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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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. 

 

Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin (2015, From Software)

dark souls 2 scholar

So I played Dark Souls II again.

Scholar of the First Sin is a re-release for current-generation consoles with several improvements, especially if like me you didn’t play any of the expansion content that was released as paid add-ons for the original. There’s marginal graphical upgrades that are barely noticeable since even improved it does not look like a new Xbox One game. The meaningful changes, I shall endeavor to classify below:

Lore-wise, the game offers some augments to the existing narrative. ‘Narrative’ is a loose term when referring to Dark Souls since it barely has a plot and its lore is driven on atmosphere, item descriptions, and creepy and mysterious happenstance. The titular Scholar follows suit, when he erupts out of a bonfire (checkpoint) partway through the game as a sort of fleshy-hairy-slimy thing that speaks/gurgles. Aldia, a personage briefly mentioned in the base game (there’s an estate named after him and you get the idea he was experimenting and conjuring up monstrosities) will pop up at various points and pontificate on the responsibilities of a true monarch, and the main character’s suitability as such. He also shows up as a final-final boss fight after the previous last boss. It’s an okay addition but not much to write home about.

The enemy and item placement has been rebalanced. Enemies appear where they did not before. Some are removed. Some behave differently (carry a torch and watch spiders skitter away in fear). This mostly succeeds — you get key items at smarter times, there’s a few zones like No Man’s Wharf which totally embrace the neglected torch-carrying mechanic of the base game to great effect. The newbie areas are made slightly less devastating. Others changes are dubious. Heide Knights were found in the base game in unique locations — for instance, sitting with their back against a tree, unstirring and contemplative. You had to attack them first. Now they’re just another enemy wandering a different area. There’s some baffling changes like removing nearly all of an enemy unique to the Shaded Ruins — armored lion knights — in favor of semi-transparent soldiers who are difficult to see and cannot be targeted with auto lock on.

But the real meat of the changes, which isn’t a change at all if you bought the downloadable content as it was released, is the three new areas of the game.

 

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Brume Tower (Crown of the Old Iron King)

Adjoining the Iron Keep of the first game, a castle that literally sunk and collapsed into a volcano, is Brume Tower, which shares some of the architecture and look of the main structure. It’s an entirely vertical level, which is very cool. You’re generally climbing down, and once you turn on the ‘elevators’ (giant impressive stone statues that go up and down), you’re up-down-down-up-down-etc.

What you’ll find, other than new, more difficult enemies and environmental puzzles, is some kind of misshapen, imprisoned woman, huddled amidst her extra limbs. You’ll hear her moaning from a distance and she’ll be trying to kill you or lending your enemies her benefice (healing them, resurrecting them, powering them up). If you’re armed with a consumable item called a smelter wedge, you can drive it into her heart and pick up a fragment of the soul of ‘Nadalia, Bride of Ash’. All 12 gets you the full soul. This is key because all of the new areas involve a Queen and a King and a fallen Kingdom. All of the queens have names similar to the Queen of Drangleic and main-game last boss, Nashandra. As you play through each new area, you start to feel there is some kind of space-time hyjinx going on with the same story playing out in other lands with different-but-the-same players.

The bosses of Brume are difficult — potentially the hardest in the entire game. Not beasts or demons, just lone swordsmen with quick and complicated movements.

 

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Shulva, the Sanctum City (Crown of the Sunken King)

I wanted to like trap-filled Shulva. You descend even further than the depths of The Gutter from the main game to an expansive, ancient mesoamerican-looking city. There’s a dragon flying around crashing into things and you just know you’re gonna have to do him in (you do). But mostly it just annoyed me.

All of the new areas crank up the difficulty. In base Dark Souls II, if you hit an enemy that doesn’t have a shield up, they have a decent chance to flinch (based on the strength of the attack) and have their attack or movement interrupted. Most enemies in Shulva do not have this feature. So what could have been tense fights on precarious stone bridges hanging over the abyss devolves into ‘get off the fucking bridge’ because the enemy has all the advantages.

