Into the Breach

This game is cool.

I started off and thought ho-hum, this is fine, but it’s just a grid-based tactics game. A simple one at that.

Then I found myself, playing, playing, playing; the possibilities and strategies of such a simple setup blossomed and captivated.

In the future, ocean levels have risen and humans live on small, corporate-owned islands. To make matters worse, giant alien monsters called vek have appeared and are stomping over any buildings or people in their way. Luckily, a trio of time traveling humans piloting mechs appears to save the day (or not).

You, the player, are managing these mechs. You can choose a pre-set squad of three or mix and match. It starts simple with a mech that can punch aliens, a mech that can shoot aliens, and a mech that can push aliens in the cardinal directions. Other unlockable mechs will freeze enemies, spin them around, teleport them, light them on fire, and so on. This is a very repetitive game so the main source of diversity is how different mech loadouts alter the strategies you employ.

Combat plays out on a grid. You must protect civilian buildings — if they take too many hits, the game is over. You have to start over, almost entirely from scratch, save a single surviving pilot you can choose to blast to the “next timeline” (your next run of the game). In addition to shooting vek, you have sub-tasks like protecting a power plant or destroying a dam. These either allow you to take more hits before game-over or award currency you can spend at the end of an island to upgrade your mechs.

The big innovation here is that every single detail of the vek’s attacks are telegraphed. You see where they are going to attack, exactly how much damage that attack would do, in which order each enemy will attack, where new enemies will spawn, and so on. The UI is very good at communicating this. So if you see a vek is taking aim at an important building, and you can’t quite kill it (numbers are tweaked so that killing all enemies every turn can’t be done), then you could use a pushing attack to move it over a square so it harmlessly shoots a mountain instead. Or teleport it into the ocean. Or move another vek that is attacking first behind it so that it is killed by its buddy before it can attack. Thus each turn is basically a puzzle where you maximize your moves to prevent the vek from doing serious damage.

It’s ultimately very simple. You complete 2-4 islands and play the same final mission every time. Yet the loop is engaging. Even when mastering the game to the point where my runs were successful nearly every time, new mech types or achievement challenges would change it up just enough to be worth another shot. On the cusp of unlocking the final squad of mechs, I can’t see myself playing all that much longer, but for $15, the experience was absolutely worth it.

Minit — A review in 60 words

Minit is fantastic. It conjures this elusive feeling of joyful exploration that so many games seek, typically with far larger budgets, but very few achieve.

You, a little duck-like(?) creature, find a cursed sword that will kill you and send you back home every sixty seconds. Only the knowledge you gained or the items you’ve found will allow you to 

[dies]  

OK. Minit.

Turns out that by combining a retro game (NES Legend of Zelda), adding a 60 second limitation, and utilizing a minimalist yet charming aesthetic creates something surprising and wonderful. The time limit is not a thoughtless restraint — it’s used to set up puzzles that leave you scratching your head how you’ll finish in time. It’s also used to

[dies]

Where was I?

Minit’s world is peopled with cute talking animals, throwing down clever one-liners. Or playing off the time limit — one of the first buddies you encounter is an old turtle slowly recounting how to find treasure, yet initially you’ll die before he completes his tale.

The sparse black&white style can also evoke a more sinister mood like

[dies]

The game knows when to quit. Rather than bloat the length, the first run will take maybe a couple hours. Afterwards, you unlock a far more difficult 40 second mode that really pushes your sword-man efficiency. Without much planning, I reached the point where I could beat the game in about 15 minutes especially with the final unlockable mode which

[dies]

Minit is fantastic. More importantly: it is surprising.

The original Legend of Zelda is the perfect entry point. We played it as kids and there’s something child-like in the joy Minit evokes. Something from a world where you didn’t already know what was going to happen next, in gaming, or film, or novels. Something wide-eyed and fresh, full of adventure.

Metal Gear Survive

This is the most intense game I’ve ever played.

