This article contains major spoilers for Doki Doki Literature Club. You probably shouldn’t be reading this if you haven’t already beaten it. (There’s also a Bioshock spoiler in here if you don’t know what happened to Andrew Ryan)
When I was told that some cutsey looking high school dating sim by the name of Doki Doki Literature Club had some pretty bleak warnings at the beginning of it about how its not suitable for children, I felt there were 2 strong possibilities as to why:
One or more characters is a yandere and it’ll turn into a watered down Higurashi clone (that is, a cute looking dating sim with cute girls that suddenly becomes extremely gruesome).
Normally if I’d been told I was wrong I’d be more interested in the game–after all, it’s clearly trying something different, nobody would talk about it otherwise. Perhaps it’s more worth looking into than I thought. In the case of Doki Doki Literature Club, on the other hand, had I been told that its version of “doing something different” was just becoming a self-aware deconstruction game I wouldn’tve thought twice about ignoring it.
Frankly speaking, I’m just getting tired of self-aware deconstruction games. It’s become somewhat of a fad in the past 2 years or so. Like any fad it had its high points, sure, but now it’s just getting old, trite, and even somewhat predictable to me now. I’m ready for the next genre/trope cycle because I’ve had my fill of this one.
Before I go any further, let me elaborate on what I mean when I say “self-aware deconstruction games”. Like the name implies, a deconstruction game is a game that deconstructs its genre–it breaks it down and exaggerates it, maybe even parodies it in a way. If you’ve ever watched Cutthroat Kitchen, this is the exact same thing as when someone says they’ve made a deconstructed BLT and just put some meat, lettuce, and tomato on a plate. As for the self-aware part, it means games that are aware that they’re games and makes sure that the player knows that the game knows it’s a game and probably utilizes that in some way for progressing. To be more specific, it’s not games that make maybe one or two self-aware jokes that I’m talking about (EX: if someone in a game says, “WE’LL BE FINE! IT’S NOT LIKE WE’RE IN A VIDEO GAME OR SOMETHING!”), I’m talking about games that utilize their degree of self-awareness as game mechanics or a necessity to progress. Games in which their level of self-awareneness directly ties into the main story/gameplay. Some examples of such games are Undertale, Pony Island, The Stanley Parable, and of course, Doki Doki Literature Club. It may seem niche or overly specific, but these are exactly the kinds of deconstruction games I’m getting sick of: Deconstruction games that use fourth-wall breaking as their means of deconstruction.
Now that we’ve got that established, let me explain myself: In this gamer’s opinion, if you’re going to break the fourth wall effectively, it has to be done with a lot of finesse to not feel arbitrary or just shoved in for the sake of just having it there. Bioshock, for instance, does this in Andrew Ryan’s famous A Man Chooses, A Slave Obeys monologue: Without flat out telling the gamer that they’re a sheep who just does whatever a game says, it still says it vicariously through the speech by likening the player to Jack–a brainwashed test tube baby who has to do what he’s told. This blew my mind the first time I played it. And the second. And the third. And every single time after that. That, dear readers, is breaking the fourth wall powerfully and with finesse.
So if that’s what finesse looks like, what doesn’t finesse look like? What does it look like for a game’s fourth-wall breaking to not seem forced? To understand that, we have to talk about this fourth-wall breaking trend in video games: It’s been around for a while, but has only recently started to see a significant rise in the number of games that use it, particularly in indie games. The first time I noticed this was when I played Undertale 2 years ago (feels like much longer, right?)–the game directly addresses save files, directly addresses the player, and even makes use of uninstalls and reinstalls. This is definitely much more elaborate than most other fourth-wall breaking games, and to be honest, I was impressed at the time.
And then it became a small trend. Or perhaps the preamble of a full-blown trend.
The next time I noticed it was in Pony Island, where some boss puzzles will require you to actually go into the game’s coding to progress. Seemed kinda ridiculous to me, but I rolled with it. Then it was The Beginner’s Guide–but that was made by the same group who made The Stanley Parable (also a fourth wall breaking game) so I honestly wasn’t surprised with that one. Then it was Thimbleweed Park’s polarizing ending, which requires the player to look at the original trailer of the game. By this time I was starting to notice making use of a game’s “sentience” was becoming a thing games did now. And now it’s Doki Doki Literature Club, requiring you to go into the game’s files and deleting/bringing back characters.
I’m sure to some gamers this is quite fun and clever, but to me it just feels arbitrary more times than not. I can honestly say I’ve never picked up a game and thought, “Yea, I can’t wait to dig into this game’s files to progress!”. And again, I’m sure for some people it is fun–this is an incredibly subjective article, after all–it just feels very unnecessary to me. Why can’t there be an in-game solution? I get it–it’s a game that knows it’s a game. It’s poking fun at the plethora of staple dating sim tropes. This might’ve been clever if a notable amount of other indie games hadn’t done the same thing in the past 2 years, and it’s starting to feel old to me.
“But Kennedy,” you’re thinking, “you only listed off 5 games. You’re overreacting.” Fair, probably true in some regard. But every trend once started with only 5, and based on the general gaming community’s love of games like this (after all, shock value will make games go a lot farther than you think, and if nothing else, these games all have shock value), I think 2018 and 2019 will have notably more entries to turn this into a full-blown trend. Until then it feels more like the beginning of one to me. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never been too keen on self-aware/deconstruction games in the past (again: they have to be done with so much finesse not to feel forced for me) but 5 entries is plenty for me to already feel like it’s getting old. Maybe one game like that every other year is my threshold for appreciation for them, which admittedly, is probably lower than most other people’s. Even ignoring all that though–totally forgetting that I usually don’t like these kinds of games–I still don’t think Doki Doki Literature Club is a good game even after all this is factored out.
To further drive the nail into Doki Doki’s pink, anime coffin is that the whole story stems from Monika feeling frustrated over wanting to date you but it’s really hard for me, at least, to feel justification from this because she wasn’t even an option that they player has–everyone has to ignore her her. I know you’re thinking, “Well duh, that’s the point of the game–that she can’t have you.” but it makes no sense. Any other dating sim would’ve had her be a datable option–the club/student council president is another one of these staple tropes that this game likes to parody so much, so why not make her datable? There’s no reason. Obviously she won’t get any attention from the player–we don’t even have the option to give her attention. I bet there’s a fair share of players who would’ve dated Monika first, given the option. This could’ve been alleviated by perhaps having a true route where you do date Monika on your first run which could in turn maybe affect other save files where she perceives you as cheating on her when you try to do another route (which leads to Sayori’s suicide, etc.). Maybe if you decide halfway through a route to start her instead (EX: Starting Natsuki’s route, seeing Monika act out and then switching to Monika’s route again) she becomes incredibly jealous and possessive of you–effectively causing conflict with the other girls. Suddenly, Monika’s getting upset over you not choosing to love her feels more justified and maybe even makes the player feel a tad guilty. That, to me, would’ve been better.
I think what makes me especially bitter about Doki Doki Literature Club is that I actually would’ve enjoyed it if it were the aforementioned Higurashi clone. Or even just a regular, basic dating sim. When everything’s a deconstruction, there’s nothing left to deconstruct–so why not get back to the basics? A real dating sim where I don’t have to flat-out delete characters or deal with a club president who’s messing with everyone’s dialogue. I think I might’ve genuinely enjoyed Doki Doki Literature Club at least somewhat if it hadn’t broke the fourth wall so needlessly and just perhaps made Monika an ultra-manipulative bitch without superpowers–if nothing else, to highlight how insane she really is: Maybe you get to Sayori’s suicide and Monika threatens/blackmails the other members into avoiding you or acting out so you avoid them, but to no avail. Maybe Monika is driven to murder other club members to get your attention. She could easily be a classic yandere and it could’ve made the game much darker. If Monika has the power/sentience to remove characters from the game without reprimand, of course she’d do it–there’s no punishment. But if she were a regular character who couldn’t break the fourth wall who sought to remove other characters by, say, murder, then suddenly it’s much darker: There’s more for her to lose if it doesn’t work out, there’s more pressure on her to make sure it’s worth it. In a sentence, it’s much darker because her character has a lot to lose now. She has to put in effort to get what she wants now.
If nothing else, Doki Doki Literature Club cemented my being sick of fourth wall breaking deconstruction games pre-trend. I guess this all boils down to me just not liking this flavor of deconstruction and the game not being otherwise good enough to make up for it (Thimbleweed Park, for instance, was so excellent that it vastly outweighed its fourth-wall breaking deconstruction segment at its end). To the gamers who are also getting sick of games breaking the fourth wall arbitrarily, this is 100% a waste of time for you. To gamers who wanted a cute dating sim, the warnings on this game, albeit a bit over exaggerated, aren’t kidding: This game is definitely not what it appears to be. To the less jaded gamer or the gamer who likes fourth wall breaking deconstruction though, I can see how this could be entertaining (I know that sounds kind of condescending but I mean it–I 100% understand why people love this game so much and I can think of a handful of people I know who’d like it, too, if they tried it. I see the appeal, it’s just not an appeal that works on me). Combined with the fact that this game is free, I’m really not surprised this game is so popular right now. I’m disappointed because now this might further promote more fourth-wall breaking deconstruction games, but not surprised.
Yakuza Kiwami is this year’s second release from the series. Sega started the year in North America with the release of Yakuza 0, a prequel to the main events of the series. Several months later, Yakuza Kiwami, the remake of the first game in the series, has been localized and released as well: in full 1080p HD at 60fps.
If you’ve listenedtoourpodcastat all, I’m not shy about calling Yakuza 0 my game of the year. I talk about it a lot. It is, without a doubt, an amazing experience. It serves as the baseline for my view of the entire series, and how the other games are constructed. And if that’s any indication, then Kiwami is good.
Both games run on the same engine: and as Kiwami 2 is localized and released (likely late next year, after Yakuza 6), it will run on the same engine as well. That being said: a lot of the hangups I had will carry over from 0.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty, this review is entirely spoiler-free! Read on with confidence.
Yakuza Kiwami isn’t at all subtle in its introductory missions. The game remains locked up for the first hour-ish as it sets up the story. After this, players are totally free to do whatever they please. For instance, my first 15 hours was comprised of little to no story, aside from the main introduction. This may not be the case for everybody, but I went pretty deep into sidequests, which I’ll cover later.
The main meat of the game is its combat system. Unlike 0, which had you literally invest in yourself by buying upgrades, Kiwami runs on an EXP system. At first I thought this would hinder advancement, but as I continued, I had no issue with leveling every skill tree to its maximum potential.
The combat system itself is nuanced, and provides opportunities for an almost countless number of combos, environmental attacks, and item attacks. The base four fighting styles each have their strengths and weaknesses. Brawler is balanced, rush is build for speed, and beast is slow but puts out a lot of damage. Dragon, the fourth style, named after Kiryu’s title within his yakuza family, is a blend of all three, and eventually the most powerful.
Heat actions are the main component of each style. As you attack an enemy, you build up heat. As the bar fills up, you’re able to perform different types of high powered attacks depending on what you’re holding, how an enemy is rushing you, and what style you’re in at the moment.
Unfortunately, my only pitfall with the heat action system is how hard they can be to pull off in certain situations. This goes hand-in-hand with my one critique of the battle system itself: enemies have the power to block and dodge out of your combos no matter what hit you’re on, but if you get caught in an enemy’s combo, it’s a one-way trip to getting knocked flat on your back. Early on, it made sense. Later in the game, it just became a nuisance.
One thing I really enjoyed about both Yakuza 0 and Yakuza Kiwami are their stories. Yakuza 0 does an incredible job of prefacing the series and pacing out its story very well, while tying up loose threads from its events.
Yakuza Kiwami, while it does fall prey to some trope-y story beats, didn’t fail to get me invested, either. Many of the main story events coincide with sub-stories and side missions. Advancement of each fighting style feels like it had a purpose, and made me want to get stronger. Even fully upgraded, the final missions I played felt like they were on par with my abilities.
Kiwami also has some small nods to 0: there are several lines of dialogue that call back to things that happened in the previous game. Although it’s not necessary to have played 0 to understand them, I think it’s a nice touch from the developers.
To round out story discussion, it feels like everything that happened in Kiwami has a purpose. Every story beat is intentional, and it feels like every character, even side characters, had an immense amount of motivation. It’s rare to see such character depth in an action-adventure beat ‘em up, and I really enjoyed it here. It caught me off guard at times in the best way.