For such a cool set piece on entry, you do not really interact with the Sanctum City much. Mostly you run around on its rooftops, or drop into a few upper rooms, all with the same drab blank-wall, square look. There’s switches you can activate to raise and lower buildings, but I found this quite humdrum. The place is loaded with traps too; maybe I’m just a gigantic baby but I just found these cheap and annoying. Yeah, I could have examined every brick in the floor to see the trigger for the killer spike-protruding walls that were about to instantly murder me on the next flight of stairs, but that’s just not the sort of patience I like to have to test. Wah wah.

The bosses are pretty cool though. I do like a good dragon.

 

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Frozen Eleum Loyce (Crown of the Ivory King)

Last is the frozen fortress of Eleum Loyce. It wraps up the story, in part because it’s the only one with a friendly rather than antagonist queen, who explains via dialogue why Eleum Loyce is a frozen wasteland and where she came from. It’s cryptic, but it’s there!

This area is the best tuned, difficulty-wise. Enemies are dangerous but fair. The environmental hazard here is the poor visibility with snow-and-wind blowing in your face whenever you’re outside. Halfway-ish through, you can trigger the melting of much of the ice in the level, meaning you can return to areas frozen over before and open chests or access new areas. It’s kind of cool, but it’s really simple in design — it doesn’t completely change the level, just a few different paths which starts to make the repetition of going through areas you’ve already traversed a bit grating.

The level builds to the boss fight by asking you (just kidding; it doesn’t ask — you have to figure it for yourself) to recruit several Loyce Knights who stayed loyal to the king, to fight on your side in a showdown boss fight versus the knights who did not.


Anyway. More Dark Souls is always good.

Child of Light (Ubisoft, 2014)

child of light

Child of Light is chasing an aesthetic. A cauldron of beautiful art, tranquil music, and a fairy tale story influenced by Disney and Studio Ghibli classics.

The art is indeed gorgeous and mixed with the subdued orchestral tinkling, the atmosphere of the game emerges with an austere beauty. It is the whimsy that is lacking; the dialogue is all text (no speech), and generally rhymes. There’s sad clowns, mercantile mice, 13 year olds with beards. A city where all inhabitants were turned to crows, a city built upon a giant’s scalp. The stuff of Roald Dahl and Norton Juster, but Phantom Tollbooth this is not. It’s hard to make such wonder so bland, especially when backed by such pretty artwork, but the sad truth is that the writing is just not that good. For a tale relying so heavily on rhyme, the couplets do not flow well at all and require some mental word twisting to work out the rhyme. The characters aren’t particularly charming or worthy of emotional investment.

The game starts poorly. You control a single character, walking around a 2d world that does seem particularly friendly to walking. I almost put the game down. But 30-45 minutes in, the little-girl protagonist, Aurora, gains the ability to fly and the gameplay vastly improves. You increase the size of your party and the enemies increase the size of theirs and it starts to feel like a real game.

The combat in Child of Light is reminiscent of the old Super Nintendo Final Fantasy games. Touching an enemy out in the world swaps to a separate screen where your party engages the enemy in turn-based combat. All characters, friend and foe, show up on a bar called the timeline and their portraits move from left to right, and when they reach 80% of the way to the far right, the player can choose an attack. If the character is attacked in the remaining 20%, they lose their move and are shunted backwards down the timeline. The player can only control 2 characters at a time but can seamlessly swap in dormant party members mid-combat.

It’s pretty fun. On the harder of the two difficulties, fights generally require a strategic approach. The game eventually starts to suffer from repetition as every boss fight is a main beastie with two henchmen and the strategy of carefully killing one, then two, and stabilizing to take down the major enemy works literally every time. The game is short so the repetition does not get too tiresome, but I can’t shake the feeling that a more creative approach could have led to far more varied battles.

All said, the game was pretty if a bit sterile. I miss turn based RPGs, so even if it was far from perfect, I’m thankful this game exists and I stuck it out beyond the flightless first act. And it really was very pretty.

