Wednesday, August 3, 2022

New Review; Correcting the record on GTAV, a game I was wrong about all those years ago


There have been times where I’ve been completely wrong with my opinion on a video game, especially a video game that seems to be beloved by the rest of the world. In certain cases, my opinion changed upon giving the game another chance in the form of an HD Remaster, where various graphical boosts and quality of life improvements, along with maybe reduced expectations, have allowed me to love games that I previously struggled to get into.

Grand Theft Auto V on the Xbox 360 was a game that, for whatever reason, I majorly disliked upon its release in 2013, and for nearly 10 years, was the only modern Grand Theft Auto game that I’d never finished, my Xbox 360 Red Ringing as I neared the end of the game resulting in me having to watch the rest online. It was weird, as a huge fan of Rockstar Games and their iconic GTA series, that I didn’t like GTA V, and though my thoughts at the time were undoubtedly sincere, I have to admit, upon finally giving the game another shot nearly 10 years later, that I had no idea what I was talking about.

GTA V is of course a great game, one that has been beloved for nearly a decade and has remained a top-seller for nearly a decade. It still has its flaws, and though I haven’t gone back and re-read my review of the 360 version of the game before writing this one, I do remember some of what I wrote, and those flaws are still intact. But Grand Theft Auto V is an atmospheric, exciting, incredibly fun, and visually striking game that presents its city of Los Santos and its wild surroundings in a loving, very detailed way. Though it carries several of the weaknesses common in games from the 7th generation of consoles, it in many ways stands above its fellow open world adventures from that area and largely holds up incredibly well today.

Grand Theft Auto V is unique so far for the series in that it stars 3 playable characters who you can switch between on the fly. You can do this when exploring the open world, each character often having their own available missions at any given time, even if the game more or less dictates which character ultimately needs to be selected in order to progress through the main story. During the missions, which often take the form of multi-part heists, the characters can also be switched between, all of this putting a fun spin on the typical GTA proceedings. GTA V may not really rock the boat in any major way in terms of the series’ famous formula, but changes such as the multiple playable characters and the frequent heists and setups help it to stand out, while returning a lot of the craziness and wackiness that was in short supply in the far more grounded Grand Theft Auto IV.

The game begins with three characters in the middle of a heist mission, something along the lines of a tutorial, and admittedly offers a less-than-impressive first impression; the grimy interior corridors, lack of awareness as to who the characters are, and the lack of ability to save for something like the first 30 minutes of the game feel like just as much of a bad start as they did to me on the Xbox 360. Once you do get set loose into the open world though, the magic of Rockstar’s incredible visuals and art direction, along with their great talent for immersive music and atmosphere, takes immediate center stage.

You play as Michael, a retired bank robber-turned family man, along with Franklin, a young man who repossess cars in South Los Santos, and of course Trevor, a deranged and truly psychotic individual who does have a certain charm to him that was completely lost on me the first time I played through the game. Each character is given their own fairly comprehensive setup before they all eventually team up, but admittedly the narrative doesn’t treat them all equally, with Trevor and Michael having a history together that ultimately plays a big role in the game’s events, while Franklin gets, without a doubt, the short end of the stick. His character’s likable and I was generally interested in his life and his friends, but unfortunately every time I switched to him, his map always seemed almost empty, without much to really do, and it becomes clear pretty quickly that GTA V’s really Michael and Trevor’s show.

Certain flaws like that do exist throughout Grand Theft Auto V, and they aren’t flaws that ruin the game in the same way that I once thought they did, but they come across as development oversights that I’m surprised this massive team didn’t catch. The driving controls and physics are all over the map, with driving greatly sped up from its sluggish handling in GTA IV, but cars still spin out with alarming frequency, and there’s no consistency whatsoever as to which types of objects you can run over and which ones will stop you completely in your tracks. It’s a true testament to the quality of the rest of the title that frustrating driving controls, despite cars playing a huge role in the proceedings, don’t hurt the overall game too much, even though they have the potential to.

