Prey (2017)

What’s immediately striking about Prey has little to do with the actual game. It’s a complete marketing disaster. It has the same name as a forgettable game from the late oughts that never got a true sequel, except it’s actually a spiritual sequel to the shock style of games (System Shock/Bioshock). My first encounter with it was a commercial during the NBA playoffs, my reaction something along the lines of “huh, OK”. I forgot about it until I chanced upon mention of it in a forum thread months later.

Which is too bad. It’s a decent game. Though far from perfect and ultimately dissatisfying.

After a delightfully creepy intro, you, Morgan Yu, wake up aboard Talos I, a spacestation floating between the Earth and moon that was slowly assembled in an alternate history wherein JFK was never assassinated and the US/Soviets reached some kind of peace & cooperation w/r/t space exploration. It’s now 2035 and technology has gone down different paths than our own timestream. The hip new tech in Prey is the “neuromod”, which allows you to inject other people’s skills (whether being a great athlete or musician or whatever) into your own brain to gain that knowledge and affinity. This is what is used to augment your character as well, though the gameplay mechanics here don’t live up to the premise (largely limited to: take a few neuromods for your basic +10 to shooting or movespeed).

I’m not certain if this gametype has a name. I’ve pejoratively termed it the “sneak around and read people’s mail” genre. What’s interesting about games from Bioshock to Prey is they build this utterly compelling, immersive environment — Talos 1 is absolutely believable as a real place — and then construct a bafflingly implausible and gamey method of delivering the narrative. Whether this be Bioshock’s audio diaries scattered everywhichwhere, various actors proclaiming every private aspect of their lives, or Prey’s workstations with their conveniently left behind passwords, identical interfaces and 3-email inboxes. Indeed, 3 emails that happen to reveal tantalizing morsels of plot. These titles take far more pride in their narrative than most video games yet remain shackled to “shoot things and read/listen to static things.”

Anyway, the environments are so good, that it still kind of works. For a while. Sneaking around Talos I, using my paltry skills to dodge or eliminate the aliens skulking around, piecing together stories of just what went wrong, was engaging. When my enthusiasm started to flag, the game smartly introduced some survivors for me to worry about. But the fact of the matter is that you can only sustain a game so long on dubious combat and reading emails. Prey does itself no favors by having sparse plot, stretched entirely too thin. You could break the whole narrative down to a few story beats, with too many distractions in between.

You encounter intriguing plot device —
Oh no, you can’t reach the intriguing plot device because the power is out —
You turn the power back on —
You’re treated with a tiny morsel of plot, but oh no, the macguffin you need to see the next part is broken
You go fix it —
But now you’re locked out of the station
Etc etc etc.

I must have played through about 80% of the game in a week and spent the next two+ limping to the conclusion. Not limping — holding down sprint and running by all the new enemies just to reach the story’s end. It’s a very uneven experience.

 

Odin Sphere Leifthrasir

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Somehow, Odin Sphere, a cult classic from the PS2 era, was lovingly remastered.  I didn’t even know people bought this game back then. And it’s not just a remaster in the commonly used sense of new HD graphics, but a total rebalancing and update of the game that should make other remasters curl their toes in shame.

The narrative, with its Princess Bride-esque framing setup of a girl and her cat reading old books in the attic, follows the interweaving paths of several archetypical characters: the valkyrie, the cursed prince, the brooding warrior, the elf queen, the witch. You play out each of their campaigns one by one. Each character swap means you view events through their eyes from the beginning, which means that the end of the first character’s plot coincides with the end of the last character’s plot.

Sometimes it’s charming — most of characters are likeable, effecting earnest solemnity in the face of goofy plot. Other times it’s tedious as the characters, especially Oswald the shadow knight, prattle on about their feelings and o woe is me my soul is misery take me death. Occasionally it’s bizarre and hilarious, like when prince-turned-cursed-rabbit-man Cornelius declares I have a magic sword in the middle of a conversation without context or reason. Other times it’s troubling, like when you just want Valkyrie Gwendolyn to realize her dad, Odin, is kind an asshole, but she never does. Later, she’ll trade patriarchal controlling figure Dad for husband Oswald, whose totally okay with bargaining with Odin for her life&love. Maybe you can guess my feelings on Oswald.

