Friday, March 19, 2021

New Review: A constant delight and a true blast to play, Immortals: Fenyx Rising is some of the most fun I've had with a game in years


Immortals: Fenyx Rising is the rare game that delights in almost every sense of the word. As a charming, funny, and whimsical adventure in a fully explorable open world, Immortals is a breath of fresh air not only when compared to other AAA Western games, but compared to its open world peers as well.

After being sidelined for much of the 7th console generation in favor of far more linear and faster-paced styles of gameplay, we saw with the 8th generation a promising return to more open game design; where video games were more explorable, more interactive, and less constrained by shooter-influenced pacing. There’s still a difference between this, however, and the type of open world game pioneered with 2017’s Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a game referred to by Nintendo as an “open air” style of game, whereas not only is the world large and explorable within its paths, but where everything off the beaten path can be climbed up, flown over, and chopped down too. In this type of game, there isn’t a single mountain peak off in the distance that can’t be flown to and climbed up, not a single lake that can’t be swum through, and the main story quests can be taken in any order. No surface is off limits to exploration or interaction.

Immortals: Fenyx Rising is the first “open air” styled game I’ve played since Breath of the Wild, and much of what made that game such a compelling adventure and its world such a blast to explore is recaptured here. Nintendo’s 2017 epic still remains ahead of the curve in several ways, which shows what a once-in-a-lifetime experience a game can be, but Ubisoft does a great job with this formula and has created an incredibly memorable adventure in its own right.

The story begins with two gods, Zeus and Prometheus, discussing their dire situation at the top of a snowy mountain; the evil god Typhon is raging throughout the Golden Isle, and Prometheus makes a bet with Zeus (who’s imprisoned) that Typhon will be beaten by a mortal. Though skeptical, Zeus begrudgingly listens to Prometheus tell the story of Fenyx, the mortal who he claims will save the Golden Isle from Typhon.

The two gods banter with each other fairly frequently throughout the game, taking on the form of narrators as the two of them comment on what’s happening, argue with each other, and provide context to some of the events taking place. Aside from being genuinely funny, the addition of Zeus’ and Prometheus’ dialogue keeps the two gods in the mind’s eye, even though they spend much of the story off-screen, and the constant reminder that Fenyx’s journey is a tale being told from one god to another adds a level of uniqueness to the story that helps make it a lot of fun. Fenyx begins her or his journey washed up on the Golden Isle, Immortals’ colorful open world, and you’re quickly set free into this "open-air" playground.

You’re given the ability to customize Fenyx’s gender and appearance; given that the game was primarily marketed with the female version of Fenyx, that was the one I chose, so I can’t comment much on how different things might be with the male version of the character. But I found Fenyx as she existed in my game to be incredibly likable; the way she interacts with the other characters, her facial expressions, and her general outlook on her situation is nothing short of endearing. The dialogue throughout comes off as so effortlessly funny that it’s really nothing short of an achievement. Though armor you equip to Fenyx changes her appearance in-game, there’s a cool little touch where helmets, etc disappear during cutscenes; something allowed by Immortals' cartoony visuals, which lets Fenyx remain expressive during the game's events, which is a very good thing. The accents that the characters all speak in initially took me a little while to get used to, but ultimately they grew on me and I couldn’t imagine the game without them. The other characters on the journey are equally funny and likable; from Zeus and Prometheus to Hermes, to the various gods who you free who then take their positions atop the tower as you progress through the game. The warm and funny storytelling along with the vast, colorful world makes Immortals: Fenyx Rising always a delight to turn back on and play.

Somewhat similar to other open world games, The Golden Isle is divided into regions, which can be seamlessly traveled to either on foot, horseback, or (similarly to Breath of the Wild) through flight by gliding down from above. Each region is clouded on your map however until you scale the region’s goddess statue, which not only unlocks the various Main Quest events that take place there, but which fills in your map and allows you to pinpoint points of interest on it. Immortals is a slight step back from Breath of the Wild in that this is no longer done purely by sight; in Immortals, the camera zooms in on the world from high up, and you use the right analog stick to guide an icon across the vista, the controller rumbling when you happen upon a point of interest. Once you highlight it, the object (whether it’s one of the game’s many Vaults, crystals called Ambrosia which increase your max HP, puzzles which can lead to treasures or items to teach Fenyx new abilities, etc) appears on your map and on your compass at the top of the screen. Despite feeling a little more video game-y and less natural, it’s a bit of game design that still offers much of the same satisfaction here as it did in Breath of the Wild, where the idea of increasing the stats of your character, whether that be HP, stamina, or earning new abilities, offers almost constant encouragement to venture off the beaten path and explore each region as much as possible in between story missions. Even with the greater focus on places of interest being waypointed from above, the sense of exploration and the joy in venturing through the world on foot or by flight remains much the same, making the fast travel system something that just feels completely unsatisfying to use compared to purely exploring the world instead when venturing from point A to point B. Immortals gives you the option to travel by horseback as well, though given how wildly uneven and cliff-filled the Golden Isle’s terrain is, it’s a feature that really doesn’t make much sense here and doesn’t feel at all intuitive, so I forgot about it almost immediately.

While certainly smaller in size than the open worlds in many of these types of games, the fact that it’s 100% explorable makes a huge difference when compared to something like Ghost of Tsushima or Horizon Zero Dawn, where you’re effectively traveling up and down on paths through what essentially amounts to a giant corridor, with natural barriers on either side preventing you from venturing more than a slight bit off the beaten path. As with Breath of the Wild (though, it has to be said, not nearly as large and lacking things like towns) Immortals allows you full 360-degree exploration of the world at all times, and the ability to climb up, jump off, or fly to and from pretty much every single thing you see makes a huge difference between these “open air” games and their contemporary free-roaming peers.

One area where Immortals: Fenyx Rising handily outperforms Breath of the Wild is in its combat system, which offers fun hack-and-slash gameplay but without having to worry about your weapons breaking, and the tons of new moves and techniques that can be learned over the course of the game keep things evolving. Combat is fluid and satisfying, rarely feels like a drag, and offers a nice amount of challenge as the game goes on. The framerate on the Switch version holds up surprisingly well given the amount of action taking place on screen, and taking into account that this was developed primarily for machines more powerful than it, it feels like quite an accomplishment. The visuals are gorgeous and colorful, and though of course the draw distance and levels of detail and resolution aren’t what you get on next gen systems like the PS5, or other current gen systems like the PS4, the Switch version manages to capture the essence of this game’s graphical presentation incredibly well and proves to be a perfectly valid way to experience it. Immortals is also mostly bug-free, which is great, though it does unfortunately suffer from occasional crashes; in my experience, probably once every 10 hours or so. Thankfully, the game features a very frequent auto-save feature, so the amount of progress I lost from one of these crashes was almost never more than a couple minutes, but it’s still a problem that shouldn’t exist in any game, and it’s something that I hope continues to be patched out as time goes on.

Aside from a late-game misstep (which I’ll get to next,) and the occasional crash, really the only gameplay flaw I can really think of with Immortals: Fenyx Rising is that the Vaults are by their nature just a little too long. Equivalent to the Shrines in Breath of the Wild, you encounter them while exploring and they lead you to mini-dungeons, where completing some sort of puzzle or combat sequence offers you a reward; in this game’s case, Golden Amber, which, when enough are collected, allow you to increase Fenyx’s stamina gauge, along with whatever treasures are found inside the Vault. But while Breath of the Wild made the very smart choice to keep its shrines short enough where attempting them never felt like too much of an interruption, Immortals makes these a little too long, which serves as a slight disincentive to enter them, even if you want their rewards, because you know you’ll be in them for just a little longer than you really want to be.