Simple actions that could be done with the press of a button are instead given multi-step control prompts, leading me to constantly have to remind myself how to shoot from a vehicle, or how to check the current radio station, or how to change my weapon. It’s something that was common in the 7th console generation and GTA V definitely reminded me of it. Other little things, like character conversations while driving continuing on long after you’ve reached your destination, feel surprisingly sloppy, as it forces anyone who wants to hear the whole conversation to sit at the location and wait for it to end before exiting the car and proceeding to the mission, making me wonder why they didn’t better match the length of the conversations to the expected drive time. The game can also be frustratingly unclear as to what exactly it wants you to do, especially during any section that involves flying a plane or a helicopter, and Rockstar seems to under-estimate how difficult certain things are, such as in a particular mission where you have to land a plane, and in another where you have to drive a motorcycle on top of a train. That the game isn’t more forgiving during missions like these makes them frustrating in a way that I don’t think was intended by the development team.

The characters, though, I found to be genuinely likable this time around. Michael and his horrible family are a constant source of laughs, while Trevor, terrifying as he is, managed to win me over, at least in a sense. Franklin’s under-utilized but he serves as a decent anchor between his two crazy cohorts, and the way they all function together is compelling. The argument can certainly be made (and I’m sure it’s one I made back in 2013) that the cartoonish characters are a step down from the more realistic, human casts of GTA IV and GTA: San Andreas, but I find myself able to appreciate the entertainment value of GTA V’s characters too. Maybe as I get older, it’s becoming easier for me to appreciate things for what they are instead of wishing they could be something else, or maybe I didn’t appreciate them with an open mind back then, it’s hard to say. But I did feel a genuine affection towards these characters by the end of the game, though it has to be said that one of the three available endings is significantly better than the other two.

Where GTA V shows its age is mostly in the size of its world. The size of the map is absolutely huge, but the portions that exist outside of the city of Los Santos dwarf those of the game’s signature city by such a huge margin that it has the effect of making Los Santos feel so much smaller than intended. The game as a result takes you outside the city so frequently that it makes it feel less developed than the cities in other Grand Theft Auto titles, whether or not that’s actually the case. It’s a design choice that makes sense in what was a notoriously difficult generation for open world games, and it undoubtedly made it possible to release the game before that generation ended, but it’s the one thing that stood out the most to me as someone revisiting the game all these years later. If you have any familiarity with the city of Los Angeles it’s hard not to notice how much smaller Los Santos feels than the real thing, with the omission of the San Fernando Valley entirely, along with your ability to clearly see the Downtown skyline from the Santa Monica Pier, both standing out in a pretty major way.

Otherwise though, GTAV does a great job at capturing the set and setting of LA, or at least, the LA as it existed in 2013, when the game originally released. Though Los Santos feels quite small by today’s open world standards, it still leaves a great impression by the game’s end, as do at least two of the three main characters. It may not have the emotional weight of some of the other GTA installments, but its over-the-top craziness and top-notch atmosphere, along with many incredibly fun missions, help GTAV stand out despite its occasional frustrations and strange game design oversights.

This is obviously not a review that’s going to get much attention now in 2022, as almost everyone’s played the game by now, but it’s a review that I felt compelled to write, if for no other reason than to correct the record left by my review of the original GTAV back in 2013, a game which I was entirely wrong about. Though it’s always better when studios focus on new releases as opposed to remasters, the beauty of remasters is that they can give games second chances, and in my case, more often than not, the second chance has allowed me to appreciate a title that I just didn’t back when it originally came out.

Not a perfect game, but truly a great one.



Note; This review is based on the PS4 version

Monday, May 2, 2022

New Review: Repetitive, ugly, and incredibly boring, No More Heroes 3 is probably the final nail in the coffin for Grasshopper Manufacture.

Repetitive, ugly, and incredibly boring, No More Heroes 3 just might be the final nail in the coffin for me as far as any hopes that Grasshopper Manufacture will ever go on to recapture the magic that made them such an interesting studio during the era of Killer 7 and the original No More Heroes.

