Life is Strange

Every other year or so David Cage comes on stage and promises an emotional experience that will both innovate the way that stories are told in games, while giving them cinematic gravitas.  While I do actually tend to enjoy his games, they tend to fall short of the promise, sometimes by quite a lot.  For a long time I forgave Cage, and other video game storytelling auteurs, and simply blamed the medium of video games.  Life is Strange, though, proves that the sort of games that these people promise are in fact possible to create, it’s just took the people over at Dontnod Entertainment to do it.

The elevator pitch of the story of Life is Strange is easy enough to understand.  A freshman photography college student finds herself with the ability to influence time; doing so entangles her in the muck of drama that is affecting everyone at the school, as well as the very town she lives in itself.   Does that sound interesting?  Are you not some weirdo who can’t relate to a female protagonist?  Are you okay with a game that’s story oriented?

Cool, go play the game.

It’s smart, it’s fun, it’s intense, it’s heartbreaking.  It’s also really easy to spoil, so I’m keeping plot discussion at a minimum.  I will say that I did manage to enjoy the game despite having a pretty central event in the game spoiled for me (that to be fair, is probably what ultimately influenced me to play the game anyway), but the game is just so good at gut punches that I wish I would not have been ready for that.  Perhaps it is good that I was ready for it, though, since it did not send me to an early grave in a Harry Houdiniesque fashion, and spoiled or not, the scene is super intense and leads to one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make in a game.  One I’m still not certain I made correctly.

The game is full of hard decisions like that, and many points where I don’t know if I did the right thing.  But it’s not all teardrops and tough times.  The game is also full of classic teen hijinks that are fun to participate in, and some cool photography stuff that wannabe photogs will enjoy.  This helps to keep things from getting overwhelming despite all the tense situations.

The characters for the most part are great, and are generally multifaceted individuals whom I enjoyed getting to know.  Good people do bad things for good reasons, bad people do good things for bad reasons.  The game isn’t afraid of this fact.  The game player must decide if and what they’re willing to compromise on.

If I am critical of anything, the few characters who are not as well developed do stick out because everyone else is so good.  But also perhaps that’s a bit of realism in a way; the opportunity to meet and deeply interact with everyone in your high school class is not reality.  I also won’t say the game is free of cliché, and you might see where the storyline is headed from time to time but I guess I’m not bothered by this since it supplies so much originality, and doesn’t detract from the overall plot.  Another final caution, is that some of the game’s episodes are unevenly paced (which ultimately doesn’t matter in 2017 since most ways of purchasing the game at this point are going to include all the episodes in one package).  Playing the game piecemeal (if you’re somehow able to find a way to do that now) may lead to some individual episodes that don’t have a ton of new content and don’t deliver a self-contained product very well.  I’d suggest against playing the game in this fashion.

Storytelling in games is really hard.  Surrounding it with gameplay tools that help it actually be a game and not just a visual novel is even harder.   Dontnod really nails it here, where other, more famous and bombastic people have fallen short, and Life is Strange is awesome.

 

Persona 5

Persona 5 is not perfect.  Yet I feel that despite some rough features, it is still an excellent video game.

I have some friends who have never played Persona and I found describing it to them to be difficult.  My reductive description of the game to them was “Japan: The Video Game” and that seemed to be enough for them, but I regret my classification.  It is true, that Persona games are unapologetic about being Japanese, something that many games brought over to the USA cannot claim (note: I’m not arguing that they should be, I do not think that every game needs to be about USA Town, USA).  You are a Japanese teenager, going to a Japanese school, in a Japanese town, doing Japanese things.  The game is translated into mostly-competent English, but it isn’t truly “localized.”   I think, though, that the Persona series at its best manages to be something that’s relatable to someone from any background and any country, so I hate to sell it so short by focusing on where the game comes from, and anyway, the games in the series usually go out of their way to explain make things that may be culturally unfamiliar to gamers from other regions, which makes the games have a pleasant, welcoming feel.

