Pokemon Go is a fun game that does virtually everything wrong

So I’m still playing Pokemon Go. And I’m still enjoying it. Mostly what I enjoy is bike riding with a purpose and weird emergent social situations with just enough slot-machine randomness thrown in, but I’m still playing.

Still as I sit there thinking, I am just constantly taken back by the fact that this is a game that does virtually everything wrong in terms of nuts and bolts game design. TECHNICALLY the game is massively impressive, but it feels like a game designed by engineers and not game designers. The core concept of ‘pokemon but like… in the real world’ is GREAT. So great that it gets around a lot of their bad design. And some things are neat. Seeing a lure, going there and meeting people is cool. Some issues (no trading) are because the game is kinda half baked. it’s admittedly a Minimally Viable Product. But some things are just bad.

How Pokemon Spawn is Rubbish

“So like, pokemon spawn points are dictated by cellphone usage in areas and–” … like… why? “Because Ingress did it that way.”

I imagine a lot of problems are “because thats how Ingress did it”. But you have a spawn system that shuts out a huge amount of potential players. I can’t say its ‘for no reason’. There is osme inherent optimization that goes on here, but you can’t even give a logged on player a certain amount of spawns or something? Any decision here is likely a challenging one, but the one that makes a huge group of potential players have the game be virtually unplayable is clearly the bad one.

There is also no real reasonable way  to tell when you’re in another biome or make any real deduction about when you’re likely to get anywhere with different spawns or anything.  Even if something pops up on the radar, you have no way to really know. Water is about the only type of area easy to find. You could also do things like making sure every area has some non-trash pokemon and hide them based on level. So early game is a lotta Ratatta and Pidgy garbage but once you level up you get to see more of the local flavor.

Also how they level up with you is ALSO rubbish but we’ll get to that.

Tracking Pokemon is Rubbish

This is actually something that could be a non-problem is the way biomes worked was a bit more understandable and varied. But when something rare pops up on the radar, what do you do? You can be a crazy person and try a bunch of weird tracking methods or if you’re most casual people, you’ll just flail and fail with no direction or idea what you should do. When you’re only way to find certain pokemon is sheer luck, seeing them and failing to find them is frustrating, especially when you didn’t do anything obvious wrong.

Capturing Pokemon is Rubbish

Throwing pokeballs is great! I love it! But the actual catching mechanics are rubbish. First, the randomness is so high that nothing you do seems to affect anything. Even though Niantic said “Hey, small circles are good” people would say “Oh yeah small circle is like holding B in pokemon its a placebo thing” because there was no way to feel that you did anything good. You do the same thing, regardless of whether its a weedle or a Dragonite. Maybe you use different balls, but you have one strategy. Once you get ultra balls and get good at throwing, the only thing that separates you capturing a weedle and a powerful pokemon is luck. Luck is a part of pokemon but when luck is so high that no one feels their actions have consequences well… thats bad?

I can’t even beat up wild pokemon what kind of world is this

“Training” Pokemon is Rubbish

I find the fact this game gives you a Starter to be insulting. It’s cargo cult game design. The game is basicaly like “yo here are 4 candies.” … Yeah. Thanks. A little bit better now with the buddy system but the fact is still clear — you should NEVER, EVER, EVER DO ANYTHING WITH YOUR STARTER. Besides maybe use it as a buddy. And wait to find a better Bulbasaur or whatever.

Which gets to the problem that Stardust leveling is one of the worst, least player friendly systems in existence. Powering up a pokemon is something you should absolutely not do  until you’re at least in your 20s. You’re going to find stuff thats going to invalidate your old pokemon so fast. If you use your Stardust sooner you get to feel like a fool. If you evolve a 3 stage pokemon too soon, you feel like a fool. In normal pokemon games, you aren’t a fool for leveling up crappy pokemon — that’s all you got! This isn’t a resource your wasting.  Having a pokemon in Go is about being totally lucky. Once you’re totally lucky, you spend your resources and you have what you want. This not only is unsatisfying and undercuts one of the larger appeals of pokemon (training and bonding) but also cuts the life of the game down. People complain about there being no end game in Go and thats because there isn’t really much of a sensible need to build up a team, nor mechanics for prolonging the development of a pokemon. “Well, catching is like battling and you can just apply XP retroactively” sounds like its the same but maybe even better, but its basically totally worse.

Battling is Rubbish

Like throwing balls, capturing gyms are fun, but the actual act of battling is not. First, battling is massively unaccessible. There is no way for lower players to compete. They’re tyrannized by powerful players, shutting people off from trying a whole different part of an already thin game. And battles aren’t interesting. You have a huge attacker advantage and can brute force so much stuff. Attack and dodge attack and dodge. Nothing has any utility. There is no reason to try and do clever type counter things or have certain pokemon on hand. You widdle down gyms one pokemon at a time, using the ones best for the job. It quickly becomes work.

Gyms are Rubbish

Terrible rewards, terrible mechanics. Getting in takes tons of effort and  how the game works encourages a mercenary approach of just throwing in strong pokemon and hoping no one even tries. There is no rewards for a successful defense, nothing for weaker players to do.  If I had to decide one thing to be changed it’d probably be the gyms (or the spawning). Just change it to have NPC battles, to have different leagues for lower level players and other stuff like that. Someone should be about to put a 200cp ratatta in there and I should not be able to step on it  with something 10 times stronger.

 Niantic is too busy fighting cheaters rather than designing their systems to be resistant to cheating… and.. uh… that’s Rubbish

If people could fight people closer to their own level, botters taking over gyms would be less of a problem. Why you would have such an aggressive pvp system in a game with high casual appeal is beyond me. Super players are just as disruptive as botters. By dealing with this on a system level and reducing the harm caused by strong players, you reduce the negative effects cheaters have on other players. So much so that you can’t even have a rooted phone or some chinese phones. If I was still on android I would have been furious. Even if I could still jump through hoops to make it work, that is still unacceptable.

Just tons of random Rubbish

Why are their no dailies or anything like that? Some people may be glad it doesn’t have them, but that’s the type of thing that gets people coming back. Why doesn’t the game do more while its off? Why do you need the watch? Why don’t have the push notification YO THERE A SQUIRTLE. Even if you have to do it as a step-tracker sorta random personal spawn thing, give players a reason to go back. ALSO why is the distance tracker so bad? I GIVE YOU MY GPS COORDINATES EVERY 10 SECONDS WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING.

Really in the end, the list of things Niantic has done well in a game design sense is… a very very short list.

King’s Field and Shadow Tower on the PS2: Some More Mini Reviews

King’s Field: The Ancient City

This probably the most fondly enjoyed and remembered of the old King’s Field games… and in a lot of ways it is probably the best one, but there was something lost in transition from the ps1 to ps2. The PS1 King’s Field had a strong, weird aesthetic. Even if that aesthetic was driven by their sheer ugliness and weirdness, they had them. Shadow Tower had a great aesthetic, period.  KF:TAC has no aesthetic. It’s amazing to compare the visual look of this game to Demon’s Souls to see what a little bit of ‘aesthetic’ can make. The game, if not for the consistency of the look, would be almost ‘asset store’ levels of generic. I would say monster design was never From’s strength in the early days, but Shadow Tower as loaded to the brim with the type of unique and interesting enemies that’d you’d see in later From games. Instead KFTAC are is loaded with ‘elemental xenomorphs’, probably a low point in their design for these types of games. Something about that and starting in an area filled with lava seemed like a ‘lets try and be cool for once’  thing that totally fell flat for me. Some enemies are kinda cool, some areas look all right, but nothing in the game ‘wows’. Only one point in the game was I ever like ‘THIS LOOKS SCARY I DON’T WANT TO GO THIS WAY’. The game was a consistent, flat tone most of the way through and make it abundantly clear to me how important those ‘wow’ moments are.

