Tuesday, January 15, 2019

New Review: A beautiful game that doesn't come close to hitting the heights of its predecessor, but Red Dead Redemption 2 still manages to entertain

It’s been over 5 years since Rockstar Games’ last major title, the hugely popular GTA5, and for fans of the ambitious studio’s massive, story-driven open world games, it felt like a very long wait for their next big adventure. This is especially true with that adventure happening to be a sequel to Red Dead Redemption, which proved easily to be among the 7th generation’s best games. Red Dead Redemption 2 was always slated to be a massive project, with Rockstar essentially merging all their many studios together and working almost exclusively (DLC and remasters aside) on the title for the past who-knows how many years.

Red Dead Redemption 2 does deliver, at least, in a certain sense. I have to say, I don’t consider it to be one of the studio’s better games, and certainly find it to be a notch or two below its excellent predecessor. But the world crafted here has been brought to life with painstaking detail, and the size of the seemingly endless map available for you to explore is very much out of this world. As a prequel to Redemption 1, RDR2 stars new character Arthur Morgan and tells the story of the Van der Linde gang of outlaws, which includes RDR1 protagonist John Marston in a larger role than I expected, as they attempt “one last heist” which will allow them to escape the dying Old West for good.

Arthur Morgan grew on me fairly quickly. I was a little concerned after seeing the trailers, which depicted him almost as an evil Trevor-like character, but much like John Marston, Arthur’s actually incredibly likable and has at least somewhat of a conscience and a level head, especially as the gang around him becomes more and more desperate. A plot development that admittedly arrives a little later than I’d have liked further helps to cement Arthur as one of Rockstar’s great main characters.

The story he’s saddled with though just isn’t that great by the studio’s standards. As with GTA5, a game that I, unlike seemingly everyone else, struggled to get into, the plot here mainly takes the form of a series of heists, each one presenting differing circumstances but still managing to feel very similar to each other, both narratively and from a gameplay perspective. Upon arriving in each new town-like area and establishing your hideout nearby, Arthur undertakes a series of missions which build to the various attempted robberies. Until much later in the game, including a very cool and innovative epilogue, the story seems a bit aimless and doesn’t feel that it’s building to much. Outside of Arthur, most of the characters don’t manage to leave a mark, and this is despite seemingly endless hours of dialogue as you traverse on your horses from one area to the other.

Still, Arthur Morgan’s journey is enough to carry the day, even if it doesn’t live up to those that preceded it. It’s a lot of fun to arrive at each new location, watching as the gang’s hideouts develop, and getting to explore and become acquainted with the towns (and the one large city) that you find yourself in. Visually, Red Dead Redemption 2 really pulls out all the stops. Other than the lack of interaction with the foliage (something which has stuck out to me in each post-Breath of the Wild game I’ve played) and a few framerate drops in towns here and there, the visual presentation is nearly flawless. It’s so photo-realistic, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine where things can go from here in this graphics style. The snow areas in particular are stunning, and the draw distance, as you stand atop a hill and survey your surroundings, is incredible. Many of the towns you explore are a little on the small side, but the level of activity, detail, and visual effects squeezed into them is excellent. The time spent in the city of Saint Denis easily proved to be my favorite part of the game, and I wished far more time was spent in this huge, vibrant, life-like city.

Exploring the world proves seamless, with no load times to speak of as you traverse from one end of the map to the other, including watching the barren environments gradually become urban centers as you approach the towns. Other than when you die, or fast travel, or when you first boot up the game, it just doesn’t need to load. And that’s an amazing thing. These aren’t empty, deserted fields either, as you’ll encounter numerous NPC activity along your way; from people who ask for your assistance, to those trying to rob others (and even you), the world feels alive at many points. Granted, while I eventually began ignoring much of these entirely, as the rewards they offer you don’t usually feel worth the effort, it’s always something I appreciate when trekking from one area to the other, the sense of activity and vibrancy.

