A year and a half ago, I was grabbing some takeout, and while they were wrapping up the thai, I circled though the neighboring Gamestop. On the shelf in beautiful pastel colors sat No Man’s Sky. It had been described by a CEO friend as “very relaxing”, and the image of Stan slouching into the couch, chasing the dragon, in the South Park Guitar Hero Episode episode came to mind. That’s about perfect, I thought.
I played it for a little while, marveled at the beauty of interstellar travel and exploration, and then put it away. Fast-forward a year to a quiet Friday night when I decided to pick it back up, and to my surprise discovered an almost entirely new game. It had added large gameplay changes like bases, vehicles, star freighters, missions, and difficulty settings. And then there were small enjoyable changes, that while unnecessary, added to the experience: like charming little quotes when you died (which now, thanks to the new difficulty settings, actually happened).
And yet the best parts of the game remained. And it was as it had been described to me- “very relaxing”.
I’ve never seen a game continually iterate and provide so much free post release content. Another massive update has released this past month, which shows a continued desire to bring more structure to the experience. And while I appreciate the additional story content, there was something beautiful about how little the game held your hand before. The mixed reviews I had read when it released appeared baffled by the pacing and lack of purpose. The story itself is an exercise in restraint, in which you can take as much or as little of it as you want. What is revealed is typically cryptic and haunting.
It’s in this interstellar loneliness, punctuated by moments of deep meaning, that the game becomes something incomparable. For it’s original aspirations, for what it is, for what it continually tries to be, it’s a phenomenal game. And one that was dismissed too quickly.
Review: 5 stars (out of 5)
Memory: The desperation the first time you get stuck/lost on a planet.
I hear a piano version of the Pixies’s, Where is My Mind. It’s not the first time I’ve heard the song, and every time I hear it it brings a slight clench to my throat. And then I realize that the song was the reason I bought Uncharted 4 to begin with:
The irony, is that the trailer isn’t really an accurate (or inaccurate) representation of the actual game. It’s simply a different feeling entirely. That being said, the trailer is beautiful, the game completely different but wonderful, and enough of an enjoyable experience that I’ve gone back and played the earlier Uncharted’s (starting with “2”), that I had skipped the first time around. That makes the trailer worth noting, as it was capable of bringing interest to something that I had ignored three times before.
Title: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Maker: Naughty Dog
Review: 4 Stars (out of 5)
Memory: The writing throughout.
After completing Blood borne the first time, I felt a strong urge to go back and replay the entire game. Even if it wasn’t as memorable for me as the first Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls, there was something about that weird Lovecraft nightmare that I had to see through to completion. Even with the Witcher 3 and Uncharted 4 burning a hole in my stack of games, I went back and beat Bloodborne two more times. Weirdly, this was something I never did with any of the other Souls games. I think I made it half way through a couple, but then quickly moved on to something else.
If I was to play wannabe psychiatrist on myself, I would say that the story of Yharnam and the Hunter’s Dream, found echoes in my current life. Which is why when I completed Bloodborne for a third and final time, and I choose the simplest ending, it is the most appropriate. *minor spoiler- I watch in relief as it all comes to an end, and the character awakes to a sunrise and the long awaited promise of a new day.
The night has come to an end!
This is a sad post. Sort-of.
As much as I love vidoegames, it’s comparatively rare for me that a game has the same emotional impact as cinema or literature. There are some exceptions, Spec Ops: The Line, was bizarrely tight in it’s descent into madness, and Thomas Was Alone, made me feel for simple shapes, but in general it’s hard for a game to nail the emotional side when there is so much else to do and focus on.
The Souls games always were head of the class when it came to interjecting intricate easy-to-miss stories, but it’s Bloodborne that actually makes you care about them. However, there is one story that has stayed with me longer than the others, even though I finished the game nearly a three months ago: The story of Father Gascoigne.
There are about a million little bits than I can’t cover here from this single story or it would explode in size (the game is ridiculously detailed). But to give a quick overview: Early in the game you meet a little girl hiding in her home, she’s terrified and you offer to help her find her mother and father, which you eventually do. However, you find her father has lost his mind, her mother is dead (unclear if he was the cause, or this was the catalyst for his madness), and you’re forced to kill Gascoigne, her father. Without given away too much, from here, every action you take to rectify the decision continues a spiral of death and degradation.