So why do people like this game? Well, the consistent, flat tone is pretty good! The game looks generic, but the details are there. Care for the world is there. The map for the world is -great-. This is definitely a game where I did not need a map to get around most of the time and when I did, the maps provided were… awfully flavourful and cool. You had what you needed to get around as you needed and basic navigation is simple. The “Central Tower” made for a great way to unify the map and the ways you slowly make your way down the tower made it feel less… contrived than Shadow Tower? Like all good Fromsoftware worlds, it felt like a place, not a level of a video game. Then you have all your interesting details. Zombie like enemies that release dark bugs as you kill them that scurry around the floor to hide… Heavily implied cannibalism… all sorts of warnings for traps with corpses and stuff. The type of stuff you’d expect out of a Fromsoftware game.

Combat is much better too. Enemies almost always flinch from attacks in KFTAC and your hitbox on your swings is huge. Larger weapons seem to have more range. Generally in this game, if you feel like you’re going to hit something, usually you do and then you get a good bit of feedback that you did. The old ‘circle and attack from behind’ strategy is not as braindead as it once was and not for any one reason. Enemies are designed with behaviors that let them move around quickly, or attack around them. So sometimes you’re trying to find an in so you can do the old ‘circle and stab’ strategy, other times you’re moving in and out and actively dodging attacks (something that works far more reliably in this game than previous games) and other times you’re scrambling around. Probably part of the reason you’re walk speed and turn speed are a little weak compared to other games. Combat in KFTAC seemed the first step in Fromsoftware figuring out a combat system with actual game feel and it helps the game A LOT.

The game has some annoying bits. It has the KFTAC teleportation system, but now you can only teleport on certain spots and they’re often decoupled from save points or even warp ports and it’s like…. I GUESS this could be interesting but usually it’s just annoying? You have a blacksmith that repairs equipment for free but with a REAL TIME wait like come on wtf, game. Also upgrades! Lets wait 2 minutes and use a rare rock to raise an attack stat by -1-. This game might have the most irritating ‘start’ of a King’s Field game, and no i don’t mean MINOR-SPOILERS which no, I did not MINOR-SPOILERS. The mine cave and the poison and the limited healing that early in the game. It’s not hard, it’s just… not fun. Also I never got to play around with sword magic because it all required you to get to ‘level 3 experience’ with a weapon which… doesn’t seem like something that’d happen in regular gameplay? Seems like a bummer to me.

So would I recommend this game? It ranks somewhat over King’s Field 3 for me, but it’s probably one of the most accessible, tolerable King’s Field games. It’s a King’s Field game I could recommend to people who aren’t crazypeople. It’s a game that pulls back from the excess and high fantasy of King’s Field 3 and creates something more intimate like King’s Field 2, just without the same charm. And, let me be real, as much as I love King’s Field 2, KFTAC is going to be a more enjoyable game to far more people.

Shadow Tower: Abyss

The fact this game was never released in the US despite the localization almost being complete has to be one of the biggest crimes ever committed by SCOA. Man, the American side of Sony was such a pack of assholes during the PS2 era. When I started doing these playthroughs, the Shadow Tower games were the games I was least excited about. Now they’re my favorites. THIS GAME IS AWESOME and bless whoever made this horridly translated fan patch with weapons like “high swords” and “low swords”. It’s so awkward at times it kinda rolls around into being cool and adding something to the game.

I feel like there is a very visible story told by From’s first person RPGs about their development. KF2 tried to give KF1 a more tangible world. KF3, after the success of KF2 aimed for grandeur and lost some of it’s intangible ‘special’ quality. Shadow Tower was practically a ‘study’ game to do the opposite of King’s Field 3 — do a lot with a little. King’s Field: The Ancient City executed on all of these lessons but became aesthetically lost in this new PS2 era… Shadow Tower: Abyss is the game that both is From discovering how to execute an aesthetic on higher fidelity systems as well as being the game where they finally refine their combat past ‘acceptable’ to actively fun.

While maintaining the same survival-horror systems of the original, visually, Shadow Tower: Abyss is far different beast. Trading the bleak aesthetic of a proto-Demon’s Souls for a weird, alien… almost naturalistic/tribal feel? The game has weird but awesome sound design — a weird blend of naturalistic and technological sounds put together in offputting ways. A lot of enemies can be really easy to id due to very distinctive and weird sounds. The worst thing I can say about the aesthetic of Abyss is that it feels distinctly ‘early 2000s’. It’s the only one of the From first person RPGs that has a style that feels like that. But it is still awesome, and weird and constantly had me going “What the fuck is THIS place?!”. The monsters were strange and worrying — maybe not as strange as some of Shadow Tower’s weirdest, but Abyss is pretty weird. Another fun thing is the sheer anachronism of the game. The game takes place long after the original Shadow Tower, as you and a bunch of researchers go down it to explore and find the spear that grants wishes turned the last protagonist into a king. Somehow you all end up at the bottom and unlike the first game, have to work your way back up to escape. And you have GUNS. Guns with very limited ammo. By the midpoint of the game I am finding myself walking around in ancient magical armor with a gasmask on my head and when I see an enemy in the distance, I trade my double handed axe for a sniper rifle. It’s bizarre to open a treasure chest and see a revolver laying there as an object of reverence to whoever found it and put it there. You feel like Lord Humungus from Mad Max. An ancient demon wants to fight you, so you decide now is the time to spend some of your precious shotgun ammo, killing him in a way that, to him, would seem no different from being blasted by a magician. All the old Fromsoft games have this sense of nebulous time, but this one embraces it. You find an ancient tribal warrior who was killing bugs for probably thousands of years along with other researchers or my fav demon lady from the first game.

Combat is great. It is extremely rare for an attack to not make an enemy flinch and when they don’t it’s a big deal. When you hit things hard, they don’t flinch, they REEL. Limbs fly off. Chopping and shooting off limbs becomes part of the strategy. “Hey if I chop off this guy’s weapon arm, his attacks are easier to deal with”. It also just feels GREAT. In the middle of a battle with an ancient knight, things were going against me and my equipment was breaking so I pulled out my shotgun and shot him, blowing off both his arms in a Monty Python-esque fashion. I blew up another giant demon with a PANZERFAUST. The intense resource management makes these moments fun and satisfying in a way that never gets old. Also unlike KFTAC you move and turn FAST and can use the analog, moving around like a traditional console FPS. Enemies are more deadily to compensate, leading the most varied and fun combat I’ve experienced in this group of games.

It’s hard for me to even think of things to say… It’s… Shadow Tower by weird and great? It’s hard to even think of how to sell this weird gem. This is the type of game where if it sounds VAGUELY interesting I’d say ‘just play it’.

But I guess I can at least talk about its problems and disappointments. Healing and repairing is a bit more of a pain early on. Topping off equipment is wasteful — everything has a base repair cost no matter how damaged it is (unless it’s broke, then it’s even more). You have encumbrance in the game for your whole inventory. You can store items at shop crystals to elevate this but I felt it did nothing but make the game less enjoyable. I never felt like I was making interesting decisions on what weapons to take with me and on the rare chance I wanted to use an odd weapon for a specific situation, it seems like it would have been better if I had it in my inventory rather than have it unused in a box somewhere. The shops/healing places are more boring — just glowing crystals connected to menus, lacking the weird personality of their Shadow Tower predecessors. No weird naga-witch selling you swords. There are also way more cunes which is… fine, I guess? But it felt weird to max out my cunes at one point. I guess it was necessary with the need to buy ammo, but there was a charm to a currency where there was only 100 in the whole world back in Shadow Tower. The game gets a little monotonous with it’s gimmick levels. By the late game I was praying for an area where I just kicked the shit out of a lot of tough stuff but it never quite came. In fact, the end part of the game is the biggest letdown. It reminds me of playing through Demon’s Souls and finishing my playthrough on Stormking before killing True Allant. It just felt like there was no release. Just ‘hey the game is over’. At least in DeS you can save the last Boletaria stage as ‘the end’ but Abyss has nothing like that. The ending felt disappointed both gameplay wise and thematically. If I were to guess, there probably was going to be more to the boss and maybe more to the last area. The last thing you fight is basically an armored copy of Rurufon and her AI and it’s… not much.

