Importance of local Co-Op innovation in modern gaming.

Welp, another E3 has come and passed, and (like every damn year) events have led to me being really bloody delayed in actually getting any writing done about the event. Like, really delayed this year in particular, to the point where we completely missed last week’s upload.

I won’t waste everyone’s time by going over every little thing that was shown: this year’s line up was on the whole pretty decent, and there are quite a few games I’m looking forward to, such as the new Wolfenstein and the ever popular ‘Dad of War.’ Additionally, there were quite a few surprises this year, especially in the area of long dead game series being resuscitated from the brink. I genuinely hope the fans of Beyond Good and Evil can glean some joy from the much awaited sequel, and that fans of Metroid can celebrate the series’ unexpected return, though I unfortunately can’t say I’m a personal fan of either series. One of the three biggest surprises this year for me was the Mario and Rabbids cross-over, because what!? The other two, and the focus of this upload, were A Way Out and Hidden Agenda.

The thing that connects those two games is that they’re both experiments on implementing a local Cooperative experience in unconventional ways, especially considering local Co-Op games aren’t as common as they used to be. First, let’s look at A Way Out.

Coming from the development team behind Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons, A Way Out is a story set in (assumedly) the 70’s, of two prison inmates looking for…well, a way out. The duo main characters are as different as night and day, with one being a cool-headed thinker and planner, whilst the other is a violent and reckless scrapper. The partnership they form to escape from their imprisonment, and to deal with the obstacles they face even beyond the prison walls, is the centre of the story. This already sounds pretty interesting, but the big selling point is that the game is a dedicated Co-Op story. That means there is no way to play this single player, you have to cooperate (or at least try to) with a player 2 to get through it. Likewise, it can’t just be a random matchmaking: you have to organise it with somebody else to play the game. This seems to be done to make sure you have to actually communicate and be in contact with whomever you’re playing with, which is likely a necessity when trying to make decisions as a team. This is understandably important as, if the details the developers have discussed so far are true, decisions need to be unanimous, and that different choices have fairly disastrous consequences.

All of this is really intriguing, even if just from the angle that someone is actually bothering to make a dedicated couch Co-Op game in this day and age, but it’s of especial interest to myself. I was lucky enough to be blessed with two brothers and to have a childhood in the golden-age of local multiplayer games, and I try to keep my ear to the ground for new games that will appeal to all of us whenever possible. However, a minor issue to that scheme is that I’m also a big fan of games with strong narratives, and while it’s not impossible to find multiplayer games with good stories, they’re definitely uncommon. So to have a game that has a strong narrative focus, is built from the ground up as a co-op game, and comes from the developers behind Brothers seems like it can only be a good thing.

Actually, let me back up a moment and explain where Brothers fits into this whole thing. Brothers is, officially, a single player game, since you control two characters at once by using the two thumb sticks on a controller to move each, with both having singular ‘interact/do a thing’ buttons rather than more complex controls. However, just for laughs, my brother Max and I managed to make it into a two-player game. All you need to do is hold the controller between the two of you, use only one hand each, and balance the controller via your team effort.  It wasn’t even the first time we’d done something like that: one of the crowning moments in my gaming life was when we managed to beat the final boss of the second Onimusha using the exact same method.

I imagine Brothers was intentionally designed to be playable in such a fashion, considering how the controls are extremely simple and almost more intuitive if you only have to control a single character each. Likewise, it cuts out the worry of not having enough controllers to play together, since you would only need the one. Regardless, a story about two brothers going on an adventure is certainly more effective when you share it with your actual brother, and the ending (which I won’t spoil) hit me like a runaway dumpster truck because of that fact. I think the game has a lot to like about it besides that fact, such as the game being astonishingly beautiful and being able to tell its story using only visual and Simish-esque gibberish. The main point, however, is the same one that I made in the piece on The Last Of Us 2, namely that I experienced the game in possibly the most optimal way. If the assumption that the game was intentionally designed to be two player friendly, it would certainly explain the mandatory Co-Op for this next game, with the only difference being that it’s not optional. While the early trailers and such suggest that the two main characters aren’t exactly as buddy-buddy with each other as the brothers, time will tell if their journey won’t end with them feeling the brotherly love.

I encourage the idea of not getting too hyped before the game comes out, since it’s easy to let your ideas run away with you, but I’m happy to see someone taking the risk of experimenting with local Co-Op. Couch Co-Op has waned in use over the last few years, mostly because the higher definition of modern games make it difficult to integrate split-screens, and there’s money involved in making multiplayer online only (since each person needs a copy, rather than just using a shared single one). While there’s always a few top-down multiplayer games coming out, such as the recently released Alienation, these games tend to put story and narrative on a lower place of importance. To that end, it’ll be interesting to see if A Way Out’s experiment of putting narrative focus and dedicated multiplayer together will pay off.

Interestingly enough, the other game that focuses on a more local multiplayer experience shown at E3, Hidden Agenda, has a lot in common with the above example. Developed by Supermassive Games, the group behind Until Dawn, Hidden Agenda seems to be set during the late 90’s/turn of the millennium, and during a horrifying murder spree. Like A Way Out, there are two main characters, although by sheer coincidence these two are on the opposite spectrum of A Way Out’s male prisoners: one is a female homicide detective and the other is a female district attorney. It’s pretty amusing that fate had conspired to make two games so similar and yet so different in the same period of time. For extra fun, A Way Out’s director has said that he’s not overly fond of the PS4, while Hidden Agenda is a PS4 exclusive. You seriously couldn’t make this kind of stuff up.

Hidden Agenda apparently came about because the developers saw how much their acclaimed horror game, Until Dawn, was enjoyed by groups, as well as individuals. Like A Way Out and Until Dawn, it’s also a very narrative heavy game, and one that will see the respective players trying to choose between different decisions to affect the outcome of events. The main difference is in the fact that, rather than two players controlling one character each, a whole group (up to at least 4, maybe five) all control and make decisions for a singular character at a time. Likewise, each player will have an ‘agenda’ which they need to follow without alerting the other players, hence the title.

Proving that there are no coincidences in this world and that fate is guiding me into the perfect position to write these articles, I was involved in one of those group playthroughs that inspired this game. Namely, Max, our older brother Ben and myself all sat down to play Until Dawn together, continuing our trend of never playing a horror game solo. And honestly, I reckon playing it in a group is indeed the best way to experience that game. It invokes the sensation of gathering everybody up to watch the schlocky b-horror movies that inspired the game, and making a decision in a critical moment becomes a hell of a lot more tense when you’re trying to all shout out what to do at the same time. If Hidden Agenda can take the core of that same experience and build upon it to make it into an officially supported gameplay experience, I’m all in for it.

(Slightly off topic, but has anyone else had a chance to play ‘Eon Alter?’ It’s a multiplayer focused RPG that uses a similar system as Hidden Agenda, in that each player uses their phone instead of a traditional controller. It’s actually pretty good, and has some really nice world building mixed with some decent combat; would heartily recommend, if you have a few friends to play with.)

While this is only two out of the mega-ton of games that were talked about and unveiled at this year’s E3, I see this as maybe a hopeful sign of things to come. These two games have a fair amount of funding behind each respectively, and yet both take the risk of being heavily focused on local Co-Op. I’m not saying that this is a sign of the Co-Op golden age coming back to us (unfortunately), but could be a sign of more developers being willing to experiment with an area of gaming that is often overlooked. If nothing else, it might help to show that even having multiple players being involved doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t also have a great story in a game.

Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. If there is any other E3 related stuff we need to catch up on, we’ll get one top of it by next week, otherwise we’ve got another review in the works. Thanks for the read, ya’ll!
Side note: I hope that Sony was telling the truth that they were withholding their best stuff until this year’s PSX, because seriously, I know those gits have Death Stranding SOMEWHERE.

I Am Setsuna – spoiler talk

Well, I said I would do it, and much like the spoiler talk following the Yakuza 0 review, I didn’t see much point in delaying it. In this piece, we’ll take a look at the more spoiler-centric things that we couldn’t talk about during the I Am Setsuna review. So just to make sure we’re all on the same page, we’ll be talking about any and all spoilers of I Am Setsuna (and one brief one of Yakuza 0). If you want to save yourself the spoilers, I wouldn’t recommend reading this until after you’ve completed the game in its entirety. I’m sorry if you were looking forward to this entry, but have to turn away to avoid spoiling the game. As a peace treaty, I offer you this largely esoteric and unrelated video of cats and kittens.

With that done and out of the way, let’s dive right in. Firstly, I want to go into some of the spoiler areas that created some problems for me.

Starting off with something that always bothered me while I was playing the game: it’s pretty crummy that all the choices you’re given throughout the game have basically no effect. Apart from one dungeon wherein choosing the wrong answer will send you back to the beginning (a pretty sizable pain in the ass, so it at least makes you think carefully about your answer), the only things that are affected by your choices are the immediate reactions of your party members.  There’s no hidden counter keeping track of whether Endir is a nice guy or kind of a jackass, and no consequences for either. This seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. A lot of the old school RPGs that I Am Setsuna is based on also had these kinds of choices throughout, but they actually had an outcome even if it was just something non-consequential like which party member Cloud had an awkward date with. Heck, something sort of light-hearted and jokey like the Gold Saucer date might have been somewhat welcome, since one of the better parts of I Am Sestuna is the party’s banter. But without any actual consequences to your choices, they just feel tacked on and kind of pointless. There’s an argument that these kind of choices help with immersion, and that the illusion of choice is just as important as giving a choice meaningful impact, like what Telltale do with most of their dialogue options. However, that kind of illusion requires more tact and careful planning to make credible, otherwise you end up with a situation like in I Am Setsuna where it feels like the other characters are actively ignoring your choices.
Upon reflection, I should have really brought this up in the review, since it is a fairly hefty annoyance. A part of me didn’t want to ruin the potential immersion of any new players, however: when I was just starting the game and thought the choices had some level of consequence, they were a lot more fun to make. It feels like the mechanic didn’t have enough time/funding/whatever to be fully fleshed out, but they left the half used remains in, which is almost just as bad. It wouldn’t have needed to be anything big, just have a system that tracks Endir’s relationship with the various party members, and add a scene or two that’s affected by which has the highest or lowest value.

Speaking of party members, the game’s late seventh addition of ‘Fides’ (or Reaper) feels like a pretty mishandled one. While the concept of getting the scythe-wielding, brainwashed, maniac to join your party is a neat idea, the execution is pretty confusing. He joins the party literally just in front of the door to the end boss, with the only other content available being the really out of the way and unmarked side quests (which we’ll get to). In addition to not being able to get a lot of mileage out of the guy in the gameplay department, his characterisation of being nearly silent and speaking up only rarely makes his presence hard to feel even in the optional side content. At best, he’s got some somewhat interesting involvement in one or two side quests; at worst, he just kind of clutters up the screen during scenes where others are talking. It’s something of a shame, since his character offers some interesting possibilities, since he was once being mind controlled by the end boss and seems to be blessed with being the only party member to use dark magic. However, apart from a few scattered lines in one of the side quests, this doesn’t get capitalised on nearly as hard as it could have been.
I feel like he should have either a) joined the party earlier, which would have allowed him to get involved in more gameplay and to get some more screen time. Or b) should have been an optional/hidden party member, ala Magus from Chrono Trigger, so as to explain why his presence is rarely overtly felt on screen. As it stands, it feels like the game just kind of shrugs its shoulders and presses the guy into your party just before the very end of the game, again without the player having a say in the matter at all. The fact that he’s brought back from the dead in an extremely easy manner and just sort of moseys into your party without much fanfare is just the icing on the cake.

I keep mentioning the game’s side quests, so I should probably explain the issues I take with them in more detail. This is more of a personal issue, but I’m not a fan of offloading all of the game’s optional content into the very end of it. While RPGs both from the golden era and today’s market have games that boast pretty impressive end-game content, I’m of the mind that you should spread that stuff over the entire game. I like being able to take a break from the main story and clear some checklists, not to mention I appreciate that doing side content makes me confident that I’ll have enough levels and stats to clear the main story. While different types of games and franchises benefit from side quests in different ways (Final Fantasy tends to have only a few side activities, but serve as a break for the story, while the Elder Scrolls game is more or less the opposite), the main point is that it’s there for you to clear as you go. Putting all of the side content at the end of I Am Setsuna feels unnecessary and kind of backwards. It means you don’t even get a chance to have a go at them before you’ve already figured out what your end game party is, and the only thing they can offer you are borderline broken skills and equipment. The problem that creates is that, in order for the player to not become too powerful without some work, is that the quests are obtuse as hell to find or activate. There are some really obscure hoops you have to jump through just to activate the quests, and the fact that the game lacks any kind of map/world map function only makes things more difficult. I would sort of accept it if the thing stopping you from clearing them all was the fact you lacked an airship, since that is a major assistance in getting around. However, the quests don’t activate even after you find the obligatory airship, and instead only unlock after Fides joins the party, even if he has no real contribution to the quest in question.
I’ll accept that part of my dislike for these quests stems from the fact they’re not aligned to my own personal taste, and that my personal struggle to complete end-game content fully is probably colouring my view. That being said, I still think hiding away the game’s only optional content in such an obscure way (especially since the game is already pretty damn short) can only introduce more problems than solutions.

And the final aspect of these spoilers that I take issue with is probably the biggest one: the inclusion of time travel and all its elements feels really out of place in I Am Setsuna. For one, it’s only introduced in the final act of the game. Before that point, there’s only really two possible hints to time travel: one is when a member of your party members suddenly disappears into thin air. The second is that once or twice it’s mentioned that character’s need to “let go of the past,” and variants of the phrase, but that seems to be building onto Setsuna’s supposed imminent death rather than anything else. I understand that introducing elements of time travel before this point ruins the surprise and twist nature of the late game revelation, but the lack of more solid foreshadowing just makes seem out of left field. A good example of foreshadowing like this can be found in Yakuza 0, wherein one of the side quests finds Majima helping a man to reconnect with his son, who no longer recognises him. This seems to just be the Yakuza series’ usual affair of wacky side quests, but is actually a pretty artful foreshadowing of a similar fate that befalls Majima by the end of that game. Compare that to I Am Setsuna, wherein hints are few and often lacking.
More than anything else, I dislike how this new development shelves a lot of the game’s previous themes. The game had so far been playing around with the idea that maybe the monster’s growing intelligence meant that the humans and beasts could co-exist, to at least some extent. But with the plot literally going back in time and killing the reason the monsters are getting more intelligent, the entire subplot is retroactively erased from time. Not to mention that the time travel shenanigans eliminate the original need of Setsuna’s sacrifice, which takes away a lot of the tension the game had been building up. Even worse, it bends over backwards to fit in Setsuna making a sacrifice at the end of her journey anyway (in a sequence that I actually quite enjoy, despite some of the issues), and does a poor job of explaining why. All the game would have needed was a dialogue box or two explaining that Setsuna joining with the end-boss and being killed was the only way to permanently end the matter. It would help to sell the idea that Setuna’s actions have meaning, without diminishing the fact that she’s willingly giving up her life. Instead, it seems like she makes a largely pointless sacrifice, just for the sake of making it. Hell, if you really wanted, you could have made a whole new character point about Setsuna if you had had the time to explore it, like Setsuna developed a martyr complex from her position in life and felt the need to sacrifice herself even if it meant very little. But I don’t really feel like anything of the sort is really being employed here. It feels like a somewhat poorly conceived if beautifully executed ending to a game.

