle and a short tutorial level, Mario finds himself on the Planet Observatory, newcomer Rosalina’s intergalactic vessel. As a hub world, the Planet Observatory is not my favorite. There are nice aspects to it, like how more instruments get added to the theme that plays and the more livelier it feels as you progress through the game, and I appreciate how contained and focused it feels. However, there’s not much to do there—no secrets or extra levels to find and all rewards like extra lives are in plain sight. I think I would have preferred a simple level select or world map instead because the act of climbing all the way up the Observatory for late game levels takes a little too long, and that’s time taken out of playing the wonderful levels.

The incredible amount of creativity and variety on display in Super Mario Galaxy cannot be understated. There are forty-two levels in the game and, besides a few common themes and a few outright reskins near the end, each has mechanics and challenges differing from the rest. Sometimes you will be running under little planets as the camera tries to follow you. Other times you will be in a side scrolling type section with arrows on the walls dictating which direction gravity will pull you. There are launch star pieces to collect, blue switch pads to hit, lasers to avoid, cages to blow up with Bullet Bills, Star Bits to gather to feed to hungry Lumas for power up and additional routes in levels and even additional levels themselves! The whole game feels like you are a kid adrift in Toy Time Galaxy.

Forty-two levels is a massive increase to Mario 64’s fifteen stages and Sunshine’s nine (even Odyssey’s sixteen later), but there is the same amount of Stars to collect in all three games. This is because Galaxy’s levels are much smaller and usually more linear than the other 3D games in the series. Most levels have only three Stars to get with maybe a secret Star or Prankster Comet Star (a remixed challenge of a previous Star) to grab. This leads to the designs on the levels having a more mission based, get-to-point-B objective to them instead of 64 and Sunshine’s sandbox approach to level design. You see the Star’s location and a general route in the initial flyover of the level and then it’s just completing the challenges in the way to grab it. This would get repetitive having to do the same challenges three times, but luckily Galaxy’s levels have a lot of bits and pieces that are swapped in and out for different stars like building different things from the same set of Legos. It’s a little disappointing that players can’t decide or make their own path through levels like you can in other 3D Mario games, but with most of them being composed of small planets, with each having their own unique goal to accomplish, I understand why. The levels you create from hungry Luma’s themselves are just one-off challenges with a single Star to collect.

The whole game feels sadly limiting to the player—almost to the point where it feels more like a 2D game in the series as opposed to a 3D one. Mario has all his acrobatics of Super Mario 64 and that means a long list of moves that can be performed; the long jump, the triple long, slide somersault, and backflip are all tools like your plumber overall to pull out and use at any moment. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t give you much reason to ever use them in creative ways. I didn’t see anywhere I could take a shortcut by making tricky jumps like in 64 or Sunshine or any hard to reach nooks hiding secrets and collectables like the later 3D World and Odyssey offered. I may have missed them since it was my first time playing the game and it didn’t rather bother me that much in the end. With level design this stellar, it is not actually much of a problem that they are more linear because they are still incredibly fun to go through, but it did clash with how I expect a 3D Mario game to feel and that it was a little jarring.

The more I played Galaxy, the more it struck me how much of a transitory game between the older sandbox designed games in the series like 64 and Sunshine and the more linear 3D games of 3D Land and 3D World that took inspiration from Mario’s 2D roots. Oddly enough, this thought came to me most when thinking about the power-ups in the game. There’s a good handful of power-ups on display in Galaxy—more so than any other 3D game of the series at that point. The Fire Flower makes its debut in 3D, the Ice Flower creates ice under Mario’s feet and lets him slide across water, Bee Mario can fly for a short time and climb on certain surfaces, Spring Mario hops everywhere and is terrible, and the spooky Boo Mario can become intangible to phase through walls. All these power-ups are great fun to use, so it’s disappointing that they are as situational as the power-ups in 64 and some F.L.U.D.D. upgrades in Sunshine. Most are on a timer (including the Fire Flower which has always been an upgrade until the player was hit) and are used for specific challenges that must be completed with them. There is no way to take a power-up from the level you find it in and bring it to another for creative and experimental uses like would be possible in 3D World, there didn’t seem to be any chances to even bring them to different parts of the level to find secrets like you can with the Captures in Odyssey—you have to use them only for the specific challenge right in front of you. I get having more limited challenges help curate a more focused game, but it led to a nagging sense of inorganicness in the back of my head.

These are the things that came to my head when sitting down to write this review—the more linear, but still incredibly designed, fun, and creative levels, the disappointing situational requirements of the power-ups that had so much more potential, and the lack of utilization of Mario’s acrobatic movement, his greatest feature. But none of this is a deal break at all. Super Mario Galaxy is still an incredibly fun and rewarding game and very much deserves to be played today. I won’t say that I wasn’t disappointed with it because I was, but only slightly. After years of hearing how it’s possibly the greatest game ever, after countless reviews lauding its praises, and after playing Super Mario Odyssey—easily the best Mario game to me and possibly even one of the best games Nintendo has ever made—Galaxy had no chance other than to disappoint do to my in the clouds expectations and that is not the game’s fault. That’s the poison of hype, folks: it leaves you satisfied with even the greatest of games.

Going Under & Weapon Durability

There are certain divisive mechanics or design choices in video games. These are things like escort missions, fetch quests, and grinding in RPGs—things that people either seem to absolutely despise, or it doesn’t bother them at all. The release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild rekindled the fire of discussion around one such mechanic: weapon durability. Suddenly, the internet was aflame with debates of the merits, annoyances, and possible tweaks that could be made for breakable weapons in games. This discussion quickly spread from just Breath of the Wild and engulfed other games like the Witcher and Dark Souls series. I have to imagine the developers at Aggro Crab noticed these arguments burning up the internet and decided to double-down on the weapon durability mechanic because it is at the core of their recent game Going Under.

The game is a roguelite dungeon crawler that humorously mocks into late capitalism and startup culture with its story and characters while the combat is ripped right out of Breath of the Wild. There’s a variety of weapons that fall into a handful of attack patterns with swords and clubs swinging side to side, spears stab in a line, and heavy weapons slice in wide slow arcs or smash in front of the character. There are even ranged weapons with limited ammo, but they can be used for melee after all their shots have been used up and before they break. Every weapon is designed to break in Going Under and the player will have a lot of weapons break over the course of a run. Weapons break fast enough that you learn to never rely or expect any to last, but they last long enough to not be frustrating. Some people will get annoyed with the durability system, that is inevitable, but I think the designers at Aggro Crab did a fantastic job of tying pretty much every other aspect of the game in this mechanic.

The combat in Going Under has a hectic, chaotic energy to it thanks to the weapons breaking. If a weapon breaks in the middle of a fight, you have to decide whether to rush to grab another one, quickly switch to another weapon you’re holding, or finish the fight with your fists. You’ll find yourself constantly surveying the room you’re in for enemy attacks and weapons you could grab in the future all while dodging, attacking, and running around like an Amazon warehouse employee. Every weapon can be thrown too, meaning that if a weapon is close to breaking, you can use it for a bit of ranged damage by hurling it across a room. This is useful when you spot a weapon laying on a table or shelf you want to grab as you can position yourself next to it, chuck your old, busted weapon to create a moment, and then grab the next weapon and continue the battle.

Luckily, the rooms of the dungeons are small and confined. You have plenty of room to kite around enemies and avoid incoming attacks, but you will hardly ever be out of range of grabbing something, anything, that can be used as a weapon if your final one shatters in your hand before the room is cleared. The game has a sort of Dead Raising quality to it since pretty much everything can be used as a weapon. Chairs, pencils, swords, keyboards, even throw pillows can be grabbed and used to smack enemies around. And it is necessary to use everything you can get your hands on since weapons break so often, especially while fighting tankier enemies like the bosses.

As a general rule, I prefer boss fights to be one on one encounters. I like them to be big, imposing, and test my skills at the game. I’m always a little weary when a boss spawn basic mobs in the fight because it feels like a cheap way to complicate the fight instead of focusing on giving the boss tricky mechanics and harder to read attack patterns. This is obviously not a hardset rule, just a preference, since many games manage to design boss fights with basic minions in them too very well, and Going Under is one such game. Every boss in the game will occasionally summon mobs into the fight, but this is due to necessity. Bosses have long health bars and your weapons will break before you manage to chip it down completely. Having basic enemies spawn into the fight helps bring in new weapons to use once you defeat them. Sometimes beating the round of mobs will even summon a drone delivery, dropping off a box that can contain more weapons and even healing items.

As a roguelite, a big part of the appeal of Going Under is building a run as you explore a dungeon. Each floor has a room with a choice between skills you can equip, along with additional skills you can purchase from the shop or find in boxes that drop as you clear a room. These skills are all passive effects that range from changing the speed and damage of attack, acquiring and buffing enemies to fight with you, setting fire or freezing enemies under certain conditions. No skill actually affects the durability of weapons used in battles in the dungeon, which was disappointing at first. Then I realized the run building aspect of the game comes from the moment to moment gameplay and decision making with weapons to use then acquiring skills themselves.

There is something satisfying in the roguelike/lite genre when making a run work when the game seems to be working against you—not giving you useful upgrades or skill, nothing really tying anything together to build synergies between what you are handed. This can be frustrating in games like The Binding of Isaac or Slay the Spire where the best way to victory is creating a build as you play, but Going Under is more akin to Enter the Gungeon, where the passive skills and upgrades you get are secondary to the weapons you find. It goes back to the idea that during combat you will find yourself scanning the room for future weapons you may need. You will most likely acquire a preference for certain weapon types—for me, it was one or two handed weapons that attacked in a sweeping motion—but you can never rely on having those weapons available to use. So sometimes you will have to make do with what you can grab and this is where the run building aspect of Going Under lies for me—making use of weapons you may not like or know well, trying to ensure you keep as many good weapons you do like on hand at any giving time, and just making what you can get work no matter what. It adds a level of improvisation and strategy to the chaotic battles in the dungeons of the failed startups.

When Breath of the Wild released, I remember a lot of discussion about how the game needed a system or some way you could repair damaged weapons you liked so you could choose how long to keep them and when to toss them out. While the weapon durability mechanic in the game bothered me really, I agree with this idea. As a huge open world adventure, I think this would be a great way to add an RPG character building feel to Breath of the Wild and could be used as a way to reward players’ exploration. For a while, I thought Going Under was missing an opportunity to have a similar sort of mechanic in the game, either by a shop or consumable item that could repair your weapons or skills that could affect the durability of them. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was not necessary for Going Under and would possibly undercut the entire design of the game. Everything in the game, from level design to combat, is built around the weapon durability mechanic. Taking that out takes away all of the game’s uniqueness and charm.

Portal & Portal 2: Critical Miss #24

I’m GLaDOS I Played These

Friends of mine are surprised to learn I never played Portal or Portal 2. The classic games developed and published by Valve were released in 2007 and 2011, respectively. While I had a passing interest in games in 2007, playing Super Mario 64 on my DS and Mario Kart on my Wii, I wasn’t at all up to date on any games releasing. And by 2011, I was in college, playing pretty much no games besides a Pokémon run here and there. The Portal series has just passed me by until now. Even after I learned of the series and its reputation, I never had a computer powerful enough to run it. So when I got my used Xbox 360, I downloaded the games and played through them to fill in the interdimensional hole in my gaming knowledge.

The story of Portal focuses on a woman named Chel who is being forced to run through science tests by GLaDOS, a robot controlling the functions of Aperture Science. It’s a simple story—a story of human vs machine, athleticism vs intelligence, silence vs wit. Even though the player controls Chel, GLaDOS steals the entire show. Impeccably acted by Ellen McLain, she provides the dry, straight-faced, and incredibly sharp humor that the game is praised for, but still manages to be threatening as a unfeeling machine. Early in the game, Chel will be giving a Portal Gun, a machine that creates openings on certain walls that can be used to instantly pass through the space between them.

The portals are an incredible mechanic—technically impressive, amazingly fun, and delightfully disorienting. I never really got used to the camera swinging around as gravity took effect on the character leaving a portal, but those moments are so short that you will quickly adjust. Since momentum is kept while entering and leaving portals, a lot of puzzles rely on that to spring yourself across larger gaps or to higher platforms not reachable through normal means. Other puzzles require holding down buttons with weighted cubes, creating a path for an electrical sphere to meet with a conductor to activate a button, and taking out turrets by knocking them over, either by grabbing them from behind or dropping things on them. 

Some puzzles will test your aiming speed and reflexes by giving you just a few seconds after exiting a portal to shoot another one on to be transported to. These were my least favorite in the game. I had gotten so settled into a comfy state of examining the level design and finding ways to access what I needed through portal placement, that the emphasis on speed and reflexes in the later part of the game didn’t feel like I was being tested on what had been taught to me.

The level design in general is rather rigid due to the fact that portals can only be created on certain surfaces. This is not a bad thing, however, since it helps keep puzzles and the rules of the game consistent and focused. In the last part of the game, you escape the steril test chambers and explore the rusted, grimy maintenance halls of the facility. The puzzles are still as straightforward as before, but the change in scenery goes a long way to freshen up the feel of the games. 

Honestly, Portal is pretty much perfect. The only complaint I have is with minor hit detections issues. I played the Xbox 360 Stay Alive version so I’m not sure if this was an issue with the original PC release, but the rounded edges of the portals seem to catch on the character and cubes while going through portals. This would lead to missed jumps as my momentum was halted or dropped items missing their target as a corner clipped the edge of a portal and physics sent it spinning off course. It’s not a major complaint at all and hardly dampened my opinion of the game, but it was something I kept noticing.

The only other thing I sometimes hear criticized about the game is its short length. The game is about 2-3 hours long, I completed my first playthrough in just an evening, but I think the length is to the game’s benefit. There is no wasted space in Portal, every inch of the game world has a purpose and it comes in, shows off the ideas it has, and ends before it becomes stale or boring. It is such a tightly, perfectly designed game that I couldn’t image it being any longer. That was, however, until I played Portal 2, which is a perfect example of the phrase “bigger isn’t always better.”

Portal 2 is pretty much the same game as the original, but with just more stuff added. Bigger environments, more puzzles, more characters and story—it’s a classic follow up philosophy where the sequel has to be bigger and bolder (the Alien/Aliens effect). While the portal gameplay is still as fun as ever, there were so many more elements added to the puzzles. Instead of just portals with the occasional electric ball or cube to worry about, Portal 2’s puzzles will have you redirecting lasers, creating light bridges, and using three different kinds of gels, each with a unique property, to solve puzzles. All these new mechanics are explained and utilized well enough and pretty fun to use, but their inclusion seemed to necessitate larger rooms and environments for the puzzles to take place in, hurting the tightness and ultrafocus of the original game’s design. Gameplay is not the only thing that has been expanded upon either. The story is chattier than ever in Portal 2.

GLaDOS now has to share the spotlight with robot core named Wheatley, played by Stephen Merchant, and the prerecorded messages of Cave Johnson, played by J. K. Simmons. I found Wheatley pretty annoying, but he is not unfunny, and Simmons as Cave Johnson is just a delight because he seems to be tapping into his J. Jonah Jameson character from the Rami Spider-Man films. There are some very funny bits with Johnson ranting about mantis man and exploding lemons, but the humor of the game expands from the specific dry wit of the first game and becomes sillier and more general. I would say that Portal 2 is funnier than the first, but I’m a sucker for the straight-facedness of the first game’s comedy.

The point of max frustration toward Portal 2 for me came at the end. You have a great bit of (literal) raising action as you climb your way out of the ruined, old facility and you are flushed with victory, ready for the faceoff with Wheatley and the climax of the story. But then the pacing grinds to halt as Wheatley makes you perform more tests to keep his high going. It’s a funny bit at first, but it could have worked with just requiring the player to complete a few more tests. Instead you have to go through about a dozen more. I was ready for the game to end, but it insisted on sticking around for another hour or so after its logical end point. And this is ultimately what Portal has over its sequel. Portal knew exactly when to end before it got stale or ran out of ideas, and Portal 2 went on past the point where it had anything new to share.
Portal and Portal 2 are still some of the most beloved and respected puzzle games to this day and that’s because they are both great, but I find the original far superior to its sequel. The best way I can explain my opinions of the games is to imagine them as a boxer. Portal is the boxer at the prime of their career: in fighting trim with absolute zero fat on them. Portal 2 is the same boxer forty years later, after retirement: a little fatter than they were, but still strong and in better shape than most people. Either way, either game can still beat the crap out of the majority of AAA games releasing nowadays.

Capcom & Replayability

I’ve been on a big Capcom kick lately. From finally playing the Resident Evil 3 remake to falling back into the Monster Hunter grind to finishing Devil May Cry 5 just a few nights ago, it’s been a very Capcom filled couple of months. After finishing DMC 5, I was met with a familiar scene, a sort of Capcom special, a long list of costume unlocks, new difficulty modes, and perks for starting up another playthrough of the game. Replayability always comes to mind when I think of a Capcom game. They seem to specialize in shorter games that incentive players to play through them multiple times. This can be seen in all of their major series, but most interesting is how each one offers a different reason to replay a game. So here’s a breakdown of four of Capcom’s most well known series and what they offer for players who just want to keep on playing them.

Megaman / Megaman X

The Megaman series debuted on the NES and was one of Capcom’s first console games successes. This is due, in no small part, to the introduction of the level select screen. In the days of linear platformers like Super Mario Bros and Castlevania, being able to choose the order you completed levels in was a very innovative idea. It’s a small amount of freedom to the player, but it helped the series standout so much from other games on the system. Add to it the fact that defeating a boss grants you their weapon, which other bosses will be weak or resistant to, and you have a system that encourages experimentation from the player. You could go with the recommended order for the easiest time, or you could go your own way and see what you can discover.

When the SNES came out, Capcom reimagined the Megaman series as the Megaman X series. While the bones of the X series are the same skeleton of the classic series, the more serious tone of the game and some new additions breathed fresh air in the games’ lungs. The level select screen was back, but with the addition of armor parts, subtanks, and health upgrades (some of which you need the boss weapon from another level to grab) the player has more reason than ever to experiment with the order they complete levels. In the first X game, beating some bosses even create ripple effects on other levels, making them easier to traverse and beat.

Resident Evil

Capcom helped Sony introduce the original Playstation with a brand new IP: Resident Evil—a foundational game in the survival-horror genre. I’ve been a fan of the series ever since playing Resident Evil 4 a few years ago and that was my first real taste of Capcom’s recipe for replayability. After beating the main story, you will unlock Mercenaries mode, a more arcade-like horde shooter, and the Separate Ways campaign, a shorter play-through as Ada Wong who’s story parallels Leon’s throughout the game. Complete these unlocks characters for Mercenaries mode and outfits and weapons to be used in the main campaign like the suit of armor that makes Ashley invincible to enemies and the Chicago Typewriter, a tommy gun with infinite ammo.

But RE4 wasn’t where the series focus on replayability started, it’s just the first in the series I played. Additional customs and weapons to use during the main campaign have been offered in every game since the first installment, but the earlier games offered more than that to encourage players to play the games again. Both Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2 offered two different characters to play as, both with different attributes and scenarios that happen in the story. While the overall games’ structure and story remains the same, it’s a nice little incentive to do another playthrough since things won’t be exactly the same and can offer a different experience. 

Devil May Cry

The Devil May Cry series’ approach to replayability is a lot like Resident Evil’s, but instead of unlocking new costumes and weapons, you unlock higher difficulties to play the game on. This works well because the combat in the DMC games is very intricate, varied, and very open to expression. The player is rated at the end of each chapter based on how well they played, which encourages practitioning and replaying in itself, and players who push themselves to get better at the game will welcome the higher difficulties unlock to test their skill. Starting with DMC 3, Capcom created a difficulty mode named Heaven or Hell where Dante will die in a single hit, but so will every enemy. This is such an interesting take on difficulty because it’s such a high risk/high reward style of gameplay. Later games would introduce a variant on this mode called Hell or Hell for the truly masochistic players, where the player character dies in one hit, but enemies take normal damage. 

Monster Hunter

Lastly we come to the Monster Hunter series, which is probably my favorite series of Capcom’s. The Monster Hunter game shares some DNA with the Devil May Cry series in the sense that the combat is extremely deep and nuanced. On top of that, there are over a dozen weapons in Monster Hunter World and Generations Ultimate (the two newest games in the series and the ones I have the most experience with) and all of them play very differently. A player could spend countless hours learning the differences and intricacies of each weapon type. 

But by far the biggest reason a Monster Hunter game is such a replayable one is because the core gameplay loop is such an iterative one. Any game in the series is about getting a little better after each and every hunt. The core loop is simple: fight giant dragons and dinosaurs to get item drops to make into better gear and weapons so you can fight even bigger monsters. Since there is no leveling system in the game, acquiring new gear is the only way to increase your attack and defense stats. But the only true way to get better at a game in the series, however, is to just learn it. Things like the correct items to bring on a hunt, a monster’s attack patterns, what needs to be broken to get certain item drops, all need to be learned by the player and this is the real reason why the series is so replayable. It rewards the player based on how much they themselves put into it.

These are just the Capcom series I’m familiar with too. I hear they have some fun incentives to replay games in the Onimusha series, but I haven’t completed any of those, and they also make the Street Fighter series which, similar to Monster Hunter, has many characters and extremely deep combat that takes forever to learn and master. Capcom’s focus on shorter, but more replayable titles seems to be a core focus of the company and it’s one I respect and appreciate highly. As I grow older, my time becomes more and more limited, so the longer a game is, the less eager I am to replay it—even games like Breath of the Wild and Persona 5, which I absolutely love, paralyze me when I think of replaying them. But a short campaign like the Resident Evil 2 remake or a game broken in bite size chunks like Monster Hunter are much easier to run through again. There’s a strength in offering a shorter, more concise experience and earning the closure of finishing a game quickly over an arduous journey spanning dozens to hundreds of hours sometimes.

Pokémon Platinum – Critical Miss #23

Turtwig’s All the Way Down

When I decided to play this game and review it for Critical Miss, I had no idea Pokémon’s 25th anniversary was this year, nor did I know that the Pokémon Company was going to announce celebrations for it earlier in the month and Twitter would be swarming over the idea of remaking the fourth generation—those were all happy little accidents. The reason I wanted to play Pokémon Platinum was because I never fully played through any of the fourth generation games. Platinum was released in 2008 (2009 in America) and is the refinement title of Diamond and Pearl released just two years prior. This was just after high school and the beginning of college for me, the period where I probably played the least amount of video games (although I did have a DS and picked up a copy of HeartGold when it was released the next year). I have said before in my Nuzlocke post that Pokémon is probably my favorite game series based simply on how much of it I’ve played and how much I love the core gameplay. So I decided to fill this particular Snorlax size gap in my Pokémon experience and finally finish generation four.

To start with the gameplay: it’s still Pokémon so it’s still solid. The primary loop of catching Pokémon, adding them to your team, and battling with them to help them grow stronger is as fun and satisfying as ever. My team ended up being: Torterra, Crobat, Garchomp, Medichamp, Magnezone, and Houndoom—and I was very happy with this team besides lack of a water Pokémon leading to some frustration in the end game, but more on that later. The sprites in the battles are the best 2D art in the series, very detailed and crystal clear. While the core gameplay loop is as strong as ever, the moment to moment gameplay suffers due to the Slowpoke pace of the game. Everything in Platinum is slow: movement speed, battle animations, text, and even HP draining and the EXP bar filling. I’m used to slow-paced RPGs, but Platinum did start to tire me towards the end. The game feels heavy as a Rhydon, but stays engaging by being one of the toughest Pokémon games I’ve played.

Now, the game is still not extremely hard—I wouldn’t call it the Dark Souls of Pokémon games—but in terms of a Pokémon game, Platinum gave me the meatiest, non-Nozlocke challenge I’ve had with the series in a while. This comes down to two main things and, much like a Doduo’s two heads coming from the same body, they both have to do with the gym leaders. It’s always been true that trainers will have Pokémon a few levels higher than those in the surrounding routes and the gym leaders’ Pokémon will be a level or two higher than the trainers, but this is the largest level gap I can remember in the series. Apparently, the Pokémon of the gym leaders were raised a couple levels from Diamond & Pearl which would account for this. The second reason is because the gym leaders teams are more well balanced than previous, offering better type coverage with their Pokémon and their movesets. I was stuck on Crasher Wake for a while because his ace Pokémon, Floatzel, knew Ice Fang, which one-shot my Torterra, and Crunch, which one-shot the Rotom I was currently using. I had to stop and grind my team a couple levels before finally defeating him. But I didn’t really mind because I was just enjoying a Pokémon game that took a little more thought and effort.

The difficulty really helped me stay engaged with the game even through its Glaceon pacing and, sadly, uninterested story. I never play a Pokémon game for the story—I’m always more invested in the gameplay first and the story can be a fun addition—but I still like to follow it and be engaged. Unfortunately, the plot just becomes a villain team plot standard to Pokémon games, focusing this time on Team Galatic and their leader, Cyrus. They want to remake the world to Cyrus’s desires, but his goals are just too grand, his plan too underdeveloped, and his character and motives too one dimensional for any sort of interesting writing or storytelling. But that’s just the plot, another part of storytelling is setting and, as a region, I think Shinnoh is one of the best designed in the series. 

I’ve always been fascinated by the design of the routes in the Pokémon games: how ledges are used to funnel players into tall grass and into trainer battles, how out of the way areas usually hide useful items, how little nooks and crannies are hidden behind things that need an HM to pass to encourage players to return and explore more. Platinum uses the hardware of the DS to introduce a new aspect to the routes: overlapping layers. With Shinnoh having a mountain range dividing it into two sides, there is a lot of verticality on display. Bridges will pass over canyons and fields of snow, the cycling road covers the entirety of Route 206 underneath it, and the Great Marsh has little hills connected by wood planks to bicycle over to stay out of the muck below. There are caves cutting through the mountains and the peak of Mt. Coronet to reach in the late game.

The verticality is great and adds a new texture not seen before in the series, but I also love the off-the-beaten-path areas on routes. Most routes have areas you cannot reach during the first visit and usually hide powerful TMs or useful items. I always enjoy a reason to revisit an old area to explore for more goodies and must have spent a good few hours combing over each route again before challenging the Elite Four. My only issue with this deeper exploration is tied into the sheer amount of HMs needed to access every area.

HMs, or Hidden Moves, have been the most unpopular part of any Pokémon game since the series introduction because they are needed to explore the world (as in cutting down trees, moving boulders, and surf across water) and, once taught to a Pokémon, the move cannot be unlearned without finding a special NPC. Usually, HMs never really bother me. I like the utility outside of battle and moves like Surf and Fly were good enough to be useful additions to a moveset, but Defog is a thing in Generation Four and it’s absolutely worthless. Its use outside of battle is clearing fog so you can see where you are walking and inside of battle it just lowers your opponents evasion stat, which hardly ever comes into play. 

Shinnoh is the absolute pits when it comes to HMs, not just Defog is a completely useless move, but because there are eight different HMs needed to beat the game. This means if you want to have an HM mule (a Pokémon dedicated to just knowing HMs), you need at least two of them taking up space in your party. This was a real Ferrothorn in my side after climbing to the summit of Mt. Coronet and had to face off with Cyrus in the Distortion World. I had most HMs spread out across my team, but since I was not using a water-type Pokémon, I had to drag along a Biberal who I loaded up with Surf and other HMs. So when I faced Cryus, I was missing my Magneton and his Gyrados was a real wall to be busted through.

The only other issue I have with the fourth generation is a lack of identity with the Pokédex. Since so much of Shinnoh’s new Pokémon are new evolution stages of past generation Pokémon, the roster feels sort of lacking. Platinum increased the regional dex size from Diamond & Pearl, but the region still feels stale for choices of Pokémon to add to your team. This may be a problem unique to me. I always try to use Pokémon I haven’t had on a team before in a new playthrough of any game. Add that to my weird dislike of single type Pokémon and Shinnoh felt very restricted in Pokemon I could choose for my team. Overall, the Pokédex didn’t bother me that much because the challenge in gameplay and unique world more than made up for it; and while I even hesitated to mention it, I thought it important to address because, while a games sense of identity is not really important to me personally, I know it is important to some folks out there.