I also didn’t feel like I had a sense of the tower in Abyss as I did in Shadow Tower. The maps themselves are WAY better but Shadow Tower felt interconnected. Abyss has a hubworld that you travel up and down by way of elevator which is…. really lame? The hub area looks cool, it never changes in a way that made me feel like I was making any progress. It didn’t change in Shadow Tower either but at least in that, I was literally moving down it. Abyss is a game in dire need of a good final act, something all the King’s Field games and Shadow Tower managed to do better. Not GREAT, but much better. But none of these flaws really deeply effect the joy of the game while you’re in the middle of an area, playing it. But keep in mind, when it’s time to end the game, the game wraps up fast.

A good point is that New Game+, which Shadow Tower also had, seems to be improved. Unlike Shadow Tower which was more “go back to the top so you can finish killing and finding everything”,  starts the game over, sans some of the stuff you already found, but giving you more potions and ammo and new weapons. I don’t know if it ever gets harder like a Souls NG+, but I guess I’ll see, as I’m curious if the game is different in other ways the second time through (and I feel like such a beast by the end of the game that a second pass through the game doesn’t seem very time consuming). Either way I highly recommend checking out this game. The translation works fine if you can run burnt or HDLoader games on your PS2 and it emulates pretty well (Some texture flickers with hardware acceleration but I found it to usually be tolerable). I know there will never be a Shadow Tower 3 by name, but I aware the soulslike (even if they claim they’re done) that captures a similarly weird, alien look.

In closing, my tierlist, worst the best:

KF3 -> KFTAC -> Shadow Tower =/-> KF2 -> Shadow Tower Abyss 

 

 

King’s Field and Shadow Tower: Some Mini Reviews of Fromsoftware’s PS1 work

So when I hang out with my friends, I usually waste time in between chatter playing old games. Often odd or old things I wouldn’t normally bother which but might be of some interest to me from a more… academic perspective. And this usually ends up with me finding new games to love too.

So when I loaded King’s Field up, I expected to be put off by it’s horrible combat and ugly aesthetics immediately. Instead I found myself immediately compelled. I find myself now, having worked all the way up to King’s Field: The Ancient City on the PS2, with a translated copy of Shadow Tower: Abyss waiting to be played after it. So here are my thoughts on these crazy games that I didn’t expect to enjoy as much as I did. RPGs aren’t really my thing anymore but the first person movement gave me just enough tactile feedback to get really into these games.

As usual with these kinds of reviews I do, I’m not going to summarize stuff like the basic plot or how the game works. You can use wikipedia or youtube for that. I’m mostly just gonna focus on the stuff I have thoughts about.

King’s field 2

I’m going to be using the Japanese numbering for this (basically KF2 is KF1 in US and thus 3 is 2 and so on and so forth), even though I didn’t bother to play King’s Field 1. A cursory reading about King’s Field 1 made it clear to me that King’s Field 2 was the best of the PS1 offerings and that it pretty much did everything the original did better.

King’s Field 2 is an ass ugly game. The biggest visual improvement from KF1 seems to be the use of different floor textures…. most of the time. Still, the game was immediately compelling. You start out shipwrecked on the island of Melanat and despite the game the crude graphics. The sharp outlines of everything tried their damnedest to convey the sense of A PLACE. Right from the start you have watery pits to fall in, a huge boss kraken thing you won’t fight for another boss or two, a waterfall and cave filled with skeletons, a lighthouse powered by fire magic, some creepy looking fisherman NPC, a pirate cove filled with traps and treasures and a more forgiving cave.

The combat is terrible but somehow works. You circle around things to avoid the attack and hit them with your slow moving first person sword swing. Positioning and enemy management matters a lot in this. The attacks FEEL awful but the amount of interaction makes it tolerable. Magic also helps a tad. MP starts out as an incredibly rare, precious resource to the backbone of your offense.

The enemies in this game look unbelievably stupid and crude, but somehow in a way that captures the awkward weird joy of later Souls games. By the end of King’s Field 2, I found my self in love with those stupid looking Watermelon Head Eater Things. It’s infectious. The whole game is infectious. While technically a dungeon crawler, I feel the need to reject the label. Far from the more abstract dungeons of most games like this, Melanat. It has personality. It’s internals wind together and intersect. The more you play the game the more you feel that you understand it. In game maps were useful for exploring new areas, while old areas were almost immediately committed to memory. In many ways, it’s stage design was mimicked by the original Dark Souls, constantly surprising you with how areas intersect and being navigable by memorable rooms. Given the rough nature of the graphics, memorable could be anything from “Cool castle entrance” to “There is a hole”. But it all works.

“It works” Describes a lot of the game and it’s aesthetic. Crude NPCs lend a creepy atmosphere to the game, their textureless heads turning slowly to speak with you. It’s unnerving but the mood of the game is unnerving. The music is… strangely offputting, but in a good way. Like Demon’s Souls, the game’s ugliness becomes part of its charm. This is a game that should be tedious and boring yet it dragged me through it’s entirety with excitement. While not a game I would recommend without warning, it became a game I unabashedly love. Beautifully thought out world design is my jam and this game has tons of it.

The game has some fascinating mechanics, many you see show up in later games. Crystal Flasks might as well be estus. You find them or construct them out of crystals and fill them up with wells. You eventually find wells that heal MP instead and eventually find both (which seems to be something that shows up in DS3 from what I’ve heard?). The warping mechanic is great. Instead of having fixed warp points, you can leave a ‘key’  at a save to use a corresponding ‘gate’ item to teleport to. You find up to 3 sets of these by the end of the game. The flexibility to set your own warp points allowed for just the right amount of backtracking to make me love and understand the world. You could balance convenience against repetition and by the time you have all 3 sets and understand the island, it becomes a non issue. The perfect flow. There are weird things in the game, like an NPC who magically pops up in random places from time to time who identifies your items. You can’t know when she’ll appear. Maybe not the best choice, but an interesting one. Many doors are textured like walls. They have frames to tell you they’re there but it makes it easy to miss stuff. This is something that fortunately goes away in King’s  Field 3. Oh yeah there is also a minecart ride that kills you 90% of the time and rewards you with basically nothing if you survive. Which is… odd.

There seems to be a decent about of lore, but I couldn’t say much about it. The last boss, Guyra, a one eyed black dragon, is clearly the inspiration for Kalameet. Seath is treated like a holy figure in this.  Granted, it’s not the same Seath, but it’s interesting to see these ideas revisited and adapted.

In the end, it’s hard to even say why King’s Field 2 is great. So much of it is crude as hell and really shows it’s age. But there is just a lot of brilliance in the game too. I’m left with a fondness for Melanat that mirrors my love of Lordran. By the end it kinda… feels like home?

King’s Field 3

King’s Field 3 is like the Dark Souls 2 of King’s Field. It improves the game in so many ways and is far FAR more ambitious. You start out with a giant field, filled with buildings and NPCs. The Headeaters are now venus fly traps. That made me sad! Fortunately the old ugly ones return later on. Anyways the game is now sprawling and its level design more literal and sensible. The game looks infinitely better. Screenshots might not truly capture it but the environments look so much more involved and the enemies look… Still ugly but much much less so. It’s also important to remember for this and KF2 — these are seamless games with no load times. So some ugliness is to still be expected.

The game gives you an automapper somewhat early on. While not necessary for KF2, this is much more necessary for the sprawling maze like levels of KF3. KF3 gets even closer to the dreaded “Dungeon Crawler” level design and dungeons play more like Legend of Zelda-esque areas than actual parts of the world. You go in, you clear the area, you leave. Compared to the interconnected nature of KF2, this was a huge let down to me. Verdite lacked the sense of “place” that Melanat had, despite having much better visuals. The music too is a lot more… on the nose. Not bad, but lacking the same personality.

Combat feels better. You know more clearly if you hit something and enemies at least TRY to counteract you spinning around them. You get magic faster too, which gives you much better options faster. Warping is greatly simplified, with 4 items to find for 4 preset gates before allowing you to warp everywhere by the end. Warping everywhere by the end is good but it was sad to see the system from KF2 leave, even if it would have been terrible in a map this big.