Where Immortals stumbles a bit is in the later portion of the game, where Fenyx must ascend a snowy mountain. It’s a mountain where the terrain is much too cold for you to explore without your energy being almost immediately depleted, resulting in there being only one real path to the top of the mountain, one which includes various puzzles and enemy encounters. It’s here and only here that your complete freedom to explore works against the game, as it’s so easy to get lost or lose the path, and so difficult to find your way back to it, that I was constantly checking a guide during this part of the game to make sure I was headed in the right direction, which I usually was. But I was so afraid of venturing into the wrong area and not being able to find my way back that I felt I had to constantly check to make sure I was heading in the right direction, which took away almost all the fun of playing through this segment. Had either this mountain ascent been more forgiving with your pathways up, or had Ubisoft made just this one part of the game a little more linear, then it would have fixed the problem, but sadly, it’s a frustrating trek that goes on for much too long.

Immortals does recover from this issue however for some very worthy final bosses, and things end on a high note, albeit one with no ending credit sequence, something that takes away from the finality of the ending and something that should always be included. (The credits can be viewed from the main menu, which just isn’t the same.) At over 55 hours, including plenty in the way of exploration and side content, Immortals: Fenyx Rising is the perfect length, and similar to very few other games, it was a world and characters that I was sad to leave behind.

As a new IP released at the end of a console generation, Immortals: Fenyx Rising has an uphill battle as far as competing for attention goes, but it’s a game that I hope more and more people discover. With a true sense of fun and whimsy, endearing storytelling, great combat, and a vast world to fully explore, I loved this game from beginning to (almost) end. A somewhat frustrating snowy mountain ascent near the end does leave a bit of a mark against it, and the Vault dungeons should have been just a little bit shorter. But this is a beautiful game, and a nothing short of a blast to play. Whether on the PS4/Xbox One/Nintendo Switch, or whether next gen on PS5 or Xbox Series X, I can’t possibly recommend this game enough.


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

Monday, February 8, 2021

New Review: Glaring technical issues and bad shooting mechanics aside, Cyberpunk 2077 proves to be an unintentionally nostalgic throwback that I enjoyed in spite of itself


What a strange, strange game.

It’s hard to review something like the incredibly highly-anticipated and now quite controversial Cyberpunk 2077, especially knowing that much of what I say will ultimately come across as a backhanded compliment.

As a game that was supposed to end this current console generation on a high note while ushering in the next generation of open world RPGs, Cyberpunk 2077 fails to do what it set out to do in such an incredible, brazen fashion that it could serve as a showpiece for a studio not being on the same page with itself.

I say this as someone who ultimately enjoyed my time spent in Night City; Cyberpunk 2077’s intriguing and sometimes dazzling cityscape. The story told and characters featured rarely dip below surface level, floating in a sea of ultimately unrealized potential while still squeaking by with just enough charm that they manage to entertain. The world of Night City is one that’s both compelling and expansive enough for me to wish more was done with it, where I could have really gotten to know “which district boasts the best burrito in town,” or “how many stations are in the endcart system,” both things mentioned in a stylish trailer for the game prior to its release, but things which sadly don’t translate to the final product. You drive around Night City, with atmospheric tunes on your car or motorcycle’s radio, in the same way you would in Grand Theft Auto, with certain neighborhoods standing out from the pack as you go, but ultimately serving as for the most part a platform through which to travel atmospherically from one mission or sidequest to the other. Even setting aside the game’s dramatically underperforming technical aspects on the base PS4, which I’ll get to in a bit, Cyberpunk 2077 feels less like a fully-realized RPG or the future of open world gameplay as it does a throwback to GTA-style open world games released during the Xbox 360 era. It’s something that I wound up liking about it, as it’s an era I still have fond memories of, and Cyberpunk 2077 ultimately feeling like a throwback to those times made playing it a very enjoyable experience for me, even if I’m fairly sure it wasn’t the game that developer CD Projekt Red intended on making.

Trying to figure out what they planned on making proves to be incredibly difficult, as 2077 has the very distinctive feeling that other massively-budgeted AAA games that disappointed upon release have had, which is the feeling that the setting, the technology, and the various concepts had been in conceptual development for many years, with the creation of the main game itself being a rushed afterthought forced in during the final years of the project’s development. Major concepts introduced into the scenario, such as the “brain dance” sequences where you form conclusions after reviewing memories from different speeds and angles, at first feel like they’ll play a major role in the storyline, but instead show up once or twice before being forgotten entirely. The idea of main character V being implanted with the digital spirit of Johnny Silverhand, (voiced by and looking, I have to say, incredibly distractingly like Keanu Reeves) feels like it was meant to go into far deeper territory than it ultimately does, as does V’s relationship with numerous other characters he comes across during Cyberpunk 2077’s relatively brief (by genre standards) main story. Some of these characters are given more depth through completing certain sidequests, (something highly recommended if you want to get your money’s worth, as well as to level up your character) but for the most part their existence fits into the theme of a game where the roadmap was seemingly set for something vast and expansive, but where the developers just didn’t appear to have the time to get to.

Cyberpunk 2077 takes place in the 1st person perspective, something that I’ll never understand the appeal of for games like this one. It isn’t that FPS games are impossible for me to enjoy, but for developers who are attempting to tell a story and connect us to the main character, I’ll never understand why the decision would be made to force the character off the screen. V’s thankfully not a silent protagonist, and he’s given plenty of dialogue and plays a central role in Cyberpunk 2077’s scenario. It’s all the more reason I found it to be a bummer that the only times you really get to see him or her are when looking in a mirror, (assuming his or her reflection properly loads) which for me greatly disconnects me from the character. Though the myriad of technical issues are what will likely stand out for most as the defining flaw with the game, my biggest issues with it are instead all related to the FPS viewpoint and the shooting-focused gameplay that serves as the backbone of many of the main story missions. The shooting segments, which rely on a mixture of hacking security cameras, stealth, and gunning down enemies, do their best to drag the game down. Guns run out of ammo seemingly incredibly quickly, and though there are plenty of firearms to collect from fallen enemies, the amount you can carry at one time is incredibly restricted, leading to much time spent throwing away or disassembling guns to make way for new ones, something which takes a lot of the fun away from loot hunting and the shooting segments. It eventually got to the point where I gave up on guns almost entirely, choosing to focus instead on using my melee weapon; which, to Cyberpunk 2077’s credit, its gameplay system gives you the freedom to do, but unfortunately the limitation handicaps the main focus of the combat sections, making many of them a drag. Stealth gameplay when sneaking past the enemies sometimes works and often it doesn’t, as I found it almost impossible to tell, when sneaking around an enemy, whether they’d be able to see my character or not. The fact that many of the main story missions are designed with the expectation that you’ll use stealth at least through parts of them just adds a level of frustration to the proceedings that can rear its ugly head. The checkpoint system doesn’t work nearly as well as it should, and I found myself manually saving during action sequences whenever the game allowed it because the auto-save doesn’t happen frequently enough to be relied upon. Why do so many Western RPGs fall into the trap of thinking that they have to be shooters? They have so much more to offer in other areas, and the shooting, which these developers aren’t good at, just brings it all down.