The gameplay is oddly enough a mixed bag, as it replicates RDR1’s strong foundation, which is a lot of fun, and remains fun here, while building on top of it new features that frankly just miss the mark. As with RDR1, you traverse with your beloved horse across various gorgeous environments, completing missions for people as you dig yourself deeper into your story, and engaging in many Wild West gun battles along the way. The crazy bullet time-like shooting system from RDR1 sees a return here, and it’s always satisfying to bring out in the heat of battle. Unfortunately, in a misplaced effort to appeal to the art of “realism,” everything in Red Dead Redemption 2 incorporates simulation aspects that just feel unnecessary, and actually bog the game down when you try to make use of them. It’s possible to spend 15 minutes traveling across the world for a sidequest, only to get there and find that it’s time-specific and no longer available, giving you little choice but to either set the controller down for a long period of time, or to simply travel all the way back. You can hunt and skin animals to either donate to your hideout or to sell, with these animals degrading over time should you not return immediately with them. You’re encouraged to eat food or drink/smoke to regularly to recharge your various “cores” which affect how much your health regenerates, your stamina, etc. Guns have to be cleaned regularly to improve their performance, your horse is supposed to be cared for, your hideout is supposed to be donated to regularly, with the the list going on and on. I just never found any of this to be especially rewarding, and as the game progressed I wound up entirely ignoring almost all of it, and frankly I think the experience is better for it. It doesn’t help that every action feels so belabored; even picking something up off the ground requires you to stand there for a few seconds holding X and watching as Arthur stoops down, grabs the object, and slowly stands up and pockets it. This sense of realism is impressive at first, but after a while I grew tired of it and just wanted the game to speed up. This is something that carries through all aspects of RDR2. Going to a gun shop to purchase guns requires you to watch Arthur lean over a catalogue and methodically flip through each page, reading the nearly illegible handwriting or opting to pull up a text description. I wished numerous times that I could just push X in front of something, read it, and be on my way, but Red Dead Redemption 2 tries so hard to be realistic that every time you have to interact with objects in the environment or in shops, it all feels tedious and not worth bothering with. The Wanted Level system also feels like more trouble than it’s worth, and I made it a point to completely avoid playing Arthur as the “villainous” character, in part because it’s such a pain to remove your wanted level, which can take place from something as simple as brushing up against an NPC when riding your horse through town. Like many games today, Red Dead Redemption 2 makes an overt effort to be cinematic, with missions and large parts of the gameplay seemingly focused on simply pressing the buttons that the game prompts you to press, watching as cinematic things happen. It’s something that seemed cool back when Uncharted 2 came out, but now that we’re several years into the 8th gen, it’s something that I wish developers would just move on from, as I find it increasingly difficult not to feel detached from the proceedings when the majority of control over my character is constantly being ripped away from me to show me “cool stuff.” And unlike regular cinematics, you can't even put the controller down and enjoy them, as you're often asked to push the prompted buttons.

Traveling the world, as gorgeous as it is, occupies a huge portion of your play time. You travel far on horse to reach the missions, then travel far on horse during the missions, and have to travel back on horse afterwards. There’s a fast travel option hidden within the game that can be unlocked, but once I did, I found it to be so incredibly limited that I only used it around once or twice before forgetting about it entirely. Train stations do exist throughout the world for quick travel, and these are helpful, although similarly, they have to be painstakingly traveled to. Unlike the vehicle in, say, Final Fantasy XV, horse travel just isn’t all that fun, requiring you to constantly either tap the X-button or, if you switch to cinematic mode, holding it. The world’s huge, but you’re very much encouraged to stay on the various roads, as environmental objects such as trees and shrubbery can easily throw you from your horse should you venture far from the beaten path. Even when during the missions, and compelling dialogue takes place among the characters as you move, the traveling aspect feels almost entirely devoted to demonstrating the insanely gorgeous environments to you, and this is nice, but there’s only so many times I can be impressed by that across this very long game. Red Dead Redemption 2 feels like the first game from Rockstar where visuals were designed to be the star of the show. Being the developers of typically fully open-world adventures, their games were rarely the prettiest-looking on their respective systems, often going with cartoony and stylized visuals to make up for it. This is really the first time I felt a game from Rockstar fall into the modern day trap of attempting to be too cinematic, becoming too much about immaculate presentation while the gameplay just kind of sits there. The missions all follow a very predictable pattern; ride your horse with others to a location, where all sorts of dialogue takes place. Get to the location, something or other happens, which often leads to cover shooting gameplay that very quickly blends together; it’s hard not to notice a surprising lack of imagination as to how the characters get out of most situations. This is the format for easily the majority of the missions you’ll come across in Red Dead Redemption 2, and it’s unfortunate that the same amount of attention that went into creating the gorgeous world hadn’t gone into the mission design. Rockstar also sadly does the Horizon: Zero Dawn thing, where you’re stuck in a linear and cinematic “opening mission” for the early hours of the game, something that’s always frustrating in what you know will eventually be an open world adventure, which makes the opening hours, so crucial for pulling me into a game’s world, a chore that I’m eager for to end so I can finally begin exploring.

