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Thanks to the monthly batch of free games through Playstation Plus, I finally got to experience Bloodborne. When this game was initially released, I largely ignored it. Mostly because I’d never heard of the developer From Software or its series Dark Souls. But also because I was never drawn to games that are touted as hard or punishing by default. I’m the guy who always picks the Medium level difficulty if given a choice.

So despite the rousing accolades I kept hearing about Bloodborne, I chucked it into the Not For Me category.

Now, having played and beaten the game, I can say that I am fully on-board the bandwagon. The game is challenging and stress-inducing, but also reveals itself to be masterfully crafted and wholly engrossing.

Early on, I had several points where I said to myself that I see the appeal of the game, but I don’t know how long I will keep playing. Every step I pushed my character forward was a tense gamble filled with fear and anticipation.

Yet slowly, my character got stronger and I became more confident. The enemies got harder and more horrifying, yet the dread of encountering anything that moved started to fade away.

The risk/reward system in the game is one of the more ingenious systems in any game I’ve played. You are never allowed to store your blood echoes (the game’s currency and experience points) and dying will lead to losing them all. However, you have one opportunity to go back to your point of death to retrieve them. The complication is that anytime you die or leave an area, all the enemies respawn.

Every entry into an area became an internal debate on whether or not it was worth it to fight my way back to my blood echoes. And I usually went for it, accruing even more blood echoes from the freshly spawned enemies between my goal and me. So in a way, the game is giving you a consolation for dying.

Even after getting back your blood echoes, the next decision is whether or not to run back to the save point to safely use up your collection, or to forge ahead and risk losing them again, even deeper in.

It really clicked for me that this was a modern version of those brutal NES games like Castlevania or Ghouls N Ghosts. That was an era when games never held your hand, held back, or consoled you. You had to die enough times to understand the game, learn enemy patterns and spawn points. Nowadays, there’s almost no punishment for dying. You usually have unlimited lives and you respawn almost exactly where you left off.

Graphically, once the initial sense of horror subsides, the twisted majesty of the world comes forth. This is a distorted hellscape of a Victorian city, but it’s no less beautiful and awe-inspiring.

Beating Bloodborne has been an incredibly enriching accomplishment for me personally, and I’m already contemplating continuing on in the New Game+.


 

After Bloodborne, I decided to jump into Assassin’s Creed Origins, which is my first foray into the series.

The main draw for me was the historical setting and the fact that the developers took effort into creating a tour mode where you can be led throughout areas of ancient Egypt and learn facts and history.

I thought it’d be a quick overview through an area map, but it turned out to be an in-depth, running around the actual environments over several hours.

I was impressed and applaud what Ubisoft did here and hope that more developers mimic this feature. Even if a game isn’t as steeped in history, I’d love to hear more about the development and thought process behind how a game is created.

Imagine a game like Bloodborne or Horizon Zero Dawn guiding you through one of their stages and talking about the influences and why they made something the way they did.

As for Assassin’s Creed Origins gameplay, I found it a bit lackluster, especially coming right off of Bloodborne. It was just apparent how forgiving modern games usually are with dying and save progressions.

The combat also came off much more tame and unexciting. I could usually button-mash my way through an encounter and there was no fear of death since respawning was never too far away.

Transitions from in-game to cut scenes were also disjointed and awkward. I’d walk up to a checkpoint and the screen would go black and then a cut scene would play.

I applaud the effort to make an immersive and authentic historic experience, but it was obvious to me that this is the mold of a AAA game from several years ago. You can find more contemporary games that just do things better and more seamlessly.

Still, I’m happy to have finally played a game in this series, that has influenced gaming so much in the past few years.

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Despite some proclamations that 2018 is already matching 2017 as a great year for video game releases, I’ve found myself not interested in most of the big releases.

I wasn’t interested in Dragon Ball Fighter Z or Monster Hunter World. Although I’m actually hungering for a game with a lot of character customization, Monster Hunter World’s gameplay loop doesn’t appeal to me very much.

On the near horizon, Far Cry 5 and God of War are series that I’ve never paid much attention to either. Unless these games end up getting incredibly rave reviews, I may skip out on them this time around as well.

I did dive into the Shadow of the Colossus remake, which has been great to finally experience what everyone’s always talked about.

