Why would you make a Hard Game Easier???October 3rd, 2023
So Lies of P had patch that adjusted difficulty and I haven't played it, but I have played though AC6 who had the same thing happen and the discourse seems to be... about the same and it really just got to me how poor the nuance around difficulty discussion can be. Maybe it's more accurate when talking about Lies of P, maybe it's the same crud, but whatever.
Now, I'm very much on record saying the AC6 patch stuff is massively overblown. Only one thing really seems like a significant nerf and that was probably warranted but like... whether any of these changes are good is definitely something you could talk about. The changes, for example, (especially including the weapon based changes) seems very much designed to make more builds viable in more situations. You could easily make the case that "Even if the changes are kinda small, this is a game about building mechs, sometimes a build shouldn't viable for a situation to encourage you to use more options and explore the game" and I wouldn't agree with you (I think you're still rewarded plenty of tweaking a build for a mission you always could beat AC6 with one design anyways) but like... that's a discussion, right? Where do you draw the line? My line isn't right and talking about our lines is a great way to build perspective.
... But most conversations aren't going like that. It's a lot of ARGGGGHHH BABY MODE!!! PEOPLE CAN'T HANDLE HARD GAMES!! THEY NERFED IT!! NERFED IT TO THE GROUND!!! They have to sell more copies so they RUINED IT!!! People will only be able to play the BABY version!
... like come on, how many more copies do you think they sold because they made Balteus's missiles track a little less?
There is a lot to unpack here. How people mythologize their own experiences as The One True Way, how any backward slide gets exaggerated by communities and repeated so often they become almost permanent lore. Instead, we're going to talk about people not understanding the many reasons why a designer might change their game to be easier. Why they might make these changes for reasons besides public pressure.
I think a thing a lot of gamer brained players don't realize is that Making is hard game is actually really really easy. It's so easy, that if you're making your first game, there is a good chance it's going to be way harder for other people than you think it is. It's so easy you'll do it on accident!
Making a hard game people want to actually play is the hard part.
I think it's hard for some people to realize that there is, almost certainly, a harder version of their favorite hard game that the devs had in testing and never released. That they are, by their own logic, even immediately from release, receiving the ""baby mode"". That outside of shitty as old LJN 8 and 16 bit games, that devs, even when they were making balls to the walls hard games, were... focusing on trying to give you an enjoyable experience. That the released game isn't some pure artistic expression that exists naturally, only to be corrupted against the devs wishes by player feedback.
Games are, largely, unnatural experiences. A lot of us designers try and make the unnatural feel as natural as possible. Some people hunt for really obscure, poorly made games, enjoying the weird emergent "natural" challenge that comes accidentally from naive design. But they are still, largely, an unnatural construct.
These constructs are, for the most part, made for our enrichment. We can argue the value of changing something, but we have to remember, even with the most Hardcore no normies, skill only!!!! games that these are constructed experiences. There is no true difficulty, no "real version" of the game. There is just the what we ultimately play.
I saw someone ask "Why would you make a hard game easier?" and I think if you're a gamer, looking for challenging experiences, that... makes sense. It's naive, but like, yeah why WOULD YOU? Well, here are are a few that have been stewing in my head!
It's Hard but it Sucks
This is the simplest. Pre-Patch Lost Izalith. A rushed area, filled with reused, rare mobs. "Hey this dragon butt only got used one other place so why not, we're in a hurry."
Pre-Patch Izalith has the player basically playing a poorly made stealth game to not get gang stomped by a dozen giant dragon legs. Later patches decided instead to turn this early Izalith section into a bit of a non area. It's not that bad, there are still things to kill you if you go exploring but the Dragon Butts are so hard to aggro.
If something sucks there usually isn't much of a pushback, but I've actually seen people defend pre-patch Izalith BECAUSE of the weird "stealth" gameplay.
... It seems to largely come from the same place as other difficulty arguments. "I had this happen to me so if other people don't, this means they were denied a complete experience"
Real proof that any changes, no matter how stupid the original behavior was, will be decried by someone as giving into babies.
The Curve is Wrong
A lot of dragging peoples asses through a hard game is tricking them to get in and into the game before tightening your grip... then releasing... and repeating. I Wanna be the Guy tried to have different, but reliable pulses of actual difficulty to keep things feeling fun in between the sections that made you want to die.
It's basically fixing a pacing problem. Usually people don't complain too much about these because their minor. I feel the AC6 weapon buffs hit this, giving better and more varied options early game. This certainly made the game easier, but no one talks about that aspect of the "difficulty nerf" because... well okay it's because people are bad at talking about difficulty as a holistic thing.
Anyways most games usually don't have that much of a mis-step here. When the first boss is way too hard that's usually not an unexpected bump in the curve, that's usually an intentional crest. That said, sometimes that difficulty spike doesn't quite work out how you wanted it to and...
The Wrong Thing is Hard
I feel like Balteus's missiles fit this. Watching my friend (hi Miko!!!), a hardcore AC vet, 1-shot Balteus pre-patch on her first playthrough, could kinda trick you into thinking the missiles were never that big of a problem to begin with. It seems the type of thing where, when you know how to play and move, it's not that big of a deal, but when you're new, it's a monstrous hurdle and that hurdle existing can be easy to miss.
"Oh we wanted to teach about pulse armor and want to encourage movement so this isn't just a slugfest but whoooops for some players and builds, this might as well be touhou."