Alright, now that I’ve completely bashed the game to the point of needlessness, let’s actually talk about some of the spoiler points of things I actually enjoyed or appreciated in the game.

Like I said above, I actually quite like the ending. I’m a sucker for the whole ‘ending at the beginning’ kind of stuff (returning to the starting village, going back to an area that was only accessible in the prologue for the final battle, etc). While I think the logic behind Setsuna’s sacrifice could have been laid out better, the way that you have Endir kill Setsuna at the very place you meet her is poetic in its own kind of way. It’s like the literal time loop is representative of how we’ve looped around in the game back to the beginning of the story, ending the game with the very action that started if off. I even like that the ending doesn’t answer all of the questions: it’s ambiguous if Endir could return to the present, or if he had been lost ten years into the past, or if he would even want to return. I like how quiet the whole thing is too: after Setsuna’s death, there’s not a single word of dialogue. We’re shown enough of the characters to infer what their next course of actions will be, but there’s not a single word spoken, allowing all of the audience to enjoy the melancholic music playing us out. Hell, even the music cuts out for the final shot of Endir slowing walking off into the snowy horizon, and the spirit of Setsuna fading in to watch him leave (maybe; it’s an ambiguous ending). It has a lot of issue, but I Am Setsuna’s ending is still plenty appealing in its own kind of way.

Another point that I liked but couldn’t go into too much depth on was the party members. I avoided talking about them too much because I consider talking about anyone other than the absolute principle party members to be minor spoilers in and of itself, but let’s talk more openly about them. Like I said in the review, they’re very much archetypes of every classical RPG party members: Kir is the plucky tag-along kid mage, Nidr is the scarred and tanky veteran, Aeterna is the more serious and sceptical girl to balance out Setsuna (at least for 90% of the game, until it turns out she’s some weird time clone) etc. However, they’re still a very likable bunch, and even if you’ve seen the characters before, they’re still very fun to see in motion. It’s interesting to find out just how much they’re connected to the plot in comparison to how they first appear as well, such as the revelation that Nidr is actually Setsuna’s biological father, which re-contextualises his reason for joining your group. Finding out that Julienne is actually part of the failed royal family that were monarchs to the entire continent and that Aeterna is actually a time-clone of some sort of near godlike sorceress are likewise shocking revelations, though I sort of wish some of these concepts had some more room to breathe. While a lot of people appreciate the relatively short length of the game, the shorter run length means these subplots for the other party members don’t get a lot of room to really expand. For example, the problems that Julienne faces because of her monster blood induced berserker state are solved relatively quickly, even though it’s a key part of her design (the tattered nature of her clothes and the rings under her eyes). Still, the characters have super good designs, such as the regal but chipped and flayed appearance of Julienne and Aeterna’s hilarious frog hoddie, and are entertaining to watch develop even if just a little. The characters are definitely one of the game’s stronger points. Let’s just not talk about Reaper’s inclusion, alright?

A final neat little detail that I appreciated was the use of the game’s save points. While the idea of the game’s save points actually having some in-game lore/reasoning has been done before (while probably not the first time, the most memorable early example would most likely be Xenogears), I always like the addition of mechanics like this. Any time a game goes out of its way to blur the point where the simple mechanical gameplay meets an in universe justification is a good effort in my book. Heck, the idea that time travel is the reason you can save and reload your game is actually a pretty inventive justification, even if it comes with the added baggage of the other time related stuff. Though, this comes back to the point I made before, wherein the game might have benefited from putting some more hints or foreshadowing to these points, since it would have made the third act twist less of a whiplash. This particular example is alike a lot of things in I Am Setsuna: in some ways, it’s pretty derivative of other games in the genre, but there’s no doubt it comes from a point of love and appreciation rather than malicious copying.

In conclusion.

It’s pretty clear, even from a glance, that there’s more negative points in this list than positives. In some ways, that’s a good summary of my feelings towards the game in general. The negative points become harder to ignore because they outweigh the positive points, which is a shame because there’s parts of the game that I do really like. I love the fact that you can feel the love for the genre in every part of the game, and that it’s clear that the team behind it really did put their hearts into the project, even if it didn’t quite pan out.

I think the harshest criticism that I can bring up about this game is just the fact that both this piece and the review, much like the game itself, became something of struggle to finish. Compared to the Yakuza 0 review and spoiler piece where words were just flying almost without effort onto the page, I had to push just to reach the word limit for I Am Setsuna’s content. It becomes much easier to write about a game if it awakens an imaginative or passionate part of yourself. I Am Setsuna, while not a bad game, doesn’t really do anything to stand out in my head. It’s a game with a nice concept, but poorly executed combat system and a kind of dodgy ending. It’s a game I appericate, but not really something I would recommend to others at full price either.

Despite all the criticism I’ve levelled at the game, I’m still eagerly looking forward to see what Tokyo RPG Factory do next in their upcoming game. I’m hoping that I Am Setsuna was their trial by fire…well, by snow, and that they can come together for a more solidly constructed game in their next title.

I am Setsuna (spoiler free) review.

Tokyo RPG Factory’s first stumbling steps as developers suffers some face plants.

Man, it’s been a while since we had a nice review. It feels like we need to break up the usual feature pieces with some therapeutic game analysis.  And with Square Enix announcing a new game from the fine folks at Tokyo RPG Factory, what better time to have a look back at their debut game, I Am Setsuna.

For those not in the know, ‘Tokyo RPG Factory’ is a rather on the nose name for a development group created by Square Enix to…well, be an RPG factory. It seems both appropriate and slightly odd that Square, one of the biggest names in making RPG games, would create an entire development team for making the kind of games that made them a big contender on the gaming scene. Appropriate because who else would be that dedicated to the genre, odd because you would have thought Square would be content with being up to their eyeballs in developing Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts. Still, since Square is just the publisher for anything Tokyo So and So puts out, I guess it makes a little bit more sense. Indeed, while exact details are hard to find, the story seems to be that Square more or less just threw Tokyo RPG Factory together, a completely new team with only a tiny fraction of Square’s finical support. It’s definitely an interesting story, if nothing else.

As for the group themselves, it’s worth noting that T.RPG.F seems to be focusing on making more (relatively) budget titles, and especially ones that are more reminiscent of older games that came out in the genre’s golden age. I Am Setsuna is, for example, extremely similar to Chrono Trigger, and has a few elements in the vein of the early Final Fantasy games. It’s likely that, with Square Enix’s main body pumping out mostly action-RPGs for the wider audiences, games made by this particular subsidiary is meant to sate the fans that still crave the now more niche classical turn-based RPG. Fans like myself, who flew in to pick this up in somewhat naïve hope that it might convince Square to go back to those glory days. A man can dream…

So, let’s continue our proud tradition of reviewing games ages after they actually came out, making the reviews mostly obsolete, and dive into I Am Setsuna.

