Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the tag “gaming”

I Am Setsuna for Switch, PS4, PS Vita and PC

I’m really into the idea of Tokyo RPG Factory, a smaller studio within Square Enix who will make shorter, more compact classic JRPG experiences. However, their first result leaves a little bit to be desired.

I Am Setsuna’s protagonist is Endir, a mysterious masked protagonist who is sent to kill Setsuna, a young woman who has been chosen as a human sacrifice to keep the hordes of monsters which threaten their world at bay. Instead of killing her outright, Endir joins her on her pilgrimage to the Last Lands, where she must die, although this being a JRPG there have to be a lot of distractions along the way, whilst meeting a colourful band of characters. The best thing about I Am Setsuna is the premise itself, and the mournful, melancholy tone. The idea of your quest being to escort someone to their death is brilliantly dark, but the game fails to explore it with enough nuance.

I Am Setsuna’s combat is mostly inspired by Chrono Trigger, and is mostly fine. There’s a gauge that increases and when full you can perform an action, such as attack, use a special move or an item. Certain special moves can be used in conjunction with each other to form combos, some of which are deliciously overpowered, although this led into an issue I’ll discuss later on. You can also wait on your turn to boost up a second gauge, which allows when full allows you to boost the power of your attack or technique. It’s a simple matter of deciding whether to launch fewer more powerful attacks or more frequent weaker strikes, but particularly during boss battles the decision stayed interesting. Still, I didn’t find the combat particularly engaging, particularly coming straight from the much more fun Persona 5.

Outside of battles you’ll follow your standard structure of wandering between dungeons, towns and the overworld and there’s little of note mechanically outside of the combat. There is an interesting method for unlocking new techniques, involving selling particular monster parts to be able to access them. Killing monsters in different ways give different paths; if you chip away the tiny bit of health with surgical precision, you’ll get something different to if you overwhelm them with a massive strike. It’s an interesting idea but in practice isn’t particularly fun and I found myself wishing that this game had a simpler approach to upgrades and its economy.

Confession time: I didn’t finish I Am Setsuna. I got 4/5 of the way through which is, in my opinion, enough to form a judgement, but I didn’t finish. I ran into a boss for which I was staggeringly underleveled, having essentially managed to sweep away all fights beforehand. Upon looking up the recommended level I was aghast to see that I was a full 10 levels below where I needed to be I was aghast. I was not going to use my precious time to sit and bloody grind. Grinding may have been a part of old school JRPGs, but they’re a failure of design and have no place in modern gaming. I couldn’t help but compare it to the smooth and satisfying increase in difficulty in Persona 5, the fact that I never felt the need to grind once and comfortably completed the game, and get quite irritated. I suppose I could have whacked on a podcast and mindlessly killed monster penguins for a couple of hours to get my level up but, well, why the bloody hell should I?

It’s a shame because I liked the world they created. It’s all quite same-y, with a snowy and beautifully bleak aesthetic throughout, but it’s very effective. Comfortably the best thing about I Am Setsuna is the gorgeous soundtrack, with every single one being a simple piano piece. Where JRPGs are known for grand scope and orchestra, I Am Setsuna’s restraint here is genuinely revelatory. The simplicity and beauty of the single piano, arguably the most versatile instrument around, provides one of the most interesting soundtracks I’ve heard.
Unfortunately, the rest of the game can’t match that piano. It was a decent enough JRPG experience I would have been happy to play to the end. There are games out there I like so much I’d grind for if absolutely necessary, but I Am Setsuna is not that game.

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Severed for Switch, 3DS, Wii U, PS Vita and iOS

I really enjoyed the Mexican themed Metroidvania Guacamelee, the last game from DrinkBox Studios. Severed retains a similar art style, and a small element of Metroidvania, but other than that it’s a different beast entirely, both in gameplay and tone.

Severed takes place in some kind of underworld, with a young woman with a severed arm arriving to find the bodies of her dead family, to attempt to lay her to rest. Along the way she encounters several figures, some friendly, some antagonistic. As you can probably tell, Severed is a fair bit darker than the generally comic and upbeat Guacamelee. I felt like Severed was a little bit too ambiguous for its own good; I didn’t really know what was happening, which made it a fair bit harder to actually care. There are some striking images, such as the corpses of our protagonist’s family and the hollow, dead eyed stare in her eyes, but these images don’t really come together to form a cohesive whole.