This is one of one of the most common reasons for things to be hard, by the way. The designers, or testers, or whoever get too good at their game and underestimate certain elements because they're so much better at fundamental things like movement. Blind testers help but you're still trying to extrapolate a lot of data. For indie games, this can get super stupid. There is a 1-frame jump in IWBTG that's optional, but exists because I tested it once and got it the first try. Can't be THAT hard...
By reducing the difficulty in one area, you can allow the player to focus on the enemies you were meaning to highlight.
You Don't Want Them to Google it!
AC6 works great here again. Sea Spider was made vulnerable to more weapon types and while you can make the argument that the game is about builds!!, that type of attitude is what leads to someone going on reddit for help, realizing Double Zimms, Double Songbirds are strong, murdering the boss, and then never really switching.
Fighting a boss and not doing enough damage is generally a sign to a lot of players that they're doing something wrong and the response to that is often to look some stuff up. Easing certain parts of a fight, or making more builds viable can actually, in a weird reverse way, encourage to explore more, or use off the beaten path builds. You increase the likelihood of a player just endures and actually tries to learn on their own. That applies well to situations like Sea Spider where the biggest barrier was a knowledge check that... wasn't even a very good knowledge check (varied weapon type defense isn't well established in a game, and a lot of people are going to get to the fight with a build that already passes the check and not realize they were checked at all).
You Want to Make it Easier to Learn
Sometimes an early attack is too strong, or a boss does too much damage, or a checkpoint is too far. All these things are things that can be fine, or lead to a great experience, but other times you're like... Oh god wait no, it's taking people way too many attempts to get to phase 2, or to this hard jump or whatever, so you make that easier. I Wanna be the Guy had a lot of difficulty tweaks in both boss behavior and is save placement to try and help this along.
Brave Earth Prologue used to have lives, a feature I really wanted and defended to a lot of people who tested early versions of the game. Whenever the game is released though, it won't have them and part of the reason was because "While the repetition created by lives creates a novel learning experience in modern gaming... if I wanna have cool complicated bosses, I need to give people permission to fail". Making that area easier allowed me to make other areas harder because it gave players more chances to learn hard things.
To go back to AC6, I think this is where the IBIS damage nerf comes in. I feel less certain about this one, but I feel like, at least personally, when I finally beat Ibis, it wasn't by an inch, it was a mile. Her damage wasn't relevant for my eventual victory. Where it was relevant is... each attempt allowed me to get more information and to experiment more. The boss felt like she was going to murder you unless you learned her patterns anyways, so easing up on damage just seemed to encourage learning them more.
Armored Core VI: Fires of RubiconSeptember 20th, 2023
Back with Spec Ops: The Line I said I was going to try and make these more informal, but they always seem to spiral into something review-esque, which was never my intention. So this time we're going to go even further. I'm going to start to bust out the bullet point lists to try and get my thoughts out without having to worry about how one point leads into another. I'll have my paragraphs (reading this back, I have a lot of them), but I just need to dump thoughts sometimes. Also, while this is nothing new, I'm going to be talking about the story with no mind toward spoilers. Usually I get to games so late, this doesn't matter, but since AC6 just came out, let me just make it clear. This is not a review. This is a game journal.
Anyways, I liked Elden Ring a lot. Loved that game. Had lots of feelings about the game, but I played it earlier this year and never quite felt compelled to write anything about it, because what is left to be said about Fromsoft's soul-style games? Like okay sure there is a little bit to say there and I'm sure I'll say it when I do whatever year-end wrap-up I do, but AC6 is fresh and by fresh I mean an unopened PS2 game hidden at the bottom of a crate.
Like SF6's World Tour Mode we seem to be in The Great PS2 Revival.
The exact mix of polish of Armored Core VI is kinda remarkable. Parts of it are the slickest, smoothest feeling version of the series up until this point, but the structure, the missions, the general movement of the game isn't unpolished as much as it is remarkably bare, peeling up the carpets and exposing the hardwood floors that hasn't been seen for decades. You don't need doodads or a million map icons (or a map at all, it turns out), and fancy glory kill animations (a tasteful slowdown will suffice!). Maybe you can just make a mech game while never showing an actual human. It allows itself to have modern polish, without having all the modern styling and design patterns people confuse with polish.
A friend of mine said something like "Companies finally realized they could just make games like the used" and From has known this for awhile, but it's nice to see this not be isolated to a particular genre. These new games are also interesting to me, because I remember thinking at some point "We don't have a lot of retro PS2 style games because the graphics look good enough to not have a distinct style". I'm not quite sure of that anymore, but I what I definitely didn't expect that the retro thing was going to be the design philosophy.
This game seemed pretty story heavy compared to the PS2 era AC games (I can't speak for 4 and 5). Now, heavy is probably the wrong word. There is plenty of story even in AC1. Instead, AC6 is very story forward. NPCs in souls games almost feel like observing an animal enclosure sometimes, but like Sekiro, AC6 has some like... real ass characters your feel like you have a relationship with? When I first played Sekiro I assumed it was because Wolf was an actual character, but AC6 shows that was only part of the equation. As brain fried mech savant with little direct will of their own, your agency can only really be displayed through your relationships with others. I find the fact that most group have a different nickname for you to be endearing but also important. You want even the characters you don't like to have relationship with you to add weight to the few (but key) decisions you get to make.
