Bloodstaine Epilogue

My favorite trophy pop

I feel like I should ramble on a little more about Bloodstained considering the first review was 90% me trying to come to terms with Kundera’s death, 9% Symphony of the Night, and 1% Bloodstained.

For hard-to-describe reasons, I decided to get the platinum on Bloodstained. The post-ending clean-up feels more like Pokémon than it does like an Action-RPG. It consists of me running around a little bit every night trying to catch ‘em all, mixed with the meandering rhythmic hunting and exploring of No Man’s Sky. Maybe the closest comparison is from South Park, when Kyle endlessly plays the Chasing the Dragon game in the Guitar Hero episode. It’s not really challenging, never ends, and is weirdly comforting. 

In the immortal nonsensical words of police chief Gordon, it’s not exactly the Castlevania game I need, but maybe it’s the Castlevania game that I deserve.

Bloodstained Review

Castlevania kitsch

Milan Kundera died this week.  94 years old. Which means he wrote The Unbearable Lightness of Being in his 50s.  It surprised me to learn that as I always felt it had the energy of someone much younger.

Kundera railed against kitsch. He defined it as an “aesthetic ideal” based in narcissistic sentimentality. In his case, he meant social systems with fake realities. But I also like the very simple definition of a naïve imitation. That said, kitsch can also be appreciated in an ironic way (like a 60s lava lamp).

As heavy-handed as it is, I think there’s value in stripping the artifice away from media and seeing what’s underneath. In the case of Bloodstained (terrible name), if you take away the kitsch (awkwardly sexualized character design and unintelligible storyline), what you’re left with is a very solid imitation of Symphony of the Night. And the question I keep asking myself: is it trying to be ironic?

You know, regular battle armor

The story is straight D-level camp that I’m giving the benefit of the doubt was made intentionally bad (it probably wasn’t). The dialogue is beyond terrible and NPCs appear out of thin air at random points on the map.  The graphics are nice enough in motion (a little bit of a weird shine to them), but the character models are painful to look at it. That said, it picks the schlock lane and sticks to it. Which is more bearable than something like Neon White, which oscillates between hard-boiled grit and middle-school toilet humor. 

The game itself has a lot of nice evolutions and touches: cooking mechanics, shard collecting, 8-bit detours. And even if it is a blatant and awkward imitation, it’s admirably imitating one of the greatest games of all time, which means combat feels good and it’s fun to play, kitsch and all. I had no problem coming back to it as the tried-and-true dopamine loop of learning new moves and unlocking more and more of the map pulls you forward (100% map completion is such an addicting goal).

It’s amazing that after 25 years Symphony of the Night remains at the top of its class, continuing to provide the foundation on which fun distractions like Bloodstained continue to be built upon.

Review: ★★★

Memory: 8-Bit segments that play surprisingly well

Neon White Review

The Best Tech Demo

Yep, it’s gorgeous

A refrain I would hear growing up was how the world was full of talented people with wasted potential – “so work hard and don’t get complacent!'” was the obvious subtext of that unsolicited story. And while true, it was probably an unnecessary warning to a kid that was already suffering from anxiety, OCD and perfectionist tendencies. Given how most of us (not all, but most) are more hard on ourselves than is useful, who was that even designed for? 

Neon White. That’s who that was designed for.  This is the kind of game that shows up to basketball try-outs 30 minutes late and makes starting point guard in a pair of Vans.  It has probably the most arresting art style of the year, iconic gravely voice actors (as if to cement the Spike Spiegel comparison), and a fresh Battle Royale backstory in an otherwise played out genre. It’s the kind of game that makes all the jealous wannabes of high fantasy, zombie apocalypses, and space operas mope around and listen to Eliot Smith.

And so what does our Division-1 scholarship bound prodigy do? Not much. He drops out to smoke weed and listen to The Doors. Which is still undoubtedly cool, but also kind of, ‘a shame’ or whatever. Awesome character designs turn out to not mean much if you can’t decide if you’re a hardened criminal or bumbling self-conscious 17 year-old. It’s like Neon White watched Cowboy Bebop and Deadpool and thought, ‘I can do both’. The result: Cowboy Bebop on Netflix.

Sometimes the cringe is also a laugh

With beautiful aesthetics mixed with droning dialogue and boring story arches, it really falls on the puzzle solving to carry the weight (yes, this is a puzzle game. I was shocked too). And in that department it’s… good enough. Controls are smooth, progression measured, but it also never really takes any risks. A concept sticks around for a few levels, then it’s pretty much gone, never really cumulating into something bigger. Just one slick tech demo after another.

At least this has a chance for a dope sequel.

Review: ★★★

Memory: Opening anime cinematic (I would watch an anime of this)

When a talking secondary is your best character

Rogue Legacy 2 Review

Eating a Bag of Candy

I was about as excited to play Rogue Legacy 2 as I’ve been for any game in a long time. To the point I made it my chillaxing go-to game on some planned time off.

There’s a lot of charm in this hellscape

All this pressure despite doing the exact same thing with the first Rogue Legacy years earlier: a long Winter break that I enjoyed immensely at first, and then by the time the credits rolled on the game, I was feeling a little queasy and questioning my choices. Like being on a swing in your 30s.