Gameplay:
While an admirable attempt at making a unique combat system, I Am Setsuna’s combat is often lacking.

I Am Setsuna, keeping to the developer’s attempts at recreating the style of older RPGs, is a game with turn-based combat. Hell, it’s almost identical to the ATB system of the older Final Fantasy games, meaning character’s actions are determined by an ‘action gauge’ rather than a hard and fast turn order. This comes with the all the usual RPG goodness, such as characters having particular roles in the party, and certain character excelling in areas others suffer in. One character might hit like a runaway truck with physical attacks, but will be unable to even cast any type of magic. Even better, equipping certain skills with certain team compositions allow you to pull off ‘combos:’ two or more characters launching an especially strong attack at the cost of both their actions in a turn.
This is all good stuff, but not I Am Setsuna’s most unique systems (or at least not its totally unique systems, since a fair number of these ideas are from Chrono Trigger). The game’s particular mechanic is called the ‘Momentum Gauge.’ This is a system wherein if a character waits before taking an action, they can add ‘momentum’ to said action to make it stronger. This can have several different effects depending on the ability, from just increasing the damage to applying bonus buffs and debuffs. This sounds like an interesting idea: forcing you to choose between acting immediately, or taking a moment to beef up your attacks before you make them.
The only problem is, it’s a system that very quickly starts to wear out its welcome. Apart from one or two bosses who are particularly fast, there’s never a time where you wouldn’t want to use Momentum: it not only adds more damage and effects to you attacks, but also makes enemies drop more loot upon death, loot that allows you to gain more skills and more cash. This means that random battles start to drag on as you wait for the gauge to fill up, even though you know that you could one-shot any of these trashy mooks. Likewise, because the effects it introduces are universally useful, you’re going to need this thing to get past some of the game’s tougher enemies. All of this wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that the gauge fills aggravatingly slowly. I’m certain I could have knocked off at least an hour or two of my playtime if I didn’t have to sit twiddling my thumbs as I watch the various bars slowly fill on the screen. The best comparison I could make is how poorly this system stacks up against another Square Enix property, Bravely Deafult. That game’s ‘Brave’ system not only encourages you to blow through random encounters as quickly as possible, it allows for some incredibly fun and creative set-ups without feeling cumbersome or unwieldy. I appreciate that there’s been an effort to shake up the usual turn-based formula for I Am Setsuna, but the Momentum systems feels half-baked and poorly implemented.
Another deliberating problem the game suffers from is how perplexing it’s subsystems are. There are a number of systems running under the hood which are affected by what kind of actions you’re taking in battle, which can activate and turn the tide in your favour. I would normally explain what these systems were called and give some examples, but these things are so vestigial and odd that I completely forgot they existed until I sat down to write this review. You see, these systems are completely random: your actions have some minor effect on whether they activate, but it’s difficult to notice since it’s an extremely low chance. Over the course of my play through, I only got these things to activate around four times, three of those times were in completely meaningless random encounters, and once during a boss fight. I couldn’t tell you what that effect was during the boss, but he went from dealing nearly 90% of my character’s HP to doing 0 damage, so it must have been a pretty lucky effect. I personally quite like having an element of randomness to a game (I’m the type to argue that X-COM would be pretty boring if you didn’t occasionally wiff a 95% chance to hit), but these systems feel both meaningless and pretty arbitrary.
A final issue I have to lay against the game is that it’s balance is all over the place. The early game introduces you to the concept that mana is pretty important to balance, since there’s no inns or cheap ways to restore it. To that end, you want to avoid using abilities or skills unnecessarily, since you’ll burn through mana you’ll need for the boss-fights. However, this potentially interesting balancing act is done away by the mid-way point, since you start to unlock a LOT of abilities that actually restore mana on use. At this point, you can safely bowl through most battles by using your still incredibly powerful skills while spamming the moves that restore mana. Not only that, but it doesn’t take too long to find the really powerful and useful moves, which can spammed with impunity even on bosses. Overall, it feels like I Am Setsuna is a game that has a lot of interesting ideas to play around with, but no idea how to balance them out.

Music and sound:
A delightfully minimalist soundtrack that shows an impressive range of tones from a single piano.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not exactly the most musically gifted individual on this green earth, and thus am probably unqualified to be making any judgements about music, but even a pleb like me can recognise that a lot of heart went into this game’s soundtrack. I Am Setsuna makes the interesting choice of using only a single instrument in its entire repertoire, an extremely melancholic piano. The game actually gets a pretty impressive range out of this idea, having songs for both intense battles and steady treks through the snowdrifts, so props to the composer/s that put the whole thing together. What I like the most is how it sets the tone for the entire adventure: while there are upbeat and more whimsical tunes, the slow and often sombre tones from the piano are a perfect companion to the often desolate visuals and grim nature of the journey. There is very little voice acting in this game, but when the entire game has a singular ‘voice’ this strong, there’s very little need for much more.
On the sound department, there is some very effective and appropriate SFX in use. There’s a real sense of peace in the air as you hear the crunch of snow under your character’s feet and the rustle of the snow burdened trees. I Am Setsuna’s developers really went all in with the snow theme, and it really shows in every part of the game. The only real complaint I have in the sound department is that using certain abilities with Momentum creates this really high-pitched whine. This certainly sells the idea that your characters are using crazy potent magic that isn’t native to the rules of nature, but it becomes as grating on the ears as it probably is to the fabric of reality.

Graphics and Aesthetics:
An absurdly pretty game, with top notch character design and a neat style, let down somewhat by a lack lustre design for monsters and enemies.

As I mentioned before, this is a pretty budget title in the relative sense of things. So graphics in I Am Setsuna are fairly simplistic, and sometimes lacking in detail. Fortunately, the game more than makes up for that in its charmingly stylised visual. If I had to compare it to anything, it’s as if the early days of 3-D models had never ended, and this is just what they would look like if people had just kept at those kinds of graphics.
A big feather in the game’s hat is the actual design of the characters the player uses over the course of the game. They’re a varied bunch, and their designs are used to help both sell the settings (nearly every character is wrapped up in a lot of warm furs and coats, exactly what you’d expect from people living in a constant winter) and themselves. It’s easy to tell what role in combat and roughly what kind of character they are just on sight alone, and their artwork is undeniably very pretty. Extra points to the fact that the main character, a mercenary/monster hunter by trade, has god-damn monster hands integrated in his helmet.
Another thing I really like about this game is how well it can sell how an area ‘feels.’ In an land in a perpetual winter, you get used to seeing a lot of damn snow (like a LOT of snow), but there’s been a noticeable effort to really sell how blisteringly cold these areas must be to trek through, and how serenely warm and comfy the insides of buildings are in this world. A lot of this is portrayed through colour: nearly every house has this warn yellow/gold glow about, while nearly every part of the outside world has the colours partially bleached and warn out by the snow. It’s little details like that I really appreciate about the design of this world.
The one thing that I’m not super sure about is the actual designs for the enemies you fight for most of the game. There’s no issue with the bosses: they’re incredibly intimidating, and look sufficiently like terrifying threats. The reason they look so intimidating, however, is because everything else in this game is too damn adorable to take seriously. I mean seriously, look at the terrifying monsters that common towns people will lament are wrecking the peace:

01Mon3
01Mon1
01Mon2

If the game was trying to make a joke or was more light-hearted, I’d chalk it up to those reasons. But there’s no such reason in the game. Everyone acts like monsters are a terror and that their increasing numbers are a problem (indeed, it’s a crucial plot point). Forgive me if I don’t find the adorable seal and funny looking snakes intimidating. This does get better as time goes on, and the last area has some genuinely creepy monster designs, but it feels odd that it took so long to get to that point.