Another element of Kiwami’s story having such an impact is its pacing. It frontloads a lot of family politics, important timeline events, and backstory into its first couple of hours. After opening up, the story beats were spaced out well.
Very few things feel rushed, and if they do, they have a purpose for being told in such a way. Again, this game’s story has a purpose. Everything is intentional. The story unfolds at a very reasonable pace, and builds up its dramatic tension well.
A large component of Yakuza Kiwami is its side stories. There are 78 in total, and many are short. Others are a bit more involved, and had six or seven individual substories attached to them. These did a good job of balancing out the story’s serious tone with silly things, like getting very into racing toy cars as Kamurocho’s Fastest.
I would, at least in part, count filling out character advancement part of a substory of its own. Filling out dragon style advancement requires dedication, wit, and fighting a lot of Majima.
Majima Everywhere isn’t a main story beat, but becomes part of the story regardless. Between 0 and Kiwami, Kiryu and Majima have become nemeses, and Majima takes it on himself to help Kiryu achieve his potential— by watching his every move and fighting him at frequent intervals.
Many of the events in Majima Everywhere are triggered by fighting Majima a certain number of times, fighting one of his many personas, or checking emails to see where he’s hiding. Instead of a haphazardly placed system where Majima just appears, Sega did a nice job of tying his appearances and in turn, your advancement, into the main storyline.
Sega’s localization team for Yakuza Kiwami is A-1. Thankfully, there’s no option for English dialogue, and instead subtitles are provided. Compared to the original 2006 release in America, we didn’t just get lucky. We got a localization that didn’t (as far as I can tell) lose any of the original intent, intonation, or delivery of the original Japanese lines.
Any joke that was made that could have been specific to Japanese wasn’t at all forced. Often, phrases, idioms especially, don’t transfer over between languages. Yakuza Kiwami, fortunately, had no hangups on that.
Most of all, characters’ voices felt like they matched the person they were coming from. When I said that everything in this game has intent, localization is no different. Not to rag on Mark Hamill as a voice actor, but he just doesn’t fit Majima. It’s just another gem from that 2006 release.
No game is perfect, and as much as I want to say this one is, I did have some larger issues with it. The first is that a lot of story beats fell into tropes. Then again, this is a story from the mid-2000s. That being said, I was astonished at the writing. It felt like a game from recent years in that respect.
Some of the side stories can feel draining, and those are clearly developed with a male audience in mind. One entire sub-story sequence features a trading card game featuring women in bug-themed lingere-like outfits. Kind of unnecessary in my opinion, but it’s there, along with a couple of cabaret club minigames.
In addition, Majima Everywhere has its pitfalls as well. I get that Kiryu’s part of the yakuza and yes, we agreed to this fighting-out-of-nowhere arrangement, but can I walk around Kamurocho in peace for once? Early on it’s not an issue, but as Majima gets more powerful, the fights tend to drag on, especially after being combo’d down from full heat. It happens.
Yakuza Kiwami is an excellent starting point for people just entering the series or for classic fans who were looking forward to a remake. The game is full of content, has a fantastic story, and features plenty of impactful moments. Combat is satisfying, if a bit frustrating, but overall it's a great game.
Finally coming out of early access last week with its 1.0 update is Slime Rancher. I sat down with it for a long while over the last week, and I really liked it! If you’re here for the more nitty-gritty, keep reading. But if you’re just here for a solid game rec, you’re all good.
Starting Out & Basics
You start out as Beatrix, a new slime rancher coming out of a year of space travel. You’re equipped with a vacuum device, and you’re given a farm for raising slimes. Your farm comes with eight open plots to place enclosures, gardens, and coops. Gardens and coops are both for producing food to feed slimes. Enclosures are to keep slimes in, and starting out, you can collect pink slimes to put in enclosures.
Slimes will produce plorts when fed. Collect the plorts and sell them at the slime market next to your house to earn newbucks, the game’s currency. The slime market’s sell prices for plorts changes regularly, and rarer plorts will be worth more: for instance, golden plorts, made by golden slimes, routinely sell for hundreds of newbucks.
Slime Rancher’s core is very simple. Raise slimes, feed them, get plorts, sell plorts. All you need to do to keep the game going is to keep feeding your farm. Slime Rancher also offers a host of other things to do: after you’ve fully automated your farm, you can spend time exploring the world of the game. There are caverns to spelunk, and feeding gordo slimes (slimes that have grown so big that they are unable to move) will unlock more areas, allowing you to collect more varieties of slime.
Once you’ve collected a fair amount of different slimes, you can feed plorts to slimes. Feeding them one type of different plort will create a slime cross-breed, which produces plorts from each parent breed. To accomodate different types of slimes, enclosures can be upgraded to fit their needs.
Dangers & Expansions
Feeding a slime more than one type of plort results in a creation that eats other slimes: the Tarr. They’re ravenous, colorful masses that are weak to water and pose a danger to your thriving ranch. In addition, the game offers more areas for your farm, for exploring to find more slimes, and a science component that allows you to build machines to mine for additional components. To be honest I haven’t gotten into the lab component of the game much, but plan to since it offers a lot of options for my ranch.
There are player upgrades as well: one of which is a jet pack that allows you to explore areas that otherwise can’t be reached by jumping. The standard health, stamina, and inventory upgrades apply as well.
Slime Rancher is a refreshingly wholesome game. After a rough month for many of us, myself especially, it was nice to sit down with a mindless game that doesn’t require a lot of emotional energy. The slimes are just slimes, and its simple yet deep gameplay makes it just peaceful enough to binge after a long day.
Since its first year in 2010, PAX East has become one of Boston’s fastest growing events. With more than 70,000 attendees each year, PAX East is the second largest gaming convention in the country–second only to PAX Prime in Washington. This year, we at The Lifecast traversed the enormous show floor, long lines, and overpriced food to share with you some of our best (and worst) finds in upcoming games. I, in particular, played 18 of the countless games to be found at PAX East. Allow me to share with you on the titles I played, with hopes that you’ll find something interesting if the this week’s episode of the podcast didn’t satiate your appetite for PAX feedback.
The first game I played at PAX East, Contigo Games’s StarCrossed is a cute, co-op shoot-em-up. You and a partner play as your choice from a set of (very well drawn) magical girls in space, and you bounce a star between yourselves to eliminate enemies. It’s a pretty simple game meant for casual fun. It’s pong in space, but with magical girls.
The American Dream
Samurai Punk’s The American Dream is everything I’ve ever wanted in a satirical, Australian-made game about America. Nay, The American Dream is everything I’ve ever wanted in a shooter game in general. It’s a VR shooter that takes you on a 1950’s-style educational amusement park ride that’s all about the American lifestyle–meaning it’s all about guns. Everything from baby’s first shots, working in a bagel factory, etc.
The demo begins with you as a baby, learning how to use guns, and being asked questions by your mom and (of course) shooting the right answers. You’re then forwarded to adult life, where you work in a bagel factory. As you’d expect, you shoot the holes in the bagels (and sometimes, shooting rats off of the conveyor belt). The demo ends shortly after that.
The visuals, responsiveness, and general 1950’s aesthetic were all fine in this game, but what stood out to me the most about this was its incredible sense of humor that’s even visible in the promotional image for this game that you can see above in the thumbnail for the trailer. It’s a game that knows its own brand of humor better than most, and can therefore use it better than most (and, needless to say, it does exactly that). Taking the humor from this game, you’re left with a pretty standard VR shooter without any special qualities–therefore, if you’re looking for a thrilling VR shooter then this definitely isn’t what you’re looking for. Additionally, although certainly not the only thing that makes this game funny but a part of it, is that Second Amendment rights are quite a hot topic in America lately–therefore, I don’t see this game aging very well. But for now, if you’re in the mood for some delicious satire to be found in a game, then this is absolutely perfect.
Final Fantatsy XV Episode Gladiolus
I’d like to preface this by saying that I have a lot of mixed feelings about Final Fantasy XV, but this article isn’t meant to be a review on it, but the demo for Episode Gladiolus–a DLC campaign where you play as Gladiolus, finding out what his “important business” was in Ch. 7 of the main game. The controls are essentially the same from the main game, but there are some slight changes since we are playing as a different character with a different fighting style from Noctis. I’m not a fan of the gameplay in the main game, and Episode Gladiolus is no different in this respect, if not a bit slower, but if you don’t mind the main game’s gameplay then you won’t mind it in Episode Gladiolus either. That can be said about most of the demo, to be perfectly honest–if you don’t like the way X was done in the main game, you won’t like it in Episode Gladiolus either. It’s meant to be an extra chapter to expand on the game, and as such, is meant to fit in with the main game–which it does. Above all, what this short demo did was get me excited about when the Prompto episode will come out, as it felt too short and overall lacking. Although not awful, it didn’t get me excited or interested in playing the full episode once it’s out.
I’m not normally a fan of top-down action games–Victor Vran is no exception. Normally I wouldn’t have even given this game a second thought, but they were promoting their Motorhead-themed DLC, and being a big fan of Motorhead, I thought I’d give it a shot.
The Motorhead-themes were definitely present–you could use a guitar as a weapon, attacks and yells were referencing Motorhead songs, but that’s the limitation of where my interest was. Gameplay felt uninspired and plain. The map felt cluttered and disorganized. And, as I mentioned before, I’m just not a fan of top-down action games like this. Had I not seen the Motorhead logo on their booth, I wouldn’tve tried this game at all. And, sure to my pattern of not liking games like this, I didn’t care for the very forgettable Victor Vran.
We Know the Devil
A visual novel by Date Nighto, We Know the Devil is the story of a group of kids at a Christian summer camp and what they find there. Although the best of the 3 visual novels I played at PAX, this game did seem decent, but not remarkable. The demo did little to set up the story and failed to provide any kind of narrative hook for the player to latch onto in its short 10 minutes. Which is a shame, because listening to the developer talk about it, the concept did seem pretty interesting to me. The best feedback I could give would be to choose a better section of the game to make the demo–tease the plot more, the environment and circumstances less. The audience can be told those things when playing the demo–but they shouldn’t have to be told why they should be interested in this game, as anybody who played it at PAX was.
West of Loathing
One of my favorite online games in my early years of high school was a free-to-play game called Kingdom of Loathing. I stopped playing it (not because it was a bad game, but just because I had found other games to play and I just started playing it less and less) around my Junior year or so, and ever since it’s just fallen off of my radar–so you can imagine my pleasant surprise seeing that its developers, Asymmetric Publications, were making another Loathing game! Moreover, that it’s being made in the same vain of the original–with simple, black and white stick figure graphics, RPG parody, and delicious sarcasm.
West of Loathing is another RPG parody game, except this time you’re in the Wild West. If you’ve played Kingdom of Loathing, I can satiate your curiosity about this game now by saying that it’s basically Kingdom of Loathing, except with animated graphics and in the Wild West. If you haven’t played Kingdom of Loathing, by the end of this review on West of Loathing you’ll probably have a pretty solid understanding of what Kingdom of Loathing is, as well, as they are very similar to each other.
You choose from 3 “typical” RPG classes: Cow puncher, beanslinger, or snake oiler. From there, you leave your home farm and set off on your adventure, which (as far as the demo presented) consists mostly of doing quests for townspeople and turn based combat, all of which is laced with a consistent sense of dry, sarcastic humor which is present in every part of the game–including the aforementioned stick figure graphics, which are the centerpiece in this gem of a humor game.
It’s very hard for a game to instill a sense of humor into every facet of itself without feeling overwhelming, but West of Loathing manages to do exactly that. From its visuals, to its lore, to its gameplay, West of Loathing is everything a parody game should be: Funny, but not trite. If you’re in the mood for a good parody game, West of Loathing is sure to satisfy.
I suspect that Tiny Build’s newest upcoming release, Hello Neighbor, will be one of the year’s biggest indie releases. Hello Neighbor is a game where you’re trying to break into your neighbor’s basement, as you suspect that something bad is going on next door. Your neighbor will, of course, try to stop you from breaking into his home, so you need to find some creative ways of going about your work. Where the real interest of this game lies, however, is the fact that the neighbor has an AI that is supposed to learn your patterns after a while, and adapt.
