Monday, May 14, 2018

New Review: The surprisingly good Yakuza 6 proves to be a breath of fresh air in what has become a rather stagnant series

It’s always a nice thing when a game can come around in such a long-running series and manage to completely reinvigorate it, and Yakuza 6, against all odds, happens to be one of those games. 

For what feels like the first time in many years, I found myself not only invested in what a Yakuza game had to say, but also entirely immersed in its world. A big part of this is due to Yakuza 6’s back-to-the-basics approach; I don’t deny that some fans may mourn the loss of certain features, and 6 also sidelines a majority of the recent Yakuza games’ ever-growing cast of characters. But for me, the narrative sidestep serves as a welcome return to form, allowing the writers to focus almost exclusively on main character Kazuma Kiryu, telling a refreshingly down to earth story that, I’m happy to say, comes without the forced J-pop elements and the mandated mini-games of recent installments. This takes place amidst the most dramatic visual upgrade seen since Yakuza 3, proving to be the real star of the show and re-energizing what had otherwise become an incredibly stagnant series. 

While I once fully enjoyed the Yakuza games for their involving storylines, fun combat systems, and immersive cities to explore and interact with, I’d been growing increasingly tired of what I’d begun to realize was the game basic gameplay being featured again and again. Yakuza’s 4 and 5 painfully divided their narratives among several different playable characters, while increasing the focus on (what I found to be) filler content and tedious mini-games mandated by the main story. Their minute-to-minute gameplay however remained incredibly similar to what it was from the very beginning, over the years having only tepidly evolved from there. Last year’s Yakuza 0, as a result, proved to be the first installment that I had to force myself to finish: a game that, for all its fancy battle system upgrades, still felt like it belonged on the early years of the PS3, and even the PS2, in some regards. 

Despite all this, Yakuza has always managed to carry with it a level of fun, with the games being fun enough on a basic level that I couldn’t help but wish they were better. Yakuza 6’s biggest triumph, then, is its much-overdue new graphics engine, which finally brings the presentational aspects back up to speed for a far more well-rounded experience than anything this series has seen in a long time. Kamurocho feels alive in a way that it hasn’t quite before thanks to some incredible visuals and audio. The lighting effects and reflections are stunning, and combat as you explore is more seamless than it has ever been, with the transition from exploring to battling almost an instant one. Similarly, entering and exiting buildings comes with no load times to speak of, with it even possible to enter buildings while fighting enemies and having them follow you inside. The incredible graphical facelift comes with features that this series should have had years ago; Auto-saving instead of having to run to a phone booth to save your game is alone a major convenience, and the ability to Pin locations on your map is a much-overdue feature that makes a world of difference. Narratively, the removal of the blocky PS2-era text boxes, which has plagued these games from the start, dramatically improves pretty much everything about Yakuza 6’s storytelling. Menus have also been completely revamped, with a mobile phone interface allowing easy access to quest menus, items, and leveling up screens, which, while not necessarily new (GTA4 did a lot of this back in 2008) easily puts its presentation far and above that of other Yakuza entries. 

As with part 3’s Okinawa, this game’s Onomichi (Hiroshima) serves as a relaxing, more laid back and beachy counterpart to the hustle and bustle of Kamurocho. This new city regrettably doesn’t allow you to enter too many of its buildings, something the Yakuza games have always struggled with when it comes to new locations, but the graphics are beautiful and the vibe relaxing enough that I enjoyed my time spent there as much as I enjoyed exploring the all-important red light district of Kamurocho, which, as always, features a true abundance of sidequests to take on, mini-games to play, restaurants to enter, and various bars and clubs to make use of. 

Presentationally, the only thing that hurts 6’s next gen appearance is an over-abundance of screen tearing and moments where the framerate falls below its targeted 30FPS. In Kamurocho especially, the seamlessness seems to take its toll on the engine, with abundant, almost hallucinatory screen tearing happening any time you approach the entrance to a building or run through a crowd of people, even extending to just rotating the camera or scrolling across the map.  Yakuza 6’s screen tearing may be among the worst I’ve ever seen, and while this isn’t something that really gets in the way of gameplay, it’s hard to believe that such an obvious visual flaw was allowed to exist in the final product. I’ve read that this is less a problem if played on the PS4 Pro, so if you have the choice, that would seem to be the best way to enjoy the game, as you also apparently get a higher resolution and more stable performance on top of it. Still, it’s unfortunate that fixing or at least reducing this doesn’t seem to have been a priority for those playing on standard PS4s. 

These visual shortcomings aside though, I can’t stress enough that Yakuza 6 looks and sounds great. Would I have liked a larger area to explore? Perhaps, but all in all I’m okay with taking a smaller game if that’s what it took to make Yakuza 6 feel like a current gen product, and, for the most part, it does. 

Combat also sees itself retreat from its complex iteration in Yakuza 0 to a more basic template reminiscent of earlier entries. Instead of featuring multiple fighting styles, as the recent few games have had, Yakuza 6 instead primarily focuses on you achieving HEAT mode by building up attacks, and then unleashing your increased strength on enemies while avoiding their own attacks. It’s simpler but still works, with the reduction in the number of over the top battle animations and the fewer weapons available to pick up being the only cutbacks that I think could have been avoided. Otherwise, the leveling up system is fine, granting you a solid amount of control over the customization of your character, and there remains little that’s more satisfying than throwing your enemy to the ground and mashing a bicycle on top of them, so in that sense, Yakuza 6 certainly delivers. 

As alluded to earlier, the storyline similarly seems determined to scale itself back from the sprawling, multi-character casts of Yakuza’s 4 and 5. As such, Yakuza 6 actually feels more like a follow-up to Yakuza 3 than to those that came since, and I can’t help but think that this was a determined developer choice; characters and events from parts 4 and 5 drop off the map entirely for much of the game, making them appear to be largely unrelated to the series’ present. Yakuza 6, in cutting out a lot of the filler, is also one of the shorter entries in the series, clocking in at around 25 hours, with a good portion of wandering and side missions tackled to boot. Sticking to the main quest alone would probably put you closer to 20 hours or shorter, which still isn’t bad given the length of your average game nowadays; and being left wanting (just a little bit) more is I guess better than being left wanting less. 