Story and narrative
An intriguing premise, good character interactions and simple but neat setting make the game’s journey enjoyable, though some last minute plot developments let the narrative down.

The game opens with an intriguing question: what kind of man sends an assassin to kill someone who’s already marching to their death?
This is the situation the player is presented with at the very start of the game. They take control of a masked mercenary by the name of Endir (though, keeping to the idea of emulating old RPGs, you can actually rename all of the playable characters), who is sent to the Land Of Snow to find and kill ‘The Sacrifice.’ As the player finds out by talking to the various townsfolk, it turns out this sacrifice has to make a pilgrimage waaaay across the country to the fittingly named ‘Last Lands’ in order to give up their life so monsters don’t overrun the entire continent. Why someone would want to sabotage such a mission won’t become clear for some time, though Endir isn’t worrying too much about the details right now. He manages to have a stroke of luck, and finds his target alone, hours from civilisation, and in a situation where disposing of the body would be a simple matter. The only bad point is that the girl notices him approaching, his sword already poised to cut her head off.
Then, the strangest thing happens. The girl doesn’t panic. Indeed, she seems to be unusually calm about the fact that someone with the intent to kill her is standing right in front of her. Probably pretty perplexed at this turn, Endir doesn’t strike her down. The girl, as politely as you’d expect one to address a non-murderer, introduces herself. On that snow peeked cliff, the sea crashing against the rocks below, the girl with red hair happily tells her would be killer:
“I Am Setsuna.”
…Unless you rename her. At which point, the title never makes sense. Bit of an odd choice to allow players to rename her, really.
Through a series of events, Endir eventually ends up agreeing to help Setsuna with her pilgrimage, with the justification that she’ll be dead by the end of it, and thus his job will be fulfilled either way. After that point, we get the some good old-school RPG adventuring shenanigans, including finding a group of misfit party members, getting embroiled in the local troubles of every town we come across, and eventually uncovering the mysteries that surrounded this entire sacrificial pilgrimage.
There’s a lot to like about I Am [Insert Name Here]’s story: there’s a healthily level of inter-party banter, and while the Land of Snow isn’t exactly a varied place (as its name suggests), it’s an interesting landmass to explore. Likewise, it definitely puts its best foot forward at the start, as the premise and start of game pose some interesting questions to seek answers for.
Where the story starts to weaken is the fact that the characters start to fill their archetypes a little too well. The Girl Formally Known As Setsuna is a selfless and self-sacrificing young maiden, and that’s perfectly fine: one of her most interesting characteristics is just how much she takes marching to her death in stride. But she can only make a ‘all life is precious’ speech so many times before it sounds like she’s just repeating herself. And while the rest of the party is a colourful bunch that’s a joy to watch in motion, there’s no denying that you’ve seen these characters many times before.
I’m of the mind that just because something has been done before, you shouldn’t write it off: clichés, tropes, and common story telling element s became that way because, ultimately, they work. If you want a series that uses every trope and cliché in the (fantasy) book but works really, really well, look up the book series ‘The Belgariad.’* That stuff defined my childhood, and it’s no worse for working within a well explored framework. So while the party filling in the checklist for ‘every RPG party under the sun’ doesn’t really bother me, I acknowledge that it’s undoubtedly going to be a problem for some people.
Another, an even more pressing issue is that the game makes some odd narrative decisions in its third and fourth act. This is a spoiler-free review (we might get around to a spoiler-retrospective in the future, we’ll see), so we won’t dive into details, but it introduces elements that you could build a whole game around, and loads it all into the game’s final hours. To be fair, it makes some interesting choices with them, including a very cool instance of ending the game where it began, but it makes the entire story feel eclectic and unfocused. All of the themes and elements from the rest of the game are unresolved, and these new elements are introduced too late to do anything significant with. While less of a problem than the combat, the story feels like there were a lot of good ideas, but maybe not enough time or resources to actually implement them fully.

*The Culling Blog, the only video game blog on the entire internet which gives you homework.

In Conclusion:

I Am Setsuna is a game that stumbles in a LOT of places: the story has a number of issues, and I made my opinion about the gameplay more than clear. However, it’s a game that also has a lot of love and heart put in it. While I feel justified in my criticisms, I can’t find it in me to truly dislike this game. This is the first game from a brand new team that Square Enix more or less just threw together one day. It tries a lot of new ideas and experiments with a lot of concepts, and while a lot of them didn’t pan out, I admire the game for just making the effort. Some people deride the game for sticking to the elements present in older RPGs, saying the game is banking on nostalgia. I won’t deny the possibility, but I don’t see that when I look at the game: I see the product that a new and perhaps not quite coordinated team managed to put together, using the  love for the classic they themselves grew up playing as the foundation.
I don’t have it in me to recommend the game at full price: I was struggling to work up any enthusiasm to tackle the game’s combat, and was increasingly confused at where the story was headed. But I reckon picking this up in a sale wouldn’t exactly be the worst choice someone could make, either.

I Am Setsuna will, unfortunately, not be remembered like the classics that make the brick and mortar of this love letter to classic RPGs. However, the sheer love put into it does promise that the team behind it have a touch of greatness in them, and they just need to find and grasp it as a team to make something truly special. With Tokyo RPG Factory’s next game coming next year, you can be sure that I’ll be keeping a close eye on it, albeit an eye that’s hoping it won’t be seeing too much of this game’s combat in it.

Could Blizzard learn from themselves for Overwatch?

As I’ve talked about before, I’ve found myself in some kind of insidious trap created by Blizzard. What started out as just an excursion to get a couple of free skins for Overwatch during it’s cross-promotional event with Heroes of the Storm has spiralled out of control. I’m caught in a loop of playing either Heroes of the Storm just so I can get that sweet, sweet gold, or grinding out boxes in Overwatch because that Jazzy Lucio skin isn’t going to unlock itself. Blizzard is by no means a perfect company, but whoever designs their addiction loops needs another raise.

Hell it’s gotten to the point where I’m talking about both games on this blog, basically giving them free press, just because I’m a gamer with poor self control, exactly the kind of guy Blizzard prays on. This is some late stage capitalism stuff: the company doesn’t even need to offer any incentive to get numb-nuts like me to talk about their products. (That being said, if anyone from Blizzard is reading this, I’ll just say that I accept payment in loot boxes. Hit me up.)

Playing these two games side by side got me thinking about something, however. While both are extremely good games in their own rights, I do wonder if Overwatch wouldn’t benefit from having just a little bit more Heroes of the Storm in it. Obviously I don’t mean that it should change any mechanics to be like a MOBA, since one of Overwatch’s strengths lie in the simplicity of its shooter nature. What I’m referring to is how Heroes of the Storm really screws with the conventions of its genre.