But playing a 10+ yr game always has its downfalls. Bluepoint has done an incredible job remaking this game with cutting edge graphics. The scenery looks stunning and I’ve paused to just look around at the landscape. But the world definitely feels a bit hollow. And the gameplay loop a bit shallow.

That said, I can fully appreciate how groundbreaking this game was when it was first released. It’s more of a history lesson than a true game for me to play. And you can see how it’s influenced games such as Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Plus, even after all this time, there are moments that feel unique to this game. The scale of the “enemies” is still rarely seen in other games today. And the feeling of clinging to a flying Colossus was a vivid and electrifying moment that I can’t recall any parallel to.

The other game I’ve been spending my time with lately is Friday the 13th.

On the surface, nothing about this game would appeal to me. Online multiplayer, horror theme, subpar graphics, based off an IP I’ve never paid any attention to.

Yet there is something that is, frankly, really fun about this game.

Firstly, the developers wisely leaned into the campy b-movie style of the film series. In that way, everything about this game works in its favor. The cheesy setup, the dated and somewhat exploitative character designs. It all feels right.

Plus the actual tension and terror this game creates is surprising and hard to convey through reviews or watching video clips. I’ve had so many moments when Jason pops up nearby and I get a flash of panic that ripples through my body. Frantically trying to escape from him is harrowing and successful survival is a euphoric moment.

The main frustration for the game is the matchmaking. The game has been out a while now and thus less people are still playing it. Plus there aren’t dedicated servers so you’re at the mercy of the host who can quit or lose connection at any moment during the match, ruining your experience. (Also there are a disturbingly high percentage of little kids playing this. What the hell, parents??)

Aside from these two, I’m really itching for a good story-driven game, maybe from the indie side. As well as hoping we’ll get release dates for Spider-man and Detroit: Becoming Human.

Nier: Automata Review

After I finished Nier: Automata, a friend asked if I liked it. I was surprised that I wasn’t quite sure what my answer was.

I think much of the praise of the game is deserved. The fighting is fluid and flashy. And the music is simply amazing.

But I found myself thinking about the game long after I finished it. More so, I kept pondering about what the game was about and what it was trying to say.

If someone were to just play and beat the game, it comes off as pretty straightforward. You are one side (androids) and you have to fight the other (robots). Beat them all and the game’s over.

However, if you get through the game’s multiple playthroughs and endings, you see that Automata is trying to explore something deeper.

The central theme seems to be humanity. What does it mean to be human? Why are these artificial beings striving so hard to be human? Does merely acting out aspects of humanity allow you to attain it?

The game showcases various groups playing out different aspects of humanity: androids (loyalty, violence), robots (generosity, a sense of community), main characters (romantic love, jealousy, hatred), main antagonists (familial love, curiosity),  the twins (guilt, duty).

It’s funny how these themes are explored with no actual humans involved. Also a helpful tidbit is that “Automata” is the plural form of “Automaton” which by definition means “a moving mechanical device made in imitation of a human being”.

Multiple perspectives are further reinforced by how often Automata shifts the play mechanics throughout the game. You’re constantly moving from overhead to 3-D to side-scrolling. It’s literally making you look at things from a different angle.

By the game’s (final) ending, I wasn’t sure what I was meant to feel or think. The resolution wasn’t exactly strong or definitive. However, I think the game ended and told its story exactly how it wanted to.

Automata‘s approach is very Japanese in how it explores ideas in an elliptical way. Heady concepts are pondered upon but rarely given any conclusions for the player.

It reminds me of the author, Haruki Murakami. His books consistently have a dream-like quality and he doesn’t coerce the characters (or the viewer) towards any conclusions to the themes and concepts he introduces. To me, it shows how Japanese storytelling is less direct than Western storytelling. Not better or worse, just more ponderous.

Funny that this game came out relatively close to Persona 5, another very Japanese-feeling game. There, the colorful pop and light-heartedness of anime is very much on display. Automata presents the other side that anime can take in the dark and philosophical. (Also, big swords, upskirt views, and nude non-anatomical boys.)

Furthermore, it didn’t help that I realized after playing, that this game is a continuation of a long and winding story that spans several games, books and even stageplays. I think Automata stands well enough on its own for newbies like myself, but I’m sure there are richer effects to be had for those more fully immersed in the overall lore (as convoluted and complex as it sounds).