The beautiful part is that all of this is missable. In fact it’s designed to be missed, but if you look hard enough, you can see the destruction and personal toll that this event has taken on a single family. It’s comparable to The Shinning, in that you watch a family not only tear apart, but also abandon and turn on the most delicate things that they should innately want to protect. There is something truly terrifying about that, and that is why Bloodborne is a masterpiece in storytelling.
Platform: iOS (reviewed), Android
Cleaning out a closet I found an old Game Informer list that I had torn out of the magazine. It gave the top mobile games of 2013. On the list in the one-two spot is Year Walk (pretty cool) and Ridiculous Fishing (legitatemly awesome). After that it’s a bunch of Star Wars, infinite runners, and adventure games that could have been something if they weren’t redundant. Towards the bottom of this rudandant list was a game that pulled me in with a straight forward name: “Slayin”.
And the name is accurate. It’s simple, short, and a little sweet. It lasts a few sittings, and by the time you’ve beaten it, you feel you’ve seen everything it can offer. But to its credit, it asks very little in return. Its appeal is limited, but it wears it on its sleeve, and how can you blame a game like that?
It’s not a terrible game, it’s just not much of one.
Review: 2 Stars (out of 5)
Memory: The music would randomly stop, but I could never figure out the trigger.
Maker: From Software
What should be said about Bloodborne, that hasn’t already been said? Well a lot actually. There are so many steps forward, and so many steps backwards, that’s it’s nearly impossible to tells who’s coming or going.
Let’s start with “who’s coming”: The story and the setting is so significantly improved it’s staggering. After three outings, the Souls games had started to rest on their laurels. Not Bloodborne. I don’t know if they had a whole team of writers that ate, bathed and slept together for months, or if they had one half-insane screenwriter channeling the ghost of HP Lovecraft, but whatever they did, it’s brilliant. How you can keep all that in your brain without losing it baffles me. The Gothic motif, also allows it to give life to images that normally have no place in games. It’s well orchestra genetic disgust when you meet gigantic bugs with piercing shrieks, or tentacle face brain suckers. It’s also more cinematic. The story still doesn’t hold your hand, but does use beautiful cutscenes, instead of a complete reliance on dialogue. An improvement that I’ve been waiting for since the first Demon’s Sous.
Add in a solid combat engine and this is a 5 star game, except for one massive glaring “going”. They recycle the same enemies, like an 80’s button masher, simply increasing their stats and experience. For a game that rests on combat, this is a huge issue, because the same enemies you’re fighting at the beginning, you’re fighting at the end. What this effectively does is skew the difficulty curve to the beginning, when you’re still learning how to stun-lock enemies, and first memorizing their patterns. By the end, you’ve seen them enough that no amount of extra health and damage is going to take you down. It’s understandable why this was done, the designs, and the enemies; they’re all details and cost a ton to create. But it’s a huge step back from the Souls games in this regard.
Other than these two main points, it’s minor incremental plusses and minuses. Pros: Beautiful graphics, well thought out warp system, cool-dual weapon system, great endings. Negatives: Repetitive boss battles, terrible healing system (forces grinding), and obfuscating environments.
It’s clear From Software set out to make a game that’s different than it’s predecessors, and stands on it’s own merits. In that, they have objectively succeeded.
Review: 4 Stars (out of 5)
Memory: Everything about Rom, The Vacuous Spider (especially the name)
In Shadow of the Colossus, the horse that helps you cover the vast distances of the world feels like a bus. In years late in playing Red Dead Redemption. But it’s obvious the horse physics haven’t evolved in the last ten years. Movement controls in the game aren’t terrific to begin with, but the horse is out of his gourd.
I’ve wanted to compare these two games for a long time, and with Bloodborne coming out, it seems like the perfect opportunity to look back on it’s heritage.