Sophie, from the Sinclair Lore youtube channel predicted something from the trailers that turned out to be very much true. Most AC games start with you feeling like you have freedom before realizing you are being controlled. AC6 is about being controlled, but then realizing you have freedom. This works out powerfully because the early part of the game sets up these relationships you frankly don't have much say in but that you get exposed too, but then seeing them strengthen or fall apart based on your later decisions. Even the early decision you can make... you don't actually get to make it until NG+. This makes it feel more impactful than say... whether Murakumo or Chrome fall during the story of AC1.
Also this is interesting in how it worked with the arena. It was normal to see arena mechs on normal missions in older AC games, but it's another thing to coldly fight an AI simulation only to then murder someone on the battlefield, hearing their frustration, pride, fear, and disdain. Like oh these aren't just names you saw on a list, these are people you did business with, who you are now in a life or death struggle against.
Some character notes...
- I was surprised about how... not a scumbag Walter is. Like he's very scumbag coded, both in voice and presentation but I like how you slowly see that he cares and he's just... not that warm. At first it's not clear if he wants people to respect you because you're his, but as time goes on he puts more trust in you, even when he realizes it might be to his detriment.
- It's like he dehumanizes you because he feels like he has to but he's not very good at it. You can hear how tore up he is at the loss of his other hounds.
- Even if his goals were... under-informed or misguided, turning on him gave me no pleasure. Come on Walter, you don't have to carry the same burden!!
- Same with Carla and Chatty like ugh. Carla gets established so well and so fast and Chatty is so subtly likeable for a dry AI.
- lol god Michigan rules. I like how complimentary he is of people, while hassling his poor Guns. From trying to hire Rusty during the Ice Worm fight to pumping you the hell up during the mission to destroy the Red Guns.
- You're also still G13. Like that's part of your LORE, even while you're killing them. BOYS, YOU'RE FIGHTING THE G13 THAT DIDN'T DIE!!!
- Iguazu is such a perfectly shitty pissbaby of a boy. Gloriously petty. Loved blowing him up every time. How'd that dumbass even afford an assassin???
- On that note, GOD, RUSTY, what a sweetheart. What a golden boy. Calling you buddy, even when he's hurt by where things have brought the two of you. So confident, skilled and earnest. A perfect boy.
As for the actual plot...
- I like the 3 endings and where they end up, but I don't really like the Allmind Route, at least in the context of the sorta '3 play through' structure.
- Ayre asking to see what you'd choose and then having the 3rd route being the most bungling dumb nonsense choices definitely feels a little lame. I feel like it would make more sense in a scenario where all 3 endings were available from the start and it was likely written with that as the intention.
- "Surely trusting and following this creepy AI will pay off!" even if it... kinda ultimately does.
- That said, I think the 3 evolving playthroughs works great and it was, I think, the right decision, even if there are some warts.
- What the fuck is up with Branch and Raven's Operator? That felt like setup that never got payoff. Like yeah, gonna keep an eye on me I guess, Operator Lady???
- ... DLC?
- While there is a lot of soulsy 'read everything and read between the lines', I appreciate the game is also pretty direct and clear while also still having some restraint.
- Though the actual indulgence is pretty good. The Liberation ending definitely pours it on heavy, but since the game was so restrained and almost doomery, it feels really good. A real earned payoff.
- Him and Ayre contrast the rest of the game and each other very well. Where Ayre is as confused as you are, there is something great about having confidence that Rusty seems to know whats up, even if he can't really tell you exactly what's going on.
It should be important to say I played the whole game "post patch". Literally was gifted the game the day of. A lot of lore has been built up over things like Pre Nerf Balteus, how he was nerfed into the ground, etc etc etc, even though... people have pretty much confirmed they just made his missiles home a little less (which, honestly, only barely seemed like the "problem" with him to begin with). I felt engaged by all the boss fights people said were supposed to be hard. I really wasn't sitting there for any of them like "Gosh this would be better if I had to put in another 20 attempts". Nor do I think any of the three are so easy to numerically nerf. Instead they're hard because they introduce new problems.
- While I can never TRULY know how release Balteus felt, he seems like he was fine? He's definitely there to teach you shit and he took me a good hour to punch through, but by the end of it, I felt more comfortable understanding what the game wanted from me.
- A pulse gun. It wanted a pulse gun.
- And like everyone else playing Balteus with all their girl, NG+ felt like a joke.
- It's honestly kinda embarrassing how many people I've seen say "They nerfed him so bad! I fought him in NG+ and he died in like 15 seconds!!" like no shit, you're on NG+ and also a million times better that's just how videogames work!!
- Sea Spider and IB-01: CEL 240 both took some build and strategy adjustments, as a boss in these kinds of games should, but those changes made them easier.
- Yeah, I'm gonna pick 2 song birds and blow up Sea Spider.
- The nerf is probably better, because without it I just would have counterpicked him even faster.
- IB-01 got lance and pilebunkered. Which really puts the damage nerf into perspective. She killed me a lot, but when I won, she melted. Doing less damage didn't so much make her 'easier to beat'. It made her 'easier to learn' by extending each attempt.
- The damage nerf was almost certainly deserved.
In general people overvalue their experience as the 'the right/best' way, which is a problematic attitude people have with a lot of things, but ESPECIALLY Fromsoft games. Including me when DS1 came out. "If the missile pattern isn't exactly what I felt the experience is RUINED" or w/e just isn't reasonable.
- On other boss notes, Ice Worm sucks ass. Oh god so much fucking waiting.
- But Rusty is so hot in this mission.
