So I’ve finished Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle

I expected a game that gave Mario a gun to be less bland. XCOM: Mushroom Kingdom this isn’t. Nintendo characters, but without Nintendo-levels of polish.

All that pithily said, I still enjoyed it. Especially when I started thinking about it more like a small-screen puzzle game than a big-screen campaign.

It went on about two levels longer than it ought to have done. And I was never given an incentive to use the different characters. And I swear it ate through my Switch’s battery faster than Zelda (and Zelda had a lot more to do each frame, I would think).

But it was fun. Bouncing and drop-kicking and taking pipes really adds to a feeling of mobility. The choice to not measure movement range in path length but in radius made things much more predictable. And the puzzles (once I saw them that way) were engaging and interesting to pull apart.

I could’ve used a “whoops, wrong button” one-step undo. And I’m still not sure which of the shoulder buttons is L and which is ZL (and this game uses them more than the d-pad buttons).

But overall, not a waste of the, say, 15 hours I put into it.

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So I’ve Finished The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

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Wow, what a game. It’s a game that had me talking with friends about video games again. You know, in that cagey way where you hint at something you aren’t sure they’ve seen yet until they nod and then you head into spoiler territory?

It’s a game that gives you every tool you need in the tutorial. Swords, shields, bows, bombs… and then you’re off. It doesn’t care what you do from then on, or how you do it. You simply go.

It’s a game that decides to not measure progress. Sure, it’ll count shrines and things… but it doesn’t care. Nothing changes, nothing matters except defeating Ganon. And yet, it is happy to let you take the long way around to get there, both in mechanics and in story. Who needs experience points, or levels, or priority missions, anyway?

It’s not perfect. The framerate drops in the Great Hyrule Forest. It leans a little hard on motion controls that ask you to point with the bottom of the controller instead of the point. Inside the Divine Beasts voices lead you around by the nose as though they didn’t get the “trust the player” memo the rest of the game hinges upon.

And the entire Gerudo segment comes across as tone deaf. Treating an ancient culture’s mores as a puzzle to “solve” because you know “better” is a little colonial for the 21st Century.

But then you hold these stumbles up to moments like when the Deku tree says “Next time I’ll let you kill yourself on that sword” and you believe it. The game has been honest with you so far, trusting you and being trusted almost to a fault. I believed that tree about that sword.

Speaking of that sword, pulling it was billed as a test of strength. “Strength?” There are no character sheets in Breath of the Wild, what is strength? Strength is the number of hearts you have. You are stronger when you have more heart. WHAT.

I’m especially pleased with this game coming straight off of Mass Effect: Andromeda. The cartoon characters you meet in Hyrule are different and recognizably so from their design. Even the hapless travellers you rescue time and time again are expressive in text and in facial expression.

ME:A also never wanted to let the player fail. Zelda is only too happy to have you fail. Too close to your own bomb when it goes off? Congratulations, you ragdolled down a cliff and into the river. Find a guardian? They’ll roflstomp you for hours. And you keep running across them! Even the main quest has you tromping up a hill in Zora’s Domain and finding something you cannot win against. Not because the game has decided it, but because you’re just not ready. And you can brickwall against it, like I did. Maybe if you jump over here, maybe if you use lightning arrows… Nope. You aren’t supposed to win this fight. You are the mouse, not the lion (or in this case, the Lynel). Scurry, little mouse, and try not to be seen.

Oh. No. You’ve been seen. Better run, little mouse. Run!

I’m sure there’s a wave of people who’ve seen this first in games like Dark Souls, but for me Zelda: Breath of the Wild was the first game in recent memory that made me afraid.

And how I love it for doing so.

Attacking Hyrule Castle, pushing deeper within. Everything the world taught you being put to the test, but upside down. On the overworld height helps you find your way, lets you see danger coming. In the Castle, height will get you killed. Better run, little mouse.

Wait. No. You’re not a mouse any more. You’ve fought, you’ve learned, you’ve grown.

But… you still remember being a mouse. So the tension ratchets up more than it ought to, creatures down the hall loom a little larger than they actually are, and victory… oh, victory tastes so much sweeter when you remember how impossible it used to be.

And then you reach Ganon. They really didn’t mind being a little disgusting with the creature design of the calamity bosses, and Ganon got a double dose. I feel a little cheap not having learned the perfect parry before fighting him, having to rely on my powers to defeat him… but that’s fitting. It works with the story. The champions were there for the assist.

Or so I tell myself.

