The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Review

Having not played a Legend of Zelda game since A Link to the Past, Breath of the Wild was a wholly new experience.

Fully 3D and open world meant complete freedom. Praise for this game has been about how if you can see it, you can get to it. And it’s true: there are no invisible boundaries that block you. Any hindrance I encountered was more about if I didn’t have enough stamina or the right clothing for the environment.

Other than somewhat confining me to a beginning area (although fairly large) to casually introduce game mechanics, the game never dictates what a player should do. You could even rush right into the final area to confront the end boss if you wanted to. You’d be almost guaranteed to fail, but the game doesn’t exactly say no to you. Open world has never felt so… open.

The storyline is fairly standard Zelda fare: Link is a legendary hero, Zelda is the princess in peril, Ganon is the big bad, and Hyrule is the expansive world in which to explore. Outside of the main quests and some side missions, there’s really no storyline or dialog. Players are free to run around and discover the environment.

That’s where the beauty and richness of this game really shines through. Instead of heavy exposition or long pages of text to flesh out the world, Hyrule casually and subtly presents itself by exploration and discovery.

I continually marveled at how almost every location I wandered into felt like it had a deeply baked-in sense of history unique to other locales. Ruins of long-gone structures told as much of a story as talking to inhabitants of villages. Even small touches, easily missed such as a patch of cobblestones among the overgrown grass would hint at a history to that area.

Enemies are littered throughout the land, but other than in the first few hours of the game where I lacked equipment and hearts, none of them ever felt challenging. In fact, they never level up with my character’s progression. Soon, my Link became an overpowered beast, easily mowing down hapless goblins with the same sticks and clubs they had when I first encountered them in the game.

But it makes sense that the enemies are only a secondary element. In Breath of the Wild, Hyrule is the singular focal point.

In an age where games usually hold a player’s hand, to the point of just providing a line to the next location, Breath of the Wild almost never tells you where to go or what to do. The game never falters to portray freedom, discovery and wonder, all without sacrificing tight, robust mechanics.

In fact, it’s amazing that the puzzles are all so well executed in a way where there are multiple solutions. I solved a few of them with an absolute knowledge that I somehow did it in a way the game probably didn’t intend.

Nintendo really outdid itself with this iteration of The Legend of Zelda. And that’s saying something. It’s amazing how so many developers struggle for years to output a game and Nintendo’s teams continually create innovative, polished games so often.

As games head towards more cinematic experiences, relying on motion capture, vocal performances, quicktime events, dense worldbuilding exposition, Breath of the Wild proves that a video game can give an equally immersive experience without any of those elements.

Even after beating the main villain, I can’t wait to jump back in and see what else Hyrule has hidden away, waiting to be discovered.

Persona 5 Review

I finished Persona 5 last night, clocking in 100+ hrs in a single playthrough.

I have to say… “Wow.” I’ve never played a Persona series game before so not sure how it stacks up to the rest, but this game was incredible. This could be the most perfect iteration of turn-based RPG mechanics I’ve ever played. Very rarely did I ever feel like it had become a slog to fight, and whenever I lost I never felt like the game was being unfair or cheap.

I think the story was pretty intriguing, even though it probably could’ve been cut a little lighter in the middle portion. But the jumping timeline and the calendar system kept the propulsion of the pace going.

If anything, I felt a bit constricted at times by the calendar. I would’ve liked to spend more time exploring or meeting up with friends but time was a valuable commodity.

My other gripe might be that items to replenish SP were few and far in between. Especially by the final few battles which you had to play back to back to back and every member on my team had used up all their SP long ago. I wasn’t even expecting the end to come so soon but the game really forces you to just hunker down and play the final 4 or 5 hours nonstop.

But the time I spent in this game really allowed me to feel invested in the characters and the game itself. [Minor spoilers] When a teammate makes their exit in the end, I actually teared up. Of course the game cops out by having the character come back, which while it made me happy, I sort of wish they hadn’t done that.

And the graphics… Oh my god, the graphics! This is such a beautiful game. Not just that the top-notch animation of the characters and cutscenes felt like watching an anime, but every tiny bit of this game was given the time and attention to craft what is pretty easily the most boldly stylish game I’ve ever played. Every other developer really needs to examine this game when they start considering their own UI and navigation system.

Finishing the game has definitely felt like an achievement. I feel a bit exhausted since I played through Persona 5 almost exclusively, without many other games to break up the experience. i will 100% jump back in for another playthrough… eventually. Mostly to try to max out my confidants and try a different romance option. Or just to listen to the amazing music again!

I have Zelda and Horizon next on my playlist, but this could be my vote for Game of the Year.

Let’s Play: Night in the Woods

I jumped onto another short indie game in order to take a break from my 90+ hrs of Persona 5. Night in the Woods had been mentioned a couple of times so I decided to give it a run.