I’d love to explore more in-depth about aspects of the game and their meaning (such as why the characters are blind-folded) but maybe that’s for another post.

In the end, I would say I really enjoyed that the game had something to say and wanted to explore some really ambitious concepts. I don’t think I loved the gameplay itself but am always a fan of a game that pushes the medium’s ability to tell story and be artistic.

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2018 has certainly started off slower than last year. I’m not complaining though since it allows me to go back to a few games I’d been itching to try or finish up.

Mainly, I did a NewGame+ for Persona 5, which I thought would go a lot faster but ended up being another 100 hrs of my life. I have no regrets though since my goal was to max out all the confidants and through that, got a much more enriched experience and deeper connection with everyone I encountered in the game.

I didn’t expect to Platinum the game but I got so many of the trophies that I decided to go for the last few. And those were doozies. The compendium and the twins trophies did make the game feel like a bit like work since I spent a lot of time in the Persona Fusion menus.

All this did nothing to diminish my feelings that this is a masterpiece of a game. Previously, I bristled against the constraints of the calendar system, but this time I came to appreciate its game mechanic. It helped that my NG+ allowed me to ignore certain aspects like Stat Building but I realized how the calendar made every choice much more purposeful and deliberate.

Next up, I played Bethesda (and Arkane’s) Prey. If previous posts are any hint, I absolutely adore Arkane’s Dishonored series and you can feel the core in Prey as well. However this game didn’t grab me nearly as much as Dishonored.

Perhaps it’s due to the focus moving from stealth to action, or that the level design was less multi-faceted. I think it also had to due with the relatively barren environment. I believe this was a conscious choice due to the enemy types in the game and also a bit of a homage to the original Alien movie. But it really just made the game a bit lifeless through much of the journey.

Prey opens with an impressive mind-bender but the rest of the game fails to deliver on what it teases. Without trying to spoil much, the end does include a twist, but it’s not one that you don’t already see coming a mile away and I don’t feel that the way they showcased it had enough of a punch. The end just kind of happens.

Finally, I lucked into a SNES Classic and have been hopping onto it periodically. However, I’ve come to realize that I’m currently not as interested in going back to old games right now. I really just want to play a new game and have a new experience. Also, I want to really put my new 4K TV through its paces.

On the horizon is the Shadow of the Colossus remake which I never played so will see what the fuss is about. God of War is probably after that but I’m on the fence as far as my interest there. I’m still waiting on Spider-man and Detroit. I have doubts we’ll see Red Dead Redemption 2 or The Last of Us Part II this year.

Let’s Play: Life is Strange, Before the Storm

There are dozens of reasons why this game should not be good. It’s a prequel. Made by another studio. Without the previous main character. Featuring a character that some players found annoying. That didn’t have the powers that gave the first game its hook. That wasn’t using the original voice actress that gave the character so much life and depth.

But Life is Strange, Before the Storm does a great justice to its predecessor. The things that the first game is well known for, such as an emotional story and a well-written bond between teenage girls, are just as powerful, charming, and engaging in the prequel.

I wasn’t sure a prequel based on Chloe Price, the assertive and abrasive best friend in Life is Strange was going to work. Chloe’s arc in the first game meant that she had to be in a low place by the end of the prequel. And while the original game gave enough weight to Rachel Amber to make her feel massively important to the story, she was essentially a plot device, and I never felt much need to get to know her beyond her role in Chloe’s story.

But I was wrong on both accounts. Before the Storm manages to keep the essence of Chloe’s spirit while telling a story with highs and joys that still ends at a place that reasonably lines up to the start of the first game.

Deck Nine also did an amazing job of bringing Rachel to life. It was probably a complicated dance to make sure she still fit all the descriptions in the first game while becoming a believable character in the new one. She was still the perfect girl that everybody loved and admired, but she had the other shades that could convince us that she and Chloe could get along so well.

This game didn’t put as much emphasis on any unique gameplay mechanics or hooks, but really zeroed in on that relationship and made it soar. I loved every moment that Chloe and Rachel were onscreen together.