I know it sounds like there’s a lot to be disappointed with, but it’s important to note (and I can’t stress this enough) that despite the endless horseback riding, the less-than-inspiring mission design, the unnecessary emphasis on realism, and the unenjoyable new features, Red Dead Redemption 2 does deliver something special, and I was always eager to switch my PS4 on to dive back into its world, flaws and all. Even with the frustrating new additions, the strong foundation established in the previous Red Dead Redemption remains compelling even to this day. The level of quality and care that Rockstar almost always brings to the table in terms of the overall experience is impressive, even when the individual parts may not be all that great, as is the case here. It’s a world brimming with character, quests to take on, beasts to hunt, and gorgeous, bustling towns and cities. The voice acting’s excellent, and the music sets a cool, subdued mood as you venture through the wilderness; the atmosphere’s almost top notch, second only to something like Breath of the Wild this gen. Red Dead Redemption 2 is very much a game where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, in that for all its very “workmanlike” elements and issues, when I beat the game and put the controller down, it was an adventure that I’m truly glad I went on, and saw through to the end. It leads into Red Dead Redemption 1 perfectly, with an epilogue that’s just narratively a work of genius, even though it too drags in places. It takes a long time to get there, and the early hours of the game often feel painstakingly slow paced. But once I managed to sink my teeth into the story and ignore many of RDR2’s unneeded new simulation elements, I got to enjoy what’s a memorable, if imperfect, adventure. I hope that future games from Rockstar don’t take so long to develop, and don’t feature such an emphasis on graphics and cinematics over pure fun factor and inventiveness. But hey, they know how to develop a game, and issues and all, this is definitely one heck of a game.


Note; this review is based on the PS4 version.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

New Review: It’s a shame that Shenmue I and II isn't what it could've been, but experiencing these iconic games one more time is a gift that shouldn't be missed

With the abrupt cancellation of the Sega Dreamcast, which was gaming’s first 128 bit console and Sega’s final effort in the hardware business, we saw many incredibly promising games and potential franchises relegated to the dustbin of history. Few have gained as much notoriety as the Shenmue series; due in part to their notoriously high development costs and Shenmue II’s legendary cliffhanger ending, along with Sega’s apparent policy not to so much as speak of them for what became something like 15 years, what was a series that many thought would never be finished has finally been given the chance to continue on.

The announcement a couple years ago that Yu Suzuki was planning to finally develop Shenmue III was a momentous occasion that took the industry by complete surprise. With the long-awaited 3rd installment finally on its way, Sega has, for better or for worse, decided to deliver HD remasters of the first two iconic open world games, and Shenmue I and II is the result.

The Shenmue games were almost unheard of in how they upended what seemed possible in gaming back when they released in 1999-2002. You play as Ryo Hazuki, a teenager who returns home one day to find a sinister man, Lan Di, confronting his father. Lan Di demands a mysterious object called the Dragon Mirror before killing Ryo’s father and departing in a black car. Ryo vows to take revenge, and sets off into the fully realized open world setting of Yokosuka, Japan, talking to people and looking for clues that eventually leads him to China, where Shenmue II continues the story and pulls Ryo much deeper into the criminal underworld.

Released at a time when many video games still didn’t have voice acting, Shenmue lets you talk to anybody you see; 100% of the characters are voice acted. In something that’s still incredibly rare even today, the Shenmue games allow you to enter almost any single building, complete with their own shopkeepers, their own music, and other NPC characters entering and exiting the stores, restaurants, and bars that you find yourself in. Every time Ryo gets a clue that pushes the story forward, a notebook icon on the screen glows, and reading the note tells you your next objective. It’s a system that’s incredibly satisfying, and the numerous different ways you can arrive at the same conclusion (say, by talking to one person instead of another, setting off a different chain of events) means that even having played these games more than a dozen times over the years, I still managed to witness scenes that I’d never seen before when playing this remaster, which really goes to show just how much they had to offer.

