Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review

Dead Cells Review

Platform: PS4 Pro

Better and Worse than Dark Souls

After beating Sekiro you still have one more action to take. It consists of walking up and pushing the action button to que a cutscene.

I sat in the stage for a week. It’s not like I kept playing and mopping things up. I just didn’t touch the game. After all that intensity and adrenaline, to end it all seemed more overwhelming. Because it was a weird, unbalanced, and enjoyable ride.  

The show stealer is the combat and boss battles. For me, it’s the most innovative combat engine this console generation. It’s a momentum-based system effortlessly balanced between risk and reward. There’s few things as satisfying in video games as a Mikiri Counter into a deathblow on a boss. Especially after you’ve died twenty times on the jerk beforehand.

And that’s the flow. Cursing and swearing and chipping away at a boss a little more every time. Because the game makes you earn it. Some bosses are so overwhelming that at first that you think you’ll never have a shot. And it’s mostly in the offensive and pressuring in on the bosses that you make progress. Even at the end when you want to lob the last couple hits over the net, it doesn’t let you. You need to earn it.

And that’s what I see as the evolution on the Souls/Bloodborne universe. Because if combat is the evolution, narrative is the anchor.

In the Souls/Bloodborne games you’re a silent anonymous actor that’s been cast into a bizarre world and inexplicably propelled towards a destination that even you (especially you) don’t fully understand. It’s not even really clear why you’re fighting or if you should be fighting. And what little the world does reveal is only a reminder of the depth that exists beyond your perception.  

Sekiro on the other hand doesn’t cast you as one of those nameless and faceless agents (but it might as well for how much personality you have). Instead, you’re the hero (or anti-hero). Which is fine, but that demands a more coherent narrative. And I’m sure it’s there. You can kind of read the tea leaves: Oh, these are the bad guys. Oh wait, these guys are. No wait… Confusion, and muddled motivation, doesn’t work as well when you’re trying to make people care about plot and people. It’s all very specific, and yet weirdly esoteric.

And then there’s this small feeling like they planned more. You just feel a sense of last minute cutting sometimes: areas that don’t seem very meaningful, concepts that seem innovative but never really matter (Dragonrot…), and a couple boss battles that break the challenge curve (I’m looking at you Headless Ape, you asshole!). In fairness, those boss battles are few and far between. But when you hit one, man does it take the wind out of your sails. Not because of the challenge, but because it’s so arbitrary. Even when you beat it, you’re not really sure why.

What a flawed masterpiece. Thank you Sekiro for all the Covid love.

Review: ★★★★

Memory: The last three bosses…

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice First Impressions

It’s probably not fair to call this a first impression. I’m guessing I’m halfway through the game and have been meaning to give my thoughts for a week.

Here are a few quick things that I loved about Sekiro before even booting up the disc: no DLC. From Software has said the game was complete upon release. The Souls and Bloodborne, while incredible, always had this feeling of something incomplete. You always had this feeling that there was more to be uncovered (or you wait until the GOTY and came to the party late). It’s a brave decision that probably doesn’t make financial sense but that I deeply appreciate.

No online components. This one is a little harder to describe. I miss some of the online features like the often intentionally misleading messages in Demon’s Souls. And I even liked killer shades entering the game in Dark Souls. But calling people into the world only works if the levels/bosses were designed with co-op in mind. Nioh is probably the most aggregious example of this. The bosses go from infuriating solo to a cakewalk in co-op. I understand it’s a an “easy” mode, but the idea of specifically designed solo-bosses is attractive at this point.

And so with all that in mind, how do I find the game? It’s an incredibly enjoyable experience: it’s well balanced. Plenty to explore. Linear but flowing.

And the part that I absolutely adore, that I continue to be impressed with, is the combat. Whomever came up with the concept of “Posture” system is brilliant. I would go so far as to say that the combat system is the most dramatic step forward since Demon’s Souls introduced the idea of a fragile constantly rolling protagonist. It almost makes me sad there’s no additional boss DLC…

The weaknesses are also not so much the games fault but the weight of it’s predecessors. The world is interesting, but not as mysterious and challenging as the Souls series, and nowhere near as engrossing as Bloodborne (which is almost unfair given the insane level of creativity and the disparate influences that game pulled together). It’s more literal. There’s a story, and you can even track it to some degree (shocking!). The people look like people. And there’s some demons and monkeys and snakes. But so far it’s mostly feudal Japan.