The game has a ton of lore and I couldn’t even begin to explore it. You get an mirror item that tells you about every area, every enemy and every NPC. All lines of dialog are saved for viewing in the menu. So you could comb through this game for tons of info if you wanted.

The game has some cool, crude visuals and works FMV cutscenes in it, sometime on top of gameplay (where you’re few will suddenly have compression artifacts because it switched to a video). You could tell with this game they were trying to go all out.

In the end the game is way way more playable than  KF2 and has many clever ideas, but it just missed the same spark. It felt more… typical. Much like Dark Souls 2, it spreads itself out and tries to be grand but that grandness makes it ultimately more ordinary.

But hey at the end you get to fight Giant Gundam Seath and that’s pretty cool?

Shadow Tower

 OH BOY SHADOW TOWER. This might be the most interesting game of the three. KF2 might still be my favorite Shadow tower is a fucking slog of a game, especially early on. It’s also d
eeply miserable without maps. And there are no in game maps. But with them, the game and it’s horrendous draw distance becomes playable. Because the game is dark. Darker than it even needs to be. But god damn does it look better. There is a color scheme to things. and the textures play nice and the enemies look great. And there are so many of them. This game has 160 monsters and they almost all have absolutely crazy designs. This is the true start of the Demon’s Souls aesthetic. Dark, grimy and depressing with awkward looking monsters that are so goofy they roll around to scary. Demons that hop on their tongues, weird wiggly glow in the dark tree plants, muscular monsters with heads that are like blooming meat flowers. They’re great.

The game has no music. Silence. It’s off putting. The visuals are often bleak. You start on ‘top’ of the shadow tower, a tower that has sunken into the ground. The areas of the game have ominous names. “Human World: The Forgotten Region” or “Death World: The Lingering Curse Layer” or “Beast World: THE SCREECHING AREA” (these are area names you do not want to see). The visuals area bleak. This clean, brind cylinder extending up and down seemingly into infinity. You see stairs and can make your way to a number of doors into areas around the tower that have sunken underground. But you keep coming back to the tower, lower and lower. The map design is at its weakest here overall, but the constant return to the Shadow Tower gives the game the hold it needs to give a sense of progression.

The survival aspect horrors of the game are strong. Weapons degrade, and fast. The items to repair them are rare. Smithys are also rare. The currency they use to repair? Your health. Health Potions? Also a finite resource. Fortunately you can trade broken or obsolete items for them. And thankfully they always grant full health. There is a very clear economic circle here and it is a tense one early in the game. Nothing is renewable until much later in the game so you constantly feel like you’re falling to pieces. There is another currency, cunes. Also a rare item — there are, as I understand, 99 in the whole game? And the shop is the same shop everywhere, so the items you see at the start are the items you see at the end. I saved up for a helmet that restored MP over time early on and it was game changing. “Infinite magic!” I thought, until I realized casting spells degraded my rings. Oh well, can’t have everything.

The NPC interactions feel very Demon’s Soulsy. A demon in a doll body asks you to kill a man who trapped her. a knight being crushed by a boulder begs you to sacrifice a sword to save his life (and remember, SWORDS ARE IMPORTANT AND LIMITED). Some gnome things curses you over and over and begs for his life like a coward when you corner him. Also there is a fat mole who is totally your bro.

As you go from the more human world to elemental planes the game starts feeling real surreal. There is just tons of atmosphere. It just suffers from the fact that the game is so initially impenetrable and the map design that doesn’t work with the super dark game. Getting around without a map is an almost impossible chore. I’m not sure even KF2’s map would have worked under these lighting conditions. The automapper from KF3 would have been a massive improvement, where you could know where you were going while not quite spoiling areas immediately by checking maps.

Funny thing is when you beat an area, it lightens up. So they could have gotten away with it. I assume the darkness was to mask enemies spawning in (which they do, unlike in the KF games). This looks weird in illuminated areas, but not so weird as to be a bad tradeoff. The enemy spawning is interesting though. There are a finite amount of enemies in the game. As you kill enemies in a room, replacement spawn elsewhere, often in the same room, but sometimes not. You’ll return to an area you thought you cleared out, sometimes to find a horrific surprise. Often this can lead to cool items being dropped though, so you have an incentive to clear things out. Killing enemies also I think… basically IV trains you, like pokemon? There is no leveling in the game. Beating stuff up and killing certain enemies raises your stats. It’s interesting and kinda works?

The game is linear in nature but it does some clever things to disguise it. There are sometimes multiple ways to get down the tower and sometimes you can even jump down to a set of stairs you can only barely see.  You often still end up covering the same areas or coming back later, but it makes the tower feel more like a space you’re trying to conquer than a completely abstract area.

The game also has NG+ (I think? Or maybe you’re just back at the top of the tower to clear it out?) and a rather… Soulsy ending. A flawed gem that was only a few changes away from being truly great. and the game with the  strongest aesthetic ties to the Souls series. It makes me more excited for Shadow Tower Abyss than King’s Field 4 and I hear KF4 is AWESOME.

While I can only recommend KF2 with some reservations, I can only recommend Shadow Tower with a LOT of reservations. But it’s interesting and if you want to play a game as a curiosity and see some of the evolution of the Souls series, Shadow Tower is AWESOME.

What the hell even is Gaming Journalism?

Edit: I feel like this piece has been greatly superceded by this RPS piece . It covers all of my points and then some and does so much more thoughtfully. While you might enjoy reading my off-the-cuff, emotionally charged spin on the issue, I suggest you read the RPS piece as well.

An important element I think I missed is that even the things I said might be able to be reported “objectively” end up just being material given by publishers. Not only is it uninteresting news, if delivered impartially, it is nothing but ads and reinforcing troublesome parts of the system we all claim to hate. Anyways, for archival purposes, here is the piece I wrote…

I’m sure you’re sick of this topic and so am I, but bad news keeps coming in. Jenn Frank and Mattie Brice have basically quit videogame writing at all this. The #GamerGate people are screaming good riddance. “Gotta get rid of all this bias and corruption in journalism! Boo~!” but here’s the thing… Neither Jenn Frank or Mattie Brice are really “journalists”.

That’s not a dig, either. Journalists give you the news. They preferably give it unbias and dispassionately. If they’re not digging for stories, they’re best being passionless robots. While I’m sure Frank did some journalism at one point, what she, and Mattie Brice were writers. They wrote opinion pieces. They were culture critics. For that, you want the opposite of what you want in a journalist — you want passion and you want a position to be taken. Personally, in this field, writers kick the shit out of journalists because there really isn’t much gaming news. Games are an art and art is subjective. I’ve always found the call for ‘impartial and unbias’ reviews to be hilarious. Reviews aren’t journalism, even if they suffer from the same corruption problems. If you want an “impartial review”, read the wiki page on a game because that’s what it would be like. Instead, the most successful reviewers are often the most opinionated. We get to know the people we read reviews from and learn when and where we agree and disagree with them.

What makes this even more frustrating is most opinion pieces are better insulated from corruption in the industry. Big previews are basically big ads (often paid for by companies before they are even written) and reviews feel pressure constantly to give more favorable review scores (especially now thanks to metacritic). The industry is a hype machine and it’s business model makes it so most of the money they receive comes from the media they have to talk about. That industry has other problems too, which plague even normal news outlets these days, such as people never checking facts and just believing other articles.