When I played Dark Souls for the first time, I couldn’t stop comparing it to Demon’s Souls (the apostrophe in “Demon’s” is so annoying when typing on your phone). This didn’t prevent me from enjoying Dark Souls, as it truly is a remarkable game. But I wanted to write this, and may continue to do so in greater depth in the future, because I often hear people talk about how transformative Dark Souls was. Edge Magazine (the reigning king of video game magazines, if there is one), rated Dark Souls the greatest game of the previous generation. This doesn’t surprise me, however throughout their article, it’s as if it’s immediate predecessor Demon’s Souls had been completely forgotten. Which is a shame, because regardless of Dark Souls, I would consider Demon’s Souls (and it’s stupid apostrophe) one of the greatest games of the previous generation.
Dark Souls is an amazing experience, an improvement in most ways on the original, but it was still only a natural incremental improvement. It was Demon’s Souls that revitalized my faith in gaming. At the time I first played it, it was the best game I had played in nearly a decade. In true genius form, From Software had given me what I was looking for, before I even knew what I wanted.
Despite the overall improvement in Dark Souls, there were several things that have never reached the same heights. The difficulty curve had a finer balance to it in Demon’s Souls, and Dark Souls implements what is perhaps the biggest detriment in the later entries: the ability to call in outside players. Multiplayer could be done amazingly. Instead, a fight against Smoug goes from world class challenge to laughably easy. Like any good cheat though, this is limited by a player’s willingness to abuse the system.
What’s perhaps even more glaring is the fact that Dark Souls has ignored some of the more obvious improvements that could have been made. There were only a few cinematic moments in Demon’s Souls, but they add a lot of flavor (think Scraps pushing you into a pit). At first, each Dark Souls game appears to recognize this, as they both pull you into their worlds’ through their opening scenes. Unfortunately, this is about the last until the end of the game. You never want to replace action with cinema, but there are times when it can push forward the story.
The other missed opportunity has been the open world. That was the most glaring thing missing from Demon’s Souls. Yet the way Dark Souls handles the open world makes it feel like long winding paths, rather than a single connected ecosystem. Traveling between points is a chore, a fact that was recognized in Dark Souls 2 with the fast travel. But this is only part of the problem. Until it feels like a complete world, instead of grafted on individual levels, the design will be hardly improve upon the hub system from Demon’s Souls.
In reality though, these are mostly lateral complaints. Not degradation, but simply a missed opportunities for improvement. There is however one way in which Demon’s Souls clearly surpasses its successor: the story, and the characters that live in it. There’s little than can be said without spoilers, but both make you piece the world together through isolated dialogue, but it was only in demon’s souls that the lore carries weight. Both endings are anti-climatic, but Demon’s Souls is intentionally so and beautiful for it. That’s not to say I wasn’t interested in the lore of Dark Souls. It simply becomes an after thought, a little flavor text to flesh out the experience. I beat it twice, and I can’t even tell you how it ended. Demon’s Souls on the other hand was subtler and darker in its story. Each character a tragic figure, and you’re often asked to destroy those that are hardly different than yourself.
In terms of game-time, it’s probably a wash which one I actually played more. There are dramatic improvements in Dark Souls: the graphics are vastly better, it did away with a frustrating light/dark alignment system, and implemented a streamlined covenant attribute. The gameplay itself, which was the most transformative thing about Demon’s Souls, is somehow made tighter. And the level design… Demon’s Souls had two perfectly designed levels, two well designed levels, and one horribly designed level. In Dark Souls, all level design is a high note. It’s overall an improved experience, and as a result to the easier game to recommend.
Dark Souls is without a doubt an amazing experience. It might actually be the best of the previous generation (The Last of Us being a strong counter-argument). But to not recognize where it came from, and to fail to acknowledge that Demon’s Souls provided the most reinvigorated gaming experience of the past ten years, is to do a tremendous disservice to the apex that came after it.
Title: The Wolf Among Us
Maker: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Platform: PS Vita
Pop culture references the Walking Dead so incessantly, that I could never play the Telltale versions. They looked fine enough, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, even though I have the series sitting in Steam from a Humble Bundle. The Wolf Among Us is so enjoyable that it makes me want to go back and give those early games a try.