Severed was designed for touch screens. The combat involves hitting enemies with your sword, using your finger to swipe across the screen. Longer swipes do more damage. Some enemies will block, meaning that you have to attack around them and some have more interesting defences. You also have to parry incoming attacks by swiping against it. This basic mechanic is a lot of fun. You will end up facing multiple enemies at once, with the need to swap between them and parry when they’re about to attack. This can get hugely frantic, but seriously fun and rewarding. Things are complicated further when enemies get particular buffs, such as boost to attack or speed. The simple act of swiping across the screen ends up being less important than managing a large number of foes, keeping in mind factors like the time it takes to parry their attacks and how many shots you can get in before you have to defend from somewhere else, There’s a surprising amount of depth, with an upgrade tree powered by body parts you sever from your foes. You get interesting attacks of your own and we end up with a combat system which is deceptively complicated and engaging.

Between fights you’ll be wandering the world in first person, through a series of distinct rooms. The different environments represent Zelda dungeons more than anything else, dense and layered. You’ll be collecting keys, backtracking, finding unlockable boosts to health and mana (for special attacks), as well as solving some simple puzzles. Severed ends up having more than a little in common with the much maligned Skyward Sword, in things like combat and dungeon design. You do this exploration one handed, as you need your other for the combat. As a lefty I’m pleased to report that moving with your right hand and swiping with your left feels fine.

Severed has a dark and unpleasant tone, with some genuinely distressing imagery within the cartoonish art style. The horrors that we face throughout the game are also darkly beautiful. The soundtrack is moody and atmospheric. Just as with Guacamelee, the extra layers of polish help to elevate an experience which may otherwise be more rote.

I’ve never quite played anything like Severed. It doesn’t necessarily do anything new, but it takes a bunch of disparate elements I’ve never really seen combined before in interesting new directions. I didn’t like it as much as Guacamelee, but it has cemented DrinkBox Studios as one to watch.

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Persona 5 for PS4 and PS3

I’ll play, at most, one major JRPG a year, so it had better be good. I haven’t played any previous Persona games, although I have dabbled in other games in the Shin Megami Tensei series, such as the Devil Survivor strategy spin offs and the Wii U Fire Emblem crossover Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE. Many of the things that irritate me in JRPGs are neutralised in Persona 5, although issues with padding and quality of dialogue are annoyingly present.

Persona 5’s young protagonist is walking home when he sees an older man trying to force himself upon a younger woman. When he steps in and protects her, it transpires that the man is a senior politician, which he uses to have our protagonist charged with assault. Excluded from school and placed on probation, our hero is sent to study in Tokyo, staying with a family friend. It isn’t long until he is drawn into a strange world, or Palace, which mirrors the soul of the sadistic gym teacher Kamoshida. The protagonist and some new friends from school discover that they have the ability to change people’s hearts by stealing a treasure at the heart of their Palace, forcing corrupt and evil adults to change their ways. The hero, given the name Joker, forms the Phantom Thieves, a group which will plunder the Palaces of the evil and change their hearts, hopefully to change Japan for the better.

The core conceit of Persona 5 is great, and I loved the opportunity it gives the game to explore some pretty weighty and grounded topics which the genre may usually avoid. Things get weirder and grandiose as they go on, I felt to the game’s detriment. The Palaces reflect locations in the real world and how their creator views them. Kamoshida, the abusive PE teacher, views the school as a castle and himself as a decadent King, wearing a crown and an open bath robe. This Palace feels like a genuine delve into someone’s twisted psyche, even in the enemies, with a particular grotesque miniboss representing his libido. It’s really clever and makes the events feel personal, but unfortunately this element of the story peters out. It’s a decent enough JRPG tale and the writing is better than average, but the latter third of the game in particular feels very flabby, with interminable scenes of the characters just standing around and talking about things we already know. That said, the core party are a likeable bunch. Your first few companions are the loyal and hot headed Ryuji, the kind but stubborn Ann and the sassy talking cat Morgana. Persona 5 is frequently fascinating, but it moves too far from its own premise; a group of teenagers exposing the hypocrisy and manipulation of corrupt adults. It’s story peaks extremely early, which is a shame, because that peak really is very good.

Persona 5 is split into two parts; dungeon crawling and day to day life. The dungeons are the Palaces, although there is also Mementos, a descent through dozens of procedurally generated floors, with progress gated off between the completion of Palaces. The dungeon design is generally pretty good, with some simple but fun puzzles and some clever layout design. Joker is a bit more mobile than your average JRPG protagonist, with the ability to jump between platforms and up buildings. It’s all contextual and doesn’t require any thought, but it’s an extra layer of style in a game brimming with it. There are no random battles, with you instead assaulting shadows in the dungeons which then resolve into turn based battles. There’s a stealth element, which I expected to hate but was in fact simple enough that it wasn’t an issue. When in cover an enemy cannot see you at all, whether it’s facing you or not. You can launch an ambush to be able to have your whole party hit first, but they can also ambush you, leaving you surrounded and with certain moves unavailable. The dungeon design is nothing particularly special, but it doesn’t really have to be, mostly being an excuse to ferry you between the combat encounters.

