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.

Castlevania Requiem: Symphony Of The Night & Rondo Of Blood_20190519124932

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.  

Castlevania Requiem: Symphony Of The Night & Rondo Of Blood_20190515184337

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.

Silent Hill 2 – Critical Miss #20

Photo by AlexShepherd. Found at http://silenthill.fandom.com

Town of Blood and Fog

It’s October which means it’s spooky season. While I love horror movies, I haven’t actually played many horror games. I could make excuses like how they don’t tend to interest me or I find them mechanically light typically, but the truth is horror games freak me the fuck out. It comes down to interactivity. I can sit back, idly watching a movie and judge the characters for making poor decisions, but in a game, I am the one who has to make the poor choices if I want to progress. When it came time to choose a classic scary game for the Halloween Critical Miss this year, there was one game that immediately came to mind.

Silent Hill 2 released in 2001 to immediate commercial and critical success. Even today, it is widely considered to be the high point of the series and one of the scariest games ever made. It’s praised for its atmosphere, psychological horror direction, and symbolism in design. The game centers around James Sunderland coming to the fog shrouded resort town in search of his wife, Mary, who has sent him a letter despite being dead for three years. Walking toward the town, you meet a woman named Angela who warns James not to continue onward because there is something wrong with the town. And she is absolutely right.

The titular town is enveloped in a dense fog making it impossible to see more than ten feet in front of you and is infested with monsters, terrible humanoid shapes with their arms pinned to their torsos like their burnt skin is a straight jacket. When you first make it to Silent Hill, you will spend a good chunk of time wandering aimlessly around, dodging the shapes materializing out of the fog, until you find any indication of where to go. Silent Hill 2 is not afraid to make the player lost. Once you find the thread to follow to destinations, the game is sign-posted well enough, but until then, you are on your own. This is extremely effective in creating fear since you are trapped in this unfamiliar town you can barely see and there are monsters around every corner and hiding under parked cars ready to jump out and maul you.

Photo by AlexShepherd. Found at http://silenthill.fandom.com

All monster encounters are extremely tense since the controls are very stiff and weighty. Combat, when you are forced into it, is especially stiff, sticky, and enemies take a lot of damage before dying. It is always advisable to run away from enemies rather than fight them due to resources needed to kill them, both ammo if you have any or healing items needed to keep James alive. I was very grateful to discover you could turn off tank controls earlier on, but the free movement is still based on a very uncooperative camera. Camera angles change suddenly, leading to running back down the hall you just exited and it swings slowly ,almost drunkenly, around when positioning it behind James. The camera is disorientating and makes the player never feel settled in a place. 

James must find his way through Silent Hill to find Mary and to do that he must navigate its streets and buildings while plunging deeper and deeper (literally at times, as in the prison) into the darkest depths of the horror and misery of his past. You’ll visit four main areas throughout the game that sort of act as dungeons from a Zelda game or a RPG. There are the apartment buildings, the hospital, Silent Hill Historical Building and the prison inexplicably below it, and the hotel. You will have to search rooms for items to either solve puzzles or unlock new rooms to search. The puzzles are typically clever logic puzzles, like the coin puzzle, or have hints somewhere nearby to clue you in to the solution, like the clock puzzle or combination lock. As the game progresses though, I feel the puzzle start becoming more obtuse. The main culprit of this is the block of faces just after the prison. I’m not sure if I missed the hint saying what to do, but I could not for the life of me figure out what was expected of me until I looked up the solution. The puzzles are either clever but solvable, or encourage exploration, both which I enjoy, and they are only really let down by the clunky inventory menu. Overall, the gameplay of Silent Hill 2 is fine, it’s passable, but that’s not the star of the game. The real reason to play this game is the town itself, James, and the complete horror one finds when confronted with their darkest secrets.

Photo by AlexShepherd. Found at http://silenthill.fandom.com

As James gets pulled into Silent Hill, so does the player through the game’s atmosphere. Everything is dank and empty with metal doors rusted, windows broken, and the walls covered in grime. The game takes familiar settings like a hotel or hospital and makes them hellish and alienating by plunging them into darkness and coating everything in rust and filth. The visuals still hold up extremely well today, but the sound design is on a whole other level and is some of the best I’ve ever heard. Sounds range for the loud radio static when monsters are nearby to the quiet barely heard whispers of unknown voices, the constantly pounding of James feet to sudden crying of a baby heard in only one room. Everything sounds chucky and uncanny, real enough to be recognized but odd enough to unnerve anyone hearing them.

Uncanny is how I would describe the characters too. Not in an “uncanny valley” sense where their models invoke an unease in the players (although there is some of that since this is the PS2), but more in their actions and conversations. James is pretty unflappable. Sure, he reacts to the horrific things happening in front of him, but he never seems to react to an appropriate level. His first encounter with Maria is a perfect example: he first mistakes her for his wife because she is Mary’s exact double, but is a sexier outfit. She immediately takes a liking to James and comes on to him very hard, despite the fact that they are trapped in a town full of monsters. James acknowledges Maria’s likeness to Mary, but that’s it. He just accepts it and moves on, no real questions after this interaction. I think James’s cold acceptance to the things he sees mostly has to do with the voice acting, which is not great with flat and stilted delivery, but it honestly works better than expected. It helps add to the other-worldly feeling of the town, as if the characters are too numb, terrified, or simply indifferent to care much about what is going on.