And the final thing is the graphics. They look good. But somehow they seem less striking than their predecessors, even though this is years later and I’m playing it on a PS4 Pro.

There’s still plenty of game left. It will be a cool experience to
see how this comes together.

Retro Gaming loves my OCD tendencies

One of the black holes that I’ve been falling into lately is trying to figure out how best to play old game consoles (basically, anything pre HD) on modern televisions. Anyone who’s tried to play a Saturn game on a 4k TV knows how it basically looks like someone dumped a bunch of pixels into a blender and that poured that smoothie onto the screen. From what I’ve heard, buying a late model cathode TV is the most faithful, but that’s a level I haven’t resigned myself to yet.

So I’m testing a bunch of different options to see how they look: 4K TV directly, 4K through a newer system digital download (downloading a PSOne classic on a PS3, for example), an older smaller LCD TV, Nvidia Shield, Computer emulation (PCSX2), little LCD screen attachments (think PSOne screen), and even PSP (older but emulation robust) and PS Vita (better screen, limited selection of titles) respectively.

At the end of the day, I feel there has to be a better way then all of these things. Raspberry Pi emulation seems to be the preferred method for most. But a massive data dump of games is also what I want to avoid. And so as a way to support my ever-sickening video game collecting habit, I try to own the original game (even though I’m well aware the developer doesn’t make any money off of me buying it used). So slowly but surely, I’ll be testing these things out and reporting on them with all the accuracy and unnecessary depth of a grown man putting off doing something more important like cooking or raking leaves or auto maintenance.   

Nostalgia Vortex Starring Shining Wisdom

There’s a cedar closet in my house. Naturally, instead of storing old suits, I’ve converted it into my videogame cabinet. It’s a very slow and satisfying process pulling everything out of the plastic tubs they’ve been sitting in for a decade+ and cataloguing them. I’ve never bonsaied a tree, but I imagine it gives the same sort of OCD pleasure.

Part of the enjoyment is punching games into PriceCharting.com and seeing what has drastically appreciated in value (or, more likely, not appreciated at all). Holistically, the PS2 and PS3 games have faired poorly. The old Atlus games have been a mixed bag (the original Persona is ridiculous given how many formats it exists in, while Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga are laggards). And the Dreamcast and Saturn the notable standouts.

As I’m going through my Saturn collection, I stumbled on this little guy.

Working Designs Ultra Series – RIP

As you can see, this was once owned by a “Premier Video”, a now (obviously) defunct movie rental place in my hometown.  I remember buying a number of games from Premier: Battle Arena Toshinden, Virtua Fighter Kids, Shinging in the Darkness.

Wait. Which store?

And Shining Wisdom

I was surprised when I punched it in to see that it sells for $130 on eBay. It’s not the most valuable game I own, but I also can’t imagine ever toping it’s 40x return.

I haven’t played it yet (I’ve only had it for 20 years), but I always liked the shiny clay FMV scenes on the back (most people are probably glad we left these in the 90’s, but I appreciate how far they are from the uncanny valley).

The pinnacle of graphics for me when I was 12 was measured by how “smooth” they looked

I’m sure it’s a generic 90’s Zelda-clone, but that’s one of the best kind of clones (as long as they don’t take themselves too seriously). I’ve told myself I’ll give it a try once I finish cataloguing the rest of this stuff (in about 5 years).

Zelda BOTW – Travel Log 1

I continue to be amazed by this game. Not just from the weird little discoveries that seemingly exist throughout the world, but also by the ingenuity of the puzzles and set pieces. In completing the first Guardian Beast dungeon, I’ve been amazed at how well it came together. It’s one large, continuous, perfectly designed puzzle that is both challenging and then upon completion, obvious. Which is really the best type of puzzle.