If you were a fly on the wall, or a Russian spy eluding detection, intent on studying just how animated I am playing video games, typically you’d be disappointed. I don’t move or emote much. But for Metal Gear Survive? You’d find me hunched forward, alert and engaged, occasionally muttering or cursing. Then moments later, with a sharp cry,  throwing a fist up in victory or lurching backward in defeat. 

I was in it.

During the prologue of Metal Gear Solid V, Mother Base is attacked and Big Boss is knocked into a coma for ten years, leading to the plot of that game. In this game, it turns out that during that very same prologue, after Boss left, a wormhole opened. Yes, that’s right. A wormhole opened. A bunch of Boss’ former soldier-followers were sucked into the wormhole, where they arrived in another world, a barren wasteland called Dite (dee-TAY). Dite is home to hordes of zombies (wanderers) and much of it is covered with a miasmic cloud called Dust.

I knew of this premise before starting the game and it sounded spectacularly dumb. My first surprise: the story is presented well. The intro is intriguing, creepy. The ‘spooky other world reached through a veil’ premise reminded me of the novel and movie Annihilation and the living dust itself evoked Stephen King’s The Mist, especially at a point partway through when you realize there is something very, very big in there. The overall plot is surprising throughout, though the individual characters are weak.

Metal Gear Survive is built on the Fox Engine from Metal Gear Solid V, which I wrote about here. Similarly, it’s a game of narrative moments generated by the engine itself. During my first foray into the Dust, my character put an oxygen mask over her face and the game informed me that I would die if I ran out of oxygen. It also warned me not to lose my bearings and get lost because the map does not function in the Dust — you need to use landmarks visible in the murk to find your way.

So I set off on my mission to retrieve a lost data cache. Carefully, I took out wanderers with my primitive arsenal, in small groups of ones and twos. I found the building, retrieved the data. On my way out, I noticed another shack. Inside was a container full of loot. Locked. I tried to pick the lock, but since it was my first encounter with the mechanism, I failed, leading to the loud screech of metal on metal. Naturally, every creature nearby was alerted and now I had zombies shambling through the door, tumbling through the windows, moaning, reaching for me, crouched still next to to the container.

I sprinted out of the there, creeped around the building, wandered off into the dust, underestimated a few wanderers, almost died, panicked for a moment before I could reorient to my surroundings, returned to the shack.

The wanderers were still there, milling around the last place they saw me. The game preserved its continuity. Low on oxygen, as well as supplies of food and water, I gave up. I turned around and left the Dust.

OK, this may not seem remarkable. I went and fought some zombies and left.

Yet the organic nature of this situation exceeds what generally occurs in games. I am a completionist. I get all the treasure chests, kill all the dudes. This game forced me to accept my defeat, scavenge what I could, and survive. It makes the entire world / setting / gameplay more immersive, more believable. I’ve killed untold numbers of zombies in games, but it has never felt this authentic. Later on, I’d be frantically shooting wanderers with my makeshift bow while at my back, several more clamored at my makeshift fence, started to climb it, their combined weight bowing the fence until it buckled, tumbling the zombies face-first to the ground, where they proceeded to drag themselves across the ground by their fingernails.

This game was panned by the critics. Gaming journalism has a serious problem with a follow-the-leader type mentality where first impressions (or pre-impressions) are of utmost importance. Opinions tend to skew one way or another and not represent a spectrum. They complained the early game was too harsh, since food and water are quite scarce and you’re forced to listen to your character gag after drinking dirty water, while crossing your fingers she doesn’t get sick. The fact that this greatly heightens the danger and urgency of your first steps in a dangerous world goes unsaid and unappreciated. They complained about microtransactions that have no bearing on the game at all. They complained this game is “not Metal Gear”, whatever the hell that means.

Don’t get me wrong here — the game isn’t flawless. It’s using purely recycled environments and assets from its parent game and despite it’s stellar start, it never lives up to its full promise. But it is far more inventive and immersive than the over-hyped, big-budget crap that so often reviews well.

Assassin’s Creed Origins

Ancient Egypt is so cool. Stunning works of bronze-age architecture, endless deserts and oases. Camels. Thousands of years of humans living along the Nile. So long-lasting that Cleopatra lived her life closer to ours than to the architects of the great pyramids. Where writing, libraries, and Anne Rice’s vampires all began. 