It hurts to say, especially as someone who was once a huge fan of Suda 51 and his crazy, stylistically violent games, but I haven’t enjoyed anything his studio’s put out since 2008.

There were glimpses here and there of fun and cooky artistry in games like Shadows of the Damned and the James Gunn-penned Lollipop Chainsaw, but to increasingly diminishing results and not nearly enough to have overcome their rough gameplay and lack of depth and polish. After trying twice but being unable to force myself through the unbearable Killer is Dead, I’d all but written off the indie studio, though I couldn’t help but give them one more shot with No More Heroes 3, which promised the return of Suda 51 to the Director’s chair, (albeit as a co-director) something he hadn’t been for the majority of Grasshopper’s output following the original No More Heroes.

On a very surface level, No More Heroes 3 feels more like a sequel to the original game than to the far more limited No More Heroes 2; returning from the 1st game is the ability to explore the world of Santa Destroy, the GTA-like hub where you travel from place to place and embark on missions and side missions. You are Travis Touchdown, the incredibly nerdy and angry main character who, as is series tradition, must move up the ranks of Assassins by challenging and killing various bosses, each complete with their own backstories, the pre-boss conversations with Sylvia also returning after their absence in the previous game. As with the original No More Heroes, you spend time in between assassination missions taking on odd jobs around town to earn the money necessary to qualify for the missions themselves. No More Heroes 3 replaces the traditional pre-boss hack and slash levels with individual combat missions scattered throughout the open world that also have to be completed to unlock the Ranked Assassin Missions, which now just takes you directly to the boss fight. It’s a choice that makes sense in the context of today’s open world games, but one that ultimately makes this third installment feel more slow-paced than the others. Still, it’s something different, and the studio bringing back many of the features that were removed from No More Heroes 2 was a reason for me to be somewhat interested in giving this a shot.

The results, unfortunately, are depressingly bad. Almost from minute one, I found myself struggling to follow the lengthy, jumpy, confusing cutscenes that open the game up. Once I finally did catch up and manage to figure out exactly what was going on, I was able to somewhat appreciate the interesting dynamics between the game’s villains, and there are a couple somewhat humorous moments throughout, though the majority of No More Heroes 3’s attempts at humor land with a thud. Sadly however, despite this being the first return of Travis Touchdown (spinoff aside) to his own proper game in over 11 years, I was hit with a wave of indifference from almost the minute the game began. The open world’s ridiculously fragmented into tiny, poorly-designed pieces that are unlocked like levels and just aren’t any fun to explore. The “alien” theme’s both generic and under-developed at the same time, while the graphics are bathed in a dark, dreary, blue tint that makes this easily the worst-looking numbered No More Heroes game yet, despite it being the first in HD. Santa Destroy in the original game had a bright, fun, cel shaded summer vibe to it, but the open world in No More Heroes 3 (where you spend the majority of your time) feels entirely devoid of life and atmosphere outside of the Perfect World section of the map, and never managed to immerse me or develop any sort of sense of place.

Everything, presentationally, about No More Heroes 3 feels like the wrong choice, from the constant stream of in-game credits sequences that begin and end each “chapter” to the bland, forgettable and often downbeat music that plays throughout. The homages to the 8-bit era that this series has always dabbled in are cranked up to 11 here, and serve as a complete distraction. The deliberately pixelated radar in the corner of the screen is so hard to use that I almost always had to pull up the full-size map just to have an idea of where I was going.  This map strangely displays a huge chunk of the world that you’re never actually allowed to visit, and the load times that take place through all of this feel abrupt, disruptive, and excessive. The game (which lacks an auto-save feature) once froze on me at the worst possible time, forcing me to repeat about a half hour of playtime over again. Chapters are bookended with pointless cutscenes featuring Travis and one of his friends sitting in his living room discussing Takashi Miike movies. In addition to the scenes being presented with all the visual flair of having been recorded off a security monitor, the dialogue between the two characters isn’t funny at all and doesn’t even seem to be attempting to be, and as someone unfamiliar with Miike’s movies, I of course had little idea what they were discussing. Even if I had, though, their analysis is incredibly shallow and not particularly interesting; I get the sense that I could find more in-depth analysis from high schoolers on a Miike-devoted message board. The payoff from having to sit through these puzzling cutscenes comes far too late to have been worth the effort.