Persona 5 still manages to tell that universal story that is relatable to a teen who has struggled under difficult adults.  However, I do think, compared to other Persona games, at least, Persona 5 falls a bit short in being as inviting to people unfamiliar with Japan.  This is in large part due to the translation not being as solid as some previous games in the series, especially early and late in the game which makes these sorts of mistakes are more noticeable and distracting.  There also is less “here’s an explanation of something that everyone in Japan would know already” of previous games.  Maybe this is a good thing.  It is after all, 2017, and the internet exists and I can easily learn about these festivals that the characters are attending, and the food that they are eating and the parties that they are having.  Maybe, like super hero origin stories, this cultural handholding just isn’t necessary anymore.   And I definitely don’t feel that games should have to bend over backwards to make sure my poor little USA Guy feelings are considered.  The only reason it is noticeable to me, though, is that previous Persona games managed to so brilliantly remain Japanese while still being extremely accessible that it is noticeable that this is not the case in Persona 5.

I also would’ve liked to see the game–which is boldly non-conservative in many of its stances–be more risky with the types of relationships it allows you to pursue.  The game does walk the line of the protagonist forming a relationship with another boy in the game, but runs away from it, which just felt awkward in 2017.  Also, with a previous game including the ability to choose gender, it just was strange that they didn’t include this feature in Persona 5, and having played through the entire game, I didn’t encounter anything that seemed to absolutely required you to be a male character (as the game director stated) .  I am not the person who normally stands upon the soapbox for these things, but in a game that’s so relationship based, and so based on dealing with issues that teens deal with, and that so vocally rejects adherence to the traditional, it just feels out of touch to not have these options available.

The block on streaming of the game was also disappointing to me.  I’m not totally sure I would’ve streamed it anyway, simply because so much of what I do in the game feels so personal, but not even being allowed to do it (they updated the game to allow more streaming at some point, but I was already past the allowed juncture) felt like an unfair, out of touch restriction.

Cultural consideration is not the only area where Persona 5 just doesn’t quite meet high bars set by other Persona games, but still manages to do better than most other games in general.  The characters you interact with and form bonds with feel complete and have believable motivations, for the most part, and socializing with characters in the game can be more fun to do than actually playing the “game” part of of the game.  I don’t think the relationships were as compelling as previous entries in the series (or in some cases that distinct from them), but they still were much more interesting than your typical game.  I don’t typically enter into relationships in games anymore (unless the game forces you to do so or you have a severe gameplay penalty for not doing it), but by the end I did legitimately care about several of the characters and choosing one to have a relationship was a tough choice (although perhaps it’s a knock on this game that there wasn’t one person who stuck out to me as THE ONE to be with as in other Persona games?  I dunno).

There are areas though where Persona 5 excels where other Persona games did not.  The combat is the best the series has ever had, and unlocking features of the combat through socialization is smart; I never felt forming relationships was a waste of time in previous games, but it’s inarguably important for gameplay reasons in Persona 5.  There really wasn’t a reason in some of the earlier persona games to not just hold one button down throughout all of the combat.   Persona 5’s combat had much more variety (without losing some of the rock-paper-scisors elemental fun).   I found myself enjoying battles more, and having more fun consistently controlling my entire party, instead of just letting the game play itself as in some of the earlier games in the series.  At its core, though, It’s still turn based combat (which I realize is a deal breaker for some people) but it’s done in a smart way, perhaps the smartest in a non-Final Fantasy game.

Further, The new system of individualized, static Palaces coexisting with Momentos (this game’s name for the procedurally generated dungeon area of previous games) is an excellent change.  While not every Palace is perfect, they now are story relevant, which is just not something that previous games had.  In previous games, I always did find something relaxing about grinding through the procedurally generated dungeons and I’m glad they still are there as an option in this game.

As I said earlier, I do think the story has some universal relevance.  The protagonist and his friends increase their impact from a local, high school level to the highest political levels in Japan in what felt like a very realistic fashion.  And the mistrust of adults and their institutions was relatable, and I thought the political commentary was very relevant, especially to what is happening globally at the moment.  I did enjoy the sort of small-stakes nature of previous Persona games, but thought 5 did a nice job of increasing the level of character impact without losing the fact that you’re still living through a high schooler’s story.