In all honesty, this was a selfish review. I wanted to play through Platinum simply because it was one of the generations I never finished. I also like to say whether or not I recommend a game after I play it and I definitely would recommend playing Pokémon Platinum. But who could I recommend it to? Pokémon fans most likely have already played it and it is not the first game in the series I would suggest a new player to start with. I would probably place the game in the mid-tier of Pokémon games in my opinion. I still loved my time spent in Shinnoh, but I’m a fan of the series so that is to be expected. I think that is the joy of the Pokémon series though—a series that has spanned 25 years has plenty places for new fans to join in, lots of history and games to explore for people to go back to and discover, and just lots of memories and friendships to be made, both in and outside the games.

Guacamelee & Multipurpose Attacks

I’ve always been interested in gameplay mechanics that are designed to have multiple uses. Like how the hookshot in the Zelda series can be used to access out of reach areas and as a weapon to stun enemies, the social links in Persona 5 furthering the story and character development of your teammates while giving them special abilities in and outside of battle, and bullets in Metro 2033 working both as ammunition and currency. Multiple ways of affecting gameplay add another layer of complexity to a mechanic, make it more versatile and expressive. One of the best examples I can think of this type of multipurpose mechanic is how special attacks are handled in Guacamelee.

Guacamelee is a Metroidvania with combat ripped out of a 2D brawler. You’ll be exploring a large, spaghetti-like map looking for upgrades and abilities to access new areas, all while beating enemies to pulp with punches, kicks, grapples, and throws, each hit crunching like you stepped on a box of breakfast cereal. A handful of the abilities you acquire, like the Rooster Uppercut and the Dashing Derpderp, are just new harder-hitting attacks that can be used to pummel enemies, streaked with an associated color and moving in the character in a certain direction. At first, these attacks just seem like combo extenders. Since some of your attacks knock your enemies flying through the air like dandelion fluff, it is helpful to have a follow up move that can close the distance and dish out some damage. The combo system is underutilized, however, and the lack of an extra reward for a higher combo makes it pretty forgettable, but it is still satisfying to keep an enemy floating in the air with a string of punches and special attacks. As the game progresses, the armies of skeletons will appear not only cloaked in ponchos and sombreros, but colored shields too. 

These shields need to be broken with the attack of the corresponding color before the enemy can be damaged. The art design really shines in this implementation with the colors vibrant enough to instantly recognize which attack is required to bust open the shield, but this mechanic is still probably the weakest part of the game. The shields are fine when they are first introduced, about a third to halfway through the game. Just as the combat is starting to feel a little samey and lose impact, having an enemy per wave will spawn with a shield encourages target selection and helps the player focus. But it’s near the end of the game, cramped into a small room and many enemies, many with different colored shields, that this becomes annoying. It’s fun to throw your enemies around, watching them fly into each other and knock their comrades down, but a lot of satisfaction is lost if most of them have shields that haven’t been cracked and they are taking no damage from the cascade of limbs.

Combat is not the only aspect of Guacamelee’s gameplay, however, because there is also map exploration, and it’s here that the special attacks really show their worth. While running, jumping, and smacking enemies silly across the world map, the player will often find colored stone blocks impeding their progress. As in a Metroid game, special attacks are needed to break through these blocks and proceed. I typically prefer Metroidvania games where organic movement upgrades are needed to access new areas (like Hollow Knight and how the Castlevania series handle map design), but I find I don’t  mind this type of lock-key-key of design as much in Guacamelee. The game finds the middle ground between these two differing map types through its special attacks. Sure, the blocks are used in dungeons mostly to guide the player to certain areas and later to create shortcuts to checkpoints or to be revisited as the proper upgrade is acquired, but they also help inform the platforming challenges, which are probably my favorite part of the game.

There are many side paths in the world of Guacamelee to explore for extra goodies like health and stamina pieces and chests full of gold. Some are hidden through small gaps in walls but most are just side rooms with platforming challenge to conquer and collect your reward. I always go after as many of these as I can, not only because it’s good practice for when the game starts throwing similar challenges in the critical path, but because they are just very fun. Since each of the special attacks move the character slightly in a direction, they can be used to extend the length of a jump and redirect in midair. This gives the player a precise sense of control and opens up the platforming to a lot of tricky jumps. A common example is getting around walls hanging for the ceiling like stalactites, where you will have to fall past the bottom of the wall and Rooster Uppercut your where up and past it to a platform waiting on the other side. During the later part of the game, these types of platforming challenges become part of the main path. Sometimes you’ll have to cross a long room by going from platform to platform over a lake of acid or maybe it’s a vertical auto-scrolling section where you have to climb to the top of a room while being chased down by buzzsaws. So the special attacks gained throughout the game helps aid the player in both combat and exploring the world map, tying the two types of gameplay together and making them a cohesive whole, and the most interesting outcome of this is how it affects the Guacamelee’s difficulty curve.

Usually in Metroidvania titles, the end game is the easiest part because you’ve gained so many upgrades and new moves. Some moves, like the Screw Attack in the Metroid series and Gas Cloud transformation in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, are pretty overpowered and completely blow out the difficulty curve. Guacamelee doesn’t have this issue since the special attacks are used more for utility than raw power—this leads to the game actually getting more difficult as more upgrades and special attacks are acquired. It’s so rare to find a Metroidvania game that doesn’t get noticeable easier, apart from maybe a few bosses, by the end of the game and the fact that Guacamelee does get harder (with a very steady difficulty curve and some real meaty challenges at the end to boot) makes it a very refreshing take on the genre, gives it an excellent sense of pacing, and helped to keep me engaged while games like Super Metroid would start to lose my interest.

Guacamelee is a very fun game despite all its little annoyances and a lot of that comes from how the game handles its special attacks. In combat, they are satisfying and expressive and can lead the game to feel as stylish as a side-scrolling Devil May Cry or Bayonetta at times. When exploring the world, they are versatile and help form a lot of tricky platforming challenges that are always thrilling to complete. These special attacks and how they help create a meaty difficulty curve is enough of a unique selling point to get a recommendation from me. It’s oddly similar to another game I’ve been playing lately, but more on that next time.

Top 5 Critical Miss Game of 2020

2020 is officially in the garbage can and good riddance to it. It was a rough year for reasons that should need to be stated. My mental health was a roller coaster ride of gradual raises and sudden drops, but I had had video games for relaxation and escapism. In my ongoing journey to play classic games I missed out on growing up, I played a good handful of games for Critical Miss this year. Before I repress all of 2020 from my memory, I wanted to order my favorite classic games from the series for the year. 

This year’s list was harder to make than last year’s. While I didn’t outright despise anything I played, only a few games I fell in love with and captured my mind, leading me to roll them around in my head for weeks after finishing them. Some truly classic games, like Metal Gear Solid, with its storytelling and cutscenes not seen before on consoles, and Super Metroid, with its incredible atmosphere for a 16-bit game and explorative gameplay, didn’t quite make the list. I wanted to mention them though since they are still very worth playing today. Other honorable mentions would be Starfox 64 for having differing paths to discover and Vanquish for just being a hectically fast-paced and fun game. But, without further ado, here are the top five Critical Miss games of 2020.

#5) Banjo-Kazooie

While it’s true that I had some major issues with the last couple levels of Banjo-Kazooie and they left me frustrated with the game, I cannot deny that the majority of it is still extremely strong. There is a variety and creativity displayed in the game that manages to still stay true to its core design and playstyle, something a lot of other games of the genre from the same era struggle to achieve. With a wonderful sense of charm and fun, the game is a pleasant little romp without feeling saccharine. Even though it’s not my favorite 3D platformer of its time, it is very much worth giving a play today.

#4) Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening

I was not really a fan of the original Devil May Cry when I played it earlier this year. I found it repetitive and clunky to control. Luckily, Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening managed to improve on everything from the original. With a larger world, more unique weapons and bosses, and a deliciously campy, over-the-top story shown throughout utterly ridiculous cutscenes, DMC 3 is a blast from start to finish. Controls are still not perfect, but they are much better than the first game and no longer feel like you are running through mud. There are less platforming sections in Dante’s Awakening compared to the first game, but they are still pretty terrible. The game was fun enough to convince me to try out the rest of the series and I’m excited to drive into the fifth game after I paddle through Devil May Cry 4.

#3) Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door

I’ve never played a Paper Mario game before Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. Now I have a sinking feeling that it might be tough to go back to play other games in the series because this game is so fantastic. I love nearly everything about this game: the art style, the characters, the humor, variety in chapters. The best part by far, however, is the active battle system. Requiring the player to perform button prompts or little minigame-like challenges to power up or even land an attack is a wonderful idea. It gives them something to do in the turn based battles and is plain fun. The only reason this game is not higher on the list is because some sections are not very interested. The wrestling tournament just results in battle after battle, the search for General White is just artificial padding, and the less said about the Bowser sections the better.

#2) Spec Ops: The Line

All good art should in some way elicit an emotion from the audience and that’s exactly what Spec Ops: The Line does. After masquerading as a standard modern military shooter for the first half of the game, the curtain flies off and the player is thrown into the depths of a harrowing story of war crimes, PTSD, and the fine line between being a soldier and an outright killer. It’s a gut punch that is very effective, even when I knew the heel turn of the game prior to booting it up. While the story is unique, engaging, and sometimes hard to stomach, the gameplay is just fine. Not bad at all, it’s completely solid and well designed, but doesn’t do anything new or interesting. It’s necessary for the overall message of the gameplay, granted, but it’s the lackluster gameplay that landed Spec Ops: The Line in the number two spot.

Photo by SilenceInTheLibrary. Found at

#1) Silent Hill 2

Widely considered to be one of the best horror games ever made, Silent Hill 2 is a mastercraft in atmosphere, video game storytelling, and general spookiness. I was surprised by how genuinely unnerving and frightening the game was, how well it got under my skin. The most interesting thing about the Silent Hill 2 is how all its assumed flaws actually benefit the atmosphere and story, feeling debatably intentional. Things like the pretty awful voice acting, completely bizarre characters and interactions between them, and the stiff movement and clunky combat all lend an air of unworldliness and desperation to the game. It is a game with a singular focus sharp as a razor blade, with the enemies you struggle against and the locations you explore all symbolism a different aspect of James’ personality and faults. It is a perfect game for what it set out to accomplish.

I had a hard time choosing between Spec Ops: The Line and Silent Hill 2 for the number one spot. They battled in my mind for weeks, going back and forth as the one I preferred. In all honesty, if asked on a different day or while in a different mood, Spec Ops could have easily been granted my favorite Critical Miss game of the year. I guess it would be fair to say they are tied. All the games on the list are great and I had a blast playing them all, but if I had to choose two from the list to suggest anyone plays, it would easily be Spec Ops: The Line and Silent Hill 2. They gave me the strongest emotional reaction of any games I’ve played in a long time and really show the uniqueness and strengths of the types of stories only video games as an art form can tell.

Photo by AlexShepherd. Found at

Banjo-Kazooie – Critical Miss #22

Bear Pace

I’ve been a big consumer of YouTube content since rediscovering my love of video games around 2014. If there is one game I’ve heard more praise for than any other, it would have to be Rareware’s 1998 3D platformer for the Nintendo 64: Banjo-Kazooie. The Completionist, Antdude, videogamedunkey, they all laud the game as one of the best ever, a perfect, or at least near perfect, game. I’ve always liked 3D platformers, but haven’t played many from the N64 era, arguably the golden age of the genre, besides Super Mario 64. So I was excited to check out Banjo-Kazooie once I finally bought a used Xbox 360. 

Upon booting up the game, the player is met with a Saturday morning cartoon’s worth of color and bouncy music. Everything, from the characters to the locations to the collectibles, are bright and cheerful, full of personality and charm. The music masterfully arranged, being catchy and bubbling and adapting to changes in the game like going under water or entering a differently theme area. There is a simple joy of picking up a collectible in 3D platformer and hearing a jingle play and Banjo-Kazooie is the best at this. Everything you pick up, be it eggs, feathers, or Jiggies, everything has a unique little fanfare that plays. Where the presentation fails is with repetitive noises. The stop-and-start gibberish all characters speak in is the usual suspect for complaints, but I didn’t find it too bad. It’s not great, but it’s charming enough to look past. The thing that started to irritate me most was Kazooie’s panting while doing the Talon Trot move. Seeing how this is the quickest way to travel, you will be using it a lot and hearing Kazooie’s “mer-her, mer-her” constantly.

The Talon Trot is the best mode of transportation because Banjo-Kazooie is a slower paced game than other 3D platformers. I was surprised how heavy the characters felt when starting the game. Banjo’s default walking speed feels like he has lead covering his paws, the swimming controls are slow and very slippery, and most utility moves have a delay to activate them. Attacks like the Rat-at-tat Rap and Forward Roll require the characters to jump or run (respectively) first before they can be used and even more situational moves like the Shock Spring Jump require the player to find a special pad in the world and hold down a button before it activates. It creates a game that feels more restrictive than the likes of Super Mario 64, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, just a different gameplay style. If freeform 3D Mario games are like jazz (as I have said in my Mario Odyssey post), then Banjo-Kazooie is a damn great pop song.

By far the best aspect of the game are the levels. There are nine levels (not including the opening Spiral Mountain and the hub world, Gruntilda’s Lair) and they are all vastly different. While most fall into the usual platforming template of forest level, desert level, water level etc., they are filled with uniquenesses that help them stand out. Gobi’s Desert if filled with pyramids and other tombs to explore, Freezeezy Peak is a Christmas wonderland decorated with lights, presents, and giant snowman as the center focus, and Bubblegloop Swamp is a southern bayou infested with poisonous water and alligators. Even the two levels that are strikingly similar, Clanker’s Cavern and Rusty Bucket Bay, feel completely different. 

Along with varied levels, the collecting Jiggies is also very varied. There are the standard platforming challenges and a few boss fights, but you will also have to complete mini games, compete in races, collect Jingos, and even get flushed down a toilet at one point. Seeing as Banjo and Kazooie are a bipedal bear and a bird chilling in a backpack, all but sewn together like the pigeon-rat from The Simpsons, the game does a great job of exploring all the abilities those creatures would have when collecting Jiggies. However, some require the duo to change forms with the help of the shaman, Mumbo Jumbo, and I was nervous about this. I was expecting them to all have different play styles like the different characters in Spyro 3, an aspect about the game I did not enjoy at all, but the different forms in Banjo-Kazooie are not bad at all. This is mostly due to the fact that their controls are simplified to just being able to run and jump. The forms are really only needed to gain access to areas and collectibles Banjo and Kazooie cannot get themselves. For example, the walrus form in Freezeezy Peak can swim in the freezing water without taking damage and is welcomed into another walrus’s home, something they refuse to do for Banjo because they are afraid of him, being a bear and all. There is a great difficulty curve in Banjo-Kazooie with levels and the challenges becoming bigger and more complicated as the game progresses. However, a difficulty curve is not the same as pacing, and that is what the game struggles with the most, especially near the end.

I went into Banjo-Kazooie with the intention of 100% complete it, but by the end of the game, I had decided not to bother. Early in the game, the levels were great. Large and explorative, but confined enough to not drag on like the last few levels did. Longer levels are not necessarily a bad thing, but levels like Rusty Bucket Bay and Click Clock Wood feel artificially lengthen to the point of feeling bloated. This is mainly due to the harsh punishments for making slight platforming mistakes. Most platformers will either have something to catch a player if they fall during a long platforming challenge, cutting down on the amount they have to redo, or they make the time between failing and restarting short, ensuring players stay determined more so than frustrated. Banjo-Kazooie has a problem with this and the game suffers because of it. If you miss a jump while climbing the very tall central tree in Click Clock Woods, you are falling to the very bottom. 

Rusty Bucket Bay is the worst offender of this seeming oversight. There is a ship in the center of the level with a Jiggy hiding behind its whirling propellers. To shut off the propellers, you must first enter the ship’s bridge to hit a button to slow down the fans in the engine room, then exit the bridge and go to the engine room. There you have to complete some of the toughest platforming in the game including walking across narrow paths, climbing spinning gears, and jumping through spinning fan blades that periodically slow down and speed up. It’s actually really tough, but the real kick in the shin is that it all takes place over a bottomless pit. If you make one mistake and fall into the pit, you restart at the beginning of the level and have to repeat everything again. You don’t restart at the beginning of the engine room section, which would be fair with such a harsh punishment. You restart at the level entrance and have to repeat the steps in the bridge to slow the engine fans down first. You have to do this every single time. It takes about a minute or two to have another chance to retry the section and in a game like this, that is forever

The only other real issues I have with the game are pretty minor. The first is Grunty’s Furnace Fun, the board game Gruntilda makes you play at the end of the game. Simply put: it isn’t fun and definitely not why I play platformers. It’s unique, no doubt, but it’s sluggish and having to answer trivia questions about the game feels little self-indulgent. The second issue is Gruntilda’s Lair, the hub world of the game. I’ve heard a lot of praise for this particular hub world but I don’t understand why at all. I found it to be overly spacious and not very interesting. Rooms and areas all have unique set dressing and atmospheres, you can even collect some Jiggies in it, but I always prefer a more contained space for a hub world. Make it smaller with more interesting things to find. Larger hubs like in Banjo-Kazooie just add a commute between levels, adding on to the other pacing issues I found in the game.

Overall, though, I still enjoyed Banjo-Kazooie, even if the ending did leave a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. It’s a great game filled with varied levels, a charming art style, and fun but kind of clunky gameplay. The pacing issues and overly long final levels means I cannot say it’s a perfect game, even for what it was striving to be, but it’s pretty close to it. To go back to the pop song comparison earlier: the game is still fun and I now understand the mass appeal of it, I am not immune to its charms myself, but it’s not my preferred genre and not the first thing I would think to pop in and jam out to.

Spelunky 2: Game of the Year – 2020

I didn’t play a lot of games released this year. Partly due to a limited budget of money and time, but mostly it was disinterest in most that came out. No AAA game really caught my attention. I found Final Fantasy 7 Remake demo repetitive and tedious so I never picked up the full release and I refuse to support companies like Naughty Dog and Ubisoft, so that crossed out all their new games. Even the indie games I played this year didn’t excite me too much. Carrion was a fun little bite size romp and Hades was so close to being what I want for a roguelight with social mechanics, but sadly fell short. I felt I didn’t play enough games to make another top five list this year, but I wanted to talk about what is undoubtedly my favorite game of 2020: Spelunky 2.

My history with the series is weird. When I first got my PS4, one of the first games I picked up was the original Spelunky because it’s reputation was so strong. However, I found the difficulty completely impenetrable; I could hardly make it out of the caves. The difficulty in Spelunky 2 isn’t any easier (it may even be harder), but the game just feels better to play. There is less stiffness in the controls and you can toggle run to always be on so you don’t have to constantly hold down the trigger. There is one strange control aspect that returns in Spelunky 2 and that is carrying items.

In both games, carrying items is pretty clunky. To bring anything anywhere it has to be carried and only one thing can be carried at a time. This includes weapons, keys, and the pets, who will give you a health point if delivered to the level exit. This can lead to having to manage multiple items at one on levels that require multiple things to carry around, like the floor in the dwellings where you have to bring the key to the chest to unlock the Udjat eye. If you have a weapon on this floor and also want to carry the pet and the key at the same time, get ready for a juggling act of dropping and picking up items.

This clunkiness with carrying items is very obviously by design though. Since delivering pets to the exit is one of the only ways to get health, only being able to carry an item at a time forces the player to assess what is most important to grab and carry, leading to a sort of flow chart to be run down in the moment. This is because different throwable items have different attributes. Rocks only hit for one point of damage and never break while arrows hit for 2 points of damage, but break and become useless after hitting an tougher enemy like a caveman. So you are constantly going over a checklist in your head. Am I carrying an item that can be thrown as a weapon? If no, grab one. If yes, is there a better weapon or item I should be carrying. It’s these little moments of consideration, these moments of assessment that make Spelunky 2 such an engaging game to play aside from the platforming elements. 

Like most every other roguelike, Spelunky 2 is a game of learning from mistakes and internalizing what needs to be done in the future. Every different biome has different enemies and challenges to consider. Enemies attack patterns and health need to be learned. Interactions between level elements have to be assessed when scouting out a safe path forward. And, the most frustrated of all, traps that can kill you with one hit need to be spotted and avoided.

There is at least one thing in every biome that will kill you instantly no matter how much health you have at the time. Spikes, bear traps, lava, moving blocks; all of these can end your run in a second. While it is definitely frustrating to build up a great run only to have it snuffed out in the blink of an eye, the instant death traps are necessary for the balance of the game. The game would become trivial with the right combination of items and having traps to constantly look out for keeps the game engaging. You have to always be looking ahead for upcoming traps to avoid, enemies to dodge, and treasure to grab that your mind will be racing a mile a minute while playing. Once you have the base gameplay down, then you can start hunting for secrets.

There are so many hidden things to find in Spelunky 2 from secret areas and paths to take throughout the game, items to collect, and new explorers to rescue. And, if you wish to discover the secret 7th world after the “final” boss, there is something that needs to be done on nearly every level and secrets that must be revealed and, quite literally, death to be defied. It’s while going after this secret world that the limited item carrying comes into play as the game’s way of balancing itself. At a few points, items will have to be carried between levels, meaning that if you get a powerful weapon, for example the shotgun, on an early level, you will have to eventually give it up. It’s a great tool for the game to balance itself. If you are just going for a main path ending, you don’t have to worry about giving anything up, but if you want to see the secret worlds and bosses, you have to sacrifice things.

Spelunky 2 is a game of checks and balances, of risk versus reward. Everything good you can get in the game comes with some drawbacks. The shotgun has knockback that can send you flying back off ledges or into spikes. Paste can help you stick bombs to enemies, but will also attach them to walls and ceilings if not aimed properly. The jetpack offers the best mobility in the game, but can easily explode, causing massive damage. With most other roguelikes, it can be very easy to become completely overpowered and become nearly impossible to be killed once you know what you are doing. Spelunky 2 is not like this at all. With the constant threat of instant death by traps and very good items having massive drawbacks, you have a game where full attention is required throughout an entire run. Good play is necessary and mistakes are harshly punished.

This is why I love the game so much. It manages to stay engaging through every different run, perfectly balanced so it is impossible to easily win a run, and it is simply fun. Puzzling out how to get a trapped pet or ghost pot to the end of level without killing or breaking them is fun. Discovering all the secrets and items is fun. The art style itself is just cute, charming, and fun. Many people considered the first Spelunky a perfect game; so much so that there were those wondering how they could improve it for a sequel when it was announced. I cannot speak for the first game due to lack of experience, as stated before, but Spelunky 2 is about as perfectly designed as a game can get in my opinion.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past – Critical Miss #21

Enter the Master Sword

This Critical Miss is a bit of cheat because I have played The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past before. As a kid, I had the Gameboy Advance rerelease of the game. From what I can tell, it’s the exact same game as the 1992 Super Nintendo game, but with a little screen crunch and more washed out colors. I wanted to play it again for this post though because I never actually finished it. When I was younger, I never made it past the Ice Temple and the few times I’ve picked it up since, I never made it much further than the beginning of the Dark World. 

The story is the standard Zelda story: evil being is being evil, find three of something to get the Master Sword to defeat them, things go wrong shortly after gaining the blade, explore more dungeons to collect more items to stop the evil once and for all. It is the same story as any other Zelda game but this time the evil being is the wizard Agahnim, who is actually Ganon in disguise, and he is collecting maidens to open up the Golden Land. Once Link has the Master Sword and defeats Agahnim, he is transported to the Dark World, the Golden Land that has been twisted and corrupted by the wizard’s evil desires.

The story is serviceable but I never found it engaging. The backstory of the Triforce and the Golden Land is mostly told by the maidens after saving them from dungeons. The story is simply told in long text dumps that are not particularly well written or interesting. The reason for the simple style of storytelling is most likely due to the limitations of the SNES, but games like Chrono Trigger managed to tell epic and engaging stories with the same limitations. 

Gameplay has always fared better on the SNES and A Link to the Past’s gameplay is still very fun. The core loop is exploration, fighting enemies along the way, and looking for gear, upgrades, and items gives a great sense of adventure. The overworld is fairly large for a SNES game and it is colorful, has varied locations from deserts to lakes to tall mountains, and is absolutely full of secrets to find. Being transported to the Dark World is a cool moment the first time it happens, but visually, it is not as appealing to look at as the Light World. It’s just kind of drab, filled with mostly browns and yellow, sick looking greens and muted purples. Thematically it is fitting, but after the bright and stunning colors of the main overworld, the muted color pallet of the Dark World gets boring after a while.

The exploration aspect of A Link to the Past is the strongest part of the game for me. Secrets like heart pieces, piles of rupees, and items are scattered everywhere across the map. It’s the type of game where you can spend hours exploring the world in between the critical path dungeons, looking under every rock and bush for hidden passages or items. Some of the most satisfying secrets to find are those that require moving between the Light and Dark Worlds because some areas, like ledges, cannot be accessed unless shifting between the two different maps. Link can teleport back into Hyrule by using the magic mirror and doing so will leave a cloud of magic dust that takes you back to the Dark World. Besides the dust created by the magic mirror, Link can only travel from the Hyrule to the Dark World by finding magic portals. It’s an interesting limitation that makes entering the Dark World a puzzle in and of itself and is used consistently to unlock areas of the map and to discover the entrances to dungeons.

Dungeons are a staple of every Zelda game and utilize a blend exploration, combat, and puzzle solving to complete. They need to be explored thoroughly to find the big key, the item needed to finish, and the lair of the boss at the end. Some dungeons require items found in the overworld to navigate, like the Swamp Palace needing the Zora flippers to swim through the changing water levels. This is great because it requires players to explore the overworld thoroughly. Typically, you will have what you need already to explore a dungeon, but if not, it’s just a matter of finding the item needed in the world. 

The items found in dungeons are often needed to defeat the boss at the end, but not always. For example, you need the magic hammer in the Dark Palace to break the Helmasaur King’s armor before you can damage him. Requiring the items found in the dungeons to defeat the boss is a design choice Nintendo would make more in later Zelda games, but in A Link to the Past most items seem to be designed with exploration and puzzle solving in mind rather than combat. This is not a bad thing, but it does make some of the items feel less impactful, like the cape, if they are only really required to gather a heart piece. This does lead to some odd choices when items in dungeons are optional. I found it very strange that Link finds the blue mail, which reduces damage taken, in the Ice Palace, only to find the red mail, which reduces more damage, three dungeons later in Ganon’s Tower. 

This is, of course, if you are doing the dungeons in the order the game suggests. They can be completed out of order, but many require items from previous dungeons to compete or even unlock the area of the map they are in. I went through the dungeons in the order found on the game map because doing them out of order seemed  frustrating to me as someone who does not know the game like the back of my hand.

The dungeons are fun for the most part because they rely so heavily on the best aspects of A Link to the Past: exploration and collecting items. That being said, however, they can get tedious to do. I think 3D gaming worked wonders on the Zelda series’ puzzle design. It added a much needed sense of spatial reasoning to explore dungeons. In the 2D games, so many of the puzzles rely on killing all the enemies in the room, pushing a certain block, or finding a button underneath a pot in order to unlock the door or make a key appear. While every dungeon has its own gimmick, the Swamp Palace’s changing water levels or Turtle Rock’s floating platform to ride, they tend to lack individual personalities to me. They have slightly different atmospheres and looks to them, but the dungeons still often look and feel too similar for my taste. 

But the game is still great, solidly designed and with a sense of adventure unparalleled by most other SNES games. It was so realized that it became the foundation for pretty much every Zelda to come after it. It introduced the collection to Master Sword to more collection outline common in other games in the series. It was the induction to staple items like the bottles, hookshot, heart pieces, and even the Master Sword itself, as well as abilities like the spin attack. It is the game that made the Zelda series what we think of today while managing to maintain its own identity since it is still a 2D game where most games that came after are 3D.

