Vampyr & Eating NPCs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prey (2017) & the GLOO Cannon

Prey is an immersive sim meaning a lot of emphasis is placed on open-ended missions and level design, exploration for resources, and player freedom while surviving in the space station, Talos I. Through skill trees, you can spec in many different character builds that fits your gameplay style. Maybe you want to avoid enemies all together and be a sneaky hacker or have the many turrets and security bots fight for you after you repair them, maybe you want to face the enemies head on by focusing on guns and the leverage skill so you can hurl sofas and water coolers at them. The game caters to however you want to play, but no matter how you choose to build your character, there is always one common denominator: the GLOO Cannon is the most useful tool in your inventory.

The Gelifoam Lattice Organism Obstructor (GLOO) Cannon was not made to be a weapon; it’s a tool. It’s only through the ingenuity of the player character, Morgan Yu, that it has any use in a fight. The Cannon shoots out globs of foam that stick to surfaces, expanding and hardening into about basketball-sized clumps. Apparently these hardened clumps are called “splats,” but they look more like pieces of popcorn to me so that is how I will refer to them. This popcorn doesn’t do any damage to enemies on its own, but it does slow them down and completely immobilize them after enough has formed on them. The helpfulness of this cannot be overstated since all enemies in the game are extremely fast, zipping around rooms unbelievably quickly. If you do not slow these creatures down, they will quickly close in and take a bite out of you. The GLOO cannon is very useful to hold them in one place so you can go on the offensive. Luckily, besides just being slowed down, enemies encased in the GLOO take increased damage, especially from the wrench. You’ll quickly find yourself relying on a quick GLOO Cannon to wrench flowchart while fighting enemies—similar to the Electro Bolt to wrench combo in Bioshock and it’s just as satisfying here as in that game.

Again, though, the GLOO Cannon was never meant to be used as a weapon, it was designed as a tool and with that comes uses for it outside of combat. The first uses you’ll learn is to use the GLOO Cannon to take care of hazards around Talos I. Since the popcorn is nonconductive, it can be used to cover broken electrical panels shooting lightning out into the room. Once covered, you can repair the panel in order to stop the lightning if you specced into that build or simply walk past it and deal with it again when returning to the area. The popcorn is also flame retardant, so spray it on a burst of fire coming from a broken pipe and you can safely pass. These are all interesting little uses, but they are very situational. It aids exploration by reducing hazards, but GLOO Cannon’s real use outside of combat is how it lets the player access new areas.

The GLOO can be formed on any surface besides glass and is strong enough to even support the weight of a human being. This means that the Cannon can be used by the player to create climbable popcorn staircases to access out of reach areas or rooms that would typically need a much longer route to enter. You may discover this by accident, by missing an enemy and hitting a wall, but if not, the developers left a few examples of these stairs hanging off walls around Talos I. This technique reminds me so much of the wall jump from Super Metroid—it’s handled as a bonus use that helps you navigate the game world in not the obvious way, but players don’t actually ever need to use it to succeed and they may not even ever discover it. It all depends on how involved in the game you get—how far down the blackhole you fall.

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.

Top 5 Best Games of 2019

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

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

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

#5) Pokemon Sword

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

#4) Astral Chain

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

#3) Resident Evil 2 (Remake)

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

#2) Untitled Goose Game

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

#1) Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

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

Top 5 Critical Miss Games of 2019

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

#5) Spryo 2: Ripto’s Rage

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

#4) Majora’s Mask

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

#3) Doom

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

#2) Resident Evil (Remake)

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

#1) Papers, Please

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

Papers, Please – Critical Miss #11

Working for the Clampdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shovel Knight & Difficulty Curves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astral Chain & the Legions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shadow of the Colossus – Critical Miss #3

Shadow of the Colossus came out for the PS2 in 2005 and gained critical acclaim for being a completely unique game. It told its story like a myth with deep implications and a moral complexity seldom seen in video games of the era. It featured such large creatures as enemies that gave the game an unparalleled sense of scale. It was very impressive on the PS2 and, 15 years later, continues to impress through its remake on the PS4.

When the game starts, the player finds themselves controlling a boy named Wander. He is entering a forbidden land with a dead woman to cut a deal with an ancient god, Dormin. Dormin tells Wander that the woman’s life will be restored if he can defeat sixteen colossi scattered across the land. So Wander sets off without a second thought.