This game displays the beauty of hand drawn and animated 2d graphics (and how technically taxing they can be — this game was notorious for slowing down the framerate of the PS2 and I even got it to slow down the PS4 once, when fighting a full screen full of enemies and throwing magical potions in a frantic effort to clear them all out). You guide your character from one battle arena to the next, juggling various elves and goblins and dragons, and then planting fruits and vegetables fed and watered by the essence of their souls. After harvesting this grim bounty, your character eats it to gain experience, stats, and health.

Leifthrasir greatly improves the combat over the original by making it far more fluid, easy to combo, and giving you much greater customization options. It makes the game easier, so playing on hard mode felt right to me. Though you’re never punished for lowering the difficulty and if you’re fighting an annoying boss on a less ideal character (like, say, Oswald, who is basically a slow, low-damage joke until you build up enough damage to go into ‘berserk’ mode), you can swap it back down to normal without penalty.

Playing it felt like a sort of blast to the past* of the PS2 glory days, but there was also a feeling of newness to it, because despite being a decade old, there’s never been much else like it.

 

*I even busted out the pen and paper to record every meal my character ate (for a trophy). Check it out:

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Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

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Beleaguered, weary, wounded and battleworn, I ride my chopper to one final deployment. Not another sortie to South Africa or Afghanistan, to sneak into a soviet installation or assassinate an arms dealer, but to write this blog post. A task I am finding difficult. Usually before writing I already have a lead or structure, an idea to elaborate on. I already have the post about the book I’m reading half-written in my head. Yet, I don’t seem to have much to say about Metal Gear Solid V, a game I enjoyed immensely.

Just why is this game so good?

Take this episode for example: Early in the game, I was tasked with rescuing a hostage. I snuck into a Soviet-occupied Afghan village, slithered up on a soldier to interrogate him and retrieve the prisoner’s location, and was nearly there, without being seen, when a guard spotted me at the door. Alarms sounded as I rushed into the hostage’s room. The prisoner is screaming, bullets are plinking glass bottles above the bar I’m hiding behind. I’m surrounded.

I radio my chopper for air support. I hold out behind the bar while I wait for it to fly in. The Soviet guards freak out and start screaming and returning fire as my chopper strafes them. The pure chaos allows me to sneak out, prisoner thrown over my shoulders. A few hundred meters from the village, I radio my chopper to come pick me up. I watch as it flies away from the battle, slightly smoking, to touch down in front me. I toss the hostage inside and hop in myself, taking potshots at the enemy soldiers, not really expecting to hit anything. Mission complete.

Everything feels so organic. There’s a thrill in non-scripted happenstance. A point is reached where gameplay is so well-designed, well-thought out, and polished that it becomes narrative. MGSV has a plot of its own, and it’s pretty interesting, delving into the imperialism of language and western tyranny in the Middle-East and Africa, as well as exploring some video gamey themes like player agency.

But this is secondary to the story that is built simply by playing the game. Like that time I blocked a road with a truck, and while the tank rolling down that route honked its horn and yelled at the truck to move,  I snuck up behind it and planted C4 on its bumper, only to creep away and detonate it from a safe distance. Or when I sicced my pet wolf, D-Dog, equipped with a taser, on a full squad of armed men and how he somehow stunned them all. Or the simple thrill and follow up relief of being spotted by a guard and reflexively shooting him precisely in the face with a tranquilizer dart, in the brief window between him noticing me and alerting his buddies of my presence.

You know that feeling you have, watching a good thriller, when the protagonist is hiding from some villain or creepy monster and your heart is racing because the scene is tense and well-shot? That is the feeling MGSV evokes, except you’re the protagonist and you are the one who got yourself in this situation, not the screenwriter or cameraman or director.

It is excellent.

Firewatch

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You’re Henry.

A burly, bearded man from Boulder, fond of skiing and beer and a blend of all the attributes of your affable Colorado bro. In your late 30s and happily married, until life takes a serious nose-dive for the worse when your wife, Julia, develops early onset dementia. A couple years of this misery and, unable to cope, you fuck off to the wilderness to become a scout.

