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



2016 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, 2016 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.

2.5/5  

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.

5/5

Note; this review is based on the Wii U version

Sunday, March 12, 2017

New Review: Many will consider Yakuza 0 to be the best one yet. For me, the static gameplay outside of combat may have finally taken its toll





It pains me to say that franchise fatigue may be finally setting in for Sega’s long-running Yakuza series, which originated on the PS2 and which has seen an almost nonstop tradition of annual releases since.

The first Yakuza (known as Ryu ga Gotoku in Japan) was a breath of fresh air when it landed on Western shores in 2006; the game’s strong storytelling, fun combat system, and vibrant Japanese open world city took inspiration from everything from Grand Theft Auto to the Shenmue series. And though aspects of its game design were dated even then, the Yakuza series managed to strike a chord with a huge fanbase in Japan, and developed a cult following in the West, and I was eager to devour every non-spinoff entry Sega opted to localize.

Yakuza 0’s a strange one to review, because on the surface and viewed apart from the context of how many similar games to this I’ve played by now, I’m sure it can arguably be called the best one yet. It scales back a ton on the filler gameplay and characters which have permeated the series from parts 3 on, and being the first on the PS4, its graphics are a fairly noticeable step above past entries despite its obvious PS3 origins. It also features the battle system that Yakuza arguably should have had from the start, and fan favorites Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima serve as the sole playable characters.

It finds itself in the unique place where it can actually be a strong jumping in point narratively for newcomers, as it starts all the way back at the beginning, telling the origins of both characters and their battles from within the Japanese underbelly, offering something for both old and new fans alike.

And yet, somehow I found myself enjoying it far less than any installment to date. This is the 6th game, everybody, (the actual numbered Yakuza 6 will be out in the West next year) not including a host of spinoffs. So whatever improvements Yakuza 0 manages to make, it can’t escape the fact that we’ve done this all before. Sega’s been throwing more and more onto an old, rickety framework for years with this series to further and further diminishing returns, and with 0 I think I might have finally had it.

But let me step back a bit. Serving as a prequel, Yakuza 0 is a solid place to step in for newcomers, though many will be surprised by how dated it is, and it *is* dated. Newcomers may or may not be bothered by Yakuza 0’s various 6th gen quirks, including its use of the save point/item box system despite it adding nothing to the game, or the fact that accessing your Inventory in the heat of battle is still done by hitting the Start Button (far out of reach on the PS4 controller) and then scrolling through an Options menu, or that you still can’t do something as simple as placing a mark on your map, or of course that hours upon hours of Yakuza 0 are spent reading lifeless text boxes and the “not quite, but almost” random battles that take place frequently as you try to explore the town.

As someone who has been with the series since day 1, and someone who has seen its gameplay in between battles undergo very little evolution game after game, I find myself finally on the verge of losing interest.

But to some, these remnants of decade-old game design are part of the Yakuza series’ charm, and this is a series that has always had charm to spare. From the comically over-the-top violence in its beat-em-up combat system, to its hilariously-written sidequests and “more badass than badass” main characters, not to mention two at times truly immersive cities to explore, (both of course returning from past games) what makes a Yakuza game a Yakuza game is certainly still here and on full display, so fans who aren’t bothered by these frustratingly outdated aspects will likely have a blast. And I did too, up until a point.

One source of my enjoyment is that Yakuza 0 features a much-improved combat system involving the ability to switch battle styles on the fly, each feeling incredibly different from one another. Both Kazuma and Majima have their own variations on these styles, which adds a whole new level of strategy to the proceedings. The upgrade system’s fairly simple as well, with money serving as both the in-game currency and as the way to level up your characters, and it works fairly well for the most part. The difficulty has also been slightly increased from the too-easy Yakuza 5, which is a good thing and kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.

It’s a shame then that much of the combat is centered around nameless punks who show up to block your path as you wander through the streets, making battles feel more like an interruption than something to look forward to. It’s possible, but often difficult, to run away from these mundane pursuers, but in an industry where combat's increasingly being woven far more organically into the proceedings, Yakuza’s continuing effort to treat it like an interruption makes the minute-to-minute experience of going from Point A to Point B feel like a drag.

The frustrating thing for me is that these issues are not stemming from any sort of technical constraints; that’s something I’d at least be understanding of. Instead, they seem to stem more from a developer strategy to reuse much of the framework from game to game, even aspects of it that don’t make sense anymore. And aspects that did (such as Yakuza 5’s sidejobs or Yakuza 3’s photography mechanic) are inexplicably absent from 0.

Certainly the load times that the series once had when going into battle are basically gone, and the neverending stream of text boxes that convey much of the game’s narrative are, as in Yakuza 5, thankfully voice acted, albeit in Japanese, so eye strain when reading them is still very much a factor. That Yakuza 0’s well-directed, thrilling, and cinematic cutscenes have to often transition into text boxes is likely budgetary, but the game does additionally feature a few cool comic book-style cutscenes which could have easily been the solution to this, though it sadly only makes use of these once in a blue moon.

In the end, Yakuza 0, like its predecessors, offers improvements to its battle system, while the gameplay outside of it remains disappointingly stagnant. It still has the goons randomly appearing in the city streets to get in your way, it still sends you on uninspired shopping trips, it still forces you to wander aimlessly looking for …something to happen when the game occasionally opts not to provide you with a Radar Blip. The two cities you explore are almost identical to their appearances in other Yakuza games; Kamurocho is even missing its rooftop and underground areas. The phrase “more of the same” has never felt so appropriate, and after 5 games of this, that just isn’t enough to grab me anymore.

The story at least benefits greatly from an improved focus over the sprawling, multi-character storylines of Yakuza’s 4 and 5. Yakuza 0 provides helpful catchup videos when switching back and forth between Kazuma and Majima’s storylines, and there’s a part of me that will always find myself compelled by the intense, clockwork narrative this series presents. Here too though Yakuza 0 falls into some of the same traps of its predecessors; dialogue (in the non-cinematic cutscenes) circles the point again and again; nothing’s said without being said twice. Characters are written to be so “badass” that their deaths almost always feel like their own fault. In addition to Yakuza 0’s surprisingly light use of strong supporting NPC characters, we’re again treading down the same well-worn paths: those being of course the path of revenge, and that of fragile female characters always in distress. Any time the game seems to be edging into exciting new territory, it falls right back in line behind its tired ideas and narrative shortcomings; characters who waste their last breath telling others to RUN only to have the others stand there in total shock nevertheless, villains who are smug and slimy and not especially compelling, people standing around taunting and lecturing those who they intend to kill, and did I mention the most inconsistent kidney injury in the history of anything?

It’s sad because it leads to a truly beautiful ending, and a great closing point to both where the series has been and where it will go; a very impressive feat for a prequel and something that, as a longtime fan, was nice to see. In fact the finale itself is awesome and beats Yakuza 5’s pop concert by a mile. Reviewing this has been a challenge because I know that on paper, this is a Yakuza game, and it does that, well, the way it always has. People looking for this, or people new to the series, may find themselves enjoying this game, just like I did with Yakuza 1 back on the PS2, and several of them since.

All these games in, I guess it’s just no longer enough to do it for me.

3.0/5= Fair