It’s not difficult to make an easy or an incredibly obtuse puzzle. But neither of these is satisfying, and the latter is just grating. You can tell when a puzzle is obtuse, because when you learn the solution, you’re more frustrated than anything else (the old Police Quest games are seared into my brain with those moments. Who would inspect the tires before getting in a car!). And then there are challenging puzzles, where upon learning the solution, everything clicks into place, and you kick yourself for not figuring it out sooner. That sensation of how it feels after learning the solution, is how I judge puzzles, and by that measure BOTW is fantastic.

Of course, there are some Nintendo styled limitations that seem both arbitrary and antiquated (and maybe a little endearing). For example, you can only mark 100 places on your map, and with the map itself, it can be difficult to remember where you’ve been and where you haven’t. Cooking, while fun, is a grind (although I don’t know any games that have really gotten this right). And yet these are small complaints, and realizing how much detail went into this game, were probably intentional and debated thoroughly.

Zelda Breath of the Wild – First Impressions

I’m not exactly sure how I ended up playing Zelda Breath of the Wild. I haven’t particularly liked 3-D Zelda games. I bought a Switch in Germany, because I didn’t have a television and I wanted to play Super Mario Party with my six-year old daughter. And then I guess I was just bored, and it seemed like something that I “should” experience, but had been putting off, like The Godfather Part 2 or Stephen Hawking’s, A Brief History of Time.

Now, I’m about a dozen hours in and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of this game. Not just the geography, although that too:

A lot of the map is still either dark or unexplored.

There is just so much to this game. And yet it might be the first open world game since Fallout 3 that doesn’t ramp up some annoying OCD tendencies. I don’t have a checklist of things I need to remember to do, like in Dark Souls 2 or 3. I’m not trying to keep track of my morality and angle towards a particular ending, like in The Witcher 3. I’m just playing the game. No guides, no trophies, no cascading objective trees. It’s leisurely and relaxing. It’s so big, that I’ve given up trying to see it all. Which means I’m enjoying whatever weird version the game it is that I’m experiencing.

I can’t say yet if BOTW will end up being in my personal top 5 favorite games (which are Dragon Warrior 4, SNK vs. Capcom Card Fighters Clash (SNK edition), Demon’s Souls, Tactics Ogre, and The Last of Us. With Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne coming off the bench). But so far I do think you can make a meaningful argument for it being the best game of all time.

Even the mini-bosses are pretty cool

Dead Cells Review

Platform: PS4

Symphony Souls: Return of Samus

Dead Cells feels like a really good game made by what you assume is a small team that is actually a much bigger team (the credits went on forever). We’re at that inevitable point of nostalgia saturation where even large companies won’t ignore the potential for retro style games to move large amounts of units. And so that’s why the first description anyone gives about Dead Cells is that it’s a Metroidvania. For a game that’s as good as Dead Cells is, it sucks that the best descriptor is a combination of two games that haven’t had a 2D system release for twenty years (handhelds, remakes and multiplayer aside).

And so I enjoyed Dead Cells. A lot. My bell-weather for a good game is not if I’m willing to play it for 5 hours straight (because I’ll hate everything by that point, including myself). It’s if I choose the game over Netflix, Hulu, HBO NOW, and all the other 8 pm to 10 pm time wasters at my disposable. And in that sense Dead Cells is an objective success. I loved every hour I spent scaling that citadel.

At its core it’s built as rogue-like, which means rinse, die and repeat. And this puts the exploration into direct conflict with the impermanence of the surroundings. Add in a few questionable design choices (unlocking certain things can harm future runs), and you have an amazing early game, that eventually turns into speed running and repetition. That doesn’t take away from the early hours, when the citadel seems alive and changing, and each playthrough is different. It just meant that when I was done, I was done.  