Surprisingly that rarely comes up with #gamergate (Yes, I’m sure some of you are talking about that. YES, I know you don’t endorse the people who are harassing folk. YES, I do think you’re an idiot for choosing now to fight that fight and sabotaging your cause due to #gamergate’s association with gross misogyny. No, don’t message me about it or link to your fucking github that suggests pretending to be a middle eastern cab driver to garner SJW sympathy. I read it already). Instead, people are attacking people known for their social justice oriented opinion pieces under the guise of “corruption”. It’s hard to figure out what they mean about corruption in this context. If they mean ‘progressive ideas and spreading amount game writers and developers’, I guess yes, we are being corrupted. You will be assimilated, resistance is useless, etcetcetc… but as far as actual corruption goes, a thing I see surprisingly often is “THESE PEOPLE ARE KNOW EACH OTHER.” or “THIS PERSON IS DONATING TO THIS PERSONS PATREON”.It’s… almost as if people who like video games and writing gravitate and become friends with people who are also into that… and support the works of those who they feel are excellent at their craft. Strange! I read someone say on a forum that if he went back in time and was told how interconnected everyone in the industry was, he wouldn’t believe it because of how preposterous it is. What do these people think, that people live in insulated boxes? OF COURSE THIS HAPPENS. It’s the same reason why I see people who have made it in the art industry constantly commissioning other artists. People who care about their craft want to help other people they think are great at their craft. And want to be there friends.

In places were things overlap that can be a conflict of interest. That was the basis of the whole Zoe Quinn drama… but nothing actually happened with that. You don’t have to be a saint as a journalist and avoid all earthly pleasures, you just gotta avoid letting your self write about things you’re bias about. Someone might go “Well what about that Jenn Frank piece where she defended Zoe Quinn!” … Like, that was an op-ed, bro and the Guardian didn’t think her disclosing her friendship was important. Why, you might ask? IT’S A GOD DAMN OPINION PIECE. You are basically ASSUMED to have a bias. Jenn wrote an article about how she sees things. It’s not like she was paid off to lie and defend Quinn despite feeling differently or something. Most of the greatest writers ever were deeply involved with the things they wrote about. That’s what made their writing compelling — it was deep and personal. That’s what they provide, that journalistic articles cannot.

Gaming Journalism has been a mess for years, but Gaming Commentary has been getting better and better and Frank and Brice would be among some of the best. To see them and others like them targeted under the guise of “Fighting corrupt journalism” is a farce and those doing the attacking don’t seem to know what journalism is, or what corruption is, or even who to blame (protip: In most cases of corruption in this industry, it’s not the journalist’s fault anyway, it’s the publisher. Employed writers are at the mercy of their employers and driving off an employee would only get them replaced by someone else who would be forced to do the same thing). Instead they lash out at people who are scaring them and make it sound like it’s a noble endeavor. I’m sure some people honestly think they’re just trying to fight for good journalism, but, well, to use someone else’s words.

giving you the benefit of the doubt that you’re not just a raging woman-hating misogynist, i’m sorry to have to tell you: you have been had by some raging woman-hating misogynists. they have framed their crap in terms of Our Tribe Is Under Siege Oh No and you have swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.

it’s basically the same tactic the republican party uses to keep racism alive: just use the word “welfare” instead, along with the traditional stereotypes of laziness and inferiority and worthlessness. people will practically turn it into us-vs-them for you. it’s like magic! if you’re lucky, they’ll even spice it up with some moral panic!

(Tumblr user Eevee, covering some of the same ground as me)

#GameGate Nonsense

That annoying situation where I don’t wanna write formally about something, but twitter is too short form to do it without annoying the piss out of everyone and if I go on tumbr I’ll just be talking to people who don’t need to be told stuff again, so… I guess here we are.

Not going to give a real event summary. If you don’t know whats up you can look up #Gamegate or Quinnspiracy and read about it. Basically an indie game dev slept with a bunch of people (which shouldn’t be relevant but people keep bringing it up), one of which was a journo at kotaku and this was allegedly to promote her game Depression Quest. So now people are freaking out about corruption in games journalism or just her or whatever so I’m going to give my thoughts on some things.

Assuming she even slept with him for that reason, two big things bother me about basing critiques of the journalism industry off of this; It poisons the well. First it’s treating this as anything different or unique. There isn’t anything special about the corruption that went on with Quinn. Sex is about the same as money in this context and she paid off a journalist. Everyone goes screaming that this was unfair. I remember reading some bullshit somewhere about how Quinn wasn’t playing fair and how this gave her an unfair advantage… which is insane when you consider the amount of money everyone else is pumping into the system. Sex wasn’t an “unfair advantage”, it was her PR budget.

The second poisoning issue is an over focus on Quinn. Even if you think she’s scum, her being scum has little to do with the industry being corrupt. If a system is going to avoid corruption it has to do it internally. External forces are always going to try and spend money to market to their advantage. Usually we understand this. When a company buys a site takeover, I think most of us groan at the site, not the company because of COURSE the company would want that and it’s the site’s responsibility to say no. Remember, game developers are not in the business of journalism and them not having journalistic integrity doesn’t matter to them. Any real criticism of gaming news should be independent of those offering the money, yet somehow Quinn has garnered more hate than Kotaku for all of this. Kotaku’s integrity matters for the industry. Quinn’s does not.

Then their is the whole “feminists are corrupting game journalism” stuff which is just hilarious nonsense.

I think the sad thing after all this is that there is probably no actual solution to any of this. Movie reviews tend to be more honest because the industry is set up in such a way that… There are tons of reviewers and those reviews appear in papers that people used to buy and if seen on websites now, are with advertising stuff not necessarily related to movies. It’s insular and with other cash sources. I would imagine that it’s getting a lot rougher on movie reviewers now, but the culture of that industry never seemed to be “pay for good reviews” since the returns were so low in trying to do so (instead you’d just block reviews until release if your movie sucked :P). Game reviews get their money now from the industy. From there ads, from their site take overs, for doing in depth previews and even then they don’t make a whole lot of money. We’d have to pay more money to hope to get reviews free of other moneyed interests and with patreon that’s possible, but I feel like in a lot of cases, those journalists will be uncomfortably bound to us. “Hm, I could talk about this important issue that might piss off a lot of people paying for my content or I could just shut my mouth and say this is great”. That’s probably something someone has ALREADY thought about and there is probably someone who lost a whole lot of patrons by opening their mouth.

But hey you can all worry about that, I haven’t read a game review to inform a buying decision in like a decade. That’s what friends are for.

Addendum: So just some more food for thought here.

Quinn slept with five guys. One of them worked for Kotaku. That person wrote one line about depression quest, before they were even dating. Which makes the idea that this is “journalistic corruption” even more laughable and also makes it obvious that she probably just wanted to fuck the guy (because why wouldn’t she maybe want to fuck someone who lived near her and also had an interest in video games?). With the way people talk about it, you’d think she fucked five journalists to get big writeups or something.

(Post has been edited to better reflect this addendum and correct some misinformation. God the internet had me convinced there was more than one journalist but instead nerds are just obsessed with her sexlife)

Scanlines, CRTs, Faux Retro games and whatever

So I was browsing 4chan, as I often do (because I make bad decisions) and decided to drop into /vr/. Without fail there will be a thread about scanlines and NTSC/CRT/RF shaders. I actually find this interesting, because despite not caring about the aesthetic, I do want to have some sort of filter for Brave Earth that isn’t just “lazy scanline overlay”. So I ran into this and found it hilarious.

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Personally, the appeal there for me, is baffling and I’m no sure it’s going t make people wish indie devs were “more accurate” with retro stuff. My first memories as a child involve me playing on my mom’s Atari 2600 and my uncles NES after that. All on crappy old CRT sets over RF. Hell we had one of those hilarious furniture looking console TVs. Maybe it was building sprites in Mario paint, or the better pixel quality of computer monitors and making games in ZZT and megazeux, but the whole “retro means blurry and with scanlines” thing never quite clicked for me. I see thing as pixels. When I play games on the CRT I still use for console games because I’m cheap more than anything, I don’t “see” blurry phosphors. Since our brains fill in a lot of details for us, in my head I’m seeing pixels. So games emulated on LCDs are a plus to me. I like big clunky sharp pixels. Other friends I have look for stuff like framemeisters or buy line doubles and scanline generators to get something closer to what they see in their heads when they play retro games. That’s all cool. It’s awesome to try and recreate things in the past to preserve it for the future. IT’s why stuff like Higan (a super accurate and CPU intensive multi console emulator) are important, even if I will never bother using it.