Despite these negatives, however, and they’re big ones, exploring Cyberpunk 2077’s world is an incredible amount of fun. Night City’s broken up into various districts, with a navigation map that’s nearly perfect and makes breezing through the city at ridiculously high speeds not only easy, but a blast. It helps too that driving gives you the option to switch to the 3rd person view (assuming the feature doesn’t glitch out) so it’s during this time where for me Cyberpunk 2077 feels most alive; journeying through Night City, receiving a nearly constant stream of calls and text messages on your phone begging you to participate in side missions. The game helpfully indicates the difficulty of each mission in the menu, giving you a good idea beforehand what you’ll be getting into. Unlike many of the missions of the main story, the sidequests are almost universally fun to play, and some make use of the game’s features better than the main story itself, including a mission where you have to make dialogue choices that can, or can’t, save someone’s life. The tone of Night City, and the game as a whole, is much darker than I’d expected from the trailers and commercials, which depict a bright, sunny city complete with palm trees and Rockstar Games-style humor. Though it does somewhat feel aesthetically like a super futuristic vision of sunny LA, the world of Cyberpunk 2077 is dark, foreboding, unpleasant, very harshly-scored, and intensely shot. It isn’t a game that attempts to give you a warm, fuzzy feeling, and admittedly it took me a few hours to adjust to the tense atmosphere. That said, it’s a compelling world; V’s apartment building feels like a city within itself, packed with NPCs and featuring floors of open-air retail, apartments, and a ton of atmosphere. It made me wish so much that the missions in Cyberpunk 2077’s main story focused more on Night City and its people and neighborhoods, instead of forcing you into frustrating stealth and shooting sequences. With its grimy apartments, lively bars and clubs, very sketchy characters and illegal ripperdocs, Night City’s truly the star of the show here and I loved exploring it. It reminds me a lot of Omikron: The Nomad Soul; a PC/Dreamcast game from Quantic Dream with a similarly dark and heavily atmospheric futuristic city, but presented in a way that Omikron’s developers could only have dreamed of.

I’m sticking this last section at the end because it’s something that will likely change over time and I don’t want to make it the defining aspect of the review; but at launch, Cyberpunk 2077 was indeed a mess, and as I write this now nearly 2 months later, instances of the game crashing, horribly fuzzy graphics, features not working the way they’re supposed to, and an at times very poor framerate have been…I hesitate to say fixed, because they certainly haven’t been fixed, but they’ve been greatly improved through the various patches, (some of them, anyway) with another major patch supposedly on the way.  The graphics on the PS4 still look nothing at all like how they were marketed, but the unacceptably fuzzy visual output that was there at launch has since been fixed, resulting in a major improvement. The couple times Cyberpunk 2077 crashed me were all in my first couple weeks with the game, so that might have been fixed as well. The less fuzzy graphics allow the great art direction to shine on the base PS4 much more that it did on Day 1, and various glitches that occurred for me stopped happening as I progressed through. Many glitches certainly still remain however; your viewpoint when switching from 1st to 3rd person when driving sometimes won’t change, forcing you to restart the game if you want to switch perspectives. The final boss somewhat anticlimactically glitched in midair as I fought it, trapping it there and allowing me to pummel it mercilessly until the fight ended. Certain side missions, which required me to wait a day before being contacted by someone or for something to happen, still remained completely dormant in my Journal until much later, when the game suddenly seemed to remember to progress them for me. Answering calls, texts, etc is far from seamless, with often multiple seconds in between the time you answer a phone call until the point where you hear the caller’s voice. Icons and notifications that pop up on your screen sometimes remain frozen there, not disappearing until many minutes later. Cars you see in the distance will vanish before ever approaching you. What’s gotten the most attention but what bothered me the least is the framerate; a sluggish framerate for me isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker if the game’s otherwise enjoyable, and for the most part Cyberpunk 2077 on my base PS4 runs in a way that I was okay with; there are pauses here and there as you drive or walk around Night City, which are certainly noticeable but not for me a big issue. The framerate during the shooting segments however is abysmal and though they were my least favorite aspect of 2077 anyway, the slideshow-like framerate during them (still, after numerous patches) doesn’t help. I’ll say that the game doesn’t perform as horribly as I think some believe it does; it’s by no means unplayable, and frankly there have been other games (such as Remedy’s Control last year) that I thought ran far worse that didn’t seem to attract even a fraction of Cyberpunk 2077’s negative attention. Still, it’s a release that shouldn’t have been allowed to happen the way it did, and publishers I think would be smart to focus on how deceptive marketing and releasing an unfinished product can irreparably damage a game’s reputation, with this game likely being a sad but very clear example.

Cyberpunk 2077 is a game that I wish was more developed; that more time and effort could have been devoted to allowing us to truly sink our teeth into every corner of this world the way many of us expected to, rather than what ultimately feels like a more commercial but uninspired decision to focus on shooting and explosions. But what’s here, at least in terms of Night City and the more RPG-like aspects, is great. Though much of the shallow-but-entertaining main story has already faded from my memory, the world that it inhabits is something that will likely remain in my mind for quite some time. V’s journey through the compelling Night City may feature an under-developed plot and many bland, frustrating shooting sequences, but the world’s such a blast to explore, the sidequests so frequent and many of them incredibly fun, and when it’s firing on all cylinders, Cyberpunk 2077 brings back the feelings of the golden years of Xbox 360/PS3 gaming, and it’s a bit of nostalgia that I definitely wasn’t expecting. There isn’t a doubt in mind that this wasn’t CD Projekt Red’s intention, and definitely isn’t how the game was marketed. I’d love to one day see some sort of documentary exploring how an attempt to release what was supposed to be a genre-defining jump into next gen open world RPGs turned out to be this. But ultimately, in spite of itself…and there’s a lot of caveats there…I enjoyed the game. I think there are other people who will also enjoy it, though likely not the majority of those who purchase it. There are huge issues here, even aside from the presentational disaster that in many ways it still is, but it’s undeniable that I had fun with Cyberpunk 2077, and it’s a world that, all said and done, I wish I’d gotten to know better. Beating a game and wanting more is better than having wanted less, and it’s a game that I have to say I recommend, albeit after doing due diligence on whichever version you would plan on buying.


Note; This review is based off the PS4 version, played on the base PS4 console. 

Thursday, January 21, 2021

New Review: A robust new combat system greatly helps, but ultimately can't save, the otherwise tired and grindy Yakuza: Like a Dragon


It’s hard to think of another series that I’ve developed such a love-hate relationship with as Sega’s long-running Yakuza franchise.

Originally debuting in Western territories in 2006(!), the original Yakuza began the tale of Kazuma Kiryu, with a focus on lengthy cutscenes, a vibrant and explorable city loaded with sidequests, beat-em-up gameplay, and a ton of style. Though it was met with popularity in Japan almost instantly, its debut on the near-dead PS2 at a time when Sega West’s marketing was almost nonexistent meant that Yakuza hardly had a chance to make a blip on Western shores.

As it boomed in Japan, Yakuza went on to enjoy somewhat of a cult status over the years in the West, primarily among Sega fans, with some installments not seeing Western release until years after their Japanese counterparts (if at all). Despite all this, the series has enjoyed a resurgence in Western territories in recent years, with Yakuza: Like a Dragon being granted its biggest marketing push yet, with the return of English voice acting for the first time since the original game after being inexplicably left out of the series for what was essentially 14 years.

It makes sense that Yakuza: Like a Dragon (known as Yakuza 7 in Japan) would be seen as a chance by Sega’s Western divisions to start things fresh; with Kazuma’s story ending in Yakuza 6, Like a Dragon sees the introduction of a brand new cast of characters, and opts to take place mostly in an entirely new city, with a shift from brawler-style combat engine to a turn-based battle system.

