Category Archives: video games

Review – The First 20 Hours of Battle Chasers: Nightwar

Battle Chasers: Nightwar is a JRPG attempt at reviving an old comic book franchise that was popular early in the century.  While it probably won’t scratch the itch of Battle Chasers fans who want more content, it does competently put together a solid battle system and intriguing dungeons.  There’s fun to be had here.  For more, continue on.

The story begins with five intrepid adventurers searching for an island full of mana when their airship is attacked by bandits.  The party is divided and must explore the new land to reunite with their comrades and discover a mysterious plot hatching in this unknown land.  This could be generic launching point for a greater story, but Battle Chasers: Nightwar doesn’t seem interested in its narrative.  When it bothers to spend any time on story or characters (cutscenes are sparse), it’s largely to point the player towards the next quest.  No character, plot, or location gets much attention and the narrative feels less like a licensed property and more like a fig leaf to give the barest excuse to move on.  While I don’t know much about the Battle Chasers world, I have to imagine there is more to it than what this game shows.  Fans of the property probably won’t find their fix here.

Fortunately, the rest of the game is well constructed.  The turn-based battle system harkens back to golden age JRPGs with some interesting, though hardly mind bending, changes.  In addition to the standard special attacks and leveling up, Nightwar adds overcharge and perks.  Overcharge adds a temporary mana bar that is accrued by using basic attacks and only lasts for the duration of the battle.  Combined with the game’s tight item management and expensive spells, overcharge creates a welcome tension wherein the player must decide if waiting for overcharge is worth the time it takes to accrue.  In addition to overcharge, Nightwar includes perks.  Perks are swappable benefits which the player can use to customize characters for specific play styles.  Combined, the two systems provide enough variation to the standard JRPG format.

The real star of the battle system is how fine-tuned it is.  All but the lowest level battles require smart planning and attention to detail.  The long dungeons and restricted healing options reward smart resource management in a way that feels well balanced rather than punitive.  The only real chink in the battle system’s armor is Nightwar’s stingy economy.  The player can either find weapons or buy gear, but both take a miserly approach that can mean that a character won’t have needed equipment.  Loot drops can contain powerful items, but are too sparse to ensure that every character has what they need.  Rather than allow the player to buy missing equipment easily, Nightwar’s expensive economy ensures that the player will only have funds for an item or two rather than kitting out their party.  With a bad run of loot drops, characters won’t have the equipment they need and can be underpowered for fights.

There’s a little more to be said about Nightwar (it’s got a nice art style, for one), but the overarching message is that this is a competently executed game for gamers who like good battle systems and don’t care much about plot.  It’s possible that my abbreviated time with the game meant that I missed some amazing plot development later on, but the general tone and direction of the narrative suggests that’s not the case.  Some will view this as a worthwhile purchase at full price, but I’d say wait for a sale.

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Opinion – Anthem Coop Works Best Without Friends?

With E3 come and gone, it’s now time to peel back the glossy advertising and review what we’ve seen with clearer eyes.  The game I am paying the most attention to (though not one that I’m excited about) is Bioware’s Anthem, a four player coop experience promising the deep, quality storytelling we used to expect from the studio.  With the failure of Mass Effect: Andromeda, it’s hard not to see Anthem as the fulcrum upon which Bioware’s gold developer status rests.  What concerns and intrigues me most about Anthem is a) we’ve seen very little of it given how close we are to launch and, most importantly, b) it seems to think it can combine storytelling and multiplayer.  It is the latter to which we now turn.

Storytelling and multiplayer often clash with one another due to the competing nature of their foci.  Storytelling is often a personal experience with the player focusing (or not focusing) on the elements they find most compelling.  Whether its cutscenes, logs, scenery, or dialog, players gravitate towards the parts of the story they enjoy the most.  To make stories more compelling, games give players choices, try to create personal bonds with the player, and otherwise make the whole experience about the player holding the controller.  The whole goal is to make one person lost in a magical world.