The combat itself is pretty great. All party members apart from Joker are tied into using one Persona, usually tied to a particular attack type. For example, Ryuji’s Captain Kidd Persona is proficient in electric attacks. Joker is the exception and can switch between a range of Personas, all with different stats and attacks. New personas can either be taken in battle, or made by fusing other, weaker Personas together. I’ve always loved the demon fusing systems from other Shin Megami Tensei games and I enjoyed it here too. As with other games in the Shin Megami Tensei-verse, the battles are based primarily around elemental weaknesses, although some are weak to physical or gun attacks. If a foe is hit with their weakness they are stunned, the user gets another turn, where they can either attack again or pass over the attack to another party member, which in turn boosts their attack power. If every enemy is stunned, your party move into a hold up, where they can either all team up to devastate the enemy team, often killing them outright, demand an item, or negotiate them to join the party and become a new summonable persona for Joker. Standard buffs and debuffs, as well as status effects are also in play, making a combat system which feels fast and fluid, with quick battles that rarely drag. The boss fights can get really tricky and require clever use of buffs and debuffs. The vast majority of moves you can use are useful in some way and the game does a good job of encouraging you to use a range of attacks, rather than just powering through on a few damage heavy moves, as I often find myself doing in other JRPGs.

Outside of dungeon and combat, the other half of the game is found back in the real world and is probably the part I enjoyed the most. Alongside your Phantom Thievery in the cognitive Metaverse, you are also just a normal high school student, with exams, part time jobs and a social life. During each day when not heading into a Palace or Mementos, you have two time slots, after school and the evening, to take on a number of activities. The first, and most important, is building relationships with characters, referred to as Confidants. All of your party members are Confidants, but a number of other supporting characters in the world are too. You boost Confidant rankings by spending time with the characters; for your party members this will give battle advantages when you use them, but it’s the non-party members that can be the most valuable. For example, the ability to swap out party members during a battle is unlocked as you develop a friendship with the shogi player Hifumi. Some allow you to use your precious, and limited, time more effectively, such as a maid who will take on some tasks for you that usually take up a valuable slot for something else. You absolutely will not have time to max out every Confidant in one playthrough, giving these interactions a sense of very real weight. Some of the abilities you unlock are hugely useful and it feels really damn satisfying when you finally get them.

This isn’t the only thing you’ll need to do during your time slots; you also have ‘social stats’, which can gate off progress for boosting your Confidant ranks. These are knowledge, charm, guts, proficiency and kindness, all of which can be boosted in a variety of ways. For example, you can boost knowledge by studying for exams, which then boosts your charm if you pass them. On most days there’s a wonderful sense of possibility; do you head into a Palace/Mementos, do you hang out with your friends, or do you go and better yourself somehow. It captures a very real sense I have as an adult of never quite having enough time to do everything I want to do. There’s a peculiar anxiety permeating the game and it turns out that this sense of urgency may be the kick up the arse that JRPG pacing needs. That said, too many days are consumed by cutscenes and far too often you won’t be allowed to go out at night for reasons that feel arbitrary. Feeling like you never quite have enough time is interesting, feeling like a little kid being sent to bed isn’t.

Persona 5 is dripping with style, with a sense of flamboyant theatrics I loved. The art style is expressive, although animations in conversations are as awkwardly stiff as we expect for the genre. Even the menus and UI look incredible, with easily the best designed turn based battle menu I’ve ever seen. There is the odd anime cutscene, although they’re really not that great and I preferred some lovely ones animated in the actual game’s art style. The voice acting is better than average for a JRPG. I’ve accepted that JRPG voice acting will rarely be truly good, so generally I’m happy with just the right amount of hammy. There are a few awful voices for some minor characters, and one party member, but generally the quality is decent. I loved the music, which is entirely silly. I’ve realised that I prefer a JRPG battle theme to be as goofy as possible, and preferably to have vocals. I’ll have the sweeping orchestras in my western RPGs, my ideal JRPG soundtrack is the crazy one for Xenoblade Chronicles X. Whilst it doesn’t quite reach that level of silliness, it’s still pretty goofy and I loved it.

Persona 5 is a game I liked a lot, but general JRPG irritations held me back from loving it. It’s not quite the bold reinvention of the genre some people seem to have made it out to be; it is just a JRPG, but definitely the most solidly constructed and interesting I’ve played in years. A good 15 hours snipped would have improved the experience, as it’s the sense of flabbiness and bloat that most holds this game back from true greatness. Still, if I’m going to sink 70 hours into a JRPG I’m glad it was this one.

