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

Enter the Master Sword

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bioshock & Plasmids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silent Hill 2 – Critical Miss #20

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

Town of Blood and Fog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resident Evil 4 & 3rd Person Controls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spec Ops: The Line – Critical Miss #19

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

Lines Drawn in the Sand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super Mario Odyssey & Player Rewards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paratopic Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pokémon & the Nuzlocke Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Fox 64 – Critical Miss #18

Captains Log. Star date: 1997

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dying Light & 1st Person Platforming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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