Multiplayer goes a different route.  Rather than focus the game on the player, it focuses the players on the game.  By giving players a common objective, multiplayer games create a sense of teamwork and comradery as players seek to achieve a common goal.  That goal also provides a metric for progress with players succeeding or failing at the same speed.  In this context, player chatter, coordination, and team exploration all further the player towards the ultimate objective.  These are the exact things that kill a good video game story.

Combining the two styles works at cross purposes.  A game can’t simultaneously make a player feel like the most important character in the story while making the game about the teamwork with three other players.  “You’re special!” doesn’t work as a message when there’s clearly a crowd.  Nor do the basic mechanics work either.  Players in multiplayer games need to communicate, trade stories, and otherwise talk about elements of the game that destroy a sense of immersion.  Even if a team somehow gets on the same wavelength in terms of immersion, there’s the problem of keeping everyone synced.  Players excited about a story will still approach it at different speeds and times.  The resulting clash just doesn’t work.

Imagine a team of players just completed a mission and headed back to town.  Player A completes the quest and settles in for a drama fueled cutscene between characters they love.  Just as the scene reaches its crescendo, Player B gets excited about a piece of loot they found.  Finally, quieting Player B, Player A starts getting back into the groove when Player C starts laughing at a hilarious cutscene they’re enjoying.  Once the laughter subsides, Player A starts crawling to the finish when Player D complains that they want to get back out and do quests.  Goodbye story.  Hello hating friends.

Bioware plans to address some of these issues by keeping story areas single player.  Players will interact in instances all their own.  While that sounds like a step in the right direction, it doesn’t solve the chatter issue or just general coordination with teammates.  The multiplayer part will interfere with the story mode and weaken it.

…unless you aren’t playing with friends.  The irony of this particular cooperative model is that it might well play best with strangers whom the player can dump once a mission concludes.  Without the need to coordinate beyond the current battle, there’s no need to worry about politely sharing a chat channel or keeping up with the team.  A player can putz around a story area for hours without angering a friend who just wants to get some exp.  It’s weird, but maybe that’s how Anthem works.  We’ll have to wait and see.

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The First Few Hours – Warhammer 40k: Inquisitor – Martyr

Warhammer 40k: Inquisitor – Martyr acts a bit like an action RPG fun house mirror.  The game is an obvious reflection of the standard Diablo formula, but does everything just a little bit differently.  The end result is a decent game in its own right, but one that will irritate an unsuspecting portion of the audience that it courts.

The game begins with the player controlled Inquisitor, a galactic enforcer of loyalty and religion, embarking a mission aboard the Martyr, a derelict Space Marine ship that went rogue and disappeared for centuries.  A quick investigation of the ship reveals that it formerly housed a long dead Space Marine leader of undetermined allegiance and is now the focus of a secret investigation by another Inquisitor who also has undetermined allegiance.  In the opening hours of the game, the player attempts to hunt down this other Inquisitor and figure out what the Martyr really is.

As far as stories go, this one is functional.  Its true virtue is to serve as a vehicle for the world of Warhammer 40k.  The player collects crew from across W40k’s Imperium of Man factions, fights its traditional Chaos foe, explores the dark realms of its cities and abandoned space stations, and generally revels in one of the better representations of this universe.  Fans of the W40k world will find much to like here and even newcomers will find Inquisitor – Martyr a relatively accessible entry point into the W40k world.  On the other hand, people who dislike the grim dark future of the 40th millennia will find nothing new or interesting.  Inquisitor – Martyr seeks to channel Warhammer 40k, not improve upon it.

The same cannot be said for the action RPG formula which the game seeks to model.  Thought clearly inspired by Diablo and its host of clones, Inquisitor – Martyr makes enough evolutionary tweaks to almost turn itself into a revolution.  The standard leveling, looting, and fighting mechanics are all there, but the emphasis is less on the former two….and arguably less on the third as well.  Leveling and looting are noticeably slower than the standard model with the player rarely experiencing substantial jumps in kill power.  Fighting is also notably slowed with the introduction of a cover mechanic which allows the player and enemies to hide in order to reap defensive bonuses.  The end result is that progress feels slow on and off the battlefield.