Wander rides his horse, Agro, across the barren, desolate forbidden land that obviously hasn’t been inhabited of hundreds of years. Agro’s controls take some getting use to and the camera struggles against the player. After climbing some cliffs, you’ll find your first target. The creature you come across is huge, towering over Wander, and is covered in hair and dirt and stone structures. It looks organic and constructed at the same time. The colossus is awe inspiring and intimidating, but isn’t too hard to defeat. Climbing up to the colossus’s head to its next weak point is thrilling. Climbing drains your stamina and watching Wander being flung around when the colossus tries to shake him off is extremely tense. When you reach the weak point on its head, you plunge your sword into it over and over again until it finally falls. Wander gets transported back to the temple to get his next target, but not before strange, black tendrils pour out of the fallen colossus into him.

This is how the entire game goes from the first colossus onward. You explore the world until you find the next colossus , find its weak point and take it down, and then go back to the temple to start over again. This structure works surprisingly well for the game and keeps the momentum going because you carry the excitement from defeating a colossus over to the next one. It is smart of Shadow of the Colossus to focus on the excitement of the gameplay because it seems Team Ico was more interestd in making a visually stunning over a fun game.

Shadow of the Colossus has a lot of frustrating things about it. One major thing being the controls. Wander’s movement controls are stiff and clunky and I never really got completely used to them. He stumbles on small rocks or ridges in the ground that other games would have you smoothly pass over. While it might seem more realistic, it makes the game feel clumsy and heavier than it should. Wander’s run speed is way too slow which incentivizes riding Agro, but Agro is also difficult to control. It gets easier when you learn that Agro will continuously run forward and try to avoid upcoming obstacles by changing directions. Agro’s controls are especially frustrating when approaching a gap or narrow path. Agro will often try to run to the side of narrow path or comes to a complete stop in front of a gap because it recognizes these area as obstacles. It makes the player feel that they are not in complete control.

Taking control away from the player is always a bad idea for video games. A game where you don’t feel completely in control of your character or your camera is a game that feels unfair. I mentioned before that the camera struggles against the player and that’s because the camera favors a cinematic view. It focuses on Wander running across a field and it might sweep around to the side for a nice profile shot. You can move the camera wherever you want it, but it will always moves back to the original position. This is why I said Team Ico seemed more interested in making a visually stunning game over a fun game. It seems they wanted some dramatic scenes when exploring, rather than letting the player look at the world freely themselves.

But when it comes down to it, the game is fun. Travelling to the colossi can be tedious, and even boring sometimes, but the world around you is beautiful and mysterious. Climbing puzzles are always satisfying because places you can grab are subtle enough that you have to look for them, but never hidden enough to take too long. The real stars of the game, however, are the colossi themselves. They are the real reason that the game still deserves to be played today.

Every colossus is simply thrilling to fight. From first seeing them and being shocked by their size to finally landing the final stab in their weak point, it is just exciting. Most the of the sixteen colossi are totally unique in design and the few that seem similar, or complete copies of each other, still have unique ways of taking them down. They all work as enemies, puzzles, and levels at the same time which is something still rarely seen in games. For the most part, they are all so alien, yet awesome looking, that I found myself with a new favorite colossus every time I found one.

You feel completely insignificant while climbing on the colossi because they are so huge. Wander almost disappears against some of the larger ones when the portion you’re climbing takes up the entire screen. Watching Wander hanging on for dear life and flopping around like a rag when a colossus tries to shake him off helps heighten the sense of scale. It is also one of the most tense things I’ve experienced in gaming, especially as you watch your stamina meter quick depleting, hoping that the colossus stops before it is completely gone and you’re flung off it.

I typically don’t do well with games that have bad controls. If a game is frustrating just to move in, I will drop it quick. Shadow of the Colossus could have been one of those games with its clunky movement and stiff camera that fights you whenever you want to move it. But with each colossus I found, I was invigorated and would forget about the frustrations getting there. I had to see the next one, and the one after that, all the way until the end of the game. These colossi, these sixteen massive beings of stone and flesh are still so utterly unique in the world of games that they alone make Shadow of the Colossus worth playing.