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Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice for PS4 and PC

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one of my favourite games of this year, an experience which I found profoundly distressing, anxiety inducing and, ultimately, hugely moving. I’m very fond of Ninja Theory; I loved the underrated Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and the criminally unfairly treated DmC: Devil May Cry. Hellblade is something else entirely though, telling a story in a way that could not be done in any other medium and exploring themes almost any major game studio would either never touch, or do so in the shallowest and most exploitative ways.

Senua is a young Pict woman whose partner dies, prompting her to journey to an underworld based on Norse and Celtic mythology to rescue the soul of her lover. However, Senua suffers from what modern doctors would call psychosis, constantly hounded by voices whispering in her head.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the best depiction of mental illness I’ve ever seen in a game, or possibly any medium. Psychosis is a complex condition and Ninja Theory resisted painting it simply. Mental illness in games is often exploited as an excuse to have a character behave in an outrageous way; GTAV’s Trevor Phillips is the first example which comes to mind, but gaming is littered with, usually male, characters like this. Hellblade does not glorify mental illness, far from it. This game is very distressing; my wife had to actually leave the room and her tolerance for horror is far above mine. It is emotionally intense in a way few games are. A lot of the reason for this is how incredibly good the animation for Senua’s face is; during cutscenes the camera will usually pan around and focus on her expressions, with the camera usually from the perspective of whoever is speaking to her, giving the impression that Senua is talking directly to us. The haunted look in her eyes is utterly believable, and when her face crumples in extreme anguish it’s almost unbearable to watch. If you cannot be captured by Senua I don’t think you have a heart; I wanted nothing else but for her to find some kind of peace. The writing, combined with stunning visuals and sound design conspire to make Hellblade one of the most engaging game narratives I’ve ever come across.

The core gameplay matches the story very well. Although much of the game involves walking through stunning environments, Hellblade is no walking simulator. The combat is excellent, heavy and intense. The battle system is fairly simple, based around light and heavy sword strikes along with block breaking kicks, as well as parries, dodges and dashes. There’s a sense of real danger in the combat and it captures the sense of weight and tension which pervades the story brilliantly; no ludo-narrative dissonance here! Fighting multiple enemies is dangerous, with the camera saying fairly tightly to Senua meaning that strikes from behind, out of sight, are common. This would normally be infuriating in almost any other game, but before being hit one of Senua’s voices will warn her and you can attempt a last minute dodge. It’s shouldn’t surprise me that the developers of the excellent (shut up it was) DmC would nail melee combat, but it’s rare to see something so clearly built to deliver narrative to also be so satisfying from a purely mechanical perspective.

The other part of the gameplay lies with the puzzles, which many seem to have disliked but I wasn’t particularly bothered by. You will regularly come across doors locked by strange runes; you must then wander the environment trying to find something in the shape of the rune, which you can then ‘focus’ on, unlocking the door. I know this sounds pretty awful, but in reality the environmental design is strong enough that I didn’t spend long wandering around aimlessly. Sometimes you need to manipulate the environment to create the rune shape, such as a torch casting a shadow. There are other sections with different mechanics at play, such as a stealth section and one involving switching between two different time periods/ The puzzling is simple, but satisfying. They’re not the most memorable aspect of the game, but they didn’t bother me and were actually sometimes quite fun.

Ninja Theory have referred to this game as a AAA indie; a shorter, more experimental game made with the same production values and aesthetics of a AAA game. I love this idea and would like to see it explored further. Games with simpler visuals and sound can, of course, still be emotionally resonant. I remember being reduced to a blubbery mess by Thomas Was Alone where the main characters are quadrilaterals. However, it’s difficult to deny that Hellblade would not be as successful at achieving what it sets out to do if it’s visuals were not so stunning. The environments are stunning, sometimes beautiful, particularly early on, but descending into truly nightmarish as the experience carries on. As mentioned above, it is the facial animation for Senua which truly elevates the experience and allows her to stand as one of my favourite game protagonists of all time. I’m a bit of a philistine when it comes to audio, but even I could tell how good the sound design was, with the constant whispering of the voices and the gently haunting soundtrack perfectly capturing Senua’s descent into her own personal hell. I think Hellblade is a game which would have been make or break depending on the level of polish, with no distractions of irritations to take away from the impressive story woven here.

As you can probably tell, I loved Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. It provided one of the most genuinely profound gaming experiences of my life, with a kick-ass combat system to boot. I cannot recommend it more highly.

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Graceful Explosion Machine for Switch, PS4 and PC

Graceful Explosion Machine is a simple, stylish little shooter which proves doing a stuffed genre just a little bit differently can be enough to make it feel special.