Whether the poor voice acting was intentional or not, it adds so much subtle unease to a game that’s filled to overflowing with subtleties. There are quiet sound effects, like footsteps following you in the beginning of the game and heavy breathing in certain rooms, that only happen in particular areas and are easy to miss. All the enemies represent the larger themes of the game. There are all feminine in nature, like the mannequin enemies that are just too sets of women legs and the nurses, except for Pyramid Head, face of Silent Hill since his introduction in this game. Pyramid Head is a tall, powerful male figure often seen attacking and assaulting the feminine enemies. The enemies represent every thing of James’s guilt of past actions to his frustrated libido since Mary’s passing. It’s so unnerving when you realize this because it adds so much more to the town of Silent Hill itself. It makes the town feel the main antagonist of the game, an alive, thinking entity with its own agenda for James.

Photo by AlexShepherd. Found at http://silenthill.fandom.com

All this builds to a tense and terrifying game. It breeds that special type of anxiety in you, that tightness in your chest, the sense of never feeling completely safe. The dread builds and builds until the very end where the game closes like a quiet door. It doesn’t offer a big, cathartic climax where the secrets of the town are discovered with a big, horrific set piece like many other horror games offer. Instead, the game’s climax is an emotional one, where the player watches James admit to and accept responsibility for his past sins. It’s a quiet, bleak, and heart wrenching moment because it’s not easy to not get invested in James and his suicidal quest in Silent Hill.

When I played, I got the ending that suggests that James commits suicide to be with his wife. You never see it, but it’s very much implied. After watching the other endings, this one feels the most fitting for me and my understanding of the town of Silent Hill. The town doesn’t not exist to redeem or offer any sort of relief to those it chooses, it exists only to punish and to torment. 

I wouldn’t call the game itself very punishing. It checks a player’s overconfidence through stiff combat and having James be quick to die, but mostly the gameplay is just a little stiff and the puzzles oblique. But it works for this type of game and paired with the thick atmosphere and fantastic story. James and his journey through hell will always have a place in the back of my brain, poking at my thoughts like a thorn. I’ve been turning Silent Hill 2 over in my head again and again since completing it, and that’s always the best sign to me that I really loved a game.

Photo by AlexShepherd. Found at http://silenthill.fandom.com

Resident Evil 4 & 3rd Person Controls

The first Resident Evil game I ever played was Resident Evil 4. I first played it to completion little over two years ago and I fell instantly in love with it. The gameplay was intense and powerful, the story was campy and dumb in the best way, and even the briefcase menu screen made inventory management fun. I knew the game’s place in history and how it changed up the formula from previous Resident Evil games at the time, but it wasn’t until I played those earlier games that I understood how different, but oddly similar, the fourth game in the series was to its kin. And all it took was a simple change in the camera.

Resident Evil 4 was the first mainline game in the series to abandon the fixed camera angles in favor of an over-the-shoulder 3rd person camera. And, while every game in the series previous was a mix of action and horror, Resident Evil 4 focused much more on the action side of the gameplay, being mainly a 3rd person shooter and leaving much of the survival horror aspects of the series behind. There are still effective moments of horror in the game like the Regenerator enemies the sewer section with the invisible bug creatures, but the game focuses much more on action and tension created by the relentlessness of the enemies. I think the shift in the camera is the culprit for this gameplay and tonal shift. 

In the early Resident Evil games, each room, hallway, and staircase had a fixed camera, or multiple, to show the area. They could not be moved in any way and were mostly implemented due to hardware limitations. But the designers discovered an interesting side effect from the restrictive camera system: claustrophobia. With the limited view and narrow level design, the early games instill a sense of tightness in the player, a sense of being trapped and not knowing what to expect in upcoming areas. The camera in Resident Evil 4 is used to create a similar feeling, but by different means.

The camera in Resident Evil 4 hangs just behind Leon’s shoulder, following behind him as he explores the decrepit Spanish village. Even though the camera can be moved around, its movement is smartly locked in a certain degree of movement where Leon is facing. This still limits the view on the player, especially with Leon’s model taking up quite a bit of the screen. With this restriction, the game still has a sense of tightness and claustrophobia to it, even with its much more open level design. You never know when a village is shuffling up behind you or even just outside your peripheral vision. Many modern 3rd person shooters like Control offer a free camera, able to look any direction regardless of where the character is facing, but this just wouldn’t have worked for Resident Evil 4

At its core, Resident Evil 4 is still a horror game, even though it focuses more on action. Without the dank, cramped environments of the previous games to provide scares, Resident Evil 4 uses complete relentlessness. When in combat, there are many enemies coming from all sides. The limited camera makes it impossible to keep track of all enemies at once and this allows them to sneak up out of view and grab Leon unexpectedly. The developers know this too and use it to apply stress to the player, having enemies come at you from all angles. Often you will be backing away from an approaching village right into the hands of another. Every combat encounter turns into a balance act of killing the enemies in front of you while also keeping mental tallies on any you know who are coming near and keep your distance from them all. 

Besides hounding Leon from all directions, the enemies have been designed around the new camera in other ways. The villagers are typically slow moving to accommodate the narrow camera and stiff tank controls, but they can jog in quick bursts to gain distance on Leon. They can close distance surprisingly fast if not tended to, but the game gives the player ways to deal with that. Enemies become stunned when they take enough damage, stopping to clutch their legs or head or wherever they’ve been shot. Shoot them in the legs enough and they become staggered, allowing Leon to roundhouse kick them. This is an important technique to learn because it not only does damage and can hit multiple enemies, but it gives you invincibility frames and sends the enemies flying back. An up close blast from a shotgun also knocks enemies a good distance, granting you a little bit of breathing room and precious seconds to assess the situation and make a plan.

The majority of enemies are melee, with a few having ranged weaponry or tossing their axes or sickles at you from afar. You would think that in a 3rd person shooter, most enemies would also be armed with guns. This is indeed the case for most games in the genre, but those types of enemies would not have worked in Resident Evil 4. While the combat can be hectic, with snap decisions needed in the heat of a fight, the camera and controls give the shooting a more slow-paced and methodical feel. With the enemies being slow and having to reach Leon first to damage him, the player has plenty of time to focus the camera where it needs to be, to run to spot where they are safe enough to stop and shoot, to even dash past enemies if they are overwhelmed, low on ammo, or just don’t to waste the bullets to fight.