It’s an ambitious shift to say the least, one that in several ways winds up working surprisingly well. Though Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s presentation still feels outdated in many ways, something that’s become a bit of a theme with this series, its take on turn-based combat is surprisingly modern and has real potential, not even just for this series, but for turn-based battle systems in general. It’s easily Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s biggest surprise, and while it’s a bummer that the rest of the game aimlessly sputters along, its combat system will hopefully breathe some new life into turn-based RPGs, and that alone is something that’s deserving of praise.

Despite having played the Yakuza series from the beginning, I’ve over the years began to develop a love-hate relationship with the games. As with most series’ that receive annual sequels, the amount of innovation and invention from game to game varies wildly. For every Yakuza game that seems to take substantiative steps forward, (Yakuza 6 being the most recent example) there are then several others that feel like retreads, with gameplay that just, for the most part, hasn’t changed much at all since 2006 and which has, on many occasions, put me to sleep as I was playing. It’s in this way that the Yakuza series has always felt so strange, its presentation varying from genuinely impressive cutscenes and a truly staggering number of sidequests to take on and things to explore, to feeling so outdated in its use of (up until incredibly recently) archaic save point and item management systems, an over-abundance of voice-less text boxes, and gameplay that consists almost entirely of being told to walk from Point A to Point B across town and getting in battles along the way.

Yakuza 6 took some major presentational steps forward in the sense that it eliminated the text box cutscenes (which have sadly made a return for Yakuza: Like a Dragon) and moved the interface from being overly-focused on a clunky Start Menu to instead consisting of a sleek and modern in-game Smart Phone design (again, sadly walked back in Yakuza: Like a Dragon). Other elements from Yakuza 6 that I hoped would’ve continued to stick around, such as its more focused narrative with at least some sense of pacing, have also fallen by the wayside in this 7th installment, which features a fairly revolutionary take on the turn-based battle system but which otherwise feels like its gameplay could have been swapped in from any of the series’ weaker entries. Along with the truly unfortunate addition of level grinding and the introduction of a brand new city that feels like little more than a traversable highway with barely even a handful of shops to interact with, this new tale ended for me as a bland, forgettable adventure.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon stars new character Ichiban Kasuga, who, in a fairly similar way to Kazuma Kiryu, takes the fall for someone else and serves time in prison at the start of the game, being ultimately released into an entirely different world. Ichiban’s a compelling character; both funny and instantly likable, he presents a solid anchor for the rest of the game. Left for dead and awakening in a homeless camp in the city of Yokohama, Like a Dragon gets off to a very strong, albeit oddly-paced, start. Ichiban’s mentored by Arakawa, the patriarch of Ichiban’s Tojo Clan family, who has a tragic but fascinating backstory, and his bond with Ichiban feels incredibly real. The initial scenario presented is compelling, but the plot ultimately and very quickly falls into a haze of seemingly disparate parts that don’t manage to form cohesively into a whole. It jumps haphazardly from a fairly bland counterfeit bill investigation to a long series of tedious odd jobs, to an unintentionally goofy anti-crime group known as Bleach Japan, to ultimately an anti-climactic political election that comes out of nowhere and suddenly takes center-stage, with none of these elements leading anywhere satisfying. Characters introduced earlier on in the story are entirely forgotten by the end, with, this being an RPG, much of the focus being instead devoted to your main party members. Much of their development takes place in optional conversations in the Survive Bar, an aspect of Yakuza: Like a Dragon that wields promise, but one that similarly devolves into a series of forgettable anecdotes and truly endless dialogue sequences.

Though I generally wouldn’t put so much weight on a game’s storyline, Yakuza: Like a Dragon doesn’t offer much choice, as outside of battle, sitting through cutscenes and dialogue boxes is where you’ll spend the vast majority of your time as you progress through the story. Yakuza is certainly no stranger to long cutscenes, but Like a Dragon’s are almost stunning in their inability to end. There’s not a single cutscene or dialogue sequence, even minor ones, that wouldn’t have been vastly improved by being 10 minutes shorter, and that’s almost a generous estimate. Even though much of the dialogue is well-written and truly well-acted, and even when legitimately interesting events are taking place, there’s no sense whatsoever that the developers were concerned about pacing or about the scenes flowing naturally. It isn’t that I don’t like a good story, and as a kid I loved almost any game that featured long cutscenes. But in 2020/2021, long cutscenes on their own aren’t as impressive as they were, say, back in 2006. And in a story, especially one that demands so much of your time, it’s important that all of its elements actually have something real to say, some ability to justify us sitting there for 20-30 minutes at a time listening to the characters ramble on and on. Despite me having been compelled by several Yakuza stories in the past, Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s plot failed to hold my attention throughout, and with the fact that the story’s such an inescapable part of what the game is, it’s hard to just let that slide.

Though many entries in the Yakuza series have taken place in new cities in addition to its iconic Kamuracho Red Light District, Yakuza: Like a Dragon makes the much-needed decision to take the most decisive break yet from that city’s vibrant but by this point torturously familiar neighborhoods and alleyways. Only small bits of Like a Dragon take place in Kamurocho, with much of the attention shifting to the Ijincho district of the city of Yokohama. It’s a positive change theoretically, but consisting of what feels like a collection of wide and empty highways and thoroughfares that you’re forced to traverse across, with very few buildings to enter and a nearly non-existent sense of life, Ijincho feels very under-utilized by the story and for the most part just sits there, serving as a dungeon to walk through on your way from cutscene to cutscene or text box to text box. Though the plots of previous Yakuza entries took the player through packed, vibrant bars, nightclubs, and karaoke venues, into intense underground fighting arenas, and into chases across city rooftops, Yakuza: Like a Dragon does almost none of this. Ijincho’s nightlife consists of a “bar district” that’s simply a narrow street with about 5 buildings, almost none of them open for you to either explore or to have its plot take you through them. In fact, by and large, aside from the main bar your characters hang out at and one or two other locations, Yakuza: Like a Dragon makes almost zero use of any of Ijincho’s buildings or neighborhoods, other than to have you trek through them. There are little ethnic enclaves sprinkled throughout, none of them playing any sort of role in the story but at least feeling like something, but for the most part Ijincho feels big but empty and not especially visually appealing. At one point you revisit a tiny section of the city from a previous Yakuza game, and the sense of life and vibrancy you’re hit with almost instantly upon stepping foot there in comparison to the quiet, lifeless Ijincho district is nothing short of startling. The story even robs Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s new city of being the site for the game’s finale, which, while a little predictable, is still disappointing and serves to cement Ijincho’s status for now as simply an underdeveloped backdrop.

It turns out that the new battle system, in spite of the hours upon hours you’re forced to level grind in order to complete the main story, is Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s saving grace. Though turn-based, it feels exciting, fresh, and actually very entertaining. Characters can knock into others and damage them as they rush over to attack the selected enemies. Button prompts as you attack and to defend are crucial, objects on the ground that your character approaches as they attack the enemy can be used, and the over-the-top special moves and the way the enemies taunt your characters are hilarious. I wouldn’t have expected to like it the way I did, but quite honestly it’d be hard for me to return to the repetitive button mashing beat-em-up battle system of the previous entries after experiencing this one. If they can get the level grinding under control and create a job system that doesn’t actively dissuade you from using it by forcing you to start each new job at Level 0, I think it’d be great path for this series to continue down. The way the turn-based battle system’s referenced into the story, with Ichiban explaining that he was trained to fight all his life by studying the Dragon Quest series, (so of course he fights in a turn-based way) is actually a very endearing/funny bit of writing. The emphasis on MP and using Abilities over the series’ previous tendency to force you to constantly purchase and flood your inventory and item boxes with recovery items is a good improvement as well.