The story itself is solid, featuring some surprisingly well-directed moments throughout its many compelling cutscenes. From the beginning, Yakuza 6’s narrative held my interest. Haruka, the daughter-like figure Kazuma has been looking after since the first game, has wound up in a coma under mysterious circumstances; in addition, she happens to have given birth to a child. Given the increasingly irritating role Haruka’s been playing throughout the series, especially in Yakuza 5, her comatose state in 6 alone helps elevate its narrative above many of its predecessors’. The scenario that unfolds feels both focused and personal, and while still not holding a candle to that of parts 1 and 2 (the only ones with crime novelist Hase Seishu’s involvement) Yakuza 6’s simpler tale easily tops the many that have come since. That’s not to say that things are perfect; the new characters aren’t especially memorable, and their lack of screen time can make it hard to keep track of some of the game’s villains. Yakuza 6 does make an effort to shorten the series’ sometimes excessively long cutscenes, but of course the Japanese-only dialogue means that there’s still a lot of subtitle reading required of the player, and depending on the size of your TV and your distance from it, reading subtitles for extended periods of time isn’t always the easiest on the eyes. I understand the budgetary reasons for this, and the Japanese voice acting's universally excellent, so this isn't a huge problem, I just still find myself wishing that there was a way Sega could incorporate an optional English voice track. On a final note, a lengthy mid-credits sequence also reverses a couple of the story’s more daring plot developments, but the ultimately predictable ending doesn’t take away from what happens to be a surprisingly compelling story, even if the series still sadly pulls back when it appears that it’s about to attempt something truly bold narratively. 

All in all though, I was pleasantly surprised by Yakuza 6. Adopting a “less is more” strategy is always a risky move in a long-running series such as this one, but in this instance it’s a decision that I feel paid off. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are fans, especially fans of 4, 5, and 0, who are bummed that many of the characters and combat mechanics from those games have had a greatly minimized role in this latest installment. But the slimmed down and more focused nature of Yakuza 6, including its gorgeous new graphics engine and a much-needed upgrade of the series’ presentational elements, to me proved far more important. I’d have preferred a little more to explore, with more buildings to enter in Onomichi and a Kamurocho that’s at least as explorable as it was in previous entries, but Yakuza 6, which I’d thought would be my final Yakuza game, has instead reinvigorated my interest in them. And that’s a pretty big accomplishment for a series’ 7th major entry, and definitely a game I recommend to fans of story-driven games and open world beat-em-ups. 


Sunday, April 22, 2018

New Review: Night in the Woods is as unforgettable as it is understated and beautiful

A truly evocative narrative-driven sidescroller, Night in the Woods is as unforgettable as it is understated and beautiful.

The game begins with main character Mae Borowski, stranded inside a bus station, her parents having forgotten that she was arriving in town that night. From the minute Mae begins chatting with the station repairman, the dialogue grabbed me, coming across as both true to life and incredibly genuine. Night in the Woods is an adventure game, with its dialogue and narrative ultimately taking center stage, and they’re both thankfully more than up to the task.

After dropping out of college in her sophomore year, Mae returns her hometown of Possum Springs, a working-class municipality surrounded by a dense wilderness, to move back in with her parents. Her friends, who have remained in town and mostly work retail jobs, seem pleasantly surprised, though clearly caught off guard, by her return. Much of Mae’s backstory is communicated slowly as the game progresses; the interactions Mae has with those around her, including her friends and parents, all seem to contain their own little secrets and in-jokes. Though Night in the Woods opts to slowly introduce its characters to you, it isn’t done in a gimmicky way. Everything has a natural flow to it, and the game’s revelations are handled in a manner that somehow feels real, as if these characters were people we know in our own various existences.

This is despite Night in the Woods’ characters being, well, animals. Mae Borowski takes the form of a cat, and all the other residents of Possum Springs are given animal appearances as well. The world is styled like a comic book, its artsy visuals somehow juxtaposing wonderfully with its incredibly realistic story, which dabbles quite easily into serious topics such as mental illness, sexual identity, the death of the middle class town, and much more. Night in the Woods is also, at other times, an incredibly funny game, and the way in which it so effortlessly walks the tightrope between its different tones is something to behold. The gorgeously simple but compelling visuals help hold everything together as well; though the framerate does struggle when running through parts of town, and the load times are a little long for what's on display, Night in the Woods otherwise presents itself beautifully.

Each day you’re given the freedom to wander the town. Visiting and making plans with either one of two friends ultimately advances the plot, taking you to some sort of event which propels the narrative forward, allowing you to sleep before once again repeating the proceedings. Each day those who live in Possum Springs are available to talk to as you pass by, all offering new things to say and insight into the world in which these animals inhabit. Gradually a storyline emerges, with townspeople going missing in bizarre ways, and Mae and her friends begin to take an interest in getting to the bottom of the mystery. It winds up being incredibly compelling stuff.

What Night in the Woods though sadly doesn’t do as well is allow you to know exactly what it is you’re doing that will advance the plot. I eventually realized that visiting either Bae or Gregg and accepting their respective invitations will propel the story forward, but due to the game’s determined lack of interface and therefore a lack of an explanation of its systems, something all too common in games today, there are early on some frustrations when I wanted to continue exploring but the plot advanced before I intended it to. This is especially evident in the game’s final act, where I’d had no idea that advancing to the evening would be taking me to, essentially, the point of no return towards the end of the game. Given how great the storytelling of Night in the Woods otherwise is, its abruptly-arriving final chapters aren’t a huge flaw in the grand scheme of things, but the unexpected realization that I might suddenly be experiencing the final 30 minutes of a game is always is bit of a bummer for me, as I usually like to do some last-minute exploring, especially in a world I love as much as this one, and to be more mentally prepared for its impending conclusion.