I think it’s time to admit to myself that I’m just not a huge Zelda fan. I am still a fan, but a casual one as opposed to a die-hard one. I’ve played many games in the series and, while I have enjoyed all of them, I’ve never really fallen in love with any. There’s never anything deal breaking in them that makes me shut them off, but there’s not much I can think back on that I absolutely adored. That is except the wall merging mechanic in A Link Between Worlds. I found that to be a truly genius additional that opened up puzzle and level design to a possibility not seen before in the series. And that game owes everything to A Link to the Past. It is basically its child with how much DNA it shares with A Link to the Past by being a reimagining of the game. If I had to choose a favorite Zelda game, A Link Between Worlds would be high up, probably even the top spot. So even if I did not find A Link to the Past the most engaging game to play nowadays, I will also thank it for helping create one of my favorite games in the series.

Bioshock & Plasmids

Bioshock could have easily been just another 1st person shooter, one destined to fade out of memory soon after its release. But nearly 15 years after appearing on store shelves, it’s still a highly regarded and discussed game to this day. It sets itself apart from other shooters of its time, and still those of today, in many ways: the setting and atmosphere of the underwater city of Rapture, its commentary on freewill and the politics of Objectivism, its strong writing and memorable twist. However, I think the major thing that made Bioshock stand out are the Plasmids, how they affect gameplay and the story, and most importantly how it ties the two together.

In the context of gameplay, Plasmids are upgrades. They range from offensive abilities like starting fires, freezing enemies, and summoning swarms of bees, to passive buffs like increased defense, attack, and improved hacking skills. They are found throughout Rapture, encouraging exploration, and bought using ADAM, the material taken from the Little Sisters. ADAM is also used to purchase more slots that additional Plasmids can be equipped too. This system gives the game RPG elements without relying on skill trees or upgrade points that would infest similar games in the 2010s. This allows players to create their own playstyle and RPG-like builds that best emphasizes that style.

As with most 1st person shooters, firing weapons is mapped to the right trigger. However, instead of the left trigger being used to look down sights, it is mapped to using Plasmids in Bioshock as that is the hand the character uses them from. This is very intuitive and oddly immersive as you watch the character mimic the same movements you make. It draws you into the game and helps you step into the shoes of the protagonist. Having the left trigger control Plasmids does mean that typical down-sight aiming controls had to be moved and are instead mapped to pressing in the right trigger. While this is clumsy to use, it’s not a big issue since the tight halls and enclosed spaces of Rapture ensure that precise aiming is not really needed. I found myself perfectly capable of fighting off enemies with just the regular aiming icon and found the iron sights to be more difficult to use in a heated fight. While it at first feels like a weird omission, the game is built around not needing iron sights and is worth the exclusion for the fun of easily using Plasmids with the left hand.

In combat, Plasmids have many uses. There are the typical damage causing skills like Incinerate and Insect Swarm, but there are also ones with more indirect uses like Enrage, which makes enemies attack each other, and Security Bullseye, which causes enemies to trigger security cameras and turrets. Some even have secondary effects. Winter Blast freezes enemies making them easier to kill at the cost of loot, Incinerate can melt ice to open doors or reveal items, and Electro Bolt can electrify water to hit multiple enemies at once. It’s a little disappointing that not all Plasmids have these secondary uses, especially with Winter Blast as there are tons of puddles on the ground or streams of water falling from the ceiling. It seems like a missed opportunity to be able to freeze the puddles to trip enemies or the streams to create a shield.

While there are not many drastically different ways to build a character, there are many options and combinations of Plasmids for the players to choose. Some players may see the value of Plasmids I did not. Maybe they want to equip all the modifiers for the wrench and try a more melee focus build. The Plasmids instill a sense of creativity in the player not offered by many other 1st person shooters. And with health and EVE, the material needed to use Plasmids, needing to be kept track of, there is an additional layer of complexity. You can choose to go for an easy freeze kill if you are low on health and medkits, or you may rely solely on your weapons if EVE is precious and Plasmids not available. A have and have-not system that would be all too familiar to the city of Rapture.

Bioshock critiques Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism by showing the inherent greed, selfishness, and unsustainability present in it and the Plasmids not only represent the downfall of Rapture, but a direct cause of it too. Since Plasmids were such an addictive substance, it was highly sought after in the city. The citizens started taking more and more of it until they mutated in the Splicers you fight throughout the game. Through audio logs, you learn that the founder, Andrew Ryan, refused to regulate the creation and use of Plasmids, instead trusting the free market to sort itself out. He even encourages other businesses to offer a better product if they wish to compete with them. 

These revelations add a lot of context to the things the player sees throughout the game. Obviously Rapture is nearly completely dismantled when you arrive, but figuring out how it got that way is up to you to discover. It makes the Splicers sympathetic but past the point of reasoning with, it makes the leaders standing by their zealot beliefs almost cartoonish when they are faced with the tragic outcomes they’ve created. The whole game paints Ryan and the other notably people of Rapture as highly intelligent, creatively ambitious, and extremely driven, but also incapable to accept the consequences of their choices, responsibility for the seeds they have sowed. 

This is the type of storytelling that games thrive in over other forms of media like books or movies. With the interactivity games offer, there is more engagement that comes from the strong context and connection the player can feel when gameplay and story are woven together. Players feel more involved in the story, even in linear games like Bioshock, when the story informs the gameplay, it feels like you are part of the world of the game, it helps with immersion while playing and satisfaction when they succeed.

The Plasmids help with all this. They are simply fun to use, but also help players feel more freedom in their playstyles in a genre that typically doesn’t offer much differences between playthroughs. They are a great example of story informing gameplay, making the entire game feel more cohesive as a whole, not like gameplay or story was the main focus with the other being an afterthought. They are the main reason why Bioshock is still so much fun today while other 1st person shooters of the era have aged poorly or drifted out of memory completely. It’s a great example of how much a little creative, intuitive gameplay design well tied into a story expands the experience of a game

Top 5 Favorite Game Developers

I often struggle with my love of video games. Not because I think they are a waste of time like many others, they are as valuable as any other hobby or form of media. No, I mainly struggle with my thoughts and feelings with the industry surrounding them. The video game industry is an interesting bubble of a nearly unchecked capitalist market. This leads to infuriating stories of Activision Blizzard reporting record sales then laying off over 800 employees while the CEO got a $30 million bonus, companies like EA and Ubisoft cramming microtransactions and paid gambling mechanics in games, and crunch running rampant across many, many studios like Rockstar, Naughty Dog, Bioware, and more. 

Which is why I wanted to take a look at some video game developers that are not only seemingly more “ethical” than most, but my favorites companies in the video game market. My criteria is simple: who’s made the most games I’ve enjoyed, who has the most best philosophies for video game design, and who deserves to be spotlighted the most based on practices. Please keep in mind, I still haven’t played a lot of touchstone  games, so there will be some major exclusions from this list like Rareware and Insomniac, among many others. With that said, here are my five favorite video game developers at the time of writing.

#5 – Capcom

Out of all the companies on this list, Capcom is the most iffy as a company. With a long history going back to the arcades of the 1980’s, Capcom has released some absolute world class titles. Boasting series like Megaman and its spinoff, Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, Street Fighter, and, my favorite, Monster Hunter, Capcom is a well established player in the video game market. Be it offering different campaigns, higher and higher difficulties, or mechanically complex games that take player learning to perfect, every series in Capcom’s roster emphasizes replayability in some way. While the company has shown they understand the harm of microtransactions for series like Monster Hunter, that hasn’t stopped them from crowbarring them into the multiplayer side of the Resident Evil 3 remake. Street Fighter 5 has been especially troubling, with many considering the game to be unfinished at its release only to be built up post launch. They went so far as to put in-game advertisements on loading screens, arenas, and character costumes.

#4 – Devolver Digital

This one is a bit of a cheat because Devolver isn’t a developer, they’re a publisher. They don’t make games, but instead publish them to the public. They are worth mentioning in this list, however, because of their dedication to helping indie developers publish their games. As a publisher, Devolver’s track record is stellar. Perhaps best known for releasing the Hotline Miami series and Enter the Gungeon, they have also published many other indie darlings. Ape Out, Katana Zero, and the Reigns series were also released thanks to Devolver. Many games they pick up have a sort of post-punk, ironic feel to them and Devolver themselves as a company seem to share the same attitude. This is obviously shown with their presentations at E3 every year where they mercilessly mock the entire conference while revealing new games.

#3 – Platinum Games

I’ve mentioned my love for Platinum games on this blog before. I’ve recently been playing Wonderful 101 and, while admitting not liking it at first, it is another fast-paced, hectic fun game from the developer. Wonderful 101 and Astral Chain have done a lot to convince me that Platinum is becoming more interested in unconventional combat mechanics in spectacle fighters. Not that they need to either, because Bayonetta 2 is still the best in the genre. Like Capcom, their games encourage replays, specifically done to the high skill ceiling in the combat mechanics of all their games and their ranking systems. Pair that with a great sense of style in all the games and tongue-in-cheek ridiculous stories, and you have games that are constantly over the top and tons of fun.

#2 – FromSoftware

As far as games made by a company, FromSoftware is probably my favorite developer. Both Dark Souls and Bloodborne are in my top 5 favorite games ever, while Dark Souls 3 and  Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice are also amazing games. This is because Hidetaka Miyazaki is easily my favorite video game director. Starting with Demon’s Souls (which I haven’t played sadly), he has focused on high difficulty games to give players a sense of accomplishment from overcoming insurmountable odds. This design focus is also present in the narratives of most of his games with some of the best mechanical theming of narrative. All that along with the twisting, fascinating level design that is some of the best in the industry. While most of FromSoft’s games do tend to feel similar, it’s their slight differences that make them so interesting to play and compare. It’s no wonder that companies, including AAA developers like EA, have been trying to make their own “soulslike” games in the years since the release of Dark Souls hit the industry like a 900 volt shock.

#1 – Nintendo

Of course it’s Nintendo. What can be said about this titan in the video game industry? Their first games console, the NES, practically single-handedly saved the Western video game market from the crash of 83. They developed some of the most well known and beloved franchises like Mario (and spinoffs), Zelda, Pikman, Metroid, the list can go on forever. They have some of the best subistaries working for them with Game Freak making Pokemon, Monolith making Xenoblades, and Retro making the Metroid Prime and Donkey Kong Country Returns series. As a company, they have been dedicated to finding new, innovative ways for people to enjoy video games. Sometimes, that innovation pays off, like with the Wii and the DS, sometimes it does not, seen with Virtual Boy and Wii U. 

I have nothing but respect for the company and the risks they take. That respect was further cemented when, in 2014, as the Wii U severely undersoldt, Nintendo’s higher-ups took huge salary cuts, including then president and CEO, Satora Iwata, taking a full 50% cut to his pay for months. That’s just something you would never see an CEO of an American game company do. But the thing I respect most about Nintendo is that they work to ensure their games are fun. For them, fun comes before anything else and that’s what all video games should strive for: fun first. Like Reggie Fils-Aime said in a Nintendo Spotlight: “If it’s not fun, why bother?”

Devil May Cry & Devil May Cry 3 – Critical Miss #16

Dude Bro Bayonetta 3

When Devil May Cry launched early in the Playstation 2’s life in 2001, it spear-headed a new genre of game often referred to as character action or spectacle fighter games. This genre would be popular throughout the 2000’s and 2010’s with the God of War series, the reboot of Ninja Gaiden, and Bayonetta. Actually, both the original Devil May Cry and Bayonetta were directed by Hideki Kamiya, now with Platinum Games. Devil May Cry gained major critical acclaim when released, with journalists and fans alike praising it’s combat, sense of style and atmosphere, and the character of Dante. I skipped Devil May Cry 2 because is is widely considered by fans to be the worst game in the series. Luckily, Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening improves not only on 2, but the original Devil May Cry, and is my preferred game of the two.

A spectacle fighter lives or dies on it’s combat and the fighting mechanics in the Devil May Cry is really solid. Balancing melee and ranged attacks in a battle is fluid and invigorating. The stylish system, a combo rating  from D to S rank in the original and D to SSS rank in 3, rewards players with more red orbs to buy upgrades and items the better they play. But the combat in the original Devil May Cry gets repetitive quickly. One button is used for melee attacks and one for ranged, with combos changing depending on where you pause in a series of button presses. While it’s fun to cut through a group of enemies and keep the stylish gauge high by pelting baddies with bullets between combos, the simple controls of the original ends up relying too much on button mashing.

Devil May Cry 3 introduces different styles of combat that players can choose and swap at golden statues. There are styles like Swordmaster, which offers more moves to perform with melee weapons, Doppelganger, which lets players summon a mirror double of Dante, and my personal favorite, Trickster, which gives you a dash ability. The simple addition of the different styles makes combat feel so much more open for experimentation and personal. Players can find their own preferred playstyle and cater to it or even switch it up if they get bored. The combo meter is also much easier to read in Dante’s Awakening. All they added was a little line under the style gauge to show when it is filling up or draining, but it makes a world of difference. Now players can see what contributes to getting a good rank (constant damage to enemies, using a variety of attacks, etc.) and work with it to get better ranks.

But better combat isn’t the only reason I prefer Dante’s Awakening to the first Devil May Cry. The truth is I found the first game to be very tedious, with combat, with level design, and with enemies. The moment I realized I had enough of Devil May Cry was the third time I had to fight the armored goo boss. That was my experience with the bosses in the first game. There are about four bosses that you fight two to three times each. Dante’s Awakening has about three times the bosses and, besides Vergil and a short boss rush mission near the end of the game, there are no repeats. Nothing saps my excitement for a game quite like a lack of enemy variety. Neither of the games have the best variety in terms of basic mobs (the enemies you fight on the first level will be in the last level to mow down), but Dante’s Awakening gets the edge over the original by having slightly more variety and not repeating bosses.

Of course, one doesn’t stop playing a game because the bosses aren’t great. I don’t stop playing games for one glaring issue unless I haven’t been fully enjoying the rest of it and there are other reasons I found Devil May Cry tedious. The biggest reason is actually the level design. Throughout the first game, you explore a single castle, backtracking constantly through the same rooms and hallways, only interrupted with platforming sections made extremely frustrating with the fixed camera. The atmosphere on display in the game is rich and imposing, but it lacks variety or new, interesting set pieces to keep the player moving forward to see what’s next and ends up feeling as repetitive as the combat. Traveling through the same rooms is still common in Dante’s Awakening, but it’s improved by having a larger tower to explore, more variety in the rooms in regards to layouts and looks, and by changing the rooms up slightly halfway through the game when parts of the tower are destroyed. 

It’s not surprising that Devil May Cry spawned out of a failed prototype of Resident Evil 4 when you look at the Gothic art direction, fixed camera design, and the characters of Leon Kennedy and Dante. They are very similar, both cocksured and dripping with B-movie bravado, but Dante would only surpass Leon in utter cocky dudebro-ness in Devil May Cry 3. The story of the first game is rather plain, someone is trying to open a get to the demon world, go stop them. And, honestly, the story of the third game is no different, but it gains much more enjoyment by cranking the ridiculousness and self awareness to outrageous degrees. While the first games cut scenes are fairly campy, there aren’t any moments that stick out in my head. Dante’s Awakening is full of memorable story moments like Dante riding a motorcycle up the wall of the tower then using said motorcycle to fight off enemies midair and him saving Lady from falling only to be shot in the head. If Devil May Cry had as ridiculous and enjoyable cutscenes as the third games, I would have kept playing just to see what happens next.

That’s the real difference between the two games. While Dante’s Awakening is filled with interesting ideas and story moments, the original Devil May Cry feels like it only had enough ideas for a game half its length so the developers just doubled everything. Neither games are bad, but the third game is infinitely more fun, interesting, and better aged than its predecessor. If you are interested in the series, or action games in general, I highly suggest giving Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening a try. It’s on the right side of the PS2’s lifespan where games were starting to form designs more familiar with games today. Unfortunately, the original Devil May Cry is on the more archaic side of history.

Into the Breach & Enemy Intentions

Tactic games have been around for about as long as video games have existed. They are a great way to visualize battles between two groups of characters while making it easy for the player to understand. They are also a genre of game that I always want to play more of, but am hesitant to because I am so awful at them. Even as a child playing chess, the concept of trying to predict an opponent’s next move was completely foreign to me. It’s no wonder then that my favorite tactics game is Subset Game’s Into the Breach, who’s major mechanic is showing the player the enemies’ intents during battle. At first, this feature seems to be just a unique selling point for the game, but is actually the most ingenious aspect of the game and the most important crux the game revolves around.

Into the Breach is a teeny tiny tactics game where battles take place on an 8×8 isometric grid littered with buildings, enemies, differing landscapes, and your mechs. Everything is laid out in easy to read squares and the bright pixel art, along with the bold outlines, gives the game an almost cute diorama look. Battles only last for five turns, after which all surviving enemies, giant insects called Veks, retreat back into the Earth where they spawned. This means that unlike Fire Emblem or Advance War style games, victory isn’t based on defeating the enemies. Grid defense is the life blood of a campaign. If it drops to zero, it’s game over. You can have up to eight grid defense points and will lose one each time a building is destroyed. This makes protecting buildings and the citizens inside them the number one priority to consider in a battle.

While the game is turned base, it changes things by having the enemies take two turns and the player acting in between them. During their first turn, the giant insects will swarm to position to attack a building or unit, indicating their plans with an attack trail and red box with what will be hit. It is only during their second turn, however, when the enemies will act out their intentions to attack. This means the player’s turn is dedicated to preventing damage, be it by moving units out of harm’s way, blocking attacks to building, moving enemies so their attacks miss, or just killing enemies. This gives the game its unique edge and reinforces the importance of protecting buildings.

Since missions have differing objectives, like blocking enemies from spawning or destroying mountains, to gain resources, it varies what is most important to do on a turn, but the grid defense meter is the only consistent element throughout a campaign. Mechs automatically heal in between missions, but pilots will die if they are in a mech that’s destroyed. This isn’t as big of a deal as it seems at first. If mech doesn’t have a pilot to control it, it simply gains an AI pilot, with the only drawback being that they do not gain experience and level up to acquire passive benefits. This makes a mech’s health and pilot’s life a resource that needs to be considered in battle. Every move has to be judged on a case by case basis, but it’s almost always best to take some damage to a mech to save a building. 

So without showing the enemies’s intentions, it would be impossible for the players to make the decisions the game is built around. Battles can often feel like a resource management game, taking into account grid defense, mech health, actions available, and the enemy turn order to help decide the best move. Sometimes it’s best to lose a building if there is more grid power available on the island and you can focus on killing some enemies to ensure you don’t get overwhelmed on the next turn. For players like me, who often have difficulty anticipating opponents’ moves in games like XCOM, Fire Emblem, and even chess, Into the Breach is a great tactics game to cut your teeth on. Having a clear indicator from the enemies of where they are attacking and what you have to lose if you don’t act correctly is a great way to give every decision weight. 

Most of the attacks a mech can do in game have a secondary effect of moving an enemy to the next tile. This will disrupt their plan of attack because the Fireflies can’t shoot a building if another enemy is blocking them and a Scorpion can’t hit a unit with its melee attack if they’ve been pushed away. This encourages the player to experiment with attacks and how they can affect both enemies and allies alike. You’ll feel like a genius the first time you move an enemy onto a spawn tile for them to block the next turn and die in the process or use an attack to push an Vek away from a building and an ally just in range to attack. Moving enemies can also be touchy though. Sometimes attacking an enemy moves them into place to strike a building. This can lead to turns where it may be impossible to come out of without losing a mech pilot or a building. I’ve seen people say this is unfair but I disagree.

Into the Breach is a tactics game, not a puzzle game, which means there isn’t always a perfect solution to every turn. While a lot of pain can be taken care of through killing or blocking enemies from spawning, as a battle goes on, you will probably be overwhelmed with more enemies than can be comfortably dealt with. This is where reading the Vek’s intents is most important, to see which attacks are nonconcerns once you move a unit, which attacks can be cancelled by moving or killing enemies, and which ones can be blocked by a mech. Some turns, however, cannot be dealt with without losing a building or pilot’s life, turning them into plans to mitigate the most amount of damage. This gives the player’s choices meaning in the game because a planned loss of grid defense or pilot can be accounted for, while unexpected loss is much more difficult to come back from. 

I have an incredible amount of respect for Into the Breach. It’s not a game I play too often, but it’s one of those games that, when I do pick it up, I get sucked in for hours and it’s all I want to play for a week. The game’s small battles and relative short campaign lengths give it the perfect “just one more round” quality.  It’s an extremely clever and smartly designed game and stands out in a sea of tactics games by the simple addition of displaying enemy intentions. Everything in the game revolves around the mechanic and helps the player feel like the hero that has to weigh their own wellbeing for the good of the world.

Super Metroid – Critical Miss #15

Lost in Space

Getting lost in a video game is quite the balancing act for designers of adventure games. If a game is too linear, it can feel stifling and corridor-like, but if a game is too open, it can feel directionless and obtuse. Some game genres thrive on letting the players get lost and figure things out for themselves, mostly notably sandbox games and Metroidvanias. The term Metroidvania came to be after the release of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which had a world design and map strikingly similar to the Metroid series, especially the third game, Super Metroid, released in 1994. I enjoy the Metroidvania genre but had never actually played a Metroid game before. So to cut my teeth on the series, I decided to play the SNES classic.

A Metroidvania survives on the strength of its exploration and Super Metroid’s world seems deceptively small at first. When you find a map terminal, it only reveals a small portion of the surrounding area. It’s only after exploring the rooms, poking and bombing around for secret holes in the walls, that you see the true expanse of the map. The levels expand out like a spider web with hallways, vertical shafts, and rooms connecting and weaving together. The world is sectioned off into distinct biomes and interconnect throughout the game. With power-ups and missile increases hiding everywhere, you are incentivized to search every nook and cranny of the map.

Many of the power ups you’ll find often aid with the exploration. The high jump boots and space jump let you reach higher ground then before, the grapple beam lets you grab onto and swing from certain blocks scattered around the planet, and the ice beam lets you freeze enemies, turning them into platforms. Missiles and bombs work as a means to open up certain colored doors for progression. I’ve always preferred how Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Hollow Knight upgrades were changes in movement abilities like double jumps, wall jumps, and dashes. These allow the game world to feel more real, like a place that might actually exist, as opposed to something constructed solely to block passage until the right upgrade is found. Obviously, the upgrades don’t change the fact that the game is constructed and might block the player in order to guide them, but later games like Hollow Knight hide that fact much better than Super Metroid with its more organic exploration.

With constant exploration, you should be finding power ups at a very consistent rate and it does work to give the player a sense of growth throughout the game. Watching your health or max missiles increase helps the player feel better suited for the increasing challenge of the game; it empowers them. The game is great about helping the player figure out what a new power up does immediately after acquiring it. If it’s a movement ability like the grapple beam, it will be found in a room where you must use it to get out, and this lets the player think back on all the other areas it can be used. If it’s a weapon like the plasma beam, there are typically enemies you must get past that are much easier to kill with the new weapon.

It is on these small scales, the rooms with power-up designed to teach the player their uses, where the level design of Super Metroid is genius. With the minor annoyance of progress being locked behind boring colored doors, the world crafted in the beginning of the game is spectacular. The game does a lot to lead the player. Signposting boss entrances with monster heads and important areas with interesting landmarks helps the player remember parts of the map to return to later. The game actually feels rather linear in the beginning, where there is usually only one way to go without hitting a dead end. But Metroidvania games need to be open and the game soon flings wide open when you have acquired the high jump boots, ice beam, and super bombs. Sadly, as the game world becomes more open and explorable, I feel it also starts to collapse under its own weight. There is one moment in the game I can point to when this feeling cemented itself in my head and that’s when you acquire the X-ray scope.

With the X-ray scope, you have the power to shine a light on any surface of the game and reveal its secrets. Destructible blocks, hidden passages, missile upgrades and health tanks, you can now find them easily. This leads to the main area explored after finding the scope, Maridia, being plagued by seemingly dead ends and secret passages that either need to be found with X-ray scope or by blasting every tile with every weapon you have. The later part of the game feels like the developers either came up with the idea for the X-ray scope and felt justified hiding all progression from the player because they have the tool to find it, or that they built the levels with too many hidden passages and added the scope so it wouldn’t feel unfair. Either way, it doesn’t work because the X-ray scope is just too slow to use constantly. The game pauses around you while you use it and you can move with it activated, but the beam is slow and finnicking to direct. I’m sure it was the best they could do with the SNES hardware and controller, but it kills the pace. It’s a shame too because Super Metroid is a very fast paced game when you get into it.

And I did get into the game. Even while all my frustrations were mounting with the game as it went on, I wanted to keep playing. I found it very hard to put down because it was so satisfying and immersive. Part of it was due to my love of 16-bit games, but mostly I kept playing because Super Metroid has some of the best atmosphere on the SNES.

It’s hard to find a 16 bit game that is truly immersive, that makes you feel like you are in the world displayed on the screen, but Super Metroid accomplishes it with atmosphere, through incredible sound design and pixel art. One of the first things I noticed when turning on the game, is the sound effects all sounding muffled. Samus’s footsteps, her blaster, the cries of enemies, they are all slightly dampened, like they are being heard through a helmet. Explosions are crunchy, but soft, as if you were hearing them with Samus’s ears through the metal of her power suit. The world you explore is always interesting to look at. While Super Metroid doesn’t have the best pixel art I’ve seen on the system, the different biomes are lovely rendered with fitting color palettes and interesting backgrounds.The boss sprites are large and intimidating. The whole thing helps the player feel completely isolated in the game.

The atmosphere of Super Metroid is one of loneliness and bleakness. You truly feel that you are in Samus’s shoe, fighting for her life. You feel her anxiety when exploring an unknown area and her triumph when defeating a tough boss. I think that is why Samus, despite being a silent character in a relatively small number of games, is so beloved. People praise her for her bravery and for being “badass,” but she has no real character. Mario has more character than she does. I think that players projected onto her. It’s not that she is brave, you are. She’s not the badass, you are. But this gets confused in the mind because of the level of immersion the game offers the player, where they are not playing as Samus, they are her. The fact that Super Metroid, a 25 year old game from the SNES, can offer that kind of emotional experience is incredible. 

Fallout – Critical Miss #14

Set the World on Fire

The Fallout series is a household name in the video game industry and one I have always been interested in, partly due to my fear of nuclear weaponry. However, the only game in the series I ever played to completion was Fallout 4. It was the first game I bought for my PS4 so, while I don’t think highly of it today, it has a special place in my heart. I put about 5-10 hours into New Vegas, but that ran so poorly on my low-end laptop that it triggered my vertigo and made me extremely nauseous. While Fallout is one of the most popular series in gaming, there is a divide in its fanbase of those who like the classic games in the CRPG genre or the more modern FPS games. I’ve never played any CRPGs for an extended amount of time so I decided to play through the first Fallout, released in 1997. My thinking was I could experience the game that started the Fallout series and try out the CRPG genre at the same time. The problem is that I’m not sure CRPGs are for me.

The first hurdle I had to jump over were the controls. Clicking the mouse to where you want your character to go was no issue, but right clicking to toggle actions between movement and interacting tripped me up. Since you have to wait for your character to run to where you guided them, the movement feels extremely slow, and when you add additional directions to open any doors before entering a room, it never stops feeling clunky. A slower pace for a game isn’t an inherently bad thing, but having to constantly change between interact and movement did irritate me at times. Inventory management is also extremely tedious. With no way to quickly scroll through your items, you are forced to click down the page and it is way too slow with how often you will need to look through your gear.

Combat doesn’t fare much better, sadly. This is partly due to the finickiness of the controls and partly due lack of tactical input offered to the player. While the combat is a tactical turn-based system, it is based on limited Action Points that don’t leave much option besides attacking or moving. You also cannot directly control any party members, who act automatically. The game also lacks any sort of interesting character abilities like XCOM or Divinity Original Sin offer, so most fights wind up being characters standing in a group shooting or punching each other. There is a great variety of enemies and weapons to use in combat, but I never wanted to deal with fighting any more than I had to so I never got to experience the variety on a meaningful level. My dislike for combat may be because I built my character as a charisma/intelligence build so they weren’t made for tough fights, but I’ve never had a problem handling combat with similar builds in other RPGs, so I can’t help feeling unengaged by Fallout’s combat system.