Resident Evil 4’s combat is some of the best out there, especially for an over-the shoulder camera system. It not only shaped action games at the time, but its influence can still be felt today. Take the 2018 God of War. The camera is as close to Kratos in that game as it is to Leon in Resident Evil 4, but the latter is a methodical shooter while God of War is a fast paced hack and slash. The camera’s closeness to Kratos never felt like it worked as well as it should. The game constantly had to have immersion-breaking indicators and arrows pointing to enemies off screen or throwing range attacks. The game mitigates this a bit by limiting the enemies to face in individual encounters compared to other games in the series, but it doesn’t handle the shift in the camera perspective as well as Resident Evil 4 had over a decade earlier.

It must be frightening to design a new game in a series so radically different than its predecessors. It has to retain what fans loved about the earlier games and the new stuff has to be as good enough for players to enjoy immediately. This must be why Miyamoto spent the few months of Super Mario 64’s development perfecting Mario’s controls. Likewise, I think the Resident Evil 4 developers knew how important the new over-the-shoulder camera was to the game. They clearly designed everything around it and made sure everything worked well within the new camera system. 

It honestly blows my mind when people say they can’t play the game due to the camera or controls. Sure, the controls and camera can feel weird when you first start, but the game is so expertly crafted around them that you quickly get used to them. From the camera subtly creating a tight feeling to how the enemies are designed, the game perfectly utilizes the 3rd person perspective to heighten every minute of Resident Evil 4’s gameplay.

The other major complaint against the game: Ashley—that’s a whole other post there. Stay tuned.

Spec Ops: The Line – Critical Miss #19

Image by SilenceInTheLibrary at specops.fandom.com/wiki/Spec_Ops:_The_Line

Lines Drawn in the Sand

I stated in my Vanquish review that I missed the years in the late 2000’s where cover based shooters were the hot new thing. Even today, it’s not a genre I gravitate into, along with the trend of modern day military shooters like the CoD games since Modern Warfare. They tend to be too slow and dry for me. So why is it then that when I purchased a Xbox 360, one of the first games I bought for the system was Spec Ops: The Line, a modern military cover based shooter? Extremely positive word of mouth is one thing, but the real reason I had to play it was because the game is lauded as one of the most interesting uses of narrative in video games. 

Set in Dubai during cataclysmic sandstorms, you play as Captain Walker, a US Delta Force operator and his two man crew of Lugo and Adams. They have come to the ruined city in response to a radio transmission from Colonel Konrad, a man Walker fought under in the past. Their mission is simple: locate survivors from the sandstorms and radio for evac. This gets immediately complicated as Walker’s team finds themselves under attack by two sides of battling for control of the city. Refugees attack the team thinking they are part of Konrad’s 33rd battalion, and the 33rd themselves mistake Walker’s team as CIA agents who have been supplying the refugees with arms to fight the 33rd.

Image by SilenceInTheLibrary at specops.fandom.com/wiki/Spec_Ops:_The_Line

The setting of Dubai half buried in desert sand is one of my favorite things about the game. It effortlessly juxtaposes the opulent wealth of the glass shard skyscrapers and the clutter, squalor poverty of the holes where the refugees are hiding. The levels will take you throughout the sand filled streets, dark and buried-in ground floors, high up in gaudy condos, and zip-lining across rooftops. While the setting is great, art direction if often lacking, especially in terms of character design. There were times I laughed during a shoot out because I would see multiple of the same character model rushing through a doorway. This lack of strong character design tended to confuse the story for me too. Most of the major players in the plot, the characters with speaking lines and move the story forward, are the boilerplate white dude military type and I had the hardest time remembering who was who.

It’s a good thing that the setting was interesting because I found the gameplay to be only fine at best. The actual shooting mechanics are engaging in a fight, but everything around it—getting in and out of cover, sprinting across battlefields, waiting for enemies to pop out of cover to be shot like cans on wall—felt slow and tedious. This is no doubt influenced by my lack of enjoyment from cover based shooters in general and I will say that I didn’t find Spec Ops to be any more clunky than other games in the genre I’ve played. The game does have a few unique mechanics to it. Walker’s teammates, Lugo and Adams, can help snipe or grenade enemies at the player’s command. Sand can be used throughout the game by blowing out windows to bury enemies, grenades causing clouds of dust that the player can use for cover, and even occasional sand storms will blind both player and enemies, sending both in a mad dash for safety indoors. Sadly, these mechanics are never explored to their fullest potential and it is almost always faster to just kill enemies you have your sights on instead of fiddling with calling out to a NPC to shoot them. They very well be much more crucial tools on the harder difficulties, but on normal like I played, they seem no more back of the box selling points. But I didn’t expect the gameplay  to blow me away when I purchased Spec Ops. What I was there to see was the story.

Image by SilenceInTheLibrary at specops.fandom.com/wiki/Spec_Ops:_The_Line

I beg anyone who hasn’t played Spec Ops: The Line to stop reading this review now. Go play the game if you have the means to or watch an unnarrated playthrough on YouTube. This is a game that needs to experienced without expectations and an open heart. I will not be spoiling everything in the story, but must discuss the turning point from a box standard military shooter to a repeated kick in the gut.

The game works as a deconstruction of other military shooters like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor that were on the rage during that time. It starts with the unflappable heroes, dripping with unwavering duty and machismo, as they saunter into Dubai, cocksure and cracking jokes. When they find themselves being attacked by refugees and the 33rd, Walker decides the best thing to do would be to locate Konrad. In the pursuit, they must pass through a heavily guarded section of the city and Walker decides to clear out the opposing forces using white phosphorus. This is where the shoe drops. Walker and his crew soon find that the 33rd had set up a camp for refugees there too and they had just wiped out 47 civilian lives.