That isn’t to say that everything about No More Heroes 3 is horrible; the combat system remains fun and fast, albeit veering into frustration a little too often and easily, just like it did in No More Heroes 2 and all of Grasshopper Manufacture’s games since. Still, battles are chaotic and visually striking, and the leveling up system for Travis offers a solid amount of customization. Boss encounters still don’t have the depth, personality, or the extravagance of the fights from the original game, but they’re more or less on par with its sequel in providing interesting personalities and solid gameplay variety. As with its predecessors, motion controls are integrated perfectly, in a way that isn’t even close to being excessive but one that feels so satisfying.

The quirky odd jobs, however, are tedious and lack any of the charm of either previous No More Heroes game. After trying a couple of them, I decided to focus entirely on combat challenges as a means to earn money instead. The characters you encounter around the world are strange in the usual Suda 51 way but lack a lot of the charm that existed in the original, with No More Heroes 3 often feeling like it’s trying desperately to grasp something that the studio just doesn’t seem to have in them anymore.

This is most clear in the storyline that propels the adventure forward. Every tone that it strikes just hits the wrong note; Travis seems angry and unpleasant, almost all of the likability he had in the first two games somehow nonexistent. The villains are both too menacing to be truly funny and yet too funny to be taken seriously, and the side characters (especially Shinobu) are given so little to do that I wondered why they were even included. The writing itself is oftentimes incomprehensible and never as funny as it seems to think it is. Travis yelling out the names of various fruits every 10 seconds in battle is supposed to be funny because of its randomness, but weirdness just for the sake of weirdness isn’t automatically deep or funny; it actually has to go somewhere, and No More Heroes 3’s just doesn’t. As with many modern GHM games, cutscene after cutscene ends with thoughts of “huh. That was weird,” with the studio seeming to think that weirdness alone makes them profound, or hilarious, or innovative. But as with all of their modern games, they simply come across as weird, but little else.  

It’s sad how far Grasshopper Manufacture seems to have fallen. As someone who loved the original No More Heroes and the divisive Killer 7 before it, nobody was hoping more than me that No More Heroes 3 would see a return to at least some of that former glory. Unfortunately, the aggressively confusing storyline, tonal inconsistencies, terrible visuals and presentation, a boring, soulless world along with repetitive, unexciting gameplay ends up leaving almost nothing for me to recommend about No More Heroes 3, even with a solid and usually fun combat system. I do hope that the studio can somehow manage to find its sweet spot in the HD era at some point, but I worry that they just don’t have the amount of people, the budget, or the focus to pull it off. As a former fan of Suda 51’s strange and inventive games, it’s a difficult pill to swallow, but something that just seems to be, for now, the way it is.


Wednesday, November 24, 2021

New Review; Structural problems aside, Skyward Sword HD proves to be a great way to experience an often-overlooked Zelda game


At long, long last, the somewhat divisive Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword has been given new life in the form of an HD remaster. Arriving years after the remasters of Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess on the 3DS and Wii U, respectively, Skyward Sword HD now has its turn to be both discovered by those who missed out on its charms back on the Wii, and of course to be experienced a second time by those who have played it.

Skyward Sword has always been a somewhat controversial entry in the series, having been developed exclusively for the Wii and taking full advantage of its motion controls; specifically, its Motion Plus peripheral. This fact, along with its release towards the end of the Wii’s lifespan at a time when many had moved their attention to other consoles, meant that Skyward Sword was a game that many fans haven’t played or finished, making it ripe for a remaster.