There are two major aspects of the game I truly loved, though, and one of them was the character creator. There are seven stats you can freely change at the start of the game: strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, and luck. These stats will then determine where points are allocated to your skills (ex. strength will affect melee and unarmed skills, agility affects sneak) and with each level up you can add more points to desired skills. This allows you to focus your character and build them the way you choose. With my playthrough, I focused in high intelligence and charisma so I could talk my way through as many quests as possible, but it’s easy to build other character builds like a big, tough brawler or a sneaky thief. Every other level gained also lets you choose a perk that grants you a passive skill or buff. This style of leveling up is one of my favorites in all of video games. Fallout allows you such fine-tune control of your character that you feel you can truly build any type of character you want.

But the thing I loved most in Fallout is the world. It is a post-apocalypse game where most of humanity was wiped in a total nuclear war and the remaining people are trying to survive, be it through scraping together a living in communities or through violence. You explore the wasteland of a world that never culturally advanced past the American 1950’s and there is something fascinating about seeing all the retrofuturist ruins. Fallout mixes the old, the new, and the dead in a fantastic way and the world building through exploration and character dialogue is expertly done. This was my favorite part of the game: finding a new city and taking the time to explore and talk to everyone. It is very immersive and I found myself getting sucked into the world and hours passed by in real life without notice. It’s such a shame then that the controls and combat in the game prevented me from truly loving the game itself.

These types of games are always hard to review: perfectly good games that I didn’t enjoy very much. I’m objective enough to see through my own experience and look at the game as an unbiased whole, and through that lens Fallout is a great game. It’s no wonder why people in 1997 loved it so much and I have no doubt that it will continue to attract fans in the future. I’m just not one of them. Admittedly, this could be due to my lack of experience with the CRPG genre and that’s what makes Fallout really hard to give a definitive opinion on. Things I didn’t care for in the game might be what fans of the genre love and seek out in games. It’s awesome that video games offer such a wide range of experiences that anyone can find what they like.

I haven’t given up on this style of CRPG. I still really want to check out the Baldur’s Gate series. Maybe with Fallout under my belt, my expectations will be a little more in line with what the game might offer. I haven’t given up on the Fallout series either. I’m still looking into buying a Xbox 360 or PS3 so I can check out Fallout 3 and New Vegas where, hopefully, it won’t make me so sick. Sadly though, my desire to play Fallout 2 has been dampened, even though I hear nothing but amazing things about the game. Who knows though? Maybe someday I will take the time to dive back in the wastelands of the original Fallout series.

Return of the Obra Dinn & Lateral Information

It fascinates how video games convey information to their players. I remember picking up Ocarina of Time 3D for my brand new 3DS in 2014 and having the toughest time with the dungeons. After not really playing video games for 10+ years, my knowledge of how games design puzzles was dusty at best. Like any form of media, video games have certain things they expect the player to know coming in, a sort of jargon almost. Red barrels will explode, if townsfolk keep mentioning a cave to the west then that’s where you should go, solutions to puzzles are most likely located very nearby. Besides mechanics that can be used throughout the game, a lot of information found by a player in a level tends to stay there. But recently, I replayed Lucas Pope’s Return of the Obra Dinn after finishing his other game, Papers, Please, and how that game tells the player important information through a concept I refer to as lateral information is truly incredible.

Lateral information is similar to lateral communication in an office. The term refers to how workers on the hierarchical level across departments will discuss and work to resolve issues that affect the company as a whole. Lateral information are details or information in a game placed throughout a playthrough to be used in different sections or at different times. It is information gained by the player through thoughtful level design or story. I don’t consider power ups or items to be part of this definition because those are more tied to mechanics than information.

The core gameplay loop of Obra Dinn is based around gathering lateral information. In the game, you play as an insurance agent investigating what happened to the titular ship, which has drifted to harbor with its entire crew and passengers either dead or missing. In your possession is a stop watch that transports you to the exact moment a death has occurred. With this ability to view deaths, you are tasked with two goals: figure out who each person is and how they died. A death memory feels like entering a diorama and it can be overwhelming at times when you first experience the chaos of sounds, still figures, and rooms. There is a lot to take in but it is important to study everything you can in a scene: who is present, items characters may be holding, what jobs they seem to be performing, etc. All this information is important and it is up to the player to notice the details.

Most memories require information discovered during other memories to solve. The game becomes more and more open design-wise as the player discovers new memories, and it is left to them to gather the information and make the deductions needed to solve the fates of the crew. This gives the player plenty of time to investigate memories at their leisure, plenty of time to find the important clues, and plenty of time to think of how everything is tying together. This is lateral information. Using clues in memories to solve other questions in the game, all while treating all information as equally important, is the lateral information that Lucas Pope uses to great effect in Obra Dinn.

As a board concept, lateral information can be used in many different ways. As mentioned before, one use is to incentivize players to investigate everything in a memory. Since there is no way for a player to tell what they’re looking at will prove to be a useful piece of information, they have to comb through every little detail and commit what they can to memory. This does wonders to draw the player into the game world. By focusing on everything, players will naturally learn the structure of the ship and the peoples’ relationships aboard it. Add in the unique, monochromatic art style and you have a game world that is deeply immersive that keeps players grounded in it through constant focus.

Lateral information also helps structure progression through Obra Dinn. As you visit memories and discover the fates of the crew members, you will write down their identities and deaths in a book. Each disappeared person has a portrait for themselves and those portraits will be clear if you have found enough information to determine their identities or cloudy if you have not. This helps guide the player through the game before they have found all the memories because it tells them that either they haven’t found enough information, therefore needing future memories to solve, or they have found enough so they could puzzle out that person’s identity right there. Identities do have levels of difficulty to solve so it is often better to save difficult ones for later, but the picture system tells players that all the necessary information they need for that particular character can be found in previously discovered memories.

The greatest strength from lateral information that Obra Dinn gains is how it leads players to organically revisit and explore past memories once they have all been found. Since the bodies can be found in a nonlinear order, it’s nearly impossible to solve all the fates before the storm comes over the ship, indicating that all the memories have been discovered. This means that the player will have to go through memories they think have important information and reexamine them. In most other games, the solutions to a puzzle would be in the general area of the puzzle or there would be a near linear path to the solution. Obra Dinn is not like this. Since the whole design of the game is based around collecting lateral information from everywhere throughout the game, it’s natural that players would need to re-explore past areas and the game encourages this simply by how it is designed. Since the players have already been exploring the ship at their own pace and learning how to look for and collect important details, they are completely ready when the reigns are let off entirely. Even other puzzle games tend to increase the challenge by changing the mechanics whether it be through adding more rules as the game progresses, adding more variables to levels, or making the movement to complete the puzzles more complicated. Obra Dinn is different to these too because the gameplay and mechanics are the same throughout the entirety of a playthrough. Difficulty is only determined by the details players are expected to find. 

I hope games start to utilize more lateral information in their design. Not just puzzle games, but all types of games. This style of giving the player information helps the world of a game feel more organic and less constructed, it helps players become immersed in the world, and it helps them feel clever after solving a puzzle by recalling information found previously in the game without any indication to do so. Lucas Pope utilized lateral information so well in Return of the Obra Dinn, that I, someone who is usually pretty bad at puzzle games, managed to complete it. Not only that, but it has become one of my favorite games from a design aspect because it just fascinates me how the game feeds the player information.

Metal Gear Solid – Critical Miss #13

Sneaky-Beaky Like

The stealth genre is not one I follow too closely. I’ll pick a stealth game when it looks interesting, I enjoyed Dishonored enough and I thought the stealth mechanics in Sekiro were implemented really well, but I always have a hard time with the inherent slower pace of most stealth games. This explains why I’ve never played a Metal Gear Solid game before. But I recently picked up a PS2 and Metal Gear Solid was the first game I picked up for the system, I wanted to see what it was that has kept people so enthralled with it since 1998, why people love its creator, Hideo Kojima, so much, and if this was the stealth game that would finally help me love the genre.

Booting it up, the game’s visuals aged better than I expected. Sure, everything is noticeably pixelated on a HD television, but the art style and environmental design is really great. Everything is blue and metallic, heightening the sense that it’s a real military base in Alaska. You can see Snake’s breath when he is outside in the cold and the character models themselves are some of the cleanest and best looking I’ve seen on the system. It’s oddly charming watching the characters just nod their heads up and down instead of moving their mouths in cutscenes. 

I wasn’t a big fan off watching minutes long codec conversations, though. A lot of the discussions Snake has with his team members via the codec are just there to dump exposition, and having to watch it all with just two character portraits that hardly animate isn’t very engaging. However, the voice acting is extremely strong. It was one of the most impressive aspects of the game for me. PS1 games weren’t known for great voice acting (just see Resident Evil or Mega Man 8 for that), so to see Metal Gear Solid take it seriously was great. They had to have the best voice acting possible, though, because Hideo Kojima didn’t just want to make a video game, he wanted to tell a story. 

The story of Metal Gear Solid is basically a political/military thriller, but widened to explore themes of a soldier’s place in the world, trust in one’s government, nuclear weapons, and love. Honestly, the whole thing is very silly and over the top with larger than life characters and constant plot twists. It was the main thing that kept me playing in the second half of the game, but I wouldn’t say the writing itself is good. Character dialogue is almost always verbose, repetitive, and bloated. Characters explain unimportant details, like how the key cards open doors you just walk by, and they are always telling Snake how great he is and that he’s such a legendary soldier. I know, by this point, Snake has starred in two games already, but I would rather have his prowess as a soldier be expressed in gameplay, rather than characters saying it constantly.

I was similarly mixed on the gameplay. The controls have that classic PS1 stiffness, pressing against walls while trying to turn a corner is a constant issue I ran into, but once you get used to them, the stealth gameplay is enjoyable. The player is given many tools to sneak around guards: crawling under tables, looking around corners by pressing against a wall, knocking on walls to draw guards to the sound. The best tool they have to use is the Soliton Radar. This is a mini map in the top right of your screen that will show enemy locations and their sight lines. Using the radar well is key to infiltrating the base successfully. There are certain areas where the radar will be jammed and you will start to notice that a lot in the last half of the game. There are hardly any places on disc 2 that use the Soliton Radar. Not only is it disappointing to build up this skill to have it then taken away for most the end of the game, but it also leads to a lot of instances of being shot by something you couldn’t see off screen. 

There are also a couple bad moments of backtracking in the later half of the game, the worst being changing the shape of the PAL card. . You have to climb to the top of Metal Gear Rex to enter the control room, then you have to climb back down to go to the frozen warehouse, then climb back up to control room, then back down and take two long elevator rides to furnace before finally climbing back up Rex. This section is too long for its own good. It is just so boring and tedious. With most the rooms you travel through being devoid of enemies, there’s not much to keep the player engaged. It feels like padding at its most basic definition.

For me, the worst aspect of Metal Gear Solid are the bosses. The stiff controls make Ocelot and Gray Fox’s fight way too clunky, and the slow first person aiming makes the fights with Sniper Wolf and Rex terribly sluggish. Every boss has such a small window of opportunity to hit them that the fights involve a lot of waiting around. They never felt like they were testing my patience as a player, though, they just felt tedious. The worst fight for me was the Hind D which combines not only the slow aiming controls and small windows to do damage, but also has long periods where the helicopter dips below the building, meaning you just have to wait for it to come back to shoot it. The fight with Psycho Mantis is memorable because of all the meta nonsense happening, but my favorite boss in the game was Vulcan Raven in the warehouse. This is mostly because it’s the only boss fight that utilizes the Soliton Radar in a meaningful way as you watch his movements on the screen and place mines or C4 in front of his path.

Metal Gear Solid has the Resident Evil problem to me. While Resident Evil starts off as a scary survival horror game, it slowly becomes more action oriented as the game progresses until you are fighting giant bio weapons with rocket launchers. Metal Gear Solid follows the same pattern but with stealth gameplay instead of survival horror. The beginning is strong as you are just sneaking past guards from room to room, but towards the middle of the game the stealth gameplay gives way to action set pieces and boss fight after boss fight. I started to notice this after the first Sniper Wolf fight as I was lead down a string of frustrating action moments I didn’t feel the game prepared me for. After the fight with Sniper Wolf, you have the torture sequence where you mash the O button to survive. This leads to the communication tower section where you either run from the guards or shoot them down, stealth is not an option. Then the Hind D fight which I already discussed. The only room that requires any stealth skills past this point is the furnace and I found myself missing the sneaking around of the early game.

I can see why the game blew people away in the 90’s. With its great presentation, incredible voice acting, and emphasis on a real story, it stood out on the PS1. It really is the best cinematic experience you can have on that console. I only wish that the gameplay had stayed consistent throughout the entire game. I haven’t given up on the series, however. I still really want to play Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater because I’ve heard it’s really incredible. But first I have to get through Metal Gear Solid 2 and its bonkers story.

Monster Hunter World & Player Knowledge

I’ve come to learn a secret about myself: I tend to enjoy difficult, sometimes even obtuse games. If a game strikes me right, I tend not to have a problem with taking the time to learn it, its mechanics, UI, etc. Learning a game that doesn’t hand out its secrets easily breeds a special kind of familiarity and satisfaction with the player. Dark Souls and The Binding of Issac are two of my favorite games because of their difficult to grasp or even hidden mechanics. Dark Souls is especially polarizing due to its refusal to explain things to its players. But while Dark Souls might be the prince of obtuse game design, Monster Hunter has always been the king.

I had a friend who laughed at me when I said that Monster Hunter World is much more user friendly than previous games, but it’s true. With a more intuitive quest system, hunter notes displaying monsters’ weaknesses and drops, and upgrade trees clearly laid out at the blacksmith, the game is much easier to parse than the 3DS games I’ve played or even the newest game on the Switch. That’s not to say the game has been dumbed down. Simplified, yes, but the game is so deep that there is plenty it still relies on the player to figure out on their own.

Even before a hunt, the player will have to prepare. This includes choosing equipment if you don’t have a preferred set, but also grabbing the correct items like antidotes if you’re hunting a monster that poisons or nulberries in they inflict blight. The player should also stop at the canteen to eat, which grants stat increases. A seasoned hunter will know the best stat to buff for a hunt like getting more defense while fighting a Diablos, who is a heavy physical hitter. You’ll have the best chance of success by preparing before a hunt and that can be difficult for new players who are unfamiliar with useful items or the monster to choose the best gear. Even learning where things are in the hub takes time. The hardest thing for me when starting up Iceborne for the first time was learning where everything is laid out in Seliana as opposed to Astera.

Another thing you can do before a hunt is practice your weapon. Monster Hunter World has a training area where you can try out any of the 14 different weapons and even provides combos to perform on the side of the screen. This is a good thing because while some weapons are easier than others, they all have unique combos and qualities that the game isn’t great about explaining to you. I personally main the Charge Blade because I like its speed and defense in sword and shield mode, its power in axe mode, and just the overall variety the weapon brings. However, this weapon is so complicated, with its charging phials to make axe mode stronger and  finicky controls, that I had to look up a few Youtube videos early in my playthrough to get the most of it. Yes, there are actual 20+ minute long videos on Youtube and essays on forums dedicated on how best to use a weapon. A player can get by without knowing all the little nuances of their preferred weapon, but that’s just another mechanic you need to put the time in to learn before heading out on a hunt.

Once on a hunt, the player’s knowledge of the game is truly tested. They will need to track down the monster with help from the scoutflies and fight the monster to submission. After a while, players learn the areas monsters tend to appear. For example: Rathalos will start in the leafy canopy of the Ancient Forest and Diablos can typically be found in the caves of Wildspire Waste. Players will also learn where useful materials spawn in areas the longer they play. I always like to stay well stocked on Armorskin potions, so every time I find an adamant berry, I make a mental note of its location.

An oversimplified way to describe Monster Hunter World would be to say it’s a boss rush game. The core gameplay loop is fighting giant monsters, be them dragons, dinosaurs, or whatever the hell Pukei-Pukei is. Like Dark Souls, Cuphead, or any other game where bosses are a major component of gameplay, the monsters take a lot of learning to master in fights. There are attack patterns to commit to memory, blights monsters can inflict, tells when they are enraged, exhausted, or close to death. The first time you hunt a monster is the most dangerous. You won’t know any of its attacks or inflictions it might cause. But each time a player hunts a monster, they learn a little more, get a little better, until fighting opposing beasts like Nergigante are second nature. Nothing feels as good as breaking an attack swing to dodge a monster’s attack and watch it miss by millimeters.

There has always been a big focus on breaking the monsters’ parts in the series. Things like wings can be damaged, horns can be broken, and tails cut off. This damage doesn’t just feel satisfying to do, but also affects the rest of the battle. The monster’s abilities and attacks will change depending on what have been damaged on their bodies. A monster with damaged wings will have a harder time flying and spend more time on the ground. Breaking Diablos’s horns is a good way to lessen the damage it can do with charge attacks. Learning what parts of monsters can be broken and how that affects them is important to success in a hunt. Barioth is a mix between a saber-toothed tiger and a dragon. It’s also a real bastard. It took me two or three attempts to finally slay this beast, but I learned to focus on specific parts of its body with each attempt. At last, during my successful hunt, I attacked him in a learned pattern. First, cut off the tail because it neuters many of its attack’s range. Second, take off the spikes off its wings to make sure it stumbles while using certain attacks. Finish it by focusing on attacking its head where it is the weakest.

Monsters in the game will start to seem easier, but it’s not in the same way it feels in a standard RPG where your character can take on tougher foes because they leveled up a few times and their stats increased. You get better at Monster Hunter World as a player. You get better at hunting monsters after studying their attacks, you learn how to prep better or collect the materials you need, you’ve mastered your weapon and know how to get the most out of it. It’s an interesting bit of ludonarrative connection that your hunter character in game gains more and more recognition as the story progresses and as you the player become better at playing the game. It makes the praise the characters layer on you feel less like it’s scripted and more like you fought hard through the trials and earned it.

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door – Critical Miss #12

Heart & Craft

I’ve been trying to build my Gamecube collection lately, but it’s a tricky endeavor. Nintendo games tend to retain value and add the fact that the Gamecube is one of Nintendo’s lowest consoles, you have a recipe for expensive games. I was grateful when a friend borrowed we their copy of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. It had been on my list for years but the game still goes for at least $50-$70 online, for a game released in 2004. That’s full price nowadays for a game over 15 years olds. But, I must admit, after playing the game, I see why it’s still so expensive and sought-after. 

To get the obvious out of the way, the first thing that needs to be brought up when discussing any Paper Mario game is the art style. Thousand-Year Door, like other Paper Mario games, uses a paper aesthetic for the art. Characters are paper cut outs and turn on their axis when changing directions. Things like hidden stairs and bridges are often revealed by a turning page or unfolding out of a wall. I found myself wishing that the game would go further with the paper aesthetic, but it still adds a lot of charm to the game. 

By far the strongest aspect of the art style is the character designs. A lot of NPCs in the game are classic Mario enemies, but there are a ton of new character designs on display. Be it the wrestling champ Rawk Hawk, the penguin detective Pennington, or the race of Punis, all the character designs are bold and colorful and extremely charming. One character, Ms. Mowz, has become one of my favorite character designs in video games. She a little mouse femme-fatale, burgular who wears a little red mask and silhettos. She’s extremely cute and her design perfectly encapsulates her personality. 

The story of Thousand-Year Door is simple and fun. The overarching plot is Mario searching for the seven crystal stars in hopes it will lead him to Princess Peach, who has been kidnapped by the X-Nauts. In between chapters, Peach Princess interacts with a computer, TEC, who’s fallen in love with her and Browser works to catch up to Mario and claim the crystal stars for himself. The writing throughout is clever and often very funny. My favorite gag in the game is the creature hiding in black chests that curses you, but the curses all turn out to be new abilities for Mario and are very useful.

The main plot of the game usually takes a backseat to whatever adventure Mario is currently on for a crystal star. The game is split into chapters and each one is varied and unique. The first chapter is a standard RPG story as you raid an abandoned castle and fight a dragon. But soon you will be entering a wrestling league, trying to reclaim your body after being turned into a shadow, or solving mysteries on a train like it’s an Agatha Christie novel. Chapters find a good balance of combat, puzzle solving, and witty dialogue, with only a few struggling with that balance like the train section or the pirate’s cove. The game feels like it wasn’t satisfied with telling a standard, epic RPG story, but instead wanted to explore different types of storytelling in an RPG format, and it pulls it off phenomenally.

I had only one minor complaint about the game and that is some sections require too much backtracking. The levels are designed as left to right rooms, like a 2D level in 3D, and when the game asks the player to go back and forth across these areas, like on Keelhaul Key and the trek between Twilight Town and the Creepy Steeple, you soon realize how boring the sections are after you solved all the puzzles during the first go around. The worst sections of this are the train to Poshley Heights, which is literally just a five room hallway, and the search for General White, which has you going through nearly all previously visited areas in search of the old Bob-omb.

A major difference The Thousand-Year Door has from standard RPGs is the leveling system. You don’t gain random stat increases as you level up, you don’t get skill points to spend on perks, you don’t even get new armor for more defense. Instead, each time Mario defeats an enemy, they drop star points, and after collecting 100 star points, Mario levels up. As soon as he levels up, the player has a choice to increase Mario’s health, Flower Points (the game’s magic points), or his Badge Points. Attack increases come by finding new hammers or shoes to improve Mario’s basic attacks or by equipping different badges to Mario.

Throughout the game, you will find many different badges. These badges can be equipped to Mario based on how many Badge Points Mario has available and how many points each badge requires. The badges provide a multitude of benefits ranging from new attacks, stat increases like more health or defense, or passive perks like randomly dodging some attacks or decreasing the cost of special moves. This system is extremely interesting because it encourages creativity from the player and is how the games lets  players make builds or classes in the game. You can build a magic class by equipping all the badges the decrease the FP costs of special attacks, a tank by using the defence badges, a dex type class by using the badges that give you the best chances to avoid damage, or you can just mix and match all the different types of badges to whatever fits your playstyle best. 

Mario isn’t alone on his journey, of course. Throughout the game, Mario will make new finds who will join his party and adventure alongside him. These characters range from familiar Mario enemy types with personalities like Goombella the Goomba and Koops the Koopa Troopa to completely new designs like Vivian, one of the Siren Sisters, and Madame Flurrie the wind spirit. There is even a baby, punk-rock Yoshi that the player gets to name! I named my B. Idol. All the party members are rather one dimensional, but, along with their strong designs, they feel more like cartoon characters and it works well in the game. Mario’s new friends all have unique abilities to help him solve puzzles and find hidden items in the overworld: Madame Flurrie blows away loose pieces of paper, Admiral Bobbery can blow up certain walls, and Koops can spin across gaps in his shell to collect items or hit switches. 

Your party members also aide you in battle and, much like the story, the combat in Thousand-Year Door is simple, but extremely fun.  Mario only has a jump and a hammer attack along with any badge attacks you have equipped, and those attacks can only hit certain enemies. Flying enemies or enemies not in the front row are out of reach of Mario’s hammer but can be easily jumped on. Spikey or flaming enemies will hurt Mario to jump on but are vulnerable to hammer strikes. Your partners attacks work in the same way. Some attacks can only hit ground enemies in the front row, some can jump on any enemy but is dangerous against spiky enemies, and some, like Vivian’s fire, can hit any enemy. 

The combat is pretty easy throughout, but it is one of the most fun battle systems in an RPG. There is a puzzle-like mechanic of knowing which enemies can be struck by which type of attack. While in most RPGs, the player is only required to navigate menus to select an attack and watch it occur, Thousand-Year Door uses an Action Command style meaning the player must do a specific action for an attack to do more damage or be effective at all. These actions could be pressing the A button at the right time, holding the joystick to the left and releasing, the right time, entering a random string of numbers, or rapidly pressing the triggers. This keeps the battles engaging the entire length of the game because they feel like tiny minigames to focus on. Many have stated the the combat in Thousand-Year Door is too easy, and it is very easy with only the final boss being a real challenge, but I found the battle system to be too engaging and simply too much fun for it to bother me.

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is a truly excellent game and an easy recommendation to anyone. The story and art style is charming and fun for anyone to enjoy it, and the combat is easy enough for an RPG novice to play while still having the Action Commands to engage anyone with more experience in the genre. This game has quickly climbed to the top of my list I wish to be rereleased for the Switch and, based on how fans have been begging Nintendo to return the Paper Mario to the style of Thousand-Year Door and how much critical acclaim this game has rightly gotten, I don’t feel alone in wishing for it.

Resident Evil 2 (2019) & Mr. X

It’s now on record that the Resident Evil 2 remake was one of my favorite games of 2019. Lately, I’ve become enamored with the classic Resident Evil formula and the Resident Evil 2 was a perfect update to it, adding more RE 4 shooting mechanics to the level design of the PS1 style games. But there’s one mechanic in the game that fascinates me more than any other and that’s the character that fans affectionately refer to as “Mr. X” and which I will be referring to as such because it’s shorter to type than the tyrant. 

Mr. X appears in the station at some point during a playthrough and stalks the player in select sections of the game. If he gets line of sight on the player, he will chase after you until you outrun him, which isn’t easy to do since he walks about as fast as the characters run. If he doesn’t know where the player is, he will search throughout the station for them. You can hear his heavy boot steps thumping on the floors and the crash when he throws open doors. Even though you can hear him stomping around, it’s never completely clear when he is, and it’s very startling to open a door only to find him on the other side, ready to deck Leon or Claire in the face. Knowing where you are safe from him is invaluable knowledge. You can take a quick side path around him when he’s spotted down a hall or dip into the S.T.A.R.S. office or a safe room, where he can’t follow you, when being chased down.

He pushes the player to rush. No longer can you slowly inch down a possible dangerous hallway and you have less time to decide whether to shoot a zombie down or wait for the right moment to juke pass them. If he’s not coming up on you at the moment, he could be always be entering the room at any second. The worst areas are the halls with Lickers in them, who are aggroed by the sound of the character running. If Mr. X is running you down through one of those, yous can choose between going slow and being pummelled by Mr X or running and being clawed by a Licker.

Puzzles and inventory management must also be done quickly. Sure, you are safe in the pause menu to arrange your items all you want, but if Mr. X was standing right in front of you with fist raised when you paused, he’ll still be waiting and ready when you unpause. Luckily, he doesn’t show up in a lot of the inventory management puzzles, like the chess piece puzzle, but during the puzzles where he is bearing down on you, he will make you feel every second lost as you stand in place, pausing and unpausing.

Hearing Mr. X thundering through the rooms helps accomplish two things. The first is letting the player know where he is in the station. While it is difficult to pin down where exactly Mr. X is at any point, the sounds he makes gives the player a relative idea of his location. This helps them know when they are in relative safety. If you hear him across the station, you’ll probably safe to go slow for a while, but if the footsteps are nearby, it’s best to be on guard. Being able to always hear Mr X. also works as a constant reminder that he is out there, he is hunting for you. This keeps the tension high while playing in areas of the police station where the players know they’re safe.

This constant tension builds until Mr. X suddenly appears. Whether he bursts through a door you were heading to or you spot him at the other end of a hallway, it is a very distressing occurrence. He usually appears standing between the player and where they were trying to go when they run into him, forcing them to figure out on the fly another path through the station to their destination.

It can’t be understated what an imposing presence Mr. X has in the game, as he hulks toward you, eyes angry and shoulders squared. But I think what makes him the scariest is that he in not a fully known entity. After multiple playthroughs of the Resident Evil 2 remake, I still don’t know what determines Mr. X’s behavior. I never figured out for sure if he actually has to look and find the player when he is off screen, or if he’s always making a beeline to their location. I believe it is the former because there was a time I was standing above the ladder in the library and I watched Mr. X enter through the main hall, stopped and looked around, and exit out through a side door. This moment, character standing in a room with this monster and me holding my breath in real life, stands out to me because it was totally unscripted to my knowledge and actually scared me as I waited to see what Mr. X would do. 