- The perfect man for me is apparently one without a canonical form that I have to look at.
- okay sure, the fight DOES look cool though.
- Ayre probably gave me the most problems, but maybe that's because I was rushing to the finish line.
- Heal-skipping Boss AC's by pilebunkering them kicks ass.
- Okay I also fucking hated shooting into that fucking smoke stack like the boss wasn't hard but that was so annoying!!. That was one boss that was equally annoying every time I've refought him.
The patch and difficulty discourse gets into another conversation, people talking about 'easy weapons' being 'easy mode' and... well okay that's not wrong. I definitely pick up certain combos when I'm just done with a boss. But there is a weird undercurrent to this whole conversation like "Yeah, you can do double zimms, if you don't want to REALLY play the game." but like... what is really playing the game? Circle strafing for 10 minutes while plinking an enemy with a mediocre weapon out of some weird sense of pride, like that's the intention of the game about customizing mechs? Sure, take on King, Chartreuse and Raven on at the same time with SMGs and no burst damage. That's sick as hell! But the game isn't asking you to fight 3 high-end ACs because they expect you to nobly boost dodge around. It's because the game gives you options. You'll find the one that fits you.
I just find this conversation weird. The AC community and DS community are very separate, but both have this weird hangup over this same kind of stuff, even though both series are made by a company who LOVES to design around and embrace "cheese".
What do you want to get out of a game? I like the speedrun mentality. I like big damage and I like playing fast. I don't just wanna pound and tank with a cheesy build, I wanna optimize the start, I wanna maximize my chances, I want IB-01 to lose 3/4ths of her first health bar before she even gets to make a decision. "Okay this boss is fast, but does it do anything where I can pilebunker it for free"? Which is also why I've always enjoyed watching speedruns more than "Fists only, no hit!!" runs, even though those runs are undeniably extremely skillful... They're just also boring and repetitive. To me, at least, but that's kinda the point.
Personally I don't think there are many games where I had more fun because I did less damage. Of those few games, I'm pretty sure 100% of them are fucked up combo/character action games that would give me more time to beat up and combo enemies. A game like this? Naaaah. I've had more fun taking more damage. I've had more fun having to fight stronger, smarter enemies! I've enjoyed weapons that do less damage because they're fun and mechanically different, but not because they do less damage.
Some people like the slow stable long game. They pride themselves on dying as little as possible. Some people like me want to play intensely correct and absurdly aggressively for 30 seconds, in a burst of planning and execution... and the game supports both of these things. One isn't particularly more right or intended... and honestly, I don't feel the need to prove myself to a single player game that isn't going to be impressed either way.
The game doesn't care how you get through it, so why care about anything other than what you find personally enriching?
Relatedly, the weapon balance has some issues, and some of them are intrinsically hard to solve. A big issue is, for the Single Player at least, a lot of weapons are just... not compatible with fighting strong enemies. Projectiles that are too slow, charge shots that are too punishing to miss, etc. And missing is more punishing in this game because of how the stagger system works. Now, I don't hate stagger, it feels good, but it does strongly encourage burst, reliable stagger damage. The problem with not having it is your DPS ends up getting exponentially punished and makes strategies like long range plinking much worse. There are surely ways to build around this and make more weapons work well and feel good, but the reason a lot of people move toward a lot of strong "meta" weapons is because they fit the system better. Which is likely also why weapons were buffed and not nerfed.
The problem there though is... how do you buff a lot of the less rewarding weapons... or do you worry about it? Are they maybe better in PVP, with more human fallibility? That'd be fine. But it seems the buffs a lot of stuff needs is more in the realm of projectile speed, better tracking or even maybe nerfed AI dodging. The problem with the last one though is that only makes the good stuff even better so it's not really an option. I feel like anything with a charge attack shouldn't have an overheat cooldown. Like you're giving up a weapon to try and make a precise attack that is likely to miss, double punishing you. Maybe it'd be a way to make laser rifles better than (or at least interestingly different from) laser handguns.
I also feel like the game lets you do too much on a fast build and there is very little armament reason to go super heavy. There are durability reasons but most of the heaviest gear is kinda... eh? So you kinda get to have your cake and eat it too. On the other hand... you can have your cake and eat it too? That's not always a bad thing.
In other system stuff...
- I like the free mission replay stuff a lot. It's kinda weird to farm money, especially when money in AC games is kinda weird, but whatever.
- ... I kinda like that you can't buy and sell when you restart? So having money and having parts in your inventory actually matters to some degree.
- It feels like a little weird unpolished friction point but who cares?
- OS Tuning felt kinda lame. I hated how it was just an 'upgrade card you will eventually fill out' and not another place you could do meaningful tweaks.
- I need to play with more than the pulse shield and terminal expansion cards though.
- I kinda miss unique FCS reticle/lock-on stuff. Like I'm not saying they should have brought it back, but I do mourn the loss a little.
- I wish there were more mid mission decisions. What are there, two?
- The R3/Hard Lock-on felt weird like it changed your lock-ons to be more aggressive but in the moment, the effect wasn't enough to realize (for me at least) if it was on or off.
- WAIT HARD LOCK GIVES YOU A WORSE LOCK-ON TOO????
- I love that this game can actually show me Playstation Button prompts.
- I WISH THE GAME WOULD STOP DEFAULTING TO SHOWING ME KEYBOARD PROMPTS FOR SOME REASON
Most of these issues aren't that big a deal. Far less than what I'd expect in the older AC games. Fun to think about, fun to think about how they could do things differently, but if they never change another thing, the game still rules.