Ultimately, despite any criticism I have for the game, I still did play it for 140 hours, and came pretty close to diving right back in after I finished it.  As my attention span for games decreases every year I age, it’s rare that something could hold my attention so long, especially with all the other great games out there right now.  I think it comes down to the fact that most games just aren’t able to to deftly handle relationships the way that Persona games do, and even if Persona 5 falls short of some of its predecessors, it still achieves more than most games manage to do.  I wouldn’t recommend someone play it who hates turn based RPGs, but I think just about everyone else could have some fun with this game.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild

One of my good friends described this game as “the modern Zelda 1″ and I think that is just about perfect.

Zelda games have been criticized lately for being too beholden to their formula.  While in a lot of ways I’ve thought that criticism was mostly unfair (really, only Twilight Princess felt formulaic to me), this game really does boil Zelda down to its most essential elements.  There is no 4-6 Dungeon act divided into two parts, where each dungeon contains a map and a compass and a tool that you need to beat the dungeon and the boss.   You get all your tools within the first hour of the game, and it’s up to use them to solve the various puzzles of the 100+ Shrines in the game, which mostly serve as the replacement for the dungeons in the game, and in general are dispatched with as quickly as you’re able to solve the particular dungeon’s puzzle (there are still boss dungeons that are closer to what you’d expect from Zelda, but even these tend to be different).

Recent Zelda games also have been criticized for being too easy, or maybe more accurately, more nannyish.  In some iterations of Zelda, literally every time you pick an item up a tutorial window pops up to tell you how to use it.   This game is quite different: it has very little in the way of tutorialization.   Other than a few scattered recipes (found in diaries, or as throw away lines in conversations, or, hilariously, on wall posters) the game leaves it up to you to make the things you find useful.  It’s also a game that has some stakes to it.  Even twenty hours in, there are still encounters that can cause instant death if you’re not careful.  While it’s never going to compete with Dark Souls in demand for precision, you’re not going to have to have a base level of respect for the enemies in this game.

I was actually kind of worried when I heard these things in the pre-release coverage of the game.  Because gamers often say they want something, and then get mad when they get it.  I figured this was likely to happen with Breath of the Wild, simply because I’ve observed so many current gamers attempt to play the original Zelda and bounce off of them because they’re too hard.  Firstly, that’s ludicrous to me, because I played and beat the original Zelda when I was nine years old.  If I can handle a game at nine years old, there’s no reason a modern adult can’t handle it now (by the way, this is in no way an attempt to shit on millennials or whatever we’re calling the following generation now.  People two or three years older than me have whined about how difficult Zelda is).

I’m happy that I was wrong about people.  I’m happy to see people actually embrace the world of this game, and I’m happy that Nintendo trusted them to do it.   I’m sure some stupider adults and children will find it too hard at first, but I think if they really want to play this game that they can practice and get good at it, and if they are too lazy to do that, then fuck ’em, I say.  Not everything has to be for the lowest common denominator (and it’s not like there isn’t a ton of stuff out there for people looking for that sort of thing).

Just like the original Legend of Zelda game.  It dropped you in a world with three hearts and a wooden (or rusty, my friends long debated this) sword, maybe five screens away from enemies who could kill you in one shot if you wandered the wrong way.  And it was great.  You were left to figure out what to do with this world on your own.  The game and its designers respected your intelligence.  Breath of the Wild respects its players in the same manner, and feels equally great to play.

Nioh

No, this is not “Neo” from the Matrix, although the title of the game might cause you to believe that!!!!!!  No, the game is about the a samurai that uses the power of guardian spirits to help battle his way across feudal Japan.

This game has been called by many “Samurai Dark Souls” and while not wholly inaccurate, the game has a fairly unique take on the Soul genre (this genre really needs a new name, because every time I type “Soul Genre” I start to picture James Brown sword and boarding his way across Drangleic, battling the forces of the undead as he tries to fend of his own hollowing).