There was another moment, while playing through Claire’s A scenario on hardcore mode, that stands out to me. After progressing to the point where Mr. X is introduced, I did not see him at all until leaving the station for the orphanage. I didn’t even hear him that entire time. I started to wonder if the range you can hear Mr. X in hardcore mode is reduced or if my game was bugged somehow. Was I just getting lucky not to see him? I was filled with uncertainty during that entire section of the playthrough because I wasn’t sure if the game was taking advantage of my incomplete knowledge. This playthrough became more stressful than any other because, as it turns out, not hearing Mr. X and not knowing where he’s located is scarier. 

While Mr. X stalking the player throughout the police station is designed to create fear in the player, it also helps reinforce the knowledge of the game they’ve learned and give the players a sense of growth. When he pops into a hall unexpectedly, Mr. X works as a roadblock. The player then must figure out a way around him, a side path to get them where they were heading, clear as possible of additional threats. After hours of playing the game and exploring the halls of the station, they can easily do this in a single moment. When players first enter the police station, it is confined and narrowed by locked doors and puzzles. The player will slowly open up the station as they progress through the game into a complex web of halls and rooms. The developers were smart to introduce Mr. X into a playthrough when the station is mostly open. By that time, the players will be well familiar with its layout and all the quickest, safest paths throughout. If Mr. X appeared earlier in the game, before the players had a chance to get a mental layout of the station, it would feel unfair.

The real strength of putting Mr. X in the game is that he gives the players moments of satisfaction as they backpedal away from him and use their knowledge gained throughout a playthrough to map out a new route through the police station. The true genius is his dual purpose design that creates a constant sense of fear but also a sense of knowledge in the player and how easy his design accomplishes both these purposes. 

Top 5 Best Games of 2019

2019 was a weird year for video games for me. Most games I played this year felt strangely similar to other games I’ve played in the past. Remakes, sequels, spiritual successors were abundant. However, I did play a lot of great games in 2019. So much so that I didn’t have room for all of them. 

So honorable mentions go to Slay the Spire, Streets of Rogue, and The Outer Worlds, all games I sank too much time in to. There is also one game I want to mention for my biggest miss of the year and that’s Disco Elysium. I feel Disco Elysium would have a good chance to be my game of the year, but I don’t have the means to play it until its PS4 release slated for 2020. 

With all that out of the way, here are my top five games of 2019.

#5) Pokemon Sword

My number five spot was tricky to decide on. This is a very biased pick because of my love for the Pokemon series, but Pokemon Sword is one of the few games I’ve beaten this year that I still want to play. It’s a standard Pokemon game, but the new Pokemon introduced are some of the strongest in while, Raid Battle are surprisingly addictive, and I’ve lost too many hours to count in the wild area while trying to complete my Dex. I love this game so much, I already want to start another playthrough with a whole different team.

#4) Astral Chain

This year, I played two games that involve themselves with the astral plane: Control and Astral Chain. Out of those two, Astral Chain is a clear favorite for me. Developed by Platinum Games, it has all their hallmarks I love: varied and satisfying combat, perfect dodge mechanics, a variety of enemies, and an over-the-top, ridiculous story. The best part of the game are the Legions, though, and the many ways they can be utilized in and outside of fighting. 

#3) Resident Evil 2 (Remake)

I never played the original Resident Evil 2, so I had no nostalgia for the game when the remake was announced. But I picked it up based on my love for RE 4 and after playing through the RE 1 remake, and this new remake plays like the best aspects of those two games combined. The shooting is satisfying while the over-the-shoulder camera provide a claustrophobic feeling in the tight halls of the police station. The station, where most of the game takes place, is expertly crafted and the survival horror balance is pitch perfect, ensuring the player is always low on supplies but can still scrape by if they play smart.

#2) Untitled Goose Game

2019 was a landmark year for me because Untitled Goose Game released. It was my most hyped game since I saw it a few years back and it was everything I wanted. It’s a funny game with an interesting take on stealth gameplay and a dedicated honk button. The levels are solidly designed and they even open up upon completion, connecting them all for more open playthroughs after the first. The game is effortlessly charming with a pleasant art style.The only drawback to the game is the short length. It helps the humor not overstay its welcome, but it does feel sadly lacking. But then again, it has a dedicated honk button.

#1) Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Like my review of Majora’s Mask, what impresses me most about Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is how it feels similar to the Dark Souls series, yet completely different at the same time. The additional of the hookshot is great, adding a huge amount of verticality to levels and enables more stealth options and quick escapes. The exploration is still present even with the more linear level design and the rewards for searching can be truly gratifying. The game strips out all the different weapons, armor, and classes of From’s earlier Souls games, but it still manages to be as challenging as those other games. With a more narrow move set provided to the player, the bosses and enemies were created with laser focus. Honestly,there were times while fighting some bosses where I thought I might not be good enough to beat them. Genochiro, the Guardian Ape, Demon of Hatred, the Corrupted Monk, all beat me now to the point of despair. But no game gave me a better feeling than taking out each and every one of Sekiro’s bosses.

Top 5 Critical Miss Games of 2019

I played a lot of older games this year, games that are considered classics, to see how well they held up for someone with no nostalgia for them. Honestly, this has been my favorite part of writing Atomic Bob-Omb. I wanted to celebrate nearly a year of Critical Miss by ranking my top 5 favorite games I played for the series in 2019

#5) Spryo 2: Ripto’s Rage

I was glad to play Spyro 1 and 2 this year. They were games I always wanted to play as a kid, and I did play a lot of a demo of the first game, but never owned them. While I found the first game to be clunky and frustrating with too precise of jumps with a very stiff arch, Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage as a good time. With its wide range of characters and setting, differing mission for orbs, and more relaxed but still challenging at times platfoming, it was my preferred of the first two Spyro games. I’m amazed how much adding a small flutter to Spyro’s jump added to the feel of the platforming. It was a very relaxing game to play, but stayed fun throughout the full adventure.

#4) Majora’s Mask

Majora’s Mask may have become my favorite 3D Zelda game this year. It’s so fascinating how the developers created a game that feels similar but also completely different than other games in the franchise. They cut down on dungeons but made those dungeons trickier and more interesting to explore. They shifted focus of the story from Link’s journey to Termina and its citizens. What truly sets this game apart are the transformation masks that change Link’s moveset and basically give you 4 characters to play as throughout the game. It’s easy to see why Zelda fans hold this game in such high regard nearly 20 years after its release.

#3) Doom

The original Doom is a hell of a fun time. While the sprites and early 3D art style has aged, it has a huge amount of charm today. The game excels at fast-paced, frantic combat and exploration. The core gameplay loop is running at breakneck speeds through the level, killing the hordes of hell, searching for the exit and possible secrets for extra weapons and power ups. For me, the best part of the games is its variety. There are many guns with differing uses and lots of enemies, with different behaviors to learn and optimal ways to kill. Add that with excellent level design and you have a landmark title that still holds up today. 

#2) Resident Evil (Remake)

I learned this year that I love the gameplay loop of the early Resident Evil games of being dropped in a puzzle box building and slowly unraveling your way out. It helps that the Spencer mansion is expertly crafted and the player will have the layout nearly memorized after their first playthrough. The prerendered backgrounds look beautiful and the gameplay is extremely solid. The gun play is lacking, but it’s overshadowed by the game’s other mechanics: learning when to fight enemies or run, mapping out what paths are safe to run through or where you might need to burn bodies, managing your inventory to ensure safety and progress through the next puzzle. While the game isn’t very scary, it keeps the tension high enough to keep players on edge throughout the entire playthrough. It truly amazes me how well the Resident Evil Remake has aged (with the modern controls, of course).

#1) Papers, Please

Papers, Please was the most enthralling game I played for Critical Miss this year. The main mechanic of inspecting papers is unlike any I’ve experienced and the story was very emotional while being very minimalist. The best part of the game is how it uses the player’s beliefs for moral choices. Most games have moral choices baked into the code, as in doing certain things are considered good or bad by the game and can change how events play out. Papers, Please relies on the player to decide what is right or wrong. As long as you make enough money, the game will continue whether you help everyone in need or ignore their pleas. The emotional impact of the game is so ingrained with the player trying to do what they think is the right thing, that it would never work as any other form of media. Papers, Please is my favorite game of the year for this series for being utterly unique, impact full emotional, and truly fascinating from beginning to end. 

Papers, Please – Critical Miss #11

Working for the Clampdown

Solo developed video games have always interested me. They are a good place to see what can be accomplished with unhampered vision and passion. Lately I’ve been working my way through Return of the Obra Dinn by Lucas Pope. The game is fascinating and it made me interested to check out Pope’s earlier game Papers, Please. Met with critical acclaim when it was released in 2013, it has since kept up a reputation of a unique and heartfelt game. 

In Papers, Please, you play as a border inspector for the totalitarian government of the fictional country of Arstotzka. The country takes obvious inspiration from the former Soviet Union and its heavy regulation and restriction of immigration. The gameplay focuses on checking the papers of all people trying to enter the country through your border checkpoint, accepting the immigrants with proper papers and denying all those with missing and forged papers. Your character gets paid for every person processed and pay is docked for every mistake you make. The money is important because you have a family at home that depends on you. Rent is immediately taken out every night and you must also pay for food, heat, and medicine if a family member is sick. That is, if you have enough money. 

 Everything in Paper, Please revolves around time and space management. Your desk space is extremely limited and you will soon have too many papers to check to have them all on you desk at once without overlapping. The time in a day you have to work is also limited and is even cut short sometimes by terrorist attacks. If you don’t process enough people in a work day, you’ll go home short on cash. The game throws a load of little things that take up a tiny amount of time which adds up throughout the day. This aspect of the Papers, Please is so smart and subtle it is a great candidate for a future post.

The most interesting thing in the game is the people trying to get into Arstotzka. Many are desperate to enter the country, begging and bribing you to let them in if their papers are forged. Some get mad at you for denying them entry and some are even bitter about returning to the country. There are dozens of sad stories that will pass through the checkpoint during a playthrough. Memorable ones for me were the couple were the wife is missing papers, the woman who wants you to deny a man because he plans to sell her into sex work, and the father who request you to steal a man’s passport so he can track him down for killing his young daughter. 

Even through the game’s minimal dialogue, the character’s fear and sorrow are heart wrenching and it is effective at making the player want to help them. This is not easy to do though. You have two free mistakes in accepting improper people a day, so you have a little wiggle room if you play perfectly, but if you are too careless then you pay and the end of the day screen will remind you that it is your family that suffers. The player is constantly torn between wanting to help the people coming through the checkpoint and keeping their family healthy. 

The game offers multiple playstyles without ever changing the core mechanics at all. During my first playthrough,I found the easiest way to win was to keep my head down and work under the government’s boot heel. The only problem with that is I felt horrible turning away anyone in need of help. During my second playthrough, I tried to help as many people as possible since I improved at the game, but quickly ran into issues making enough money to keep my family warm and full. Many games offer different skill sets for differing playstyles or classes, but Papers, Please stays the same game mechanically. You’ll still be checking papers and all, but it feels completely different trying to slyly subvert the government or just look out for you and your own.

There is a strange sense of meta-immersion in the game. It often feels like office work while looking over the number of papers needed to be checked and that feeling is only heighten while you are sitting at your desk playing on a computer. A complaint I’ve often heard against Papers, Please is that is can end up feeling too much like a job. This is a valid complaint because checking the papers can be tedious and fear of making a mistake is stressful like work can be. I’ve also heard people say that they would not consider Papers, Please a game due to it feeling too much like work and I don’t agree with that. The game still has very video games rules and logic. Booth upgrades can help you point out discrepancies and stamp passports faster, there are no repercussions of skipping a day of meals if you eat the next day, and the fact that you can quickly restart a day if you fail a task and lose are all examples of things that could only happen in a video game. Real life work doesn’t offer a redo button nor do books or movies offer the freedom of choice in Papers, Please.

It’s a game that only works as a video game and I was enthralled from beginning to end. The concept was interesting and the characters’ desperation fit perfectly with the setting and themes. Papers, Please is fascinating as a game because it uses a new and unconventional gameplay style to tell a believable story of human pain. Mechanically it is fresh and challenge, keeper players just on the edge of failure, but offering enough support throughout the game to keep them engaged.

Of course, there are some issues with the game. The art style I really like. It is rough and bleak, fitting perfectly with the former Soviet Union setting, but it does tend to make it difficult to spot certain discrepancies. Height was always an issue for me to catch due to the measuring bars behind the characters not being clear enough. The font on the documents is extremely pixelated, making it hard to read sometimes, and fingerprints are very messy, requiring me to just check for differences whenever they came up. Most discrepancies are noticeable while just looking over documents and comparing them, but it’s the moments when they are not clear at a glance that lead to frustration. 

Other issues I have with the game are very minor. Failure can come in an instant at times if you forget to do a certain task in a day. Example of this would be losing because I denied a diplomat from entering Arstotzka because their papers were incorrect. But while failure can come quick, you can also restart just as quick on the day you failed. The pointer can also feel imprecise at times. It’s more annoying than frustrating when you mean to click on a date on a passport but end up highlighting the entire passport, but because of the imprecision, I never ended up using the final booth upgrade to double click to search for discrepancies. 

But all these issues are forgotten when I think of the line of sad stories that passed through my checkpoint and how it made me feel genuinely terrible not to help those struggling people out. Papers, Please is so truly engaging and unique that I implore anyone who hasn’t played to please check it out. It is a highly emotional experience and a strong, sad story that doesn’t skimp on gameplay. It is an argument for video games to be considered art. It is a video game that only works because of the unique qualities that make games different from movies or books, and that is honestly the highest praise I can give any game.

Shovel Knight & Difficulty Curves

Shovel Knight by Yacht Club has become one of my favorite 2D platformers since its release in 2014. The game is near perfection with great music, 8-bit art style, and level design that focuses on shoveling through dirt blocks and pogo jumping off enemies and obstacles. It is funny to think about how I picked the game up on a whim when it released. I hadn’t played many NES platformers at the time so there was nothing about Shovel Knight that I was nostalgic about. It’s also funny to think about how I couldn’t beat the game the first time without an invincibility cheat enabled. Since that first playthrough, I have beaten Shovel Knight a handful of times and I’ve come to realize that Shovel Knight might have the most perfectly crafted difficulty curve of any game I’ve played.

When talking about difficulty, it is important to first acknowledge that the term is completely subjective. People all have different skill set and levels of experience with games that lend certain games or genres to be more or less difficult. To use myself as an example: puzzles games are typically difficult for me, games like Fez and Grim Fandango I had to put down when I couldn’t wrap my head around certain puzzles, RPGs and action games like Person 5 and Bayonetta 2 always seem to click and I manage to play through no problem, and games like Bloodborne, The Binding of Isaac, and Megaman titles are second nature after playing through those games or similar ones, many times. Shovel Knight was extremely challenging for me during my first playthrough, but has become much easier after multiple playthroughs and playing other, similar titles.

Basically what I’m saying is Shovel Knight’s difficulty is hard to discuss. I can’t say what makes the game difficult for everybody overall. However, there are things in the game that make certain levels in the game more difficult than others. This is what creates a difficulty curve in a game.

Difficulty in a video game can be defined as how the game applies pressure on the player and Shovel Knight does this in two main ways. The first is by making jumps trickier. This is usually done by adding spikes or bottomless pits, which work as an instant death, around platforming challenges. This is most noticeable with the spiked ceilings in the Iron Whale, the many lava pits in the Lost City and the long sections of the Flying Machine over bottomless pits. The second way the game pressures the player is by restricting their time to be still and process their surroundings. This is done a lot in the Clockwork Tower with the conveyor belts and auto scrolling sections, but this method also appears in the Explodatorium in the section with the birds drop bombs on you and with the ice physics in the Stranded Ship.

A difficult curve in a video game is a tricky thing to get right. If things get too hard too quickly, players might not be able to keep up, but if it takes too long to increase the challenge, players may get bored. Shovel Knight’s difficulty curves raises at a perfect rate by starting with a tutorial level that teaches the player all the basic mechanics while lacking most hazards besides enemies until the end. Then the game increases the pressure on player a little more with each passing level. But Yacht Club games also did something very smart with the difficulty curve, that being they didn’t have the difficulty just consistently increase throughout the entire game. 

A standard difficulty curve equates to the difficulty of the game increases with every level the player completes, but Shovel Knight has what I call a wave curve for its challenge. The game is split into three main sections and once you’ve completed all the levels in one section, you move to the next. With this structure, the first level of a new section will be slightly easier than the last level of the previous section. The slight dip in challenge before raising it again does wonders to keep the player engaged because it gives them a moment of slight rest after a difficult level, let’s them feel that they are improving at the game, and makes the difficulty of the game feel more dynamic and less predictable.

Shovel Knight takes a lot of queues from the classic Megaman series. This show mostly in the level design, but also appears in its nonlinear structure when choosing level. Each new section of the game presents few levels that can be completed in any order. Most the time, nonlinear games like this have a tough time constructing a satisfying difficulty curve. Either the difficult is very erratic because there is no structure to what levels can be completed or it’s flat, with every level being on the same difficulty level. Besides sectioning off later levels until after the early levels had been beaten, the developers at Yacht Club utilized a very subtle and smart choice to silently guide the player. When each section is revealed, the clouds on the map screen wipes away from left to right. When this happens, the players eyes will be drawn to the top left of the map and they will scan across the same way the clouds move. This mean the first levels they see will be the easiest in the section: Pridemoor Keep, Explodatorium, and Clockwork Tower in their respective sections. These levels are also the shortest distance for the players to travel when entering the next section.

The last thing to discuss on the topic of Shovel Knight’s difficulty would be the bosses. Honestly, I find all the bosses to be on the same level of difficulty. Later ones add more mechanics to the fight, like Plague Knight changing up the terrain or having to dig through dirt in Mole Knight’s fight, but none of them are very challenging. The only time I died to a boss was when they introduced instant kill elements to their fights. Propeller Knight has bottomless pits, Polar Knight  has spikes, and the Enchantress, the penultimate boss, will destroy the floor beneath you and creates pits to fall into. I am not a fan of any boss with an instant death mechanic, but since Shovel Knight waits until the final few bosses to use them, I don’t find it that intrusive. It is the natural time a player would be expect a meaty challenge.

Shovel Knight excels at keeping the player engaged. The incredible soundtrack fuels them through levels with constantly new mechanics and obstacles that are all still tied to the central mechanic of the little blue knight and their shovel. The player keeps playing to see what the next level will introduce, but there is another guiding force working behind the scenes to engage the player. That is the perfectly crafted difficulty curve that knows the exact rate to introduce new challenge, what levels should be completed before players can access others, and even when to let off on the player to give them a breather. All this combines to a difficulty curve that make Shovel Knight one of the most consistently challenging games of its type, but also one of the most fun and rewarding ones to play through.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask – Critical Miss #10

What do you when you’re expected to make a follow up to what is considered to be one of the greatest games ever made? This is the question Nintendo had to answer after Ocarina of Time. The developers must have decided to create something that is familiar and different at the same time because they created The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. It’s impressive that Majora’s Mask was built largely on Ocarina of Time’s assets, but feels completely different, not only to Ocarina itself, but to all other Zelda games.

The main mechanic that makes Majora’s Mask click (pun intended) is the 3 day cycle and the clockwork schedules of the citizens of Termina, the game’s world. After 3 in-game days, about an hour in real time, the moon crashes into the clock tower, destroying Termina and erasing all the progress you’ve made. You can restart the cycle by playing the Song of Time and that allows you to keep important items and upgrade while losing consumables like rupees, bombs, and arrows.

This mechanic turns a lot of new players away because it adds constant tension to everything you do. A lot of players don’t like being timed and while it is frustrating to have to restart a dungeon or quest because you ran out of time, this mechanic works extremely well. First you can slow the flow of time by playing the Song of Time backwards. Second the game typically has ways to skip parts of dungeons or longer quests if you don’t finish in one cycle. Examples of this would be getting Kafei’s mask to skip talking to his mother and skipping the pirate’s fortress to get to the Great Bay Temple once you learn the tadpoles’ song.

The third reason the 3 day cycle works well is because it makes the world of Termina feel more alive. Unlike other action games, most NPCs in Majora’s Mask don’t just stand in their determined spot. Many walk around, have conversations with other folks, drink at the bar at night, or don’t open their shops until the next morning. Since this game was made for the N64, these schedules are rather limited and rigid, but even a little bit of movement from the characters goes a long way.

The story of Majora’s Mask is not focus on Link or his quest, like it was in Ocarina of Time, but on the world of Termina itself and the character’s who make it up. Termina is just more interesting than Hyrule in Ocarina. It’s more colorful and varied with a surrealist feeling to much of the imagery that helps foster a sense of unease and fascination. The character’s too are more interesting than they are in Ocarina, all live lives of contained sadness and frustration, lost and fear. I wanted to help the characters with their problems, not only for side-questing to acquire upgrades, but also to see where their story goes and what help, if any, I could provide them. This extends to the main antagonist, Skull Kid. I’ve always been interested in villains who are basically children that are granted unimaginable power and don’t know what to do with it. That’s why I find Porky from the Mother games and Tetsuo from Akira so compelling. Skull Kid being corrupted by the power of Majora’s Mask and crashing the moon into Termina fits the bill. He’s more sympathetic than Ganondorf in Ocarina because he’s just a lonely child that wanted friends.

In the beginning of the game, Skull Kid transforms Link into a Deku scrub, leading to him acquiring his first transformation mask, another new mechanic in Majora’s Mask. Link will acquire three masks in the game that transform him into a race from the Zelda series and grant him new abilities. The aforementioned Deku mask lets him shoot bubbles for an early ranged attack, skip short distances across water, and use launch flowers to shoot into the air and hoover across gaps. The Goron mask makes him hit harder and gives him a very fast rolling ability while the Zora mask grants Link the power to swim and attack underwater. These masks cut down on many dungeon specific items that where throughout the end half of Ocarina of Time because many of the uses for those are now rolled into the transformation masks. For example: the hammer needed to press heavy buttons is done with the extra weight of the Goron and the blue tunic and iron boots needed for the Water Temple are gone in favor of actual swimming as the Zora.

Majora’s Mask contains only four main dungeons, one of the lowest amounts for the series, but, much like Breath of the Wild, gaining entrance to the dungeons is a part of the puzzle. Every dungeon has a small section or side quest that has to be completed to learn a song to enter. Be it stealthily infiltrating a Deku castle or saving Zora eggs from pirates, the dungeons are only half of solving each areas infliction. 

That being said, however, the dungeons in Majora’s Mask might be the strongest in any Zelda game I’ve played. Woodfall is the perfect beginning dungeon with a pitch perfect balance of puzzles, rewards, and progression. Snowhead and the Great Bay Temple are both rather vertical in nature and require the use of the Goron and Zora masks respectively. The game culminates in the Stone Tower Temple which might be one of the most interesting and fun Zelda dungeons. The two central mechanic for Stone Tower is the use of the light arrows and flipping the dungeon upside-down to walk on the ceiling. The dungeons aren’t perfect, of course, and do have their moments of frustration. Falling down Snowhead leads to a long climb back up before getting the fire arrows, backtracking through the Great Bay Temple can be tedious do to clunky swimming controls, and having to flip Stone Tower no less than 3 times get all the fairies takes forever.

There are issues with Majora’s Mask and a lot of them stemmed from playing the game in a post-Breath of the Wild world. While that game felt fluid and smooth, Majora’s Mask feels very clunky at times. Watching a short cutscene every time Link transforms or travels through time becomes grating, even if you can quickly skip them. The main action button being contextual can lead to frustrating moments where you keep rolling into a block you mean to grab or grabbing a block you mean to climb. This also the Zelda game that made me realize how boring combat is in the games. I spent the time with the sword master learning the vertical, horizontal, and jumping slashes only to spam attacks when faced against an enemy. Even the final boss, Majora’s Mask and its multiple forms, was so mindless after acquiring the Fierce Deity’s mask that I had wished I had gotten it. 

Majora’s Mask has a lot of little issues, but a lot of little issues can mount up to big problems. Luckily, the game’s issues ever resulted in more than mild frustrated. The game is engaging. With its emphasis on the world and its people, limiting dungeons and items to focus on side quests and transformations, and its overall surreal and creepy tone, Majora’s Mask isn’t just an extremely interesting Legend of Zelda game, but an extremely interesting game in general.   

Astral Chain & the Legions

I got Astral Chain for my birthday from a couple of friends. It was a great gift because it was something I fully intended to get myself, but they came in and saved me $60. Every since playing Bayonetta 2, I’ve loved Platinum Games and the reviews I saw for the game were glowing so I knew it would be quality. When I picked up the game, going in as blind as I could, I found an over the top, outrageous plot, deep and fluid combat mechanics, and a perfect dodge mechanic (which I’m on the record of being a sucker for), all things that Platinum excels at. From the trailers I saw, I was iffy on the monsters all the characters were throwing around, but they become the most interesting and unique thing about the game.

The central mechanic of Astral Chain are the Legions, armored beasts used for combat and puzzle solving. They are attached to the player character by a chain and are invisible to the general public, as are the Chimeras you battle. You’ll start with just one Legion, but since your character is anime special (this is: special in a way that is never explained and is just meant to be accepted) you’ll acquire more Legions as the game goes on. Each of these Legions have special abilities. Some help in combat, like a shield or powerful range attack, and others are utilized for police work, like tracking scents and lifting heavy objects.

A lot of games with different gameplay styles like Astral Chain’s combat and police work would have them separated, with different mechanics for each playstyle, and those systems would only affect each other tangentially. Platinum Games, however, did something very smart by having the Legions work as the main mechanic for both types of gameplay. It makes the gameplay feel connected, each style feel equally important, and the whole game overall feels very consistent, even when switching between combat and puzzle solving.

The thing about Astral Chain that impresses me the most is how fleshed out and fully realized the Legions are in terms of gameplay mechanics. The developers explored every possible use a giant, invisible creature attached by chain would be in combat and investigation work. This creates a fighting system that is deep and encourages experimentation while also having side quests and police cases that feel varied and fresh.

For example, in combat you can go in by yourself and never summon your Legion at all. However, the fights will be brutal and long (not to mention less fun) so you are encouraged to summon your Legions to help fight. When summoned, the Legions can act independently and attack the nearest enemy, or you can command them to focus down a specific foe. You can perform powerful co-op attacks with your legion after performing a 3-hit combo, after performing a perfect dodge, or have your Legion save you from being knocked to the ground after being hit by a nasty attack. The chain comes into play as you can pull yourself to your Legion with a press of a button, enabling you to cover large amounts of ground quickly. You can even wrap the chain around enemies to stun them for a few free attacks or trip the enemies who perform a charge attack. Along with each of the five Legions special abilities, the combat system is vast and very fun.

The combat can feel overwhelming at times, I feel it’s slightly over-designed, but the coolest thing about Astral Chain is that a lot of the same mechanics that are used in combat are also utilized in the exploration and investigation gameplay. Using your chain to pull yourself across gaps is used both on the Ark and in the Astral Plane, many police cases involve you constraining fleeing criminals by wrapping them up with your chain, and the Legions’ special abilities are all used in some way or another. Examples of this would be riding the Beast Legion to traverse areas faster, using the Shield Legion to pass spewing fires or poison gas, or hitting switches by aiming with the Arrow Legion.

Despite all the abilities and mechanics that are used in both combat and the investigation gameplay, there are still mechanics that are only used in the latter. I’ve mentioned before that the Beast Legion can track scents and this becomes a go to ability to track down both criminals and lost civilians alike. The Sword Legion can remove red shifting, a disease that slowly turns humans into Chimera-like monsters, and the Shield Legion can break open barriers to access chests and new areas. The Legions are also invisible to the general public, so moving them to a suspicious person and using them to eavesdrop is a great, organic mechanic that stems from the rules of the Legions and the context of being a police officer.

The best moment of the game, for me, comes in one of the last few chapters. Before heading out for the final raid against the big bad, you can walk the city streets one last time. If you do so, you can take on a quest from a mother to watch her daughter while she is away. To help keep the girl entertained, your friend tells her that the player character is magical and the little girl tells them to prove it. Following your friend’s lead, you summon your Legion near a stack of boxes to blow them apart, take a neon sign and hurl  down a busy street, and use the Arm Legions ability to hover off the ground. This moment is just brilliant. It uses all the small mechanics you’ve learned throughout the game in a completely new way. When I first picked up Astral Chain and started to learn each new Legion ability and mechanic tied to them, I knew I would be fighting giant and impressively design enemies. It’s a Platinum game; that’s what they do. But I would never have expected to be using those same learned skills to convince a child my character was a magical being. 