It comes to the Switch with full 1080p visuals at 60 FPS, with various improvements to tone down the game’s somewhat aggressive hint system, speed up the dialogue boxes, and other little tweaks that go a long way towards a smoother experience. The most major addition is the button-only control scheme, which allows you to use the right analog stick to recreate the game’s motion elements. As someone who always felt that Skyward Sword was somewhat under-appreciated, I was looking forward to the game being given a second chance, and of course was looking forward to getting to re-experience it myself. I’m happy to report that Skyward Sword HD is the definitive way to enjoy the game, even if the Joy Cons have to be recalibrated in motion mode far more frequently than they should be, and even if aspects of the game’s structure are more flawed than I remember them being, something I similarly remember thinking with Wind Waker’s HD remaster a few years ago.

A surprisingly cinematic introduction sets the stage pretty quickly for what promises to be a much more story-driven Zelda game than its predecessors. The dialogue remains text-based, sadly, but the cutscenes are very well-presented and as movie-like as I think text box cutscenes have ever managed to be. Taking place in a village in the clouds called Skyloft, the citizens of this world live above an undeveloped, far more dangerous world below the clouds, one which consists of essentially 3 areas that are traveled through and are further explored numerous times as the game progresses.

The humans explore the sky world by riding on birds called Loftwings, while numerous Skyloft citizens train to be knights, who, among many other things, rescue those who fall from the sky island. Skyloft’s a town with a lot of character, and serves as a pleasant, albeit fairly under-populated, hub world of sorts, where numerous side quests can be taken on and where charming NPCs can be interacted with in typical Zelda fashion. The sky world you can explore is somewhat reminiscent of the ocean from Wind Waker, though, it has to be said, on an almost astronomically smaller scale, and with very little in the way of populated islands to visit beyond Skyloft’s boundaries. Still, there’s something cool about leaping from Skyloft, summoning your Loftwing, and (after an unfortunate but brief second or two of loading) soaring through the clouds. The little islands scattered throughout house treasure chests, which have to be activated in the world below before they can be accessed, along with a bar called The Lumpy Pumpkin and one or two other cool little gems. Still, there’s not much out there, and the vast majority of Skyward Sword’s exploration and gameplay takes place in Skyloft and on the ground.

But first, the scenario. It’s in the midst of a ceremony where Link is about to be made a knight that Zelda is swallowed up by a mysterious force and dragged through the clouds, initiating Link’s journey below to rescue her. What’s fairly cool about the way Skyward Sword plays out is that Zelda is both brimming with personality and also bravery; far from being captured, she teams up with another character named Impa and sets off on her own journey. At risk of overselling the plot too much, it’s true that in typical Zelda fashion Link undergoes much of the journey on his own, and the game follows the standard Zelda blueprint of minimalist storytelling and object collecting, but Skyward Sword sees it being given the greatest emphasis it has ever been given in this series (even more so than in its successor, Breath of the Wild) and there are one or two scenes that are genuinely impactful emotionally, and are pulled off incredibly well and seemingly effortlessly. It’s a story definitely worthy of its journey.

As Link pursues Zelda into the land below, he finds a world essentially divided into 3 different areas, (Faron Woods, Eldin Volcano, and Lanayru Desert), areas which expand as Link learns new abilities and the story progresses. The locations serve as cool areas each with their own compelling charms and surprises (possible exception of Elden Volcano aside) but it feels like a sad limitation that you can’t travel between them on foot in-game as one full world, instead having to choose one to descend to from the sky. It’s something which bothered me much more today than it did back in 2011, making each area feel segmented from each other, lessening the feeling of full exploration. Exploring the sky world seems like it was meant to be a replacement for this, but given how barren much of it is, and given the fact that the majority of its treasures have to first be unlocked on the ground before they can be accessed in the sky, it makes Skyward Sword unquestionably feel like it’s among the most linear of the series, even though there’s still quite a bit to explore and even though at one point towards the end you’re given the ability to progress through the rest of the story somewhat non-linearly.