The various set pieces of the game are divided into distinct, discrete levels.  I found this surprisingly interesting, and a nice way to take the air out of people who complain when Souls games are not unified worlds.  This game makes no illusion to this unification so can’t be criticized for failing to deliver it.   And, the reason that my interest in this format is surprising, is that the main reason I enjoy the souls games is for the fun I have exploring the hostile environments; the discreetness of the levels in no way hampered the fun I had exploring them.

The story is also presented in a forthright narration, and while there is definitely subtext left to be analyzed by gamers who are into that sort of thing, one is not going to have to pour over the layout of the vine textures to derive the distill story from the game.  I kind of like the fact that Souls games are shrouded in mystery (even if I don’t ever bother to investigate these mysteries further that deeply), but I don’t think every game in the genre needs to have its story told the same way, so I was not offended by the change.  I don’t know if I exactly loved the actual story that was being told, but I found it inoffensive enough to avoid detracting from my desire to play the game.

All in all, I found this game a lot of fun. and while it didn’t quite captivate me the way that the souls games did, I still enjoyed my time with it, and figure it’s worth a play if you like these sorts of games.

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (2012)

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is a cute little trick of a game with a fast pace and a charming story. I call it a “trick” because it stylishly disguises its actually fundamentally traditional point-and-click gameplay by way of its attractive visual style, which gives the impression of being a classic 2D action game, and a few features such as freezing time.

This game gets by on the strength of its plot and characters, both of which are first rate. It truly feels like a story someone wanted to tell, and a labour of love. Every character has life and feels unique and real. There is a central mystery at the heart of the story that continues to grow in scope and complexity, and continues to develop in satisfying ways. It keeps one hooked like an old fashioned serial.

The story begins with your character’s death. You quickly learn that the dead have special powers with which they can go back in time and save others recently departed. In the one night that your character will have in this world before he moves on to the next, he will hop from death to death, undoing them in the hope of learning his own identity and how and why he died this night. His story becomes tied in with the stories of others, and a bigger picture slowly emerges through many many twists and turns. The story rushes at breakneck speed, and is a lot of fun all the way through. It ends at just about the right time to keep us enchanted all the while, such that we did not even notice that the gameplay was not actually as innovative as it seemed (maybe just a little bit shorter would have helped with this).

Strongly recommended to adventure game fans. A gem.

Professor Layton VS Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

I think the Ace Attorney series is dead. The first three were great, the third being the high point, and the fourth (Apollo Justice) managed to squeak by with the help of a lot of innovation, but the 3DS entries are shambling corpses. This review will focus specifically on Professor Layton VS Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. I’ll also be reviewing this game as a Phoenix Wright game rather than as a Professor Layton game, as I contend that this is what it truly is.

The Good

This title takes innovation to new heights, with new puzzle-solving gameplay and a bizarre fantasy setting. The setting is so weird and unprecedented in a Phoenix Wright game that it buys a little bit of interest with it. The story drags and doesn’t really start developing until right near the end, but when it finally does, it’s fairly interesting, and it actually left me with stuff to think about. Even the ending itself drags on for two or three twists longer than necessary though — one of which was so meaningless and superfluous it almost feels like a joke twist, if such a thing could be. (I’ll spoil it because it’s so stupid and unimportant — “A character has cancer!” and five minutes later, “Oh, it’s cured!” Just end your story, guys.)

The Bad

Sometimes you have to present evidence in court that does not contradict the witness’s testimony, but merely relates to it. This is also a problem I noted in Dual Destinies, and to me it destroys the fabric of the game. It’s like… what are we doing here. In Phoenix Wright, we present evidence that exposes contradictions. That’s what holds the whole game together. This is how you have to design your courtroom puzzles, else they’re not really puzzles, just guesses.

The Professor Layton-y non-courtroom puzzles are all very easy, with a few exceptions.

The Ugly

The characters. This is the deathblow. It’s the quirky characters that make these games memorable, and in this game they are all beyond terrible. This is especially the case with our central character, whose totally uninspired name “Espella Cantabella” pretty much tells you the story. Everything in the game hinges around her, and she has less than zero personality. I cannot think of a single character trait with which she could be described. The same holds true for the prosecutors and even Layton himself.  It just makes the game lifeless. None of these people are interesting in the least.

