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.

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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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

dark souls 3

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

 

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. 

 

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.