Okay now for the dumb stuff you're allowed to skip.
These aren't heavy roleplay games, but I almost never make myself "Kayin" in a game. So far in every Fromsoft Souls game I make Naomi for my first play through. Cool knight girl, usually sword sword of claymoreish sword on the first run and maybe a bigger one and some magic in NG+. Perfect fit. But she felt weird to in mech games. She kiiinda worked in Battletech, but I ended up using the Brave Earth Succubus, Vayn, for later playthroughs of that and the earlier Armored Core. Kinda just needed someone a little bit more... morally ambiguous.
Also it helps that she too spent years an a brain fried fog, used as a tool with little agency
This less informs my gameplay and route choices and more aesthetics.
(I mean... I have my own head canon stuff but I'll spare you)'
I wanted a cool ass emblem. I wanted something that you'd see in an old AC game in the arena and be like 'damn what's their deal??'. The roses, exploding out the back of the head beautifully like an exploded brain??? I'm pretty proud of it, okay!!
I messed with a lot of variants with the text. From vertical instead of rotated, to arched, on a circular emblem, whatever, but found that simpler was better. Helped that I gave up on using it with the text on the ACs. I'm honestly loving how the emblem system works. Doing stuff on the the blood splatter on the skull with masks is so fun and powerful, and the ability to nest these things together is incredible. As far as Emblems go, this is a very simple one, using assets as they're intended without a whole lot of fancy tricks going on, but I'm super happy with how it came out. I might use similar iconography for Vayn with something else at some point.
ACs and Aesthetic
White and Black is like the key colors for Vayn and most of her costumes, so went with that and very gundamy wear patterns. I ended up with the pale pink to make it undeniably also femme. I tried doing the seriffed text on the mech but it never worked so I went more 'racer' and added the checkers and more sleek font. The seriffed "Vanity" does sneak in sometimes. The V on one shoulder and Raven on the other kinda is embracing the dual identity of 621.
I also have ended up using 3 AC styles for her across all these games. LILITH, usually my go to mech and middleweight, DRIDER, usually a heavy quad but sometimes hover or tank bodies, and BANSHEE, something light and fast.
LILITH got me through most of the game. You can see serial labels around in the pics too. This is actually between the first model early in chapter 1 and the NG++ model, LILITH 03. There is also LILITH DD which was my favorite build to use when I can get away with it which basically was built on lancing into pilebunker. Occasionally I'd work in plasma stuff or missile pods or whatever. Early on, with LILITH 01 I was running the RANSETSU-RF and the Curtis. 02 also has badges from all the factions she got along with. Sadly after the last redguns mission, that logo had bullet holes put in it.
DRIDER first showed up to kill Sea Spider. Hovering over things to rain songbird shots. This is basically also also the "fuck this" build, especially the special DRIDER W which used wheels. I'd basically throw whatever a boss seemed weak to it on it and just go nuts. DRIDER W showed up to kill Ayre. The original DRIDER 01 basically was the same idea but with the lighter quad legs, and 02 just had a different torso. One annoying thing is it's really hard to place nice decals on quad legs! Or legs in general!. Loved the headpiece on this one, giving kinda a spider look.
BANSHEE Was definitely the fun build. Also where the serif text shows up. I love the huge shoulder skull. Mostly used this for double laser handguns. Usually built with the weird generators that recover fully from redlining and a good booster for infinite flight. Surprisingly a variant of this, BANSHEE BOLD, which was a little heavier and with a songbird and a stun needle cannon, is what I used to get through Destroy the Redguns due to having great ammo. Alternative versions used reversed legs too but the mostly ended up feeling unnecessary, but did give a nice insect look.
It was fun to mess with all this stuff and save old builds. While I mostly ended up on fairly typical weapons, the difference in mobility between the different builds was a lot of fun. Honestly, armament could just change with the mission like yeah sure lets try double BADCOOKS or whatever. While I tried to pay attention to stats somewhat, in the end, I was playing Fashion Souls. Compared to the PS1 and 2 games, these are aesthetically my favorite set of ACs.
Dragon’s Dogma wants you to ChooseFebruary 1st, 2023
Dragon’s Dogma the type of narrow, niche fanbase that made me know I’d love it whenever I got around to playing it and even though I knew this would happen, I wasn’t ready for quite how much I’d love it.
Dragon’s Dogma is a weird game. It feels like someone played a game of telephone, describing the conventions and goals of the big western RPG genre to the designer of Devil May Cry, who then declared “I got it” and made a game. The reality isn’t quite as funny. Hideaki Itsuno had a lot of the core ideas for this game all the way back in the year 2000 and he clearly was a fan of the western games he was inspired by. But instead we get back funhouse mirror reflection of the genre, seen through the eyes of someone with a very different value system.
In many ways this is similar to Demon’s Souls, a reflection of western fantasies and RPGs with an entirely different value system. But in the decade since, Miyazaki’s vision has permeated the culture of the game, and besides coming from the same place, often aping the same references (down to Berserk), these two games could not be so similarly different. Dragon’s Dogma still feels almost like outsider art, a beautiful jewel that nothing else is quite like.
I could go on about the combat, how the game has some of the best feeling and satisfying variants of the Stinger attack I’ve ever felt, talk about how the classes are WEIRD, or other things but one of the most defining features of Dragon’s Dogma, that permeates its whole design is that the game wants to make the player Choose.