Night in the Woods, though primarily focused on exploratory sidescrolling and its storyline and dialogue, does include some platforming and mini-game aspects as well. These segments pop up throughout the adventure and while they do shake things up, it isn’t always to the game’s benefit. Similarly to how other aspects of Night in the Woods suffer from its interface-less interface, it’s at first confusing when platforming to know what you’re able to jump off of or onto and what you aren’t. The mini-games that often crop up, including a Guitar Hero-styled rhythm game and other story-driven ones such as a knife war between Mae and Gregg, are amusing and add character to the story but ultimately are a mixed bag to play, as they all have a tendency to go on for a bit too long.

But it’s easy to see why the developer felt the need to include these “gameplay” aspects, even if I don’t feel that the game necessarily needed them. (Or at least not as much of them.) The mini-games and platforming aren’t bad, it’s just that they’re merely serviceable when compared to others in their respective genres, and the addition of “serviceable” into a game that’s otherwise fantastic doesn’t help it so much as distract from it.

Afterall, Night in the Woods is in many ways an unforgettable little adventure. The above-described gameplay elements feel almost unnecessary, and the game’s abrupt dive into its conclusion may surprise those hoping to explore Possum Springs a little more before reaching the end credits. I’ll add that some less-than-subtle political undertones do present themselves towards the end of the game, something I was a little taken aback by, even as someone who happens to agree with the game’s politics. It’s really the only time I think Night in the Woods becomes slightly overbearing in its message, and I hope that it doesn’t alienate anyone who’s otherwise fully immersed in the compelling world and its narrative, because I think in a lot of other ways the game’s characters and many of its themes are so universal. Mae’s journey, her and her friends’ imperfections and all, is something truly worth experiencing. It’s one that ends maybe a little bit too soon, and a part of me wishes it had gone for an M-rating instead of Teen, just so that the themes it bravely chooses to tackle could have been presented even just a little bit more fully. But what it offers is something that I think could stay in my mind for years to come. Definitely a worthwhile download for those who enjoy artsy games and great stories.


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

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

New Review: Though it has its many flaws, there to this day remains nothing else like LA Noire, a game whose setting is still as alluring as ever

 This review is based off the Nintendo Switch remaster

In the midst of a console generation that seemed focused on presenting linear, cinematic experiences, Rockstar’s open world games stood out as products which, while containing strong narrative elements, still focused on gameplay and exploration first and foremost in a style they arguably helped to invent.

LA Noire is so interesting in part because it turns out to be something a bit in between those two types of experiences. Created by the troubled and now-defunct Australian studio Team Bondi, this remains their only game, a project that spent years in apparent development hell until Rockstar signed on as publisher and, by several accounts, helped guide it to completion. LA Noire, then, due not only to these reasons but also to its emphasis on cinematic detective interviews and investigations, manages to stand out amongst Rockstar’s lineup and most other open world games in general. At times LA Noire can feel almost unapologetically guided, more than you’d expect from its open world setting, but the explorable world nevertheless provides just enough of a taste of 1940s Los Angeles to pull you in, which, this being a remaster, looks better than it ever did, while the flawed and yet incredibly compelling suspect interviews continue to be a unique breath of fresh air all these years later.

The Switch version bumps the native resolution from the 720p that it was on the PS3/360 to 1080p, making it the only open world game so far on Nintendo’s new hybrid console to be presented in native 1080p resolution (Skyrim and Breath of the Wild max out at 900p.) It’s an impressive result for the Switch given the detailed and bustling environments, especially taking into account the constant movement of things like traffic. LA Noire has always been a great-looking game, but the extra clarity brought on by the jump in resolution makes a pretty big difference in how the world looks. When docked, certain graphical additions to the PS4/XBO versions of this Remaster, such as ambient occlusion, also make their appearance. In portable mode you lose some of these details but the game still looks great and performs more or less the same portably, though I’d recommend upping the brightness a little when playing on the go. It isn’t quite as fancy graphically as the PS4/XBO versions, but the Switch version still presents a notable enough upgrade over its 7th gen release to make it worthwhile. Some framerate drops unique to this version do present themselves on occasion and are fairly noticeable, which is a little unfortunate; they don’t take place all the time and by no means ruin the game, as LA Noire was never an especially fast game to begin with, but there are several instances here and there where I wished Rockstar would have maybe sacrificed a little bit of that 1080p resolution to help save the framerate, especially in certain action scenes towards the end of the game.

Moving on from visuals though, LA Noire still holds its own in a variety of different ways, including a somewhat gutsy focus on investigating crime scenes and interviewing suspects in place of things like fight sequences and shooting mechanics, which, while they still exist here, are not intended to be the meat of the game. You play as Cole Phelps, a cop with WWII history, as he makes his way up through the LAPD case by case. Though I still don’t feel he stacks up with some of the characters who have headlined titles from Rockstar games proper, I liked him a lot more in this remaster than I remember liking him back in the original. As very much a “duty first” cop, his personality quirks are subtle, but over the course of the game I found myself liking him more and more this time around. The remaster notably takes all the Cases that were sold separately as DLC on the PS3/360 versions and re-instates them into the story itself; these add a surprising number of hours to the game, and though I wished the Nicholson Electroplating case for example remained optional, for the most part their addition helps fill out the experience, especially when doing cases for the Vice Desk, and it’s somewhat surprising how much of this was removed from the original version to be sold separately, providing an interesting perspective on the increasingly present advent of DLC in the gaming industry.