Though much of the Shenmue experience consists of wandering through ambient, beautifully-scored worlds and interacting with locals, friends, and business owners who all operate on their own schedules, there are fights and action scenes that break things up. Despite featuring a form of the complex Virtua Fighter fighting engine, the fights only rarely offer much of a challenge, but they’re always fun when they do show up. QTEs, which the Shenmue games helped to popularize, are also cool, especially when they involve chasing people through the streets and dodging obstacles, or slamming someone across a bar counter or into a food stand.

Shenmue I is hurt a bit more by the passage of time than its sequel, mainly in that its fights and QTE sequences feel short and simple by today’s standards. As a result, these action scenes lose a bit of their punch, making Shenmue I feel slower-paced as a whole than Shenmue II and its far more exciting action sequences and encounters. That said, neither game is designed to be a thrill ride; wandering through town (or in Shenmue II’s case, wandering through the city) and looking for clues is certainly no Call of Duty or Uncharted, so those going in expecting an action game or even a beat-em-up similar to the Yakuza series will likely be disappointed. And that was true back when Shenmue first came out, as well; gaming at the time was still very arcade-driven, so even back then, the Shenmue series was somewhat divisive in that you either loved it or hated it.  Shenmue II does greatly up the ante in the action category, its occasionally slow first half aside, and Shenmue I has its thrilling moments as well, but generally speaking these are not action games, or fighting games, and were never intended to be. Instead, the beauty of the Shenmue series has always been immersing yourself in their environments: watching day turn to night as snow begins to fall on the quiet neighborhood of Sakaragaoka, arriving home and noticing Ine-San dusting the house, swinging by the local arcade and playing some video games or some darts to kill time, or wandering into a hidden warehouse on Fortune’s Pier to gamble your money away. The number of activities to do in the world may no longer be unsurpassed when compared to the open world games of today, something especially evident when playing Shenmue I, but the atmosphere and the level of interactive detail that exists, I’d argue, remains almost unprecedented to this day.

Both Shenmue I and Shenmue II were games that I’d considered the best I’d ever played back when they released and over the years, and they remain that way today. There was simply nothing like them at the time when they released, and though many of their mechanics have since been adopted by others, there really still isn’t anything that looks, feels, or plays like Shenmue. That’s not to say that the games don’t have their faults, something worth bearing in mind especially now that these are older games, having been released over a decade and a half ago. Some of these faults could have been smoothed over had this remaster been even slightly more ambitious (more on that later) but without a doubt there are genuine faults in the game design that haven’t gone away with age. Shenmue I locks you onto a more linear path in its final act, as Ryo attempts to infiltrate a gang and gets a job moving forklifts in a crime-ridden harbor. This part of the game is still a lot of fun, but having your character automatically teleported to work in the morning and then keeping you in the harbor until nightfall felt like it took away a lot of the freedom that you’d previously been given, and that remains something that I’m not thrilled with today. Similary, the original Shenmue can feel frustrating at times as you struggle to find “the right person” to talk to in order to progress the narrative, an issue that doesn’t happen often, but when it does come up it can be fairly tedious. Shenmue II largely fixes the latter issue but struggles with its pacing in the first half, though it more than makes up for it as it goes on. Still, the first few hours of that game can feel even a little boring at times, with a mandated mini-game involving airing out books in particular stopping its early hours dead in their tracks. I hope it doesn’t prevent people from continuing with what, all said and done, turns out to be an incredible experience, as it’s true that playing these games does require a bit of patience at times.