Review: 4 stars (out of 5)

Lords of the Fallen Review

Title: Lords of the Fallen
Platform: PS4

Today’s Bubsy

Dark Souls must be to the 2010’s, what anthropomorphic mascot platformers were to the 90’s. Every game has to pitch itself as some version of Dark Souls-like, Dark Souls-lite, Dark Souls-esque. Which is really just a way to say: difficult, abstract and with a roll-dodge. Hell, even new Dark Souls games, try to sell how Dark Souls they are. Which is all sort of sad for me, because there doesn’t seem to be any love left for Demon’s Souls, which was the game that caught me like a left hook 10-years ago and made reevaluate what a videogame could be.

I really wanted to like Lords of the Fallen. I don’t have the focus right now for a Souls game, so I figured a game shamelessly ripped (I’m sorry, inspired) by the source-material would be a nice compromise. But it’s not. There are some positives: the environments are beautiful, a couple boss battles are memorable (the graveyard one comes to mind), and it’s easy to play in short bursts. But each one of these is paired with crippling flaws: the enemy models are muddy and generic, the combat consists of spamming roll-dodge, and being able to pick up and play is a result of how linear the game is. That doesn’t even begin to touch on the wooden characters, glitches and a general feeling of wasted opportunity.

There are some good things here, but it’s hard to appreciate any of them when the product feels 80% done. Which is sort of a parable for life. Enjoyment doesn’t seem to be linear (80% done doesn’t equal 80% enjoyment), but exponential (80% done is equivalent to 23% enjoyment). Look at the second season of True Detective as proof of that (which is indefensible except to say that there are glimmers of brilliance in there).

Review: 1 star (out of 5)

Grand Kingdom Review

Title: Grand Kingdom
Platform: PS Vita

For People Who Eat at Denny’s

This is another example of how biased and shitty these reviews are. But that’s the point, on a purely technical level Grand Kingdom is a much better game than I’m giving it credit for. But it still sucked away 6 hours of my life with very little to show for it, and that’s unforgivable.

Part of why Grand Kingdom is hard to critique is because it’s pretty much everything I asked for when I was young. That was back when the idea of dropping sixty hours into a game was a good thing. But now, if I’m going to do that, it has to trick me into it like Nier: Automata. Doling our little bits of dopamine like bread crumbs in the woods. Instead, this is the videogame equivalent of quantity over quality.

And the characters have to be better. I respect that much of the game is voice acted. But it’s a moot point when the dialogue is written by people who watched Mad Men, but clearly walked away with the wrong message about Mad Men. If you’re going to make your characters misogynists, it better serve a purpose. But here, it makes the endless narrative mistake of confusing misogyny with being cool, which reeks of desperation.

To highlight the positive, the battles and the board are pretty fun. And there are some incredibly creative community aspects to the game that run very deep (like I said, it’s everything I asked for when I was young). Although this is only when you’re not staring at the ceiling because of load times. And so in the end it starts to become an optimization of speed, instead of tactics, because you want to save as much of your life as possible.

And that’s how I knew I needed to turn it off.

Review: 2 stars (out of 5)

Not A Hero Review

Title: Not A Hero
Platform: PS4

A Clockwork Orange Rubik’s Cube 

Bunnylord for Mayor

Not A Hero feels good, like Hotline Miami. And when the game works best, you’re in a grotesque dance of muscle memory, puzzle solving, and luck. When it’s at its worst, you fall into a tedium where one level blends into the next. Thankfully, that’s rare.

Bunnylord, your giant pink rabbit boss talks like a Hunter S Thompson mad lib. Inserting borderline psychotic adjectives, mangled together at random, to coach you along. All and all, it’s short, addictive, and causes your controller to merge into your hand. It also knows not to outstay its welcome (which is more often the problem than a game being too short).

When I play a bit of the old ultra violence, I often wonder what kind of effect it has on my karma. And then I wonder if I believe in karma. And then I correct myself and say psyche. The effect on my psyche. Where as in the past I would mow down wave after wave of bad guys like spring loaded flopping machines, it doesn’t quite roll off the controller like it used to. And by the time I’ve gunned down that mental rabbit hole, I’m usually able to side step my feelings with the absurdity of what I’m witnessing. Because the game knows it’s a joke, and wears its heart on its sleeve.

Review: 4 stars (out of 5)