Perhaps the biggest gameplay innovation is the pacing.  Missions are discreet fights across small maps with specific, and occasionally varying, objectives.  Leveling, equipment swapping, and all other forms of maintenance are relegated to the pause between missions.  This creates a nice balance between character improvement and combat with each operating in its own spheres without the other spoiling its flow.  There is no standing in the middle of a blood drenched battlefield comparing shiny new swords or trying to tweak a character build.  On the flip side, the pauses between fights serve as an exhale from the game’s combat and gives the story an opportunity to breath.  While hardly used to its fullest in Inquisitor – Martyr, this model could give future ARPG’s a chance to focus on story.

Overall, the game has a solid collection of mechanics which made the first seven hours a lot of fun.  Dark clouds do loom on the horizon.  Without a compelling story and thanks to limited numbers of enemies and settings, the charms of the Warhammer 40k universe are fading against the repetitive grind of constant battles.  The slow progression ensures that the battle system won’t take up the slack.  It’s becoming harder and harder to see how Inquisitor – Martyr will earn its full price tag.  Even if you’re a big W40k fan, I’d wait for a sale.

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As Your Fantasy Town Mayor

To all of my fellow citizens of the town of Dadoria,

We live in a time of peace.  Of prosperity.  Whatever troubles may plague the world, we live in a video game fantasy town where birds chirp, kids play, and everyone knows each other.  Which, because we live in a video game fantasy town, means we’re all in grave danger.  As you all know, peace is exactly the moment when disaster strikes.  Whether it’s some dark god, evil empire, or previously defeated species out for revenge, something is coming for us.  As mayoral candidate for Dadoria, I want you to know that I can help.  We CAN defeat the inevitable, unspecified darkness!….with my six point plan.

1 – Fund research into town history

In addition to promoting civic pride, researching town history will give us a much better understanding of the various ancient traps laid for us by our predecessors.  While it may be tempting to live in ignorant bliss of the doom hidden within a nearby ancient temple, smart planning and responsible leadership will ensure that we can live with peace of mind despite the dangers.  Every 4,000 year old ritual sealing away the forces of darkness, every lost sword that holds the ultimate power, and every gateway to an evil dimension will be studied, catalogued, and placed on a publically available town website to ensure we’re making progress towards ridding our homes of these dangers.

2 – Establish a rigorous immigration protocol

Outsiders often bring unwanted attention to our otherwise peace burg.  Many a fantasy town has been undone by a clever old wise man who turned out to be a general in an imperial army or a lovely young lady who is actually part of a long lost magical race.  ALL prospective immigrants to Dadoria will go through a thorough review to ensure they have a history free of interesting lives linking them to dangerous adventures.

3 – Improve educational standards

Heroes.  They’re the worst.  If there’s one thing to guarantee the doom of our village, it’s a plucky band of youngsters living an idyllic life just begging for a town-wide massacre to start them on a noble quest to save the world.  As mayor, I would take great exception to the idea that we need to be the ones to die.  All kids between the ages of 13 and 18 will be sent to a quality boarding school where any that show a plucky, can do attitude will be banned from returning.

4 – Increase economic investment

To further discourage the development of homegrown adventurers, I shall direct the investment of town tax monies towards the increase in quality and rarity of our goods.  Any prospective heroes would need to start off buying high level gear and fighting brutal monsters.  Good luck with that guys.  As an added bonus, we’ll be at the top of the economic food chain when adventurers come knocking for powerful weapons and armor.  There’s no loss here.

5 – Energy diversity

While we all honor and appreciate the wonderful quality of life that the CRYSTAL OF FIRE provides, it’s time we looked to more traditional sources of energy.  I share your concerns about the pollution resulting from alternative sources, but it pales in comparison to the destruction wrought by an evil emperor who destroys our humble town to complete his collection.  Instead, I propose selling the CRYSTAL OF FIRE and using coal as a bridging source until we can transition to solar or steam power.

6 – Invest in our armed forces

At the end of the day, nothing stops nefarious actors like well-armed troops with a diverse array of weapons.  Ottis is a wonderful young man whose bumbling charm feels right at home in Dadoria, but he can’t stop the ravenous hordes of a demon army bent on global domination.  We need trained soldiers with guns, magic, and magical guns.  They’ll cut their teeth on the seemingly endless monsters in the area and make sure that any would-be conqueror gets a face full of bullets for even looking in our direction.