In recent years, we’ve been inundated by ’interactive novels’, wherein we guide characters down a narrative path and most of our ‘playing’ is comprised of:

1) walking from point A to point B and

2) making key dialogue choices that will change the story going forward, or at least give the illusion the story is being changed.

It’s the Choose Your Own Adventure paperbooks of yore, spruced up for the digital age. Telltale Games have been particularly prolific here, turning TV shows and comics from The Walking Dead to Game of Thrones to Fables to Batman into interactive novels. A sort of sub-genre labeled ‘walking simulators’ is also occasionally referenced here.  A beautiful environment is built, but all you can really do is walk around and ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ and not engage in your typical gaming actions — shooting, jumping, etc.

Firewatch is a walking simulator in its most pejorative sense, and interactive novel at its most limited and milquetoast, skewing very far towards the ‘novel’ or ‘short film’ path and very little on the side of game.

Shoshone National Forest is quite pretty, especially when burnished by the setting sun. You’d like to walk around there. Camp. But it’s difficult to acknowledge as an actual place. You’re largely walking down very defined paths with little room for deviation. There’s not much you can do unless the game has a very specific purpose in mind for you (find a backpack, see a raccoon). Your freedom is basically quashed. Exploration is pointless because there’s nothing to find. I’ve played plenty of games that are engaging while requiring you to do mundane tasks — farming virtual crops, climbing buildings to collect flags. But the tasks you’re set to in Firewatch feel pointless and rote, more like busywork to get you to the next dialogue segment instead of goals unto themselves.

Moreover, it’s hard to feel like you really are Henry, a person taking up physical space. The point of view is first person and all you ever see is his stubby legs when he’s climbing up and down things, in a perspective that holds little in common with how your legs actually look when you observe them. Instead, you’re more like a floating camera observing the story. 

In fact, that sort of spatial disconnect can link us to the real failing of Firewatch: for such a deeply personal story, I never felt like I could really own Henry. The game is spent communicating via radio with Henry’s  sarcastic boss, Delilah, a woman with a sordid past of her own. The whole draw of the game is Henry and Deliah’s relationship, and supposedly the impact the player can have on it. The dialogue is fairly snappy and engaging, but my agency within it was slight. Many times I was not given a choice in how to respond. I had to select a single line reporting something I had seen or a pre-decided sentence to respond to Deliliah. Even when I had choices, it never felt like they mattered. The choice was typically one of tone, not of content (angry / sarcastic / timid). What made things supremely annoying was that if you don’t respond quick enough, Delilah thinks you’re being purposely silent and responds as such. This response window is shockingly short. You have to read 3-4 different sentences and decide how you want to respond. Even as a real-life gap in conversation it was too short. Baffling.

What I’m getting at here is: Why did this need to be a game at all? It’s appeal is a human relationship and its composite back-and-forth dialogue. You barely have an effect on it. Were it a short film, we’d have some features enhanced: We could see the emotions on Henry’s face, and if he were a good actor, it would improve the narrative. Other negative features  would be removed: Actor Henry would not get stuck on a short hill he should be able to cross but can’t for whatever gameplay reasons. I mean, it’s not like some sort of cardinal sin to make a video game that would have been better as a movie, but it feels pretty wasteful to not actually use the elements of video games that film does not have to improve the experience.

My last complaint is going to be about the conclusion of the narrative itself, which wouldn’t really matter whether it was game or film or book or whatever. Some very general spoilers follow. When you have a plot based on ‘weird shit happening’, there’s a few different effective reveals we typically see.

  1. Character suspects something weird is happening. Turns out some really weird shit is happening. Aliens recently landed in his backyard and replaced his family with drones. It doesn’t have to be supernatural, but it often is. 
  2. Something bad happens to a character and it’s a completely plausible (albeit troubling) mystery. A child goes missing, but it’s never suggested to be anything more than the real-life, day-to-day misery of a child going missing.
  3. Basically a combination of 2 followed by 1. Audience is lead to believe it’s a “real-life” tragedy and then finds out it is something more. Character A spends 75% of the movie looking for a lost child and then stumbles upon the gateway to hell.