Visually, the Shenmue series really pushed the Dreamcast hardware to its limit when it originally released, and it’s still mindblowing that Sega’s final console was able to deliver these incredibly demanding games during what was still essentially the PS1/N64 era. Shenmue I and II features the same visual assets but presents them in full 1080p. Certain textures do show their age, especially on the characters, and the pop-in/pop-out of NPCs hasn’t been fixed, but in terms of sheer detail and atmosphere, both games hold up well today, and the improved lighting system presents a noticeable improvement. Probably the biggest night and day difference between this remaster and the originals is the removal of the load times, something the original releases understandably struggled with, which is a huge boost to this version and alone makes a major difference in the fluidity of the experience.  Unfortunately, the audio of the voice acting, especially in Shenmue I, sounds incredibly compressed by the standards we’ve become used to, and it made toying with the audio settings necessary for me to find a volume that I liked. This is the type of thing that could have and should have been smoothed over. That said, for the first time in series history, Shenmue I and II allows you to toggle between English or Japanese voice acting, which is a great addition, despite the somewhat legendary notoriety of the English dub. I personally feel that Shenmue I still plays better in English; the quality of the NPC voice acting varies wildly from the acceptable to the strangely awful, but the main characters’ English voice actors actually bring a distinctive and memorable flavor to each of them; maybe it’s nostalgia, who knows, but there’s a strange charm to Shenmue I’s English dub that actually made it hard for me to enjoy playing it any other way. Shenmue II, on the other hand, saw a bit of a step down from even Shenmue I’s inconsistent dubbing; Corey Marshall returns as Ryo, and despite doing a good job in Shenmue I, and despite him being a huge fan of the series, he sounds utterly bored throughout Shenmue II, something he hopefully manages to fix with his work in the upcoming third installment. Shenmue II still has its good English performances (Yuan and Ren, especially) but if you’re going to play one of them in English and one of them in Japanese, I’d recommend Shenmue I in English and Shenmue II in Japanese, personally. Regardless of which you choose, the option is always there and can be changed on the fly, which is a wonderful thing and a lot of fun to mess with.

Unfortunately, my praise for the quality of the Shenmue I and II remaster ends there. It’s great to get to experience these incredible and unique games again, so in a sense, the somewhat sub-par quality of the porting is something that I’m ultimately willing to live with, even knowing how much more this remaster could have been with a little more time and a higher budget. On launch day and for months after, both games were riddled with glitches and bugs; not even just minor technical glitches, but objects meant to be interacted with that were completely non-functioning, the existence of major audio bugs, and even full on lighting systems being completely missing in action.  A couple patches (which sure took their time to arrive on consoles) fixed many of these problems, though a few still remain. It was sloppy and rushed and, given how long fans have been waiting for this, completely unacceptable that Shenmue I and II was allowed out the door in the state that it was in. While I’m glad these issues have ultimately been almost totally (but not completely) patched out, their existence really took a toll on my enjoyment of playing through these games again. The lack of significant graphical updates is also disappointing, given the potential that was offered by today’s hardware. Thankfully, both games were technical powerhouses back in their day, so the fact that their visual assets (such as textures) weren’t upgraded whatsoever here (aside from the bump in resolution) is not a deal-breaker, though every poorly-textured tie and strange-looking face serves as a constant reminder of what this remaster could have been had it been given less of a lazy treatment by UK developer D3t and publisher Sega.

The improvements that are made are inconsistent; Shenmue I now allows you to save anywhere you want like its sequel did (the original only let you save in Ryo’s room) which is good, but D3t didn’t see fit to import Shenmue II’s time jump mechanic or its ability to let you skip cutscenes after losing a fight or QTE, both of which seem like no-brainers but still for some reason remain Shenmue II exclusive.  Both games still feature a 4:3 ratio in the cutscenes rather than enhancing them to 16:9 like the rest of the game; Shenmue I’s are tolerable, but Shenmue II’s are squeezed into such a small portion of the screen (due to part II’s additional letterboxing) that it really takes some time to get used to. The slowdown that still exists here and there in Shenmue I, especially in the harbor area, is noticeable, as the game shouldn’t be doing much of anything to make the PS4 hardware sweat. Shenmue I’s newly-designed title menu looks and sounds cheap, and the revamped in-game menus are cumbersome and take up far too much of the screen. The music, which is incredible and a gigantic asset to both games, experiences inconsistent sound quality on modern TV speakers, with some songs sounding a little strange while others come across as outright glitchy.

Thankfully, the price is at least right. With a $30 price point, Shenmue I and II is a steal, as you get two unique and incredible games with plenty to explore and to experience, while bumped up to a modern resolution and with the removal of load times. Throw in the ability to switch between English and Japanese voice acting, and there are definite merits to this remaster, even if they aren’t quite what I’d expect for such an iconic release from a major publisher. Without a doubt, further visual and audio improvements would have been nice, and some aspects of these games of course haven’t aged as well as others, but it remains the case that as long as you download its post-release patches, Shenmue I and II is easily the best way currently to experience these games in all their glory.