For the past few games, the Assassin’s Creed series found itself mired in Western Europe with rapidly stagnating gameplay. It took a year off and returned revitalized. By revitalized, I mean borrowed heavily from The Witcher 3’s gameplay and world design, while investing to the usual high degree in creating a historical setting in-game.

Bayek of Siwa is a ‘medjay’, a sort of protector-shaman-civil serviceman. Some time prior to the start of the game, his son was murdered by a bunch of masked dudes sporting animal names like the Jackal or the Scarab. Naturally he decides to hunt them all down. While there’s some hackneyed bits towards the end where the game earns its subtitle, showing how the assassin’s creed began, the revenge story is basically all there is to the plot. A breadcrumb trail of corpses to take you around Egypt, which is so huge the main game doesn’t even take you through all the major zones. Not even close.

Bayek is a good hero. Furious and distraught over the loss of his son, yet buoyed by a paternal kindness that in other circumstances would be his defining trait. In between screaming at bad guys and then stabbing them, he’s trying to be everyone’s Dad. Many quests take this quite literally, helping parents, helping children. Facial tech really excels here, as it did in the Witcher, seeing Bayek’s smile after helping a child complete a task, then watching his eyes tighten and smile start to melt as he remembers. Other quests take on specific period dilemmas, and it’s great to see Bayek get pissed off and angrily growl “blasphemy!” when finding an illegal crocodile tannery in the middle of a city that is supposed to hold the animal sacred.

The modern era of video games is in crisis: There must be enemies to kill, to maim, to execute in 4k, HDR, glory. But who? Narratively and visually, we’ve moved beyond killing without purpose. The solution thus far has been populating the world with unthinking zombie/machine hordes or an ill-defined and ambiguous banditry. AC:O opts for the latter. You spend a whole lot of time in “bandit” camps, bandit forts, bandit hideouts. Who are these bandits? What did they do to deserve such mass slaughter? Why is the ratio of Egyptian citizens to Egyptian bandits basically 1:1? The game is not interested in fleshing this out; they’re ‘enemies’ like orcs or goombas. There are brief segments where it is Greeks or Romans who are the enemy, but the tangled web of Mediterranean imperialism and dynastic incest is certainly not something the series wants to engage with seriously.

I’ve drifted away from big budget Western titles, because they play it safe, both in gameplay and especially in narrative. For example, Ubisoft (maker of AC:O), is about to release Far Cry 5, which takes place in one of the most beautiful places on earth (Montana), but since the game refuses to engage meaningfully with its premise of ultra-right wing terrorists and plays it safe, trying to not to offend anyone (according to reviews), I am absolutely not interested. AC ultimately plays it safe too. You have a rote plot and spend hours killing bandits, but like I said in the first sentence, I get to ride a camel around Ancient Egypt, I get to climb pyramids and plunder tombs and be bitten by snakes. In some very specific cases, I’ll settle for, and indeed be well-satisfied by, an excellent historical setting paired with a good protagonist, regardless of what else may be missing. 

Celeste

You are climbing a mountain. You will fall many times. Hundreds of times. But the only way to reach the summit is to keep trying, to keep falling. The mountain is depression. Sometimes a simple & easy metaphor is the best kind. 

Celeste places you in control of Madelaine, a traveler, like many others, come to climb Mount Celeste without knowing exactly why. There’s narrative sprinkled throughout 8 chapters, but it’s minimal and best left unspoiled. The real key to the story is how well-entwined its themes are with the gameplay itself. It is both a story and a game about a mountain.

This is a difficult platformer in the vein of Super Meat Boy. As I mentioned, you will die a lot. A whole lot. While punishing, the game is encouraging. You can save at any time and progress is kept after you clear each “screen”, so the difficulty is broken down into bite-sized morsels where once you make the goal, you’re set. Though it is also the type of muscle-memory learning exercise where you can spend twenty minutes dying over and over to an obstacle and then suddenly can run it flawlessly in your sleep.