Bloodborne & Horror

Bloodborne has been one of my favorite games (easily in my top five) ever since I played it in early 2016. I was just getting back into video games at the time and had bought a PS4, the first console I had owned since the Wii, a few months earlier. After getting burnt out on Fallout 4, I picked up a used copy of Bloodborne because I kept hearing it was one of the best games for the console.

Playing through the game was an eye-opening experience for me, a perfect example of not knowing I wanted something until I had it. I had never played a Souls game before so it probably took me 4-6 hours to get through Central Yharnam, the opening area of the game, when I beat Bloodborne for the first time. Despite struggling throughout the game, I fell in love with it: it’s combat and enemies, the bosses and the leveling system, it’s setting and atmosphere.

However, the aspect of Bloodborne that gripped me the most during my first playthrough were the horror elements of the game. I went into the game almost completely blind and it bred a special kind of terror in me.

There was an oppressive dread and uneasiness that plagued me during my first playthrough. The game takes inspiration from Victorian Gothic literature with the city of Yharnam being a fictionalized London of the 17th and 18th century with its cobblestone streets and abundance of cathedrals and churches. Just outside the city are foggy forests and dilapidated farmsteads. The enemies are also what you might expect to find in a Victorian era story. There’s crazed villagers, werewolves, andbloody crows. There are even gargoyles and ghosts later in the snow-covered Cainhurst Castle, castles being another classic Gothic troupe. Yharnam itself is in chaos. The streets are piled up with coffins and most of the living have barricaded themselves indoors. The only occupants on the streets are the beasts and those hunting them, but the line between the two groups is beginning to blur.

The world of Bloodborne feels utterly hostile to the character and the player themselves. In classic From Software fashion, most of the games mechanics are not clearly explained, relying on the player to learn them on their own, and pretty much any enemy can kill you in just two or three hits. The unforgiving nature of the difficulty keeps the tension high and makes the player never feel completely safe in the game. I always felt anxious when reaching a new area in the game. The idea of new enemies with new attack patterns I didn’t yet know typically meant I was mere moments from death.

Death itself is not the only stressful thing about dying in Bloodborne. Upon death, you drop all the Blood Echoes you have acquired and to get them back, you must return to where you fell to collect them. And you must do this without dying again. The Blood Echoes act as both experience points and currency in the game, so what you lose in losing all your Echoes is progress. This makes death punishing in Bloodborne, but not impossible to overcome. And it always reminded of the save station style of death in more traditional survival horror games. In games like Resident Evil and Alien Isolation, you can only save at certain spots on the map and when you die, you go back to the last save you made. This means that anything you’ve done between the save and death is lost and you have to do it over. The only difference is you lose game progress in Resident Evil, but in Bloodborne you lose character progress.

Death mechanics are not the only aspect that Bloodborne shares from more traditional survival horror games. During a recent playthrough, it struck me how many of the doors you have to open in Bloodborne, which isn’t a lot admittedly, always creak open almost painfully slow. This is reminiscent of the iconic room transitions in the Resident Evil series, where going between rooms would be shown as a door slowly opening or a slow climb up a ladder. Not only did this help hide long loading times on the original Playstation, but it also helped raised the tension during the game. While the door is opening, the player has a moment to anticipate what might be waiting for them in the next room, their imaginations can run wild and let the terror build before revealing what the game has in store for them. There is also the added tension of enemies approaching from behind as you take your opening a door.

One of the most important aspects in survival horror games is an emphasis on atmosphere. A strong atmosphere can do wonders for scaring a player. The atmosphere in Bloodborne is thick as flesh and blood. Everything is dark, dank, and desperate. The feeling of hopelessness presses on the player like a weight on their shoulders. Along with the difficulty discussed before, the bleak atmosphere helps to keep the tension high in Bloodborne. It makes the player feel small and insignificant in the world of Yharnam because, despite what you do, the city is always beyond saving. The player will quickly learn that they are not some grandiose, fantasy hero. Saving Yharnam and its inhabitants isn’t possible, so the only thing they can do is survive.

Like most truly great horror media, Bloodborne explores other dark emotions of the human condition along with trying to scare it’s players. The anxiety of unknown things ahead, the dread of death and losing progress, and the oppressive hopelessness of the setting and atmosphere all lead players to constantly feel uneasy in the world of Yharnam. And despite not being a full blown horror game, Bloodborne still continues to be the game that scared me the most through that very first playthrough.