I almost didn’t play past the first Let’s Play episode just because I wasn’t sure what I was getting. The game features cute animal characters and a playful art style, yet the story and gameplay deal very much in the mundane. I have no problem with walking simulators but I guess I was expecting some kind of platforming or puzzle element.

While there are mini games, they vary radically in terms of actual skill involved. There’s Guitar Hero style button matching and some minor platforming traversal, but then are some very basic move the cursor to grab an object that barely seems worth the effort.

Over the course of the story though I found myself getting attached to the very likable cast of characters. And I started to realize what the game was going for.

Themes of transitioning into adulthood, living up to expectations (or failing to), and having to let go or feeling a sense of loss, are all very mature topics that this game deals with. The cutesy style is an interesting juxtaposition to that. In fact, this game swings wildly and unexpectedly from humor and whimsy to very morbid and morose conversations. I’d be laughing one second at the insult tradeoffs and then suddenly become speechless at a friend’s dilemma over her mentally failing father. I also appreciated the subtle way they treated a LGBT couple in the game.

When the final act starts to bring up the heat on a more mysterious, fantastical story beat, I actually began to wish that the game hadn’t resorted to such tropes for tension and interest and just stayed invested in the tragedy of the mundane. To their credit, when things get really metaphysical, the game still steers away from any overt reveals or explanations.

All in all, this game ended up winning me over with its witty dialog and endearing characters. I think some actual voice acting and foregoing the more pointless mini games would’ve made for a better experience. Hopefully the success of this game will allow the developers to stretch their legs more in their next effort.

Let’s Play: What Remains of Edith Finch

Another quick Let’s Play, where we do another small indie game that was just released called What Remains of Edith Finch.

Basically a walking simulator game, I can see a lot of people turned off or dismissive towards this title. However, if you’re someone like me who enjoys a good story in a video game without needing to have lots of things to shoot, this is another engrossing tale that packs a lot in a short two hour play-time.

You play as Edith Finch, back at her childhood home, traversing through its many rooms and hidden passages to recount the tales of her dead relatives. Apparently there’s a family curse where each person dies a random, sometimes horrible death. Thus the game ends up being unintentionally creepy, despite its slow, serene pace and lack of typical video game scare tactics.

I appreciated how the developers approached each relative’s death in a unique way, giving us a new perspective as well as new visual style. One relative’s death was relayed as a comic book, another as a surreal time lapse. One of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had was trying to relive a relative who was succumbing to schizophrenia, so the game forced me to live out two “realities” simultaneously. By the end, I really felt like I was losing my mind along with the character. It’s a powerful example of the medium’s unique ability to get us into the viewpoint of a character.

Again, this game may not be everyone’s cup of tea. The play style, the slow pace, the price tag (especially for the short run-time) will all be factors that will deter many.

But I think anyone willing to step into this game will end up with a rewarding experience.

UPDATE: Ok, minor spoilers… I just read about the game’s canonical connection to the developer’s previous game, Unfinished Swan. I don’t think the experience of this game was hurt at all by not getting the reference, but it seems like I missed out on a pretty mind-blowing moment. I even comment on liking that portion’s music, which is from the other game. Oh well. It’s cool that they did that. Wish I knew about it at the time!

Let’s Play: Little Nightmares

I just wrapped up a brand new indie game, Little Nightmares by Tarsier Studios.

I saw a preview of this a few months back and was instantly intrigued by the visuals. Something about the lighting or the design just makes me think of real-life miniatures rather than rendered graphics. Imagine a Tim Burton stop-motion style with the mechanics of a Play Dead game.

Burton’s style I’ve always characterized as weird shapes where nothing fits together perfectly. This game has plenty of that. Wardrobe dressers with drawers that don’t align correctly. Or bookshelves that are narrow but twist their way up multiple stories high.

Possibly influenced heavily by Play Dead games like Limbo or Inside, this game also has a lot of puzzle platforming, but I like that they took it a step further. You interact with enemies quite a bit more (to terrifying effects). And you can pick up or move random objects in a room even if they don’t contribute to the puzzle solution. That was my main criticism for Play Dead: if you could touch or move an object, it was a big hint that you needed it to get past the current obstacle.

Also, this game is plain gross. But in a good way. Grotesque chefs were hacking away at fish heads, and a lanky-armed blind monstrosity was plucking up children and wrapping them up in gauze. And once one of them spotted me, the game turned into a pulse-pounding chase to escape their grasp. I was panting and sweating on more than one occasion.

I don’t want to spoil anything, but I’d love to hear reactions or discuss the way this game ends. So I hope and encourage anyone to play this gem of a game.

Let’s Play: Mass Effect Andromeda

Mass Effect Andromeda might be my most anticipated game in the past few years. I was a devout fan of the original trilogy, having completed runthroughs across all three games multiple times.

However, in the age of internet outrage, I forced myself to stay in the dark about anything concerning this latest installment and try my best to keep my expectations low. That allowed me to have a pretty blank slate going in to Andromeda.