Although fun, I wouldn’t have guessed how advanced the AI is unless I had been told about it in advance (which I had been). Perhaps it was because the demo was meant to be easier, or perhaps it’s because this game is only in alpha, but regardless of the reason, I didn’t notice its presence. I’d often try to sneak into the house through the front door, and very rarely was the neighbor there to greet me. I’d also hide in the kitchen a lot, and lo and behold, the neighbor rarely took notice. That, alongside many visual bugs (both I and the neighbor clipped and panned into several things I’m sure we weren’t meant to) leave me a tad worried about this game, but not necessarily with a negative outlook on it. The game itself was still challenging enough–I just wish that this allegedly advanced AI were more present. Besides, as I mentioned earlier, the game is only in alpha and has plenty of time to get fixed before its release. In any case, it did leave me wanting to play a more tightened version of it. Despite its bugginess, it was still fun. Just not as fun as I’d hoped it would be.
I’ve spoken at lengthmany times about this game and why I’m so excited for it. In summary, it’s an incredibly immersive cat and mouse game made by former Dead Space and Bioshock devs. You play as a blind girl, Cassie, navigating a haunted house while there’s something–a presence–haunting you. Using echolocation to navigate the house, you unfold its narrative whist hiding yourself from the presence.
Above all, Perception is a well-made game. An incredibly creative concept, a well-told narrative, beautiful graphics, some of the best sound design I’ve ever experienced, and unique gameplay all combined into one wonderfully well crafted game. The demo alone is one of the most immersive experiences I’ve ever had in a game, leaving me starving for the full game which I’m counting down the seconds for (or at least, I would if it had a specific release date).
I’ve already spoken at length about this game a fewtimes before, as I played it at PAX last year and in fact called it my favorite demo that I played there. Although tied with Perception, it still retains its position with a new demo featuring the first few minutes of the actual game.
What this new demo showed off the most was the story and set-up of the game: The year is 1999 and our protagonist, Alex, has just returned home after college. Following a cat to a mysterious forest, he finds a girl named Sammy Pak who is abducted by mysterious beings–perhaps aliens–before his very eyes. As the game’s site reveals, the footage is uploaded online and so begins Alex’s hunt for her.
YIIK is an Earthbound-inspired turn-based RPG. Like Earthbound, it also utilizes everyday objects as weapons that you can get more damage out of with timed button presses that reminds me of another turn-based JRPG called Shadow Hearts. When you’re not fighting enemies, you’re exploring areas, doing quests, and looking for answers.
This game, as you would expect, has a prominent sense of humor present throughout all the available demos–and therefore, also likely the entire game–thanks to our lovely, sarcastic protagonist, Alex and his quirky group of friends. Perhaps the only thing more prominent are the stylish, colorful graphics that dive you right back into the 90’s.
If I had to use a single word to describe YIIK, it’s “personality.” From its graphics to its story, characters, music, gameplay, and even its concept, everything about YIIK felt very fresh and very its own. If the full game lives up to the incredible uniqueness of the 3 demos I’ve played now, then this could easily be one of the best games to come out in 2017.
As someone who didn’t have many opportunities to play the first Splatoon game as much as I had wanted to (I’m not a Wii U owner, so I’ve played less than 5 hours of it, I’m sure) the differences between Splatoon 2 and Splatoon weren’t immediately obvious to me. The base gameplay is the same, the graphics (without a side-by-side comparison) looked the same, music and sound effects were the same, the map I played was in the first Splatoon, and the only differences I could notice were the dodge roll–a very helpful addition–and new pieces of wardrobe.
That said, being similar to the first Splatoon isn’t necessarily a bad thing–Splatoon 2, like the original Splatoon, is packed with colorful, inky fun for everyone. What puzzles me is why Nintendo has chosen to make this a sequel game–which it certainly doesn’t feel like right now, as there’s not enough setting it apart from the original Splatoon–as opposed to simply adding a Switch port much like they are for Mario Kart 8 and just patching in the dodge roll and new wardrobe. Especially in light of the fact that Splatoon has been around for nearly 2 years as opposed to Mario Kart 8’s 3 and the fact that Mario Kart is a regularly-releasing franchise makes it especially confusing why Nintendo has chosen to do this. Questionable decisions aside, the demo of Splatoon 2 paints the game as an only slightly upgraded version of Splatoon: Still very fun, but not enough differences from the original Splatoon to make it feel like a new or different game in any way. In its current state, it feels more like a slight patch to the original Splatoon.
Nintendo’s latest way of blatantly ignoring the Punch Out series, while fun, still feels like it has ways to go from a technical standpoint. It’s hard to say much about ARMS as I wasn’t given much time with it (a brief tutorial and 3 rounds–each lasted hardly longer than a minute) but what I can say with confidence is this: The game looks fantastic. The visuals are all incredibly animated, stylish, and fit the personality of the game very well. What worries me is its responsiveness.
Motion controls almost never seem to work to 100% efficacy, and ARMS is no different in this regard. Dodging and punching rely on moving the controller–rather than a button push–and those are without a doubt the most important mechanics of the game, seeing as how it’s a boxing game. (Read: Should’ve been a Punch Out game.) As one would expect, especially in a demo, dodges and punches didn’t go through 100% on the time–dodging in particular only seemed to work about half of the time. I had few problems with punching and no problems with button reliant mechanics. In addition to that, there were issues syncing the joy-cons to the game despite them being less than 2 feet away from the console. If Nintendo makes a way for one to play ARMS without motion controls, I could see this being a really fun game. When it works, it’s a very fun, very whimsical take on a boxing game that I could have a lot of fun with provided the motion controls weren’t involved.
Snipperclips, to me, is the embodiment of the importance of allowing your player to be physically comfortable while they play your game. I played this cute, co-op puzzle game with Dan. We thought the idea of this game was clever enough, and we’d heard nothing but positive feedback on it. Unfortunately, we left with a very different outlook on it.
Snipperclips, as I mentioned earlier, is a co-op puzzle game. You and your partner play as 2 shapes who can cut each other up into other shapes and reform, and you’re given a goal to complete together. Unfortunately, these goals are very vague, and rarely pointed out to you. Sometimes the goal is something like, “Form this shape together” and other times–2 of the 3 puzzles in the demo, no less–don’t tell you what the goal is. They give you some tools and the game seems to assume you know what to do. For instance, one of them gave you 3 balloons. We thought we were supposed to corral them together, but as a Nintendo employee had to tell us after several frustrating minutes of nothing happening is that we were supposed to pop them. The other, you’re given a basketball and a hoop. Whereas the goal was pretty obvious, the means by which you are supposed to achieve it are, of course, vague. We made one of the characters a cup to hold the ball and had them jump in the hoop, but unfortunately, even though we achieved the goal, that’s not good enough for Snipperclips. As another Nintendo employee had to tell us, you can’t have a character jump in with the ball. Although more forgivable than the lack of direction on the balloon challenge, it still left us with a sour taste in our mouths for this game.
After a few minutes with the balloon challenge, our frustration with this game was becoming pretty evident. Here’s where the importance of physical comfort comes in: Nintendo had you standing for all of their demos–after standing in their absurdly long line. That day, me and Dan were surprisingly close to the front of the line to get into the showfloor and we made a bee line for Nintendo. Even then, we were still in line for close to an hour and a half. Nintendo wouldn’t allow people to sit in the line because it took up more space. Needless to say, or legs and feet were starting to hurt by the time we got to play the games. We noticed all the more how sore we were getting after standing angrily around playing what should’ve been a fun, relaxing game. This, of course, made the already frustrating game less fun for us, as we became increasingly aware of how sore we were getting. Although we still would’ve been frustrated at the game regardless, we would’ve been much less so if Nintendo simply let you sit down and relax to play their games (except for ARMS, of course, which should be played standing up because it’s a motion control game, but that’s aside from the point).
A frustrated player who’s sore is much more frustrated than a frustrated player who’s seated and comfortable. From their line to their demos, Nintendo didn’t seem to understand that this year–a real shame since there were people waiting in their line for upwards of 4 hours. And this brought down my already frustrating experience with Snipperclips. In the right environment and with the right partner I’m sure this game could be fun–after all, it has a very creative premise and when it’s not being vague, it’s quite fun–but the fact of the matter is, it’s still vague. All the players need to be told of is the goal and whether or not there’s any rules for obtaining the goal, and that’s it. Although there is some fun to be found in Snipperclips, it still has plenty of room for improvement.
What Remains of Edith Finch
What a mixed bag Giant Sparrow’s newest playable narrative game What Remains of Edith Finch was. This is a game that tells you the story of the Finch family by telling you about all of the family members in different ways: Therefore, there were 2 versions of the demo: One about Calvin Finch, one about Molly Finch. They chose an interesting 2 to demo here at PAX, seeing as how they left me with 2 wildly different impressions.
The first one I played was the longer of the 2, the one about Molly Finch. Immediately what stands out in this game is its jaw-droppingly gorgeous graphics, which were probably the only consistency between the 2 versions of the demo. This demo felt more representative of what I’m assuming the game will be like. By that I mean, you start out playing as Edith Finch (our protagonist, who lived in a now-abandoned mansion until she was 11. Now she’s returning to find out more about her family) who gives us some exposition on her situation. From there, you go to the mansion, and you’re more or less led into Molly’s room after some time spent in exploration. After learning some more about her, you start playing as her in a kind of dream sequence where you become various animals. After getting over the initial awkwardness of the situation, it does reveal a lot about Molly and right as I was getting interested in her story, the demo crashed on me completely. To the point where one of the devs had to tell me what happened in the rest of the demo, and let me skip the line to play the Calvin one.
For every bit the Molly narrative was interesting, the Calvin one was not. Although not necessarily bad, it left much to be desired compared to its interesting counterpart. The Calvin story was short, plain, uninteresting, and didn’t provide any of the narrative hooks that the Molly one had to get me more interested or involved in the story. But at least it didn’t crash on me or have any other technical issues.
The polarizing feelings I had about the 2 demos left me unsure how to feel about this game overall. If nothing else, it at least got me curious about it. Assuming the technical problems are fixed, if the Molly narrative is more representative of what the full game will be like (which I’m thinking is the more probable case because it was longer and provided more context to the situation Edith was in) then this game will be wonderful. If the Calvin story, on the other hand, is more representative of what it’ll be like, then it won’t be anything particularly memorable. At the very least, though, I can compliment this game on some of the best graphics I saw at PAX East this year. Although What Remains of Edith Finch has certainly got my attention, whether or not that’s for the better is yet to be clear.
I played the 2-player version of Pyre with The Lifecast’s own Dan, who also played the single player version afterward. I’ve been told by him that the single player version of Pyre is substantially better than the 2-player, but alas, all I played was the 2-player version and will be talking exclusively about that version of it for this review.
Super Giant’s latest strategy game, Pyre, was a fun game plagued by an interminable demo. Without taking much time to explain the gameplay (but in its defense, there wasn’t much to explain anyways, so this was actually a good decision) or the context of the game whatsoever, the demo throws you into a match with your opponent in which you use 3 units–a small, medium, and a large–to essentially play football, but with fire and magic. Using your units, you throw a ball of energy into the enemy’s goal mark while they try to do the same for you. You use your units to go on either an offensive or defensive, catching or passing the ball, and so on. What made this demo so tiresome, however, was that it didn’t end until one side earned a certain number of points. Especially with players who are only just learning how to play the game, this can go on for far too long. Had the demo only required scoring less points–perhaps half, considering that the game wanted you to score about 100 points if I’m not mistaken, with each goal only getting you about 10–it wouldn’t have felt so long and sluggish. Although not bad, the gameplay wasn’t enticing enough to hold me or Dan’s attention for more than a few minutes. It got to the point where he let me score on purpose so we could be done sooner.
Make no mistake, the gameplay was tight, the graphics were gorgeous, and there was a good degree of fun to be had. But considering we were just learning the game and how no context for why we were doing this (and based on the visuals, the game does appear to have some kind of story) the demo felt much longer than it needed to be–to the point where we started feeling exhausted from it because we had to play it for so long, by no choice of our own. The demo should’ve been half its length. I don’t normally complain about the length of a demo, but for a game meant for casual fun–much like the multi-player demo for Pyre–you have to realize that your game is exactly that: Casual fun. Usually not meant for extensive periods of gameplay, much like this demo was. If I’m not mistaken, we were there for nearly half an hour by the time we decided to leave–far too long for a demo like this.