So, fellow citizens of Dadoria.  Vote me, vote for the future, and vote for not dying.

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Opinion – Far Cry 5’s Ending

Spoilers:  I’ll be talking about the ending for Far Cry 5 so, unsurprisingly, there will be spoilers for Far Cry 5.

 

Let’s get the verdict out of the way: the ending for Far Cry 5 isn’t very good, but it is representative of the failings that plague the game’s story.  Whether or not you saw The Collapse coming, it was possible to predict how the story would falter.

For those who haven’t beaten the game, here’s a quick summary.  The player is fighting against The Father, a religious figure who built a militant movement around an amorphous, apocalyptic scenario known as “The Collapse”.  When the player confronts and defeats The Father, nuclear bombs go off suggesting that he was right all along and lending credence to the prophetic powers he claimed to have.

Much of the criticism of the ending is lobbied against its unpredictability.  While there’s plenty of discussion about the end of the world, Far Cry 5 doesn’t provide sufficient clues to forecast the apocalypse.  I can’t agree.  The mechanics of the apocalypse are left unexplored, but its arrival is given increasing evidence when looked through the perspective of The Father’s prophesy.  I agree that we don’t see much about encroaching war (though apparently some of the radio broadcasts talk about North Korea), but we do see quite a bit to suggest that The Father may be right.  The three heralds (think cult vice presidents) all highlight how the player’s actions were foretold by The Father with Jacob Seed even highlighting how he doubted The Father’s religious connections, but believed in his prophesy.  Furthermore, the beginning even has the cultists waiting for the arrival of the supposedly unexpected police officers.  Far Cry 5 may not set up a nuclear exchange, but it does support the idea that the apocalyptic prediction could be right.

My problem with the ending is a continuation of my problem with the broader storyline.  The story often tries to shock and awe the audience with plot twists, but rarely spends the time it needs to earn the pay off.  The concept of The Bliss is the perfect example.  Rather than spend a little time developing the concept of The Bliss, it is instead an obvious dues ex machina that does whatever the plot needs at the time.  It’s supposed to create an otherworldly atmosphere, but instead feels empty and unsupported.  Another related example is the final fight where the player must defeat their allies who have all been exposed to The Bliss despite there being no sign of that exposure happening.  Instead, the fight feels like just another convenient setup.  Far Cry 5 wants these powerful and impactful moments, but doesn’t spend the time to support them.

The apocalyptic ending falls into the same pattern.  Yes, the story lends some support to the ending happening, but it never grapples with what that actually means.  A prophet who predicts the end of the world and even knows how it will happen sets up a millenarian cult movement that he knows will fail.  He knowingly creates the scenario that will bring about the end that he’s trying to stave off.  How does any of this make sense?  The ending is yet another jump where Ubisoft wants to get to the good part of the story without thinking through the path to get there, and that’s the real problem.  The game does let you know what’s coming, it just doesn’t want to figure out how to make it work.

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Review – Far Cry 5 – PC

Short version:  Far Cry 5 is a good game.  It won’t change your life…or even your view on Far Cry games, but it’s polished, fun, and generally does what it set out to do.  Got it?  Good.  Let’s start reviewing this thing.

The game begins with the player running from the Eden’s Gate cult in Montana after failing to capture its leader, The Father.  The player joins up with up three sets of resistance groups trying to overthrow the three “heralds” of The Father, collectively known as the Seed family.  This is a solid enough set up for the game, but really relies on the personalities of the Seed family to carry the story beyond a basic “kill these dudes” premise.  Fortunately, the Seeds are a well-acted bunch of zealots who both convey the necessary charisma to sell their role as cult leaders and the arrogance to incentivize their downfall.  The desire to take down the cult and their leaders is enough to carry the player through the game, but the rest of the story can’t quite keep up.