Image by SilenceInTheLibrary at specops.fandom.com/wiki/Spec_Ops:_The_Line

From there the chaos continues to spiral. Konrad commands Walker to choose between killing a water thief and soldier who murdered civilians, the team helps a CIA agent named Higgs raid and steal the water the 33rd was guarding only to crash the trunks and destroy it, and Walker opens fire on a group of civilians after they hang Lugo. The game actively forces the player to commit more atrocious acts of violence because this is a war and, like Walker says, there’s not always a choice, But Spec Ops does not celebrate these actions. Quickly the veneer of glory in the line of duty and ends justifying the means mentality is ripped away and there is only death caused by the characters, and the player.

Walker himself becomes noticeably more angry and violent after using the white phosphorus scene. His simple shouts of “Got one!” when you shoot an enemy during gameplay turns to “Got the motherfucker!” and “Fuck you!” as he ends countless lives. I will not spoil the ending because I had not had it spoiled for me before playing but it is a great capstone to everything the story and themes have been working towards. It completely recontextualized the 2nd half of the story and Walker’s complete psyche.

One of the most interesting aspects of the narrative is that it simply doesn’t make a lot of sense. I was having a little difficulty following it for a bit because it didn’t seem logically tied together, the events of a scene didn’t always understandably lead to decisions Walker makes on what to do next. But I think that’s the point. The whole story is built on assumptions and bad faith on Walker’s part. What made me realize this was the death of CIA agent Gould. It is discovered that he was planning on storming an area of Dubai named The Gate and Walker decides that’s where his team must head to next. When asked what’s important about The Gate, Walker just says “Gould thought it was important enough to die for, so it must be important.” This leads directly to the use of the white phosphorus to clean out the soldiers guarding The Gate. When agent Higgs ropes the Delta Force team into helping him steal water from the 33rd, Walker just goes along with it. He clearly does not trust Higgs, but he agrees to be a part of the plan with much second thought. 

Image by SilenceInTheLibrary at specops.fandom.com/wiki/Spec_Ops:_The_Line

There are no good guys in Spec Ops: The Line, but I’m not sure I would say there are any bad guys either. There are just people doing what they think they have to do no matter the cost. Walker has to find meaning to the madness happening in the city, Konrad was trying to protect the refugees even if it meant by force, Higgs felt the need to cover up Konrad’s crime out of fear of the world discovering them. There is no good or evil; there are only people fighting to stay alive, people insisting they are in the right, the messy gray morals of war and people fighting to the death. 

Art is not always pleasant. It’s not always comfortable. Look at the pain and grief portrayed in Picasso’s Guernica or the stomach turning scenes of assault in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Some art is designed to shine a light on the darkest parts of the human heart and challenge the viewer themselves with questions they may not want to answer. Spec Ops: The Line is one such piece of art. Throughout the game, it constantly asks: What are you doing? Is this right? Do you feel like a hero yet? But they just hang there. It does not offer any answers because it is not up to the game to decide. The only one who can answer those questions are yourself.

Super Mario Odyssey & Player Rewards

When I was fourteen, I got my first Nintendo DS. Along with it came a copy of Super Mario 64 DS. I didn’t know at the time that it was a port of an Nintendo 64 game, I didn’t even know what the term “port” meant in that context, nor did I care. Super Mario 64 is such a great game, it didn’t matter that it was clunkier to control with the d-pad, I fell in love with it. It was one of the first moments I can remember of realizing games can be something truly special. And, much like how they revolutionized 3D games with Super Mario 64, Nintendo would completely rewrite the script on 3D platformers again over 20 years later with Super Mario Odyssey.

Mario Odyssey is a phenomenal game. It’s easily my favorite Mario game and probably sits in my top 10 games of all time. Recently, I played through the entire game again and I was constantly reminded of how good it is, how impeccably designed, how fun to play, how satisfying it is. And it is that one aspect that piqued my interest in my last playthrough: satisfaction. A common complaint I’ve seen against Odyssey is that there are too many Moons and players can collect them so often that they lose their value and stop feeling special. I’ve never felt this way and, in fact, feel that this complaint ties directly into the main design of the game. Odyssey constantly awards players’ curiosity and exploration to give them a sense of fun and satisfaction.

There are many ways to reward players: experience points for levels, skill points for unlocks, leader boards for competitive games. Being a 3D collectathon, Super Mario Odyssey rewards players with collectibles. Be it coins, purple tokens, or Power Moons, every level of Odyssey is filled to the brim with things to grab and collect. Besides collectibles, the levels are just full of stuff in general. It has some of the most densely packed level design I’ve ever seen but, thanks to the standard Nintendo polish, the worlds you explore never feel cluttered or sloppy. 

The collectables are the main tool the designers push players to explore the levels thoroughly and challenge themselves to find everything because they are actually worth something in Odyssey. In Super Mario 64, Power Stars were collected to unlock new levels and coins are only collected to restore health and get certain Stars. While the Power Moons in Odyssey only unlock progress, similar to 64’s Stars, coins have much more importance. Along with the purple tokens, which are needed to purchase level specific souvenirs and stickers for Mario’s ship, the Odyssey, coins can be used to purchase new outfits in the shop. This is so highly incentivized that upon death, the player doesn’t lose a life, but a handful of coins. The outfits, souvenirs, and stickers don’t actually have any gameplay effects, but they are still strangely addicting to collect. They add so much charm to the game—especially the outfits which can be mixed and matched to make Mario look utterly ridiculous. 