And it also made my heart break anytime I remembered their ultimate fate in the original. It’s a testament to the writing that I care so much about Chloe, Rachel, and Max that I’d gladly ditch their original destinies and just keep playing more sequels of them having regular teen antics.

Now, is the excruciating wait for the sequel being developed by the original team at Dontnod. I’m not even sure it will star any of the original characters but can only hope it will have the same depth of storytelling as these other games.

Let’s Play: Star Wars Battlefront II

Here’s a game from a small studio on some unknown licensed property that no one’s talking about.

EA took some notes from the last Battlefront game and gave us a single-player campaign, which is what the Let’s Play covers.

Overall I enjoyed it. There were certainly surprises in gameplay and characters that were fun. However at around 5 hours, the story felt a bit rushed and undercooked. As a result, some character turns felt a bit more sudden and unearned. There were some fun Easter eggs but looking back, I think they only weakened the narrative and seemed like corporate mandates. Not enough time was spent on our new protagonist, Iden Versio.

That’s a shame because she seems interesting and shows lots of future potential. It helps that’s she’s given life by actress Janina Gavankar. It’s been fun seeing her do PR for the game because she’s clearly a big fan of Star Wars and has been a strong advocate for making games more legitimate in the eyes of the non-gaming public.

The multiplayer areas of this game is where the firestorm of controversy and outrage have centered. Honestly, I think the reaction is overblown but not wholly unwarranted.

EA has a checkered history and obviously views the games as a service model as a potent money maker. And we shouldn’t forget that this is entertainment for us, but a business to them. The cost of making a video game today is much higher than in the past. I have no quarrel with them trying to find ways to monetize. I think we’ve now seen a few examples of how to do it right and EA did them wrong.

There are other sources that go more in depth on the issue but my take is that pay to win is wrong. Microtransactions that give players advantages over others is the problem. Overwatch is a great model because there’s plenty to spend money on but nothing ruins the balance of the gameplay. Naughty Dog floods its multiplayer modes with skins, emotes and finishing moves, but no unfair advantages can be bought.

Even non-cosmetic DLC is okay for me in the form of additional story content. I bought every Mass Effect trilogy DLC and had no regrets. And although Mass Effect 3 had a multiplayer with loot boxes for better weapons, the game mode was never PvP so no one went up in arms. They also smartly made any MP DLC free

I’ve already written more than I care to so I’ll reiterate that the story campaign made me glad I bought this game, despite the issues with multiplayer. The campaign should’ve been longer to flesh out beats and maybe less fan-service elements would’ve strengthened the core plot.

Also, EA recently shuttered the studio that was working on an Uncharted-like Star Wars game. But there were certainly moments in this game that felt like a Nathan Drake adventure. Bombastic set pieces and high paced death defying antics left me breathless, and made me want more.

Let’s Play: Horizon Zero Dawn, The Frozen Wilds

Just in time for the end of the year and “Game of the Year” discussions, Guerrilla shrewdly released a meaty DLC for Horizon Zero Dawn, which has maintained a spot near the top of everyone’s list despite the tough competition.

Clocking in around 8-9 hours of gameplay, it’s more than a typical add-on. Clearly a lot of work went into this expansion.

While it doesn’t offer anything newly revolutionary from the base game, what it does is remind everyone why Horizon Zero Dawn was so great. Every aspect of the game is solid and polished.

A few new tweaks were added, including control towers which shook up how I approached a pack of metal machines. The devs also brought in a few new beasts, which were dialed up in toughness and aggressiveness.

Almost immediately into the DLC, I stumbled onto one and experienced a heart-pounding battle that I wasn’t quite prepared for.

The story quests have a nice balance of current day tribe politics and some Old World lore to sift through, but I wish there was slightly more personality or differentiation from this DLC tribe and what we’ve encountered throughout the original game. The Ban-Uk look slightly different and live in the harsh snow climate, but they act like every other tribe: intolerant and dismissive. That is until you (as Aloy) solve every one of their issues and quarrels to gain their overall respect.

I just wish there was a bit more variety in this new world order.

Overall, I’m simply glad to be back in this world. I greatly enjoyed the main game and still hold it in my top three of the year.

As for the videos, I blasted through them pretty quickly to get through the game. But I also played shorter episodes. Let me know if you have any thoughts on the length!