Those are all fine, workable plots. It’s #4 that I have a problem with.

4. The reverse of 3. Something really damn weird is happening, same start as #1. The plot wants us to believe in the supernatural. But, oops, turns out it was really just banal human ignorance and cruelty all along. Gotcha! You might call this the ‘Scooby Doo’ plot. It wasn’t a ghost, it was your dad wearing a sheet. You have to be a clever creator indeed to pull this off without leaving the viewer dissatisfied.

Needless to say, Firewatch hit me with #4. Worse, the ending is completely set in stone. Your choices, insofar as they exist, cannot affect the outcome. That’s anathema to the whole notion of choose your own adventure and yet another reason the game failed for me.

Dark Souls III

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Once more unto the breach. For the third time in five years, the first flame is dying; nearly dead. When it dies, an age of Dark will commence and light will become no more. Granted, the world is a twisted, corpse-littered mess and it’s a dubious notion that it’s worth saving in the first place, but here you are, another mute undead warrior stumbling on to the scene to make things right (or worse).

The Dark Souls series, including the main trilogy and its predecessor Demon’s Souls and spinoff Bloodborne are some of my favorite games, ever. The uncompromising vision, the gorgeous rendering of hellish medieval ruin, the drive to try something new. In an industry that was moving more and more towards accessibility as the ultimate goal, Dark Souls popularized a philosophy already apparent and contentious in literature: Demanding effort and attention from the reader/player can lead to a finer, more rewarding experience. Dismissing the axiom that entertainment need be ‘easy’ is Dark Souls gift to posterity.

The bedrock of Dark Souls is that by thrusting the player into a dangerous world that does not hold their hand or explain much at all, both the oppressive atmosphere of the gameworld is heightened and the high the player feels after finally overcoming a difficult challenge is far more satisfying than it would be otherwise. And this practice is proven true, again and again. I can say this from experience, when after narrowly taking down The Nameless King, one of the harder bosses, I was in a shaky but exultant state indeed.

What this does for the narrative is key too: I rescued a smooth talking but frankly creepy fellow and brought him back to my home pad. He then offered to ‘unlock my true power’ and give me a free level up. In other games, I would just blindly accept the reward. But this is Dark Souls, which has taught me to be suspicious of anything free, especially from the mouths of shady individuals. This is the series that, in past games, allowed me to bring back friendlies to my base who later murdered everyone else there. The narrative and its choices are enhanced by the gameplay. The risk.

(I took the offer anyway; naturally, nothing comes without a price)

We’re five games deep now. Elements of the series have filtered down into other games — from cosmetics like bonfires being used as checkpoints to feature adoption like being able to leave templated messages to other players to a general philosophy that fine tuned difficulty is an admirable design philosophy. Can Dark Souls maintain its innovation? It doesn’t try. Rather than re-invent the wheel, DS3 is satisfied with simply doing what it already does very well. Something none of its imitators have ever really approached. The tightness of the core systems, the haunting strangeness of its world. It basically gives a clinic on level design with the wonderful Undead Settlement, a crumbling shantytown that constantly intertwines and twists back on itself, while maintaining the fiction of being a real place where people once lived.

While I thoroughly enjoyed my time playing the game, if not as quite so much as Bloodborne*, there were times like I felt like I was going through the motions. There’s only so many times you can roll-dodge the wide swing of an animate suit of armor’s greatsword, or throw the same fireball or get stabbed to death by another cackling skeleton. DS3 seems to acknowledge that its players could have played up to four separate but similar games by this point, so everything seems to move much faster and hit much harder. We’re still pros by this point, though. It would be laughable to say the game wasn’t difficult, but it’s a controlled, familiar difficult that doesn’t challenge me for long anymore. We’ve seen the decaying land of Lothric/Drangleic/Lordran many times by this point, and while it’s still haunting and enchanting, it’s no longer fresh. The game acknowledges this by doubling back to previous titles — locations and familiar faces abound. 

This is the finale. The victory lap. Visionary Director Hidetaka Miyazaki has called this his final Dark Souls game. Another impressive feat is to quit when the time is right and not when the money runs out. I cannot wait to see where he will take us next. 