Even the enemies work as collectibles in a way. Mario can possess certain enemies by throwing his cap onto them and there is a whole bestiary-like list of all of them in the game. When possessing an enemy, the player has access to their special abilities. This replaces the standard power ups of a Mario game, but the creativity and variety enemy possession offers is unparalleled. The first thing in the game I wanted to complete was the enemy list because they were so much fun to control. It is always exciting in the game to stumble upon a new enemy and throw your cap at it for the first time, to see what new moves it’ll have and how it will open up the world around you.

So the designers fill a level with Power Moons, coins, purple trinkets, and enemies to play with and drop the player in the middle of it. The first time in the level, there will be an objective to complete but how you get there and how long it takes is up to the player. It’s tough to go from point A to B when there is a playground of things to do, collectables to be grabbed, and fun to be had in between. The designers know this too and smartly do not discourage players from going off the critical path. In fact, they encourage it. They use collectibles to catch the player’s eye and lead them to different areas. They use landmarks in the distance to keep pushing players forward. Finally, when a player fully understands Mario’s special jumps and movement abilities, they tease players with areas that seem to be out of reach.

Some of the best moments in the game are when you see a ledge that is slightly too high to jump to or an area just out of reach and think to yourself ‘I can get up there.’ So after a series of wall jumps, air dives, and cap bounces, you make it some place you’re seemingly not supposed to access and there is always something there for you. Sometimes it’s a secret Power Moon, but usually it’s just coins. But that’s ok because it feels like a wink from the developer, it feels like an in-joke between you and them and they are congratulating you. There is a staggering amount of depth to the movement options in the game and it feels good to accomplish a tricky jump to an area that seems like it would have been forgotten by the developers only to be rewarded. 

Collecting these Power Moon, coins, and outfits never stops feeling satisfying. It preys on the part of the human brain that likes feeling they’ve accomplished a task, no matter how simple, the part that likes filling out checklists and seeing things tidy and complete. It’s the same part of the brain that the game industry preys upon with loot boxes and limited time character skins. But this satisfying feeling is used for good instead of evil in Super Mario Odyssey because it requires nothing from the player besides skill and patience, no additional money or microtransactions, and I believe that makes it even more satisfying. 

It’s truly amazing how Ninendo can create seminal, groundbreaking games time and time again. But it’s not really surprising when you consider the attention to detail and focus they put into their games. Nintendo’s policy has always been to put fun first and that shines clear in Super Mario Odyssey in how they constantly reward the players’ curiosity. They provide playgrounds just begging to be explored and cover them with things for the player to find so there is no moment lacking satisfaction. This is why I seriously consider Super Mario Odyssey one of the most fun games to simply play.

Paratopic Review

August has been a hell of month for me. Between personal issues, vet appointments for my cat, and the power adapter of my Xbox 360 getting fried, I didn’t have time to complete the game I had intended to review for Critical Miss this month. But I wanted to get a short post up anyway, so I decided to review a short game I recently experienced.

Paratopic is a first-person horror experience. I remember hearing about the game when it came out, but I didn’t know much about it besides it was short and the graphics were apparently creepy. This won’t be an in depth review due to the short length of the game and lack of hard mechanics in general, but I want to discuss some things that really got to me.

You play as three characters in Paratopic: a hiker trying to catch a photo of a rare bird, a smuggler transporting illegal VHS tapes across the border, and an assassin as they perform a hired hit. A lot of the fun in the game comes from trying to unravel each character’s storyline. Since there are no character features on display and the story jumps from moment to moment, it’s up to the player to pick apart the plot. This goes a long way to immerse the player. Since the game lacks a lot of moment-to-moment gameplay, the best way to engage the player is to give them something to think about as they play. The mystery of the plot and who you are playing as is a constant in the back of your head while playing through the game. As you are forced to search around for context clues, you have to study the world. You get so drawn in that you even start to notice when things are slightly off.

The visuals do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to the horror, but there are hardly any overtly scary moments in the game. Paratopic excels at getting under your skin and unsettling the player. The game is bathed in the dying light of a perpetual sunset and the art style is reminiscent of early 3D games from the PS1 or Quake era. Everything is orange or brown or deep black darkness. But it’s the subtleties that shine through in the visuals. Characters’ faces will slide around the model of their heads, landscapes are jagged and harsh, and the textures constantly change on the trees as you walk through them, making them seem to pulsate and bubble like one of Lovecraft’s soggoths.

I think my favorite way the game unnerves the player is with the scene cuts. Each time the game moves to the next character or next part of the sorry, there is not a smooth transition or expected jump during a usual story beat. It just cuts in the middle of an action and you are in a new location. You might be walking along a cliff, watching it twist out in front of you, and think you have a long way to walk, but no—cut and you are driving in a car. The transitions are never expected and extremely jarring. They just make you feel uncomfortable through the entire playthrough because you never know when the next cut is coming up. They almost act as jump scares without actually resorting to jump scares in the game and it’s extremely clever.

I’m not going to spoil any of the story or any of the surprises or scares here. Paratopic is so short, about an hour long max, so just play through it if you are interested. The game is an incredibly effective horror experience by how it works to unnerve the player. I don’t get actually scared from a lot of media anymore, but Paratopic did manage to get under my skin a bit. I would compare it to an Ari Aster film like Hereditary. The unrelenting tension and atmosphere has you on edge even while nothing horrifying is happening directly on screen. 

Pokémon & the Nuzlocke Challenge

If I had to choose a video game series as my all time favorite, I would have to choose Pokémon. I started playing the series when I was 8 years old and even though I skipped the 4th and 5 generation, I’ve been back in the series strong since X & Y. I love this series, but I’ll be the first to admit the games are all generally the same. The core gameplay loop of collecting Pokémon to train them and build a strong team is so solid and fun that the sameness doesn’t bother me. It also helps that the games are built to be simple on the surface, but deep and complex for people willing to put in the time to EV train and breed perfect Pokémon. I’ve never gotten into any of that, but I do enjoy a good Nuzlocke run to add a little difficulty and tension to a playthrough.