The ending… was fine. The writing was a little weak, but everything else was lovely. I’m a little disappointed I don’t get to play in the world my adventure helped create, instead being dumped outside the castle gates, moments before the final confrontation, but it was an end.

And so I decided to put Zelda: Breath of the Wild down. I feel I could spend a lot more time in there. I feel I may have played it “wrong” by rushing too much to expand the map without exploring it enough (and my final map percentage of 40.03% certainly seems to reflect that). I can think of, right now, another couple of corners of the map I maybe should’ve gotten to.

But some things should end. Some things should leave you with that bittersweet hangover of a world your mind isn’t finished living within.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt that from a video game. I missed it.

So I’ve Finished Mass Effect: Andromeda

As much as I enjoyed Maps-Fulla-Icons-Style Open World when BioWare did it for Dragon Age: Inquisition… I might be done with it. Either that or Mass Effect: Andromeda wasn’t the best venue for it, because at the end of the game I’m left feeling a sense of relief.

There was so much game in that game. So many NPCs with so many quests, so many numbers to watch increment and decrement. So many collectibles and beautiful vistas.

Too much.

You land on a planet and the map’s already full of icons. Tasks you haven’t even been told about light up as little white hexagons with inconveniently-small text with poor readability (or I’m old). No signs of where habitation is, or structures, or points of interest, or regional names. Just icons, as far as the eyes can see. I’m happy to have a direction to stretch in to find what I’m after. But giving me all of the quest locations before I get to them… I’m thinking that was a patch job on a design fault where people couldn’t find content unless there was a marker on it.

Even though there’s too much of everything, there’s too little care spent on entire swathes. For instance, if you feel you have to tell players how to skip planet-to-planet animations, maybe that’s a sign of a problem you shouldn’t have shipped?

I didn’t purchase the game until after the 1.10 update hit, which means I was able to skip the worst of the bugs, but my companions would still clip through terrain (intentionally at gravity wells, unintentionally on planet surfaces) and I still haven’t received my trophy for 100% viability on all known worlds (possibly because I hit that milestone before the final fight). And emotions on faces just… aren’t there, most of the time?

A lot of this screams “new engine disease” to me. This was BioWare’s first tangle with Frostbite 3. When you build everything from scratch, you miss the bugs you’d fixed (with hackity hacks and inelegant architectural bypasses, true) years ago. So there are bugs. Audio that doesn’t fire, or pauses for several seconds before firing. Location-based triggers that yell over a character conversation that was honestly more interesting than “We’ve arrived at that place you know we’ve arrived at because we put a notification in the top-right that says you advanced your quest by one quest unit.”

Not all of it is bugs, though. This was an evolution of the Mass Effect design, not a revolution. Open World-ing it… well, that takes care of where to stage the battles and exploration. And the battles and exploration mechanics were fun. I liked the jump-jets, the way enemies kept me on my toes, and even the car (especially on the asteroid. Whee!).

But they haven’t accounted for what to do when your conversation wheel’s empty. And it’s still a conversation wheel. And the “Chose amongst these two imperfect choices” events are still present, mostly unimproved by the “You have three seconds to chose by hitting R2 or not” quick-time-event mechanic.

On the plus side, it was gorgeous. Every direction I looked was another screenshot. The combat was solid (when enemies didn’t become trapped in the scenery). Anything that was big felt absolutely massive. You drive towards this ship in the desert and keep driving… and driving… how big the planet feels. And when find yourselves up against an Architect and ohgod-ohgod-ohgod-… until you realize it’s just a repetitive bullet sponge.

*sigh* what I wouldn’t give for “difficult” to stop meaning “has an order of magnitude more HP”.

All in all, if what you’re after in a game is more Mass Effect, this will scratch that itch satisfactorily. The set-pieces were well-crafted, the worldbuilding quite alright. I’d be happy to see more done in this world.

But maybe something smaller? Give me the trials and tribulations of a young family just out of cryo trying to make it work. Skip a generation and show me what happens with the new crop of core species having grown up knowing only Andromeda and being quite done with caring about what happened in the Milky Way. You can really lean on how Salarians have so many fewer years than even humans.

There are stories to be told here, and games to play. Tell a different one this time, maybe?

 

So I’ve Finished I Am Setsuna

Well, my wife did. As such I can’t comment to much on how the game feels with controller in-hand. But I do feel I can comment just fine on its systems and story, setting and sound.

First, is it just me that finds it distracting how close the title is to “I am a satsuma“? Just me? Okay.

