Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review

Better and Worse than Dark Souls

Platform: PS4 Pro

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…

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)

Super Mario Run Review

Title: Super Mario Run
Platform: iOS

Not That Easy to Hate

I never understood the beauty of Super Mario Run until I played it with my daughter.

My first impression two years ago was that it was cute and serviceable enough to distract me from my crippling jetlag. This time around, when my daughter saw the instantly recognizable Mario icon in my phone, I understood why it exists- it is impressively simple. You push the screen and Mario (or flavor of your choice) jumps. That’s it.

It’s virtually impossible to die on the first level, and given Mario’s self-propulsion, you don’t even need to press forward. As a result, you set your own personal goals. My daughter played the first stage over and over, each time getting a few more coins. Eventually she felt brave enough to venture out into harder courses, only to come back again to the first level. Aesthetically, it seems to borrow the most from Super Mario World (my personal favorite), but the mechanics are a grab-bag, even digging into black sheep like Super Mario Bros 2.

The game is not unique in its simplicity, but it’s also Mario, and there’s something that bridges a lot of gaps as a result of that.

Review: 4 stars (out of 5)

Valiant Hearts Review

Title: Valiant Hearts
Platform: PS4

Let’s Play! WWI

Valiant Hearts is an odd game.

I’m left asking myself, “who green-lit this”? Is it an educational game in disguise, made to secretly teach teenagers about the atrocities of WWI, much like my 9th grade reading assignment of All Quiet on the Western Front? (Which is a mesmerizing book: humanizing Germans, shitting next to each other in trenches, hanging out with French girls, the atrocities of war perpetrated on and by teenagers. Side-side-note, it has a rating of 3.9 on Goodreads. Moby Dick has a rating of 3.5 on Goodreads. The current New York Times bestseller, Leverage in Death by J.D. Robb, has a rating of 4.5.)

Or is it a puzzle game with some light action rammed in for the hell of it? Maybe it was just a bunch of WWI nerds who wanted to spread the word about how insane this nearly forgotten nationalistic macho-fest really was. And good for them if that’s the case. There were parts of France that experienced so much death that it salted the earth. And then in less than one generation, a new war was raging in those same places.

So how would you present this unprecedented level of pointless death and destruction? Again, the game doesn’t seem to know. It oscillates between Saturday morning cartoon villains and hidden violence (when you throw a grenade into an enemy embankment, they throw their hands up an run off the screen comically before it explodes), to scenes that are so grotesque that you’re hiding behind mountains of corpses, as French soldiers are being ripped to shreds all around you. These scenes are over-the-top, and intentionally so given the loss of life in WWI, but then why wait until the end of the game to show something so savage? Yes, the Neville offensive was a huge waste of life, but there were over a million casualties in the Battle of the Somme alone (one of a dozen other ugly battles you’ll march through), none of which are presented with as much butchery.

It does have a nice feature where you can collect little artifacts around the level that give you information about WWI living conditions. Normally these types of search quests would be a drag, but it’s pretty seamlessly integrated, and never overly frustrating. I enjoyed it enough that I went back and found them all when the game was done.

As a game, it’s not much. As an educational game, it’s admirable. I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt that it’s the later.

Review: 3 stars (out of 5)

Dandy Dungeon – My Unlearned Lessons With F2P

Title:  Dandy Dungeon
Platform: iPhone

Arabesque!

Our Lovable-Pirouetting-Jail-Bait Chasing-Loser Hero at Work

Dandy dungeon is the best type of free to play game: the type where you forget that it’s a free to play game. Which then makes you wonder, how much better would it be if it were just a normal game: balanced drops, fewer and more discrete weapons, laser focused purpose? Because the biggest sin is that like almost all commercially relevant f2p games it throws everything and the kitchen sink at you in an ever increasing world that’s made to suck quarters like an Altered Beast cabinet at the hat-shaped Pizza Hut of my youth that eventually when out of business and became a Chinese restaurant. Because if you can’t make money slinging dough, canned tomato sauce and cheese to Americans, that’s not America’s problem, that’s yours. And then America’s 20 years later when obesity has quadrupled.

But that’s Pizza Hut, and this is my iPhone, the epicenter of f2p. And I don’t like myself on f2p. I can’t consume a game that’s dripped out to me slowly. My life is such that I have to play in a fat time slot on a Friday night after half a bottle of wine. Every time I download a f2p game I tell myself it will be different, I can quit it whenever I want, and then I wake up in the morning thinking, fuck yeah, I can play for 15 and a half more minutes. All of this could be mitigated by paying $7.95 to unlock some unlimited package that would break the game in half, but then it’s the same question, why even bother? Paying in a f2p leaves me with the same guilty feeling that I got from plugging in my Game Genie.

All that to say, Dandy Dungeon is as good as they come. Even if it leaves a sticky garlic taste in the back of my throat like all f2p.

Review: 4 Stars (out of 5)

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Maker:   Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony
Platform: PS4

The Lovable Kind of Sociopathy
Let’s start with the facts- Nick Drake and everyone he associates with is a sociopath. If you don’t dwell on that too much, there is much to be enjoyed in Uncharted 4.
To start, it’s easily one of the most beautiful games ever created. Ever locale is special, and each one builds upon the previous, until you’re actively excited to see what the game will throw at you next.

Africa
Africa

Island Paradise
Island Paradise

Scotland
Scotland

There is also considerable time and energy put into the character development. Not just through dialogue, or story arches, but actual investment by the player into these characters. The game asks you to go through the mundane necessities of day-to-day life that are required in building a close relationship with someone (before then asking you to go rampaging across the world with them). It’s in these moments that you develop the sincere feelings that carry you through the entirety of the game. As further testament to the writing, each section is stronger than the last, and each moment with the characters builds upon what has come previously
But in the end, it’s impossible to fully invest in the characters, as a result of the moral contradictions presented through the gameplay.  You will mow down literally dozens of people on your adventure, only to show sensitivity towards deplorable antagonists. The game would be better served to have protagonists that avoid killing almost entirely, or are more authentic in their willingness to commit violence.
With all of that in mind, it was built from the ground up around the story and character development. While not as haunting as The Last of Us, you will find it lingering, for different reasons, days after the music has stopped playing, and all you’re left is the opening screen of a skeleton in a gibbet.

Review: 4 Stars (out of 5)

Memory: The writing throughout.

Slayin’ Review

Title:  Slayin’
Platform: iOS (reviewed), Android

How many slimes can you kill?

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 got the makings of a good sequel
It’s got the makings of a good sequel

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.