Monster Hunter World & Player Knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heart & Craft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resident Evil 2 (2019) & Mr. X

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 5 Best Games of 2019

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

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

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

#5) Pokemon Sword

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

#4) Astral Chain

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

#3) Resident Evil 2 (Remake)

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

#2) Untitled Goose Game

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

#1) Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

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

Top 5 Critical Miss Games of 2019

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

#5) Spryo 2: Ripto’s Rage

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

#4) Majora’s Mask

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

#3) Doom

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

#2) Resident Evil (Remake)

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

#1) Papers, Please

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

Papers, Please – Critical Miss #11

Working for the Clampdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shovel Knight & Difficulty Curves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astral Chain & the Legions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Untitled Goose Game & UI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doom (1993) – Critical Miss #8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Writer’s note: 

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

Resident Evil (Remake) – Critical Miss #5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice & Revisiting Levels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night – Critical Miss #4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earthbound – Critical Miss #2

Smiles & Tears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celeste & Theming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hollow Knight & Knockback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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