So what happens? The. Exact. Same. Thing. Of course it did. Because while Rogue Legacy 2 is a lot bigger than Rogue Legacy, it’s just ‘more’, not ‘different’. It’s not weird enough to be truly interesting.

It’s not Hades level charm, but the bosses have some depth in their motivations

My enjoyment with these games is a reverse parabola, it shoots up at the beginning, before plummeting back down at the midpoint. By the time I walk away, I’m gutting out the last bosses and ignoring a creeping guilt about not spending more time with my family. 

So why does RL2 feel different from other rogue-lites (Hades, the obvious standard bearer)? I don’t know, it just feels a little off. If I had to try and attribute it to something, it’s that progress feels more akin to an RPG grind than a skill-gating curve. All rogue-lites are just the illusion of skill-gating, and with RL2 that illusion is as subtle as a brick.

Pirate Class – Easy Mode

There’s a lot of positive qualities to the game (feels great, looks good, nice humor). It’s objectively a good game. It’s just this particular live-die-upgrade-repeat cycle that’s not sitting quite right with me. 

Review: ★★★

Memory: The Pirate Class

Triangle Strategy Review

Tactics Ogre Jr.

Riveting dialogue…

Triangle Strategy is what happens when the working title becomes the final game. TRPGs aren’t even especially hard to name: slap a noun with another noun or adjective. Job done (Front Mission, Tactics Ogre, Vandal Hearts…)

Square must have figured if you’re going to play the name straight, might as well play the whole thing straight. Let the good guys be good, the bad guys be bad, and everyone be annoying. Complex motivations? Character depth? Look at the title! We don’t have time for that.

And more dialogue…

The story of any TRPG is a vehicle to shuffle troops from one pre-arranged set piece to another. And so if the story here is flat as a board, then the battles should at least be entertaining. In that regard it mostly succeeds. On the “Hard” difficulty, it’s a flow of patient offensive and defensive swarm and survive tactics. The normal TRPG super-human abilities that can wreck havoc on a battlefield (cough cough Final Fantasy Tactics) aren’t here, and even sending out your strongest character unsupported is usually a suicide mission.

The Octopath Traveler 2.5D VFX are nice

I will give any game company credit that tries to establish new game franchises rather than churn out sequels. It’s a risky business and any  guarantee to be in the black is tough to turn down. But in the end, Triangle Strategy just leaves me wondering why there hasn’t been a true Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre sequel (remasters and portable side stories aside)?

Like eating a bag of candy, it tasted decent at the time, but now leaves me a little sick and hungry for something of substance.

Review: ★★

Memory: The first Wolford Stronghold battle

Returnal Review

Selene and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

So many questions…

Returnal is a weird beast.

Its gameplay is a grease stain lit on fire. A blender of 2D side-scrolling bullet hell, in a dash-happy 3D world. It can be so mesmerizing, it’s hard not to stop and watch Housemarque’s TM helix bullet-patterns or bright-blue lasers arch the sky, before slamming into the earth on top of you.

It all feels great. And it looks great. A spectacle of sound and motor skills and neon.

There is a lot of beauty in this fractured world

And then there’s the story. It’s not so much a video game storyline (not that we need any more of those) as a graduate student’s art-house film project about regret, trauma and mental illness (that also breaks the 4th wall, because… why not??). A film project that would win some major screen time at a mid-upper film festival (less Sundance, more Denver Film Festival).

And it leaves me utterly confused. Which is OK. I’m sure it all fits together if I were willing to dig for it.

You’ll be here a lot

Returnal is a game of extremes. Extreme kinetic energy and extreme obfuscation. This is no hero fantasy. There are no shooting galleries. Only a deep flow state and residual impact.

Returnal is the chance to go ‘all in’ for a little bit. And I miss that.

Review: ★★★★★

Memory: Nemesis Boss Fight

Death’s Door Review

Crow’s Journey

Given the vast difference in power between my PS5 and Switch, the two consoles have divided into clearly divided utility. PS5 is a bunch of jaw-dropping gorgeous AAA games, and my Switch a mobile vehicle for indie goodness. And despite all those technical differences, my Switch probably still clocks the most hours.

Yep. That’s it. That’s what this whole mess is about.

Death’s Door is the quintessential indie game that keeps my Switch humming. In that it is exactly what it sets out to be: a gorgeous short indie knock-off of Zelda. And even though I expected something at least a little gruesome (given the name and Devolver as the publisher), it remained incredibly wholesome throughout. Besides the humor, borderline sterile.

There is no fat on this game. It’s so lean that I often wonder if things were left on the cutting room floor. When was the last time I played a game where I wanted it to be longer? It’s human to want what we don’t have. And so Death’s Door gave me exactly what I want in this age of complexity- simplicity. And maybe that’s the trick to a good indie title- exit stage right early, and leave them wanting more.

The humor is spot on. And often has a tinge of appropriate grief.