*I’m not going to say much about Bloodbourne because I already wrote plenty on it here; but I will say it remains the pinnacle of the series for me. The highly focused trick weapons and speedy gameplay ultimately trumped the greater armament diversity of Dark Souls and I loved the focused Victorian/Lovecraftian story. That said, there’s still expansion packs lurking out there in the future for DS3

 

Nostalgia and Ducktales

Nostalgia is a funny thing. It used to connote a pleasant kind of yearning for the past. Maybe a little bittersweet but an ultimately positive feeling. But lately we’ve become skeptical of it. Some call it a barrier to innovation. Corporations cashing in on thirty-somethings who have families now and maybe some wealth. Just throw something in front of them that they remember fondly from their childhood and they’ll munch it right up. Blame endless sequels or our infinite obsession with superheroes on this. Watch your peers rapidly become how you remember your parents, crotchetly declaring that things used to be better.

I attributed these feelings to an nameless, amorphous critic here, but I share them in part. I don’t mind a good remake or rehash, but I want to see new things more. I’ve vowed I won’t end up one of those old guys afraid of new things and unable to adapt to new technology or music or yes, video games.

Which brings us to Ducktales Remastered, a remake of a 1989 NES game. Let’s be real here: Ducktales is not relevant anymore. It does not interest modern kids, all of whom are much too young to remember the heyday of early 90s Disney cartoons and video games. Ducktales is a kids game aimed at adults, even going so far as to use the cartoon’s original voice actors, which is kind of an outstanding feat. Scrooge and co. all sound much older and gravellier, but still nail their signature voices. It’s worthy to note that ‘kid’s game’ also meant something entirely different, gameplay-wise, in the NES days. While Remastered added an easy mode with infinite lives/checkpoints, it’s still dramatically more difficult than most currently produced, age-accessible games.

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Before we circle back to nostalgia, let’s ask: does a 1989 game hold up in 2016?

Sort of.

The innovation of Ducktales, a platformer like many others following the Super Mario or Megaman greats, was that Scrooge McDuck can use his cane as a pogo stick. Indeed, that’s how you navigate the world. Always be pogo’ing. It’s a cool mechanic. Remastered also obviously updated the graphics. The characters and enemies are sharply done, and look like they hopped right out of the cartoon, though the backgrounds and items are quite muddy and unremarkable. The thing is: other than Scrooge’s unique method of movement, the levels are very simple and forgettable. Enemies don’t do much. The bosses have simple patterns and take too many hits to kill. Add it all up and it’s a fun diversion but not timeless like say, Super Mario Bros 3 or Mega Man 2. Nor does it to compare well to modern re-envisioning like Shovel Knight. It’s appeal is steeped in nostalgia.

The etymology of nostalgia is the Greek nostos, meaning ‘homecoming’, and algos, meaning ‘pain, grief, distress’. When originally used in the 19th century, it was something very dire indeed. Associated with a fictional (& fatal) Swiss disease or the terrible homesickness felt by African slaves. The modern interpretation is far more tame than its origins.

Ducktales made me feel some of the most acute nostalgia of my adult life. I played it at 4-6 years old; naturally amidst some major developmental times. There was a point, here in 2016, where I selected the Moon level and the music played and it was so distantly familiar,I felt a piercing jolt to my upper spine and literally got the chills, so deeply did it connect me to myself, twenty five years removed. Not the nostalgia of watching the next dumb superhero movie or listening to the same old radio station you listened to in your teens, playing the same old music. But the intense, greek version. It wasn’t like I was a slave yearning for a home I was ripped from. Nor do I want to be five years old again by any means. It wasn’t painful. Yet. The combination of intense connection or loss to/of a time gone by combined with that homey feel cannot but remind you of your own mortality. To connect with the past and see yourself now is also to know some day you won’t be experiencing anything at all.

Salt and Sanctuary

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While hired on as a guard to transport a princess across the sea and broker peace-via-marriage between two endlessly warring kingdoms, your ship is hijacked by bandits and tentacled sea monsters (alas) and you’re hurled into the sea. Naturally, you wash up on a mysterious island, unstuck in time, littered with all manner of beasts and creeping haunts and apocrypha.