Dragon Age II (2011, Bioware)

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I loved the first Dragon Age. I avoided the second. When it was released, all I heard about it was that it was a rushed, overwrought, poorly developed mess.

Now I’ve played it.

And it is an incredibly rushed, somewhat overwrought, occasionally poorly developed mess. But, it’s a mess with heart. A mess with some great ideas. It’s a jumbled ride that simultaneously sheds RPG standard cliches and standbys and innovates, while being rushed out so quickly that half the ‘dungeons’ are the same repeats of the same exact drab terrain. It’s almost comic when you enter the same exact map of a warehouse or cave as you just did fifteen minutes earlier somewhere else in the world except some passages that were previously sealed are now open for you and some rooms that were accessible before are now blocked. Sometimes there is no pretense — you are just asked to go to the same exact portion of the world you just visited.

But, but, but. It does many interesting things. To wit, the premise —

Due to the events of the first Dragon Age (a monstrous darkspawn invasion (see: Lord of the Ring orcs) sweeping across fantasyland), the Hawke family flees their endangered home to their ancestral city of Kirkwall. Kirkwall lies in a part of the world called the Free Marches, a collection of city states largely untouched by the monster party rockin’ across the land. The entirety of DA 2 takes place inside Kirkwall and its environs. As the protagonist (simply called ‘Hawke’), you and your family arrive to the city penniless with the aim of improving your clan’s lot in life.

With the vast majority of RPGs, or honestly any kind of video game, focusing on saving the whole damn world, being the chosen one, whatever, the small scale was incredibly welcome and kind of novel. Your first major quest series is funding an expedition to a subterranean treasure trove (naturally full of monsters) with a host of greedy dwarves. The in-game timeline shifts between major story arcs by 3-5 years and while the scale of conflict increases, it never goes beyond Kirkwall. You’re not trying to save the world — you’re trying to stay alive, create wealth, and later stop your home city from eating itself.

But, like basically everything else in this fantastical imbroglio: Any good idea is coupled with some mystifying and sloppy implementation or major detraction. Kirkwall is uninspired beyond belief. The neighborhoods are literally named ‘Hightown’, ‘Lowtown’, ‘Darktown’, and ‘The Docks’. They’re almost entirely without distinguishing landmarks nor do they make cohesive sense as a place of residence and trade. Despite the fact that several years pass between chapters, nothing in the city changes. All of the major characters and random townspeople stay stationary, the merchants spout the same nonsense. The most egregious example — you kick a large foreign force out of the city in act II that had occupied half of ‘The Docks’. 3+ years later in act III, the area these guys were in is blocked off and empty and the docks are even more pointless.

Further examples of this game’s split personality:

The combat is honestly fun. It’s an improvement over the stuttery pace of the original, which was too married to older RPG combat systems. DA2 is fast, the abilities are interesting, and while it’s mildly silly that rogues are teleporting ninjas, the whole of it ties together to make difficult battles visceral and satisfying, while still strategic if you choose to micromanage your party’s tactics. The specializations you can customize for Hawke and companions change the way they play in noticeable ways and are not just a variation of +1 damage or -1 armor when you press X.

Again, the dark mirror — the combat is indeed fun but there is like 3 different types of enemies to actually engage in fisticuffs with. Melee guy (whether it be a bandit or a demon, they act the same), archer, wizard, and a handful of special demons with slight ability changes. OK, so like 5. I’ve killed enough bandits to depopulate a small country. They also just arrive in waves at random intervals, dropping in a poof of smoke (just kidding, no smoke, just pop-in). It was downright innovative when I played a downloadable chapter where enemy archers actually utilized high ground to shoot at my crew.