Another area that Yakuza: Like a Dragon excels in is in its performances. It marks (finally) the return of English voice acting to the series, and the actors almost universally offer incredible performances. Major props especially to the voices of Ichiban and Arakawa (voiced surprisingly well by George Takai) but almost all of the performances are great across the board. Japanese voice acting’s also available for those who prefer that, which is a nice touch, but the dub’s excellent and definitely the way I’d personally recommend the game be experienced. The music on the other hand’s very forgettable, and I can’t remember a single track from the game as I write this.

In the end, Yakuza: Like a Dragon, despite making changes I’d hoped the series would make for years such as featuring a brand new cast of characters and a more decisive move to a new setting, ultimately frustrates and disappoints. Any time the story begins to feel like it’s picking up steam, the game forces you to stop dead in your tracks to either have to grind for cash in order to progress, or to level your characters up in a “battle arena” that has all the personality of an elevator shaft, just to beat boss battles that are far above and beyond the difficulty of the enemies in the city streets or in the “dungeons” leading up to them. Steps back in presentation and interface from the much more modern-feeling Yakuza 6 are equally disappointing, as is the emphasis on truly never-ending cutscenes detailing an under-developed plot in a bland new city that fails to develop any attachment to the player in the way that several previous Yakuza cities have. By far its biggest change and the one that pays off the most is the switch to a turn-based battle system, which is a ton of fun and something I’d love to see refined and brought back in future Yakuza installments. It’s just a shame that it exists in such a grindy, otherwise forgettable adventure. In dropping the “7” from the title for its Western release and with its excellent English dub, it appears that Sega sees this as a jumping in point for new players. It’s hard for me to recommend this fairly sleepy game as a starting point, however, and though it has some very promising new ideas, Yakuza: Like a Dragon is ultimately best suited to die-hard fans of this long-running series. And I’m sure they’ll enjoy it, as they’ve enjoyed all the others.


Note; this review is based on the base PS4 version

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

New Review: It may not resonate for long after it's beaten, but Yoshi's Crafted World is a fun, pleasant 2D sidescroller


Yoshi’s Crafted World is a pleasant experience, the type that I’m growing increasingly attached to as I get older. There’s something just so inherently enjoyable about kicking back and turning on a video game that’s simple and fun to play, one with vibrant and colorful visuals, one that rewards thought but doesn’t require too much of it.

For so long I hated Nintendo’s increasing focus on simple platforming sidescrollers; a practice they began during the later years of the Wii and one which has continued to stick around to varying degrees since. But all these years later, I feel I’m finally beginning to understand the appeal. As life becomes more complicated in so many ways, especially amidst our current (as I write this) COVID-19 existence, there’s something to be said about a game that’s pretty much the essence of pure, simple fun, and that’s what I found Yoshi’s Crafted World to be.

At the risk of overselling it, I’ll note that it’s definitely a little shorter than I’d have preferred for a full priced $60 title, so I think it’s something to bear in mind. But I enjoyed it as I played it, and though it might not stick around too much in my memory going forward, it’s still a fun platformer and one worth a look for people who like that sort of thing.

Developer Good Feel has come to specialize in these types of charming, 2D sidescrollers, beginning with the truly great (and often misunderstood) Kirby’s Epic Yarn. It was a much better game than their previous platforming effort, Yoshi’s Wooly World on the Wii U, which was still fun but not nearly as well-designed, and its reliance on an unforgiving collectible mechanic meant that a lot of its content was inaccessible to anyone who didn’t go out of their way to find and collect almost *everything.* Yoshi’s Crafted World finds itself somewhere in between the two; a significantly better effort than Wooly World, though still not hitting the heights of the ingenious Epic Yarn.

As with the studio’s previous efforts, the platforming gameplay here in Crafted World is designed around the environment and its materials. The platforming involves making use of a world that seems like it was crafted for a school art project, (a spin on the wool/yarn motifs of their previous efforts) along with a cool new ability to venture into the backgrounds and foregrounds of stages in the midst of levels, all of which provides a cool new take on the usual tropes that Nintendo games often feature. (Fire world, beach world, etc.) The platforming itself feels smoother and more fluid than in Good Feel’s previous Yoshi effort as well, and while collecting Daisies throughout the levels is necessary to remove barriers on the world map to progress, doing so rarely forces you to go too far out of your way, while also serving to provide the incentive to explore down multiple paths and trying to find hidden areas as you play. Only one time did I actually have to stop my progress to collect Daisies to proceed, with the rest coming to me naturally as I played, which is ultimately the perfect way to implement this type of system. Once you clear the story mode, there are additional levels to unlock; these require a more aggressive amount of Daisy collecting in order to enter, which is a little unfortunate, as after taking a lot of time to collect the Daisies needed to unlock a couple of them, I decided to forgo the rest of the extra levels, but it’s at least handled better than it was in Yoshi’s Wooly World, and thankfully only rears its head in the post-game.

Crafted World makes use of Unreal Engine 4, allowing for some very cool visual effects not typically seen in Nintendo games, along with unfortunately a significantly lower resolution than you’d usually expect in a 2D sidescroller. The heavy use of the depth-of-field blur also comes across as a little too much at times. The world’s still beautiful and very colorful, however, and that, along with the visual tricks brought to us by Unreal Engine 4, makes its low resolution far less noticeable while playing it. I’ll add though that when jumping back into Persona 5 Royal afterwards, I instantly realized how comparatively sharper that game looked. The music’s Crafted World’s weakest aspect; it’s fine, there are one or two nice tracks that stood out to me, but the majority’s forgettable and at times even slightly annoying. It’d be great to see Good Feel make some big steps forward in this regard for whatever their future games might be.

Yoshi’s Crafted World’s a fun, pleasant, breezy 2D platformer with pretty visuals, smart level design, and solid gameplay mechanics. It’s a little shorter than I’d have liked, and ultimately I don’t find myself remembering too much about its specifics after the fact, but there’s something I so inherently enjoyed about turning on a video game and not being hit with a barrage of incredibly complicated gameplay mechanics and long load times. It’s challenging in the right areas but not a tough game, and one that’s genuinely fun. I always looked forward to playing it, and enjoyed my time with it almost all throughout. I’m not entirely sure I’d recommend it at $60, but if you can find it for any cheaper and like 2D platformers, it’s definitely a worthy purchase that offers more than its share of solid, pretty platforming.


Monday, July 6, 2020

New Review: Luigi's Mansion 3 is a dreary, repetitive and tedious game almost from minute one

Luigi's Mansion 3 is a dreary, repetitive, and tedious game almost from minute one, and clocking in at nearly 15 hours, is one long nightmare to play. It’s an unusual misstep from Nintendo, whose major 1st party tentpole games almost always provide a fun, fluid, and charming gameplay experience that flows well throughout. Luigi's Mansion 3's many failings, including its complete inability to do this, makes more sense upon learning that it wasn’t developed in-house by Nintendo, but instead outsourced (like Luigi's Mansion 2) to developer Next Level Games. This fact at least helps to explain why it suffers from issues almost never present in Nintendo's in-house releases, such as the lack of ability to skip pre-boss cutscenes after dying and having to retry them, along with things like a poor menu interface and bosses that attempt to be so "cinematic" that it sometimes feels like it takes forever before you're allowed to begin damaging them.

The biggest problem though by far that plagues Luigi's Mansion 3 is that its gameplay never feels fun or controls well, and that it fails to change or evolve in any meaningful way from the opening moments until the credits roll.