Salt and Sanctuary is a game that is actively trying to be a 2D version of Dark Souls.

To say that it was merely inspired by Dark Souls or that it is a homage does not do justice to what is actually going on here. It’s a gloomy, abstract game-world that is difficult and requires patience and trial and error to traverse. You pick from an analogue of Dark Souls type classes, right down to the ill-equipped deprived. You collect salt/souls to level up and lose them at death and have one chance to return and reclaim them. At it’s most egregious, and the only point where I found it just too much, you journey to the bottom of the world and see many other world trees in the distance, a nearly 1:1 pasting of one of Dark Souls most iconic areas.

It’s effective. More love-letter than cash-in. And of course, morphing a 3d game into two dimensions changes the gameplay completely. Platforming plays a much bigger role; being knocked off platforms was easily my highest cause of death. A jump button is huge — I could play a slow-rolling, fat armored knight type character because being able to jump (and later dash) solved nearly any mobility woe. As a result, along with some easily exploitable systems and easy bosses, it’s much easier than Dark Souls. It does maintain the heavy feel of combat, and basic enemies can still kill you quickly if you’re not quick and alert.

The places where it deviates from the formula are hit-and-miss. For example, the sanctuary system replaces the bonfire checkpoints; A sanctuary is a sacred area dedicated to one of the various creeds of the island. You pick your character’s religion (or absence of one) at the start and find several others along the way. This allows you to locate defunct sanctuaries and spruce them up and populate them with various merchants — blacksmith, cleric, guide, etc — to make the place more homey and give you access to various tools. When you find opposing creeds’ sanctuaries, you can still perform basic functions like saving your progress and leveling up, but little else. By crushing a ‘bloodstained page’, you can declare (holy) war on the heretic sanctuary and fight its adherents; if you win, the sanctuary now belongs to your creed. It’s cool and a more atmospheric and robust system than a mere checkpoint, but it would have been nice to take it a little further. There’s not much point to converting other creeds and the faction system just requires tedious farming of enemies to level up.

Likewise, the art, sound and animation is usually pretty good, with caveats. I like good 2d art and S&S is mostly there. The environments are beautiful in a cloudy washed-out way, the art merges with the sparse storyline perfectly and it captures the visual excitement an RPG should have at equipping your character with a new piece of gear. On the other hand, sometimes it’s a little too murky and it can be hard to discern enemies and their attacks. And what is up with those faces?

The game’s biggest failing is they clearly ran out of time by the end of the game. Environments go from complex, many-leveled labyrinths with several exits and entrances and shortcuts to boss corridors without much else in them. Possibly worse is that the number-tuning of the game gets thrown out the window. The last bosses all collapse in a few hits, leading to a bizarre situation where the last boss is much easier than the first one (or second or third or etc). It would benefit greatly from a rebalancing patch, and it does leave a poor impression indeed when you feel like you’re playing a legitimately great game that turns into a merely average one for the final twenty percent.

That said, it was the kind of impressive, joyful discovery that instantly made me a fan of the indie studio, Ska Studios, who created it. 

 

Farcry Primal

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I have an enduring fascination with cave people. What were they like? They were skilled and creative judging from the beautiful cave paintings and monuments they left behind. Inventive with and resourceful at a time when the entire repository of human knowledge was kept through elders and passing on familial wisdom. No doubt occasionally brutal and superstitious, but so are present day humans.

It’s a good thing too, because without the setting, Farcry Primal’s gameplay is pedestrian and tired. I’ve absolutely had it with games that have some kind of special ‘vision’ activated on a button press that changes the color pallette and highlights points/items of interest. Whether it be eagle vision, bat vision, witcher sense, survival instincts, wolf scent, or whatever the hell Farcry calls it. I spent half the game being attacked by neon yellow tigers because there’s no reason not to have caveman vision activated. Not only that, Farcry, like Assassin’s Creed and Tomb Raider and Dragon Age 3 and countless other modern titles, has a full map that requires you to locate scenic areas or conquer enemy outposts to create fast travel points. Hardly terrible on its own but it means the mode of travel and interacting with the environment is an approach we’ve overused for the past 8-10 years.