The good: the characters you can recruit to join your party are fairly well characterized, and rather than just choosing dialogue options that the character most wants to hear to gain their approval, DA2 rewards either befriending them or making them a ‘rival’ by constantly shitting on their dumb ideas. Like I did with Fenris, an elf once enslaved in a nation run by mages. Every time he went off on how mages should be imprisoned, killed whatever, I told him how wrong he was. Or if he was in my party while I helped some mages,  he had some smartass comment or angry outburst ready. By the end of the game, he was maxed out on the ‘rival’ end of the buddy spectrum; he stuck around because he respected Hawke but he was angry all the time and it fed into his actions and the way some plot events play out. I want to call this feature out specifically because I have read that in DA3, this gets thrown out the window, and party member interactions regress to ‘tell them what they want to hear’.

The bad: Hmm, this part is actually kind of solid. My only complaint is that it is sort of fluff, and has little impact even when the lynchpin of the catastrophic third act involves one of your party members making a monumentally stupid decision that you cannot affect at all.

OK, maybe I’m a sap or have low standards*. Maybe I’m enabling large corporations to vomit out half-finished work while I willingly line up to hand out money. But I enjoyed it a great deal.


*It’s not true!

Dark Souls II by From Software

dark souls 2A world locked in an endless cycle of decay. Sleek, gothic architecture. Imposing black angles and rain slicked stone. Or slimy, blighted lands, every bootstep a sickening squick, squoosh. Ruined forts that keep going down and down, through more ruins, and volcanoes, through the literal Yggrasil-world-tree roots of the world, and even deeper still to crypts intended to seal certain undesirables away for good (alas). Or up and up, atop peaks dotted with windmills, up lifts hanging in space to windswept steppes shadowed by dragons soaring overhead as you scramble across a rope bridge, swaying in the gust.

This is the world of Dark Souls. A bleak, medieval dream created by Japanese developer From Software.

To explore this world, you, a character with a flimsy narrative drive — merely being instructed to pursue The King (and collect more and more souls) — are thrust. Without guidance. I was partway through the first dungeon area, after a false start in another zone available from the onset, before I realized I had missed the vendor that could upgrade my character in an earlier hub town. Indeed, the Dark Souls series has a reputation for being difficult and obfuscatory. While the mechanics are certainly… murky, the vaunted difficulty is a tad overblown. The challenge is fair, and, with some exceptions, stacked towards the beginning before the player has grasped the systems and built their character in a specialization of their choosing. In fact, Dark Souls II goes a littler further than its predecessors. There is a bonfire (checkpoint where you return on death) close to most bosses, many tough enemies can simply be sprinted by, there’s a ring that eliminates all the consequences of death (lost souls, lost humanity), and ranged attacks make much of the game drastically easier.

Dark Souls also shows innovation in multiplayer and player-to-player interactions. One can leave messages to others, based on a set of templates, not free writing. This is often helpful, sometimes purposely misleading, and occasionally hilarious. Shaded versions of other players can be seen running throughout the world, alerting you that you are not alone. When they die, they leave bloodstains that allow you to view their final moments, perhaps giving you a tip on how not to die. Dark Souls II goes further than the original in its take on “covenants”, groups the player can join, many of which allow various cooperative and competitive bonuses. For instance, one allows you to set traps and build up a lair that sucks in unsuspecting players, who now have to navigate your dungeon or kill you to escape. From is one of the few console developers who has nailed a unique take on multiplayer — it combines the best parts of multiplayer (cooperation, humor, competition) but its forced limitations alleviate the worst aspects of spending time with strangers on the internet.

And unlike Dark Souls, the sequel does not taper off at the end. It’s an unfortunate truth that many long games, especially RPGs, display an obvious lack of money and time and the quality falls off a cliff in the final areas. As I mentioned, the goal of Dark Souls II is to find the king, and when you reach the kingdom’s magisterial seat — Drangleic Castle — the game reaches its highest points and does not let up for the rest of its playtime, bewildering easy last boss notwithstanding. The gameplay mechanics are tightened up and overall, there is only the briefest hint of staleness; the series definitely ought to innovate in the next chapter, but I’ll buy it regardless.