LA Noire’s story presents itself on a case-by-case basis, with each desk Cole is promoted to having a series of cases, with a narrative thread often developing between them as you dig deeper and deeper. Each desk begins with a meeting in the police briefing room, at which point you then drive to where the game tells you to, investigate a crime scene for clues, and then, with the information gained from the investigation, you’re pointed to your next destination. Sometimes your investigation brings you to action scenes such as car chases, fistfights, and shootouts, all of which feel a little too cinematic and automated, but they help to shake things up and are generally exciting and fun to play.

Interviewing suspects though is where LA Noire truly tries to leave its mark, and these interviews are often show-stopping, as you study the motion captured facial expressions of your suspects and try to piece together the clues you’ve found to figure out how to best respond. The game lets you know with a rumble of the controller whether you’ve chosen the right conversation choice, so while some may say that this takes away from the realism a bit, I think the gratification from immediately knowing when I asked the right question and how many per interview I got right proves to be worth it. As the first of its kind, however, this was never exactly a perfect system, and its weaknesses begin to rear their heads as the game goes on and the interviews become more complex. All too often Cole’s resulting dialogue is not what I expected my choice to bring about, making it hard, even when flipping through my notebook of clues, to really understand the choices that the game is presenting me with. Playing LA Noire at times feels like exercise in guessing which choice I thought the game wanted me to pick, as opposed to going with the leads that I felt would have truly been the best way to proceed; likely not the developers’ intention. Simply put, it becomes clear how “scripted” the interviews are, which can be discouraging as you make what the game deems to be “the wrong choice” again and again with little idea as to why. The remaster does make an effort to fix this; it changes your response options from the “Truth,” “Lie” and “Accuse” from the original to “Good Cop,” “Bad Cop,” and “Accuse,” here. It’s a slight improvement which helps make the proper choice at times easier to figure out, but I think that, were there ever to be a sequel, question choices unique to each interview at hand would be the best way forward, as opposed to this general template that’s supposed to somehow apply to every interview.

But while its centerpiece mechanic is certainly flawed, there’s no denying its appeal when it does work the way you expect it to; similarly appealing is driving through a fairly large re-creation of 1940s Los Angeles, hearing the chirping of the birds as you wander through 1940s MacArthur Park in the bright California sun, or as you investigate a crime scene at the old railyard, the sound of car horns on the nearby roads echoing in the distance; LA Noire has a great sense of both place and atmosphere. Plenty of NPC activity dominates the bars, clubs, and other locations you may enter, and although the day and night system is unfortunately scripted, the environment does take on a very different look and feel at night, which is a cool thing. LA Noire’s setting and its sense of time and place both prove to be among its greatest assets, and go a long way in helping me to forgive its imperfections in its other areas.

The game is somewhat repetitive; the cases usually involve some minor variation of its “drive-investigate-interview-drive-shootout” formula, and it becomes tiring as LA Noire nears its end. I will say that it bothered me much less when playing this remaster than I remember it bothering me while playing the original. I’m honestly unsure of why that is; maybe my gaming tastes have changed, maybe the now-included DLC missions added variety that wasn’t there previously, maybe it’s because I did more of the optional dispatch missions as I explored LA than I had back in 2011, at a time when I generally hated sidequests. But for whatever reason, the game on this playthrough overcame its feelings of repetition more than my previous experience with it, so I give it credit for that, even if I’m not sure what, if anything, this remaster did to make that the case. Still, other issues from the original continue to hang around; heading from point A to B can occasionally feel like a slog due to how big the map is, especially if trying to complete the dispatch missions, so an option for faster travel would have been appreciated. LA Noire also often gives you choices of where to go next but almost never lets you tackle objectives outside of its predetermined order, and, on a final note, it would have been nice if the game somehow let you know that you were heading to a location that would bring about the end the case. Far too often I found myself completing a case accidentally before getting to explore all the angles I wanted to beforehand, which is always frustrating.

Though structured as a series of Desks and cases, each with their own storylines and resolutions, there is a narrative woven through LA Noire that does eventually manage to make itself apparent. Throughout the game there are various newspapers you can find which trigger flashback cutscenes, depicting the slowly-developing story of a corrupted psychiatrist seemingly more interested in drug dealing than in helping his patients, a story which of course evolves as the game goes on. LA Noire also delivers flashback scenes to you between cases, focusing on Cole and his fellow troops during World War II, which also form into a narrative thread. The storyline that finally develops would have been a better fit for a much smaller game; instead, LA Noire’s plot remains mostly in the background until the last several hours, and while I found much of it to be compelling, ultimately I wished the game had focused on a strong central narrative instead of teasing you with it during and between individual cases for much of the game before (eventually) bringing it to the forefront.

But LA Noire, despite its numerous issues, was worth playing almost seven years ago and remains worth playing to this day. Its portrayal of Los Angeles makes for an incredibly alluring setting, and though there isn’t too much to do in it besides landmarks to spot and the dispatch missions to complete, the open world is a fun one to experience as you make your way through the game’s numerous (and often compelling) cases. Despite some unfortunate framerate issues in places, the Switch version looks noticeably sharper than it did on the PS3/360, and the changes made to the Interview system result in a slight improvement, even if the issues with it and the somewhat repetitive mission structure remain. LA Noire still feels very much like its own thing, and with the DLC missions now added (back) into the main story, even replaying it often felt like a new experience for me. It’s a game I recommend to those who haven’t tried it before, and while Switch owners should note the hefty install size (even if purchasing physically) on the system’s relatively limited storage space, it’s something I think is worth it for one of the quirkier Rockstar-published open world games.


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

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

New Review; South Park: Fractured but Whole outdoes its predecessor in numerous ways to deliver (almost) the perfect South Park gaming experience

One thing that remains so great about South Park, which has been on the air since 1997, is how much of the original team remains in charge of the show. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who created the series, along with many of the original staff of producers, animators, and writers, are still involved with and running South Park to this day. It’s a different scenario than what animation typically sees, where the creators often leave after a period of time and hand the reins off to someone else, but it has resulted in South Park still feeling authentically like itself after all these years. It may no longer deliver as consistently as it once did, but it continues to be smart, funny, and relevant 20 years later.