Date or Die
Despite being a visual novel touting an all-queer cast, that’s all that can be said about the uniqueness to be found in the Date or Die demo. Date or Die reminds me of a quirky, edgy 14-year-old’s attempt at making a dating sim. When making a dating sim, writing interesting characters is absolutely paramount. After all, since you’re relying on the story of your game–rather than gameplay (seeing as how there essentially isn’t any)–you need your characters to help hook the player in. The idea of a dating sim is to get to know the characters better–therefore, if the player isn’t interested in the characters, they have no incentive to want to get to know them better. At least as far as the glimpse into this game that the demo provided, Date or Die fails on this front.
Admittedly, it is hard to make a player fall in love with a given character within 10 minutes. So I’m more or less forgiving Date or Die on that front, as that may have just been due to its constrains of time. No, what really turned me away from wanting to learn more about this game was its premise and how it’s treated: You’re on a reality TV show where if you don’t date one of the contestants, you die–the host is, like the rest of the game, straight from a quirky 14-year-old’s tumblr blog. Your standard “XDDDD so quirky and mysterious BUT WITH A SMILE lolol” kind of anime character, usually found in series meant for pre-teen girls (see similar: Xerxes from Pandora Hearts, Grell and Undertaker from Kuroshitsuji, Dazai from Bungo Stray Dogs, etc). Between the obnoxiousness of using such an overdone trope, the premise which feels entirely too goofy for the rest of this visual novel (after all, the first few moments of the demo, our protagonist is locked in a cell–if you’re going to make your visual novel this goofy, go all in and leave no traces of seriousness behind), and the uninteresting cast, this game left me not yearning for more. If this demo is at all representative of what the full game will be like, then although it might appeal to a younger crowd (younger than 16) with little to no experience in dating sims, to someone older and more aware of (and sick of) cliches in dating sims, this game doesn’t look like anything new or special.
If ever there were a single most generic game at PAX this year, it’s Spirit Parade. An otome visual novel, Spirit Parade–at least as far as one could see in the demo–has no originality, and feels as much like a token Alice in Wonderland-themed dating sim as can be. It’s very hard to bring originality into the heavily over-saturated realm of Alice in Wonderland themed visual novels (and media in general–especially anime inspired, as Spirit Parade quite obviously is) and Spirit Parade is no exception. The only factors that even somewhat set it apart are its lovely art (which is, without a doubt, the best and only redeeming quality it has) and Eastern attire–which isn’t enough to warrant calling it “unique” in any facet.
The demo introduces us to our main cast: The Mad Hatter, Cheshire Cat, Queen of Hearts, Alice, etc. All of them act how you’d expect them to–Alice is the naive Mary Sue, Queen of Hearts is the regal (and best designed of the group) leader, and the Hatter and Cheshire Cat act like a 14-year-old on tumblr’s quirky OC. And of course, being an otome, they’re all men except for yourself (Alice) and the Queen of Hearts.
As far as the demo could present, Spirit Parade is another of the dozens of hundreds of Alice in Wonderland themed stories. As is typical for these kinds of stories, it presents no unique qualities, and its lovely art is its only redeeming quality. Spirit Parade, alongside Victor Vran (which I at least give the crutch of myself not liking top-down action games) and Date or Die, is without a doubt the worst and most generic game I played at PAX.
Some of you may be reading this part and thinking that between my feedback for Spirit Parade, We Know the Devil, and Date or Die it’s likely that I just don’t enjoy visual novels or dating sims and are therefore being unfair toward them, but that’s simply not the case. I very much enjoy visual novels–in fact, they’re my go-to genre for a relaxing game. Many visual novels are dating sims, so that subgenre is no different for me. I quite enjoy them both. It’s just unfortunate coincidence that the only visual novels to be found at PAX this year were so lacking.
Blasters of the Universe
Blasters of the Universe is a pretty standard-feeling VR bullet hell. Hearing it being called a “VR bullet hell” got me immediately interested in the game when I first heard of it, but playing it felt very underwhelming. Perhaps it was just the level that they used for the demo, but it felt too easy. There weren’t that many bullets to dodge, and even then, they were very easily dodged. It felt less like a bullet hell as it did a shoot em up, seeing as how most of the bullets that could be seen were my own–which shouldn’t be a surprise since there were a lot of enemies on screen (many of whom don’t shoot, at least not for a while) which again, made it feel less like a bullet hell and more of a shoot em up.
Blasters of the Universe feels like something you’d find in an arcade with VR setups–casual fun for a little while, but you’re likely not going to leave with a big impression of it. Other than its concept, it doesn’t have any remarkable qualities. Even then, it’s only the concept of it that sounds interesting–at least in the demo, the concept was hard to see at work seeing as how it hardly felt like a bullet hell at all. Although not necessarily a bad game, I wouldn’t call it good either. It was just really underwhelming.
I Expect You to Die
I have a lot of mixed feelings toward Schell Games’s I Expect You to Die. It’s a VR escape the room puzzle game where you play as a spy going on secret missions. I waited for about an hour in the demo line, only to play about 5 minutes of the game, so I don’t know if I’m exactly qualified to have a substantial opinion on it. Once you finish the tutorial, it sends you into a car that you’re supposed to escape with–it’s the enemy’s car, and one of the first things that happens is a retinal scan. Once it sees that you’re not the owner of the car, it fires a laser that you’re supposed to dodge–I dodged to my left, and died. I asked one of the devs what happened, and they said that you’re supposed to dodge to your right–despite nothing indicating that you’re supposed to do that. Needless to say, I left with a sour taste in my mouth that vaguely reminded me of a similar thing Compulsion Games did last year with We Happy Few.
That said, I do question the responsiveness of the game if dodging in a certain direction despite there being no indication that it’s a bad idea ends up killing you. If nothing else, I think this game should be better about indicating details like that so players won’t get as frustrated, as I was after leaving. The only other noteworthy detail I noticed was the visuals–which are, especially in the opening credits, incredibly stylish.
All in all, I don’t know how to feel about this game since I played it for less than 5 minutes. I think it’s stylish, has a very clever concept, and lots of potential but I heavily question its responsiveness and communication. It seems like a game that if the aforementioned issues were fixed could be excellent–especially as a VR game–but as of right now, it’s hard to say whether or not I think it will be good simply because I didn’t get enough time with it.
An astoundingly visual fortune telling VR game by Psyop, Kismet flexes all the aesthetic muscles of VR. The game itself is simple: It’s a fortune telling game where a character–Kismet–will read your fortune either by a tarot card reading or a star reading. There’s also a “game of wit” option, but that wasn’t available in the demo. There’s not much one can say about this game because of it’s incredibly short length, but as a gimmick–a small thing to add to your PSVR library–I think this could work incredibly well, especially if you’re into the occult or fortune telling, or perhaps just need something to pass the time during small parties or social gatherings.
What made this game memorable to me was its visuals and environments. Each of the 3 parts of this game has its own unique environment, each befitting of what it is. The cards set you in what appears to be a kind of gypsy caravan, the stars in a boundless planetarium-esque looking “room”, and the game of wit in the middle of an Egyptian desert–all of them look incredibly picturesque. What Kismet lacks in substance, it makes up for in its astounding visuals and environments. If you like fortune telling, are looking for a visual experience, or something that’s more of a gimmick than a game, Kismet is right up your alley.
Battlesloths 2025: The Great Pizza Wars
Roosterteeth’s latest work, a fast-paced multi-player twin stick shooter about one of my personal favorite kinds of animals, was perhaps the best “casual fun” game I played at PAX. Playing as multi-colored sloths with varying silly hats, you’re given a prompt for a game with 3 others players (or computers) usually involving pizza. The default game–the one that I played–involved you simply getting enough slices to fill up an entire pizza. Slices would randomly drop, and using various weapons that are also dropped, you fight your fellow players over the pizza. Basically, a king of the hill game but with sloths and pizza.
The demo felt very done when I had played it–tight gameplay, lots of variety, good graphics, no overt issues to be seen–to the point where I had assumed the game was already out, which is more or less true. It has been available on the Humble Monthly Bundle, but is not available on Steam yet. Its vague release details aside (though its site and social media says “Early 2017”), my only regret about this game is that it’s local multi-player only and there doesn’t seem to be any indication that it’ll have online multi-player as well. That aside, Battlesloths is the most fun I’ve ever had being a dragon-headed, laser-wielding sloth looking for pizza.
Best Indie Game: Perception, YIIK
Even though it wasn’t my first time seeing either of them, Perception and YIIK have yet again impressed me much more than anything else I saw at PAX. Perception has brilliant design, an incredibly immersive environment, and engrossing narrative that I can’t wait to sink my teeth into. YIIK is an incredibly stylish, personality-filled turn-based RPG that one will immediately fall in love with. Both games have me absolutely enamored and I’m counting down the seconds until the full games are out.
Best VR Game: The American Dream
The hilarious, Australian-made vision of America is a (literal) ride from start to finish. With its incredible sense of humor, solid (but not remarkable) gameplay, well developed 1950’s aesthetic, and relevance coming out during a tumultuous time for Second Amendment rights in America, The American Dream demo at PAX was an absolute delight. If it’s at all indicative of what the full game will be like, then we’re all in for a lead-flavored treat.
Best Triple-A Game: Splatoon 2
You’re a kid now, you’re a squid now, there are dodge rolls now.
“[Making mobile games] is absolutely not under consideration. If we did this, Nintendo would cease to be Nintendo.” –Satoru Iwata, 2011
This time 5 years ago, Nintendo was vehement in its stance of never wanting to make a mobile game. Today, however, is a different story: Nintendo has released Miitomo, Super Mario Run, and now Fire Emblem Heroes. Released earlier this month, Fire Emblem Heroes made more than $2.9 million within 24 hours of its release–giving it the third highest gross revenue for a mobile game on release (only behind Pokemon Go and Super Mario Run). With an average of ~$50,000 in daily income and ~8,000 daily installments, Fire Emblem Heroes seems to be doing pretty well for itself a month later, making more in a day than most mobile games make in a year. As incredible as these numbers must sound, however, they don’t necessarily speak on behalf of the quality of the game. Let us not forget, for instance, that despite being the best selling mobile game of all-time (currently), Pokemon Go is still constantly accused of being a buggy mess–and although it’s constantly being patched, new glitches always seem to come up in place of the ones that were just fixed. I’m not saying that these glitches make the app bad by default, just that–despite its overwhelming revenue–it’s far from perfect. Fire Emblem Heroes, of course, is the same way.
Let me start this review off by saying that I really enjoy this game: In the past few weeks I’ve been a Fire Emblem fiend. Nintendo really seems to try to be pushing making 2017 the year of Fire Emblem and they’re already off to a wonderful start through this game. Fire Emblem Heroes takes the bare bones mechanics of a typical Fire Emblem game and combines them with a heap of sweet, sweet fan service. Not the trashy kind of fan service we’re all used to in anime games, but fan service in showing us older characters that many of us haven’t seen in years–for some of us (especially considering that 6 Fire Emblem games were never officially released in English) at all.
“Fire Emblem Heroes takes the bare bones mechanics of a typical Fire Emblem game and combines them with a heap of sweet, sweet fan service.”
But nostalgia and love of a given character shouldn’t blind anyone from the faults in this game, of which there are plenty. Whether or not they’re so bad that they weigh the game down I’ll address shortly, but what I would like to make clear beforehand is that although this game is definitely designed so that non-fans of the Fire Emblem franchise can play it, too, it’s definitely pandered heavily toward fans of Fire Emblem. Although this isn’t necessarily a problem, it is something worth keeping in mind for now.
If you’ve ever played any Fire Emblem game then you know how to play Fire Emblem Heroes. And if you haven’t played a Fire Emblem game, then it’s a fairly simple–with a few in-depth aspects (though they’re hardly present in Heroes)–strategy RPG: Making teams, moving them across various fields, and using strategy to kill the enemy. Fire Emblem’s simple gameplay transfers very well on mobile: It’s easy to learn, hard to fully master.
Gameplay is where Heroes, like the rest of the Fire Emblem franchise, shines. The game offers many modes of combat (EX: Story mode, training, arena, etc.) to give the player a well-rounded experience and has a good variety of difficulty settings for all, giving players of all skill levels a way to have fun. Combined with the team building aspect, this can make for some quick, fun battles–which is perfect for the mobile platform.