Skyward Sword’s gameplay contains both some of the series’ best along with some of its more tedious. The dungeons, unquestionably, are the most fun the series has seen, with excellent pacing, great use of Link’s abilities, the addition of in-dungeon save points, and some clever puzzles. The much-dreaded Water Temple here is actually a full-on blast, and arguably the most fun dungeon in the game. As someone who found its predecessor, Twilight Princess, to have had a few too many dungeons, Skyward Sword’s a Zelda game that could have used at least one or two more of them, and falls into the same trap of Wind Waker in that towards the end it recycles previous dungeons rather than having contained a much-needed additional one or two.

The bosses range from some of the series’ cooler ones to bland, swordplay-driven encounters, but thankfully the majority of them are a lot of fun. Like the rest of the game, dungeons make frequent use of the motion controls, though as Skyward Sword HD is now fully playable without them, they should hopefully serve as much less of a barrier to people’s enjoyment of the game.

The area in which motion controls have the largest impact (and where they thankfully work the best) is in combat. Enemies have to be targeted with your sword at certain angles, with swiping your Joycons at those angles triggering 1:1 motion. It’s something that worked quite well on the Wii and it works very well here too. Combat’s so satisfying with motion that while I tried switching back and forth between motion and non-motion controls, I ultimately stuck with the motion ones because they just make combat feel so much more vibrant. Playing without motion still features the same targeted slash mechanics, though this is achieved by sliding the right analog stick in the directions needed to defeat enemies. This is also something that works well, and its addition serves as a good choice for people who just can’t stand motion controls. The only major weakness to using this mode is that you lose some of the seamless camera control offered in motion mode, as button-only mode requires you to hold down the trigger before using the right analog stick to move the camera, since otherwise the right analog stick is taken up by the sword controls. It’s a slight drawback and something to consider when deciding which control scheme to use, though thankfully the control methods can be switched at any time.

The biggest issue that’s exclusive to this remaster is that the Joycons need to be recalibrated almost constantly, at least, in my experience. It was something that occasionally had to happen with the Wii Motion Plus, which required the Wii Remote to be set flat on a table and recalibrated with the TV. Though Skyward Sword HD thankfully streamlines this to simply pointing your Joycon at the center of the TV and pressing Y instantaneously, this has to be done almost all the time; whenever I wanted to use a non-combat ability that required motion for its movement, (which is most of them) the motion seemed completely off, and had to be recalibrated. It feels almost broken, and served to constantly remove me from the immersion that the developers intended. Were it not for the fact that the motion controls are more reliable (once calibrated) and that Skyward Sword HD is far more forgiving with various motion actions than the original, I’d almost argue that the motion controls worked better on the Wii because the controller didn’t have to be recalibrated so frequently. All in all, it winds up being a draw. As far as the enjoyment of using motion controls is concerned, the powerups are all fun to use, fitting the Boss Keys into their slots is always a cool little exercise, and the motion elements keep things fresh and interesting. What remains tedious with motion controls is flying your Loftwing, and it's a bummer that using an analog stick (while in Motion Control mode) wasn’t an option, as it’s really the only thing that I’d rather have used the Button Only control scheme with.

Visually, Skyward Sword HD is a beautiful game. The art style was one that I struggled with on the Wii, feeling unsure of what they were going for and thinking that things looked colorful, but incredibly blurry and washed out. In Skyward Sword HD though, what was intended with the visual style is far clearer, and the game looks gorgeous in most areas. It’s unquestionably one of the weaker art styles the series has seen, but with this remaster I’m now much more able to appreciate it and understand it, and overall I’d have to say that it works quite well for what it is. Musically is where Skyward Sword really shines; it goes with a full orchestrated soundtrack, but unlike many other MIDI series that attempt this (Tales of, Atelier, Dragon Quest) Skyward Sword pulls it off without losing the charm and vibrancy of the music this series has always been known for, and it sounds incredible. Aside from the high quality of the music, the tunes themselves are some of the best the Legend of Zelda has seen from the beginning.