A Nuzlocke mode is meant to make a playthrough of any Pokémon game more challenging by adding some restrictions to play. There are three main rules to a Nuzlocke challenge:

  1. You can only catch the first Pokémon you meet on a new route or area (cave, forest, etc.). If you fail to catch that Pokémon, you can not catch another one for that area.
  2. If a Pokémon faints, it is considered dead and must be released, never to be used again.
  3. Every Pokémon you catch must be nicknamed.

Due to these restrictions, it is actually possible to get a game over in a Pokémon game if you have a team wipe and have no more backup Pokémon to use in battle. Other rules can be applied to main ones too, like only using Pokémon Centers a limited number of times or not at all. I play my Nuzlocke runs with two additional rules being no healing items in battles and no catching duplicate Pokémon. Adding a little more difficulty to a game series I know like the back of my hand was the main reason I decided to do my first ever Nuzlocke run with LeafGreen. The reason I ended up loving the format, however, was because of how it recontextualized the entire game and made me appreciate the series on a deeper level.

When you first wander out into the Pokémon world, be it Kanto, Johto, Galar, or any other region, there is an excitement to every new route. Playing the game regularly, you can catch as many Pokémon as you’d like, but in a Nuzlocke the first Pokémon to appear will be your new friend and teammate. It’s the same type of excitement one gets from opening booster packs of trading cards. You might get a rare pull like a 4% chance to spawn a Ralts, or just another Rattata. But this randomness also forces players to build usual teams and use Pokémon they may have overlooked in the past. For my most recent Nuzlocke, I played Pokémon Sword and caught a Vanillite early on. I would never have thought to put one on my team before because I always prefer dual-type Pokémon, but my Vanillite, named Minnesota, became a staple of my team. They were with me from the first gym all the way to defeating the champion. 

The rule forcing players to nickname their Pokémon also helps deepen the affection felt towards them. It wasn’t just any Vanillite fighting, it was my Minnesota. The nicknames help differentiate them from other Pokémon and lets the player create little personalities for them too. I had a Mudsdale named Pokey and they were an absolute beast. With high attack and defense, they could dish out pain and take it in turn, especially with their ability Stamina, which raised their defense everytime they took damage. They were the wall that I depended on in so many battles and they couldn’t be stopped. At least until we came across a Durant with Guillotine, a 1 hit KO move with a 30% hit rate. One unlucky role of the dice later and my Pokey was gone.

It can be absolutely heartbreaking to lose a Pokémon in a Nuzlocke challenge. To prevent this, you will have to fight hard and get creative. Even though you have little control over what Pokémon you are able to catch, you do options of what moves they can learn. One of the best things that the later games in the series did was make TMs (items that allow you to teach a Pokémon a certain move instantly) reusable. This allows the player to experiment with the moveset of a Pokémon because they don’t have to worry about wasting the TM on the wrong Pokémon, or, in the case of a Nuzlocke run, one that dies later one.

Experimentation and type coverage with moves is crucial in a Nuzlocke challenge where you may not be able to craft your team to cover all 18 different types effectively. It becomes quickly apparent that doing super effective damage is better than STAB (Same Type Attack Bonus) damage. If you can’t knock an opposing Pokémon down quickly, it just gives it more time to do damage and possibly surprise you with a super effective attack that you may not have seen coming. During my last Nuzlocke, I had a Perrserker named Randy Moss that I taught Thunder to for water and flying coverage. It was a weird choice and one I would never have thought of unless I had to find a way to deal with gaps in my team composition. 

While there is always some strategy involved in Pokémon, when you turn each batte into a life or death struggle, you have to think much harder about your decisions. I went into the championship with only four Pokémon: a Haxorus named Battleaxe, a Golisopod named Wimberdon, a Musharna named Piglett, and my Vanilluxe, Minnesota. All I remembered about the finals from my previous playthrough was the dragon leader had a pain-in-ass steel/dragon type Duraludon and that Leon had a rather scary Charizard. So I had to get creative again. Wimberdon was given Brick Break to contend with the Duraludon and Battleaxe learned Rock Throw to help deal with Leon’s Charizard. I knew that the dragon leader’s Pokémon revolved around changing the weather to benefit his team, so I used Vanilluxe’s ability Snow Warning and the attack Hail to keep the weather tilted out of his favor. This also gave Vanilluxe’s strongest attack, Blizzard, a 100% hit rate instead of 70%.

These examples are why I enjoy the Nuzlocke format of playing Pokémon so much. I have always loved the series, but I learn more about its complexities with each different Nuzlocke run. First, I learned the type advantages beyond the basic fire beats grass which beats water. Next, I learned the real difference between basic and special attack/defense and which Pokémon should specialize in which. Then there was changing up moveset for type coverage, different strategies for dealing with tricky opponents, and deeper and deeper Scorbunny hole goes

I cannot stress enough how much I love this method of playing Pokémon. The Nuzlocke challenge changes a simple and already immensely fun series into a nail-biting endeavour for veteran players with higher stakes, more to gamble with risky plays, and an emotional investment in the little creatures battling for you, with a razor’s edge between crushing defeat and soaring victories. It is a great way to explore the depths of the Pokémon series. If you are like me and are beyond a casual player of the series but not interested in breeding and training a competitive team, I highly suggest giving a Nuzlocke run a try and see what new it teaches you. Just don’t come crying to me when you lose your favorite Pokémon.