Still there is a growing number of purists I see getting mad about this stuff. It won’t be a big deal if it was just crazy people /vr/ or those crazy shmup forms or whatever, but I’ve seen even people I know say shit like “this game couldn’t run on the original hardware” or “this isn’t what retro games look like”! I even had one person I know complain that Jamestown had too many bullets for a Neo-Geo game, which is absurd since Jamestown doesn’t claim to be anything. So here are some thoughts on all this, because it’ll probably only get worse once BEP is out (in 50 years).

But old games were designed to be viewed on CRTs!

This is mostly bologna and the thing you need to ask your self is, for any technique, would the art designer NOT have done that if their art was on a LCD or better quality display? Things like dithering come up a lot. Something like say the contra logo… on a CRT the colors blur together more, making the gradient smoother. But the technique of dithering has been used quite often on LCD screens (Just look at Jim’s portrait in this EWJ gameboy port) or in PC Games forever. Acting like LCDs and CRTs is silly — they obviously have visual differences, but there are really very few techniques you’d use exclusively on a CRT. Besides, this is basically any unfalsifiable anyways since we can’t know what the artists were intending or not intending. I would imagine you’d see both artists glad to see their art viewed crisply, and ones who are disappointed by it.

with modern indie stuff where this stuff is thrown around (like with the picture at the beginning of the post)… well, I’ll have more to say about that later, but for now I just wanna say… Play the games on a CRT. Why is it the game’s responsibility to pretend it’s something else? If you plug an NES into an LCD it doesn’t give you scanlines and blur. Internally, for the purposes of this discussion, “retro” indie games and old video games are sending the same thing — an array of pixels. How the device they’re connected to displays them is the displays business.

Besides, this all doesn’t matter anyways. Many greek statuses were intended to be painted, but we prefer clean white marble. Modern statues and modern pixel art reflects that change. Even if it’s not accurate, it’s what most people enjoy and prefer now.

This game claims to be like a (insert console) game but it does this that and the other thing wrong!

If we wanted to make a perfectly accurate game, we’d probably all do what Battle Kid did or what Retro City Rampage tried to do. Most of us don’t. What we want varies. Some of us are just using lo-fi aesthetics as they’re one of the faster style to make while still being a style people respond to well (and remember, making games is hard, especially by yourself. Try it sometimes, it’s fun!). Some care a little bit more about the whole package. When this discussion comes up with people I know, oftne they’re like “Oh but you’re using colors and stuff in a mostly authentic way, you’re okay”… Like, am I? I modified the NES palettes to give me new colors I didn’t have, I don’t obey rules regarding sensible sprite sizes. I have far to many objects on screen at once and like megaman, these already large sprites would need to use MORE sprites just to get the density of color of some sprites.

In fact, adding those extra colors on Naomi was a big thing to me. When I made a mockup and asked people if I should give her more colors (technically possible, but not in the overall picture of the game), people pretty much universally said “Yes. Do it. Why wouldn’t you do it?”. For most people, they want the style up until the point where it interferes with the game. That’s why BEP has a third button. Oh sure I can say it’s start or whatever, but that’s an excuse.

This is the thing with art and fashion. When someone takes stuff from the 80s and 90s, no one (sane) ever goes “OH YEAH WELL IN THE 80S NO ONE WOULD WEAR THEIR HAIR LIKE THAT” because that’s not how fashion works. We take aspects we like forward. We take things that are familiar and transform them. I personally feel that if everyone who made “retro” games tried to, collectively, be more accurate about this stuff we’d be WORSE off. We’d just be wanking nostalgically to things that have already been done, instead of using the past as a spring board into the future… and that’s someone who loves when people maintain history. Making games for old hardware is some awesome digital SCA type stuff. But it’s historical more than anything.

Brave Earth started relatively more accurate earlier on and has gotten progressively more ridiculous in some of the things I put on the screen. But I don’t regret this — when I started this was supposed to be a small free project that didn’t have to move things forward. Now it’s something far more ambitious and better offfor it. It has an identity beyond being “Castlevania but with a sword”. Retro City Rampage also moved on once the shell of the NES got too hard for it to be contained inside and while some may bemoan that all that’s left is a prototype rom, most people are happier for the change. If all retro graphics mean to you is reliving your childhood and everything that comes with it, well… I don’t think much retro indie games are even meant to appeal to you.

We need to understand, lo-fi and pixel art and all that is a STYLE. Do you think the superbrother games are trying to be like a “retro game” and that they would look better if their games seemed more ‘authentically 8/16 bit’? No, and that’d be completely missing the point. People will point to Ridiculous Fishing as being “retro” when the art in the game is composed almost entirely of triangles. There is a huge gradient hereof how these styles can manifest and anyone is free not to like them…but to act like a certain kind of style is somehow more noble is ridiculous. You can still criticize how a style is executed but we have to realize that most of this is a matter of taste and priorities. We all have different desires and developers have different goals. I get driven crazy when games that MOSTLY get it right do things like transparency and sprite rotations, personally. I’m sure Brave Earth will set off people on different issues. But then people will complain that IWBTG doesn’t maintain a consistent pixel density and uses rotating sprites and stuff and it’s like… seriously? Did you miss the point that hard?

The past is a tool and we should not be slaves to it… and that said, I’m still going to try and get construct to do some amount of CRTish effects as a toggle option because I hate my self.

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance Mini-Review

Not going to do one my big breakdowns for this one, but I enjoyed it enough to say some stuff about it. As usual, I’m going to assume you basically know the details about the game, try reading another review or something first to get up to speed. Or play the game, it’s pretty good!

I’m a big fan of Platinum. They’re loaded with talent I like. Hideki Kamiya is a pretty boss mo-fo and Clover never did me wrong (I <3 you, God Hand). I'm also a huge Metal Gear fan -- bigger than my other gaming opinions might apply. So once reviews made it clear that the game had overcome it's production problems and wasn't a trian wreck, it immediately became a 'must buy'.

Bayonetta, but…

I love Bayonetta, full stop. Rising feels like it’s made from Bayonetta’s basic components. Comboing has the same sort of rhythm to it, you execute moves in the same way and overall it has a very similar feel. It even has Dodge Offset on the one dodge move you can unlock.

The big realization in Bayonetta though was that it was a game about defense. The dodge and witch time really influence how the game feels. Dodging has secretly been the core of 3d action games for some time, from Monster Hunter to Dark Souls.

The goal of Rising was clearly to make defense ‘aggressive’. In Bayonetta, you could madly roll around until you got a lucky dodge. In Rising, you must parry in the direction of enemies, so you can’t stall nearly as easily. While I still find parrying to be fairly easy (once you know what the game wants), it is, compared to dodging, very attention and timing intensive. The game is also much more grounded. Raiden lacks even a double jump (which drives me nuts when I see him jump 100 feet in a cutscene but can’t climb a relatively low wall). Raiden is like a truck — he can be very fast and powerful, but he can’t just fly around like crazy, so the game actually ends up playing very grounded. The parry is cool — the game is still technically largely about defense (especially since a perfect parry is one of the few ways to kill enemies in a timely manner. More on that later), but the purposeful act of pushing an opponent’s attack away makes the game feel a lot more aggressive. Even the ‘dodge’ is an attack.

You also have Blade Mode. It’s a cute gimmick but I feel conflicted. The game seems to designed to give excuses to use this system but it rarely gives a good reason to use it. The game wants enemies to die from blade mode. As such, many enemies are unreasonably beefy and almost require a perfect counter to defeat in any reasonable time, making speedy fights a matter of luck, hoping the enmy does the right attacks. This is offset by Jack-the-Ripper mode, which is basically an armor breaking Devil Trigger. The game hits it’s stride when your JTR moding through big enemies only to pop smaller enemies like little energy packs. The pacing is great as long as you don’t slip up. Sadly limb and weapon cutting isn’t terribly interesting. The only interesting application of blade mode outside of bossfights I found in the game is slashing a blocking Broad Sword cyborg to break his guard. It’s not a bad system, but I can’t help but to feel the game is too far balanced toward Zandetsu. The fact that it fills all health and blade mode completely with one grab I think is a concession that Platinum didn’t have enough time to truly balance the system. Their solution is less elegant but very safe and still fun so I can’t complain too much.