Now, it’s easy to look at other games, the morality systems of a Bioware game or whatever, good and evil routes and go “These games make you choose!”, and they technically do, but the point of the game is not to choose. The point of the game is to play a role, and the choices are what makes that possible. The choices are a means to the end. In Dragon’s Dogma, the choice is the goal — or perhaps, you could say, expression is the goal, but Choice fits the theme of the game all to well.
The thing that makes Dragon’s Dogmas choices so wonderful is they are complicated, obfuscated, and with unclear inputs and outputs. The game wants you to sweat your decisions, but it makes it very clear. Choosing is better than not choosing at all.
From character select this happens. So many of the choices you make in the character editor affects things. Long legs? You walk faster. Big? You can carry more. Light? You use less stamina while moving. Gender not only influences gear, but how some enemies react to you (but, blissfully, not who you can romance, which is…. everyone??). All these have an affect, but never an affect that is so strong you’ll regret it, or one that will keep you out of important content. Your pawn and its design matters to. You share them with the internet and how they look AND their stats matter. Program your pawn with a fancy TACTICS GRID? No no no, you sit down and talk to them. Your pawn gives you abstract questions, and you chose the answer. The game throws systems, items, loot and everything at you, forcing you to figure out what to experiment with, what to keep, what to do. What do all these stats and icons mean??? Wait I got only a few places I can mark with crystals to be fast-travelable? I gotta choose that too???
It all matters but it doesn’t matter. This isn’t Dark Souls you aren’t going to be punitively punished. You’re not going to be tricked into making choices you didn’t even realize you were making. In fact the game goes out of its way to make SURE you know what you’re deciding.
The “moral” choices in these games feel more real and nuanced than other games. There are rarely right answers. Characters understand. Do you give the hot merchant girl who seems a little shady a bunch of money? Sure, but it doesn’t hugely matters. She appreciates it, but the choice doesn’t come back to haunt you. Do you evict the family for the rich merchant? They’re understanding that you’re just the one breaking the news and SURE you can buy the house but the game doesn’t present it as the obviously good answer. It’s just something that can come up. What’s your reward? Appreciation. When the merchant goes to trial, is he guilty? I mean… he probably is for SOMETHING, but it’s unclear. You can find evidence for and against, you can forge evidence for and against. Hell, you can just FORGE items, even important plot items. Which merchant do you give the gold idol to? Do you help Mercedes during her duel? Is either choice right? Who is your beloved? Do you get a ton of special dialog with your loved one? No, they just go into your house. But you have the freedom to chose. Even how you give gifts and respond to pawns you hired fits this type of player expression.
The important part is that the choices matter enough for you to see results but not so much as to make you worry about gaming the system, or hunting for a best ending, or whatever. But making a decision is hard, and you have to make them.
Thematically, this plays through the whole games. Pawns are devoid of will, and is your will, your ability to chose that gives you command over them. The dragon exists to find someone to make an Arisen, someone with the willpower to choose. The present them with difficult choices and challenge them. They need someone with the strength to inflict their will upon the world. Grigori fights you with every ounce of his strength, but that wonderfully, beautifully written dragon wants you to kill him. He wants someone who can take what is theirs.
All this to find someone who can replace the “Seneschal” of the world, to slay the previous god and replace them, to refresh the willpower of the universe. Every step, you are given permission to stop. Grigori understands sacrificing your beloved for peace. Not embarking to find the Seneschal is a valid place to stop playing the game. The game even tells you, as you fight god, that the peaceful life is an underrated one.
… And once your god, you chose when to die. This is a game, fundamentally, about having the willpower to Choose.
Odds and Ends
Alright, this will be less focused but just to get some stuff out.
This makes sense, coming from the designer of Devil May Cry. The DMC games are filled with choice. It’s not about being OPTIMAL. you CAN be optimal, but the games are about style, about being cool, about expressing yourself. This leads into combat that feels like a toned down DMC. Stingers, double jumps, crazy infinite arrow blasts. The game doesn’t try and constrain you with offensive resources, it wants you to express yourself. I expressed my self by being a Mystic Knight, third strike parrying everything, and by oppressing all those who would oppose me, with my friend the orb. Now I’m doing NG+ as a solo assassin which is just FULL of options.
Visually, the game is dated but beautiful. You see the rough edges, but the lighting is unusually naturalistic. It just… feels like being in the woods, a lot of the time and it makes things just feel so real and immersive, even with some of the age. The game didn’t need to have a day night cycle. The game looks beautiful during mid day and it could be kept like that but… traveling at night is another choice, and one the game encourages despite it’s drawbacks.
The story of the game is wonderful. While being low in dialog and character building it still manages to stitch together an amazing cosmology. The cycle of godhood is so creative and the Pawns are just wonderfully weird. Grigori might be my favorite dragon ever? The voice actor does a hell of a job. I love shit like the Duke’s whole mini arc
I also love how wildly bisexual this game is. Like the Duke’s Wife assumed my girl was ready to hook up with her at a moments notice (and she was right). It’s definitely more of a female leaning slant but the game still gives you the freedom to… romance whoever.
The armor in this game is funny. Want DS style armor? Covered. Wanna be Red Sonia? Covered. Less options for boy sluts, which is unfortunate, but the swinging pendulum of armor has me loving silly hot fantasy armor again.