Graceful Explosion Machine is a side scrolling shooter, where you move your little space ship within a small arena, most of which loop left to right Pac-Man style. Your task is simply to blast every single one of your enemies, using a range of weapons. These are your straight forward blaster, but also a spinning melee attack, homing missiles and a powerful laser. Your blaster has infinite ammo but can overheat if spammed and the other weapons are all tied to a separate bar, which can be filled by picking up little gems dropped by enemies. There are a range of enemy types, some of which simply charge at you, but some will fire upon you or require heavier weaponry to take out efficiently. You can move your ship freely, as well as flip it to fire in either direction.

Graceful is a great way to describe this game. It starts getting extremely frantic, particularly in the last few of the 40 or so levels. Having a wave of ships begin to overwhelm you before decimating them with your melee strike never stopped being satisfying. All the weapon types were useful and I found myself slipping into the trance like state usually reserved for rhythm games. There’s a sense of style and, yes, grace permeating the game. It gets very difficult towards the end, with vast numbers of foes spawning almost on top of you, where resource management and making every hit count become vital. Simply put, Graceful Explosion Machine is a hell of a lot of fun.

It has a clean, colourful look, primarily orange and yellow hued. There’s a charming simplicity to the visuals, where your ship, foes and even bullets have a soft roundness to them, like it’s Fisher-Price First Shooter. The aesthetic really works, never distracting you from the snappy reflexes needed to succeed. The soundtrack is synth-y and atmospheric and appropriately ratchets up the tension when needed.

Graceful Explosion Machine is good old fashioned fun and there’s not much more to say than that. There are far worse ways to pad out your Switch library.

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Cave Story+ for Switch, 3DS and PC

Despite being released a Nintendo indie staple, I’m late to Cave Story. Developed by one guy in his spare time and released on PC 13 years ago, Cave Story has been remade and remastered in many different ways, most notably a complete 3D remake on 3DS. Cave Story + is a more straightforward port than that and is a neat addition to the rapidly growing indie library for the Switch.

Cave Story follows a cute little robot called Quote, who awakens on a mysterious island, floating in the sky, populated by talking rabbit creatures known as Mimiga. The Mimigas are being persecuted by a mysterious figure known as the Doctor, who has been kidnapping Mimigas and forcing them to eat a strange red flower which causes them to become violent and feral. Quote sets forth to defeat the Doctor and save the Mimiga, discovering on the way that things on the island are much more complex than they first seemed. The story and world of Cave Story are much more complex, compelling and well thought out than you might expect from its simplistic art style. It is frequently funny, but at times genuinely quite horrific and sad. Minimalist or environmental storytelling is more common in modern indie platformers and it’s quite nice to see something so densely plotted and heavy with world building detail.

Cave Story is a platformer, with Metroidvania elements. You’ll mostly be working your way through caves, blasting enemies with a variety of weapons, all of which can be temporarily upgraded with shards, but will downgrade again if you are hit. One thing I loved about this game is how utterly puny and pathetic you feel at first compared with how powerful and dangerous you become with all your weapons fully upgraded. The jumping itself was obnoxiously floaty for my tastes, but the addition of a jet pack mid-way through greatly mitigated this irritation. You’ll fight through a series of areas, with most centring on the Mimiga Village, and most culminating in a cool boss fight. Some issues with balance and difficulty belie the amateur origins of Cave Story, but these issues rarely raised above the level of annoyance. It’s a hell of an achievement. Exploration is rewarded with upgrades to health and missiles, Metroid style, but this is largely a linear experience. Floaty jumping aside, Cave Story plays well, with some smart level and boss design.

With a charming chip-tune sound track and satisfying blasting noises for the weapons, there’s a lot of polish to Cave Story. It’s got a simplistic art style, but it’s very effective, particularly for the character models and bosses. I loved the character designs, which vary from charming to creepy to just plain bizarre. With support from Nicalis, you can see that a lot of love went into this game.

I suspect that playing Cave Story for the first time in 2017 will not have the same impact it would have had back in 2004. Indie Metroidvania platformers aren’t exactly a rarity these days and, when placed aside more modern examples, Cave Story doesn’t come across as particularly special, excepting its strong world and story. It’s an interesting cultural artefact though, and I can see how it’s influence rippled through the indie scene. I’m glad I played it.

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Dark Souls III: The Ringed City DLC for PS4, Xbox One and PC

After being mildly underwhelmed by Ashes of Ariandel, The Ringed City DLC for Dark Souls III shows the series at its absolute best, offering what is probably my favourite slice of content from the whole game.

The Ringed City is the home of the Pygmies, ancestors to humanity. Located at the end of all things, The Ashen One is transported to the blasted Dreg Heap and instructed to make their way to the mythical city and discover the secrets within. If Dark Souls III was apocalyptic, The Ringed City goes beyond even that. The Pygmies are a much discussed element of Dark Souls lore and we find a bit more about them and the way they lived. This DLC also provides some closure for characters from the main series, as well as tying back to the Ashes of Ariandel DLC. The Ringed City evokes perfectly the feeling of arcane ruin the series is known for and, whilst it doesn’t clear anything up (nor should it), it does feel like a good way for the series to end.