Between 2014’s Stick of Truth and now its sequel, The Fractured but Whole, the two games have represented some of the greatest aspects of the modern South Park universe. The visual style provides a seamless transition from story sequences to gameplay, making it feel from the first minute to the last that you’re playing an episode of the show. If you were to put the game and the show side by side, you wouldn’t notice a difference in presentation, whether during gameplay or a cutscene, and that’s something that’s nearly unheard of for a licensed video game based on a TV series.

It’s from this perfect visual template that you get to create your main character, known only as New Kid, a silent protagonist who arrived in town during the previous game and had to work his way up among the ranks of the South Park kids. A fun plot mechanic allows this same New Kid character to continue his journey, while once again giving you the freedom to custom design him, even allowing you to make him a female this time out. As with its predecessor, the events of Fractured but Whole take place in a fictional game that the kids are playing; last time it was a medieval RPG, this time they’re playing Super Heroes, making this an original story that doesn’t require knowledge of the Stick of Truth in order to follow it. Basic knowledge of the show, however, is probably recommended to get the most out of all the jokes, with the tone and setting being most similar to that of the series’ three recent seasons (19, 20, and 21).

Aside from the hilarious storytelling, voice acting, and music, which mirror the quality of what you’d see on the show, the biggest star of Fractured but Whole is the world that you have available to explore. As someone who has been watching South Park since I was a kid, it’s surreal to get to control a character in an open world version of the town, wandering into City Wok and seeing Officer Barbrady hanging out eating Chinese food, available to talk to. A cool gameplay feature involves you taking Selfies with various characters; take enough and you’ll level up in that category (which grants you EXP, as does leveling up in every category) which not only compels you to look for characters, but also to get the “status” that then allows several of them to agree to Selfie with you. You’ll encounter battles (such as 6th graders, crab people, among others) as you wander around, but they’re easy enough to avoid that it doesn’t become a big problem. The town that you have to explore features numerous quests to take on, buildings to enter, and items to find. There’s a ton to explore, which is both a blessing and a slight curse, as going from A to B can occasionally seem like a hassle, with a Fast Travel system that (like many things) feels somehow dated in our post-Breath of the Wild existence.

The town of South Park really does feel like a living, breathing world; exploring locations like Stark’s Pond is incredibly atmospheric, with the nightlife accompanying the Historic Shi Tpa Town and the slums of SoDoSoPa serving as solid new additions to Fractured but Whole’s version of the town. Canada also seems to be available, though apparently only for future DLC. For the earlier parts of the game, Fractured but Whole feels like a host of never-ending missions to complete, characters to meet, and items to find. It’s too bad that this scales back considerably as the game goes on, giving off the impression that with more development time, this often-delayed project could have better filled itself out with missions to partake in. What’s here is good, just very much centered around the first half of the game.

Thankfully though, the main quest is ultimately compelling throughout. Starting again at the bottom of the totem pole and tasked this time with working your way up within the ranks of Cartman’s Coon and Friends band of super heroes, your journey takes you all over town, including into the headquarters of rival super hero group Freedom Pals. The story never fails to entertain. Fractured but Whole sticks with turn-based combat mechanics, but this time brings them into a decidedly more SRPG style, where you control your characters’ positions across a grid and take turns attacking or moving or defending. Though I’d fully expected to prefer the more basic turn-based battle mechanics of Stick of Truth, Fractured but Whole’s combat quickly grew on me, to the point where I may even be compelled to check out other SRPGs down the road. You get to pick a character class, but the game’s flexible about letting you change it and develop your character in a variety of different ways as the adventure goes on. Everything you do grants you points that level various stats up, (Toilets properly used, characters Selfie’d with,  items found, items created, fast travel locations unlocked, etc) and once you level up a stat, that EXP is then sent to your character, allowing him or her to equip new artifacts that increase the stats for all on your combat team.

The mechanics are simple enough that people, including those not familiar with SRPGs, can easily get the hang of them, but I found Fractured but Whole to occasionally present a fairly solid challenge, requiring me to rethink my strategy or my characters used in various situations in order to take down a strong boss. The moves during battle often require time-based input from the player, always keeping things interesting and allowing you to knock enemies into others or into your own characters for extra damage. It’s all surprisingly satisfying stuff. Other characters are used well as you explore, with numerous locked areas and puzzles requiring you to use another characters’ Fart Powers (such as Kyle’s Fartkour, which lets you leap across large chasms) to get through them. Fart-based powers also play a role in battle, keeping things interesting and often helping to provide you with the upper hand.

It’s a game that, in equal measure, encourages exploring but also doesn’t demand it. Fractured but Whole is much more quickly-paced than its predecessor; that game’s more aimless moments, like a sequence in space that felt like it went on forever, don’t take place in the sequel, leading to an experience that feels more focused but at the same time less adventurous. The storyline plays it fairly close to your typical Marvel origin story, focusing on your character developing as a Super Hero while not really venturing into surprising territory until towards the very end. It’s only in this area that Fractured but Whole disappoints when compared to its predecessor, as you have a cast of great super heroes and excellent writing, but by the end feels like it should have built to more than we ended up getting. There are great moments, many of them, and hilarious situations, but compared to its predecessor, Fractured but Whole ultimately feels less exciting and rewarding in the plot department once the credits begin to roll.

As mentioned earlier, the quests available to you similarly thin out as the game goes on, which not only reduces your need to explore the town, but also makes your character much slower to develop, with my team hardly evolving at all in the final 5-8 hours of this 30 hour or so adventure. These flaws don’t by any means ruin the experience, but they do prevent it from feeling like all of the potential from this great concept was realized, especially when you’re informed that you’re below the recommend level for a quest, yet other quests to advance your level seem to be non-existent. There are other nitpicks here and there; the real time elements to the combat system, where bosses will occasionally invoke real time aspects, shake things up but often feel more tedious than fun. The small text in the menus isn’t especially well-suited to this type of real time combat, forcing you to tear through them hoping to select an item before the boss takes his next devastating turn.