I Am Setsuna is a New JRPG in the Old Style released in February of 2016 (which is positively recent compared to the rest of the games I usually play). Being “in the Old Style” means no voiced dialog, a fixed overhead camera, lots of numbers that max out at 99 or 255, and a certain aesthetic. The specific target of this love letter is Chrono Trigger from which I Am Setsuna borrows:

  • A silent protagonist
  • No random encounters on a small overworld
  • Monsters roam on the same screen you fight them on
  • Magic elements
  • Some spell and technique names
  • Some musical riffs
  • Some place and character names

Some of these decisions are homage, some pastiche, and some are mistakes.

The silent protagonist was a mistake. I am used to silent protagonists being used to increase immersion by reducing the number of ways the character might react in a way that disagrees with the role the player thought they were playing (the ‘RP’ in JRPG). However, no matter how silent Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman is, he still has to shoot aliens and rescue civillians and whack headcrabs as the story and mechanics require. Through narrative and mechanics the player can still feel a disconnect from their character.

Gordon Freeman gets around it by doing only what the player would do in his place. I, too, would crack headcrabs with a crowbar if they jumped at me. Chrono from Chrono Trigger gets around it the same way. I, too, would save the world and its timelines from an extraterrestrial and existential threat.

I Am Setsuna cold opens (this is funny because the game is set in a worldwide, never-ending Winter) on your character being exposited at during a tutorial objective where you are paid, handsomely. Then a mysterious man (named “Mysterious Man”) asks you to take a morally-reprehensible job: kill an 18-year-old woman named Setsuna.

Not only do you have no means of refusing the task (even to be immediately overruled in a false choice), due to the protagonist being silent you have no idea if you care.

Role-playing is a two-way street. There’s agency where the player imposes their will on the character, and there’s acting where the character shapes the role the player plays.

In Dragon Age: Origins I can chose to kill or spare a chief antagonist. I have agency to chose. However, when provided the choice I need to consider what actions my character has taken (a feedback loop of my past agency) to ensure I play a consistent role. I act accordingly.

I Am Setsuna just ignores it. It turns out, hours and hours later, that this inciting incident isn’t as central as you originally thought it was… but it seems really important at the beginning. They smash-cut from your assassination order straight to a FFVI mode-7-inspired opening sequence over which the credits roll.

There are plenty of things to like in I Am Setsuna. The Momentum battle system where you get power-ups the longer you stand still and let enemies wail on you is a nice risk/reward balance. The solitary piano music is a setting- and thematically-appropriate sparse and cold choice. The characters are fleshed out and have decent relationships. The areas are remarkably varied for all being snow-bound. The subplots along the way do an excellent job of illustrating the central themes of death, sacrifice, and what is evil.

However none of these come without caveats. The risk/reward Momentum system has an inconsistent and fuzzy timing trigger. The piano background fails to sound bombastic and epic when it shouldn’t have even tried. The characters rely heavily on type and cliche. The areas are populated by varieties of just a handful of monster species. The subplots are often just retreads of more interesting stories told more engagingly by others.

It is a pretty, wonderful, flawed game. I look forward to seeing whether they can tighten things up a bit more with their next effort early next year.

So I’ve Finished The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

Yes, it’s ten years old. Honestly, though, you can play just about any Zelda game between Ocarina of Time and Skyward Sword in any order and not tell the difference, given the stagnation in Zelda game design during that period.

(Yeah, it’s not gonna be a happy review)

Phantom Hourglass is a Nintendo DS release and, as such, felt it needed to use every terrible gimmick the Nintendo DS had rather than provide interesting gameplay.

From controlling everything with the woefully inaccurate and cumbersome stylus to yelling, blowing, or snapping my fingers into the microphone… a lot of this game was a tech demo for the hardware first, and a satisfying experience second.

I cannot believe that they managed to get this control scheme past an ergonomics review. My hand hurt from balancing the entire device in one hand while the other was clenched around the minuscule stylus. Smaller (younger) hands might have helped with the stylus, but then the weight would’ve been felt worse.

I felt no surprise that they ditched stylus controls after only two DS Zelda games.

On the plus side, there was some cleverness on display. One design element that stood out as being fun was having to stamp an upside-down map displayed on the top screen onto its right-side-up counterpart on the bottom screen. To do this you had to close and reopen the DS, which I thought was a cute bit of 4th-wall breaking.

Another smart mechanic was the use of the stylus to annotate maps with puzzle solution, trap locations, and other stuff. There were only a few different types of information the game tried to convey (order, shape, counts, and intersecting lines), but the freedom afforded by the mechanic was lovely, and something everyone should steal (like the “dream sequence as a music video” bit from FFXV).