On top of this, there’s a sense that the game is not entirely finished. There’s totally half-baked features like being able to cook different kinds of food (never used) or the way that you can upgrade your tribe’s huts but only about half of them do anything new at level 2. The various skill trees you can put points into are filled with useless skills and completely uneven in effectiveness — your skill trees are tied to individual characters and 2 or 3 of them (Takkar, Tenjay, and especially Dah) are individually better than all the others combined. Lastly, the controls just kind of suck. They’re imprecise. It’s bafflingly hard to simply feed your pet bear sometimes.

The redeeming element here is that you do this as caveman, speaking some kind of pre-germanic cave tongue. Grunting: Ta-KAR WEN-ja U-dam NEIN! There’s woolly mammoths! Hunting them legitimately made me sad they no longer exist and I started worrying about endangered elephants. At its best, you’re prowling the countryside, sabre-tooth tiger at your side, living the hunt. Likewise, the narrative is best when embracing the setting fully. In one delightfully gross scene, you’re seen lobotomizing one of your tribesman to ‘quiet his skull flames’.

The world and story are enjoyable but like the gameplay, ultimately shallow. Riding mammoths is all well and good, but the plot revolves around your tribe’s conflict with two neighboring tribes, the Udam and Izila, who enjoy eating people and burning them, respectively. And like most game enemies in standard games, they’re everywhere, for you to stab, trample, bite, smash, etc. But they’re people, not goombas. People with faces and motivations. There’s a mechanic that allows you to add people to your village and by the end I had around two hundred, whereas I must have killed thousands of opposing tribespeople. It doesn’t hold up. While you’re rampaging around burning villages, you never actually see any children* and barely any non-combatants. It’s all extremely gamey. I’m left dreaming of the possibilities of a more realized, robust and innovative caveman experience…

*There is one child and one baby used during the narrative, and it feels extremely cheap to use them as an emotional touchstone when the world is otherwise devoid of children. Also, weirdly and hilariously, the engine must not be able to render baby faces so in the scenes in question, the camera is always such that you can only ever see the back of the baby’s head.

Rise of the Tomb Raider

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So. Tomb Raider. Check out the baffling news that the Writer’s Guild Awards gave it an outstanding achievement in video game writing. Not only that, it beat out The Witcher!

Now I thoroughly enjoyed this game but narrative is nowhere near the reason why. Let’s recap the plot: Lara Croft, following the legacy of her father, stumbles across some clues that the secret to immortality is somehow hidden in a lost Byzantine city located in Siberia. Why is Lara seeking this? To, uh, better humanity or something. Naturally and predictably, like hundreds of action heroes before her, she comes to learn that maybe humans shouldn’t live forever. But, I’m getting ahead of myself here. Opposed to Lara is a group called ‘Trinity’, a bunch of militant malcontents who have been seeking this divine source for millennia. They’ve been foiled repeatedly by a prophet and his followers, the architects of the aforementioned hidden city. This is not the only similarity RotTR will have with Assassin’s Creed.

The story is fun like a Godzilla movie is fun. I don’t mean the early Godzilla movies that legitimately were trying to grapple with the unthinkable destruction of the atom bomb, but all the later ones that were primarily about a man in a dragon/t-rex suit kicking down buildings. Tomb Raider’s ultimate set piece is a three way fight between immortal Byzantine warriors, black ops soldiers, and a cadre of Russian elves with trebuchets in the middle of a city buried under a glacier.

Shit explodes. And you run and jump through it. Thrilling? Yes. Outstanding writing? No.

I’m trying to think of specific line-by-line examples and very little of it is memorable enough to stick. It’s just a lot of Lara urgently exclaiming she needs to do this or that right now now now. Or the villain delivering soliloquies of how he needs to find the divine source to ‘please God’, which is banal and creatively timid, because the the game doesn’t even try to engage with which God or where his conviction comes from. Lara’s character arc, the titular ‘Rise’, is delivered in terms of gameplay, not narrative. From shivering cold in the wilderness and killing enemies one at a time, to casually wiping out full-on military squads single-handedly, to becoming the predator, and finally ascending to goddess-hood and slinging blue flame like a wizard. This game has better writing than The Witcher?? 