Also, the game oddly glorifies suicide. It occurs twice in the game and is invariably presented as something noble. Very strange and uncomfortable.

The Verdict

I can’t recommend this game to anyone. For a Phoenix Wright fan, it’s just too long, takes too long to get to the point, and isn’t entertaining enough along the way. For a Professor Layton fan, these puzzles won’t challenge you. I’d say give it a miss, but you might enjoy it for the story if you can tolerate very bland characters.

Retrospective Reviews: Beyond Good and Evil (2003)

Why has “Beyond Good and Evil” remained in the memories of many a gamer? Almost certainly not for its gameplay, which tended to be serviceable and forgettable. There was a reasonable diversity of things to do: racing, combat, picture-taking, stealth; but none of these would really get one’s blood pumping. They gave us stuff to do, but they were not the reason why we played.

Was it the story? I want to say: certainly not. The story, too, was fairly paint-by-numbers and predictable. This story lacked a memorable villain — I don’t even remember whether or not there was a visible villain for most of the game, and the Big Bad revealed in the end was also entirely forgettable. Worst of all was our main character, Jade, who was totally lacking in personality and in flaws. The side characters, Uncle Pej and Double H (or whatever his name was) provide a glimmer of hope, but even they were pretty flat, though amusing. We did develop a connection with them. We did feel for them. So that’s a start, but it does not tell the tale.

I think where this game really won was the universe and the atmosphere. A cartoony world under a totalitarian government being menaced by a Cthulu-like entity was weird and amusing enough to sustain interest over its short length. The denizens of the world seemed to have personality and history; the world felt “lived in”. Moreover, there was unspoken history between our main character and the other characters about the world. They would greet her as a friend, and maybe swap stories or refer to something unknown to us. This must’ve felt real, as I remember it.

The music added to the feeling of a real culture, especially the catchy faux-“European” songs that played during racing and gambling minigames.

Giving the gamer a world to live in was the big key to this game’s success.

Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward

Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward (2012) is a sequel to 999: Nine Persons, Nine Hours, Nine Doors (2009) — a beautifully titled game. Its title is haunting, mysterious, memorable, and intriguing.  Its sequel’s title is unfortunately a much poorer effort. Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward sound clunky, and neither tantalizes nor teases. It does not ignite the imagination.

Forgive me for putting so much stock in a title, but I believe that titles tell the tale. The title is the lens through which the whole work is viewed.  Is it fair to judge a translated work so heavily on a single sentence? I say it is, for these games are visual novels and must be judged as literature. They stand or fall on the strength of their writing, and in translation they must stand on the strength of their translation. In this department I was also disappointed by Virtue’s Last Reward (henceforth referred to as VLR). The English was perfect of course, but the translation was awkward at times and sometimes even inaccurate.

Lest my complaints seem too nitpicky in nature*, I shall dive into the meat of the game. Like its predecessor it is an interactive mystery horror story, and it plays largely the same as 999, but it feels different due to one crucial missing element, that is: gore. I am far from a carnage fiend. I believe that few games appreciate how to use it effectively and most would be better with far less. In 999, the rare moments of brutal violence haunted every moment of the rest of the game and provided a real sense of tension and stakes and discomfort. Though VLR is ostensibly a darker story, it feels much lighter. Everything about the game in relation to its predecessor feels expanded, but thinner. The cast has grown from eight to nine, but the characters are shallower and their stories less interesting. The story is much bigger, but its twists and turns are less satisfying, and its ultimate ending was frankly disappointing even on first viewing — a stark contrast with 999‘s ending, which managed to be both satisfying and utterly unforeseeable.

VLR is also less subtle than its predecessor.  999 dealt with themes of identity, memory, and the “collective unconscious”. This game brought up the same themes, but much more superficially and obviously.

I liked playing VLR, I was swept away by it and enjoyed the ride. The puzzles are probably as good as in the original, so it will feel mostly the same. It fails to live up to its predecessor in mood and in effect. I was less connected to these characters, and less moved by their stories. When the game was over, it did not linger in my thoughts like its predecessor, but was quickly forgotten.