The gameplay is very simple and straightforward–which for a mobile game, is ideal. Strategize, move your character(s), attack. Even though fans of Fire Emblem can jump into this game easily, it’s still designed so that non-fans–even of the strategy RPG genre–can still grasp it quickly and easily. Although it’s definitely a watered down version of the Fire Emblem gameplay (as it lacks classing up, a variety of attacks, etc.) it’s watered down in a way that’s ideal for a quick, yet enjoyable game: Something heavily emphasized in mobile games, making for an addictive experience.
Sound and Visuals
For a mobile game, Fire Emblem Heroes looks and sounds pretty sleek overall. It has an all-star voice acting cast (all of whom do an excellent job–despite the large cast, there’s not a bad actor in the group), a traditional “Fire Emblem-y” soundtrack, and the visuals are all solid. The only thing off putting about either of these things is the differing styles of art. Most of the characters are done in the very modern anime style seen in Awakening and Fates have, or something similar to it. Yet a lot of these styles have small nuances that make them look incredibly different when characters are put next to each other. More over, characters with radically different art styles like Arthur and Gunter look horrendously out of place. Although this alternate artwork isn’t bad (in fact, they’re all very well drawn) and, as an artist, I can sympathize that asking one single artist do do illustrations for the entire roster is a very tall order, I wish that they at least would’ve kept it more cohesive and avoided making some characters look like they’re in the wrong game entirely. Without knowing anything about the game, would you believe that these are all characters as the way they appear in the same game?
Story and Writing
Although I’ve not played the entire Fire Emblem series, I’ve still yet to play a Fire Emblem game with a notably interesting story–and Heroes is no exception. But due to the generally casual nature of mobile games (like Heroes) a super in-depth story isn’t necessary. The game gives you incentive to beat enemies and summon heroes and that’s it–but under these circumstances, that’s all it needs to do. Although it would’ve been nice to see something more clever than, “WOW we’re traveling across the different universes WOW look at all these characters from different worlds” (read: Kingdom Hearts) it gets the job done in this case. It’s not clever, but it doesn’t need to be clever. And given how needlessly complex the stories have been in some Fire Emblem games, having one that’s simply unoriginal is better than having one that’s trying too hard. On the story vs gameplay spectrum, Fire Emblem has always more heavily gravitated toward focusing on gameplay. Therefore–especially in a more casual setting like a mobile game–a clever or interesting story, while always a good touch, isn’t necessary. Fire Emblem Heroes neither falls nor succeeds in this department.
This is, without a doubt, where Heroes fails the most. Microtransactions are what keeps the mobile gaming market afloat: As such, as a game developer, it’s important that you make your audience want to buy them. Ideally, the microtransactions help the fun value of the game, but aren’t a necessity. When you emphasize the microtransactions too much, they make the game feel like a pay-to-win game, which your playerbase will catch on to fast and likely pander it for that reason as they grow increasingly sick of it. On the other hand, if you don’t emphasize them enough then nobody will buy them and your game won’t make a profit. It’s a very fine line. Sadly, however, Fire Emblem Heroes seems to lean heavily toward the free-to-play, pay-to-win model.
Scenario: You’re playing the story mode on Heroes. You’re horribly stuck, but you notice that one of your units of a different weapon class is doing much better than your other units in this map. You decide that you’ll add another 1 or 2 of that class to your team to help you win the chapter–but you notice that you don’t seem to have any other units of that class. So you decide to do a full summon (which is 20 orbs) with hopes that you’ll get a unit of that kind. But unfortunately, RNGesus didn’t smile on you today, and you don’t get one.
Since you’re stuck in the story mode and unable to progress, if you don’t have any more paralogues left or the occasional quest that offers an orb, then sadly, you’re screwed unless you’re patient enough to horde your sign in bonus of 2 orbs each day for 10 days and hope that next time you’ll get one. But odds are you’re not. So you decide to buy orbs. Knowing that a full summon costs 20 orbs, to pay for a full summon would cost you $13 each time. Or if you know that you’re going to want to do a few of them, the “best” deal you can get them at (in terms of cost per orb) is 140 orbs for $75. The catch is that you have to spend $75–something very few people would be willing or able to do. But even if you are willing and able to do that, there’s still no guarantee you’ll get what you need since the summons are all RNG-based. Most famously, there was a player who dumped $1000 into the game and still wasn’t able to summon Hector.
Bottom line: Orbs are imperative to the game, and obtaining them can be a slow process. You can easily go days–maybe even a week–without being able to summon anything, which could drastically affect the rate at which you play then game. Worse than the rate at which you get orbs, however, is the rate at which you get feathers: 20,000 of which are required to rank a hero up. At the most, you can get feathers in the arena–usually 1,000. More typical than that, however, are interactions with characters that usually get you about 5. Not 50, not 500, 5. I shouldn’t even have to explain how ridiculous that is. Surprisingly, there’s no way to purchase feathers. What you can purchase, however, is stamina potions which you’ll desperately need if you want to be able to grind for feathers long enough to get 20,000.
The stamina in and of itself is also a major exchange rate issue, as there’s no way to upgrade it and many parts of the game require upwards of 10 stamina to even attempt once–keep in mind that the stamina is capped at 50, and currently there’s no way to upgrade that. With the wait time to restore stamina being as long as it is if you want to restore a significant amount, it makes grinding for anything a major hassle.
It’s not surprising that the exchange rates in this game are so awful as I’m sure it’s done in part to make up for Super Mario Run. Unfortunately for Nintendo though, like they did in Super Mario Run, they’re making it incredibly obvious that they still don’t know how to price things fairly in a mobile game–both microtransactions and in-game-currency transactions.
With the in-game power these major factors, they slow the game down exponentially, making the game much more frustrating than it needs to be. Unless you get really lucky, this game makes it really difficult to be good at it as you progress–making purchases feel necessary. In other words, the free-to-play, pay-to-win model. The solution to this problem is simple: Either reduce the number orbs necessary for a summon, the number of feathers necessary for an upgrade, and the cost for stamina, or simply lower the prices of orbs, increase the number of feathers you win in arena/by talking with characters, and make it so that players can upgrade their stamina.
For years now Fire Emblem fans have wanted a crossover game to see their favorite characters fight alongside each other and create their dream teams: And, albeit watered down, this game delivers. You can play with a team of characters all from different Fire Emblem games if you want to. The Fantasy Fire Emblem team possibilities are insane. As the roster is now, there are representatives from every Fire Emblem game except for Path of Radiance, Radiant Down, Gaiden (soon to be known as Shadows of Valentia), and Thracia 776. Although that may seem like a lot of games–and certainly the surprising absence of Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn is felt–when you remember that’s only 4/14 games suddenly that doesn’t seem so bad, right?
The only notable problem to be seen in the characters present is the heavy focus in characters from Shadow Dragon & The Blade of Light, Awakening, and Fates. Although these are without a doubt the biggest 3 games it still feels cheap that they make up the overwhelming majority of the roster. To be more precise, they account for 72/108 playable characters in the game–that’s about 2/3 of the roster all from the same 3 games, leaving the other 7 games to divide that last third. Fates boasts the highest number of characters from it with 30 whereas the game outside of “The Big 3” with the most characters from it is Binding Blade with 19. The game with the fewest characters from it (without having none) is currently tied between Sacred Stones and Genealogy of the Holy War, which each have 2 . A big part of the fun of this game is seeing characters from the games you’ve beaten fight again–much moreso for the fans of the older games that haven’t had much love or attention. Although it’s understandable why there would be a focus in the newer Fire Emblem games, it still feels cheap that they account for a majority so overwhelming that it’s 2/3 of the roster.
Arguably a bigger problem than the heavy saturation of the roster is the absence of characters from Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn–particularly Ike who not only won the popularity poll held before this game by a landslide victory, but appeared twice in the top 5 due to being in both Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn. In total, Ike had 51,555 votes–almost double the next most popular male character (Roy, 28,982) and a few more thousand than the most popular female vote (Lyn, 49,917) making him the most requested character for Heroes. There were 3 other Radiant Dawn/Path of Radiance characters who appeared in the poll results (Micaiah, Mia, and Nephenee). Although Nintendo is almost certainly holding them for an event–probably for whenever the game starts to lose speed and the daily users starts its inevitable plunge–they chose a very unfortunate group to hold. By holding the most requested character, Nintendo has effectively angered several fans and made them feel like their votes in the poll never mattered, which is awful PR.
Despite the roster’s shortcomings, it’s still very satisfying seeing them acknowledge some of the older games and characters that otherwise never got much attention. Many fans can finally build the dream teams from across franchises that they’ve always wanted to–that is, if their teams were almost exclusively characters from Shadow Dragon & The Blade of Light, Awakening, and Fates (which in light of their overwhelming popularity, isn’t a difficult request). Hopefully Nintendo and Intelligent Systems will continue, like in the most recent event (Family Ties) to release characters from older games to break up the heavy saturation in the current roster.
Where this Game Succeeds
Heroes’ strengths lie mostly in gameplay and fan service: This game is fun to play, point blank. If you enjoy strategy RPGs, regardless of whether or not you’re a Fire Emblem fan, you’ll enjoy Heroes. The gameplay is simple enough without feeling too easy, and yet still offers a good transition into difficulty as you progress–to the point where many chapters are notably difficult regardless of the difficulty setting you’re on. Even if you just want to jump into a higher difficulty the game will allow you to do that as well, no problem. Heroes accounts for players of all skill levels.
If you’re a fan of Fire Emblem–even if you’ve only played one title–it’s really satisfying when you get a character that you know of or want. This is even more true for fans of the older games who can finally see some of their favorite characters get some attention, love, and new art. It’s also a great gateway into getting newer Fire Emblem fans into older games in the series–something Nintendo will probably be emphasizing more when they add characters from the second Fire Emblem game to it since it’s being remade in May as Fire Emblem: Shadows of Valentia, but is being overshadowed by the fact that currently more than half the roster is from Awakening or Fates.
If you don’t care about the exchange rates–if you’re just playing this game to battle and get a team that you’re satisfied with early on–then this game is fantastic. The Fire Emblem battle system translates very well on mobile. Sure enough, this does feel like a Fire Emblem game. Although this is clearly catered toward people who are already fans of Fire Emblem, the slightly watered-down version of the Fire Emblem gameplay would also make for a good way of introducing potential new fans into the franchise–although I could imagine them also finding it frustrating not knowing who any of the characters are, that also might help them make a decision in which main series Fire Emblem series they’d want to start with if they like the gameplay enough to want to try the fleshed out version of it.
Where this Game Fails
When Super Mario Run hit the mobile market, the main object of criticism with it was its exchange rates: That game itself was fine, but that it was the nuances of being a mobile game that hurt it, most notably its exchange rates which ultimately hurt it not just critically, but financially as well. Unfortunately, these problems were even more apparent in Fire Emblem Heroes. Like most mobile games, this game is designed to encourage purchases, but it crosses the line from the purchases helping to the purchases being necessary in many aspects. It becomes free to play, pay to win unless you have really good RNG luck. Although it’s definitely possible to play this game without making a purchase, it’s also significantly more difficult–and therefore, significantly more frustrating. This problem could easily be remedied by either bringing down the prices of the microtransactions or bringing down the cost of feathers/orbs/stamina potions necessary to do things, but until those are done this remains a glaring problem.
Aside from the exchange rates, this game is horribly disorganized. UIs are unwieldy, notifications that the player has already read will always come up on startup, and explanations are either too lengthy or simply not present. From a technical standpoint, this game is a mess relying heavily on the Fire Emblem logo to look cleaner.
All in all, this feels like a demo for the Fire Emblem franchise. Although it’s not the complete experience and certainly lacking in some areas, it does give you a basic idea of what the franchise is in a nutshell. You can tell it’s not done, but the potential is plain to see. It’s just a matter of seeing whether or not Nintendo or Intelligent Systems will fully realize that potential. As the game is now, it’s decent–but it has the potential to be great, and with very little effort on Nintendo or Intelligent System’s part.
“[Heroes] feels like a demo for the Fire Emblem franchise. Although it’s not the complete experience and certainly lacking in some areas, it does give you a basic idea of what the franchise is in a nutshell.”
As they enter the mobile arena, Nintendo’s made it very clear that they still don’t know 100% what they’re doing. And although they are getting some things exactly right, they (unsurprisingly) seem to fail when it comes to handling the hallmarks of making a mobile game work like exchange rates, not relying too heavily on fan service, and organization. Yet by the same token, what they have done in Fire Emblem Heroes they’ve done well: They’ve chosen an ideal IP to bring to mobile (as it was already very portable), they’ve made it so that it’s not necessary to be a Fire Emblem fan to enjoy this game (even if it’s exponentially better if you are), and they’ve made a very easy-to-digest version of the Fire Emblem gameplay without making it too difficult. In fact, they’ve added difficulty settings to it to cater to players of all skill levels, making the game feel neither too easy, nor too challenging (unless of course it’s a matter of needing different units on your team, which I already addressed, falls into them needing to improve their exchange rates and therefore, making it less of a hassle to summon new heroes).