I'll admit up top that this is my first trip in many years into the Luigi's Mansion universe. I found the Gamecube original to be fun back in 2001 but remember little about it, except that the mansion was more exploration-driven, in an almost Resident Evil style, whereas Luigi's Mansion 3 is designed in the style of a hotel, with each floor serving as its own "level." Progression takes the form of completing a floor and snagging the Elevator Button that allows you to proceed to the next one. It's more along the lines of what I understand Luigi's Mansion 2 does with the formula, though admittedly I haven't played the 2nd one.

Given how long it's been since I played the original Luigi's Mansion, it's possible that its poor gameplay mechanics have been here from the beginning, and that I just didn't remember how unfun sucking the enemies up with the vacuum cleaner is; how even by the game's end I never fully got the hang of whether the aiming was inverted or not, how almost every single enemy variant goes down the exact same way, or how the vacuum cleaner never gains any new abilities throughout the game. I’m not sure if these issues existed in the original, though I feel like I’d have remembered liking it a lot less if they had, but regardless, the core gameplay here just isn't any fun, and all too quickly stops offering any new surprises. Boss battles look cool, but other than one or two fairly inspired fights, the rest of them are defeated in the exact same way that the other enemies are. When the boss fights do step outside their typical comfort zone, they feature slow, long move cycles that you're forced to wait through until you have the one scripted opportunity to damage them. If you happen to miss it, you have to wait through them all over again. And repeat until the boss is finally defeated.

This same basic flaw applies across the rest of Luigi's Mansion 3 as well. The vast majority of the puzzles the game provides you are solved by happening to shine your Dark Light device at the right object in a given room to trigger a path forward. Rather than being fun, the requirement that upon entering a room you must take your Dark Light device out and spend time shining it at all the walls and objects in search of a path forward feels like busy work and even further slows the pacing of an already slow game. On the few occasions where the developers do provide more elaborate puzzles to you, their mechanics are incredibly poorly explained, (the TV puzzle being the worst offender) and these too feel like they go on for far too long, even once the puzzle is figured out.

Luigi's Mansion 3's big new addition is the fairly gimmicky Gooigi, a goo-like replica of Luigi who can be summoned and controlled, with you able to switch between one or the other on the fly to solve certain puzzles or to defeat certain enemies. Given how relatively little Gooigi is used, though, and the fact that he has no personality and very little narrative interaction with the title character, all gives him the feeling of being a Nintendo-mandated addition that the developers had very little enthusiasm for. Indeed at times it almost feels like the game forgets about him entirely for hours on end. As with Luigi himself, Gooigi's moveset and abilities don't change at all throughout the game. 

There are secrets to be found in many of the hotel's areas; all just lead to collectable money, which is essentially Luigi's Mansion 3's currency. But with a whopping 3 items (!) available to purchase in the shop for the entirety of the adventure, going out of your way to find the hidden dollar bills exists with no incentive to speak of, other than an arbitrary letter grade given to you upon the story's completion. I don't remember what grade I received and really couldn't be bothered to care, honestly. 

There's just one final thing I'll get into, but it's one that's such a glaring example of bad game design that I wouldn't be doing it justice without awarding it its own paragraph. On certain occasions after clearing a Floor and earning the Elevator Button to progress to the next one, the game will immediately snatch it back from you courtesy of an annoying cat ghost character, which then forces you to backtrack through previously explored areas and floors in an attempt to catch the cat ghost to get the Button back. When you do manage to find it, you have to fight it the same…exact…way… every single time, before it'll relinquish the Button to you. These segments can take up to 30 minutes at a time of retracing your steps and fighting this repetitive boss again and again, and it becomes increasingly frequent as the game rolls on. It adds nothing to the experience, it's frustrating, it's uninspired, and it almost immediately erodes any satisfaction given by clearing a Floor and thinking you’re about to progress to the next one.

I was genuinely surprised when I was hit with the realization a few hours in that I just wasn't going to like this game; that this was all that Luigi's Mansion 3 was, and all that it would be. Nintendo games, though they can have their flaws in many other areas, are usually able to at the very least get fun gameplay and gameplay mechanics down. They usually feature a true sense of progression, with your characters earning new moves and abilities over the course of the adventure to shake things up and deliver an evolving gameplay experience. With Luigi's Mansion 3, I can say with pretty full confidence that if you're not thrilled by the controls, mechanics, and abilities that Luigi has in the first 30 minutes, then you won't like the rest of the game, because that's really all that it has to offer. The graphics are great and presented in full 1080p, but the claustrophobic rooms and corridors that you’re forced to tread through in order to reach one repetitive enemy encounter after another makes the sharp image hard to appreciate. Coupled with tedious gameplay mechanics, unskippable cutscenes, and a forgettable Gooigi gimmick, there’s very little to recommend Luigi’s Mansion 3 by, and definitely one of Nintendo’s bigger disappointments this gen. Stay far away.


Wednesday, May 13, 2020

New Review: Final Fantasy VII Remake manages to capture and expand upon much of what made the first part of the original game so compelling

All said and done, playing Final Fantasy VII: Remake was a definite trip. It wasn’t a game I thought I’d like, or one I was sure I’d even play, given my somewhat less than enthusiastic response to the original Final Fantasy VII along with what I thought was a bad decision to split the Remake into multiple parts, with this current game only covering Cloud’s adventures in the city of Midgar and the rest of it scheduled to arrive later.

I found Final Fantasy VII: Remake though to be surprisingly faithful to the tone, atmosphere, and spirit of the original game, managing to somehow capture the inventiveness of that gaming era all while updating it successfully to what gamers expect of games today. To do this while expanding what was only the first 6 or so hours of the original Final Fantasy VII into a full 40 hour+ game was a major accomplishment. It’s a fusion that’s pulled off surprisingly well, and though this is by no means even close to being a perfect game, I found Final Fantasy VII: Remake to be a compelling RPG and one that really made me think about how gaming has evolved and changed over the years, both for better and for worse.

Final Fantasy VII told the story of Cloud, a former soldier in a world that’s essentially ruled by a massive corporation known as Shinra, who not only reigns over the metropolis known as Midgar, but essentially wields control of the planet by using its lifeblood, Mako energy, for power and control. Cloud serves for hire for the eco terrorist group known as Avalanche, which bombs various Shinra Mako reactors throughout the city. His childhood friend Tifa is a part of the group, along with the always-cursing Barret and the likable Jessie, Biggs, and Wedge. It’s a storyline that actually resonates just as well today as it did in 1997, with humanity’s reliance on oil seemingly virtually unchanged after all these years. Presented here of course with incredible advancements in storytelling, cutscenes look and animate beautifully, giving the characters life that I didn’t think the original managed to pull off. All throughout Final Fantasy VII: Remake, in fact, I found myself realizing that this is what the developers of the original game were going for; this is what they’d envisioned, but couldn’t pull off in 1997. I worried that this remake would feel like something entirely different, but this is Final Fantasy VII, without a doubt. And it’s something to behold.

My thoughts on Final Fantasy VII were complicated; I’d played it many years after the fact, having gotten into the series with Final Fantasy X on the PS2 and then working my way backwards. I appreciated that VII was a truly groundbreaking game for its time, but having played it after what were in my opinion the far better games that followed, I found its characters and world to be flat and mostly uninteresting, with the pacing constantly interrupted by terrible mini-games, and the storytelling often hurt by a flawed English localization. Interestingly enough, I found the first 6 hours of Final Fantasy VII in Midgar to be the game’s best, with the city’s slums, their residents cast in the constant shadow of the plate above their heads which houses the city’s wealthy, proving to be a compelling and intriguing setting. It was a gritty and very sci-fi oriented story, one that I thought became less interesting once the characters left the city and the game became a slog across far more bland environments in pursuit of a very creepy but not especially likable villain.