That is what’s truly special about the game, the central mechanic of the Legions is varied, yet well realized enough that it can still throw new things at you even at the end of the game and have they fit perfectly. Most games either lose steam halfway through after all the mechanics have been introduced or feel disjointed as they continually introduce new gameplay styles all the way up to the end. Astral Chain stays fast ahead of the curve by exploring a strong central mechanic and how it could be used for both of its gameplay styles. It truly is like two beings working as one.

Spyro 1 & 2 (The Reignited Trilogy) – Critical Miss # 9

I’ve  always had a soft spot for 3D platformers. Mario Odyssey is one of my favorite games ever, I played the Crash Bandicoot games with the N’sane Trilogy, and I played a lot of Gex 2 as a child, even though I never made it far in the game. There was one series I games I played a bunch on PS 1 demo discs, but never got around to playing until now. That series was Spyro the Dragon

Like Crash Bandicoot, the original Spyro trilogy recently got remade for modern platforms. The Reignited Trilogy did for Spyro exactly what the N’sane Trilogy did for Crash: update the visuals and controls of the Spyro games while keeping the levels and mechanics exactly the same. I can’t honestly say whether the levels are exactly the same as the original games since I’ve never played them, but by all accounts based on reviews, they are nearly identical. These are the versions of the games I will be using to review the first two Spyro games.

Both games excel at presentation. The music is ambient but catching and was composed by Stewart Copeland, the criminally underrated drummer of The Police. The visuals got a huge overhaul from the original games and they are gorgeous. Everything is colorful, cartoony, and full of expressive detail. While the games use the same art style throughout both of them, Spyro 2 has more variety with locations which brings along with it more variety in landscapes and enemies, making it the more memorable of the two.

A great thing about the games is that they truly go the full distance in exploring what a dragon can do through mechanics. Spyro has two attacks. He can breath fire at enemies, searing them to a crisp, or he can head butt with his horns and send them flying. Head butting metallic pots and enemies in armor is the only way to deal with them, since fire is deflected by the metal, so the player is constantly switching between attack styles instead of just favoring one.

There are flying levels, which are iconic for the series, where Spyro soars through the air unabated, but in standard platforming levels he is only able to jump and glide with his tiny wings. This was a huge missed opportunity. So many platformers feature characters with double jumps despite the laws of physics, but Spyro lacks one. Even with his wings that could realistically give him another jump in the air, Spyro has a very strict jump arch. This lead to a lot of frustrating moments, especially in the first game. Many jumps require Spyro to be at the very top of his arch to land on a platform but holding charge makes him plummet like a stone. There was some Mario muscle memory I had to unlearn to play Spyro because it’s nearly impossible for me not to hold the run button the entire time while playing a platformer. The player does get a small flutter in Spyro 2 and that lets them make up a few inches at the end of a jump for more precision, but it feels clunky since it requires hitting the triangle button (on PS4) away from the jump. It helps but doesn’t make up for a full blown double jump.

At the bone, the Spyro games are 3D collectathons. Throughout the levels, there are hundreds of gems to pick up with your firefly friend, Sparx, who will fly out to grab gems near you. This is a great mechanic is a 3D platformer because it requires the player to be near the gems, but not super precise, which can be challenging in a 3D space. But the more damage Spyro takes, the shorter the distance Sparx will fly to pick up gems. Sparx also works as a visual indicator of Spyro’s health and is a great example of an integrated UI that I completely forgot to mention in my last post. 

While both games use gems as the moment to moment collectables, both Spyro 1 and 2 have different main collectables that lead to different level design. Spyro 1 had crystalized dragon you need to free from their geological prisons. This is done simply by walking into them. This leads the levels in the first game to be more linear, with a path leading to the end of the level and having most the dragons along the critical path. Levels in the first Spyro game feel akin to the levels in the Crash games. They are linear halls to the goal, but unlike Crash, Spyro’s levels have secret paths that branch out and across the main path.

Spyro 2 has a mission system for the main collectables. To bet a level, you just have to get to the end where a member of the local population will get you a talisman. Once you have all the talismans, you can beat the game. But If you want 100% in Spyro 2, you need to get all the orbs and that is where the changes in the level design spring from. There are two types of orbs to collect, orbs hidden in the levels behind platforming challenges and orbs you have to complete a mission to collect. These missions can vary from collecting a number of items for a character, killing all the enemies in an area, or scoring a set number of goals in hockey within a time limit. This leads the levels to be more open, with many more paths to explore and secrets to find

While both games are very easy to complete, there’s difficulty to be found in each and the difficulty curve is another difference between the games. Each level in Spyro 1 seemed to have one jump or obstacle that was extremely frustrating. Whether is be a jump from across level that needs to be lined up perfectly and drops the player into a bottomless pit to take a life if missed or using the boost paths to run extremely long distances with messing up to make one jump to a new area, there was always something in the first games levels that seem to take much longer than they should. And they come as soon as the first levels.

Spyro 2 has its fair share of difficult missions, but the truly frustrating mission come near the end of the game when the difficulty would be expected to ramp up, and they are more fairly designed. The difficult missions in the game are built around how well the player knows the mechanics of the game and level layouts they take place in. This means to beat them, you don’t don’t have to find a perfect angle to jump, you just need to practice the challenges a few times. I enjoyed both games a good amount, but with its mission based collectathon, challenges designed around the mechanics of the game, and more variety in locations and enemies, Spyro 2 was my preferred game of the two.

Untitled Goose Game & UI

When I first heard  of Untitled Goose Game a few years ago I wanted to play it immediately. I didn’t know anything about the game besides the player takes control of an annoying goose and runs amok in a rural country village. It all sounded so fun and silly and unique that, in the following years, it became my most anticipated game, my most “hype” game. Well the game came out a couple weeks ago and, after playing through it immediately upon release, I can say it is exactly what I wanted.

The main loop of the game is very easy to explain. In fact, it’s so easy that I’ve already explained it. As the titular goose, the player goes around a village and irritates every human being they come across. I wouldn’t say they wreak havoc on the village, more so they wreak nuisances. They make a boy trip in a puddle, take away a man’s stool right as he’s about to sit down, and, in my personal favorite section, force one neighbor to throw the others belongings back over the fence when the goose drags them over. 

It’s all very cute and quaint, but there’s a level of polish to the game that shows how well designed the game is. First: the art style is perfect. Everything is simple and low textured, with deep colors and thin outline that makes it look right out of a children’s book. Second: the sound design is great. I was thrilled every time I picked up a new item and learned it affected my honk, like a glass bottle muffling it or making a harmonica sound when holding one in my beak.Third: the characters are expressive. The humans in Untitled Goose Game, while being simple by lacking fingers and even faces, show a range of emotions from fear to anger to confusion. This is done by all of them using overthetop gestures, but that just feeds into the slapstick tone the game. This also is an example of my favorite thing about the game, it’s integrated UI.

Most user interfaces in video games tend to appear above the game, in a layer between player and game. They appear as button prompts to open doors and climbable ledges, enemies’ health or level appearing above their heads, or informational text floating above a weapon you might choose to pick up. They exist only for the player, not the character in the game, and can add slight fractures to the immersion the game is trying to build. Some games, however, choose to have the UI existing in the world of the game. Notable examples of these are the map and compass in Metro 2033 that the player has to pull out to  check objective locations and in Dead Space where the player’s health is shown through a glowing bar on the back of their suit. These are what I think of as integrated UI because they integrated, explained, and exist in the world of the game.

The UI in Untitled Goose Game is integrated into the world more thematically than physically, but it works extremely well. I mentioned before that the art style of the game resembles a children’s book. Well the UI uses that style to feel a part of the world. Honks appear as lines from the goose’s mouth like in a cartoon, indicated to the player that is a noise that will alert other characters to them and other items with similar indicators act the same way. Items the goose can pick up also has the white lines appear around them when they can be grabbed. It’s a clever way to show what’s intractable in the world while being thematically and stylistically coherent with the game’s world.

Untitled Goose Game is one part stealth game, one part puzzle game, with all the fun of annoying your neighbors in Animal Crossing. The stealth and puzzle genres of games have some overlapping rules used by them. They both work with predictable character AI and set patterns for those characters so the player can anticipate their movements and so the results of actions can be consistent. 

A lot of stealth sections in games will have enemies walking back and forth along one path so the safe areas are clear or they will have a way to show the enemies’ range of sight so the player can work around them. Untitled Goose Game’s world feels so much more alive than that. The villagers in the game have patterns they will go through in a section, but they do might do four or five different things, making their paths and movement ever changing, but still predictable. There is a video game shorthand for when the player has been spotted in enemy territory and that’s the sudden exclamation mark appearing over an enemy’s head.

Untitled Goose Game is not above using the same cliche, but that’s only if the player is caught doing something the people don’t care for, like stealing an item or being where they are not supposed to be. Other times, if a village spots the goose but the player is not doing something that warrants being chased after, the people will simply stand there, staring at the goose, perhaps stroking their chin a bit. This is a really well done system. While the ! or ? appearing above a character’s head when they notice something out of place feels slightly out of place in the world of the game, the pencil style font melds well with the art style and the two different ways characters react to the player clearly shows them when they are in trouble or not.

Last bit of UI in Untitled Goose Game I want to mention is how the game tells the player the characters’ intentions. As a puzzle game, the player needs to know what each villager is intending to do so they may use it to solve the check lists of objectives. The game shows this by having a thought bubble appear over a character’s head with an image of the item they intend to grab. This is one of the biggest things that endeared me to the game. It’s true that the thought bubbles exist only to the player and not the goose in game, but it feels completely in place in the world. Utilizing the strong art style of the game, the characters’ thought bubbles heighten the children’s book aesthetic. They are not integrated into the world physically, but artistically, like the honk and grab lines.

I love Untitled Goose Game. I found it endlessly charming and silly when I first booted it up, and it bloomed into a very clever and well designed game. The first time I noticed its genius was in the simple and integrated UI. But I’m now a little sad that it’s out because I need to find a new game to be my most anticipated game to be released. At the moment, honestly, it’s got to be Team Cherry’s Silksong.

Doom (1993) – Critical Miss #8

I’m not a PC gamer. A gaming PC is something I would like to get at some point, but cost always prohibit it. Because of this, I had never played Doom until recently. Doom is easily one of the most influential games of all time. It may not have created the FPS genre, but it popularized it and help shape it into what we know today. But the game came out for home computers in 1993, tech has advanced so much in the 25 plus years since its release and we can now true 3D games. Can Doom really hold up that well in the current day? The simple answer: yes.

The player takes control of the “Doom Guy” and the goal of the game is to kill a bunch of demons. There is a story that’s told to the player in between episodes, but it’s so hacked-out and insignificant that I don’t remember much of it. The focus of Doom is on combat and level exploration and it does those two things to near perfection.

In Doom, the player has two things protecting them form the hordes of Hell: guns and speed. Doom Guy moves extremely fast from the get-go and this is even without holding the sprint button. While there are walls and corners to dip behind to avoid oncoming enemy projectiles, taking cover is never as efficient as strafing to the side. This avoids the attack while still being able to fire at the enemy. Learning to strafe around enemies at incredibly fast speed is crucial to surviving. Sprinting can definitely feel too fast at times, but it is a necessary skill to learn for later levels, not only to avoid tougher, faster enemies, but to make it across gaps in platformers because Doom Guy can’t jump.

A great FPS is judged on the quality of its guns and Doom does not disappoint. All the guns are impactful and satisfying to use. The sound design for all the weapons is crunchy and loud, the enemies stagger and flinch when hit, and there is a variety of guns to use, each fitting different needs in combat. The shotgun is useful for enemies that chase you down like the Pinkys. The chaingun’s bullets are weak, but it fire so quick that it tends to stun-lock enemies and is good for Cacodemons. The rocket launcher will damage the player if they are too close to the blast, teaching the player to make space before firing, and is the best way to kill the Barons of Hell without burning too much ammo. And, of course, there is the BFG, the Big Fucking Gun. This gun is pretty much a screen nuke with a trigger. It explodes in a huge radius and melts basically any enemy in the range. The weapons add variety to the combat that’s already fast and fun, but when the excellent level design is added on top the combat is when Doom becomes something truly great.

All the levels are mazes, increasing in complexity as the game goes on, with enemies, medpacks, and secrets scattered throughout them. The only real requirement to finish the level is find the literal exit sign and go through the door. Sometimes there are colored key cards to progress, but everything else is done for the sake of fun. The player might need to kill enemies because they are in the way, but most can be ran past. They really fight the enemies because it’s fun. Secrets are well hidden, satisfying to find, and filled with goodies like extra guns, ammo, and power-ups like overcharged health. That’s reason enough to seek them out, but the game can be easily beaten without finding any. That main reason to search for the secrets is because it’s fun.

There’s a special kind of logic to the level designs. Doom couldn’t do true 3D level design which means no room can be on top of another room. This makes the bare, top-down map surprisingly useful and intuitive to use. Looking for holes in the map is the only real way to search for secrets in the levels. There is hardly any unused space in Doom, so if there’s a chunk of the map with nothing in it, there’s a good chance that’s where a secret hides. The 2D-3D visuals the game is built on has obviously aged in the decades since the game was released, but it all works. The art style is extremely strong and consistent and there’s something very charming watching flat 2D sprites spinning to face the player as they move around them.

I played on what I would consider casual mode. With difficulty set on the Hurt Me Plenty, or medium difficulty, I still found it necessary to save at the start of every new level and load that save if I ever died. Death is punishing in Doom. All weapons, ammo, and health gets carried over to new levels, but if the player dies, everything is taken away. Doom Guy respawns at the level entrance with just his pistol and fists. The other weapons can usually be found again in the new levels, but surviving to get to them is not easy. Later in the game, when the difficulty really starts to ramp up, I had to start using save slots more and more.

The difficulty curve is one of few issues I have with the game. The difficult jumps up and down throughout the 4 episodes. Episode 2 gave me more trouble than any other and maps 1 and 2 in episode 4 are noticeably harder than the rest in the episode. Part of this could be me getting better at the game as I played, but there are noticeably leaps in difficulty at odd points throughout a playthrough. While most levels are great and fun to explore, some are very unintuitively designed, especially the levels that rely heavily on teleport pads. Lastly, some of the music is plain bad. One later level theme uses a very high pitched guitar synth and, during a solo, it holds a piercing high note for at least five second. It’s very ear grating. Most music is excellent, especially the theme song, which is a video game classic, but later songs just have odd choices in them that feel out of place.

After playing Doom, it’s clear to see why it’s still so highly regarded. It has its faults, like every game, but it’s finely crafted with excellent level designs, great gameplay, and is simply fun to play. And that’s what I admire most about it. It is my belief that video games should strive to be fun before all else. A game can have a strong story or offer a unique experience, but if it’s not fun to play then I lose a lot of interest to continue playing it. Doom manages to be cutting edge, innovative, and influential while never sacrificing any fun.

*Writer’s note: 

I originally intended to have this review be on both Doom and Doom 2, but I couldn’t finish both in time. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting Doom to be as big and tough as it is. I will have either a small bonus review of Doom 2 by the end of the year, or an update post with my thoughts on it.

Resident Evil (Remake) – Critical Miss #5

The Resident Evil remake for the Gamecube is an interesting case in video games. It’s one of the few game remakes that is widely considered to be just as good, if not better, than the original. The original game came out for the Playstation in 1996 and was a landmark title for the survival horror genre. The remake came out in 2002 and fined tuned the original game to near perfection while adding minor difference to surprise players of the original title. 

The Spencer mansion in which the majority of the game takes place is a giant puzzle box you solve from the inside out. The main gameplay loop of Resident Evil is exploring the mansion to find items or keys that open up new areas to explore. With this design, the mansion slowly blooms open. The game is very good at indirectly leading the player by limiting where they can go. In the opening, you only have a few rooms to explore before you find the sword key and then you have another limited amount of rooms to search until you find the next key or item for a puzzle that’ll unlock new areas. This heightens the sense that you are investigating the mansion and uncovering its terrible secrets as you play.

While some rooms in the mansion tend to blur together, like the multiple bathrooms or balconies, most are very distinct with different designs or set pieces. This is a smart way for the game to help the player remember where they might need to go in the late game when the entire mansion is open and sprawling. Another thing that helps lead the players in the late game is the map itself which always shows what rooms that all the items have been found in. If a room on the map is green, everything has been found. However, if a room is red that means something is still to be found and it’s worth a second look. This leads the player while backtracking throughout the game, which is something you’ll do a lot.

Two complaints I hear about the Resident Evil remake, after they made the original’s tank controls optional, are backtracking and the inventory management. With inventory management, I understand the complaints. Each character has limited item slots, six for Chris and eight for Jill, and that is the max number of items you can carry at a time. So If you find a room with an important item you need to progress but your inventory is full, you need to go back to a safe room with an item box to drop some stuff off before returning to the room to collect the item you need. While this can be very annoying, I personally liked the limited inventory. I’ve always had a soft spot for inventory management mechanics in game and I starting seeing it in Resident Evil as a puzzle in itself.

The backtracking never really bothered me either. The game is designed around by having the mansion interconnected with paths opening up that make traversing it rather easy. The games leaves it up to the player to learn these paths, which can be frustrating in the early game when the mansion isn’t completely etched into the player’s mind, but after a while they will be as familiar with the Spencer mansion as they are with their own home. The backtracking will ensure of this.

There are other areas of the game to explore besides the Spencer mansion. Throughout the game you will search through the courtyard and a guest house on the grounds, run through an aqueduct system with sharks and abandoned mines where the terrifying and tragic Lisa Trevor lives, and discover a secret Umbrella lab deep below the mansion. While none of these areas are bad, they never reach the heights of the mansion. They are much more linear in design and some, like the forested area or mines, tend to feel samey since they lack interesting set piece in rooms. 

Exploring and solving puzzles would be enough for other games, but Resident Evil is a survival horror game, which means there has to be something that threatens the player and forces them to be on edge throughout the game. Resident Evil does this by having the mansion and its surrounding areas be infested by zombies. The zombies themselves are not too scary, but it’s the mechanics around them that keep them threatening. 

There is limited ammo, healing items, and ink ribbons used for saving the game in Resident Evil. This leads to an internal struggle within the player every time they encounter a zombie: is it better to try and run past them, risking losing some health or leaving them in the same spot to have to be dealt with again, or is it better to use some ammo and kill them? There is never a right answer to this question.  Zombies that are killed will come back later in the game as more powerful Crimson Heads if their bodies are not burned, which is another thing to consider since the kerosene used to burn the bodies is limited. This keeps every encounter with an enemy interesting and tensions are kept high by introducing stronger enemies throughout the game, first with the Crimson Heads and then with the lizard-like Hunters.

But while each encounter with a zombie is interesting and it is consisting stressful to go up against a Hunter in the late game, that’s not the same as the game being scary. Tension was high in the early game when I tried to kill every zombie I came across, but after a while I learned to get around them by baiting their lunge animations. I killed any zombies in areas I knew I would be travelling through a lot, burning their bodies immediately after. By the end of the game, I had a surplus of ammo and heals so I started shooting everything I came across in the end game. 

I tend to see games in terms of mechanics which leads to horror games falling short for me. I often start to see games as their moving, mechanical parts instead of their wholes so the feeling of fear doesn’t stick with me that long. Resident Evil suffered from this. I wasn’t looking at it as a spooky survival horror game after a while but as a series of combat, inventory, and puzzle mechanics. But honestly, I loved my time with the game. The mechanics sewn into Resident Evil and the truly excellent level design still makes it a must play to this day.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice & Revisiting Levels

The world of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is noticeably smaller than those seen in previous Fromsoftware’s Souls games. Dark Souls was a tower of levels stacked on top of each with paths and elevators and secret connecting them all. Dark Souls 2 started in Majula and branched out from there, with branches coming off those branches and so on. Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3 are a combination of the previous games and are like webs with areas spreading out and folding on top of each other while being interconnected throughout. But while Sekiro’s world is not as large or as interconnected as those other games, it does something genius with its central point, Ashina Castle.

The first part of Sekiro is very linear. You have to make your way from the Dilapidated Temple through Ashina Outskirts and the valley until you reach Ashina Castle. Ashina Castle sits in the middle of the game’s world and works as the trunk of the tree that the rest of the game spreads out. From the castle, you can go to the Sunken Valley from the shrine, Senpou Temple from the dungeons, Ashina Depths from the bottomless pit, or stay and explore the interior of the castle. During my first playthrough, I completely missed the window to enter the castle. So I actually went and explored all the other areas until I hit dead ends before going back and fighting the boss in the castle to progress the story. The young lord tasks you with retrieving a few items from the other areas. But once the items are collected and you try to warp back to Ashina Castle, you’ll discover something surprising: you can’t.

This is because Ashine Castle is under attack. When you go back to Ashina (I used the Abandon Dungeon idol and climbed over the gate), you’ll find it under siege with bamboo ladders reaching to the rooftops and new enemies slaughtering the Ashina soldiers. You find yourself in the middle of a war. The soldiers of the opposing factions will attack other enemies and yourself upon sight. This helps give the ascension up Ashina Castle have a different feel than before. The battles with enemies are more chaotic and dangerous while sleath has a new option of luring different enemies into each other and slipping away in the confusion.

Sekiro does these moments of revisiting previous areas so well. A lot of games don’t change anything in levels you need to revisit, leading you to fight early game enemies with late game equipment, skills, and stats. This can help the player feel the growth the character has undergone throughout the game’s journey, but it also often leads to these sections to feel uninteresting or boring. Like in their other Souls games, Fromsoft never wants the player to feel overpowered in Sekiro.

I loved playing through Sekiro because I was still learning things about the game and the combat mechanics up until and during the final boss. It’s amazing having a game that feels like there is still so much more to master even after you’ve beat it, especially one where a large chunk of the game is revisiting the same areas multiple times. Sekrio keeps its difficulty cranked high when revisiting Ashina Castle by introducing new, tougher enemies or by having enemies that were mini bosses now being basic mobs. The interior ninjas and Ashina generals were early game mini bosses while the Red Guard are some of the toughest enemies in the game with tricky attack patterns and guns that shoot fireworks.

The game stays challenging when revisiting Ashina Castle, but it also manages to feel fresh when exploring. There are new routes through around the castle. First time revisiting it, there are bamboo ladders all over the castle, making for new grapple points and new ways to ascend. During the second revisit, you start from the top of the castle and have to fight your way down. It’s a small thing, but it goes miles to prevent revisits feeling samey. The castle itself will also look different, be it from the ladders scaling the rooftops or from everything being engulfed in flames when you have to make your way down during the games final section.

During the final third of the game, you also have the option of revisiting both Hirata Estate and Ashina Outskirts in new ways and both these areas are also burning, almost seemingly to the ground. Fire works as a wonderful theme in the last moments of the game representing the war and destruction the world is set in. Hirata Estate you revisit through Owl’s memory of that night instead of your own and it’s pretty much the same with tougher enemies and much harder mini boss encounters. Revisiting Ashina Outskirts, however, is what solidified my appreciation for the reuse of previous areas in Sekiro.

When you go back through Ashina Outskirts, you do it in reverse. You start from the castle and make you way over a bridge where you see Ashina’s defenses being slaughter by the Red Guards. After this point, is all Red Guards and fire. I went through Ashina Outskirts so many times on my way to the castle in the beginning of the game that I had a set route through it so I could stealth kill all the enemies in the way. Upon revisiting Ashina Outskirts, I didn’t have that route so I have to think quick about stealth, had to pay closer attention to my surroundings, and I had to fight hard or find an escape route when I fell into a nasty fight. Everything looks different when you go through the outskirts again in the same way that a road might look different if your driving through it in the opposite direction you usually do. At the end of the trek through Ashina Outskirts, after seeing all the fire and destruction suffered to the area, you find yourself up against the cause of all of the damage: the Demon of Hatred

This ferocious, tragic, pain in the ass boss is a strange creature in the world of Sekiro, belonging more in the worlds of Dark Souls and Bloodborne both in design and boss battle. It is huge and beastlike, with one arm composed entirely of flame. His fight relies more on attacking his vitality instead of his posture which runs counter intuitively to the rest of the boss fight in the game. But it is a good fight after you learn its patterns and it all takes place in the battle field before Ashina Castle gates. The world of Sekiro comes full circle as one of the final bosses in the game has the exact same arena as one of the very first bosses.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night – Critical Miss #4

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night came out in 1997 and it was a huge departure for the Castlevania series. It was less linear like its predecessors and more explorative, with a huge open map more like a Metroid game. This lead to the series lending the second half of the genre name: Metroidvania. I was excited to play the game for the first time when a rerelease was announced for the PS4. I’ve always been interested in Metroidvania games. I have gotten through half of Super Metroid and enjoyed it before i got distracted with other games. After I completed Hollow Knight though, I was itching to get back into the genre and I thought I’d take a look at one of the major games that helped shape the genre outside and past the Metroid games.

Right off the bat, the presentation of Symphony of the Night is great. The music ranges from hype-inducing in the opening hallway to creepy ambience in the flooded caves and the sprite art for the enemies are all detailed and gorgeous. Even the few examples of using 3D models, like for the save point coffins and the clocktower that rotates as you ascend the stairs to face Dracula, mesh well with the 2D art and add a whole lot of charm to the game. Alucard himself is the only aspect of the presentation I don’t care for. While his sprite is fluid and well animated, the sprite also seems blurry when he’s constantly in motion and having after effects trailing behind him. It is neat to see the wings of Alucard’s bat form change color depending on what cloak he’s wearing, but his sprite came across messy and less detailed than the world around him.

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The two best things about the game to me are the enemies and the map. Enemy variety in a game is huge to me and Symphony of the Night does not disappoint. There are so many different types of enemies from wolves and skeletons to invisible fencers and floating books the spit out a mass of conjoined skulls. Enemies all have unique sprites, with only a few pallet swaps, and there are many different attacks the player must learn to avoid. Like the enemy list, Dracula’s castle is similarly huge and varied. There are many interesting locations just filled with secrets to find and relics to collect, some of which will open up means of unlocking even more secrets to explore. I got so absorbed into exploring the castle, wanting  to find everything I could, that I ended up revealing 100% of the map before fighting Richter without much trouble. But after fighting Richter, another castle appears upside-down from a portal in the night and the last half of the game is accessible. Unfortunately, this is where the game lost me.

The combat in Symphony of the Night never really enthralled me. There’s not much to it besides attacking and jumping to dodge enemy attacks while using an occasional subweapon. The combat is very basic and when paired with the knockback Alucard suffers when hit it becomes more frustrating than fun. Alucard will go flying halfway across the screen every time he takes damage and it’s obnoxious. Multiple times I found myself entering a room, getting hit by an enemy standing just inside the entry, and having the knockback send me back out the door I just came through. This was just annoying.

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Starting in the reverse castle, the enemy placement seems more haphazard and less considered. Some halls in the second half of the game are so full enemies that do so much damage and send you flying around with knockback that it is highly incentivized to travel through the rooms in Alucard’s mist form, which is horribly slow. Traversing the reverse castle altogether is tedious. Most the platforms to scale are just slightly beyond your jump height, even with the high jump and double jump, that you need to use the bat transformation to just proceed. The bat form, like the mist form, is just too slow so exploring the reverse castle isn’t exciting. It’s dull.

A lot of the issues with the reverse castle could be made easier with Symphony of the Night’s leveling system and RPG elements, a first for the Castlevania series, but they don’t add much to the game overall. In fact, they’re almost unnoticeable. Throughout the game, you will gain experience points and levels from killing enemies, giving you increased stats and health points. You can also find health upgrades and new weapons or armor hidden throughout the castle. Going through the game, leveling up at a steady pace and equipping the best weapons and armor I found, I didn’t notice a change in my character. All enemies in the first castle died in one or two hit and did less than ten damage to me. When I got to the reverse castle, however, enemies took longer to kill and would do upwards of thirty damage per hit. That, along with the room obstacles like sliding spikes on the floor doing nearly eighty damage, the options once you hit the difficulty spike in the reverse castle is to either die a lot or move through the entirety of the second half of the game in mist form.  