Way back in 2015, Blizzard made an announcement for an upcoming character for Heroes of the Storm that nearly made me perform a double take. I hadn’t even touched the game at this time, and indeed this was even before I had even thought about playing a MOBA, but I was still surprised by the mechanics of this new character. Namely, it was a single character being controlled by two different players at the same time. The character’s name was Cho’Gall, a two headed ogre (one head is called Cho, the other’s Gall) who’s main difficulty for the player(s) is that they require some efficient communications to use properly. Two in synch players who communicate will become terrors on the battlefield; two numptys who aren’t communicating will become a giant and ungainly target.

As well as being a hilarious way to make the conflicting nature that having two heads must be like into a playable mechanic, this was a completely unheard of idea. Even now, years after the fact, I can’t think of another MOBA that has such an odd playable character, and indeed such a thing might be difficult to implement in the more complex environments of other MOBAs. Impressively, Cho’Gall isn’t the only character on HotS’ roster to play in an unconventional manner: Abathur is a character that mainly sits back at base but can ‘be’ anywhere on the map at any given moment. Likewise, you can also play as The Lost Vikings, who are a group of three characters that a single player needs to micromanage.

Like Overwatch’s draw of its varied and appealing cast, one of HotS’ points of interest is just how mechanically unusual its characters can be. While not every character is going to be as nutty as these particular cases, the fact that the developers are willing to even take the time to create and balance these oddballs makes it fairly intriguing. If nothing else, I’m looking forward to seeing what kinds of ideas get implemented in the future.

I’m just wondering, however, if Overwatch wouldn’t benefit from introducing some similar concepts into its roster. I understand that the entire cast have some pretty varied play styles between themselves, but I’d be fascinated if Blizzard’s Overwatch team started to go with some really off the wall ideas like the HotS’ team evidently started to do. Overwatch’s nature of being a first person shooter means it has different limitations than a MOBA, and thus it’s definition of an unusual character is going to be different than HotS’ examples, but I reckon there are concepts that they can use.  Hell, I wouldn’t object if they put in their own version of Cho’Gall, where in two players control some kind of singular character (maybe some kind of Omnic?).

Another idea that Overwatch could benefit from emulating is HotS’ variable map objectives. While the end result tends to be the same thing of either attacking the enemies base/buildings/core, or summoning something to help you attack their bases/buildings/core, Blizzard’s take on the MOBA has a lot of different objectives depending on the map. In some cases, you’re collecting skulls so you can summon a massive monstrosity of an undead to march towards the enemy; in other cases, you’re collecting nuclear warheads so you can directly bombard the enemy. While the end result is always the same, the great variety of objectives and locales hides this fact a fair amount.

While Overwatch’s dedication to capturing areas and pushing payloads means that the developers can keep a tight focus on creating maps that allows everyone in the game’s sizable roster to thrive, it’s hard to not feel like the affair becomes a little ‘samey’ after a while. While the wonderfully weird and gloriously unbalanced Arcade does a lot to alleviate this, I think it wouldn’t exactly hurt the game to introduce more variety in the baseline maps. In particular, I wonder if having some kind of map wherein there were multiple objectives that needed simultaneously capturing might be interesting. As it stands both teams are always heading to the same spot, and while this keeps the games going at a rapid and brutal pace, this does mean that your only state in every match is “engaging in a team-fight.” I understand that having multiple different points to go to might be a nightmare in public matches, or any time where your team isn’t communicating, but such a map might also allow for more interesting team composition, or at least serve to break up the other maps.

Of course, maybe all these ideas are just extremely dumb and wouldn’t work at all. Without some serious testing, a character that works in a completely irregular manner could play hell on the game’s already sometimes sensitive balance. Likewise, maybe the game’s strength lies in the how focused the objectives are, and a map with two simultaneous objectives would be the opposite of fun. I don’t claim to know how things would turn out, but I do think that the ideas are, at the very least, interesting to play around with. Knowing how creative Blizzard can get, I look forward to whatever the hell they do come out with.

The joys and pitfalls of new game-plus content.

One of my favourite parts of the eternally intertwined Drakengard and Nier franchises is how each game in both series has a huge variety of endings. There’s usually around four or five different endings to each game, each requiring different conditions to be met before they can be achieved. These endings also tend to really run a gambit of different scenarios, everything from a “happy” ending all the way up to the literal apocalypse.

Natural to the bleak tones of these games, the latter endings tend to be the true endings.

Most of the enjoyment from these varied endings comes from just watching the characters you’re now familiar with enter into increasingly odd and sometimes desperate situations, and how just a few seemingly inconsequential changes can really shake up the path they take. It’s the wonder of watching the writers really let loose and create some really unforeseeable conclusion that keeps me coming back to find out what every last ending is. That, and the morbid curiosity of how grim the writers can make the situation (the answer is really, REALLY  grim).

There is one facet of this kind of design decision that I kind of go back and forth on, though: the introduction of New-Game-Plus content. For those not in the know, ‘New-Game-Plus’ (or more commonly, NG+) refers to content that is only accessible or only achievable after you’ve beaten the game once through. This usually manifests itself as you keeping all of your stats/levels/equipment in the new run of the game, meaning you can plough through all the challenges that used to give you trouble, and instead focus on new challenges that have cropped up. Different games have different variations on what exactly is unlocked or made available in NG+, although the most common one is some sort of challenge mode that has no bearing on the story. Other games have entire sections of the story revealed only when the player actually reaches these new playthoughs, such as the Nier/Drakengard games.

The reason I say I kind of go back on forth on these kinds of designs is that these are some features of them that I’m not always 100% sure are a good idea, from purely subjective standpoint. One of the main problems I’m really not fond of is when there’s content that is made purposely to only be achievable in NG+, but can be found in the base game. This often results in you running into a fight or challenge that you have no way of actually winning, and thus will sit there taunting you for the rest of the playthrough. This is especially bad if the game doesn’t actually warn you that you’re not meant to even attempt the challenge in the first game, since you might end up thinking that it’s perfectly possible to beat and you’re simply messing up somewhere. What follows is the player repeatedly ramming their head against a brick wall, waiting to see which cracks first. I’ll admit that this is more of a personal issue, since I have a massive OCD about completing major side-objectives and missions. I remember in my first run through Final Fantasy Type-0 that I (despite the game repeatedly warning against such action) actually managed to struggle through several of the insanely high end challenges with an extremely underpowered team. It’s a choice that I regret immensely, since I’m never getting back all that time I spent running poor sods into one hit kill enemies back. Likewise, it might end up with a situation where in it’s perfectly possible to complete, just a massive pain. The combat in Nier Automata means that, even when faced against an extremely powerful opponent, you can actually learn his attack patterns and take him down. The only problem is, you’re dealing about as much as damage as a stiff breeze to him. This means that you will eventually win, but getting there is extremely tedious. Both of these situations are most likely intentional, since the cathartic feeling you get when you’ve beefed up and come back to these challenges can’t be beat, but even so, they can also be the source of a great deal of frustration.