For all the quality of the cast, the basic plotline is all over the map.  Developer Ubisoft clearly had larger ambitions for Far Cry 5’s story that it couldn’t quite reach.  The story has major plot elements that are haphazardly introduced and unexplained even as they take on an increasingly large role.  This all culminates in an ending that doesn’t have the support its needs resulting in it landing flat (I’ll cover this, spoilers and all, a little later).  The saving grace of it all is that the game rarely dwells on the story.  Far Cry 5 benefits from not looking or thinking too hard about it.

The gameplay is a more polished version of the standard Ubisoft fare.  All the usual staples are here including an open world map, taking over forts, doing side quests for locals, and hunting down collectibles.  Where the game shines is how it parcels these all out in interesting chunks the mean that no element ever feels overwhelming.  Even at the start, the map feels full, not cluttered.  Furthermore, the high ratio of character driven quest to mindless side mission means that I never felt obligated to do boring tasks.  I always felt I could engage with the game on the level I felt interested in at the time.

Another strong element of the gameplay was how it feeds into the look and feel of the world.  Success in missions translates to success for the resistance movements in the countryside.  Sectors that start off as overrun with cultists as civilians flee for their lives transform into battlefields and finally transition into resistance controlled space.  It’s a nice touch that makes each mission feel like a battle in a broader war and lends impact to the player’s actions.  I wish more games did this.

Even without the dynamic change in the environment, Far Cry 5 impresses with its high mountains, gentle farmlands, and lived-in buildings.  Perhaps it’s my familiarity with the setting, but I found this iteration of the series to have the most compelling, realistic world.  Seeing a place that I knew could be real and that was so well drawn pulled me in to the struggle of its residents.  This felt like a living world and an accurate reflection of the setting it wanted to portray.

In the end, Far Cry 5 isn’t a revolutionary game.  If you didn’t like its predecessors, this one won’t change your mind.  On the other hand, if you like this type of game, or were on the fence about the genre, give Far Cry 5 a shot.  It’s a polished example of the form and worth the $60.

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Opinion – When Less is More

I’m pretty close to finishing Far Cry 5.  When I write that, I mean that I am pretty close to completing the main story and all of the side missions.  By the time I am done, Farcry 5 will have nothing scripted left to amuse me and the best part of that is, I enjoyed every minute of it.

The mantra of open world games seems to be “more is better”.  More collectibles.  More mindless missions.  Shoot 5 bears.  Retrieve 10 ingots.  Open world titles are chock full of meaningless busy work that, by some alchemy which I cannot fathom, is supposed to add up to a better game.  Far Cry 4 was a fine example of this thinking with tons of things to find, yet no real reason to do so beyond checking a box.  Even worse was Mass Effect: Andromeda which put in so many pointless quests that they obscured the meaningful ones.  Some games are not much more than one giant level with nothing but mindless crap to do.  On the other hand, Far Cry 5 seems to get that less is more.

Far Cry 5 still has collectibles and mindless quests, but it’s smarter with each.  Collectibles exist, but they’re part of single quests that don’t clutter up the map or hang over the player’s head.  Collectibles aren’t tied to a side line story or key to unlocking a super special ability.  They’re merely there for the player that wants a little direction while exploring.  The side quests fulfill a similar role.  Side quests come with a little exposition, end quickly, and aren’t much more demanding than the collectibles.  Meanwhile, the story and broader structure of the game chugs on with its own gravity.

This all works because these bits of busy work augment the main quest rather than serve as the focal point of the game.  When side quests and collectibles are a part of a broader open world with deeper activities, then the smaller quests serve as a nice break.  Players can find lighters or mow down enemies instead of save the world or figure out the next challenge.  With the pressure off being the dominant part of the experience, the little quests can serve their intended role.  When the busy work dominates, then the game itself becomes busy work.  While there are plenty of things to do, none of them are entertaining and the player often bounces from one to the next out of a sense of OCD like obligation rather than out of any feeling of fun.  Players want to clear the map rather than actually perform the activities that would result in that outcome.

And this is why I’m happy about completing Far Cry 5.  My completion isn’t a reflection of my compulsion to clear the map, but rather a demonstration of how I enjoyed the experience in its totality.  I completed the game because it was fun, and that’s how it should be.