Two additional nitpicks. The games secondary weapons are lacking. Most aren’t very good, and the SAIs are oveprowered and boring. This could be salvaged if they could be quickly transitioned between, Devil May Cry style, or if the menus were truly Metal Gear style, but switching is just tedious enough to discourage it in all but a handful of occasions. Atop that, I’m a annoyed that optimal DPS seems to be doing Raiden’s back-foward launcher over and over again. I guess it’s not that big of a deal, since usually it’s not an optimal way to fight groups of enemies, but it’s kinda silly looking where applicable.

Still, combat wise, I feel like Rising almost has the edge on Bayonetta and I hope to see a Revengeance 2 where Platinum can polish this wonderfully aggressive system.

As for the content — some people complain about short games. I love short games. Especially mastery driven games that I can play through over and over again. Once JTR mode is unlocked semi-immediately on NG+, the game flows much better. To salvage the original Rising content in a reasonable time frame, Platinum made a really lean game. Some of the of the visual content gets recycled a lot, but the enemy related challenges keep ramping up appropriately.

Another random note: The music. Oh my god the music. Not the sounds themselves. Most are okay at best (though there are one or two gems), but the manipulation of music so things like the vocals kick in, or the music crescendos when big moments in boss fights happen? That’s AWESOME and I wish more games would do it. The game also uses QTEs quite well. There is a bit of ‘press X not to die’ but it does a great job of legitimately making you feel awesome. Ending a lot of these segments with blade mode also add a deal of expression to the action. I kinda always wanted more ‘analog’ QTEs where the players input influence the action more, even if the results are largely the same. Blade Mode segments after QTEs are close.

The plot is hilarious. It’s like an Arnold Palmer of 50% Metal Gear and 50% DMC. Some of the exchanges have a level of corniness that can only be describes as Devil May Cry. The game is hammy as hell. The only real disappointment is I wish it struck a balance better. Metal Gear is great at taking it’s self seriously, while not taking it’s self TOO seriously. It’ll laugh with you at it’s self, but it never acts like it’s a joke. Rising does. Which is okay. It made me laugh a ton (the last boss says so many amazing lines that he’s basically a walking ball of memes. Monsoon would be proud). Not much to say about the plot. It’s hard to follow and barely matters. There are a few good segments. The Sam sequence where Raiden hears the voices of the cyborgs he’s fighting is pretty cool. It seemed very Metal Gear-y (even down to the soldiers saying the most corny stuff as it happens, just like in MGS3’s The Sorrow sequence). It seems a little oddly misplaced in Rising, but whatever. It’s better there than not there, but I’d love to see more tonal consistency in a sequence.

So basically it’s a pretty great game, but it does show some seams from being a salvaged project. The fact it does so good despite these hardships is a good sign. I hope Platinum is allowed to continue the series.

In Response to EpicNameBro’s “Future of the Souls Series” Video

The video can be seen here. EpicNameBro (also known as Marcus, which I’ll use from here on out because it works better in sentences!), a staple of the Souls community, talks about what changes should be made to the series in future installments that we have to assume are coming. He makes many astute points and it’s hard to peg anything he says as flat out wrong or bad. So this will be more of an… addition to that discussion. Some of this might be redundant with my previous writing on the Souls games, but whatever.

I mostly will be talking about the multiplayer aspect, much like Marcus was but I just want to note some stuff on story…

Storytelling

Marcus and I are mostly in agreement on this, but I really do think the Soul’s game need to put a LITTLE bit more forward to the player. The game get’s too many complaints about being hollow and storyless for this to stay. It kills me every time I hear it. I’d say the Soul’s game need…. like, “10%” more story. I don’t know what 10% actually means in StoryTellingUnits, but I think it invokes the right idea. A substantial but still minor push. I’d like to see more things that are on item descriptions be things that NPCs say offhandedly. I don’t want there to be any pre-boss-fight monologues, but I would like if NPCs added a bit more to your knowledge of whats going on. Just enough to give some sense of propulsion. I want the vagueness and mystery to remain, I just want some more clues to be put in plain sight to tell the player. I agree that cutscenes is not how the Souls games tell stories, but I don’t think item descriptions are a particularly good way to do it either when that represents such a large percentage of the information in the game. Ultimately what I want is for more people to be able to notice and enjoy what is there. I doubt, under that context, Marcus would even disagree but it is somewhat contrary to wait he said in his video.

The Gordian Knot of PvP

Marcus probably caught a lot of flak for referring to the multiplayer as Garbage and I don’t much disagree with him. That said, I thought a lot of his solutions missed essential and fundamental problems. It’s also a problem that changing one system almost kinda breaks the game. Many knobs need to be turned in unison to progress the Souls series along, making this a tough topic to theorize about.

The first thing in the video that made me want to comment was his thoughts on the Bottomless Box glitch. He stated that From is clearly okay with Gankers and has to be up on stuff like that and the dragonhead glitch if that’s the case. Technically that’s correct, but that is an unrealistic expectation. You can not make perfect software with any sort of confidence that it won’t break. Atop this, is tacit approval of over-leveled griefing really something worth preserving?

You cannot ever be sure that stuff like the Bottomless Box glitch or the Dragon Head glitch won’t happen. So all you can do is design your game so that if they do happen, their damage is limited. Non-scaling weapons are a pox upon the game. For a character at level 1 to 10 to do as much damage as a 120 vit-gouge build is absurd and it is madness that PVP match making is balanced round level when gear makes up the majority of a character’s strength. If gear properly scaled or had certain requirements along certain upgrade paths, then you could effectively limit how overpowered a low level character could be. This means that a skilled player who got a character through the game at a low level would be able to troll low level players better than another player, but that it wouldn’t be like being practically invaded by a level 120 character. Sure, their health and endurance is a lot less, but when the best weapon you could hope to have is the Drake Sword, the difference is almost invisible to all but the most skilled players.

AR, like defense, should scale with level. By doing that, an elemental build and caster builds could have decent weapons according to their level, but would not be unstoppable godmonsters at level 1. This also means people invading or being summoned can be stronger enough than the host for things to be meaningful, but not so overpowered that they trivialize the experience. Atop this we also got to assume that the invading player already has the skill advantage anyways.

If I were to be more radical, I’d say the next Souls game perhaps should not even have levels. Exact stat configurations in Dark Souls are not particularly interesting and are mostly focused on what equipment you want to use. Being able to switch your build on the fly via equipment could lead to equipment with various types of synergy bonuses (A Thief’s armor could improve backstab damage and be synergistic with light and stabbing weapons while a big set of armor might give synergy bonuses to large weapons). The only thing that makes me not like this approach is aesthetic reasons. I almost feel the same as Marcus about wanting to dress up to look cool. I want armor choices to be meaningful, but not so complex that I have to forgo a nice looking combination because not wearing an ugly mask is just not being competitive. You could do some things with specialty armor and weapon upgrades too (and thusly you can basically ‘change characters’ by changing equipment sets) but that is approaching a level of gaminess that might not fit right in Dark Souls. Personally I always felt rubbed the wrong way by characters who’s strength came primarily from their equipment too, but given that this ALREADY is true in Dark Souls I could perhaps let it slide.

Fortunately this stuff can be changed without fundamentally breaking the system, but lets talk about netplay. Marcus talks a lot about LAN support for the game. Regardless of the validity of that idea, I want everyone to think about something. If the game was played without any lag, how good would parries be? If you answer anything besides “Totally game destroying”, you’re fooling your self. The attack speed in Dark Souls is such that, without lag, a high level player would be able to parry most moves in the game on reaction. The competitive answer to this would be to speed attacks up, or remove parries. Speeding up attacks removes a lot of the personality from the game and removing parries removes a very cool PvE feature. You can’t make parries slower either, because then you make them even WORSE for PvE and they’re already on the borderline of “something a player might never use because they never figured out how to”. The needs of PvE, vs PvP, plus the knot of weird bugs and exploits that hold PvP together lead to a strange game that is hard to change without re-envisioning it. Lag also allows stuff like Pivot Backstabs to work and between that and glitches like Dead Angles, you’re able to overcome shields. Improved netplay (which I think is technically achievable AS IS while still introducing the same issues as Lan play — just to a lesser extent) changes backstabs even more for the worse, making their punishing capabilities better while making the positional, lag focused jukes to find an advantage less good. All these systems are, in a sense, degenerate, but it’s a huge question that will reshape the series to decide what they need to be replaced with. Like Marcus, I think grabs could be good. Ultimately we need ways to break turtling and for position to matter more and those are great for that — not currently, possibly if designed with that purpose in mind. And considering how many interactions happen with large enemies where parries are useless, having a multifunctional grab (I guess roughly like Dragon’s Dogma) has some obvious advantages and gives a way to balance mechanics between modes.