The Ringed City is structured as a descent, from the valleys surrounding the Ringed City which give it its name, down to the city itself and then further into its depths. The stunningly clever verticality of the level design has long been my favourite thing about the Soulsborne game and was something that Ashes of Ariandel lacked somewhat. The feeling of opening a shortcut back to a bonfire after a long and terrifying run and finding yourself back where you were several hours ago will never get old. Where Ashes of Ariandel lacked in boss fights, The Ringed City has four, and they’re generally really good. I won’t spoil the identity of the final boss of the DLC, and possibly the series, but it was one of my favourite boss fights both in the series and possibly of all time. The foe is fast, terrifying and humanoid; my favourite kind of Soulsborne boss.

The sound design and voice acting is as unsettling as ever, but it’s the way The Ringed City looks that took my breath away. This is only a DLC so we only get to see a small portion of it, but what we do is genuinely stunning. I’d love to have explored more of this place. I mentioned in my Ashes of Ariandel review that I think the series fares best in city environments and I think this DLC proves that.

The Ringed City is a perfect way to, perhaps, wrap up this series. It feels like the right time too, with Bloodborne paving a way to show how you can craft a different experience form the same template. Whether it’s Bloodborne 2 or something new entirely, I can’t wait to see where FromSoft go next.

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Yakuza 0 for PS4

This has been a hell of a year for AAA games; there are a huge number of predictably brilliant blockbusters like Breath of the Wild and Horizon: Zero Dawn, with plenty more coming soon. This has been backed up with a steady stream of lower profile releases that have unexpectedly blown people away, such as Nier: Automata and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Yakuza 0 was one such game and slipped through the cracks until the summer, when a gap in the release calendar finally gave me some breathing room. Yakuza 0 is deeply bizarre game and kept me entertained largely through its sheer weirdness.

Yakuza 0 follows two protagonists in Japan in the late 1980s. The first is Kazuma Kiryu, an up and coming yakuza within the Dojima Family of the Tojo Clan. Kiryu becomes implicated in the death of a man he had beaten for debt collection, although it is clear that he is simply a patsy for the games of senior members of the Dojima Family. They seek the Empty Lot, an extremely valuable piece of real estate in the bustling red-light district Kamurocho, as securing it for the Tojo Clan will all but guarantee promotion to the high table. Meanwhile, Goro Majima is a disgraced former yakuza in the Sotenbori area of Osaka, now running a highly successful hostess club and hoping to re-enter the criminal world. When he is sent to assassinate a target in exchange for re-entry to the clan, he is pulled into a web of criminal intrigue and forced to examine his own morality and humanity.

Some games dabble in environmental storytelling or believe that game stories should be told through gameplay and mechanics rather than lengthy cutscenes; not Yakuza 0 though! It is not uncommon for cutscenes to run for as long as 15 minutes, with significant portions of the game involving simply walking to a location, watching a cutscene, then walking to the next location, watching another cutscene and so on. I must confess that this bothered me hugely in the first few hours; I haven’t played a game designed like this in years, but, for me, as the story went on it became less and less of an issue for one simple reason; the cutscenes are actually bloody good. The writing is deceptively excellent; it’s very hammy in the way that an awful lot of Japanese media can be, but it also has that emotional honesty of the best modern Japanese stories. Characters screaming their feelings is an anime cliché, but usually I’ll take it over stoic, calm Western protagonists. It’s hard to picture an Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty protagonist freaking out the way some of the characters do here. It’s over the top, sure, but endearing and at times genuinely moving. The characters are very strong; I liked the stoic and honourable Kiryu, but the ever so slightly unhinged and rougher round the edges Majima appealed to me more. Both have stories about trying to be a good man in an organisation designed to crush compassion out of you. They’re backed by an extensive and engaging supporting cast, such as the mysterious real estate mogul Tachibana and Nishki, Kiryu’s snappily dressed best friend (or bro as they ironically, and adorably, call each other). While it took a while to get its hooks in me, I can’t deny that it really did by the end. This being a prequel, and remakes of the orignal games on the horizon, I can’t wait to see where Kiryu and Majima go next.

