Into the Breach & Enemy Intentions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super Metroid – Critical Miss #15

Lost in Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darkest Dungeon & Stress

I’m no stranger to mechanically deep games. Games like Dark Souls, Monster Hunter, or The Binding of Isaac have mechanics that run deeper than they seem at first and all take time to master. But if those games are as deep as oceans, then Darkest Dungeon is the Mariana Trench. There is so much to manage in Darkest Dungeon from party positions to their attacks and trinkets, provisions for quests and the effects of curios, character quirks and equipment. It often feels overwhelming and stressful and stress, funnily enough, is another thing you have to manage in the game.

The stress mechanic in Darkest Dungeon ties into the games Lovecraftian themes and portrays the deteriorating mental state of warriors as they encounter unknown horrors. All characters have a stress gauge that goes from 0 to 200 and stress is inflicted by a multiple of sources: enemy attacks, curios, low torch light, and even walking backwards through a dungeon. When a character’s stress reaches 100, their resolve is tested. This either gives them a flaw, like paranoid or hopeless, which will make them act on their own during battle to the detriment of the party, or make them virtuous, which gives them a positive characteristic, like heroic, that they can use to destress or buff their party members. If stress continues to build for a character whose resolve has been tested and it reaches 200, they have a heart attack. A heart attack instantly reduces a character HP to 0 and puts them on Death’s Door or kills them outright if they already have no HP. Stress builds and builds on a character until they finally snap, like they were a rubber band being pulled too far.

A character’s stress meter basically works as a second health bar, but while wounds and HP are healed instantly after a mission is complete, the psychological scars and stress carry over. HP is the immediate concern in a battle because that will most affect if the character makes it out of a dungeon alive, but stress is, to quote the game, a slow and insidious killer. There are things that can be done during a mission to reduce stress on your team. Some characters have skills that will heal a small amount of stress, there are camping abilities for longer missions that relieve stress, and it’s always a smart idea to focus on enemies that deal in stress damage at the beginning of an encounter. 

The easiest way to relieve stress is in the hamlet, the main hub of the game. There, characters can take part in activities like drinking, praying, or gambling to forget their problems for a while and reduce their stress. It is in the town that stress becomes a resource management mechanic. All the activities that help characters require money and will take that character out of the action for a while, unable to go on missions. This works as a drain on your resources. You could buy equipment upgrades for your team or you could spend that gold relieving your main healer’s stress to get them out in the dungeons again. 

Having characters be excluded from missions to relieve stress guides the player to constantly rotate their parties for dungeons. Not only does rotating them help keep stress at a minimum, it will lead to a barracks of soldiers of consistent levels. It can be a real issue in the later game if you have a gap in levels between your main team of characters and your backups. The dungeons don’t get easier as the game progresses. The dungeon missions only get harder with each passing in-game week and sometimes sending out a lower level team is dangerous, but it’s your only option. If you have been diligent about rotating characters, the gulf in levels will be more narrow, meaning a losing a handful of high value characters will be slightly less catastrophic. 

The truly interesting aspect of the stress mechanic in Darkest Dungeon isn’t how it affects the characters on the screen, but the player. You will become attached to certain characters through emergent gameplay moments, like a character struggling through their stress to become virtuous and single-handedly save the rest of the party. Small moments like that make your party feel like they are really fighting for their lives and makes you appreciate the ones who rise to the occasion. But what happens to characters who never do that? Who seem to miss every important attack or whose building stress always becomes a flaw? Well, you might start thinking less of them. And when that happens, Darkest Dungeon adds just the slightest friction of morality in to keep things interesting.

Moral choices are nothing new to video games, but while most AAA games rely on a dichotomy of good and bad choices, indie games fare better. Darkest Dungeon presents the player with a nuanced, grey-area take on morality and, much like Papers, Please, it is solely based on the player’s beliefs and emotions. You can dismiss any character at any time for no penalty. This means you are basically a boss in a right-to-work state, but your employees’ only way of leaving is through death. So what you do with these people is completely your choice. You can take care of everybody, make sure that they are mentally stable at the cost of constant stress upkeep, or you can discard them, just toss them aside when they are at their breaking point mentally and of no use to you. There’s no drawback to this in-game; it solely relies on you to make the choice. When I first played the game years ago, I had no problem throwing away characters that were too much of a hassle or too expensive to keep, but in my most recent playthrough I found that much harder to do. I started dismissing less and less of my team until I was keeping everyone until they died. And even that isn’t necessarily a “good” thing to do. But I couldn’t let them go just because of high stress and bad traits. Those are caused either by my own poor decisions in fight or in the dungeons, or due to the nature of a chaotic, uncaring universe (e.i. the random number generator) which only heightens the Lovecraftian themes.

Darkest Dungeon is a game of staggering depth and the stress mechanic, how it affects the gameplay and the player, is just one aspect of it. There is so much to the game that I could easily make many more posts about it and probably will revisit it again in the future. What I just thought of at first as a neat idea to have two different types of health made me reevaluate the entire game. Stress in Darkest Dungeon is like a glass bottom boat tour: you can see what’s on the surface easily, but so much more lays in the blackness of the unknowable ocean’s depths.

Fallout – Critical Miss #14

Set the World on Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Return of the Obra Dinn & Lateral Information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metal Gear Solid – Critical Miss #13

Sneaky-Beaky Like

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monster Hunter World & Player Knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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