It’ll be interesting to see whether the improved storytelling will help me to appreciate the rest of the game, whenever the future episodes happen to arrive. As a standalone title though, the first part of the Final Fantasy VII Remake saga works well as its own adventure. Given how long it took to develop this part though, as has sadly become customary for games from Square-Enix, I’m hoping I’ll get to experience the rest of this saga before I’m in my 50s, but who knows, honestly.

The biggest factor that differentiates Final Fantasy VII: Remake from the original, aside from the content added to spread it out into a full game, is the battle system. Remake gets rid of the original’s turn-based battles in favor of something more along the lines of what was featured in Final Fantasy XV, where you run around the battlefield hacking and slashing at the enemies in real time. Though the AI here does control your teammates, it operates on only the most basic of levels, with the game expecting you instead to take control of the character you want to use with the d-pad and issuing them a command. It’s a bit of a weird system in that the AI which controls the other characters has been dramatically dumbed down from where it was in XV, and you’ll find yourself having to take control of your AI partners whenever you need them to do even the most basic things such as healing or using specific abilities.

I found battles generally to be fun and satisfying as far as fighting regular enemies were concerned. Attacking the enemy fills up their Stagger gauge; doing certain types of damage to certain enemies fills it much faster. Once staggered, the enemy sits there stunned while your attacks do significantly more damage against them. It’s a system that’s been more or less present in the series since Final Fantasy XIII, and it’s one that still feels incredibly satisfying. Each character plays very differently from each other, with two different types of attack styles that can be switched between on the fly; one of them more powerful but slowing your movement. Final Fantasy VII’s oft-praised Materia system remains mostly intact here, with equipping the various Materia to your weapons (such as Cure, Fire, etc) and watching them evolve the more you battle with them a cool way to customize your characters.

Less satisfying is the new stat and summon systems; each weapon has its own Sphere Grid-like system, where you earn AP through battle to upgrade things like “HP+ 250” and “New Materia Slot,” in a spacey menu that looks slick but feels hollow. You lose these advantages when you equip a new piece of equipment, making it hard to tell when coming across a new weapon or armor whether it’s more beneficial to equip it or to stick with your original. Each weapon’s “main skill” becomes permanently learned once unlocked, but I’m genuinely not sure whether I ever accomplished that or not, or whether it’s even worth using old weapons until that point. The Summon system returns from Final Fantasy XV, where once again the ability to use summons is completely out of your control, the game seemingly allowing it only when you’re getting your ass kicked. Somewhat frustratingly, you only come across 2 summons over the course of the main story; with 3 controllable characters in your party at once, that means you’re either stuck sharing 2 summons between your entire party, or you’re forced to seek out additional summons through side missions or, of course, if you happened to preorder the game from the right place. Needless to say, not my favorite way to go about it.

Where the combat system completely falls apart is during the boss battles, where the number of frustrations pile up one by one. The first big offender is their excessive length, which dramatically increases the frustration you face when you die and have to start the entire fight over again. Bosses just seem to have far too much HP, and in fights where targeting specific parts of them provides an advantage, those parts are often hard to target amidst all the chaos. As with Final Fantasy XV, I found myself having to use far more HP recovery items than I had in previous entries in the series, which focused more on magic as an affective way to heal and to revive your characters. Unlike Final Fantasy XV though, Final Fantasy VII: Remake’s bosses are far more challenging, and not having a major stockpile of Phoenix Downs in your inventory (and they’re expensive to purchase) can ultimately make certain fights incredibly frustrating.

One reason for this is that bosses have the tendency to unleash majorly destructive attacks with wide range seemingly without warning, the block and dodge buttons hardly enough to stop them. Annoyingly, you’re prevented from using any items or magic abilities until your ATB gauge fills up, often creating an inescapable loop where the boss kills your fellow party members, as you run around the battle arena waiting for your ATB gauge to charge up, which then allows you to finally revive one of them, but not heal them afterwards;  for that, you’ll have to wait for the ATB gauge to fill up yet again, assuming the enemy doesn’t kill them again before this can happen. During times like these it’s sometimes almost better to restart the battle from the beginning than having to keep doing the dance of trying to revive your fallen party members.

It’s not that I don’t like a challenge; Final Fantasy XIII was incredibly challenging I thought in a fun and strategic way. Final Fantasy XV was too easy and I’d have preferred for things to be tougher, but Final Fantasy VII: Remake’s issue is that it goes about its difficulty the wrong way. It’s a fun battle system that, more often than not, falls apart during the boss fights, which just don’t provide the same level of satisfaction as the fights during the rest of the game.

Outside of bosses, combat works well most of the time, which is good, because Final Fantasy VII: Remake features a lot of combat. With a majority of the game’s new areas (somewhat disappointingly) focusing mostly on lengthy dungeon/combat sections, it’s a good thing that the battle system is at least fast and fun during Remake’s many regular encounters. It has to be said though that I can’t help but feel disappointed that Remake didn’t take this opportunity to give us more time to explore Midgar’s wealthy districts on top of the plate instead, or even see some new towns in the slums. Not that town exploration’s completely absent, however; you’re given more time in the slums of Midgar than in the original to wander around the town-like areas completing sidequests for the locals. The side missions are unspeakably bland, but at least their inclusion and the additional story-focused moments in Midgar’s residential areas prevents Final Fantasy VII: Remake from feeling like a claustrophobically linear journey the way Final Fantasy XIII did. You’ll have to finish the sidequests before you complete the chapter they’re in, though, which does take away some of the feeling of open-endedness that they provide.

Other than the boss battles, the biggest gripe I have with Remake is that it features what might be one of the worst navigation maps I’ve used in a long time. You can switch to the more traditional GTA-style map with the L2 button, which is at least significantly better than the awful Elder Scrolls style navigation display that’s set as the default. But even this map is fairly unhelpful and bound to lead you straight into walls instead of pointing you forward. The full screen map visible in the main menu is also fairly lacking, as it divides the city into sections, taking away from the feeling of Midgar being a full world to explore, even if by the end of it there are tons of locations to return to. Segmenting the world on the big map also makes it harder to tell which locations you’ve been to when backtracking, or which road leads to which place. While certainly better than this team’s previous work in Final Fantasy XIII as far as exploration’s concerned, I’m a little worried about how they’ll handle what’s supposed to be the vast world map that becomes available in Episode 2.

On a story note, Final Fantasy VII: Remake is more faithful to the tone of the original game than I ever thought it would be, and in many ways, it remains in lockstep with it. This is definitely better than what I was hoping for, and never does it feel non-cannon or outsourced in any way.  That’s not to say that it doesn’t have issues, however. Remake makes changes to the fates of certain characters, and the changes are handled in such a heavy-handed way, and in a way where it’s not even really clear what actually took place, that I questioned why they bothered to do it.

The game’s final few hours are similarly mishandled; as with many RPGs today, Final Fantasy included, entering Remake’s final dungeon doesn’t simply mean a challenging path to the final boss, but instead it means hours upon hours of combat, boss fights, and action scenes…..never seeming to end. This isn’t a problem unique to this game, but it’s one that I wish hadn’t become the norm. As the dungeon and boss battles and plot revelations rattle on and on, they become tiring, as if we’re being trapped in a Michael Bay movie that I couldn’t just sit back and watch the mindless spectacle of.