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After a while in the reverse castle, my interest in Symphony of the Night just stopped. The pacing suffers too much from having to move in the bat or mist forms and the combat isn’t nuanced enough to keep me engaged. I was having fun through the first castle but I wasn’t enthralled by the game at any point. So when I hit the difficulty spike in the reverse castle, I didn’t have the motivation to continue.

Earthbound – Critical Miss #2

Smiles & Tears

We had a Sega Genesis in my household growing up which means I missed out on the entirety of the Super Nintendo’s lifespan. When I started getting more into video games years later, there was a game from the Super Nintendo that always came up as one of the best games on the system. That game was Earthbound and it always intrigued me.

The game stars Ness with his three friends, Paula, Jeff, and Poo, as they travel across Eagleland to stop an all powerful evil force named Giygas, who is making the world around them act strange and hostile. Along the way, the friends will help towns solve their problems, make new friends, and unlock their latent psychic abilities. It’s a standard RPG but with the traditional fantasy setting traded for a real world setting and the swords and bows switched for baseball bats and yo-yos for weapons.

The setting is what intrigued about Earthbound from the start. It seemed so quirky and unique. Before this review, I had tried to play it a couple times, but I never managed to beat it before. Now that I have completed the game, I see that there was a reason for that.

The presentation of Earthbound is instantly inviting. Cheery, colorful graphics with simplistic sprites meets the eye and the bouncy, bizarre music meets the ear. The music especially is great. It covers so many genres and moods while maintaining a strange, sci-fi feel. It compliments the otherworldly undertones of the game.

Earthbound has a goofy feel throughout and the enemies exemplify this. A highlight of the game is reaching new areas and seeing the sprites of all the new enemies. They range from crazed hippies and multiple types of robots to googly-eyed ducks and dinosaurs. The sprites of these enemies are always bright and colorful and cartoony. Underneath all the cartoony visuals and silly dialogue, there is an undercurrent of darkness running through Earthbound. Throughout the adventure, Ness and the gang will be attacked by police officers for causing trouble in a town, dismantle a group of cultists, save a town being plagued by zombies, and the final battle with Giygas takes place on what looks like the intestines of some giant creature.

Giygas itself is the payoff to all the darkness and tension building under the game as you play. It is a Lovecraftian nightmare, a being whose power and lust for evil is said to break its own mind at the end of the game when you face it. In true cosmic horror style, Ness and the player cannot comprehend the true form of Giygas or even its attack, which are portrayed only as swirling red shapes and flashes respectively. The battle with Giygas was a highlight for me in the game, but not for the fight itself but for the character and design of Giygas. The mechanics of the battle in the final phase when the player has to keep the party healed and have Paula pray for help I found to be tedious . With each turn of this, you watch a cutscene of the prayer reaching someone you meet along the journey and them offering you their help. While these scenes are charming, they are extremely slow and just bog down the pace of the fight for me.

The pacing of Earthbound is the biggest issue in the game. The walking speed of  the party seems fine at first, but without any consistent means of speeding them up like a run button it starts to grate. The menus are slow and clunky to navigate and the battles drag on because of these menus. These small things add up to make the moment to moment gameplay feel tedious, but there are also bigger issues with pacing that quickly fatigued me towards the end of the game.

The first of these was the grinding. In honesty, it’s not absolutely necessary to grind in Earthbound, but every time you get a new party member, whether Ness is level 10 or 40, that new character starts at level one. So if you don’t want them to be smeared by enemies or want them to be useful in combat, you have to stop and level them up. This kills the pace of the story, but not as much as the structure of the game itself. Earthbound has a overarching story, but it’s more of a loose guiding thread. The structure of the game feels more like a monster of the week cartoon series where the team comes to a new area dealing with some odd problem, they solve the problem, and move on. While this structure works to some extent because the sets are usually quirky and interesting, with only passing mentions of the looming evil of Giygas, I often felt discontinued from the main plot.

Earthbound is never great at guiding the player and nudging them in the right direction. It’s not terrible in the beginning of the game, gets at little more confusing around Twoson and Threed, and gets totally obtuse starting in Fourside. Admitting this could be a mistake in my playstyle, but even when speaking to NPCs and paying attentions of the hints they dropped, I still found myself completely lost at points. The worst examples of this were the few instances where I had to enter certain areas just to leave and trigger an event or when you have to backtrack to past areas to get information on a puzzle or key item to the current section.

All this adds up to Earthbound feeling like a slog. Towards the middle of the game, when the quirkiness was starting to feel less fresh and engaging, I started feeling very fatigued of the game. I didn’t particularly dislike the game, but I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I hoped I would.

Like most games, Earthbound is a mixture of good and bad. While I truly enjoyed the setting and enemies, it wasn’t enough to combat the slower pace of the game. If you’re a fan of older RPGs and can handle a slow moving one, I say give Earthbound a try if you haven’t already, but it’s definitely not the first Super Nintendo RPG I would ever suggest.

Celeste & Theming

When I finished Celeste, I had over 3000 deaths. The game is difficult but I was hardly ever frustrated. There is a great sense of triumph running throughout Celeste. Whether it is completing a level, grabbing another strawberry, or just making a tricky jump to advance to the next screen, it always feel rewarding overcoming a challenge.

As somebody that lives with depression, there has always been something comforting playing a very hard game. It’s the fact that a game that takes 100% of my focus and attention is the best way for me to get immersed. This mentality is present in the narrative of Celeste as Madeline wants to do the impossible task of climbing a mountain as means of coping with her anxiety. She doesn’t know exactly why she feels compelled to climb the mountain, she only claims she wants to take her mind off things. All throughout, Celeste is a mastercraft of theming through gameplay.

The theme of a story is the human experience that the story is exploring underneath the surface. To use Shakespeare as an example, Romeo & Juliet’s theme is love while Hamlet’s is revenge. Celeste’s theme is aniexty. Video games are interesting as a storytelling median due to their interactivity, which means things like gameplay mechanics can heighten or hinder the themes of the story. Badeline is an interesting example of this mixture this of gameplay and theming.

As a character, Badeline acts as a foil to Madeline. It’s rather on the nose, but she represents Madeline’s anxiety and all the negative emotions that come with it: paranoia, anger, insecurity. Whenever Badeline appears, she actively works to make things difficult for Madeline. She’s the first level-end challenge, trying to chase Madeline down to stop her on her journey. She even causes all of the panic attacks Madeline suffers from in the game, most notably on the trolley with Theo. She wants to stop Madeline climbing the mountain by making Madeline second guess herself and by throwing any hurdle she can in Madeline’s way, an obvious representation of anxiety and the difficulties it can cause in everyday life.

The crowning jewel of the game, both in gameplay and theming, is the final level. While a little overly long, this is where Madeline and Badeline work out their differences and rejoin to work together. In gameplay, this is shown as an additional air dash Madeline can now perform. This is the best reward to the player for overcoming the challenges they have surmounted to that point. The additional dash opens up the level design so much.  

In the last level, Madeline has to climb to the top of the mountain after falling to the bottom. It is the most challenging but also the most fun level in the game. With the additional dash, the puzzles become more complex and clever. They require more precision of action and a better understanding of the game’s mechanics and that’s what make them feel the most rewarding to complete.

The cutscenes in Celeste typically play out as conversations between characters at the beginning or end of the levels. But even with this separation between story progression and gameplay throughout the game, I was completely immersed in the story of Celeste because the themes of the story run throughout the mechanics and levels. Madeline’s struggles were also mine, but her triumphs and revelations were also felt by me.

Crash Bandicoot: N’Sane Trilogy – Critical Miss #1

My experience with the Crash Bandicoot games in the 90’s were all through Playstation demo discs. I specifically remember the Crash 3 demo with one of the tiger riding levels on the Great Wall of China. I recall playing it over and over again. It was fun but I also had a hard time finishing the level. When the N. Sane remastering of the original trilogy was announced, I immediately wanted to play it and finally experience these classic beloved games.

While playing the games, I realized the original Crash games are in a strange place in this day and age. The more linear 3D level design and stiffer movement controls have dated compared to other more explorative, free moving 3D platformers popularized by Mario 64. There haven’t been many platformers with hallway style levels like Crash since the 90’s. The first one that comes to my mind would be Super Mario 3D Land on the 3DS. This unique style of levels is the main reason I think the Crash Bandicoot games are still worth playing today.

There are other strengths of the Crash trilogy that still make them enjoyable to play. With the N. Sane Trilogy being Remastered in HD, the games look better than ever. The characters are cartoony and expressive and everything is so lush and colorful that the games pop off the screen. There is also a variety of level types from 3D paths to 2D side scroller and the infamous chase levels and multiple vehicle sections. Sometimes, particularly in Crash 3, the variety of level styles make the games feel inconsistent.

Along with this slight inconsistency, there are two other major areas of frustration in the games. The first is the movement, which feels heavy and sluggish. This help to some extent when making precise jumps, but the heaviness of the jumps and some finickiness with the slide can make what should be simple jumps difficult. The second frustration are the hitboxes. They seem to extend further off the character model than you’d expect, leading to a lot of infuriating deaths where Crash turns into a ghost or smoking pair of sneakers slightly before he touches anything.

These issues should be deal breakers. Especially in a platformer where movement and control are paramount. But while these issues are frustrating, they are surmountable. More importantly though, the Crash trilogy is still worth playing just based on the uniqueness of the games. As mentioned before, there are not many games with the same type of 3D levels as Crash. The games are more linear than 3D Mario games and require more precision than 3D Sonic games. It’s an interesting case study of a style of 3D games from a time with more limited hardware, a style of level that didn’t gain as much favor as more explorative 3D platformers.

If you are interested in the Crash Bandicoot trilogy, the N. Sane collection is great. It looks great, plays well, and is easy to get your hands on. My rankings of the games would be:

  1. Crash 1 as the worst because the level design is sloppier and is by far the most frustrating of the games
  2. Crash 3: Wrapped in the middle because the over reliance of multiple vehicle level styles makes the game feel the most inconsistent
  3. Crash 2: The Wrath of Cortex as the best because it has the best difficulty curve that gets challenging but never too frustrating.

Hollow Knight & Knockback

Hollow Knight is a modern classic in my mind, but I didn’t understand the hype it got when it came out. I watched gameplay of it and it just looked like a standard Metroidvania. It wasn’t until I played Hollow Knight that it clicked. I understood what made the game great: the polish and game feel.

The game is polished to a gem. The hand drawn art is smooth and expressive, making different areas of the labyrinthine cave system convey a wide range of tones and emotions. Small things like the wet patter of the character’s feet in the City of Tears and cutting foreground vines in Greenpath being indicated by clean, white lines make the world feel reactive to the player. The world of Dirtmouth envelopes the character and the player together, surrounds them. The character becomes more than a sprite on the screen, the player becomes a living part of the world, and it’s a part of the world they fight to keep.

The combat in Hollow Knight is a double-edged nail. It is fast and floaty, but each strike feel weighty and precise. On the other hand, each hit the player takes is sudden and stressful. Each time the player is hit, the musics cuts out and the action slows for just a second. The enemy and player freeze mid action and the damaging blow is highlighted by a flash and effect around the enemy’s hit. This forces the player to stop and focus on the hit and the damage taken. The wonderful world of Dirtmouth fading into the background makes the player feel uncomfortable and learn from the mistake that they just made.

The other aspect of the combat’s weightiness is the knockback. Each time the player hits an enemy, both the character and the enemy get pushed back slightly. This knockback adds so much to the combat of Hollow Knight that it’s the smartest thing about the game.

When every strike moves your character back, the combat gains a much deeper sense of strategy. All of a sudden, you need to know how far you’ll get pushed with each attack and you need to internalize a way to make up for that lost ground quickly and effectively. This helps you engage with the movement system during combat more than just jumping over enemies or getting a certain distance away from them. I know when I play Hollow Knight that there is a sweet spot to tap the joystick forward. Too much and I’ll run into the enemy, too little and I’ll miss the next attack. Fighting on a small platform becomes extremely stressful with this knockback mechanic. Any careless attack can send you over the edge into the spikes below.

Internalizing is really the best term to describe the knockback in Hollow Knight. After countless mistakes missing crucial attacks or walking into enemies, you learn how much compensation is needed for each blow you make. This is why I used the Steady Body charm that eliminates the knockback received when striking enemies. At the point of the game when I bought the charm, I had already learned the knockback system in the game. After hours of learning how to make up space lost from the knockback, taking it away felt foreign and difficult to relearn.

In Hollow Knight, it becomes second nature to adjust for the knockback in the middle of a fight and you stop actively thinking about it. But just because you stop thinking of it doesn’t mean the knockback in Hollow Knight is not a genius addition to the game.

Dragon Quest 1 & 2 – Critical Miss #29

The Foundation of the House of JRPG

In North America, Final Fantasy and Pokémon are the JRPG franchises. They are the most common answers you would get if you asked anyone to name a turn-based RPG. In Japan, however, there is another series that gets just as much, possibly even more, respect and recognition than those series. Dragon Quest has been a cultural touchstone in Japan ever since the series debuted in 1986. Created by Yugi Horii and with character and enemy designs done by manga legend Akira Toriyama of Dragonball fame, the first game set the groundwork for all JRPGs to follow. The first game and its sequel, released just a year later in January, 1987, both predate the Final Fantasy series and outsold that series for decades after. But I have never played more than a few hours of any Dragon Quest game before. I wanted to go all the way back, to the very beginning of the series and the JRPG genre in general, to check out both Dragon Quest and Dragon Quest 2 and see what JRPGs were like in their infancy, in those wild, swashbuckling, and more experimental days of the 1980’s.

I played the games on my Switch, which are ports of the mobile versions. While the versions I played were the same games in terms of gameplay and balance, there are a few minor changes and updates present. The most notable is the graphical overhaul. I didn’t like the mixture of pixel sizes at first, with the character and monster sprites being more detailed than the overworld art, but I found the distraction from it waned after a while. The names of items and town are the Japanese names, so anyone experienced with the American NES version might be confused by some references at first, and the menu now offers a quick save feature which is extremely helpful for reasons I’ll get into a little later.

The stories of the games are bare-bone and simple. Dragon Quest 1 sees the heir of legendary hero Erdrick tasked with saving a kidnapped princess and banishing darkness from the land. And so begins the tale of BeefyBoi as he travels across the continent of Alefgard to defeat the Dragonlord. Dragon Quest 2 is set a hundred years after the first game and follows the descendants of that game’s hero as they attempt to stop the wizard Hargon from summoning the evil demon Malroth and destroying the world. In my game, the three protagonists were named Steakums, Pork, and Tofu. They fought against the monsters and sailed across the seas to accomplish their goals. While both games have their central, looming threat that acts as the end goal of the game, neither game really has any plot to speak of—no moments of character growth or supplementally story moments to fresh out the story. Dragon Quest 2 has a few, but not enough to keep a player engaged on a story level with the game. These were both early NES RPGs, so it’s understandable, and what the games lack in story, they make up for in gameplay.

Dragon Quest is considered to be the first JRPG. It took inspiration from computer RPGs like Wizardry and made a new style of the genre on consoles with turn-based combat, an overworld with towns and dungeons and random encounters, gaining experience points for battles and randomized stat points upon leveling up, and equipping new gear to get stronger. It’s all common JRPG fare, but it was not as common in the mid-80’s, especially on consoles. It is fascinating to go back to see the genre at its most stripped down and bare. And bare is the first word I would use to describe Dragon Quest.  

I mentioned that the first game in the series centers around the heir of Erdrick. Well, that is the only character you play as in the game. There are no other party members, just the lone hero battling against the forces of darkness alone. Random encounters involve just one enemy popping up to block your path and you take turns smacking each other until someone falls. You have your basic attack, flee command, and a suite of offensive and healing spells. With just one character fighting a single monster at a time, there is not much room for strategy. The most thought you will put into a battle is the best time to heal. It does make the game feel lacking, but the turn-based combat system works as well as it ever has and doesn’t get terribly tedious, although mind numbing at times. It’s still a style of gameplay used today so it doesn’t feel archaic, but there are other things in the game that take over on that job.

Dragon Quest is a slog to get through. The movement speed is sluggish, random encounter rates are higher than they need to be, there are no fast travel spells to return to towns previously visited so the majority of the game is walking back and forth across the over world. I mentioned before that the version on Switch has an option for a quick save. This can be used at any time outside of battle and it’s extremely helpful since the only other way to save the game is to speak with the King at Tantegel Castle. With the slow pace of travel, this would grind your patience to dust if the quick save was not an option. And then there is the grinding itself. Dragon Quest falls into the early JRPG trap of grinding being the only real way to improve your character enough to beat any challenge in the game. Dragon Quest especially suffers from this since the one on one battles lack any real options beside attacking or healing. The last hour or two I spent in the game was walking back and forth in the room outside the Dragonlord’s chamber, fighting enemies until I gained a few levels, and then seeing if I was strong enough to beat the boss.

Unfortunately, Dragon Quest 2 doesn’t solve the issues of the slow movement speed and high random encounter rate, but it does add more places to save, fast travel spells that make traversing the world much quicker, and overall expands and improves on the first game. The most notable change is the inclusion of multiple team members. The party you control is made up of 3 members, all of whom fill slightly different roles on the team by being able to use different spells and equip different gear. They are not quite classes like in the first Final Fantasy game (which wouldn’t be out for nearly a year still), but it adds much more variety and strategy to every battle. Enemies also attack in groups, making battles much more engaging and thoughtful then the one on one happy slaps of the first game. There’s more enemy variety overall and the over world is much bigger with more towns to explore, NPC to talk to, treasure to find, and dungeons to spelunk. At its core, Dragon Quest 2 is the same game as its predecessor, but just larger, longer, and more finely tuned. So then why did I get more burnt out playing the second game than I did playing the first?

The obvious answer is that I played the games back to back and was just feeling fatigued, but I don’t think that’s all of it. The first Dragon Quest was a fascinating game to play, to see where the JRPG genre and the tropes associated with it started—a bit like watching an old movie you’ve seen parodied a hundred times on other shows, but haven’t seen yet. Dragon Quest 2, on the other hand, is much more recognizable as most old school JRPGs that followed after it. While it was released in 1987, it feels more modern since there have been countless other games that have been based on the improvements made in it. It’s strange to say, but the closer Dragon Quest 2 got to what JRPGs feel like today, the less interesting it got. The first Dragon Quest is definitely more dated and grindier, but it still feels much more unique. I enjoyed my time with both games, they are both very charming with their jokes and art style and are both still solid JRPGs, but I found myself enjoying the first Dragon Quest more than it’s sequel. 

It is often forgotten here in North America, but the Dragon Quest series is one of the best selling JPRG series of all time. It’s not surprising though, since the beginnings of the series with Dragon Quest 1 and 2 were very solid foundations. And Dragon Quest is still a series going strong today. While the Final Fantasy series has been moving towards a real time, more action oriented combat style, Dragon Quest is still staying true to its roots. Dragon Quest 11 seems like an ultimate celebration and reminder that old school styled, turn-based JRPGs still have a place in today’s gaming atmosphere.

Spider-Man (2018) & Web Swinging

I’ve loved the character of Spider-Man ever since I was a kid watching the 90’s cartoon. Recently, I’ve been getting into comic books and Spider-Man was one of the first stories I started reading. There’s something about Peter Parker and his superhero alter ego that I find very relatable—his unbreakable spirit and optimism, his genuine joy and fun had with being a superhero, his down-on-his-luck life that will never let him get too far ahead of his problems. He is a very human character to me, much more so than many other popular superheroes. But I’ve never really played a Spider-Man game until Insomniac Games released Spider-Man in 2018. Games with the character always seemed to float around the middle of the road in terms of opinions on them—never truly great, but not often terrible either. It’s strange because Spider-Man as a character has a built in unique selling point that should fit perfectly in the world of video games: his web swinging. And this was the first aspect of Spider-Man that clicked with me and helped me realize what a great game I was about to play.

The most important thing about the web swinging is to be fun and feel good. Since you will be zipping around New York all the time, the game has to make sure that the movement mechanics never feel tedious, stale, or complicated. Luckily, Spider-Man nails this aspect. The web swinging is simple enough for anyone picking up the game to do, but has enough depth and nuance for people who want to spend hours just swinging around and taking in the sights. Continually swinging is as easy as holding down the trigger, but knowing how to get the most speed or distance based on where in the arch you release and jump takes time and focus. 

Once you have mastered the web swinging in the game, it feels satisfying just traversing the city just seeing how fast you can go, how high you can get in a jump, and how long you can go without touching the ground like a extreme sport version of the floor is lava. Perfecting moves like pulling yourself to a corner or pole and immediately jumping off for more speed, the quick turn while running on a wall, and the quick recovery jump takes practice and you really have the sense of getting better and filling out the role of Spider-Man the more you play. Some of these moves have to be bought with skill points after a level up, which is a little disappointing. They help with the flow of web swinging as sort of mid-air combo extenders that I would have liked all of them to be available from the beginning of the game. They are not necessary enough that I ever felt satisfied using the skill points to purchase them, nor are they complicated enough that I see a need to lock them off to players in the beginning. But once you have them, you have more tools in your web swinging Swiss Army knife. And those do come in handy once the game decides to test your skills.

Every once in a while, Spider-Man likes to put you through your paces with web swinging challenges. Some bosses have to be chased through the city and caught before you can punch them. Taskmaster devises a series of challenges for Spider-Man to prove himself at but he appears and you can punch him and a good chunk of these require swinging through hoops while chasing down drones. And, probably my personal favorite series or challenges, Spider-Man can chase after pigeons flying around buildings, but not to punch them, to bring them back to their owner. These challenges test every aspect of web swinging from speed to distance to height. They can be frustrating at first—I had the hardest time catching up to the Shocker when you first fight him early in the game—but they act as a great way to practice web swinging through gameplay and show you how much better you get as the game progresses.

When I first saw Spider-Man, I honestly wasn’t that interested in it. It looked like an Arkham game (which I hadn’t played at the time) dropped into a Ubisoft styled open world. It was the map that really lost me at first. I’ve been growing less and less interested in open world games as I grow older. Ubiosft style worlds are a major reason for this as I’ve grown so sick of accessing towers or certain points on a map only to scatter samey missions and busy work around the world for me to do. But I underestimated how much Peter Parker’s web swinging would help with the tedium that usually comes with this sort of world design.

Web swinging is fast. You can travel hundreds of feet in seconds and you don’t have to worry yourself with traffic, crowds, or stamina like those walking plebs on the ground. You can travel across the entirety of Manhattan in minutes, meaning nothing you could want to do is ever very far away. Unlocking the map in Spider-Man requires hacking a police tower first, revealing that section of the island and giving you a slew of missions and collectibles to hunt down. The web swinging in the game makes these extremely easy to get too, though, both by the speed you can traverse the map and the inherent heights you can reach. Where a collectible high from ground level in an Assassin’s Creed game or even Breath of the Wild requires a lot of fiddling climbing, Spider-Man swings in already stories up and can easily run up any vertical wall to the top. The ease of movement across the game map and the general fun of web swinging meant that I never got bored or burnt out doing everything. In fact, I would often put off going to the next story mission just to swing around, enjoy the view, listen to J. Jonah Jameson rant about Spider-Man, and catch pigeons or foil crimes.

Some crimes that can pop up on your patrol around the city involve chasing after stolen cars as they careen down the  road, but every crime break up ends with punching mooks. The combat in Spider-Man is complex, insanely fast, and provides many tools and techniques to consider in the heat of the moment. I really liked it after I got the hang of it, but it’s the one part of the game that web swinging informs the least. Sure, you can swing around the battles like some sort of spandex clad Tarzan, but it’s not efficient at all. But this doesn’t mean that the webs themselves are not utilized in the heat of battle. Webs are used to get effect as means of disarming distant enemies, incapacitating foes by sticking them to walls and the floor, and, my favorite, as a great way to close the space to mooks to continue a combo. These implications are well executed, but I feel like there could have been more options of movement by web swinging around in the middle of the battle.

There are a few times where swinging and fighting are more closely tied together, mainly when fighting airborne enemies, and it leads to what might be the highlight of the whole game for me: the boss fight with Vulture and Electro. Since both these enemies use their powers to fly high above the ground, you must similarly say high enough to fight them. This leads to an absolutely thrilling fight above a factory where you will be using the smokestacks, cat walks, and tall buildings to continuously swing around stories from the ground, all while keeping tabs on two different enemies, dodging attacks, and dishing out damage until they are defeated. It’s such an intense balancing act of swings, attacks, and last second dodges that had me (to use a much overused phrase) feeling like Spider-Man.

Ape Escape – Critical Miss #28

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Just Monkeyin’ Around!

Over the past few years, there have been a slew of remakes of PS1 games coming out. Crash Bandicoot, Spyro, and even MediEvil all have seen great success with updating their PS1 games with modern graphics—hell, Crash just got a brand new game in the series focused around its classic gameplay after the success of the N. Sane Trilogy. It’s a trend I’ve honestly been loving. While I did have a PS1 growing, I didn’t really have the classic games one would associate the console with so it’s been great experiencing these games with modern graphics. There are a lot of games from the console that would be great to see remade, but one series always seems to dominate the conversation when PS1 remakes are discussed and that is Ape Escape. Released in 1999, Ape Escape was an in-house Sony developed 3D platformer closely tied to the Playstation for being a console exclusive and being the first game to require a DualShock controller to play. While I agree that it would be amazing to see a modern remake of this first game (or, better yet, the series as a whole), after playing it, I think I understand why it hasn’t happened yet or may not ever happen.

The story of Ape Escape is very straightforward. A little white monkey named Specter gets his hands on a helmet that makes him super intelligent and he hands out similar helmets to all his monkey friends. Using the Professor’s time machine, he sends all these annoying apes throughout time in order to rewrite history in their favor and make them the dominant species on Earth. It’s up to Spike, a neighborhood boy who is friends with the Professor, to travel through different time periods to capture all the menacing monkeys before they can cause too much mayhem. 

The set up is enjoyable and very silly, feeling like a goofy Saturday morning anime, but it’s not particularly engaging. This is due partly to cut scenes between levels being rather static and just dropping exposition, and partly due to the rather odd audio mixing in the game. Characters all seem to speak at different volumes with the likes of Spike and the Professor’s assistant, Natalie, being perfectly fine, while Specter and the Professor are distractingly quiet. I’m not sure if it was due to bad recording or direction given to the actors, but it makes some lines incredibly hard to hear at a normal volume.

The time travel set up is a great idea, lending itself naturally to a huge variety of possible level settings, but it’s never explored to its fullest. You start in the prehistoric ages with dinosaurs and lust jungles then move on to the ice age, all snow and mammoths and glittering white. From there you find yourself in feudal times, a few Japanese castles and a European one, then go into the modern age where you explore a Japanese town and a tall television station tower. These are the really the only time periods you explore spread out across over twenty levels and I feel like the idea could have been expanded more. I would have loved to see some see some other periods with more human structures for the monkeys to mess around with, like an ancient Egypt or Greek level, a pirate level, or a cowboy level—besides the one room in Specter Land, which feels more like the developers were reusing a scraped idea from earlier in development.

Image by TerrorOfTalos. Found at

The lack of time periods to explore is really only disappointing because the levels themselves are mostly well designed and fun to explore. There are a handful of apes to capture in each level, but only about half of which are needed to move on to the next level, with only a few needing new gadgets from later in the game to nab. This gives the player options in which monkeys they want to go after so it’s never too stressful if a particular monkey is giving you trouble or you miss any while exploring. The art direction is colorful and pleasant, seemingly taking inspiration from kids anime like Samurai Pizza Cats and Pokémon, giving the game a strong sense of identity within the confines of the limited hardware. 