But these are fairly minor flaws in what is otherwise a great experience. South Park: Fractured but Whole presents a more focused, if a little bit less crazy, way to experience the show compared to Stick of Truth. The world of South Park has never been more fun to explore, and the SRPG battle system is accessible enough for beginners but at times challenging enough for everyone else, serving as a major improvement. The amount of side content available seems conspicuously absent in the final third of the game, and the occasional real time elements of the combat system could have been less frustratingly implemented, always seeming to surprise you on boss battles where dying forces you to fast forward through tons of barely-skippable cutscenes.

But in terms of playing through an episode of the show, complete with all the great characters, crazy writing, fun settings, and solid music, while at the same time delivering a legitimate open world SRPG, Fractured but Whole completely delivers. The story is the one area that doesn’t hit the absolute heights of Stick of Truth, but otherwise this is the better game and wholeheartedly recommended to fans of the show.

Long live South Park.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

New Review: Feeling rushed and offering very little that's new, Sonic Forces sadly proves to be another disappointment in Sonic's 3D journey

2017 originally looked like it would be the Year of Sonic. After his years on the Wii U yielded results ranging from tepidly-received to outright despised, 2017 promised to deliver us a brand new 2D Sonic game created by a small studio who clearly loved the series, along with what was to be a new 3D game from SonicTeam meant to take the series back to its Generations roots.

With the great 2D Sonic Mania released just a couple months ago, we finally saw, in many ways, a true successor to the Genesis Sonic titles, and the first Sonic game in many years that seemed to excite a large number of fans, both past and present, while reaching outside the Sonic bubble to invite those who hadn’t played a new Sonic game in years back into the fold. Sonic Forces, SonicTeam’s 3D effort, is unfortunately not likely to do the same.

It’s necessary I feel to start this off by saying that Sonic Forces is not a terrible game; there are 3D Sonic games that have been far worse, and Sonic Forces, though it refuses to allow itself to stand out in any way, is at least not the outright disaster that I’d begun to fear that it would be. At a fairly modest $40 price point, diehard Sonic fans who feel compelled to try it can’t really go too wrong, and may find some enjoyment from what’s here, which turns out to be not all that much. It’s difficult to recommend this game to anyone else, however, and all others would be far better off diving into Sonic Mania or some of the better 3D Sonic games instead.

Sonic Forces is not a memorable game. It’s a game so forgettable that each level fades from memory the moment they’re completed. As I type this, I can’t remember a single song from the soundtrack, I hardly remember what took place in the story, and can only vaguely recall the smallest bits and pieces of any given level.  This is a game where immediately upon seeing its credits roll, I returned to the “world map” to replay one of the fun stages, only to realize that I couldn’t think of a single one.

From the moment it starts to the moment it ends, Forces feels like it’s on fast forward, and ironically not in a good way despite it being a Sonic title. Cutscenes end at odd moments and with no sense of narrative structure, while the levels themselves are almost all completed in under 3 minutes, with little time to even register your surroundings before your character flies across the finish line. The main story puts you in control of 3 characters; Modern Sonic, Classic Sonic, and an Avatar character you create. Each has their own style of gameplay, but each style requires very little thought or input beyond holding the analog stick right (or up) and occasionally jumping or boosting through brain dead enemies who simply stand there like statues awaiting their deaths. It barely mattered to me which character I controlled, as they all blur together into a series of automated loops and on-rails set pieces through levels that have very little context or purpose within the story. There have been some incredibly bad Sonic games, but rarely has one felt so haphazardly pieced together as Sonic Forces does across the 4-5 hours (if that) it takes to clear the main story.

After a tutorial level that feels short and straightforward but winds up being indicative of what you’ll experience from start to finish, Sonic Forces begins with Sonic being defeated by a new villain named Infinite. Despite several Sonic games and an entire cartoon series devoted to portraying Eggman as a goofy and ridiculously incompetent villain barely in control of his cohorts, in Forces he somehow manages to take control of the entire planet and is written as a fearsome and devious villain meant to be taken completely seriously. (Yes he still looks like a giant egg.) Classic Sonic, along with your Avatar who the developers almost seem to be trying to turn into Forces’ main character, teams up with the rest of Sonic’s crew to rescue the present day Sonic and save the world from Eggman’s grasp.

The story is all over the place; the jokes are halfhearted, while we’re given no opportunity to feel invested in any of the characters or a world that we barely get to know. Cutscenes are well animated but are over too quickly, instead becoming, in a depressing first for the series, radio conversations across a boring, static world map. Characters in these radio chats discuss a war we never get to see, with solders who we never get to meet. Classic Sonic and your Avatar character therefore vanish almost entirely from much of the story, as radio cutsenes don’t really work well with silent protagonists. Much of the cutscenes that do exist focus on Modern Sonic’s friendship with your Avatar character, who, as animated by SonicTeam, comes across as a blank slate with very little personality despite him being your own creation. The heavy-handed but underdeveloped themes of friendship and teamwork are clearly intended for a younger audience and will likely embarrass anyone over the age of 12. It wants so much to be taken seriously, but the story’s over far too suddenly to leave much of an impact.

Oddly enough, this same flaw defines the levels in Sonic Forces themselves. Modern Sonic, whose gameplay is essentially the boost-driven style seen in Sonic Unleashed, Generations, and Colors, is generally the most exciting visually, but the level design barely seems to exist. Large portions of the 2-3 minute levels are devoted to holding down the boost button as Sonic blasts through hordes of enemies who provide no resistance whatsoever. Periodically the camera will swing to the 2D perspective for some small bits of platforming, but for the most part you force your way through the levels with little resistance or finesse. Many of the set pieces look cool but are heavily automated and borrowed from previous entries in the series.