The gameplay and especially atmosphere does not cohere to a believable plot either. Lara can swim under frozen icy water and hop out and shake the water out of her hair and she’s good to go. Despite taking place in Siberia, with supposedly multi-national villains, and including a group of natives who have been living in isolation in the wilderness for a thousand years, every single character speaks american english. Except for Lara, whose dialect is british.

Play this game for the gorgeous vistas, the tight gameplay, and the explosions. Not the outstanding writing.

Bloodborne

Bloodborne

The nightly hunt has begun. You’re a hunter; and a hunter hunts. That’s all you need to know. Amongst the streets of Yharnam, teeming with inhuman beasts, lying scoundrels, and soon to be much worse, you must remain vigilant and inventive if you’re to survive until morning, if it ever comes.

This game is fantastic. Forget superlatives, it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played. After I finished the Dark Souls II remaster, I felt like the series, while not stale, did need to start to innovate. From Software swapped the setting from faux-medieval ruin to faux-victorian ruin, sped the game up tremendously, and spun their best narrative-via-atmosphere yet. It’s a host of minor and medium size adjustments that makes the scheme fresh again. It was rewarding, immersive, and I’ve seen many forms of media riff on H.P Lovecraft but extremely rarely as well as Bloodborne. The Shadow over Innsmouth tribute is gets it without being derivative.

The city of Yharnam is famous for its speciality science slash religion of blood ministration. Through something termed ‘blood healing’, humans can imbibe blood (the source of which becomes known during the course of the game) to heal wounds and gain special properties. Or devolve into mindless beasts as it so happens. You, the hunter, journeys to this world, ready to hunt and untangle its mysteries. This is From’s most focused narrative yet. While it’s still highly ambiguous and distant from any kind of straightforward plot, it’s much easier to get a sense of the world, of its history and just what the hell is going on. It’s rarely vague for the sake of being vague and invites exploration and theorizing.  

But of course, this is a less a game of direct narrative and more one of atmosphere. It’s creepy and unsettling often. This can range from giant bosses that are hideous to behold to more low-key scares; there’s a guy behind a locked door who keeps asking for a password. After you finally locate the password and knock on the door, as soon as you open it all you’re greeted with is a long dead corpse perched on a stool. The sound design is excellent — there’s one skeletal boss who is literally screaming at you the entire time and it’s the sort of things where you want to laugh and shudder at the same time.

Mechanically, the hunter controls like a speedier and smoother version of a Dark Souls character. But the major differences come in your available armament. First of all, there’s no shields, just a joke version that proclaims that shields ‘engender passivity’ and should be avoided. So if you never learned how to dodge in the previous games (or never played them), and chose to hide behind your shield, now’s the time to learn. Next, your character has a gun. A gun that does much lower damage than melee and cannot function as a primary source of damage (unless you specialize heavily in a gun-specific stat) but they can be used to parry enemies if you shoot them while they’re attacking you. Lastly, instead of a host of different kinds of medieval weaponry with slightly modified movesets, Bloodborne has a much smaller list of weapons, but they’re almost entirely unique. And each weapon, termed a ‘trick weapon’ in the game’s lore, can be transformed into a different weapon. For instance, the saw-cleaver is a simple cleaver and upon transforming the hunter flips out the blade in the opposite direction and it’s a long-range saw. There’s also a cane with a whip inside of it. Yeah. Or, Ludwig’s Holy Blade is a simple sword until the hunter attaches it to its sheath and swings the entire thing as a massive, ornate greatsword.

The gameplay isn’t perfect. The camera is suspiciously poor at times and enemies seem capable of clipping their weapons through walls and pillars in a way that they couldn’t in the other Souls games. The potion system that does not reset on death is also a step backward. But these are trifling. There’s just something immensely satisfying about learning how to control your hunter, perfect your weapon handling and use your acquired knowledge and skill to learn and take down successively terrifying bosses.