I cheated a bunch by the end of the game. Rift crystals were too rare because online isn’t THAT active anymore. Also I’d dupe items I had cause forging stuff, while affordable, was just annoyingly time consuming. I in theory like that inconvenience tradeoff, but after the 20th forgery I was like ‘alright alright enough of his’.
I played on the PC version so no Berserk armor, but I love how this game takes a totally different set of Berserk influences than DS. Very Golden Age-y, while also being its own thing. Especially stuff like “Hey we made Mercedes cause we clearly love Caska but she’s not Caska, and the weird Witch Pawn isn’t Schierke… even if she lives in a tree house guarded by a golem”. All the influences are obvious enough to be appreciated, but unique enough to not be rip-offs.
Anyways, Madeleine is my wife. Dirtbag girls forever, see you in Dragon’s Dogma 2.
2022 CleanupFebruary 1st, 2023
I know I said I was going to post on every game I played, but that turned out to be too much work. Some games are worth talking about but don’t operate well as whole post. So lemme hit the four games I didn’t write about
Breath of the Wild
Hey I’m caught up. The problem with writing about this game is everything has been said and it’s very obviously good. I liked it a lot, like most people. Big shocker, BOTW is good. So I just wanna hit two points.
First, Princess Zelda is so bullyable. Like oh my god she’s so pouty. It’s amazing how you could just tease her and she’d cry, even though she’d also be into it…. and how she can withstand combat with Ganon for a century. Truly a duality of womanhood. A true queen.
Second, I was thinking about that whole, awful article about how “Zelda had to be more like Dark Souls” thing and how some people might go “See that was right!!” even though… it isn’t. It does similar things like trust the player, allow the game to be cheesed, and just giving an unusual amount of freedom and that feeling of being trusted by the Dev is something a lot of people felt with DS… But it’s not like DS and never needed to be.
As usual, people who say something should be more like Dark Souls don’t actually know what’s good and special about Dark Souls.
This game rules so hard. It honestly deserved a whole post. The mechanically fun action of chopping up ships to the brutal depictions of capitalism and the even handed treatment of unions. Like “Yeah, Unions have problems. You have to contend with some of them. But you also know how worse the alternative is. Nothing is perfect.”
Fun story, well told, neat bonuses and just good core mechanics. This game needed a ship editor or something so the community could keep it alive forever. I hope the devs come back at some point to give it an expansion. It’s definitely a concept that’d benefit from just a little bit more meat.
I guess that’s part of why I never wrote a bigger piece. It’s so solidly great, but in a way almost too simple to go into deeply. A simple, tasty treat.
Not done yet but I wanted to talk about how Satisfactory is fundamentally opposites. Factorio is a game where eventually, macro building gets EASY. Difficulty comes from the unreliability of your input (materials) and from Alien attack. Building is easy and systems must be scalable because input and output will change constantly due to all these factors. Ignore a base for too long and something will surely go wrong. You travel to expand, but also to maintain. Factorio is about growing an unstable system fast enough that it maintains stability.
Satisfactory is different. They added blue prints recently, but even then, this seems to hold true. Outputs are CONSISTENT. You have to build with growth in mind, but future growth is predictable. Nothing breaks the machines. And nothing should break, Satisfactory is a pretty game. It wants you to explore. It wants you to be able to leave for days and come back to a working base. Bases are extremely hand built and building is hard. Modifications are painful and tedious. Fixing a problem feels like taking apart an engine. It rules. Satisfactory is about expanding a stable system and good planning. It gives you time to lounge around, look around, for fuck around with tiny problems. Every factory and machine feels deeply personal. It more has the vibe of like… modded minecraft skyblock.. In fact, I should try Satisfactory Skyblock
It’s amazing how two games so superficially similar are actually so different.
I like it now. Goldlewis is my dad. I swing the coffin and peoples health disappear. Most previous complaints are still mostly valid but I play Goldlewis now so they’re other peoples problems. Playing a character with no legacy version to compare to was a pro move. 7.5/10.
Armored Core: First and Second GenerationDecember 28th, 2021
I’ve been planning to play though a good portion of the Armored Core library for awhile now and now that the seal is broke, I probably won’t stop until I’m done with AC3 (I want to play AC4 and For Answer but lacking a machine that can do PS3 emulation, I’ll need to track down physical copies so… who knows when that’ll happen). But instead of waiting to finish the 3rd Gen of games (which… might be as many games as I’ve played so far), I figured I’d write about AC1 and 2 as they make up the first “universe” of Armored Core.
So right now I’ll be talking about Armored Core, Master of Arena, Armored Core 2, and Another Age, skipping only Project Phantasm (which seemed good but MoA was the more ‘must play’ entry) and about half of AA.
Armored Core (PSX)
Why did I not get this game when I was like 14? Bleak yet fun, clunky in the right ways, and so many options I would have played with if I was 20 years youngers. A game almost every AC fan tells new players to skip and foolishly!
I’m going to try to and avoid turning my journals into reviews ago. You probably know how AC works, and if you don’t check elsewhere. I just want to talk about what stuck out to me…
First, the utter bleakness. The first two missions give you the choice between “Eliminate Squatters” and “Eliminate Strikers”. These aren’t “in universe terms”. These are people squatting in a building and striking workers. With mechs, but whatever. The game immediately has the corrupt corporations that run the Earth to partake in unethical and unnecessarily lethal behavior. While the game is never so on the nose after that, it sets the tone and sets you up read between the lines as Murokumo and Chrome bicker about the other while trying to make themselves look innocent. But you’re a mercenary, you don’t care.