Fire Emblem Heroes is an enjoyable game, and as a fan of the Fire Emblem franchise (most notably some of the older games) I really like seeing a crossover game like this with several of Fire Emblem’s most well loved characters. (But of course, if it were up to me, Owain, Inigo, Lute, Lucius, and Artur would be in this game, too, but that’s neither here nor there.) On top of that, it has a very addictive quality to it thanks to the gameplay. Although a very watered down Fire Emblem game, it still feels very much like a Fire Emblem game, albeit riddled with exchange rate holes. If not for the exchange rates, this game could be wonderful. They are, however, so imperative that they weigh the game down with it.
This game has the potential to be wonderful, but until Nintendo or Intelligent Systems fixes it, it’s simply okay.
I’m going to start out being completely honest. I did not play many games that came out this year, but I do have a clear pick for game of the year. Things like Stardew Valley and Dark Souls III didn’t catch my interest enough to continue past the first little while. I bought games that turned out to be complete flops, but for some ungodly reason I still enjoy. There are games that I had never even heard of that I ended up loving. Though I say I didn’t play many games this year, I can certainly fill out a list of five (well, four plus one update) that I enjoyed more than others, and I daresay I thought were better.
Warning: Major Spoilers for All Kingdom Hearts Games Ahead
It’s an argument as old as time: Story vs Gameplay. Alongside Console vs PC, this is probably the second most argued thing by the gaming community as a whole–and most will probably tell you that it depends on the game–after all, I don’t know anyone who played Bayonetta for the “story” or anyone who plays a Telltale game because they can’t get enough of making decisions that ultimately won’t matter. But on the other side of that, the gameplay in Bayonetta is nothing short of exhilarating and The Wolf Among Us brags a story more interesting than most other games. As far as the gameplay vs story debate, although it does certainly depend on the game (after all, I don’t start a new visual novel game expecting much, if any gameplay–and I don’t play fighting games because I want to know the story) in my opinion, the best games are the games that have both of these 2 factors working together in tandem and with equal force.
What do I mean by this? After all, what separates a game from other means of telling a story is the gameplay–should the gameplay not be the main focus of the game? Not necessarily if the game is a game meaning to tell a story. After all, if the story is good enough, it can outshine any lack of gameplay (or poor gameplay) and keep the player interested anyways–which is the foundation of the visual novel genre. Alternatively, if one’s gameplay is good enough, the player won’t care about the story because they’re having so much fun–which is what a lot of fighting games rely on. There’s no right answer in the story vs gameplay debate, but we can identify which one a game focuses on despite its efforts–and Kingdom Hearts being such a complex case of this is a great series to analyze in this lens.
It’s hard for me to remember a time when I completely understood the story of Kingdom Hearts. And believe me, there was! In my middle school and early high school days (about 10 years ago–when ReChain of Memories wasn’t out in English yet and 358/2 Days was hardly more than a rumor) you could’ve asked me anything about the franchise, no matter how obscure, and I could’ve told you the answer–well, if there was an answer at least. The story of Kingdom Hearts has always been one that’s tried to shroud itself in mystery when it can. That wasn’t enough to stop Kingdom Hearts from being my favorite game series for a few years, though. Needless to say, when a new game would come out, I’d buy it day 1. I wanted those questions that not even I knew the answer for to be answered. And as more games came out and more questions were “answered” it became more and more apparent to me:
The story of Kingdom Hearts has always been vague, and it will stay vague until the end.
Every time a question was seemingly answered, it never came without a catch–another dozen questions arise, the characters don’t know the full story, someone teases that there’s more to it than that and either won’t tell you what you’re missing or at least won’t tell you until much later, people forget about the answer and it becomes irrelevant, or in some cases, it becomes important again later and it’s revealed that the “answer” you thought you’ve had all this time was wrong all along. It’s one thing to do these things once or twice–in fact, it’d be hard to imagine a good story in which everyone knew everything all the time–but it’s another to use them all the time and for every possible conflict and character, as Kingdom Hearts does.
Take for instance the purpose of Organization XIII. In Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts 2, we’re told it’s a coalition of strong Nobodies who have joined together under Xemnas who seek to open Kingdom Hearts to regain their hearts and become whole again. Nothing too wrong with that, right? Enter Xion in 358/2 Days: Suddenly, it becomes apparent to us that there’s more to their purpose than they say since Xemnas went out of his way to make a (faulty) clone of Roxas in case he “proved useless” but despite the implications that came with that, we weren’t told anything more. Birth By Sleep comes out, we see the origins of Organization XIII: It was originally a research project lead by Ansem the Wise and Xehanort on heartless and memories (particularly the restoration of Xehanort’s memories) gone horribly wrong, ultimately resulting in them becoming Nobodies. Finally, Dream Drop Distance: Xigbar reveals that the true purpose of the Organization was to create vessels for Xehanort–the members, who were on some level, all at least part Xehanort (though only Xigbar and Saix were aware.) Alternatively, they were also possibly meant to be the 13 Seekers of Darkness to fight the 7 Lights in the inevitable keyblade war that would follow.
Organization XIII is just one of the dozens of major elements that make the “everything but the kitchen sink” story that is Kingdom Hears. Sadly, it’s also one of the easier elements to explain since it’s a group, rather than a single character–all of whom are surrounded by clones, vague symbolism, Alzheimer’s symptoms, more clones, cardiology problems, and at least 1 major identity crisis per game. If I had to compare the overall writing in Kingdom Hearts to anything, it’d be an overdramatic soap opera or telenovela with too many twists and turns–to the point where it’s clear to anyone who watches it for more than 10 seconds that it’s trying far too hard.
Actually, comparing Kingdom Hearts to a cheap soap opera or telenovela is still a bit generous since the same soap operas don’t aspire for the same level of symbolism that Kingdom Hearts always is, yet always loses itself in trying so hard, effectively turning any traces of symbolism into the player wondering if anything said in a given conversation is meant to be taken literally. (Read: Any time anyone talks dramatically about the concepts of light and darkness and if it’s supposed to be symbolic of good and evil, or if they’re talking about a literal force, and how wildly inconsistent it is.)So despite how obviously the story has lost itself in its own alleged symbolism, why are there so many people who defend the writing in this game to the death? Two words: Forced Drama.
How do soap operas and telenovela play up a situation, even if it doesn’t entirely make sense to the audience? Editing. Dramatic music and sound effects. Dynamic camera angles. Over-the-top acting. And when one starts making money, the writers come up with a cheap excuse to draw the story on longer than it needs to be. How does Kingdom Hearts do it? Editing. Dramatic music and sound effects. Dynamic camera angles. Try-hard acting. And what has Kingdom Hearts been doing so well these last few years? Cheap excuses that have been drawing out the story longer than it needs to be.By clearly establishing an easily identifiable relationship between the main characters and knowing right when to time the music, Kingdom Hearts has done a stellar job of making you think a moment is dramatic and heart wrenching when in reality, it’s either completely insignificant (or will become insignificant), or just plain makes no sense and is merely happening out of convenience. The best example of this I can give is Axel’s death in Kingdom Hearts 2. Axel was (and still is) my favorite character in Kingdom Hearts–so like most, his death scene, no matter how underwhelming, really upset me. Even back then I knew it was a really underwhelming scene–and frankly, poorly timed as well. Axel has come seemingly out of no where, helps Sora fight off one horde of nobodies, and dies thinking of Roxas.
So to understand this scene, first we got to understand why he died in the first place. Why it was necessary. Was it necessary? Absolutely not. Up to this point, the only things that have killed Organization XIII members was fighting with either Sora or Riku–not a kamikaze attack. Not just any kamikaze attack, but one that not even Axel seems to be aware of. In the cutscene preceeding his death, Axel says, “I think I liked it better when they were on my side.” to which Sora asks, “Feeling a little…regret?” “Nah, I can handle these punks. Watch this!” and then Axel explodes. At least, that what it looks like–he’s still in one piece, somehow completely devoid of burns, yet it still kills him.
So what’s the reasoning in killing the only member of the Organization that isn’t completely against us?
To reveal that he was the one who kidnapped Kairi and where Sora can find her and a route there–something that also reveals that Axel has had a change of heart (pun intended) and is now on your side, therefore letting you sympathize with him more in his final moments.
To show us that Axel has been a good guy all this time–that he’s never stopped thinking about Roxas and that all he’s done up to this point was selfless, despite how it may have looked–and thus show some character development for him.
To rid the game of the biggest nuisance in the Organization since he’s the only one that Sora (or perhaps more accurate to say Roxas, who is a part of Sora) likes and probably would be unable to kill himself because of that friendship.
To up the sense of drama at the end–the sense of just how many enemies Sora is against and how hard it would be without friends and how powerful the enemy is. Sora couldn’t defeat all these nobodies that Xemnas could control–he needs someone else to help him, and Riku isn’t quite an option yet. So who else could Sora call a friend? At this point in the game, Axel is the only one who fits the bill.
So yes, killing off Axel definitely wasn’t an accident. It was the way it was done that was sloppy. As I mentioned before, it was underwhelming. The attack that killed him didn’t look like something that would kill him. The way he spoke before doing the attack wasn’t how someone who knew they were about to die in a move of self sacrifice would speak. It was the tone and words of a new ally who was confident that he was more powerful than you and that he could prove it–without serious consequences. And when Sora realizes that he’s fading away, Axel still speaks casually–not just unlike someone who’s dying, but unlike anyone who’s even slightly injured. So why is this out-of-the-blue death still so sad? Because they start playing the sad music which this game is so famous for. Because we see Axel talking about his one and only friend, saying “He… was the only one I liked. He made me feel like I had a heart.” So we get sad. Not because Axel is dying, but because the game is giving us the cues to be sad.
Axel’s death was nothing more than a convenient way for the game to give some exposition, character development, and a route to your next destination all in one convenient scene. But what makes a character death emotional is when it’s more than than that, when it’s more than a convenient plot device like this is and nothing more. A truly gripping character death isn’t just looking to be convenient, it’s looking to be meaningful–and due to the underwhelming and too-sudden timing and method of his death next to how convenient his death would be, it’s easy to see that his death was, indeed, just a plot device. It’s not sad, the game just gives us the cues so we think it’s sad. And it’s not hard to play up these cues since they gave him a few redeeming lines at the last minute. Just to further this point, nobody ever looks back on Axel’s death. It’s not something Sora ever looks back on (very surprising, in light of how highly he seems to value his friends) for strength, it’s not a scene anyone goes back to thinking, “We couldn’tve done this without Axel.” Axel is literally never mentioned again by anyone–very surprisingly, since this is supposed to be a sad scene, right? Not surprising at all when you realize that this is just a thinly veiled plot device wrought of convenience because leaving Axel alive would be too problematic at the time (after all, can’t have a member of the Organization running around, can we? Especially one looking for Roxas) and the writer’s inability to write a good death and using the editors as a crutch to make up for it.
If you want to reference a good heroic death scene to compare this to–one that’s not the love child of poor writing and needing some last minute exposition–I’d point you toward another Square Enix game, Final Fantasy VII Crisis Core, in Zack’s death scene. Not only is it clear that he knows he’s going to die saving Cloud, but as we see in Final Fantasy VII, it’s something that stays with him. Something that haunts him. Something that’s formed him into the character he became because he’s tried in many ways to become Zack. Not just him, but Aerith as well. It’s emotionally gripping not just because there’s rain and sad music, but because we already saw so much character development for Zack throughout the whole game and how badly he wanted to be a hero–and seeing that he’s finally come full circle and become one. To drive the point home, it shows you Zack’s life flashing before his eyes. And because, if you’ve played Final Fantasy VII, you’ll realize that his aspirations for Cloud would only be half fulfilled because he was unable to protect Aerith, whom Cloud associates heavily with Zack. It’s emotional, it’s gripping, it’s something that affects the characters.
In short: Axel’s heroic death isn’t sad because it’s just a convenient plot device with sad music and no ramifications.