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Review – Nintendo Switch

 

I recently bought a Switch and it’s a hoot.  It’s the fulfillment of the dream of every young kid who ever wanted to play their favorite games away from home or adults who find themselves always on the go. This should be an automatic “yes”.  While I want to give the console an unqualified recommendation, I can’t.  The Switch has some serious “fit” issues.  Read through and see if it’s the console for you.

 

Pros

Feel – From the nice heft to the clear screen, the Switch feels like a solid piece of equipment that you’d want to use.  Buttons are responsive and everything is in a logical place.  The dock can feel a little flimsy at times, but this is a solid piece of tech overall.

Portability – The Switch captures the dream of having a legitimate console that is also portable.  The dock is small, lightweight, and fits into any luggage.  The required cables are common, easily acquired, and may already be the hotel room or home of a traveler.  Transitioning from docked to portable is as simple as lifting up the console while the current game being played switches from the TV to console screen.  Everything about the portability is straightforward and user friendly.

Quality of games – Nintendo pumped out some high quality titles for the Switch.  Super Mario Odyssey (played and loved) and Breath of the Wild (Did not play but heard good things) are winners.  The indie scene ported over some of its highlights.  Odds are you can find at least one quality entry into your genre of choice.

 

Cons

eShop – It mystifies me that consoles can’t seem to figure out the basics of online stores.  Even by the low standards of the console market, the Nintendo eShop is pathetic.  The search function is barely capable of taking the player to games they know about, much less ones they don’t.  The store lacks a meaningful rating function which would help differentiate the numerous small titles.  Be prepared to find new games elsewhere.

Controllers – Each unit comes with two controllers and a controller dock.  When the controllers rest on the side of the console, they do a fine job.  When they’re free floating, each one is small, but workable in short bursts.  When they’re in the controller dock, the positioning forces the players’ hands into a carpal tunnel inducing position that gets painful, quickly.  Just buy the pro controller.

Shallow library – Nintendo wisely invited in the indie development community, but that strategy hasn’t yet born major fruit.  The console is home to the same high quality indie games that show up on every system.  As for the AAA developers, new games are slowly rolling off the assembly line with a few older highlights already available.  Finally, the virtual console is both gone and sorely missed.  Older games would absolutely kill on the Switch so it’s a shame they aren’t here.  At this point, the library isn’t developed enough to satisfy a regular gamer.

Multimedia – While every other piece of hardware has a variety of streaming services, the Switch has Hulu and that’s it.  Lining up all the major streaming players seems like an obvious choice for a system designed for portability, but Nintendo remains skittish about including it.  Don’t expect the Switch to act as a media hub.

 

The Nintendo Switch is a piece of hardware that I want to play with.  I actively look for games on the system so I can enjoy its ease of use, solid weight, and delightful portability.  Unfortunately, it’s saddled with major flaws.  The games library is limited and the eShop is complete garbage.  Still, the coming line up looks solid and the potential is enormous.  The Switch isn’t a great choice as the sole console for hardcore gamers who need variety, but everyone else should have a blast.

 

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Opinion – Archetypes and the Need for Change

I complain a lot about the rigid archtypes found in Japanese anime and games.  I complain even more when I’m watching or playing said anime and games.  I am playing the Switch JRPG Xenoblade Chronicles 2.  I am about to complain.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one: A plucky young boy with a heart of gold meets a submissive, buxom women who enlists him and his friends in a quest against a nefarious gang of super warriors up to no good.  That should sound familiar, if only because it’s the plot of any number of JRPGs and pretty much every Tales of… game.  I have often wondered why plenty of games reuse the same archetypes with the same boring stories resulting in the same boring outcomes.  I now realize how the two are linked.  Rigid archetypes force the same type of story.

Story elements can be ranked along a scale of dynamism with most elements central to the plot changing while less important elements are held constant to avoid overwhelming the reader.  The characters may grow as they face challenges, but the first town they visited will likely get no further attention once the plot moves on.  The player is meant to invest in the characters as they change and not worry overmuch about extraneous details.  The end result is a story that continually provides new ideas and experiences.  The end result is a story that is more interesting.