I didn’t like abandoning the Milky Way for a whole other galaxy, 600 years into the future. That just minimized the effects of the events in the trilogy.

But, I suspect there was really no other way to move the story past what had happened. Bioware was looking for a clean start and this was their way to do it.

That meant losing a lot of familiar characters and environments. Luckily, we kept a lot of other elements, including species, aesthetics, abilities and weapons.

It was a joy to see turians, asari, and krogan again. Equipping the valiant sniper rifle was like finding an old, comfortable sweater.

In that sense, Andromeda was able to attain that elusive goal of “feeling” like a Mass Effect game. To me, at least. Plenty of people seemed unhappy and unsatisfied. (That goes back to my comment about hedging my expectations.)

Gameplay-wise, the balance of RPG and FPS seemed good. The side quests were much more robust (perhaps with a bit too much planet hopping back and forth).

The main story was a bit lackluster, but still managed a few nice twists. The main antagonist wasn’t as iconic or fearsome as the Reapers. In fact, the nice easter egg of audio logs about the Reapers actually reminded me how intense and dire that situation was, and unfortunately dulled the current story I was playing.

Mass Effect though was always more about the characters and your relationships with them. This is probably where Bioware managed to shine the brightest. It was a tall order to ask players to love the new teammates and Ryder as much as Shepard or Liara or Tali. Outside of the supremely annoying Liam, I think they succeeded. Even characters I was skeptical about, like Peebee or Cora, eventually won over my affection.

As for the Let’s Play, it was a challenge to play such a long, sprawling game with the pressure of keeping it engaging and entertaining. It was easily twice as long as any other game I recorded. I’m still glad I did, and hope it comes across well.

Not sure where Mass Effect goes from here (Bioware resists hinting at a new trilogy), but I’m still along for the ride!

Final Fantasy XV Review

One of the first opening screens for latest installment of Square Enix’s long-running franchise states “A Final Fantasy for fans and newcomers alike.”

The decision to flash that message every time the game boots up seems like an odd marketing ploy; even odder considering anyone who sees it has probably purchased the game already.

But does the game fulfill that promise to satisfy loyal fans as well as invite those who are curious about the storied series?

My verdict is mostly no.

As a person who was a huge fan of Final Fantasy IV and VI on the SNES, as well as VII and VIII once the series jumped to Playstation 1, I’ve always had a soft spot because these games provided an epic scope of story and characterization that was unparalleled in video games at the time.

The following years though, I strayed from the series and gaming in general, so was not quite familiar with how the series has tried to evolve as video games overall became more epic and cinematic.

So, in a way, I felt like I was both a fan and a newcomer. (Well, I did play XIII but no one likes to think about or consider that game at all.)

Back on topic to FF XV, I immediately felt lost and uncomfortable. The game boasts an initially complex and daunting series of systems, from how to fight to how to level up to how to manage magic. I just couldn’t fathom how any casual gamer would be patient enough to learn these mechanics. I think I was at Hour 5 or 6 before I felt like I had a good grasp of everything.

Not only that but nothing in the game felt to me like a “real” Final Fantasy: the American West-esque setting, the cartoonishly overdone Southern accents, driving around in a CAR. The Jap-pop design of the main characters was off-putting but at least it seemed appropriate for a FF game.

I did end up enjoying the game. In fact, I ended up platinuming it on the PS4. The camaraderie between the four protagonists has been universally cited as a strong point and I tend to agree.

However, another hallmark of Final Fantasy games in my opinion is how a rag-tag group of people from completely different backgrounds always manages to come together to save the world. FF XV never really allows for anyone else to join the party, and players only ever control Noctis.

I also realized around the halfway point during a cinematic scene that I had virtually no idea what was going on in the story.

My band of travelers was on a roadtrip to go meet Noctis’ fiance in another city. However there was some sort of strife back in home with the king and some other people but I generally had no idea with whom or why.

I eventually pieced together the plot but none of the motivations ever got illuminated in a meaningful way.

I think that was the most disappointing aspect of playing this latest Final Fantasy. The story didn’t seem epic or worldly like other past installments. It’s hard to feel like there are any stakes to the conflict when you’re allowed to just cruise around in your vehicle with your buddies.

Which was another issue I had with the game. I got to the point where I’d set my destination and then walk off to grab a drink or check my phone. Huge swaths of time were devoted to just sitting there waiting for the auto-pilot to get to the next place. There is a fast travel option but the loading screen seemed to take just as long and didn’t provide any AP bonus points.

The more I write, the more clarity I get on how disappointed I actually was in the game. It’s by no means the disaster that XIII was. But this game was in development hell for ten years. The fact that it got released at all is probably an achievement.

The end result makes me want to boot up FFVI Advanced on my old Nintendo DS, but it makes me a bit nervous about the likelihood that Square Enix will bungle the FFVII Remake.