The Avatar character plays similarly to Modern Sonic, except instead of the boost feature you’re given some Wisp powerups which you can set in the main menu while on the worldmap. You can choose from a few, but I saw no reason to do so, as his Fire move is so incredibly overpowered that it decimates any enemy in your path with no exceptions, so why anyone would opt for another is beyond me. An aspect of Sonic Forces that will appeal to some is your ability to fully customize and deck out your Avatar. I found it fun for a few minutes, but there’s no effect on the gameplay beyond your initially chosen species, and I quickly became tired of hammering the X-button to skip through what feels like 500 notifications about each piece of new clothing you unlock every single time you complete a level.

Classic Sonic is fully 2D and is intended to play like the Genesis games. For whatever reason though, SonicTeam did not use the fantastic controls/physics from Sonic Mania, even though they borrow that game’s Drop Dash, a move I don’t remember feeling the need to use once in Forces. Classic Sonic’s handful of levels provide the game with some much-needed platforming, and as the only part of the game that you can’t simply boost your way through, they probably stood out the most for me. Still, they don’t hold a candle to the 2D platforming and ingenious level design featured in Sonic Mania, and as with the other characters’ stages, are over just as they seem to be starting to hit their stride.

Boss battles are another area in which Sonic Forces underwhelms. The 1st boss is unique, if not especially great, but all the others follow either 1 of 2 templates; chasing the thing down in 3D or ricocheting rocks back at it in 2D. Every boss essentially fights the same way with minor variations, and they stick so rigidly to their pattern that there are almost no surprises to be found.

None of this is horrible from a gameplay perspective, and that’s what’s in part so frustrating about Sonic Forces. Had SonicTeam felt compelled to design an actual game around these characters’ playstyles, had they put even the slightest effort into challenging or surprising the player, had the levels not ended barely a second after SonicTeam met the bare minimum requirements for designing a “Sonic level,” had the Avatar’s powerups actually mattered, had the game managed to justify any of the characters’ existences…..then Sonic Forces could have gotten past its awful storyline and been something special. Minute for minute, the Sonic core gameplay, which has existed for over 25 years, remains fun, even in a game as determinedly short and unremarkable as this one. For those truly wanting to play this, which I’d imagine are the series’ most diehard fans, $40 isn’t unreasonable for what’s on offer, though if you can wait, I’d hold off until Forces hits the $20 mark.

For everyone else, though, it’s incredibly difficult to find much to recommend Forces for, as it’s all been done better elsewhere. Give Sonic Mania a shot instead, and hopefully one day SonicTeam once again finds themselves inspired to truly deliver the platforming excellence that they were once known for. Unfortunately, that day clearly isn't yet here. And after playing Sonic Forces, I have real doubts that it ever again will be.


Note; This review is based on the PS4 version

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

New Review: The greatest finale the Wii U could have asked for; Breath of the Wild transcends and redefines open world gaming for a new era

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a game that reminds me of why I fell in love with video games in the first place. It’s a game that transported me to a world so seamless and so fully explorable that I hadn’t thought it was possible. It not only re-defines my idea of an “open world” but my view of what video games can be. It’s a game where, by its end, the idea of leaving its gorgeous and vibrant world behind was nearly heartbreaking for me, and that’s something I haven’t felt from a video game in a long time.

It isn’t often that a game like this one comes along. This is a world that, nearly from the start, you’re fully capable of exploring, or attempting to explore. It’s a game that allows you to climb any wall or cliffside you see, reaching the top and jumping off, soaring perhaps for miles, with the ability to land anywhere you want, including seamlessly into bustling villages or into the depths of a dangerous forest. Not only does Breath of the Wild’s brilliant game design truly allow you to explore and interact with anything the eye can see, but it encourages it at every turn.

Watch towers dot the horizon; climbing them and activating the terminals at the top will fill in that portion of your map; from up there, you can take a look in every direction; those other towers in the distance? You can mark those on your map. Spot the red glow of a yet-to-be-discovered shrine below? You can mark it for later or even glide right down to it. As you approach the landscape below you’ll see no shortage of varied environments to explore and get to know. From the start the main quest location is always illuminated on your radar; but what makes Breath of the Wild such an incredible experience is the world in between, and how the game beckons you and then makes it so easy to explore it at every single turn.

The adventure begins with Link waking up in some sort of chamber. Futuristic tech dots his surroundings, as it does throughout Breath of the Wild. The first image you see upon exiting the chamber however is an untamed wilderness; a Hyrule completely taken over by nature and its often dangerous inhabitants, both the mechanical and the living.  

It took me some time to come to grips with such a melancholy setting. The bustling towns and villages where humans and familiar Hyrule creatures gather are warm and filled with life, making the descent back into the wilderness upon leaving them seem incredibly lonely. The music is beautiful but sparse, leaving instead the ambient sounds of the wild to take center stage. The charming and funny Zelda dialogue is present throughout, including for the first time voice acted sequences, some of them incredibly well-presented. But this is among the loneliest of Link’s adventures, and at first I wasn’t sure what to make of such a bleak setting. But as I progressed through Breath of the Wild, something else started to happen; I began to make this world my own.

Your impact on Hyrule is visible to you at all times; shrines that you complete (little puzzle rooms which give you the shrine orbs necessary to increase either Link’s heart or his stamina gauge) change their glow from Red to Blue, as do the towers you’ve activated. With each activated tower, more of your map fills in. As you explore on the ground, locations you discover are immediately labeled on your map as well. Once you free each of the four Divine Beasts, they point their weapons of light visibly at Hyrule Castle; the final dungeon and one accessible from almost the beginning of the game. You can see all of this, both explored and unexplored, off in the distance at all times. It’s theoretically possible to turn off your radar and the HUD entirely and simply play through the game without them, using clues from NPCs and the glowing lights on the horizon as your guide.