Zack Fair’s heroic death is sad because it has ramifications. Because by this time we know him incredibly well and how his story has come full circle and now he’s passing it on to Cloud, who’s changed radically by Zack’s death and will ultimately feel failure to protect his legacy by failing to protect Aerith.
If it wasn’t enough that they were insulting Axel’s character so much to only kill him (sloppily) for convenience, they went and did one of what I consider to be cardinal sins of writing a good story:
They brought him back to life in Dream Drop Distance. For no reason. No explanation. He literally just showed up.
And what’s more, like everyone else now, he can wield a keyblade because why the hell not.
The whole game operates under the same formula as Axel’s death: Use the music and camera angles, make people think it’s sad by forcing the emotion, and then BAM! Make it irrelevant somehow–In Axel’s case, by bringing him back to life for no reason. Just when the game makes you think it’s sad, it makes you happy again. You’re feeling a wide range of extreme emotions when you play through this series, so even when you don’t understand what’s going on, you still feel emotionally involved because the game is giving you the cues for when to be happy, sad, etc. And that’s why so many people confuse the fragments of story in Kingdom Hearts with a solid, understandable, well-written story–because they feel emotionally involved.
By now you probably think I hate Kingdom Hearts–and I don’t. Because it’s finally time to look at the other side of Kingdom Hearts: The gameplay. It’s an action RPG with several menus. Gameplay is kept constant in the main games (Kingdom Hearts 1, 2, and Birth By Sleep) and gimmicky in the “in-between” games like Chain of Memories, 358/2, ReCoded, and Dream Drop Distance. In the main games, the gameplay is generally the same–attack with one button, use magic with another, and then use items. Menu is in the bottom right, use it! Personally, I think Birth By Sleep had the best gameplay as it used that simplicity and added special combo attacks and a better way to aim. Regardless, there’s something satisfying about hitting mashing a button and see Sora (or whoever else the protagonist may be) act accordingly, nearly at the same speed as you. And what’s more, the games do require several elements of strategy in some of the battles–they’re not all easy. You can’t just keep mashing attack and win all the time. And it’s fun. It’s satisfying. And they mix up the gameplay (for better and for worse) in just enough games to make it feel all the more diverse and refreshing. From a technical standpoint, Kingdom Hearts is just. Plain. Fun.
In recent games, they’ve especially boosted this with adding more fun to be had than in combat: By adding mechanics with Unversed and training them in Dream Drop Distance, by sliding around in Birth By Sleep (and based on the trailer, we’ll see this again in 2.8 and 3), using the enemies more creatively, and of course, bigger, flashier, more colorful, borderline cinematic looking attacks. It’s fun to watch this happen–it’s fun to make it happen.
It’s hard to play a Kingdom Hearts game and not say you didn’t have at least a little fun. From a technical aspect–visuals, soundtrack, and most importantly, gameplay, Square Enix nailed it with Kingdom Hearts. I think that’s why I care so little about Chain of Memories, which has gameplay that’s the antithesis of all the other Kingdom Hearts games by using deck building based combat–which is significantly slower than the normally fast paced, hot bloodedness of the rest of the series which is so easily and readily fun to play right off the bat. It’s satisfying, it’s not mindless, and there’s different ways you can play the game if you don’t like playing it in a certain way. (EX: Using more magic, or using a certain kind of magic, as opposed to normal attacks–or focusing on abilities rather than regular attacks and magic.)
I don’t hate Kingdom Hearts. In fact, I quite like it. What I don’t like–no, what I don’t understand–is how a series that was the brainchild of the same man who made Final Fantasy 7 (and many other wonderful JRPGs) could’ve also thought of the hot mess story that is Kingdom Hearts. Lost in its own symbolism and the clearest example of what happens when you make a few too many sequels and come up with any excuse you can to force drama and carry the series on far longer than what it should’ve been, Kingdom Hearts fails in every possible department of story telling. I guess that’s what happens when you try to mix Disney charaters, Final Fantasy characters, and a few original characters. It sounds like the beginning of an awful “X and Y walk into a bar” joke, but alas, it’s the unfortunate basis of one of the most well known JRPG series of all time. But for every bit that the storytelling is bad, the gameplay is absolutely wonderful. It’s satisfying, fast, and increasingly diverse and cinematic. Again: It’s just plain fun.
In the story vs gameplay debate, Kingdom Hearts is the clearest example of how if a game’s gameplay is good enough, it can outshine even the worst of stories. If your editing and soundtrack is good enough, you can fake having a good story under the guise of “emotional involvement.” As such, joins the ranks of other convoluted but fun games like Bayonetta and Metal Gear. Not bad games at all–in fact, they’re excellent games. But God forbid movies ever get made about them, removing their gameplay and relying entirely on the overly complex story to entertain the audience.
Kingdom Hearts is what happens when an idea that would work for no more than 3 games gets drawn out far longer than necessary in an attempt to make money. The story becomes cheap, convoluted, and inconsistent, the excuses and reasoning behind character’s actions (and thus the characters themselves) become one-trope caricatures, and the strong emotions you felt in those first few games gradually become forgotten. If Kingdom Hearts didn’t have stellar gameplay to save it, this series likely would’ve died years ago.
As 2016 comes to a close, gamers everywhere are talking about gaming’s best and worst of the year. When talking about the worst that gaming had to offer this year, I could pick the low hanging fruit by talking about No Man’s Sky or Mighty No.9 but there’s very little to say about them that hasn’t already been said at this point. Instead, I’d like to tell you about Oxenfree: The most disappointing game I played all year.
As its described on Steam, “Oxenfree is a supernatural thriller about a group of friends who unwittingly open a ghostly rift. You are Alex, and you’ve just brought your new stepbrother Jonas to an overnight island party gone horribly wrong.” It has very positive reviews on steam, particularlypositivereviews off of Steam, there seems to be an element of thriller to it–which I appreciate–secluded ghost island as a setting, gorgeous stylized graphics, the choices matter tag, so when I see this I’m thinking this game looks like something right up my alley. Months later, after being very high on my radar for quite a while, I finally got it and by this time, I’m looking incredibly forward to it.
Immediately once I start playing it, the first thing I notice is that this game runs like a potato on my laptop. In its defense though, my laptop isn’t too good for gaming. In any case, it took decades for a single scene to happen because there’s a lot of conversation in this game and talking speed is fine, but the animations for characters talking is incredibly slow because of the aforementioned potato-ism. And so each conversation was like a battle to the death with my impatience because after any sentence would end, I was generally waiting an extra minute or 2 to hear the response to it because the talking animation is still going. But as I said, I more or less excused the game for this since my laptop was the reason this was happening, and I didn’t have another way of playing it. This complaint wasn’t necessarily the game’s fault, but it certainly didn’t aid toward my attitude of it as the game trudged on.
So our story is that these high schoolers are going to an island on some kind of school trip–except that the rest of the group isn’t there yet? But also because our protagonist didn’t want to be alone on the anniversary of her brother’s death? The reason for their being there isn’t exactly made completely clear, so right off the bat the writing needs some help.
Now, our main characters are a group of high schoolers. And very early on I started thinking that, in the nature of writing realistic high schoolers, all these characters are shit heads. You play as Alex, who’s very much a special snowflake. We’re already off to a bad start because the only thing I hate more than characters who are written to be special snowflakes just for the sake of being special snowflakes is when the main character is a special snowflake just for the sake of being a special snowflake. And what’s worse is that this game goes out of its way to remind you that she’s a special snowflake on multiple occasions, only driving the nail further into the coffin.Then we have her “friends”: New step brother that nobody’s friends with yet, quiet girl, the guy who brought pot brownies, and bitchy girl that nobody likes and there doesn’t seem to be a reason why anyone invited her in the first place.
But again, I tried not to think about this too much since that’s just the nature of writing a set of realistic high schoolers. High schools are full of shitty people. So again, I let this one go thinking, “Well, these characters are high schoolers and high schoolers are shit heads, so it’s natural that they’d be shit heads. …Even if they’re shit headier than most high schoolers buuuuttt—”
Our supernatural situation is presented fairly early on after the world’s longest campfire game of exposition, courtesy of my laptop, and it’s that the ghosts are triangles…? At first I thought that was fine, a little weird but fine, I’m sure it’ll all make sense later on, it’s still only the first hour of the game. This’ll definitely be explained later on. (Spoiler alert: It was never explained later on.)
If it isn’t already really obvious, by the one hour mark, I was already having to actively try to make myself like the game. After all, it looked so interesting and the reviews were so good–maybe it just had a slow start? Maybe the characters would get better? In any case, after your contact with the triangle ghosts, you and your “friends” get separated, (y’know because ghosts) but you’re able to find a way to communicate with each other so now you and your step brother are gonna go pick em up. And the process is…long, to say the least. Between the lagging on my laptop and the needlessly long and winding roads in the game, traveling from spot to spot was a pain, to put it simply. It was a pattern of click a few inches away from Alex, wait for her to finally catch up, wait a little longer, click again. For several hours of the game. (That alongside making decisions and adjusting your radio is all the gameplay you’ll see in Oxenfree–it’s very much a story and decision driven game.)
50 years later when you finally find them, you guys start to make a plan for how you’ll escape. Luckily for us, turns out Alex used to go to this island all the time with her dead brother, so she knows where the dead owner of the only house on the island kept a boat that’s surprisingly not dead. So they go to the house, and FINALLY we have some kind of more direct communication with our ghost pals via the girl that nobody liked or missed anyways. If the writers wanted the ghosts to possess a person with hopes that it’d put our moral compass in a tizzy, they chose the worst character for the job. (Not that there were any good choices, but this was still the worst choice.)
Up until this point, the ghosts have been screwing with us, making small fragments of time repeat, photobombing, etc. but sit down, friends. Let me tell you what finally made me admit to myself that I wasn’t having fun with this game, and that’s the brand of “creepiness” that this game uses.
Here’s where we enter the wonderful realm of subjectivity: What one person finds creepy, another may not. But like all things, there are many things that most people agree is creepy. And like all generalizations, these generalizations will evolve with time. So what this game uses to creep us out are red eyes, small time loops, radio static noises with mixed voices, intentional visual “glitches”, never explicitly stated satanic themes, and of course, those weird triangles.
When something is creepy, that means it creates a feeling of discomfort within us. Like robots in the uncanny valley, seeing a middle aged man look at a 16 year old girl for a little too long, or even something more conventional like a black cat walking under a ladder. Another big part of what makes creepy things creep us out is whether or not we’re used to it. Taxidermy is another thing that creeps most people out, but do you think that when a taxidermist looks at their collection they get creeped out? Probably not because they’re so used to seeing it that they’ve got used to it. It’s normal. And this is where Oxenfree falls.
Red eyes. Intentionally glitchy graphics. Radio static and mixed voices. Satanic implications that are never blantantly spelled out. These are all things you’ll find in other recent games that try to be creepy, or on an edgy 12 year old’s tumblr. Hell you’ll find these things in a Hot Topic. Red eyes? Okay, that’s a trope that’s been used since the beginning of time. Free pass. Intentionally glitchy graphics? Satanic themes that are never blatantly spelled out? Both things that have become very fashionable when trying to portray something as creepy in a more horror oriented way. Satanic themes that are implied by never blatantly stated are especially trendy lately. Not just in movies and games, but even in fashion–I can’t tell you how many girls I see sporting clothes or accessories with ouija boards these days. It’s hip, it’s trendy, and why wouldn’t it be? Because by the looks of all the recent horror movies, sometimes-explicit but usually just implied themes of Satanism or the devil are in.
As for the intentional visual glitches? Huge trope right now. Found footage and “based on true-ish events” movies are HUGE right now, and this trope is a STAPLE for them. And this trope translates very well into games, so we’ve had no shortage of its usage lately. Undertale. Pony Island. The Stanley Parable. I can go on, this goes back as far as Metal Gear.
Bottom line, the only traits they use to portray creepiness are all, in my humble opinion, trite, cliche, and overused. But because they’re what’s fashionable right now in this wonderful age where unexplicit Satanic themes that are never fully explained or explored are popular, of course that’s what they’re going to go for. The low hanging fruit. And I’m bored of that brand of creepiness. I’ve been bored of it for ages now. And because I’m used to seeing it so often in media, it’s no longer creepy to me. And worst of all, this game uses the most textbook version of that brand of “creepiness” as a crutch to distract from it’s poorly explained story, featuring characters that I just don’t care about.