So, after waxing lyrical about the story, what about the actual gameplay? First of all, the combat is a lot of fun. It involves switching between three different stances for each character, with some better for taking on large groups of weaker enemies and some better for pummelling bosses, but you can also tailor to your own preference through an extensive skill tree, slightly too extensive for my tastes but if you enjoy tinkering around with these things there’s a lot to…well, tinker around with. The combat is a lot of fun and becomes genuinely quite challenging during some of the boss fights. Between fights you’ll be wandering the streets of Kamurocho as Kiryu or Sotenbori a Kiryu. They’re small, but dense and packed with stuff. Not all of that stuff is good, but an awful lot of it is. As you wander, you’ll encounter a range of side stories, which is where the most bizarre parts of the game take place. Where the main story is still completely over the top, the tale of criminal power struggles is taken seriously in the writing, pulling off the Kojima trick of playing something silly straight and it genuinely working. The side missions allow the weirdness to cut loose, and involve a range of weird and wonderful characters, which usually end up pushing Kiryu or Majima out of their manly comfort zone into something weirder. The series is known for a large number of minigames, but a couple of notable exceptions I’ll get to later, this part of the game didn’t work for me, simply because the majority of them are bad and not fun. I didn’t mind the karaoke or dancing games, but stuff like bowling or baseball bored me to tears.

The most extensive side missions involve running a business, with two separate ones for Kiryu and Majima. They have their own extensive storylines, with many fully voice acted cutscenes as in the main story. Kiryu’s involves real estate, buying up property and raking in profits. It’s quite basic, but I’m a sucker for these real estate games, like in Fable 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. There are some added complications, such as the ability to choose who runs your businesses and manages security, with more competent employees requiring higher wages. New employees are recruited though the side missions. You will sometimes need to defend your properties in the streets and, when you amass enough property in one of the five districts of Kamurocho, fight the previous real estate boss of that area, who are all as flamboyant and bizarre as you would expect. Majima’s business is focused on lifting a small, struggling hostess club into success. This is done partially by making links with local businesses, but most prominently through a fun minigames where you manage the club. You have the send different hostesses to different clients depending on their preferences. The individual hostesses all have stats and experience. A couple are fully fleshed out characters, with little side missions where you give them individual training. The whole thing is silly, fun and very satisfying. Similarly to Kiryu’s side mission, when your club takes enough custom from a rival Sotenbori club, their bizarre manager will challenge you to a fight. I loved this element of the game, but my one issue is that they are introduced way too late in the game. Missions like this are best when spread out between the main story missions, but to complete either storyline you’d need to spend a lot of time grinding that same minigame over and over again for Majima or waiting for payments to come in as Kiryu.

Yakuza 0 was also released on PS3 in Japan, and you can sort of tell. It doesn’t look quite as sharp as most current gen AAA games, but strong art and character design mean that this is never an issue. The dense and bustling locations, as well as the distinctive character designs and strong facial animation help the world of 1980s Japan come alive. The music is generally very good and the voice acting, which is only available in Japanese, is excellent; often hammy, but genuinely impactful when it needs to be.

Yakuza 0 did not make a good first impression, but as it went on I grew to like it more and more. If your tolerance for cutscenes is low, fair enough, but this game won’t be for you. I’m definitely going to pick up the remake of the first game, Yakuza Kiwami, when there’s another gap in the release schedule, although looking at the next few months that won’t be anytime soon.

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Dark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandel DLC for PS4, Xbox One and PC

I really enjoyed Dark Souls III, but as a Bloodborne man at heart Dark Souls III spent a lot of it’s time lurking in its shadow. I took a while for me to go for the Dark Souls III DLC and I’m glad I did. Ashes of Ariandel is the first of the two DLC packs, binging us to a new location, with new things to find and monsters to be murdered by.

Ashes of Ariandel opens with the Ashen One transported to the Painted World of Ariandel by the mysterious Slave Knight Gael. The snowy and pristine land, held within a painting, has been infected with a strange rot, with conflict within Ariandel about how to deal with this threat, burn away the rot and begin anew, or allow the rot to continue. Dark Souls is always going to Dark Souls so Ashes of Ariandel is as cryptic as ever, but this DLC does operate as an interesting microcosm for the main thrust of the series, about whether or not to link the fire.

Ariandel itself is a beautiful location, although I do generally feel that the series fares better when in city environments, allowing more complex geometry and clever pathways than will occur in a natural environment. Ariandel is still fun to explore, but it does lack some of that cleverness of world design which is my favourite thing about the series. There are a range of fun and challenging enemies to fight, such as wolves or the twisted Corvian bird people. One potential disappointment is the lack of boss fights; there is only one mandatory one at the end, with another that is optional. The optional fight is fun, but doesn’t really do anything which hasn’t been done in other boss fights throughout the series. The final boss fight is a bit more interesting, a multi-stage monster of a fight with three distinct stages, and health bars. It’s utterly brutal and at times felt a bit cheap, but at its best it reminded me of the superlative Maria boss fight from the Hunters Nightmare DLC for Bloodborne.