You can read my more in depth thoughts on the two games if you check out my past reviews of both, (Shenmue I and Shenmue II) but each offers incredibly distinct experiences. Shenmue I’s small town setting is wonderfully realized.  You run into neighbors and shopkeepers you know as they go about their day to day lives, while heading home from Dobuita’s shopping street takes you through the quiet, beautiful residential neighborhoods of Sakaragaoka and Yamanose as the snow begins to fall, something so peaceful that it feels so incredibly real. Shenmue II sees Ryo leave his home and friends behind as he travels to the massive city of Hong Kong, where environments are less detailed but far larger and packed to the brim, providing so much more to explore, your adventures taking you from a sketchy Pier and the bustling streets of Wan Chai to both the dangerous and intriguing Walled City of Kowloon and the forests of Guilin, resulting in a much larger and more thrilling, if a slightly less immersive and character-driven experience. Both games provide very different yet similar journeys, and if you’re new to them, the ability to jump into Shenmue II immediately after finishing Shenmue I is an amazing thing that I'm incredibly envious of. This isn’t how I would have chosen to port these games. But accepting the bare-bones nature of this port for what it is, if you have the patience for their occasionally slow paces and really allow yourself to be absorbed into their worlds and brought along on their adventures, then the opportunity to try these games out (or to replay them) shouldn’t be missed. In many ways, Shenmue I and II served as the basis for much of what we see in both modern day open world and cinematic gaming, and it’s great that many more people will have the opportunity to check them out.


Note; this review is based on the PS4 version.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

My thoughts on Life is Strange 2: Episode 1 (Roads)

Life is Strange 2: Episode 1 was an experience that was so disappointing to me, and one that over its few-hour runtime I was eventually begging for to end. 

I say this as someone who really enjoyed the original Life is Strange; I’m bummed that I apparently never got around to reviewing it, but I found that its likable characters and their experiences in school and the surrounding town of Arcadia Bay worked well with a fantastic time travel mechanic to deliver a truly unique adventure. It was visually alluring, there was tons in the world to interact with, and the presentation was superb; the ending that I got at the completion of my journey still haunts me.

I’d had misgivings about Life is Strange 2 leading up to its release, mainly due to its emerging direction as more of a “road trip,” scenario starring two brothers, something that I didn’t see working well at all. The first episode sadly did little to prove me wrong, coming across as an uninspired Last of Us knockoff dominated by a surprisingly mishandled political storyline and a bunch of dull gameplay to boot.

Bear in mind that this isn’t a “true” review; I plan to offer my final thoughts on the game once I complete it, but after playing Episode, 1 I’m beginning to wonder if playing through all 5 episodes is something I’ll even manage to accomplish.  

Things get off to an alright start; the interactions Sean has with his little brother Daniel and his childhood friend Lyla are solid, if occasionally less-than-impressively acted, but after a series of events, which are quite dramatic if not entirely believable, the two brothers find themselves on the run through the wilderness on an adventure South. 

The gameplay through almost the entirety of Episode 1 consists of walking forward, collecting things, and bringing them to someone. The branching dialogue sequences that were so compelling in the original game evidently don’t have much of an impact on the chain of events in the sequel; despite opting not to steal anything from a convenience store that the two brothers find themselves in, the plot progresses forward as if I had regardless. The lively, ambient and NPC-filled settings of the original game are replaced by repetitive, empty wilderness, and a little brother who began to get on my nerves as the first episode neared its end. 

There’s as much to interact with as there was in the first Life is Strange as you move about many of these environments, but it isn’t nearly as satisfying since so little seems to mean or offer anything to your characters or their adventure. 

Life is Strange 2 Episode 1 also suffers from some clumsy writing and badly-handled political themes. The game’s heart’s in the right place and I agree with its message, with the story it tells involving two Mexican-American brothers living with their father who (I think? The game’s not entirely clear) may have come to the United States illegally many years ago. When the story focuses on them and their family, which is rife with love and a sense of humility, it’s done incredibly well, and I think would have more than served its purpose had they left it at that; a surprisingly necessary reminder that despite all our politics surrounding this issue, these are still human beings. And that’s a message that I think occasionally gets lost in the shuffle of our current political climate. 

Sadly, Life is Strange 2 makes sure this message has no hope of resonating beyond the choir by devoting a good deal of Episode 1 to the brothers encountering portrayals of openly racist and hostile Trump supporters (this is in the incredibly blue Washington State, by the way) at seemingly every turn, to the extent that it begins to feel a little ridiculous . Racism has been and remains a huge problem in the United States, but the notion that a teenager of Mexican descent can’t enter a convenience store without being literally kidnapped by a racist shop owner and held against his will as ICE is called is far removed from any reality that I’m aware of. 