 

*I do not apologize for this tendency in my writing. The big is in the small. The whole is in the details. This is true of a life as well as of a work of literature.

Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth 2

The “Investigations” series is an audacious failure. Built up of the same parts that constituted its parent “Ace Attorney” series, it boldly dispenses with their proper order and thus neuters its emotional impact. There’s a real sense of catharsis in the Ace Attorney games, carefully nurtured by the structure of gathering evidence and then using every piece in a final dramatic courtroom battle. The trials even manage to evoke feelings of tension and accomplishment, high achievements in a visual novel with no choices and no genuine possibility of failure (saving being possible at any moment). The “Investigations” series sets fire to these accomplishments by brazenly jumbling up the order of collecting evidence and cross-examining testimony, hopping back and forth between each many times per case.

 

One might ask, “Why don’t the ‘Investigations’ games work? The ingredients are all the same.” The question itself is wrong. The right question is: Why do the Ace Attorney games work? There’s nothing new or exciting or even fun about its gameplay: clicking all the clickable objects per screen and asking every question of every character was an uninspired way to play a game even back when Snatcher did it in 1988. But there’s an undeniable emotional release that comes from using all these clickable objects later in a grand battle to prevent a miscarriage of justice. It’s this emotional experience that ties people so strongly to this series. It’s what causes them to throw money at embarrassments like this:https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1873107026/aviary-attorney (Please don’t pledge money to that. Instead pledge money to my Ace Attorney clone where you defend people before the pearly gates and help them win their way into Heaven.)

The writing is the same in the Investigations spin-offs as it is in the main series, and for the most part you’ll have as much fun playing it. Presenting evidence and exposing contradictions is as enjoyable as ever. It’s the overall experience that will be noticeably different – especially when it’s over. Completing an Ace Attorney game is an intensely satisfying experience that looms large in one’s memory. Ace Attorney Investigations will end and you won’t feel anything and you’ll forget about it in a couple of days.

There’s an argument that this is actually meta-game commentary. The Phoenix Wright games leave you feeling good about yourself and with treasured memories to look back on, like a defense attorney. The Investigations games leave you feeling like one of the prosecutors of the series: cold, unsatisfied, and ready to move on.

 

Bloodborne

I’m so tired of the phrase “spiritual successor.”  But in the instance of Bloodborne, I get that it’s really hard to take it as its own unique thing that references something before it.  And calling it a spiritual successor opens up the door to all sorts of shitty “soul” puns, so I really wish I could describe the game without such a hacky term.  But it’s unfortunately so fitting.

Instead perhaps I will refer to it as an  iteration.

You get the feeling that the creators of Bloodborne didn’t like the way that so many people played some of their earlier games, as they’ve done what they could to make playing “sword and board” impossible.  It was already possible to play differently in previous games (especially Dark Souls II) but many players still stuck to their crutch.  This game, like a Charles Dickens villain, kicks that crutch out from under players and forces them to play a different style.  And some people certainly are crying like the orphans in one of those Dickens’ novel about the change.  Overall, though, I enjoy the shift in combat, as well as crying orphans.

I think playing Dark Souls II first as my first “third person precision adventure game” might have sort have broken me for the entire series.  Because I really miss being able to clear out the world, and miss the way the infusion system worked in that game, and it these things being changed in this game feels sort of like a step backwards to me, even though I realize this is normal to everyone else.

Besides quibbles like that, though, I have really enjoyed Bloodborne. It looks really, really nice.  And adding Victorian Horror (something legitimately frightening to me) to the persistent unease that soul games have causes it to be one of the scariest games I’ve ever played.

Apart from the game, I continue to find the Soul Series Fan Cult to be silly.  The games are not THAT hard.  They are tense at times, but the difficulty feels manageable, especially in this game, with so many aspects rewarding aggressive play that didn’t used to previously be worth the risk (you know, other than the fact it was more fun to play like that).   Don’t let the talk around these games being hard keep you away.  If you played games in the 90s, or can put up with some bullshit and figuring stuff out, you’ll hang.

I think it’s something that should be played.