Remake also makes the decision to fit Sephiroth into the proceedings, despite him only having a tiny, mostly off-screen role in the Midgar portions of the original game. Some fans might be happy to see him and Jenova make their early appearances, but I found them to be forced and unnecessary, and people who are new to this story will have no clue about the significance of this character and why he suddenly keeps showing up. The ending encounters also expand Aerith’s role in ways that I’m not thrilled with, but I’ll stop there. These are really the only blights on Final Fantasy VII: Remake’s otherwise great storytelling, which makes for a compelling journey through a very intriguing world; far more than the original did. I just wish I didn’t find myself cringing whenever Sephiroth and whatever those weird spirit things are kept forcing their way into the story.  

Remakes are always a daunting prospect, and Final Fantasy VII is such a beloved property. As someone who didn’t find that particular installment to be nearly as compelling as several of the others, I have to say that I thought Remake really elevated the original’s storytelling and its characters to turn them into something great, some long dungeons and a never-ending final several hours aside. It’s faithful to the original game and really captures the tone and vibe of Midgar perfectly. The combat system’s fast and fun but often a nightmare during bosses, with the few diversions from the original’s story similarly proving to be hit or miss. Music’s overly-orchestrated and far from Masashi Hamauzu’s best, while exploring the world can feel unintuitive due to its segmented nature and poor mini-maps. But whether it’s the quiet moments in the bar in Sector 7, or Cloud and Aerith traversing the slum’s rooftops together, or of course the eventual appearance of Red XIII, Final Fantasy VII: Remake manages to capture beautifully and expand upon much of what made the original game so beloved to begin with. It isn’t perfect, but it’s an adventure I’m incredibly eager to continue, and hope we won’t have to wait another entire console generation to get to do.


Note; this review is based on the PS4 version

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

New Review: Although a big step back from its predecessor, Life is Strange 2 overcomes a shaky start to provide a solid adventure

Life Is Strange is an episodic and story-driven Adventure series, one which occupies a world brimming with charm and warmth.

The original game starred teenager Max Caulfield, a student at Blackwell Academy in a small town in suburban Oregon, and had the vibe and presentational style of an indie flick, with the mystery that enveloped the academy venturing into some startlingly dark territory. It was carried by strong characters, a compelling setting, and a Butterfly Effect-like power that allowed Max to rewind time. Very often, you’d have to make crucial decisions that would have real impacts on the world around you.

Told episodically, Life is Strange garnered increasing popularity and critical praise as it went on, and wound up developing a large following.

I have to say that Life is Strange 2 isn’t the same home run that the original game was; in fact, in many ways it feels like a definite step back. Much of this is due to deliberate decisions made on the part of developer DontNod Entertainment to move from the format of a contained, developing world to a Last of Us-style road adventure, where likable main character Sean Diaz and his fairly aggravating younger brother Daniel find themselves on the run after a series of horrifying, if slightly unbelievable, events. As they journey south from Washington state to Mexico, they encounter various types of people, some friendly and some hostile, and fight for survival with very little money as law enforcement hunts them down.

There are ways that these narrative choices result inevitably in a smaller, lesser game than its predecessor, but I’ll come back to those in a bit. Life is Strange 2’s biggest improvements over the original are in its presentation; this is a gorgeous game, its visuals bringing its world to life, its dialogue relying less on the slang that proved somewhat divisive last time around. Though I have major issues with Daniel, Sean himself proves to be a great main character, and while the 1st episode gets the game off to an almost cartoonishly awful start, Life is Strange 2 does ultimately hit its stride by the time it reaches Episode 3, and continues on well for its 2nd half despite an anticlimactic ending.

It remains very fun to wander DontNod’s beautiful, intimate environments, with no shortage of objects to interact with, the acoustic guitar music setting the scene well, and a series of mostly well-acted, occasionally compelling characters and decisions moving the plot forward in interesting ways. The game still brims with character, from Sean’s ability to sit down and sketch out the various environments he comes across, to the funny comments he often makes and the hand drawn nature of many of Life is Strange 2’s menus. In what’s by far the game’s best episode, Episode 3, Sean and Daniel find themselves in a deep forest, living in an encampment with a crew of endearing marijuana cultivators, who bust their assess for an abusive boss. It’s here and really only here that Life is Strange 2 manages to channel what made the original game so incredible; the sense that your choices mattered, that they affected the people around you. Living with and interacting with this group of misfits really allows Sean to come into his own as a character, and gives him some much-needed time to associate with people other than his often-irritating little brother.

It’s here that Life is Strange 2 hits its stride, and though episodes 4 and 5 don’t quite manage to live up to this fantastic part of the game, the stakes from that point on feel more human and more urgent, and things power through well to its final act. It’s commendable that Life is Strange 2 was, in the end, able to moderately win me over despite an opening episode (and about half of the 2nd episode) that had me majorly wondering whether I’d even finish the game.

What ultimately stops Life is Strange 2 from living up to its predecessor is the “road game” format. Each episode brings Sean and Daniel to a different location entirely, with few of your decisions seeming to carry over or make much of a difference once the story whisks these characters hundreds of miles away. While Life is Strange featured a cast of likable side characters and a school and town that grew as you played, part 2 sacrifices this almost entirely for a story that keeps these characters almost constantly moving, giving you no ability to see the results of your choices on the world other than through brief letters/asides Sean receives.

Along with this, the story feels far more inflexible; very few of the choices I make seem to have any impact on what the game ultimately wants to happen, with Daniel often stubbornly refusing to listen to Sean no matter what I tell him to do, forcing the story down its clearly pre-determined path. The writers appear to be under the impression that Daniel’s likable, but almost every misfortune that befalls the brothers seems to be a direct result of Daniel’s stubborn actions, and as a result Sean’s forgiving nature and his seemingly unwavering devotion to his brother becomes painful to watch. It’s true that in these types of games the degree of choice you have is almost always somewhat of an illusion, but Life is Strange 2 is transparent about it to the point where you learn almost immediately after making what’s supposed to be a major choice that it doesn’t matter, that the story will continue heading where it wants to go regardless. Even with its narrative-driven focus, Life is Strange still felt like a video game, whereas Life is Strange 2 sees the series veer much more definitively towards being an interactive movie.

That the intriguing time travel mechanic from the original (along with its gameplay additions, such as puzzles, and the narrative importance that it offered) has been replaced by a very lame “hovering” power not even revealed until Episode 2, one which you’re never really given much control of and which feels more like an afterthought than something truly important. Life is Strange 2’s use of source music, something done so well in the original, feels here forced and much more self-aware, something that I’d say carries over to numerous aspects of this sequel. Sequels are hard, because the developers are under immense pressure to replicate what made the original games so successful, while also providing a new experience and evolving the formula. Life is Strange 2 stumbles a bit with each, delivering a fun and somewhat memorable journey, though one that I can only call a step back from its predecessor.

Despite a rocky start though, Life is Strange 2 does manage to recover. Its shortcomings are evident throughout, especially as it relates to the original game. In going with a story that never stays in the same place for too long, you lose the sense of being part of a world that develops around the decisions that you make. You lose (until you reach the second half of the game) the cast of characters whose relationships and connections you play a role in cultivating. You also lose the very cool and innovative time travel mechanic. Life is Strange 2 attempts to meld all these elements into Sean’s relationship with his younger brother, but Daniel disappointingly just seems to do his own thing regardless, and manages to come across as selfish and irritating in the process. All that said, once it finally hits its groove at Episode 3, Life is Strange 2 managed to hook me. In the end, it’s one that I can say I cautiously recommend to fans of the original, as long as they go into it with the right expectations. Those new to the series I’d encourage to try the original Life is Strange first, because aside from its visuals, it’s a better game in almost every sense. Still, Life is Strange 2 isn’t without its charms and its moments, many of which occurring later in the game, and it’s a journey I’m ultimately happy I went on.


Note; This review is based on the PS4 version