JRPG’s such as Xenoblade Chronicles 2 hold central plot elements rigid resulting in a static and predictable story development.  Elements that cannot grow continually perform the same actions as a result of a variety of stimuli.  Rex, the hero, will always charge into a fight against all odds because his character is a static version of brave and noble.  Rex will likely fight tens of times for the story and yet will have the same reaction each time because he cannot change.  As a result, the player has a good idea of how each encounter will go and most conflicts resolved as soon as an enemy steps on screen.

Even worse is the fact that Rex’s static nature warps the story around him.  Since Rex must be BRAVE and NOBLE, the story has to accommodate that, resulting in implausible scenarios to continually reward these traits.  When Rex faces an empire’s best warrior, he has to win to continue to validate the BRAVE and NOBLE elements of his character.  To fail to reward Rex’s traits would cause the reader to question their value and the developer would either have to allow Rex to adapt or face a questioning audience who wonders why he won’t.  Rather than surmount that challenge, the developers take the easy way and create scenarios where being BRAVE and NOBLE is the solution.  XC2 twists its story and world to ensure Rex retains his static nature rather than have him respond to it.

As a result, XC2 retells the same story that countless other games have told.  By holding key elements still, XC2 lacks enough material to do anything new or interesting.  The setting varies and the names change, but XC2 must follow the well-worn pattern of its predecessors because there aren’t enough mutable elements to allow for the difference.  The end result is a boring outcome that is all too familiar to any JPRG fan or player of Japanese video games in general.

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Opinion – Super Mario Odyssey Does Difficulty Right

I remember playing the original Super Mario Bros. on the NES.  Six year old me was delighted by the bright colors, the neat challenges, and the whole newness of it all.  To the shock of no one, a young child playing his first video game wasn’t very good at it.  I’d constantly play, getting a little further each time until I ran into one level that I just couldn’t beat.

And that was it.

Game over.

SMB’s approach to difficulty was static and linear.  The game gave the player no options to modulate the challenge (static) and forced the player to face each challenge in a specific order (warp pipes excluded).  This mean that, when players faced a level they couldn’t surmount, it was game over.  The rest of the game’s content was locked behind a challenge the player would never beat.  SMB had nothing left for them.

Some games still operate to this way and to good effect.  Plenty of players love to test their mettle against a seemingly impossible challenge until they finally figure it out.  The challenge is the point rather than the obstacle to fun.  Other games use linear modeling to lay out sequential story beats or achieve a particular thematic progression.  It’s worth noting that these games generally have lower difficulty curves to ensure most players can get to the end.

Both styles have their virtues, but neither fits the Mario games particularly well.  Mario is historically family friendly making the hardcore approach contrary to the fun and accessible ethos of the series.  Alternatively, dumbing down the challenge would rob Mario of its entire reason for being.  More than any other series on the market, Mario sets its focus on pure fun through game mechanics.  The fun comes from figuring out a puzzle, executing a tough jump, or beating a boss. Making the puzzle easier, the jump shorter, or the boss slower reduces the feeling of accomplishment.  The challenge for Nintendo is always trying to include enough difficulty to make the player feel like they’ve overcome a real hurdle, but not to the point where it becomes frustrating or simplistic.  Given the wide variety of player skills, this seemed like an impossible task.

At least, until Super Mario Odyssey.

The genius of SMO’s difficulty is that it effectively allows the player to set the difficulty by choosing which challenges they want to face.  Players must collect a certain amount of “Power Moons” on each level, but which Power Moons are largely left up to them.  SMO’s level contain a plethora of levels to complete ranging from the dead simple (butt stomp this hill) to the fiendishly complex (jump from rotating platform to rotating platform while dodging enemies).  Low skill players can pick up the simple Power Moons while their more skilled counterparts can grab the more challenging ones.  Even better, the hard levels can get even harder by putting additional collectables in even harder to reach places giving the more committed players something to reach for.  One game can meet all needs without sacrificing any part of their audience.

And that is the true genius of SMO.  Nintendo has finally figured out how to appeal to a broader audience without alienating another chunk.  As an added bonus, SMO is now a game that can grow with its players giving new challenges that 9 year old me or his 12 year old successor would have loved.  Well done.

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