I also liked how the subtle priority you give to missions dictates which corporation wins in the end. While the plot leaves no true winners in the end, it adds a lot to the flavor. As does other things like how bits of the plot is revealed in emails, or the ranking system of Ravens, seeing lists of pilots and ACs that you might encounter in future missions.
The Human Plus event is horridly bleak and a great balancing mechanic. If you go into crippling debt, you sell your boy to medical experiments, losing your name but getting superhuman piloting powers. The game even hints that this is how most “volunteers” end up in the program.
The game is kinda ugly, even by PSX standards, but holds up more clearly than King’s Field (which I also love). But it’s ugly in an APPEALING way I wouldn’t want to see changed.
The game ends with a brutal, tedious, awful, save state demanding mission where you realize the top ranked Raven is none other than a Computer AI that is controlling the world. The computer begs you to stop. “Go back…it is not too late… …What is your wish? …Come no closer.“
Once you destroy critically damage it, it accepts it’s fate
“You are to destroy order? Destroy the world? Is that what you want?
We were needed, that is why were born. People cannot live without Order, even if it is a lie.
Go on living, Raven. You or I… which one of us was ultimately right? You have the right and duty to find that out.”
Armored Core: Master of Arena (PSX)
Master of Arena is strange in the original AC continuity. It serves as an alternative retelling of the original Armored Core. The Raven mercenary rank listing has been replaced with an Arena system where you can challenge those above you to reach “Nine Ball/Hustler One” (the AI in the original AC) to get revenge for killing your family.
Despite being a retelling, you can import your save from AC1. This hits into a problem with both AC1 and 2. Once you have what works for you, there isn’t much to tinker with. There could be such a thing as mission specific loadouts, but the game is never clear enough with you what you might want to bring. It also doesn’t help that some bits of equipment seem to just outclass everything. I found myself almost always running Karasawa and Moonlight Blade (Yes, that Moonlight) on a medium mech with only slight tweaks in exact arm and leg models through most of Master of Arena.
Still it was a lot of fun. The missions felt way more diverse. The way the game would suspend your arena license for plot reasons to make you do normal missions worked very well. The game also has an entire second disk of arena matches I Didn’t touch but would have entertained me for hours as a kid. It had arenas operated by weight classes to try and encourage build variety and using every leg type.
The twist (your operator being an AI/Huster One) wasn’t really much of a twist since you assumedly played AC1, but the fight is much much more intense, compared to the almost sad, deflating ending of the original.
The AI’s message to you is a little different, but it drops another line that will be important later.
“Those who wield too much power…those who only bring chaos…they are simply not part of the program.”
Armored Core 2 (PS2)
I loaded up Armored Core 2 thinking ‘wow, finally, I Can use analog sticks’! When that didn’t work, I went googling to find that, to my disbelief, Armored Core didn’t get analog support until deep into AC3!
That said, upon playing the game, the difference in controls were immediately transparent. The camera and aiming reticle just worked nicer and movement felt great. It was still largely the same game. Oddly, it might have actually ended up feeling smaller than AC1. Less big sprawling maps of underground complexes and more almost cramped arenas.
Mechanical changes were a mixed bag. Overboosting could be fun but felt extremely impractical and I absolutely hated the exact implementation of the heat mechanic, which is like some weird Dark Souls esque poison system. But that all didn’t matter compared to how much nicer the game felt to move in.
Karasawa still dominated the game for me. Apparently this was it’s most powerful incarnation. As such my builds were pretty stagnant, but still fun. The missions, while often simpler, were much punchier. It made it easier to go through missions, knowing I wasn’t going to walk into some massive 20 minute mission like I would sometimes in AC1.
Most of the story didn’t stick with me too much. A much more diverse version of the cooperate rivalry in AC1. But the villain Leos Klein, stood out. Klein is implied to be the your character from AC1. The most striking part of this feeds into how his lines echo Nine Ball.
“We all make mistakes. Don’t you think, Raven? We humans need strict supervision. We cannot live on our own. A state dedicated solely to Ravens… I’m a realist, not some fool. All that I’ve wanted to do was to revive the ways of old…”
When the computer asked the Raven in AC1 “which of us was right?”, Klein’s ultimate answer was that it was Nine Ball. That his actions were a mistake. That he has to… crash… Phobos into Mars to… bring back the old ways with Martian technology? I’m not sure how this was supposed to work but the message was clear.
But upon defeating him, he tells you how to stop Phobos. Nine Ball and Leos, as Ravens, both respect strength as the ultimate authority. You were victorious… so as Nine Ball cedes gracefully to Leos, Leos cedes to you. There is a whole lot of little thematic details in the story about the destabilizing effect of personal strength… that people as strong as you are dangerous for the world… and they’re probably right.
Armored Core 2: Another Age
To keep this short, I didn’t finish Another Age. Another Age is exactly the type of product I would have wanted when AC2 came out. Just an ABSURD amount of content, over 100 missions. Easy structure to see progress with. Missions tend to be more repetitive, but it’s more missions to use with your cool mech! I played abouth a 5th of the way through and decided it was time for AC3.
So if you’re replaying Armored Core now, it might merit a skip, but every missions would have been a precious gift to 18 year old me.
All and all, so far I’m having a ton of fun. AC3 is going slowly but well, and I expect to write stuff up again once I finish it and Silent Line.