Despite how much I’ll sing its praises, another potential issue could arise if you put crucial parts of the story into the NG+ sections of the game. I personally like this kind of touch, since it’s similar to the game rewarding diligent and committed players for sticking around even when others would have left, however it’s easy for problems to pop up. As an example, here’s my experience (and some borderline spoilers) with the original Nier. In the first Nier game, you go through the entire game thinking it’s a mostly black and white story, with the ghastly and alien looking enemies you’ve been fighting this entire being almost completely unsympathetic. However, EVERY playthrough after that first one goes the entire nine-yards to make you realize that you have been aggressively misled this entire time. It’s genuinely well done twist, and eventually culminates in one of the most heartbreaking instances of integrating the mechanical parts of a video game to the story. I, however, didn’t realize any of this after I immediately stopped after the first ending. I got up as the credits were rolling and said ‘yep, that was a fun video game,’ and left. I didn’t even realize there were any alternative endings, let alone all the crazy stuff that’s revealed as time goes on. I only found out about them years later, when I saw a Let’s Play that went on for a suspiciously long time.
Basically, putting important parts of the story, while super cool, is also a pretty big risk, since a lot of people aren’t even going to stick around to see them. Like I said, I think this is actually a really interesting idea, especially since pretty much every Nier and Drakengard games have standard happy, ‘quest complete’ endings as their first, which lowers your guard for how screwed up things become. It appears that Square Enix was aware of this when they published Nier Automata, since they put a message right at the end of the first run warning against leaving at that moment. None of the other games in the series were as direct as this one instance, usually only putting a cryptic message at the end with a single letter highlighted (both series break their endings down into ‘Ending A/B/C/D’ etc.). While in this day and age where every secret a game has is already known before it’s even out makes this kind of a moot problem, I still think it can be a stumbling block in some instances.

That all being said, I’m not going to deny that there are plenty of positives that introducing NG+ content can do for a game. The most simple, clear and obvious of these is the fact that it’s just more to actually do, and especially more to do for the more committed fans. Most games end when the main events of the story are done, and most players will be content to call it quits at that point and move on to the next game. However, if you like a game enough to carry on even further beyond that, it’s useful if the developer also thought that far ahead, and added enough new stuff to keep you going for at least some time. How much a developer is going to be willing to add to a section of the game that not a whole lot of players are going to see is something that’s going to vary from project to project. If we continue to use the Nier and Drakengard games as examples, those games have a ton of unique content that only gets used after the first play through. However, considering that one could make an argument that seeing the various endings is a core part of the experience, you could argue that’s not a great example. A clearer cut example would be in the now pretty old Vagrant Story: in addition to the standard fair of letting you keep all of your items and levels, you can now access bonus dungeons with sweet loot at the end. In many ways, adding NG+ content like this is just giving you an excuse to keep playing a game you already enjoy, which is pretty great in every sense.

Another big positive is the fact it really lets the developers go nuts with creating new challenges. Difficulty is something that is, funnily enough, not always easy to manage. We’ve kind of talked about how making something too difficult can push away potential players, but just reiterative, an important part of making a game is knowing just who the heck you’re making it for in terms of difficulty. Making something too easy is going to be bore players, but likewise making something too difficult is going to turn a lot of people off. The beauty of NG+ content is that you know two things for certain: one, if the player has made it this far, they’re going to be up to taking on really challenging encounters. Two, they’re probably looking for really challenging encounters. Games are all about overcoming obstacles, and as you get better at beating the snot out of whatever had the bad luck to get in your way, you’re going to want the challenges to become even tougher to challenge your growing skill. It stands to reason that, if you’re still up for more after the point where most people are willing to leave a game, you’ll be actively looking for the most challenging battles a developer can program. This is good for the player, but it also allows the developer to let loose. After holding back on making all the brutal ideas and instances for fear of scaring off potential players, they can finally throw together what crazy hard challenges they want. It’s a win-win situation, as long as you’re actually seeking the kind of stuff these kind of challenges offer.

In the end, like nearly every matter we talk about on this site, this going to have to judge on a case by case basis. Different games are going to have different capabilities to even support a NG+ mode, let alone make it worthwhile. Not to mention that there’s so many different ways to actually implement such an addition that it not really something you can just toss a blanket statement over it. On top of all of that, it’s something that can only be determined by individual opinion for the player; a game might have an extensive NG+ in place, but there’s point toiling through it if the player didn’t enjoy the base game enough. Still, also like nearly every matter we talk about, it’s been interesting to think about a subject in more detail than I would have normally. As always, thanks for sticking with the ramble of thought, and may all of your the NG+’s be deep and engaging experiences.

Outlast 2’s expert horror pacing.

Games, like any medium in existence, require careful thought on their pacing.

Good pacing is necessary in pretty much every type of entertainment; from how many explosions are occurring per minute in an action movie, to how a mystery is unravelling in a sleuthing book, it’s all a matter of making sure your audience is getting what they need when they need it. Games in particular need a great deal of planning to ensure that the ebb and flow of gameplay is developing/changing at a rate that remains interesting. Even a short game is a fairly long commitment of time for a consumer, and requires a much more direct input from the ‘audience’ then most other mediums. To that end, you need to make sure you’re holding your player’s attention through pretty much every step of the way. On the other side of the argument you need to make sure you’re not overwhelming your audience, or rushing through things at a too rapid pace. Like many things, good pacing requires balance.

In no other type of game is this more evident and more required than in a horror game. Horror is an element that isn’t the easiest to quantify, but (perhaps appropriately) much like comedy, a pretty large part of executing a good horror product is all about timing. Just throwing jump-scares at a player unendingly is a trait that I’d assign more to a ‘thriller’ or something of that nature. Genuinely good horror lets the player feel the tension in the air and the general creepiness of a local, maybe without anything popping up at all. The pacing of a good horror game knows when it’s the right time to build suspense and when to scare the heck out of the player, but also knows when they have to let the player just wander around without too much suspense holding them back: giving the player time to breathe just means that they have more breath to lose when you go in for the sucker punch.

Outlast 2 has a very particular example of how to handle pacing, and it’s pretty well executed. The game starts out really slowly: while you are creeping through dilapidated fields and houses occupied by insane and religious rednecks, it feels oddly underwhelming. The environments are wide and the enemies telegraph their positions with their flashlights, making it fairly easy to sneak around them. And while the game’s newest stalking brute, Marta, is actually incredibly intimidating, she appears only infrequently. There’s no doubt that discovering all of the atrocities that the residents of Temple Gate regularly commit is an unsettling affair, but so far the journey is no worse than the events of the first Outlast game.

But then something odd starts to occur. There was a small segment right at the start of the game wherein Blake (the main character) has some kind of nightmare-affected flashback of his days back in the fourth grade at his creepy catholic school. Not only do these weird flashbacks start to occur much more frequently, but they start to become much more actively dangerous and disquieting. And then, just when you think it can’t get much worse, the horror that’s been chasing you through the school appears in reality…

The game really does start to become relentless in utilising this aspect. The trips to the school start off being pretty rare and, while highly disturbing, are also completely without threat. But before you really realize it, you’re slipping into the school at least once in every section of the game, and suddenly its hallowed halls are home to the game’s most disturbing and dangerous enemy. Suddenly, the only break you really have are in those quiet moments spent staggering down both the real world and school’s various passages and routes, and even then you’re on edge that something could be waiting for you around every corner. And all the while, it’s becoming harder and harder to determine what exactly is and isn’t real anymore.

It should be too much: the pace is aggressive, and you’re barely finished reeling from one trip through the school’s shadowed corridors before you’re being thrown right back into it. But it actually works really well. By the time you reach this point in the game, Blake’s personal monologues and mutterings are starting to become increasingly unhinged and unfocused, as if he’s starting to lose his grip on reality. The rapid change of locations helps to sell the player on this disorientated and confused portrayal, and probably makes them empathise with it.