So thank you little crow for the memories. I’ll go on adventures with you anytime. And I’ll use this extra time gave me back to whittle away at my ever growing back catalogue.

Review: ★★★★

Shin Megami Tensei 5 Review

Finally, a Worthy Successor

The 2000’s were a self-described “gritty” decade for games, which meant a lot of chest thumping, and running people over with cars, and forced swearing. Its energy a reflection of the larger social nihilism being built upon Potemkin Villages and military conflicts involving small percentages of the population. Much like the term Gen Y, and the entire decade itself, most of the games from that time have been maligned and forgotten (which means they will inevitably be rediscovered in another 10 years).

The protagonist, right?

There is an exception to this: Atlus, and specifically the macabre family of Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) games, were on a role. They combined synth wave aesthetics (before that was cool again) with stoic protagonists (before Breath of the Wild) and impactful choices in incomprehensible worlds (before Demon’s Souls did it better). Those games probably got more play time on my PS2 than anything else: Nocturne (aka SMT 3), both Digital Devil Sagas, the pair of Raidou Kuzunoha Devil Summoner titles, and Persona 3 (and with less satisfaction Persona 4).

Yeah... about that
Nope. This is you and your hair.

Nocturne had such an impact on me that it propelled this deeper dive into the SMT world. And while I enjoyed my time with all of the lose-lose storylines, and rock-paper-scissors mechanics, as the 2000’s shuffled into the 2010’s, I felt the luster peeling off. Things like Strange Journey, Persona 4, and the relentlessly boring Devil Summoner 2, felt like lateral movements at best. Even an aesthetically beautiful game like SMT 4 had relatively limited emotional impact.

And so I can’t exactly say what drew me back to SMT 5. At a base level, the game itself is not all that different than its predecessors. Even the three pronged D&D morality (Law, Neutral, Chaos) remains intact. And yet somehow it feels different. It is immensely enjoyable where as the more recent entries were boring.

Much of this change is due to the rebalancing of the difficulty with a “Hard” mode. The new mode transforms a somewhat challenging game into a slowly evolving puzzle. Every mini-boss requires thought and strategy. You often have to pull out all of your tricks. A single mistake is a hard reset. And it becomes a slow but wholly earned push forward.

Hard Reset
Early bosses are especially unforgiving on Hard

I’ve heard Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) series compared against its more popular spin-off Persona succinctly as: SMT is plot driven, where as Persona is character driven. And I like that comparison. The ride is a challenging, sometimes perverse, and often beautiful experience that is for people looking for a change. A slow burn in an age of instant gratification. And for me, the best SMT game since Nocturne and Persona 3.

Review: ★★★★★

Retro Gaming Nonsense

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 Sega Saturn game on a 4k TV knows it looks like someone dumped a bunch of pixels into a blender and then poured the digital smoothie all over 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 with analog to digital converters, 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, there has to be a better way. Something simple and legal, that can handle all of this. That way I can have more time to do normal grown-human things like cooking, or raking leaves, or auto maintenance.

Or more likely I’ll just play more games.

Shovel Knight Review

The Limits of Cuteness

Platform: Switch

About a year ago, when I was first dipping my toe into the videogame industry, I read a book called Blood, Sweat and Pixels. There’s an entire chapter about Yacht Club, the creators of Shovel Knight. That story (and pretty much every story in the book) was an inspiring little vignette that resonated with a passion I had felt my entire life, and probably pushed me to enter the video game industry.  

Specifically, in Yacht Club, I recognized the rag-tag story of a small dedicated team wearing many hats and over-working for several years to crawl out of obscurity. It’s the quintessential tech-entrepreneurs journey. And I often wonder now how their story will continue to progress as they grow from 4, to 10, to 25, team-members (and so on). I would love to a read an update. A ‘where-are-they-now’ type story.  

Shovel Knight came out right at the beginning of the retro zeitgeist. And as a result, it seems willing to borrow from several sources (Mega Man, Castlevania, and Link (NES)), rather than the more common present phenomenon of ‘Spiritual Successor to Contra’ (or Metroid, or Doom, or whatever).

There is so much care shown in the game. The underlying ‘pogo’ mechanic feels tight. There are small unnecessary animations that provide joy when noticed. The cast of baddies are colorful, and the stages challenging but not unfair. Overall, it feels well tested, which means the team themselves played it over and over.

The bosses are the most interesting characters, which explains why several were given their own featured DLC

What’s strange is that for a game that tries to be charming, it often finds itself stuck between levity and seriousness. Most bosses are humorous, while the overall story is oddly grime. The boss encounters themselves, despite being charming, have almost no real challenge. And the game has this annoying habit of knowing that it’s cute, and at times, forcing the player to revel in said ‘cuteness’ (whether you want to or not).  

It’s easy to recognize a well-made game, and that’s what Shovel Knight is: a very well-made game. But that’s different than anticipation. Even a deeply flawed movie, book or game can create anticipation in its consumption. Something you look forward to at the end of the day. But that was absent with Shovel Knight. I was often curious, but never really excited to keep playing.

Review: ★★★

Memory: The cute-then-annoying Troupple King dance

Smug or Cute?