Between its uninspiring gameplay and its often farfetched story, Life is Strange 2 really struggles to get off the ground in its opening episode. If you aren’t wandering the woods collecting sticks or being forced to entertain your little brother, you’re watching storytelling that occasionally works, while at many other times becomes bogged down under its wildly mishandled political ambitions. I’m hopeful that future episodes change course, but after Episode 1 I just can’t say I’m especially eager to continue playing. The mishandled storyline is one thing, but the gameplay doesn’t offer much of interest, and the brothers move around too much to allow for the strong cast of supporting characters that helped propel the first game to develop.

Life Is Strange 2: Episode 1 still has developer Dontnod Entertainment’s trademark dialogue and quirky, stylistic presentation, and the moments that are effective are nice, but all in all I’m hoping that Episode 1 was just a fluke and that they course-correct as this sequel goes on. 

(Note; this is a preview, not a review, so there won't be a score. I'll preview each episode, while reviewing the entire game should I manage to complete all of them.) 

Sunday, September 9, 2018

New Review: A blast from the past to a simpler, more lighthearted time for gaming: Crash Bandicoot is still fun to this day.

With much of the industry, including Crash Bandicoot creator Naughty Dog, having taken a dramatic shift towards dark, violent, and largely cinematic games, it’s been refreshing to see over the past couple years what appears to be a counter-shift back to when games were simpler, brighter, and just generally less afraid to come across as light and fun. 

Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy is one such example, with Vicarious Visions doing a pretty excellent job of bringing the 3 PS1 main series Crash Bandicoot games to the current gen, giving them a fully modern graphical overhaul and adding in a handful of other little tweaks and features. These 3 platformers (or at least, Crash 2 and 3) have for the most part held up well, with definite credit to the talents at Naughty Dog, given the fact that Crash Bandicoot was one of the first ever 3D platformers. The original Crash is understandably the weak link here, with a frustratingly steep difficulty spike early on and a reliance on trial and error, but it still plays well and ultimately laid the groundwork for the incredibly fun and entertaining Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back and Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped. Together the 3 games provide a worthy collection and an enjoyable dive back to the 90s, where platforming reigned supreme and set the tone for much of the rest of the gaming industry.

Taking a different tactic from Super Mario 64, which had released a few months prior and delivered fully explorable 3D worlds as its centerpiece, the Crash Bandicoot series instead took the pacing and linear feel of a 2D sidescroller, but flipped the camera behind your character and had him or her run up the screen in 3D as opposed to running from left to right.  The result was pretty cool, with the games delivering quick, fast-paced, and often challenging levels, with boss battles appearing regularly throughout, and 2 and 3 offering a 3D hub section in between levels. 

The Crash Bandicoot series takes place on an archipelago known as the Wumpa Islands, with the dim but likable Crash Bandicoot and his sister Coco taking on the evil Dr. Neo Cortex and his minions. This is all presented in a fun way, with the narrative elements taking a greater presence beyond the first Crash Bandicoot game, delivered with quality voice acting and well-designed characters, giving the cutscenes a charming presence. Crash 1 features the most limited use of its world and characters, existing in a mostly tropical setting clearly inspired by the Donkey Kong franchise and featuring little in the way of interaction between Crash and his arch nemesis. Crash 2 and 3 then switch things up, throwing in a 3D warp room between levels as opposed to the original’s 2D map, this setup now allowing you to return to a hub where cutscenes take place, as well as the warp concept allowing the developers to greatly expand upon the level variety and move the series beyond the mostly island setting.

The levels are all pretty short and quickly paced, but in many cases quite challenging. Crash dies if he’s touched by any of the enemies or falls down any of the crevices. The levels use a checkpoint system, with checkpoints usually being well-placed, while losing all of your lives results in a game over and forces you to restart the level over again. Collecting apples grants you additional lives, and Crash can be shielded by the Aku Aku character, who can be collected throughout the levels and grants Crash a 1 or 2 hit immunity from the baddies, or even full-on invincibility from them for a short period of time. The levels contain much in the way of hidden goodies, from collectible objects that grant you “the full ending” to bonus stages, to branching paths and the incentive to eat each and every apple. It’s impressive how much replay value Naughty Dog was able to squeeze into fairly short levels. Vicarious Visions has added a couple extra levels as well, which are incredibly challenging and will definitely test Crash Bandicoot fans’ skills should they attempt them. 