What should be a ‘too rapid for its own good’ kind of pacing ends up working more effectively, since the game actually restrained itself in the beginning hours of the play through. It feels like the pacing is ramping up appropriately alongside the story and events of the game, and indeed is tied directly into the mental state of the main character. It was definitely worth having that opening part of the game be slightly weaker in the long term, since it makes the second half of the game feel much more unsettling, stronger and memorable because of it.

What’s interesting is that the first Outlast game did something very much in the same vein, but it didn’t work nearly as well. As you make your way around the asylum, you begin to notice some kind of shadowy… thing is creeping around, phasing through walls and doors. The main character of that game likewise begins to question if he’s just going insane, but it actually turns out that there’s a logical (?) explanation for all of it. It turns out that Murkoff Corporation, continuing the proud tradition of all morally black companies in video games, were running a secret underground lab, wherein they were attempting to create a super-ghost-soldier. Or something. It’s around this point in the game wherein all of the other antagonists are dead, dying, simply gone or perhaps escaped, and now the only antagonist left is the ghost of the ‘Walrider.’

This should be scary, since he can phase through objects and will relentlessly chase you for the final stretch of the game, but it ends up feeling oddly out of touch. What made the rest of Outlast so terrifying was how unpredictable and unknowable the ‘Varients’ (the in-game term for the asylum’s patients) were. When you crept past a guy jittering in a corridor, you were never sure if he was going to stand up and try and kill you, or if he was just content to smash his head against the concrete wall he was coiled up next to. While a crazy ghost murder is certainly an escalation, all of the underground lab stuff makes me think of games like Resident Evil. That kind of stuff works for R.E. because of its kind of campy and over-the-top presentation makes it closer to a thriller style horror. Resident Evil is scary, but in a more ‘jumpy’ and action-oriented fashion compared to the more understated and unnerving horror that Outlast was employing before it got to the labs.

Outlast 2’s use of physiological horror, meanwhile, feels like it’s very much playing to the developer’s strengths, and is more tonally consistent with the rest of the game. The true horror of Outlast 1 and 2 was always in the human element: the fact that a human could lose their minds to such a degree that they could wantonly slaughter each other was the scariest thing in the first game, and fact they didn’t even need that reason was the most unsettling thing in the second. If Red Barrels decide to make an Outlast 3 at any point, I hope they focus more on the elements and ideas that they employed in the second game rather than the first, even if Outlast 1 is still a fine example of a really good horror game.

In any case, thanks for reading this ramble of thought on horror pacing. I’ll freely admit that not exactly an expert on horror (I can barely play the games for crying out loud), but I hope you enjoyed this little inspection on one of my preferred horror series. Until next time, stay safe, and stay the hell away from creepy asylums and schools!

Quick Review! Shadow Warrior.

01SW

“You got Wang.”
– The protagonist, who happens to be called Wang, perfectly showing this game’s humour.

It’s always fairly surprising when a franchise that everyone thought was already long dead comes from the brink of obscurity with a new game. It’s even more surprising when it turns out that said new game is faithful to the series it’s revitalising without feeling the need to be completely the same. Shadow Warrior is, thankfully, one such game.

Shadow Warrior is one of those extremely hard to classify run-and-gun, action and exploration shooters of the early days of gaming. If you played Duke Nukem or indeed the original Shadow Warrior games, you already know what to expect from it in the game play department. However, in addition to the new coat of paint that modern hardware can give the game, Shadow Warrior also takes this chance to expand on the story and characters unlike the old games.

For the first point, let’s talk about gameplay. Shadow Warrior’s core gameplay is an extremely frantic and bloody melee, wherein Lo Wang’s (the game’s protagonist, and yes that is his name) only option of avoiding damage is to either dodge it or kill his attacker before they get the chance. Over the course of the game, you’ll be given access to a multitude of weapons, all of which will offer you new and satisfying ways to remove ‘problems’ from your forward path. However, one of the neat aspects of the game is that you can actually get by using nothing but your starting katana, mostly because it can become the deadliest weapon in your arsenal. Which is pretty impressive, considering your arsenal includes a god damn rocket launcher. Your katana eventually gets crazy useful magical attacks and powers via the games levelling and upgrade system, resulting in melee combat being as fun and viable as shooting from range.

When you’re not slaughtering your way through the hordes of enemies that want to make a mess of your day (and face, and organs, and pretty everything else) you’ll be scouring through levels looking for secrets. Secrets come in many flavours, from straight up EXP boosts, unlocking more magic powers, to pretty funny Easter eggs. Because of this, regardless of what you’re looking for, the game really does encourage upturning every rock and checking behind every corner for its secrets. In addition to all of this, the game has some really neat boss fights, and a good variety of enemy designs.

For the second point, the game’s story and narrative is actually really good. We play as one Lo Wang (seriously), a sword/gun for hire who is employed by a man by the name of Zilla. At the very start of the game, Wang is sent out to find an oddly well guarded katana; he recognises the whole situation is pretty suspicious, but he is loyal to his boss, and does everything he can to get the job done. Before too long, however, we get to the real meat of the matter: the earth becomes over run by demons from beyond our world, and the sword he was sent to find is the key to stopping earth from turning into a hellscape. To make things even more complicated, Wang picks up a sarcastic little blighter of demon called Hoji, and the sword he is looking for is actually three swords. Now, with his boss suspiciously keeping radio silence, both Wang and Hoji must try and set things right.

There are two things I really love about this game’s writing: for one, it is just pure unadulterated fun. The banter between Hoji and Wang is fantastic, and serves as the basis for many of the jokes. The game knows that it’s completely over the top in many ways, and doesn’t shy away from making cracks about the whole thing, which becomes even more hilarious when juxtaposed to the actually pretty freaky locations you often trollop through. However, it’s the other part of the story that I really admire: for all of the jokes and gags, the narrative actually has some pretty heavy moments. As you find out more about why the demons are invading earth, and more about the key figures behind this whole situation, the more it becomes clear that this isn’t necessarily a clean and simple matter. I’ve said before (here: https://oliverculling.wordpress.com/2017/03/19/an-exploration-of-tone-in-drakengard-and-nier/) that a great way to control the tone of something was to bring your audience’s guard down with something more light hearted, before hitting them with the heavy stuff, and that’s certainly done masterfully here.

While the game is great, it’s not without its flaws. Some of the levels, particularly towards the end, start to lack the openness to make exploring them fun. Early levels have a good balance of keeping the spaces open to encourage exploration, without losing the tightness of good liner level design, but later levels lack this quality. Likewise, there are a few enemies later on in the game that are more of chore to fight, rather than challenging or engaging.
A more constant headache, for me at least, was the rating system. At the end of large and major conflicts, you’re given a score of blank/5, and are rewarded with extra EXP depending on your rank. However, the scoring system isn’t really clear enough, which makes it difficult to consistently get high scores. It’s never clear if it’s more important to use a varied set of attacks and moves, or if it’s more important to clear the horde out quickly, or without taking damage, etc.

None of these points are really deal breakers, however. The game is a fun ride, with varied and fun combat and a surprisingly engaging story.  The game delivers a strong performance as a love-letter to its source material while also being fun for new and old fans alike. Jump in for a frantic sword and gun battle to the gates of hell and back, if you think you can handle the Wang.