Consider a clip I took after bashing my head against this level for many deaths. Looking at it now it seems so passe, so quaint. A simpler time when manipulating moving platforms posed such a challenge.

While Madelaine only has a few abilities — jump, airdash, wall-cling and wall-jump — and doesn’t learn any new ones during the course of the climb, the levels themselves change and offer new opportunities to use those abilities. From jumping into bubbles to redirect Madelaine’s momentum and refresh her airdash to dashing into blocks to control their direction like the clip above.  Even after the main game ends and you begin the brutally difficult ‘B-side’ remixes of each level, you’re being taught new techniques you could have used all along.  It’s further synthesis of narrative and gameplay: spend more time on the mountain and you’ll continue to learn new things about yourself.

My thumbs hurt. I hurled myself into spikes and pits and toxic red goo until I got it.  My hands slowly calcified into misshapen claws as I wrestled with the Switch’s miserable D-pad. I grinded my teeth. There’s a few mechanics I didn’t like, but whatever, that’s part of the climb. I don’t scores games, but this is a 10. I didn’t just enjoy it, I became it. Between the death explosions of another fall, I felt the flow of perfect alignment between fingers and pixels, of satisfaction in surmounting yet another previously insurmountable obstacle.

I eventually reached a stopping point — chapter 7’s B-side — which introduces a mechanic I absolutely hate. I fear I won’t reach the true summit, somewhere beyond the rumored ultra-hard ‘C-sides’. Screw that! I let a couple days pass and my thumbs healed and I crushed the end of chapter 7’s B side. Here’s me dying and succeeding on the next chapter! Onward!

Stardew Valley

Ironic isn’t it? Farming, a notoriously backbreaking, labor-intensive, and uncertain activity translates so perfectly into relaxation, serenity, escapism.

The game begins with our protagonist slaving away in some kind of corporate IT dungeon before learning he has inherited a broken-down farm from a dying relative. The Head and the Heart might as well be singing as our cubicle-worker-turned-farmer instantly departs to take up their new life in the tiny agricultural region of Stardew Valley. Surely the soul-crushing consumerist monotony of city-life can so easily purified by a return to small-town living and trade. 

It’s idyllic and cliched and wildly oversimplified, but in many ways, that’s the point.

Stardew Valley consists of a repetitive gameplay loop: Clear terrain (chop trees, slash weeds, break up rocks), dig some holes, plant seeds, water them. Repeat every day as you watch your crops grow. Finally, harvest them and sell them for money, so that you can buy more seeds to hoe and plant and water and grow once more. There’s farm animals you can foster, a mine to explore, and of course a local village to visit and mingle at. Seasons will change, altering both the crops you can grow and the events and routines occurring in town. With only slight alterations, the core gameplay loop remains the same for however many hours you choose to put in to it. This all nakedly apes Harvest Moon, the Super Nintendo genre-starter.

In many other games, a simple repetitive activity would be a turn-off, or get boring long before Stardew Valley does. I posit there is an inherent human industrialness, a desire to work and see the fruits of that labor that taps into the psyche in a way narrative, puzzle, or action games may not. It is why the game chooses farming, one of man’s oldest and most widespread professions, specifically. There’s a sense of ownership endemic to growing your own food that cannot be accessed by most office work.

Sure, I have some issues with Stardew Valley. Some people find the townsfolk charming, but I find them bland, the game going so far out of its way to present rural tranquility that it feels a tad featureless. The happy-peaceful nature of the game also means my cows are for milk only, and while I can raise pigs, this is simply so they can dig up truffles. Winter is pretty boring — you cannot plant any crops and spend most of your time wandering around or fishing. Adding some winter-only tasks like say, shoveling snow or preserving food or something would be welcome. You can see I’m not listing structural flaws here; I’m looking for more chores to perform in my little farmworld.

Generally for game reviews, I spend a few seconds cruising Google images for a screenshot, but for this post, I took a screenshot of my farm in particular. It’s not even a good shot since I’m stuck in the winter doldrums and have no crops. But those are my dead apple trees and my bearded and ponytailed farmer. That’s my house and my deluxe chicken coup and my farm! I named it Citywoke Farm and it was only 80% in jest.