As was said before, Crash Bandicoot 1 is by far the weakest in the trilogy, as would probably be expected. The difficulty ramps up almost immediately, and the occasionally poorly explained control segment and the relative lack of a narrative don’t do much to take the attention away from the increasingly frustrating try-and-die mechanics on display in the levels. The series though turns the corner in a major way with parts 2 and 3; while still challenging, both of the sequels have a far better handle than the original does on how to balance difficulty with frustration. Crash Bandicoot 2 especially features the best story presentation and the best in the way of level variety. Crash Bandicoot 3 isn’t a slouch either, adding the fun Coco levels involving a tiger and the Great Wall of China, which are just as cool now as they were back then, along with a host of new powerups for Crash that expand as the game goes on. Other additions to the third installment, such as racing and dogfighting levels, haven’t held up nearly as well. As a kid, I remember favoring Crash Bandicoot 3, probably due to the game’s increased craziness. As an adult though, Crash 3 now seems to me almost like that Hollywood sequel that ups the ante to such an extent that you lose a little bit of the heart in the process; thankfully the game doesn’t fall into that trap, but when you have levels involving medieval wizards and motorcycle racing, it comes pretty close. Crash 3’s hub world display is also much clunkier than its Crash 2 counterpart, and the cutscenes that propel the story forward are a good deal less interesting.

But despite various flaws here and there, all 3 games are still fun. Crash Bandicoot 2 would almost be worth replaying again just on its own, and its platforming and level design (despite a surprisingly easy final boss) represent 32 bit platforming at some of its best. Throw in the other two games as well and you have a must-have collection that so awesomely recalls elements of the Playstation era, and it’s definitely a treat to get to re-experience it. 

As was stated earlier, the visuals have received a major overhaul, bringing them very much up to speed with current gen gaming. The series’ 32 bit heritage of course still peaks its head out in various aspects, but this is a full remake graphically and by today’s standards it looks pretty nice. Seeing visuals and character design from the PS1 era remade in beautiful HD means that these 3 games have a look incredibly distinct from much of what else is currently out there. There are various things that I have small issues with; I prefer Naughty Dog’s art direction to that of Vicarious Visions, as some of the games’ darker color tones have been substituted for much brighter, bloomier surroundings, and it would have been nice if things like a retry button had been included, or if there was an option for subtitles during cutscenes, especially when playing on the go. But this is a high quality remaster, one both faithful to the originals and one that also evolves the look to make sense on modern hardware, and it’s a job well done. 

The Switch version looks good, with incredibly short load times and only occasional brief framerate stutters. For the most part it runs very well. The resolution does seem a bit low for what’s on display; it outputs at native 720p when docked and even lower when played in portable mode, which is a step down from the PS4/XBO versions. Given some of the other games that we’ve seen on Switch so far, it’s hard not to feel that Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy could have done more with the Switch hardware, at least as far as resolution is concerned. It still looks nice on the TV, though when playing portably I found myself noticing a much blurrier look; not a game I’d use to show off the Switch’s handheld capabilities, that’s for sure. For me, the ability to take N. Sane Trilogy out and about made this issue worth it, but it’s worth noting that for those looking to play this trilogy with the best visuals possible, that the Switch version does feature some cutbacks in this regard when compared to its PS4/XBO counterparts. 

It can be an interesting experience to revisit old games, especially those from 3D gaming’s earliest days. Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy delivers, with Crash Bandicoot’s 2 and 3 holding up very well and proving to be a lot of fun. The characters are likable, and there’s a lightheartedness and simplicity that just doesn’t exist in a lot of modern gaming that’s such a refreshing thing to re-experience. As someone who fondly remembers the PS1, it’s great to get to enjoy the sense of humor and the visual style that permeated Sony’s 1st console. It’s missing the occasional features you’d expect in a modern game (subtitles, retry button) while Crash Bandicoot 1 has some frustrating difficulty spikes and iffy controls in places. But overall, this is a solid collection of great games that’s worth re-experiencing, or even experiencing for the first time. Fun and recommended. 


Note; this review is based on the Nintendo Switch version.