At first, the huge amount of freedom given, including the ability to enter some incredibly tough areas, can be a little overwhelming. Before you can purchase the adequate clothing, certain regions of Hyrule (such as the peaks of the coldest mountains or the depths of the hottest deserts) damage Link second-by-second. Various campfires scattered throughout the landscape can be used to prepare food; a source of nutrients such as health recovery and cold and heat resistance, for example, to help you on your journey. For the first time in this series, your weapons and shields are expendable; though almost every enemy drops a new one, it’s at first a challenge to get used to the idea that your weapons and shields will last for only a few enemy encounters before breaking.

Breath of the Wild is incredibly refreshing not only for the way it trusts you to get the hang of surviving its world and the freedom it gives you to form your own strategy, but also in the way that it doesn’t bog you down in tutorials or go easy on you in the slightest; something unusual for most Nintendo games and a huge break from the increasing linearity and hand-holding of some of the more recent Zelda installments. The auto-save feature is just frequent enough that it will usually help you out of a jam, but not forgiving enough where saving often from the start menu doesn’t come completely recommended as well.

The game’s main 4 dungeons can be tackled in any order. The shrines, of course, can be completed in any possible order as well; you’re given all of Link’s powers in the first hour of the game, afterall. Shrines serve as a source of many of the game’s puzzles. Once they’re visited, they’re added to your map and serve as warp points even if not successfully completed, further adding to your feeling of “discovering” the world. These shrines are generally short enough that they don’t feel like interruptions when you step off the path (so to speak) to take them on; the game audibly alerts you to their presence, and while there isn’t an infinite number of them, (apparently around 120) there never seems to be any shortage of them. With each completed shrine, you obtain a shrine orb, four of which can be redeemed at various goddess statues throughout Hyrule for an additional heart or an increase in your stamina; both are essential in different ways, and it’s ultimately up to the gamer how they power Link up, further adding to the sense that how you play through Breath of the Wild is entirely up to you.

Traditional Zelda dungeons exist, to an extent, in the form of the Divine Beasts which progress you through the main story; it’s here and almost only here where Breath of the Wild slightly stumbles. Boarding the Beasts, done with a partner character whom you meet over the course of the story, is almost always a thrilling and intense experience. The dungeons themselves, however, lack the sense of clockwork progression that Zelda dungeons typically are all about. Their respective bosses, despite slight differences, all follow the same basic blueprint, which feels like a missed opportunity given how well known this series has been for both its varied dungeons and boss encounters.

Similarly, the lack of handholding and the game’s freedom hurts Breath of the Wild in only one way; it’s far too easy to miss talking to a certain Korok character early on in the game, which means it’s far too easy to miss out on the chance to expand your character’s weapon, bow, and shield inventory as the game progresses. I found out about this much later in Breath of the Wild than I was intended to, and as a result, I had to manage my inventory more aggressively than I actually needed to as I played through much of the game. This Korok quest also helps point you in the direction of the famous Master Sword, something I would have also missed out on had I not taken time before the final boss to go back and seek it out once it became clear that the story wouldn’t bring me there on its own.

There are other little quirks here and there; though still a gorgeous game, the 720p native resolution of the Wii U version (Switch version outputs at a better 900p) and the at times incredibly erratic 30 FPS framerate are a step down from the 1080p presentation and smoother framerates we’ve become used to with the Wind Waker and Twilight Princess HD Remasters, though Breath of the Wild's technical achievements otherwise dwarf those games in every aspect. Similarly, the more minimalist approach to the storytelling means that Zelda herself, though memorable, remains a mystery in many ways should you not choose to seek out the optional Memory sequences, which go a long way in helping flesh the character out. Though many of these Memories are fairly inconsequential, it’d have been nice to have seen a couple of the more important ones within the main story itself. In typical Legend of Zelda fashion, the game’s ending also disappoints slightly, never quite managing to feel as epic or complete as the adventure that lead up to it.

But those are just nitpicks; it may be true that no game can be perfect, but Breath of the Wild comes incredibly close. There are so many ways that Nintendo could have faltered; shrines could have taken too long or been too hard to find. It could have been far too difficult to escape a tough situation, which would have discouraged going after the game’s toughest monsters (You can warp from an area at any time, even in the middle of battle). You could have had to complete the shrine to gain access to it as a warp point (thankfully not the case.) It’s in this sense that while Breath of the Wild is often a challenging game, it knows to be forgiving in all the right places, and it’s an incredibly rare experience where almost all the pieces fall perfectly into one, where nearly every decision made in its development feels like the best decision. I didn’t think that Nintendo had it in them to produce a game of this magnitude and of this quality, one which puts even many seasoned “open world” developers to shame.

But a quick anecdote on Breath of the Wild’s world, as I near the review’s end. At one point I exited a shrine, its now-blue glow illuminating the walls of the nearby cliffisde. I’d stepped into a rainstorm, lightning threatening to strike my equipment and deal me heavy damage. Though I could have simply chosen to warp to a different location, I was aching to instead explore my nearby surroundings. There was a way; I could have chosen to replace my metal sword and shield before setting out into the storm, but instead I chose to stay under the shrine’s protective covering, watching as the fierce downpour eventually abated, the setting sun emerging and drenching the vast landscape. Up on a nearby hill, I could see smoke billowing from distant huts as night set in, the light wind gusting as the sound of the crickets began to take shape.

It’s been years since I remember playing a game like this one, a game whose world seems so incredibly filled with life, where the possibilities for exploring and evolving your character feel so simple and almost endless.

Breath of the Wild rightfully deserves to be called one of the greatest games ever made, and one of the greatest achievements ever in open world gameplay and storytelling. Much like Ocarina of Time back on the N64, I have little doubt that developers will be learning from Breath of the Wild for years to come. Whether playing this as the finale to the Wii U or as a first experience on the Nintendo Switch, it’s a beautiful, incredible game and one that arguably redefines open world gaming for a new era.


Note; this review is based on the Wii U version