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the draw distance. Limited draw distance is not uncommon for fully 3D games in the fifth generation, with structures popping in when close enough as if coming out of a fog (or sometimes literally with games like Superman 64 and Silent Hill). While poor draw distance is hardly ever a deal breaker, especially in older games with more limitations, I have never found it so distracting as in Ape Escape. Anything more than fifteen feet away will pop in and out of existence as you move around—trees, walls, platforms, even enemies themselves. It’s only slightly immersion breaking when the world seems to materialize around you, but the biggest problem with this is it can make the levels hard to navigate since it can be difficult to know if a path leads to a new part of the level or a dead end until the walls pop in to block you. 

The core gameplay loop of running around level to catch monkeys is still very fun and engaging. It feels a natural evolution to 3D collectathons like Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie since now the collectables will try to evade you or fight back. Each level offers a good balance of deliberate platforming and fast-paced monkey catching. You will be equipped with many gadgets throughout your journey across time—starting with just a net and stun baton, but acquiring more as you progress through the levels—and this is what gives Ape Escape its unique selling point.

As said before, Ape Escape was the first game that required the DualShock controller to be played and this is because it necessitated the use of both joysticks. The left stick is used to move your character around like any other 3D game, but the right stick is used to control your gadgets, which are selectable with the face buttons. This means you swing your club or net by flicking the right stick, the Dash Hoop and the Sky Flyer by rotating the stick in a circle, and slingshot by pulling back on the right stick. It adds a lot of unique charm to the game as well as control since items like the baton can be used in any direction at a moment’s notice. However, this unique control method also leads to some strange choices. Since the face buttons are where you equip the gadgets to be swapped at any time, the jump button is relegated to the R1 button. This is a little clunky at first, but I got used to it in time and really only suffered from muscle memory pressing the X button to jump in the beginning of the game. The camera can be pretty awful at times, though, with the only real way to control it being with the L1 button that immediately swings it behind the character. This isn’t a huge deal to me since bad cameras are pretty much synonymous with 3D platformers of the time—especially on the N64 with it’s weird, single-joysticked trident controller. 

The gameplay could become repetitive to some since you are only catching monkeys, but I found that each monkey offers a fun and frantic little challenge to nab. The game’s pacing is quick and fairly easy throughout the playthrough. At least, until the end. Specter Land, the final level in the game, is just too long, taking me around two hours to beat. It’s just a gauntlet of monkeys to catch and platforming challenges to beat. These challenges are where the game’s poor draw distance and stiff camera decide to team up for a final desperate attack of frustration. The only saving grace of this final level is the amount of checkpoints and the fact that shortcuts you unlock are still active after a game over. If this was not the case, I may have pitched my controller out the window—but most likely I would have just stopped playing.

Ape Escape is still a fun, charming game. I liked running after the monkeys, bonking them over the head and scooping them up in the net. I enjoyed the different locations you visit even if I would have liked to see more. I went into the Monkey Book after every level to see the names of the apes I caught and the few word descriptors the game gives them. But I’m not sure it will ever get a modern remake like Crash or Spyro’s games did. The video game industry has become more homogenized since the Wild Western days of the PS1 with more conventions that player’s expect, especially with controls. I can just imagine the backlash an Ape Escape remake would get if the right stick was kept for controlling gadgets and not the camera, if the jump button was still mapped to R1. There are ways around this—as the version on the PSP can show—but for a big shiny new remake I think the game should stay as close as possible to the original. I still hope Sony does remake the series. I would gladly pick it up whether they remake all the games or just the first one. But I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if they ever do. 

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5 Favorite Roguelikes

The term roguelike is an interesting one. It was originally created to describe games similar to the 1980 game Rogue, a dungeon crawler with randomly generated levels, turn-based combat, and permadeath with nothing carrying over from run to run. Now the term has expanded to include any game with randomly generated levels or encounters and permadeath. Some folks have extreme ire against the term being used in such a sweeping manner, debating online that the term should be roguelite instead. While I do have my own definitions for what both roguelike and roguelite means, they are just my personal definitions. My opinion on the debate as a whole is that it doesn’t really matter. Genre names are more limiting than anything else and language is a continually growing, evolving thing so terms often become bigger than originally intended.

But this is all to say that I love roguelike games. I love when a game in the genre succeeds at still feeling fresh after dozens, or even hundreds, of hours played. I’m fascinated by how the games all have their own sort of gameplay language they use to speak to the player. I adore getting lost in games that are so heavily mechanics driven, playing run after run, and learning a little more about the game each time. I wanted to take some time to discuss a few of my favorite games in the genre. Keep in mind, I haven’t played every roguelike. Some major games I’ve only played little to none of would be FTL, Risk of Rain, and Nuclear Throne. And honorable mentions going out to Darkest Dungeon, Slay the Spire, and Into the Breach—all of which are incredible games, but feel to me to be games with roguelike elements more so than roguelike games. But with all that out of the way, let’s get into my top five favorite roguelikes.

#5) Hades

Hades released last year to instant critical and fan applause. It topped many best of the year lists and has been a commercial smash hit for developer Supergiant Games. And I found myself on the outskirts of this celebration, however. I picked up Hades the day it released on Switch and loved the gorgeous art direction, the intense and lightning quick combat, and expressiveness allotted to the player when building a run from boons offered by the Olympian Gods. However, I found myself less interested in the story and characters as most people seemed to be, preferring to just hop back into the next run. I was disappointed in the lack of gameplay benefits the relationship system brought. Neither of these are bad things really, just things I didn’t particularly care for in the game. Hades is incredible, no doubt, but it came out pretty much the same time as another roguelike in 2020—one you will be seeing later on this list—which devoured all my free time of a few months. 

#4) Streets of Rogue

Streets of Rogue is a fantastic little game with incredible depth. As a top down, 2D immersive sim, each floor tasks you with completing certain missions like neutralizing a target, stealing from a safe, or escorting an NPC to the exit of the level. How you complete these missions, though, are completely up to you. You can hack enemy turrets to fire upon their owners, use vent systems to poison a building full of hostiles, sneak around all guards, or just go in guns blazing and killing everyone in your way. What makes the game great is the options given to the player and how the game world reacts to them. Some classes immediately hate each other and will fight on sight like the members of the opposing gangs, thieves and police, gorillas and scientists. It leads to some of the most chaotic situations a roguelike can offer and some of the highest satisfaction too when everything goes just according as planned.

#3) Enter the Gungeon

Enter the Gungeon probably has the best moment-to-moment gameplay out of any game on this list. It’s face-paced, brutal, and an absolute blast to play. Shooting down enemies, dodging bullets, sliding across tables, and rolling through pots and boxes all feels incredible due to the insane amount of polish in the game. Enemies are all expressive and easy to spot, things explode into clouds of pixels that then cover the floor, and every gun has a unique reload animation. And everything in the game is a gun. The enemies are bullets, the bosses’ names are gun puns, the guns you can pick up are reference guns in movies and games, there’s even guns that shoot smaller guns which in turn shoot bullets. The difficulty is set higher than most roguelikes I would say, but it feels so good to play that you will find yourself loading up another run again and again and a gun and again.

#2) Spelunkey 2

Remember when I said that another roguelike came out around the same time as Hades? Well this is it. After not being able to really get into the first Spelunkey, I was shocked how much I loved Spelunkey 2. It feels like a remixed and perfected version of the first game with tweaks, changes, and new additions to keep things fresh for old players and exciting for new players like myself. I’ve never played another roguelike where the player’s skill matters as much as in Spelunkey 2 due to the fact that the item pool is very limited and the game is obscenely difficult, with death often coming instantly and hilariously and with you cursing Derek Yu. It can feel discouraging to get far into a run only for it to end in a second due to a poor jump or misplace bomb, but if you stick with it there are some of the most satisfying challenges to be overcome in the game. I named Spelunky 2 my game of the year for 2020, so if you are interested in a deeper look at what makes it so great, you can find that here.

#1) The Binding of Isaac

This is it, folks. The big one. The reason I bought a New 3DS and a PS4. The game that started me on the road to loving video games. My favorite game of all time. 

The original flash Isaac was one of the first modern roguelikes and helped popularize the genre. The game has been expanded many times—I personally picked it up during Rebirth and after—which has lead to sine wave of quality, but the game is so vast, with some many secrets to discover, hundreds of things to unlock, nearly unlimited synergies between items to learn, all leading to no two runs feeling the same. The game has its own language that it speaks to the player with and it expects them to learn in order to tilt luck in your favor. What started as developer Edmund McMillen wanting to make a smaller game poking fun at Catholicism blossomed into something bigger, something more personal, and one of the most popular indie games ever made. This game means so much to me, and there is so much I want to discuss about it at any given time, that I find it hard to write about because my thoughts get wiped up and spun around like a hurricane. It is my “forever game,” a game I can pick up anytime and anywhere and still enjoy it. Come Hell or high water, from the beginning of Creation until the moment of Rapture, I will always love The Binding of Isaac.

Batman: Arkham Asylum – Critical Miss #27

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Mook Repellant Batgloves

For some reason, I thought 30 years old was a perfect time to get into comic books. This is partly due to covid and looking for more things to occupy my time inside, but the interest mostly stemmed from my interest in the style of storytelling and the ubiquity of comics. I’ve always seen comics as a sort of modern mythology mixed with soap operas—everyone knows Batman, Spider-Man, Superman; their backstories, characters, and motivations, but they are still products designed to be sold, with ongoing stories and with more twists and turns than a mountain road. But superhero video games have always been a mixed affair with most ranging from terrible to alright and few ever breaking the surface to be considered great. While I have never been the biggest fan of Batman—and even now my knowledge about him comes mostly from the movies rather than the comics—Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum release in 2009 is still considered to be one of the best superhero games ever made.

The game opens with Batman transporting a recently captured Joker through the rain to Arkham Asylum. He has a bad feeling that Joker is plotting something and he is right, for as soon as they bring him to the maximum security cell, Joker springs his trap. He takes control over the facility and escapes, leaving Batman to recapture him, save everyone in danger, and foil his new scheme to creating an army with his Titan formula which turns people into Bane-like monsters—all brawn and no brain, hulking forms of muscle, anger, and spiked bones poking out of flesh. As you unravel the Joker’s plan, you are taken across all of the Arkham Asylum grounds and buildings, meeting friends and foes alike, and seeing some clever references to bad guys not in the game like the cell covered in ice holding Mr. Freeze. 

Overall the story is fine, a little more comic booky than most of the live action movies with more convoluted plot and embrace of Batman’s weirder enemies like Killer Croc. The art design seems like a more grounded take on the Burton with the Asylum being made up of gothic style buildings on an island seemingly drenched in everpresent rain and nighttime. The voice acting varies wildly though. Mark Hamill as the Joker is fantastic, but the Joker himself can get irritating with his constant popping up in Batman’s comms to mock and berate him. The voice acting for Harley Quinn is also extremely well done, but I find myself annoyed with her character overall and Batman sounds bored and silted throughout the adventure. This could be due to the fact that Batman as a character is a poster boy for the term “stick up his ass” and the voice actor was playing into his unbending stoicism. Or it could be due to the fact that the in-game conversions themselves feel very jarring since there’s also a second or two pause between lines as the camera changes speakers. It’s disappointing since the pre-rendered cutscenes are great with the character models being top-notch and the direction flowing smoothly.

There are two major aspects of Batman’s character that Rocksteady seemed eager to explore in Arkham Asylum: Batman’s prowess as the best hand-to-hand combatant in the world and his title of the world’s greatest detective. But while they seemed earnest to show both sides of this Batcoin, neither aspect feels fleshed out enough to ultimately succeed.

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Batman’s line of work means he has to be ready at a moment’s notice to start punching mooks in the face. In Arkham Asylum he can punch, counter, stun enemies with a whoosh of his cape, and use a couple gadgets for long distance stuns. The timing for attacking and countering enemies is strict enough to require concentration, but forgiving enough to not be frustrating. This helps the simplistic combat to stay engaging to some extent, but it does start to feel repetitive and boring near the end of the game. The combat overall just doesn’t feel expressive enough for me. Compared to a spectacle fighter like a Devil May Cry, the combos are lacking with not enough moves to perform for me to carve out my own style. The worst part is the combo meter. It increases to more attacks you make without taking damage or too much time passing between attacks, but there is no way to string attacks together when enemies get spaced out. While games like DMC and Bayonetta offer ranged weapons to keep a combo going while closing the distance from enemies, Arkham Asylum doesn’t offer anything like this, meaning it’s harder than it should be to build a high combo. These issues with combat also bleed into the boss fights—probably the worst past of the game.

Batman has the widest and most well known rogue’s gallery in comics, but most of his foes cannot stand up to him in a fist fight, instead hoping to outsmart him or evade him while orchestrating cunning plans. So how does an action game incorporate enemies like Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, or Joker into a boss fight? Unfortunately, the answer is poorly. The first boss fight in Arkham Asylum is Bane, a beast of a man juiced up on Venom making his physical strength second to none. While the game never touches on Bane’s intellect that rivals even Batman’s, it’s a fitting first boss in the game because it sets the prototype for the rest of them. With Joker injecting his henchman—and even himself for the final fight—with Titan, most fights are just other hulking pseudo-Banes, usually with a smattering of mooks in the room for good measure. While Harley Quinn’s boss section is fighting round after round of goons and Poison Ivy’s fight is goon-based too, but with a giant plant in the background you sometimes have to toss a Batarang at. Poison Ivy’s boss fight was tedious and boring, but not quite as bad as Killer Croc’s where you walk across floating platforms in the Arkham sewers and smack Croc with a Batarang anytime he pops up like a naughty puppy with a newspaper. Scarecrow’s sections are much better being hallucinatory nightmare sequences as you stealth around a giant version of him trying to find you. But the rest of the boss fights in the game feel much too similar, dull, and overlong with the only positive being that combat feels tricky enough that beating one always feels satisfying.

The detective aspect of Batman’s character feels undercooked as well. Most of the investigations in the game just require the player to switch on detective mode, finding a scent or fingerprint trail, and following it throughout the facility. Detective mode drowns out the art design in a digital blue haze and makes everything look the exact same. There are no logic or detection puzzles for the player to solve while doing investigation, no grand schemes for them to unravel themselves, they just need to follow the trail until the next cutscene advances the story. 

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There are Riddler puzzles to solve and these are a highlight of the games. Riddler, as a character, is only interested in Batman in order to prove he is smarter than him. There are two types of Riddler collectible to find: trophies, which require exploration and using Batman’s gadgets to find, and the puzzles, which the Riddler gives you clues for things in an area to find and requires the player to scan to solve. These can be almost anything: statues, portraits, radios, plaques. These were always fun to look out for and to solve because it felt like a P.I. out on the case and finding clues. I didn’t bother finding them all because the stiff movement in the game was becoming tiring by the end. There seems to be a weightiness in the 7th gen of video games, but I’m not sure if that has to do with the engines or consoles the games were designed for or if it’s just because I’m not used to the chunkier buttons of the 360 controller compared to Playstation’s.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is a good game that didn’t fully click with me. While it’s true I’ve never been super interested in Batman in the past, I have recently started to appreciate the nuance and quirks that make him an interesting character. So I don’t think it is this disinterest in the source material that leads me to feel indifferent to Arkham Asylum. It’s more of a few smaller issues I have with the game that built themselves into mixed experience: the lack of any real investigation for the world’s great detective, combat feeling over-simple while at the same time very strict, stiff controls like Batman used too much starch while cleaning his Batsuit, and the tedious boss fights. I can see why people love this game and can see the seed of something truly great in it. Maybe not surprising then, the sequel. Batman: Arkham City, is possibly even more highly lauded then it’s predecessor. So keep you Batradar tuned for that in future.

Katana Zero / Ghostrunner & Instant Kill Combat

I recently played through two games that are strikingly similar, those being Katana Zero and Ghostrunner. With Ghostrunner releasing about a year after Katana Zero it’s hard to feel a sense of “hey, can I copy your homework” with the game since it feels like the developers made Katana Zero in 3D. Both games center around cyberpunk narrative where the main character cannot remember their past, both use a katana as the main weapon, and both focus on high speed, precision play. But by far the most important similarity is that both games focus on combat where everybody, both your characters and enemies, die in just one hit. I wanted to see how both games designed themselves around this brutal combat style and see if one outshined the other. 

In my mind, there are three major things you need in a game for this type of franic-paced, one-hit kill combat to work. They are predictable enemy AI, situational awareness in the level design, and extremely tight controls. These help alleviate some of the frustration that can be caused by the high difficulty of games with one-hit deaths. When looking at both games, it becomes clear that Katana Zero is much more successful than Ghostrunner at incorporating these design elements into the game.

Let’s start with enemy AI. Fast-paced, insta-death games, much like stealth games, require enemies to be predictable. This helps the player read them the instant they appear and react occordly. When your character moves fast and death comes even faster, it feels unfair if enemies don’t act in a way you are used to and makes the game feel too reliant on trial and error more so than the player’s skill and reflexes. Both Katana Zero and Ghostrunner have enemies with very predictable AI—if they see you, they try to kill you instantly. While the enemies in Ghostrunner appear to only be alerted by sight, the baddies in Katana Zero will react to shots fired and the crashing of bottles within a certain radius and then immediately go to investigate. This makes them more exploitable, easier to lead into traps or an unexpected fight, but also means you have to take more consideration with your movements. With the level design being all platforms separated by bottomless pits in Ghostrunner, the enemies seem practically welded in place, unable to move enough to lead into ideal positions for the player. There were times in both games too that enemies seemed to respawn in slightly different positions upon retrying a level, completely throwing off the muscle memory rhythm I had built up, but there were times in Ghostrunner where some enemies seemed to fail to spawn at all. This could be a recurring bug, some sort of adaptive difficulty mode, or the dummies just walking off into pits, but it was also baffling and frustrating.

Situational awareness comes from two major things in games like these: the level design and the boldness of the characters. I never felt lost in Katana Zero because the 2D sprites of all characters made them instantly recognizable. Players see what weapons they are holding and will learn quickly how they attack and what will alert the mooks to their presence. At that point, it’s up to the player to react quickly enough and exploit the enemies’ awareness to their advantage. Ghostrunner is more muddy visually with it being a full 3D, cyberpunk dystopia city, where all enemies are guards or robots wearing metallic armor that blend in with the gray steel environments around them. The different types of enemies can be easily discerned after a second, but in a game as fast as Ghostrunner an extra second is death. 

While Katana Zero allows players to use the right analog stick to view the layout of the entire level anytime while playing, Ghostrunner does not let the players preview a level at all. This is a problem because being able to plan out a route is important when only one hit sends you back to the beginning of a level. There’s no way to no what’s coming up in a Ghostrunner beside throwing yourself at it, leading to clearing a section only to be killed by an enemy you did not know about, trying again and again, getting a little further at a time until you’ve seen every challenge in the level, and then you still have to run through it, dodging and slashing enemies apart perfectly, to win. There is so much trial and error in the levels of Ghostrunner, which can work in high difficulty games like Dark Souls or puzzle platformers like Limbo, but in a game that is so focused on speed, it just works as a huge pace killer.

Of course, the most important thing to have in games like these are tight, responsive controls. They are another way to tamper the frustration of instant death since the player will have no one to blame but themselves. Katana Zero controls are as sharp as the blade of the titular katana and feel absolutely great. The character movement speed feels just right, the jump has just the right amount of weight yet floatiness to it, and the sword slash, while having a few frames where you are vulnerable, feels great to master. The only minor issue I have with the controls are the wall jumps. The character has the Super Meat Boy effect where you slide a little up the wall when you jump into one and this leads to leaping on and off walls to feel slightly sticky. It’s not game breaking by any means, but it meant I avoided this technique whenever possible. This slight stickiness, though, is nothing compared to downright frustrating platforming controls of Ghostrunner

There are very few FPS games that have done platforming well (Dying Light is probably the best use of it that I’ve seen) and Ghostrunner sadly is with the majority. The inherent problem with platforming in 1st person is the narrow view. When you can only look in one direction at a time, it’s hard to know where a platform is under your feet. You also have no peripheral vision, meaning when you are trying to run up along a wall to run across it, you have no real idea how far you are when you jump. I died countless times in Ghostrunner due to this view. The horse blinders that come with a 1st person view is not so much of an issue in games with more open levels like DOOM or Dying Light since you can quickly choose a different path if you mess up (and more importantly can absorb a few hits before you die), but Ghostrunner’s level feel rather limited. This is partly due to 70% of the areas being bottomless pits like some empty oceans, but the linear feeling is mostly because enemy placements and the stage layouts are placed in very certain locations to encourage an optimal path through them. Even in the more open levels, paths you have to take to keep moving forward and killing enemies feel like set routes. The game has the 3D Sonic problem where the world feels like it was built specifically for the character of the game and not a real, breathing world. The moments where combat is left behind for straight platforming challenges throw the clumsiness of the platforming into sharp relief and it is not flattering; it’s frustrating at best and infuriating at its worst. 

Both games also have one other major similarity and that is a time dilation mechanic—an invaluable power to have when one hit kills you— but again, Katana Zero feels great to use while Ghostrunner stumbles. In Katana Zero, the player can slow down time for a few seconds with the simple press of a button. This works great as a way to more precisely position yourself, deflect a bullet back at an enemy, or just give you an extra second to assess the wave of mooks coming towards you. Ghostrunner, however, uses the ability to slow down time with a few different abilities, most notably the mid-air strafe. This move can only be performed in air. You press a button to slow down time and then you can move your character left or right, but momentum makes any slight tap of a joystick slide you gliding to the side like you were covered in grease. It is so loose and slippery that I found myself being unable to rely on it since my character would slide off further then I expected constantly. 

While both the games are very similar, the gulf of success between how Katana Zero and Ghostrunner pull off designing around instant death is vast and deep and dangerous. Katana Zero feels as disciplined as the samurai that the main character emulates. It truly feels like the designers thought long and hard and reworked and tweaked every aspect of the game to ensure it worked well with the speed, difficulty, and brutal nature of the gameplay. Ghostrunner feels like an honorable attempt at best and hypocritical at best. The game demands precision from the player but shows little in the design of enemy AI or controls. If I were to recommend one of these games, it would obviously be Katana Zero. While the story feels like a pace breaker at the beginning, I slowly got absorbed into it and found myself really engaging with the narrative and characters. They were the perfect break to let my brain cool off between intense combat sections. All Ghostrunner can offer beside it’s combat is a stock standard cyberpunk narrative and some of the most frustrating platforming sections I’ve ever played.

Pokémon Snap: Critical Miss #26

Photo by Kimberly AJ. Found at

Take Only Pictures, Leave Only Pokémon

I’ve discussed my love for the Pokémon franchise before, both in my Nuzlocke post and my review of Pokémon Platinum. While I’ve been playing the main series since childhood, I’ve hardly spent any time with any spinoff game. Sure, I played a little bit of Pokémon Stadium at friends’ houses as a kid and I dabbled in Pokémon Conquest for a short time, but I’ve never played a Mystery Dungeon game, XD Gale of Darkness, or Pokken. Nintendo is about to give fans a new Pokémon Snap game, something they’ve been clammering for since the original released on the N64 in 1999. I thought now would be a great time to play the game and see what makes it one of the most beloved and well-remembered spinoff games in the Pokémon series. 

Although you can name the character at the beginning of the game, canonically his name is Todd Snap. You play as him after he has an encounter with a rare Pokémon and Prof. Oak asks him to help him with research by taking pictures of wild Pokémon. You travel across Pokémon Island where Pokémon roam wild and carefree. The island reminds me of Monster Island from the sillier of the Shōwa Era of Godzilla movies. Despite the game taking place on a single island, there are many different environments to see from scenic beaches to fiery volcanoes, dank caves to lush jungles. 

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The visuals and music are always colorful, upbeat, and cheery, creating a very peaceful and pleasant experience. The graphics have aged just fine in the over twenty years since Snap’s release with the highlight being the Pokémon models themselves. Pokémon Snap was the first time players got to see Pokémon in 3D and, while the models of the creature suffer from the usual N64 blockiness, they are all charming and well animated in the game. One of the biggest appeals to Snap is just seeing Pokémon in their natural habits, enjoying their days, getting into mischief, and just living their best Pokémon lives. It’s something you just couldn’t portray effectively on the original Gameboy games and it’s an aspect of Pokémon that no other game has really tried since. The closest we’ve seen to a return of watching Pokémon roam free is the Wild Area in Sword and Shield, but the frame rate issue and constant pop-in never made that feel organic. Seeing these creatures frolic through their environments adds to the feeling of Snap being a very peaceful game. And that’s before you even account for the gameplay.

Snap is different from most other Pokémon games because you never battle any Pokémon and the only capturing of them you do is with your camera lens. It’s a very “leave only footprints” mentality—well, besides the tracks Prof. Oak apparently left all over the island for the Zero-One, the tracked vehicle you used to navigate the island. Pokémon Snap is a rail shooter similar to a House of the Dead or a Time Crisis, only with a camera instead of a gun. Pokémon will run around, hide, fly, and perform silly acts and it’s up to you to find the best time to take pictures for Prof. Oak to rate.

Oak’s rating system is a fickle thing. It’s based on the size of the Pokémon, the pose they are making, how centered they are in the frame, and sometimes if they are doing a certain action. The guidelines are simple enough for someone like me, with pretty much no skill or knowledge of visual art, to understand, but it seems a bit inconsistent. When comparing two pictures of the same Pokémon, I swear sometimes the one I honestly thought was better got the lower score. It’s not really a big problem though since the game encourages you to replay levels multiple times so there are always new chances to get better photos of Pokémon. The score in general is mostly used as a way to progress through the game.

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Reaching a certain score on your Pokémon Report will unlock new levels to play and new items to use in those levels. There is an apple for luring Pokémon closer to you or other areas, the pester balls that stun Pokémon with noxious gas, and the Pokéflute whose medley inspires Pokémon to dance and perform actions like Picachu using Thundershock. Getting these new items are always fun because they make you look at already completed levels in new ways. Often, you will see Pokémon hiding amongst the environments, but there will be no way to get a good photo of them. If you lure them close with an apple, it becomes possible. The beach stage has a sleeping Snolax you need to wake up with the Pokéflute for the best photo and the pester balls are great for stopping quick Pokémon long enough to take a picture or draw out Pokémon from their hiding places. While levels can sometimes get dull due to being stuck to one track and the Pokémon acting the same way every time, leading to having to mesmerize the levels and the best times to capture a Pokémon’s good side, there are enough secrets to discover in Pokémon Snap to keep it engaging.

From opening up new levels to performing certain tasks to have Pokémon evolve to just finding hidden Pokémon, there are a lot of secrets to discover in Pokémon Snap. It feels a lot like Star Fox 64 in a way with both games being rail shooters and both having secret requirements to unlock new stuff in them. However, Pokémon Snap is much better at informing the player on how to unlock its secrets with clues in the environments. For example: there’s a carving on the wall of the tunnel level showing a large egg with lightning bolts and musical notes over it. So when you see that egg in the level, you know to lure the nearby Picachu over to it and play the Pokéflute. When Picachu uses Thundershock, the egg will hatch into a glittering Zapdos. 

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I purposely played through as much as Pokémon Snap without looking up any secrets and it was very satisfying discovering things on my own. However, I feel there are some things in the game that an average player would never think to do on their own. Best example of this would be discovering Gyrados. This requires in the valley level knocking a Magicarp up a slope into a Mankey, who will then yeet the fish over a nearby mountain. Later in the level, the Magicarp will fall on land in front of a waterfall and you must quickly knock it into the waterfall where it will evolve into Gryados. It is more obtuse and requires more steps than anything else in the game that it feels sort of out of place—I don’t envy anyone who had to figure this out on their own.

Pokémon Snap is a perfect playground game—a game you and your friends would swap secrets and advice about at school. It’s a breed of game that excelled in the 90’s before the internet was the omnipresent force it is today, where being stuck in a game only lasts as long as it takes to type in the problem into Google. Because of this, I wish I had played Pokémon Snap as a kid more than any other game I’ve reviewed for Critical Miss. The game is still very enjoyable playing today with its serene and chill gameplay and being able to see Pokémon roaming wild in a way we haven’t really seen since. It is a short game, able to be beaten on a first playthrough in a few hours, but that’s becoming less of a fault for me as I grow older and my amount of free time is growing smaller and smaller, like a Lapras swimming into the ocean horizon. 

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