Star Fox 64 – Critical Miss #18

Captains Log. Star date: 1997

In 1997, I was 7 years old. I liked video games, but I hadn’t hit my first wave of love with the medium. That would come in the next couple years with the release of Pokemon Red & Blue and Digimon World. I was only slightly aware a thing called the Nintendo 64 existed at the time. The only person I knew with one was my older brother’s friend and they didn’t like having a kid brother tagging along with them much. This means I missed out on the Nintendo games of the time. I got to try a few like Mario 64, Pokemon Stadium, and GoldenEye 007, but many I didn’t even know existed until much later in life. Like Star Fox 64 released in 1997, a game I never heard about until YouTube game reviewers became a thing. All of them praised the game for being a classic and, when I found a copy of the 3DS version on sale, I wanted to try it for myself.

The story of Star Fox 64 is a Nintendo classic. A bad guy (Andross) is doing bad things and it’s up to the good guys (the Star Fox team) to stop him (shoot him with lasers). Small level introductions to give context for what you are doing at any giving time. The Star Fox team is composed of Fox McCloud, Slippy Toad, Peppy Hare, and Falco Lombardi. You will see these characters throughout the levels as they pop up on Fox’s comms device where they can offer tips and tricks, but most often will just yell for help. It’s these small moments that show the characters’ personalities. Slippy always needs help, Falco is a cocky asshole, and Peppy knew Fox’s dad and not much else.

The presentation is solid and has the polish expected from a Nintendo game. While the 3DS version has better graphics across the board, the level design and structure was built around simple geometry that was possible on the N64 and it still works today. Nothing about the levels felt old school or dated like a lot of other 5th generation games tend feel today. The music takes obvious inspiration from sci-fi epics like Star Wars and the compositions are amazing, with songs being able to feel epic and soaring while still only using electronic instruments. 

There are minor changes between the N64 to the 3DS versions of Star Fox 64. The 3DS version allows players to use motion controls to aim their sights, which I didn’t use, cut scenes can be skipped after viewing once, and there was a score attack mode added to let players play any level to try to get the best score. Overall, the based game itself is the same in both versions with gameplay being untouched. Which is good for someone like me, where gameplay is the most important aspect of video games.

Controlling Fox as you pilot different vehicles across planets, nebulas, and space stations all while blasting enemies with lasers and narrowing maneuvering through gaps and around obstacles is thrilling. Levels are broken up into on-rail or all-range modes. All-range mode means you are free to pilot your Arwing freely with 360 degrees of movement in any direction. This seems pretty standard until you realize most of the game’s levels are on-rail style, with one path that your ship can head down and your main concern is blowing up enemies and avoiding collisions with the environment. Star Fox 64 is almost a straight reimagining of old arcade shoot em ups like Galaxian or Gradius in 3D in these on-rail levels where enemies emerge and attack in set patterns. Even the levels are quick and action packed like the arcade games, usually only lasting a few minutes at most. Another thing it has in common with those old arcade games is replayability.

When booting up the game, the player is met with the Lylat System, a small solar system with a handful of planets, a sun, an asteroid belt, and some nebulas. A natural first playthrough will see the player just beating the levels and moving on to the next, but this will lock them out of over half the levels. That’s because each level has a secret path that can be found. Sometimes the missions are stated directly by a member of the Star Fox team, like shooting the train switches in Macbeth. Other times, the secret goal is kept hidden from the player, like getting a high enough score in Sector Y or flying through land rings in the Corneria. These additional objectives are great because they encourage exploration and replayability to find, but they also date the game in an interesting way.

I remember those Wild Western days of 90’s video games. The internet was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is today, meaning secrets in games were not a simple Google search away. Often, you had to rely on friends who might have found them or gaming magazines like Nintendo Power to give hints of what were hidden in the games you played. You probably did not have as many games to play either, lacking disposable income and needing people to buy them for you. It’s in this era where replayability in games was extremely valuable. Playing the same game, or the same section of a game, for hours was common as you slowly peeled away at it. And Star Fox 64 is very much a game of this era. Especially with a lot of the hidden objectives being rather obtuse, it’s easy to imagine kids of the late 90’s spending hours trying to discover everything the game had to offer, eyes glued to a CRT TV, weird M-shaped N64 controller clutched in their hands.

Exploring levels and finding secrets also helps you find power ups. These are additional ammo for your bombs, upgrades to your lasers, and gold rings, collecting three of which will extend your health bar and every three after that gives you a 1 up. These powers up are vital to succeeding at level, most notable Venom 2, the hard version of the last level. This is an all-range level where you must fight it out with Star Wolf, a rival team of mercenaries hired by Andross. It is easily the hardest level in the game, but if you don’t have the full Star Fox team backing you up or fully upgraded levels and health, it is nearly impossible to win. Star Wolf are very quick to evade or shield when shooting at them, so if you are lacking in fire power, your DPS will not be high enough to get ahead of the damage done to you and your teammates. And once all your teammates are down, all of Star Wolf tail you mercilessly, constantly pelting you with lasers and scattering when you u-turn, only to end up behind you again. This level took way more tries than it should have for me to finish and had me swearing into my 3DS the entire time.

Nothing else in Star Fox 64 frustrated me to the extent of Venom 2, but the Landmaster and Blue Marine levels did annoy me. Together, they only make up 3 stages, but they are both so slow, with the Landmaster being a tank and the Blue Marine being a submarine, and both being similar yet different enough from controlling like the Arwing that I wish they would have been replaced with more fast-paced, exhilarating flight levels. The Blue Marine level, Aquas, feels especially pointless. It is the only level with the Blue Marine, which controls exactly like the Arwing but half as slow, and the level is just dark, dank, and unappealing. I would have preferred this level to at least be another Landmaster level and give that playstyle more room to explore ideas. The differing vehicles are meant to add variety, but they control so similarly to the Arwing and are utilized in so few levels, that they never feel fully realized or interesting.