Middle Earth: Shadow of War

The Lord of the Rings, a series easy to forget is named after its villain, holds up mercy as an essential virtue. The hobbits, first as Bilbo and later as Frodo and Sam, choose mercy when opting not to kill Gollum. This leads to the destruction of the ring. It’s clear from the get-go that you cannot defeat Sauron with Sauron’s methods. Boromir is not our hero, but our tragic lesson.

This brings us to Shadow of War, the second part of a series all about trying to defeat Sauron using Sauron’s methods. Armies of orcs. Brutal means. Forging your own rings of power. It can be delightful to take a beloved property and stamp your muddy narrative boots all over its pristine sheets. This game does not care one whit for mercy. There’s an air of futility about it all — we’ve known from the start that Talion and Celebrimbor do not succeed in killing Sauron. Yet the game asks us to partake in the killing and gleefully we accept, as you’re supposed to in video games, the majority of which involve mass slaying. Shortly before killing an orc captain, the game paused so he could tell Talion/Me “I’ve killed one hundred and sixty seven orcs and men. How many have you killed? You can’t remember, can you?”

Can you? It put me in mind of getting a “kill 1000 bandits” achievement in Dragon Age.

I don’t want to oversell the narrative here. It’s not all that great, and most of what’s good about it is generously assisted by my own imagination. It has some majorly weak parts, not least of all portraying Shelob the Spider as beautiful woman, and all of the supporting cast that are not blessed with being an orc are dour and forgettable. Still, there’s something about tie-in fiction that’s not aping the original — a futile endeavor at the best of times — that is compelling regardless of quality.

But enough about all that, let’s talk about the real reason to be playing this game: The orcs. Shadow of War has even greater volume of randomly generated orcs than the original. Oscillating from hilarious to frightening to just plain bizarre, you will be monologued, insulted, betrayed, taunted, philisophized at and more by the orcs of Mordor. Then you recruit them to your case. It’s a killer’s game of pokemon. If by catching pokemon, you seared their very soul with your hand-brand rather than capturing them in a ball. And If you somehow had any illusions that what you’re doing is just, the game has a quest line that concludes with Talion acquiring an upgrade to his branding skill termed “Worse than Death”.

The characterization of each orc is the charm that sells the whole game. Little snippets of dialogue well voice-acted, some clever writing, and the dynamism that makes every player encounter a different crew of orcs and events, come together to create something truly unique in gaming. On one occasion, I was stealthily shooting orcs from atop a parapet, only to have Talion thrown on his ass by an orc, who had stealthily snuck up on me. Said orc then chased me across the rooftops, hissing only TASTY, SO TASTY, over an over. At a different point, early in the game when I could still die, a random mook killed me and achieved the title “Tark-Slayer” (Tark being a made up word orcs have started calling humans). Later on, when I hunted down and killed him, he fell to his knees and said “I guess that makes you the tark-slayer… slayer”. Talion promptly chopped off his arms and legs, which led to the appearance of a new orc titled “The Dismemberer”, who claimed I showed promise and he’d be willing to show me a thing or two about dismemberment. I ran for my miserable life.

It’s a strange brew of brutality and humor. Wisest among the creatures of Middle-Earth, orcs learned that life (in video games) is cheap.

The first game was much too easy. For the nemesis system to truly shine, you need a nemesis. It’s hard for this to happen when you’re cutting swathes through entire orc strongholds without breaking a sweat. Shadow of War attempts to correct this by adding harder difficulty modes. Nemesis difficulty is certainly better than the original, but if you’re going to use all the tools you have available like I do — converting orcs into spies set to betray enemy warchiefs, using the terrain to your advantage, recruiting a good ‘ole tough bodyguard  — it’s still pretty easy. This is largely a weakness of the “Batman-style” combat system, which limits combat to a few button presses. It’s stylish but shallow. For the second game in a row, I feel like I’m missing out on a lot of what the game has to offer simply by trying to play well.

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

odinsphere

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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