So many open world games with so many maps and no way to scribble “Here be dragons”? What rot.

Zelda combat has never been particularly innovative or fun, but with gesture recognition needed before Link would swing his sword it felt worse than usual. It was clumsy, awkward, and not something I felt I could count on.

There was a fairy avatar to tell the player what the ever-silent protagonist was thinking (rather defeating the purpose), and to irritate you with constant interruption. All the criticisms of Navi still apply.

The dungeons were straightforward, concerned more with having me go through the motions than presenting me with meaningful choices, challenges, or character/story moments. I’ll refer you to Mark Brown if you’d like a more analytical deep dive on the subject.

Exploration was rarely rewarded with anything of value. (You got 100 rupees! I’ll add them to the 800 others I can’t find anything to spend on).

At least the director of the cut scenes understood how to have fun. Playing with the characters, having fun with visual jokes in the background, subverting Zelda tropes by cutting short or modulating the “I’ve found a thing!” music… possibly the best aspect of this game, purely from whimsy.

And that’s really as far as I feel I need to write into this game. I could go on for ages about how awful the controls were every time they were used in variation. I could complain that time limits didn’t tonally fit the world or dungeon and seem like cheap tension. I could whine about how long everything by ship took, and how fiddly the salvage controls were.

But, honestly, I’ve given this game more words than it probably deserves. It’s a post-Link to the Past pre-Breath of the Wild Zelda game. I probably could’ve just stopped there.

:/

 

So I’ve Finished Final Fantasy XV

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(Spoilers may lie within for a game that’s a year old.)

For a game that obviously had a lot of time (10 years!), effort, and money dumped into it… it feels unfortunately uneven.

The story, though standard Final Fantasy fare, is told poorly enough that characters react emotionally to situations that haven’t been earned, the player is forced to have her character make decisions without knowledge that her character has, and injects a person from the tie-in movie in a prominent part of the endgame without having ever, in the plot or the story, meeting the player character.

I like a good mystery. I like plots that surface only about a tenth of a world’s lore. I’m happy to think about questions posed by the narrative, and intrigued by the choices made by writers and directors about what pieces to include and which to omit.

This isn’t that. I mean it is, in places. I don’t need and didn’t receive a cutscene and backing barks about how Ifrit was the one who wrought the Starscourge. That’s a fine piece of information to put in an in-game codex or tie-in novel or whatever.

At the very least you must give the player time with secondary characters before fridging them if you want an emotional response. I didn’t know who Jared was before you killed him. The only reason I knew he was important was because the main characters became mopey-faced when they heard of his off-screen demise. And for the relationship in the game’s own logo I only have the characters’ words to go by to determine how much Noctis and Luna loved each other despite never being in the same place for ten years. But boy howdy was her death rendered beautifully and with excellent scoring.

If it were just the story that was uneven, I’d still be upset. But this unevenness extends throughout the title.

Barks during the fishing minigame are timed to the wrong events; only half of the casual conversations have lip-syncing; you can only have one “Kill <some monster(s)> and get <some reward(s)>” quest active at once; the control schemes for Chocobo riding, car driving, and walking all have different buttons for jump; the map doesn’t zoom in far enough to discriminate icons in town; the fog of war on dungeon maps only shows on the full map not the minimap…

I work in software. I know how bugs creep into release. But the only reason I can think of to explain three different jump buttons and unmarkable maps with different sort orders on quest lists is that Squenix ignores their interaction designers.

Story and mechanics aren’t the whole of it either: Final Fantasy XV’s representation of healthy male relationships is above anything I can remember from any Final Fantasy title. They even cry together, our roadtrip boys… if you wait midway through the credits for it. Yet relationships with women are tropish, boring, and underwritten. Despite the backlash Square Enix received after Episode Duscae (the first of the playable demos) they declined to design Cindy some mechanics coveralls or exclude superfluous car washing scenes. Iris is a schoolgirl stereotype the game cannot decide whether I’m attracted to, embarrassed by, or protective of. Luna is a damsel no matter how much we’re told her actions drive the plot. Aranea is a spinny death machine that battles in heels and bared midriff (though she almost has a character arc)…

You might think in reading this that I didn’t have fun playing FFXV and didn’t enjoy the game. I did, really… It’s beautiful, the four main characters have acceptable chemistry, story actions have story consequences, the battle system is fast and reasonably fun, the minigames are diverting, they finally learned how to communicate enemy scale, and did I mention it’s beautiful?

But when Dragon Age: Inquisition can, two years and one console generation earlier, “Open World” better that a mainline Final Fantasy… I just wonder what went wrong.