Though this remaster goes a long way towards fixing several of Skyward Sword’s issues, several still remain. There’s no quest menu for sidequests, forcing you to remember who assigned them to you and what the quests were. I found myself using the Switch’s snapshot feature to note whenever I took on a sidequest, which is a semi-solution, but still feels sloppy. Finding quests to take on can also be a challenge, as many citizens of Skyloft seem to spend most of their time in their homes, which means you have to randomly enter house after house searching for NPCs who will offer you quests to take on.

It's in this sense that while there’s a solid amount of people to interact with in Skyloft (though considering its supposed existence as the home for all of humanity, it just doesn’t feel populated enough to serve that purpose) and many quests to take on, it never really feels like it, and much of the side content will likely remain hidden from many players as a result.

These issues were completely remedied in Breath of the Wild, thankfully, but even in 2011 Skyward Sword’s weaknesses in this area were readily apparent,  with the game’s lack of any sort of interface for locating and tracking side content always feeling like an obvious oversight.

What I didn’t seem to notice back then, but what feels like a significant drawback today, is Skyward Sword’s segmented world. Though each of the game’s 3 ground areas greatly expand to reveal new locations as you progress through the story, that they’re all separated from each other gives them a very disconnected feel. It doesn’t help much that the game design’s incredibly repetitive; it follows the same formula when you arrive at each area, each time, which begins with an incredibly frustrating Dowsing section, where you have to wander the environments in a Find the Object mode before you can progress the story, something that I grew to dread each time I arrived at a new location. Two of the three locations (exception being Eldin Volcano, which is pretty much exactly as it first seems) offer some very cool surprises and interesting mechanics, but the formulaic nature of Skyward Sword’s progression becomes abundantly clear early on, and it’s hard to pretend that it doesn’t exist, especially once the game stops throwing new dungeons in your direction towards the end.

Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword however is a game that was a blast to re-experience. 10 years later, I still feel that it’s criminally underrated among a faction of the Zelda fanbase, and hopefully this remaster, with the option of turning off the motion controls, will help it find new fans. Speaking for myself however, the motion controls are an essential part of the game’s experience, and I wound up keeping them on, even if the constant need to recalibrate the Joycons kills the immersion and winds up feeling like a step back from the Wii Motion Plus. The story here is easily the best-told in the series, with some genuinely moving moments and great characters and settings. The dungeons and music are also easily some of the series’ best to date. Skyward Sword’s repetitive and formulaic progression, the segmented nature of the world below, a tragically empty sky and a lack of a quest menu does leave a mark, as does the developers’ decision to re-use previous dungeons and bosses towards the end, something Wind Waker fans will definitely be familiar with. In fact, as with Wind Waker HD, the structural weaknesses of the game design became far more apparent to me when re-experiencing it than they were back when I’d first played it, and though it does tarnish my thoughts on the game a little bit, Skyward Sword HD is overall one I’d easily recommend, and one that, flaws aside, holds up well and was fully deserving of what turns out to be quite a solid HD remaster.


Monday, April 26, 2021

New Review: Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time doesn’t manage to live up to its predecessors; and with the possible exception of the first game, it doesn’t even come close


Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time is a game that I realized fairly early on wasn’t going to live up to my hopes for it, and sure enough, as things progressed, what little enjoyment I had dwindled further and further. It isn’t an easy thing to report, as someone who grew up playing video games back in the days when each of the big 3 (Sony, Nintendo, Sega) were represented by a cartoony mascot with tons of personality and a gameplay style all their own.

Though Sony’s development output has shifted wildly from the days when a goofy bandicoot served as the face of the Playstation brand, many of us who gamed in the 1990s fondly remember our adventures with Crash Bandicoot. I’d been hoping for years that the series would be revived for the modern era, and the success of the recent Crash Bandicoot N’Sane Trilogy made this all but inevitable. Sure enough, a proper sequel has now been developed, and It’s About Time attempts to capture the magic that made Naughty Dog’s original Crash Bandicoot games such memorable platformers back in their day.