Another general issue is that Dark Souls PvP is far too all-or-nothing and it’s painful that a lot of the stuff I shared above is so damaging yet so essential. It feels lame to fish for backstabs but at times it’s the best thing you can do. Nerfing backstab damage was one of the best changes made to the AotA expansion. Between that, stunlocking attacks and ridiculous magic that has to be overpowered to be good in PvE but as such has to miss a lot in PvP to avoid being overpowered. That’s a huge problem. Spells like Dark Bead and Dark Mass wouldn’t be so god awfully retarded that they needed a special item to get around them if they didn’t have to do so much damage to be useful. Dark Mass is an amazing concept for a spell, and Dark Bead has the most interesting zone of control out of any spell in the game. But they end up being grossly degenerate now because either players will die immediately to those tactics or will survive them with relative ease. Magic in general is an area where the Souls games need a lot of work and the first step to doing so will be getting past the idea that spells are big nukes to use against dumb AI. Even the roll system possibly needs revisiting, though perhaps medium roll and even to an extent, fat roll’s semi-viability is a vast improvement from the vanilla game (Funnily, I think the best part of the DWGR nerf is that the roll is much shorter range and thusly makes it harder to pivot backstab slow-rollers. I agree with Marcus fully on things like how offhand weapons should work and such, as well as with covenants. Still, I think for the PvP to really shine without detracting from the PvE, a lot of deep, fundamental changes must be made. The basic control scheme can remain, but systematically, a lot of huge changes will be required, else Dark Souls PvP will always be a silly, semi-casual affair.

Tevis Thompson’s “Saving Zelda” Article is Garbage: The Dangers of Nostalgia and Entitlement

I feel like I’m in a good position to criticize Thompson. We’re both of the same generation. We grew up enjoying the original Zelda. Of the 3d Zeldas, Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker are the ‘exceptions’ and we both deeply enjoyed Demon’s Souls and difficulty in general. I’m also ‘barely’ a Zelda fan at this point. I have no fandom defensiveness going on. I can barely tolerate to play any of the new games. Regardless, his conclusions, to me, seem utterly bogus. When I first saw his article, I ignored it because it seemed poorly reasoned within the first few paragraphs. He wrote well — better than I ever do — but I’ll take a good argument over good prose any day. I only come to it now because I keep seeing it pop up here and there and I’ve finally come to read it.

Occasionally someone will say to me “You only like old games because of Nostalgia” and I’ve used the same answer for awhile. “Not quite. I like Castlevania or Contra because they’re good. I like Dinowarz because of Nostalgia”. If you look at kids going back and playing NES games now, none of them are playing Dinowarz, or Festers Quest or Karate Kid, or a huge amount awful games we learned to like. There are two games that are rarely enjoyed by the younger generation though that are, to many of us who grew up with NESs are thought of as sacred. They’re Metroid and A Legend of Zelda. Both innovative games in their time that have been ravaged by time and are almost unplayable to most people now.

Tevis Thompson is both a victim of Nostalgia and seems to have an over inflated sense of entitlement. No game is going to live up to the child like wonder you had when you first played it and youth makes for the rosiest of tinted glasses. Now, appreciating something due to nostalgia is no crime in it’s self. The problem comes when you assume your fond memories mean that something is inherently better and even worse to assume that is the solution for everyone’s ills. The fanbase for Zelda is not built on old men anymore. The series is no longer about what it was about once, in it’s first incarnation. We should be asking our self what Zelda should be for the people who love it, not for a few old men. Even among old men, the original Zelda is rarely considered the “best’ (LTTP and Links Awakening get that honor from the old guard in my experience).

So first thing that hit me was his comments on difficultly. Zelda should not be harder. Zelda should be EASIER. Zelda was not Demon’s Souls even during it’s time. Every game on the NES was hard, but Zelda was one of the few you could beat, with time, due to it’s save system. Even if it was a Contra, or a Castlevania, its original incarnation is not important at this point. Also it shouldn’t be easier because just because I say it should be easier. I like hard games! I wouldn’t even enjoy Zelda more if they were easier. This decision is contrary to my own personal desires of tastes. It should be easier because Zelda has teetered on the edge of accessibility for so long, but has never committed. The stealth segment at the beginning of Wind Waker means I can’t have any of my younger relatives get through the game. They also tend to have a ‘difficulty’ ramp up at certain points (such as the water temple) that are mostly invisible to experienced gamers, but significant to new players. The games have been, since LTTP, adventure games more than Action games and I think it benefits from dancing in that direction. I think making the game easier is the best way to grow the player base while not bothering the majority of pre-existing fans (who no longer have the idea in their head that Zelda is supposed to be ‘hard’). Now I could be wrong in my assessment, but i am -not- making it off of my personal preferences. If more games were like Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, I would personally be happier, but I don’t think gaming would be better off for it. Tevis should be less selfish. If Demon’s Souls is what he thinks Zelda should be, he’s fortunate because Form Software will probably have more games to give him! Now, I’ve said that I think Castlevania should emulate Dark Souls and that the soul games are the true Castlevania successors, but modern non-metroidvania Castlevanias never found their voice like Zelda has. Zelda has a voice — a flawed, unpolished voice that is often abused (in many ways that Tevis was right about, but also mostly stuff most people already knew). The answer isn’t to scrap everything and go back to Zelda 1 (if you want that, there is also 3d Dot Game Heroes which I ALSO enjoyed, but also suffered from being painfully obtuse), it’s to make it good at what it’s trying to be. I don’t have the answers to how (and really, I don’t like Zelda enough to care), but I know that Evis is coming from the wrong place. His blindness to his own nostalgia makes him as guilty as the people who say that Zelda needs to go back to being more like Ocarina of Time. For all Tevis has to say about his feeling of loneliness and isolation and a mysterious world, kids who grew up with OoT could match his praise. They would talk about how mystified and amazed they were when Link first traveled through time, or talk about the bleakness of the town in his adult form or how Epic fighting Ganondorf felt. The praise will be very different, but will still be bathed in childlike wonder.

This isn’t to say that this means the two are equal games. What it means is Tevis and the young fans who mindlessly defend OoT are equally wrong in their approach. When Tevis insults Aonuma for taking the ‘teeth’ out of a hardcore series, he fails to realize that, at the time Ocarina game out, that Zelda had already been a not-hard-core series for longer than it’d been hardcore. But no, since Demon’s Souls panged some Zelda Nostalgia in his head, THAT must be the answer! It’s embarrassingly “id” based thinking.

It’s unfortunate because he is right about many of the symptoms. Zelda IS too caught up in its own conventions. It’s content to stew on its big name and mediocre design. Most of this was already somewhat well-known and having a well written repository for that information would have been good… But the solution stinks. Even if some of it could work (reducing story, for one!), it comes from such a wrong place that for any of his suggestions to be taken seriously they have to be decoupled from Zelda 1. If the plot should be reduced it’s not because that’s how Zelda 1 did it, or to get back to its roots. It should be done because most games could deal with having their plots reduced! Zelda needs to change to truly thrive again, but the last thing it needs to do is be slave to the old ways. Mr Thompson’s fond memories are not the same fond memories shared by most of the current fanbase or even my self.

Tevis’s hubris would sooner betray the fanbase than save the series. Don’t let your own tastes or nostalgia get the best of you.