Ashes of Ariandel isn’t massive and doesn’t really represent the best of the series, but Dark Souls III is so solidly constructed that just adding more isn’t really a problem. On its own it may be a bit unsatisfying, but taken within the grand swatch of the game it’s difficult to fault it too much. If you’re sold your copy of Dark Souls III, Ashes of Ariandel isn’t a reason to rush out and buy a new one, but there are far worse ways you could spend your time.

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Splatoon 2 for Switch

After much speculation as to whether Nintendo would ever tackle a shooter, they knocked it out of the park from the get go with Splatoon. It was fun, unique and like nothing else I’d ever played. Splatoon 2 is a very conservative sequel by most accounts and likely only exists because a port of the original wouldn’t have looked good considering that some are already grumbling at the number of Wii U ports on the Switch. That said, the foundation is still strong and the new additions and tweaks are very good. I’m not going to go over the core mechanics of Splatoon 2 much, I covered that back when I reviewed the first one (https://frivolouswastesoftime.wordpress.com/2015/06/18/splatoon-for-wii-u/).

The core mode of Splatoon 2 is still the brilliant turf war, where teams of four have three minutes to coat as much of the map with ink of their colour as possible, with the winning team having the higher percentage. You still need to try to take out your foes to buy some precious time to dominate the map, but it’s not your main goal. Taking focus of shooting away from violence is so very Nintendo and I really do love them for it. After climbing 10 ranks, unlocking new weapons and clothing along the way, you can enter Ranked Battles, which have different modes such as a tower defence mode and one involving possession of the powerful ‘Rainmaker’ weapon. These are fun, but I was irritated to have to spend so long working my way back up to them. This game is very similar to the original; new maps and weapons make a difference, but the foundations are functionally identical. This makes the work back up to Ranked Battles a bit obnoxious, and limits the excitement of unlocking new weapons. Oh, I’ve got the Splat Roller back…cool. I imagine that this is an issue with almost any regular online shooter, but this is the only one I really play apart from the odd round of Titanfall 2. It’s an example of why I don’t like upgrade and EXP in online modes in FPS. I get why it’s there; you’re placed in a skinner-box and the little dopamine rush when you unlock something new is nice, but I’d much rather everyone be given access to everything upfront, with unlocks being purely cosmetic. I’m aware that this is a gripe with modern shooters in general, but it did impact my enjoyment of the multiplayer. Still, the core fun is still very much there and I don’t think it’s really possible to have a bad time playing Splatoon 2 online.

The major addition is Salmon Run, a really horde mode, where a team of four must defend themselves from wave after wave of enemies, complete with boss encounters. It’s surprisingly intense and a lot of fun, particularly when played locally. My ability to engage with Salmon Run has been limited by the fact that it’s only available at particular times. I’m reliably informed that this is par for the course for online shooters but I hate this. Some critics have been saying they like the pleasant surprise of Salmon Run popping up and being available, but as someone with a full time job and limited ability to play games, turning on Splatoon 2, wanting to play Salmon Run and not being able to is infuriating.

The single player is continued and improved upon. Story wise it’s basically the same; Giant Zap Fish is stolen from Inkopolis and you have to save it blah blah blah. The only twist is the role played by Callie and Marie, the Squid Sister pop stars of the first game. In a neat little twist, the final Splatfest of Splatoon, where Marie won the popularity contest over Callie, has greatly upset Callie and she has gone into hiding. I liked the way it tied back to the last game, but the actual plot still isn’t much, even if the world building remains surprisingly well thought out.

I really enjoyed the single player stuff in the first game, but it’s much better now. The levels are much more intricate and the platforming elements I loved from the first game expanded upon. A nice change is that the levels are based around a variety of weapons, rather than just the Splattershot in the first game. This means you have levels based around sniping with the Charger, or tanking through with the Roller, or using a variety of the other weapons. You can also replay these levels afterwards with any weapon of your choice, with the levels altering slightly to accommodate this. This adds a lot of replayability if you fancy it. Nintendo could probably have got away with giving this series no single player element at all, but I’m really glad they did.

There are some minor cosmetic upgrades, but mostly speaking Nintendo are sticking with the instantly iconic style they settled on for the first game. 90s American biker/graffiti culture is a weird cultural touchstone to tap in to, but it works undeniably well. The music is still as strong as ever, faster and exciting tracks mixing with the low key reggae relaxation of the lobby. The only real upgrade I could spot visually was that the actual ink itself looks far more real and silky. Once again, Nintendo prove that power isn’t everything; Splatoon 2 looks and sounds wonderful.

Splatoon 2 is more of the same, which is not a bad thing. Being able to play handheld on the Switch is a revelation and I hope this allows the series to grow in a way it never really could on the poor Wii U. With many free maps and weapons to come, I look forward to dropping back into Splatoon 2 for as long as Nintendo keep supporting it, or even Splatoon 3.

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