Star Fox 64 is a fun game and rightfully regarded as a classic of the N64. With tight gameplay and an emphasis on replayability, it’s no wonder it is still remembered fondly today. But I’m not sure I would highly recommend it to a modern player. I just can’t see someone going in blind and dedicating the time to find all the hidden paths. Even if they do go through all the different routes, it is still a very short game. You can see everything it has in only a few hours. But maybe that’s a selling point to some. The least I can say is that it’s an interesting little time capsule of the design mentalities of the 5th generation of games, floating cold in space, ready to be cracked open and explored again.

Dying Light & 1st Person Platforming

I’ve never been much into zombies. While they are not something I purposefully avoid, I don’t find myself drawn by media revolving around them. Before playing Dying Light, the last game I played involving zombies was Death Road to Canada. There is an interesting similarity with how both games handle the zombies hordes; that is, as something that should be avoided wherever possible. In Death Road to Canada, a 2D indie roguelike, there’s not much to do but try and kite around the zombie, keeping as much distance between them and you as possible. Dying Light, a full 3D, 1st person open world game, uses a parkour mechanic to let the player jump, climb, and run high above the zombies’ reach. And it is some of the best use of platforming I’ve seen in a 1st person game.

Platforming in 1st person games is nothing new, of course. Doom had “platforming” elements in 1993 by asking players to run across gaps in the floor. Half-Life had the infamous Xen levels, where the player was expected to platform across an alien planet. Mirror’s Edge was a 1st person game built around freerunning and parkour in 2009. Even more modern games like Doom (2016) and Titanfall 2 use double jumps, ledge grabs, and wallrunning to add a sense of platforming to set them apart from other FPSs. But none of these games have the openness and freedom to explore as Dying Light offers.

Set in the fictional city of Harran, the game is split into two large maps: the Slums and Old Town. The Slums are made up of buildings and shacks closely confined together. There is a giant highway overpass above and cutting through the map. Old Town, on the other hand, feels more like a Mediterranean city, filled with narrow streets, taller brick buildings, towers, and chimneys jutting out of slated roofs. Both maps are tightly packed, sometimes even cluttered, and they would have been frustrating to navigate in another 1st person game limited to the ground, but the close proximity of the buildings in Dying Light makes it easy for the player to jump and climb, saying off the zombie infested ground.

The design of the maps focuses on the freerunning. There are routes specifically designed not to break the player’s flow with street lights placed the perfect distance apart to jump to, boards curving around building corners, and ramps to jump from lead you open windows or piles of garbage to staying fall into. This can guide the player along easy paths, but the almost chaotic nature of the maps’ designs also allow free exploration. Every building has a way to climb, be it window grates, awnings, or extruding brick work. Not only does this let the player explore and find their own route through Harran, but if you do mess up and plummet into a group of zombies, it’s just a matter of a quick look around to find a way above them again. The platforming is free-flowing and open for experimentation, which is rare in most AAA games with platforming elements. It’s not as laid out and linear as in the Titanfall 2 nor is it as obvious as in games like Horizon: Zero Dawn or Doom (2016) which use colors to indicate what ledges can and cannot be used to climb.

With AAA games being a hodgepodge of differing gameplay elements and genres, it’s usually hard to describe any big budget game with a single genre. Dying Light itself is an open-world, 1st person action/adventure game. But it is as much of a platformer as any of those other descriptions. The climbing and jumping is integral to the game as one of the main loops, not an extra feature for the back of the box. Going back to Doom (2016) again, while jumping and verticality is important in a fight, most real platforming challenges reward the players with collectibles and secrets. Stripping out the platforming would make the game feel much more linear, but the main gameplay loop of fast paced demon killing would be kept completely intact. Dying Light would be a completely different game without the parkour system and would, at best, be just another zombie game, but with really limb melee combat. 

With parkour being a main focus of the game, its platforming controls have to be very tight, something many 1st person games struggle with, and luckily they are in Dying Light. The jump button is mapped to the shoulder button and it takes some getting used to, but once you learn to continue holding the jump button to grab ledges you’re aiming for, the controls click. There is the perfect amount of stickiness to grabbing ledges. The frames to grab climbable objects are strict enough to feel satisfying, but still lenient enough not to be frustrating. It strikes the perfect balance between being loose enough to be forgiving but tricky enough to be interesting. The game also understands the limits of the 1st person perspective. There is hardly any jumping on small platforms, an annoyance of the early FPS, and when there is, crossing them is a matter of keeping up speed and fluid running more so than jumping from platform to platform. 

Dying Light has a great understanding of what it can and cannot do with its platforming and how to make it fun, which makes it a real shame in the later half of the game when you enter Old Town. Out of the two maps, I prefer Old Town to run across. It’s taller buildings and ziplines make it more entertaining to parkour across. But the missions in this part of the game rely less on finding ways across the map and more on linear indoor or sewer levels. There are still platforming to be done in these areas, but they feel much less open, with there only being one, “correct” way for you to climb. It’s still fun to find that way around these levels, but missing the freedom of movement of the open maps makes these moments feel very restrictive.

I originally had an idea for this post that I would compare the platforming in Titanfall 2 and Doom (2016) to see which one was handled better in the 1st person perspective. But then a friend recommended Dying Light, saying it had the best platforming in a 1st person game they’ve played. After playing it myself, I would have to agree. It emphasizes the platforming more so than the other games and that forced it to be as good as possible, with tight controls and freedom of movement. There is a stigma around 1st person platforming and a belief that it just can’t work, which is sad because it could limit future games from offering new, differing experiences. Dying Light shows how fun platforming can be in a 1st person game if it is paid the right amount of attention during design. I hope we see more games like it in the future. More than just Dying Light 2, that is.