You can tell by my review score of course that I don’t think it does, but why I failed to find Crash Bandicoot 4 to be enjoyable on almost any level is due to something very straightforward; the removal of the Lives system. It’s a strange thing, because on paper, removing this outdated mechanic would seem like it’d get rid of a lot of frustration, but instead, it does the exact opposite. The Lives system required Naughty Dog to design their levels in a smart way; they could be difficult, and often were, but they couldn’t be so difficult that people wouldn’t be able to finish the game. Because of this, Naughty Dog managed to create levels that were quite challenging, but they weren’t relentlessly challenging; you were allowed to have fun in between the challenging sections, allowed to have minutes at a time where you weren’t dying over and over again, and instead enjoying the fun platforming mechanics and beautiful worlds.

Toys For Bob, who developed Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time, is under no such obligation; you’re granted an unlimited number of lives, giving the developer the freedom to design the levels with as many hazards, enemies, and blockades to your progress as possible. They can do this because there’s no such thing as getting a Game Over, no matter how many times you die. Rather than making the game more fun, this turns It’s About Time’s levels into tedious exercises in trial and error, where dying upwards of 20 times per level in the latter portion of the game becomes commonplace. As a result, I was denied the feeling of ever being on a roll, of mastering the level, of enjoying myself, because I seemingly couldn’t walk more than a few steps at a time before being instantly killed by something offscreen, or falling through one of the many bottomless pits that overwhelm pretty much every area. The number of checkpoints isn’t horrible (albeit it could certainly be better) and the game will throw additional ones your way if it sees you dying enough times on any given part, but even without the fear of having to restart entire levels over again, having to repeat section after section after section until I had them memorized isn’t much of an alternative. It’s just frustrating.

On a lesser, though still significant note, the removal of the Lives system also takes away the fun of collecting Apples during the levels and finding secret bonus areas, because while in previous Crash games this provided much-needed additional Lives, here, the only purpose of collecting Apples is to award you with bonus skins, but these, along with Crash 4’s other rewards, are so difficult to earn on your first time through any given level that I felt like I wasted my time even trying, further damaging the formula and making the game less satisfying to play.

It’s important to note that Toys for Bob does an admirable job of capturing the Crash Bandicoot art style and vibe, though the Switch version, it has to be said, is a little on the blurry and jagged side. The cutscenes are funny and charming, even if the character of Crash himself, in my opinion anyway, feels far goofier and over the top than he was originally portrayed. Still, there’s a good sense of humor to the game all throughout, (including an incredibly funny bit during the end credits) and there are hints of a more epic scope that never quite materialize, but occasionally makes themselves apparent. The addition of other playable characters is a cool touch, and the story itself has its fun twists and turns, making good use of many of the returning characters. Some of the new powerups are fun and shake things up, while the various boss battles are actually pretty great; unlike the rest of the game, the boss fights do manage to strike the right balance between fun and frustration. There’s good stuff in here, to be sure, and Toys for Bob has their heart in the right place, but the game simply sinks under the weight of its unforgiving level design, resulting in something that looks and sounds like Crash Bandicoot, but that just doesn’t have any of the fun or any of the pacing, and unfortunately in a game like this, that’s a pretty big oversight.

Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time doesn’t manage to live up to its predecessors; and with the possible exception of the first Crash Bandicoot game, it doesn’t even come close. Though removing the Lives system was intended to alleviate frustration and take the series forward, it instead gave Toys for Bob the freedom to design tedious, pit-filled, trial-and-error levels that just aren’t any fun to play. Rather than getting to enjoy conquering the various stages, you’re forced to stumble along, bit by bit, dying endlessly along the way, until you can hobble Crash or Coco across the finish line at the end. I don’t doubt that this might very well be many people’s cup of tea, and there are worthwhile elements (such as the boss battles and the cutscenes) that I did find myself enjoying. All in all though, there’s no way I can recommend the latest Crash Bandicoot game, and after waiting for so long for it, that definitely hurts a little bit. 


Note; This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version

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 Kamurocho 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