Suddenly, the only reason I was playing this game was in hopes that everything would be explained or that the story would take a total 180, but neither wish came true. Such is the nature of a lot of stories like this, the evil, supernatural force is never quite explained. It’s just there because it happens to be there, and unluckily for you, you happen to be there, too. Go figure. The rest of the game went by like this. A story that was never fully explained, featuring characters that got no better despite the game’s efforts, gameplay that felt more like a chore than gameplay, I wasn’t getting any enjoyment from this game anymore.
That’s not to say it had no positives though, it did do some things I enjoyed. The visuals, first and foremost, are fantastic. Second, I will preach to the ends of the earth that if at least half of your game’s gameplay is based in making decisions, there BETTER be different outcomes to these decisions–and I don’t mean a Telltale, oh it was different for 3 seconds but both options resulted in the same outcome anyways kinda different, I mean completely 100% different. And these different paths better lead to different endings, and on that front, Oxenfree absolutely delivered. Despite how slow and painful conversations were, I still felt like all my decisions actually held weight–and lo and behold, they did! In fact, it does that thing at the end where it gives you a percentage of how many other players made the same decisions as you, and I love that. I wish more games did that.
And finally, it’s not like this game didn’t even try when it came to the writing. There were these brief, evanescent moments where you can tell that they were trying to care about the situation more, or sympathize more with a character, or even just trying to really get you caught up in a moment. But alas, just as quick as you could tell that they were trying to make some headway with the writing, just as quickly it seemed to stop.
The best example I can give of this is in that campfire game at the beginning. You can ask Jonas if he went to juvy and he’ll say no. Of all the questions you can ask Jonas this one seems the most far-fetched, especially at the time. Like, who do you have a crush on? How do you feel about your new family? How’s school? Have you ever been to juvy?And from right then and there, even though he denies it, the sole fact that such a standoff question in a game void of silly or irrelevant options is even there tells the player that he’s been to juvy. There’s no reason for the game to even bring it up otherwise. So the whole game you’re waiting to hear it him admit it. And it makes you curious about him. Why was he in juvy? Why won’t he tell us? You become curious about Jonas.
And then, close to the end of the game, when he finally tells you, he doesn’t even treat it like a big deal. He’s like, “Yea, I beat up a kid because he threw a baseball at my head and went to juvy. Didn’t say anything earlier because…aaaahhh I dunno’. “And then it’s never brought up again. There seemed to be no reason for it, other than for the sake of making you curious about him, ultimately with pretty much no payoff. Now, if he had told us about juvy–if maybe some event happened there that changed his personality, or even just being there changed him and he described what it felt like to be there, that’d be one thing. That’s payoff, because now we’re getting some tangible character development through backstory. But we don’t. Like, that conversation could’ve been anything else. We don’t learn anything new about Jonas that we didn’t already know without being told.
Seriously, you can replace the word “juvy” in their conversation about it with the name of any other place and it doesn’t make a difference. You can make it Walmart. And nothing about his character changes. That’s how you know this isn’t giving us any character development. It’s not even used as a way to show that now he feels more comfortable around Alex, because he flat out says that he’s telling Alex this so that she’ll know before someone else in their group finds out and uses it against him. The strategy was there in this attempt at character development, but since the payoff wasn’t, it doesn’t do us any good.
On a scale from 1 to 10 I’d give Oxenfree a 4. It’s not that it was bad necessarily it just wasn’t good, either. Even when you put away how poorly this game ran on my computer and how I just don’t care for the generic, edgy 12 year old on tumblr brand of creepiness that this game uses, the writing just isn’t good. You can tell that they’re trying to write it well, but the magic just never happens. Strategies to help emotionally invest the player are certainly there, but never with any payoff. Especially in light of how much I wanted to love this game, it just makes it all the more disappointing for me. But will Oxenfree be remembered in 2016 alongside the likes of Mighty No. 9 and No Man’s Sky? Certainly not. On the contrary, this game is mostly praised. But for me, at the very least, although this wasn’t necessarily the worst game of 2016, this was easily the most disappointing.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a unique experiment for the long running franchise. It is also one that works, and ultimately succeeds. Shedding familiar plot elements in favor of an incredible, pulse pounding original story about the Rebellion, Rogue One contains outstanding action and battle scenes fans of Star Wars will love. Performances are consistent as well, including a pseudo-cameo from two classic Star Wars villains. Rogue One holds its own against the better films in the franchise, even with minor problems including a jokey script and a jagged mess of a first act.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… Rogue One takes place a few decades before the original trilogy. Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones. Erso’s father (Mads Mikkelson) is a scientist who is crucial for designing the Empire’s newest weapon. The newly formed Rebellion gains knowledge of this fact and finds Erso to use her connection to him as leverage to find plans.
Supporting Erso is the headstrong Cassian Andor, played by Deigo Boneta, and a reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (voiced and motion captured by fan favorite actor Alan Tudyk). Endo and Ero also encounter defected Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), thuggish mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and the Buddhist monk-type Chirrut Imwe, played by the unrivaled Donnie Yen.
Trying to stop the newly formed team is Orson Krennic, played by Ben Mendohlson. Krennic is ruthless and calculating, and wants to destroy the Rebellion with his creation; the Death Star.
Solid battle sequences, acting and universe building all make Rogue One great Rogue One does away with choreographed lightsaber duels and the never ending battle between the Jedi and Sith. Instead, it focuses on the ground battles in a welcomed change of pace. The use of blasters and a variety of explosions give the action a more nail-biting point of view. Donnie Yen is also given a chance to show-off his action skills as well in an awesome fight.
Jyn and Cassian’s fight through Jedah and the final battle will keep fans on the edge of their seats. Director Gareth Edwards also manages to blend both ground and space battles that almost succeed over the climatic final battles in Return of the Jedi.
Nearly every performance in Rogue One is great. Jones’ Jyn Erso is a much more interesting character than Rey in Force Awakens. Jones plays Erso as a flawed young drifter whose emotions get the best of her and overall shows more organic growth as a character. She’s also a formidable gun fighter as well. Luna is fantastic as a cheeky Rebellion member and Wen and Yen share a bit of a buddy-cop esque vibe, but through the Star Wars filter.
Rogue One does a fantastic job at fleshing out the new Star Wars universe. Movie goers and longtime fans are seeing the inner workings of the Empire and Rebellion on the big screen for the first time. The inclusion of Clone Wars character Saw Guerrra (Forest Whitaker) is also a nice nod for fans. Chirrut’s religious devotion to the ideas behind the Force give it a mythic feel not seen in many of the other films. Darth Vader is far more of a merciless badass than he has ever been. It’s a great addition, but not as great as the appearance of a particular infamous Imperial leader. And it’s not Emperor Palpatine.
Finally, the ending is one to behold. It’s emotionally draining as it is exhilarating. Older fans of Star Wars will finally appreciate what the title A New Hope really means.
Rogue One’s minor problems bring it down just a tad Despite being based off of classic film serials and B-movies, George Lucas never wrote Star Wars as being a rapid fire collection of one-liners. Rogue One uses them a bit too much, where it almost comes off as a script trying to be a Marvel film.
Characters like Bodhi and Bale have their shining moments, but aren’t fleshed out. Their performances are far from terrible though. The biggest issue is Krennic himself. Mendohlson has proved himself to be versatile actor and his performance in Rogue One is no different. He sets the screen on fire every time Krennic is barking orders or is showing his cold-hearted attitude towards Erso’s father. He’s just not on screen enough for viewers to enjoy him. Which is a shame, since Mendohlson puts on the best performance in the film.
“A rebellion is built on hope.” Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is successful in giving Star Wars a grander scope. It is also successful in being an entertaining film in its own right. From its enjoyable and breath-taking action sequences to its well-rounded performances and its phenomenal world building, Rogue One will please hardcore Star Wars fans and make movie goers happy.
Catalyst Labs released Shadowrun: Anarchy this past week, and naturally I picked up a nice PDF copy. I then printed out that copy and stuck it in a binder. And then I read it. And let me tell you, I liked what I saw. Shadowrun is notorious at this point for having an overly complex system of dice pools, character creation, and in fifth edition, matrix and astral plane actions in addition to everything that happens on the physical plane. Trapped in a musty cellar? You can alter players’ dice pools on the conditions. Need to hack into some club’s server for a mission? Get out your dice. It’s no surprise that most GMs, myself included, offload some of these things to their players. You wanna register this sprite? Do your tests. Be honest if you glitched.
Shadowrun: Anarchy (or just Anarchy from here on out) seeks to correct some of these things. Most notably, it emphasizes the fact that it’s a collaborative storytelling effort. The GM is there to guide the story along with the help of the players, not so much create a world that players inhabit. From the get-go I can see Anarchy being great for one-off campaigns where people don’t have a lot of time to sit down and plan a run.
That being said, Anarchy gives players and GMs a lot to work with when it comes to character resources. NPCs and player characters have a dedicated chapter which includes a smattering of 60 fully-realized, fully-playable characters in every species, race, gender, and archetype imaginable. It’s incredible how many are in the book. In addition, Anarchy gives GMs a variety of goons to throw at their players. These range from large rats to small dragons and everything in between.
Playing the Game
Anarchy’s character creation process is pretty straightforward. Characters pick their metatype, helps and hindrances, and character-defining cues. This is what’s new to Shadowrun in this version. As opposed to a dedicated GM running a sandbox that players get to experience, the GM acts as that one guy in an improv play that knows what they’re doing. In fact, most of Anarchy is like an improv play: there’s a lot more responsibility on the players to keep the story moving. Turns of gameplay are broken up into narrations, and players can expend plot points to make the story go where they want it to or keep their characters… you know, alive. Which is something I appreciate.
The cue system, as it’s called, gives players plot points to start out with and at the GM’s discretion, gives them more for exceptional narrations. Players do cool things, players get rewarded. Players have a say in the story. If they don’t like it, they can change it. It’s an engaging, fast-paced change from the typical tabletop model where decisions can come back to haunt players. In long-term campaigns, that still persists, though in shorter one-offs, it’s a lot more hands on.
Playing the game this past week went about as smoothly as I’d hoped. The premade characters helped out a lot. (GM Tip: Put character sheets in page sleeves so that players can use dry-erase markers on them. Pencils can tear paper and it keeps the sheets in pretty good condition.) The three players I had picked out characters with ease and we got down to running. We poked fun at the dad-joke cues that some of the characters had, and I led them on a run.
Quirks and Overall Adaptability
I think the hardest thing about running a game of Anarchy was letting go of a lot of the control you have as GM. As a fiction writer primarily, I have set places I want my stories to go and I spend a lot of time building the world they take place in. I’ve been worldbuilding for our upcoming Shadowrun show for weeks, and I still have a fair bit to go. I want things to be as realized and intricate to my players as they are to me. Anarchy takes a bit of that away because players can change things so easily. It’s not something I was really prepared for at first.
Another thing is some places in the book that haven’t exactly been proofread. Some paragraphs reference the alpha test version of Anarchy, which is pretty funny to look at now. Then again, every first-edition has its quirks.
There are other things that just come with the nature of Shadowrun. There are still a lot of rules, and some of them aren’t explained so well. I still have no idea how to orchestrate matrix or astral combat, let alone meatspace combat. Even though skills have been greatly simplified, it’ll take some getting used to.
Also: players get three plot points to start each game session. I mistakenly gave them none. (Sorry guys.) Other than the fact that getting used to a different version of pen and paper RPGs takes time, I didn’t see a problem with it. Catalyst Labs also included a guide on how to convert Shadowrun 5E to Anarchy and vice-versa. Which is incredible. The cues system really exists as something that can be removed, as well, so adapting it to a different setting wouldn’t be a stretch by any means.
While I enjoy the finer details of Shadowrun’s vanilla 5th edition, I find myself wanting to use Anarchy in more and more campaigns. It’s good news for my players, it offloads some of the nitty-gritty things that GMs go through, and it makes for a really nice experience overall. It’s interesting to see a pen-and-paper RPG styled more like a board game than anything else, and I like the direction Catalyst Labs went with Anarchy. To me, it’s a kind of party trick to keep in my back pocket. Anarchy makes it quick and easy to get a few friends together and run a session. It’s an incredible introduction to some of the conventions of tabletop RPGs, and Anarchy presents it in an easy-to-learn format. 10/10, Catalyst Labs. Well done.
Overall, I’m super in love with this release. Can you tell?