The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I will never forget the first time that I watched the official reveal for a new Zelda project during E3 2014, when we saw Link soar through the air after leaping from his horse and launching an arrow at what we would later find out to be a “Guardian”. Although it was only a brief glimpse into what the future held for the franchise, it seemed as though Nintendo had something slightly different in mind for the forthcoming installment. While I knew that the franchise was in desperate need of a refresh, with a steady decline of fan reception, I was cautious on expecting any stellar changes since this was, after all, Nintendo we are talking about here. Hell or high water, they walk to the beat of their own drum as the rest of the world refuses to slow down. After multiple delays that seemed to indicate the likelihood of a title that could ever possibly live up to the hype seem to slowly slip away, to say I was anxious to get my hands on the title was a severe understatement. After more than 60+ hours into the experience, I can safely report that not only did Nintendo somehow deliver a game that actually lived up to the incredible hype and expectation, they actually managed to give us a game that will be discussed and praised for years to come. 

…but instead hands over the reigns to the user and says, “go ahead, give it a try…”

While Zelda: Breath of the Wild still has its flaws, when you begin looking at the gameplay mechanics and the way that they mesh together, there is no denying the levels of greatness this game hits in several moments of the game. From magnet abilities, to bombs, and to the glorious attribute of climbing nearly every surface, Link no longer finds himself being held back by the usual tropes and barriers that have silently outlined what we have come to expect in a Zelda game- but instead hands over the reigns to the user and says, “go ahead, give it a try”. With every insane idea that I had, or combination that I was sure was going to “break” the game, I was instead rewarded in a way that I have never experienced before in a video game. The result? An experience that has literally challenged the way I think about gameplay mechanics in a sandbox that only wants to provide you with the tools to succeed the way that you want. 

From the moment you begin your journey, you find yourself in the all-too-familiar scenario in which you are woken from a deep sleep and off you go. However, this is where the familiarity ends. Following the exit of your sleeping chamber, paired with your newfound ability to climb nearly any surface, you stand atop a cliff that overlooks the vast landscape of a Hyrule without any invisible barriers and more challenges than you could imagine. This is where you begin shaping your adventure, while you get a sense for a general flow that you could follow, the fact is that you can run in the opposite direction for hours avoiding any sense of true responsibility until you are ready. This kind of freedom ensures that no two players will experience the same adventure, but can instead swap stories of how they beat the game.

…none have empowered the player to explore, bend, and twist the mechanics of the world to this degree…

Anyone that has played a previous entry in the franchise will understand the usual flow of the game: you spend some time in the first areas available to you trying to acquire some bombs, which then allows you to move a rock, and thus gives you the ability to access a water temple at some later point down the road. Essentially, while it may seem like you are given an open world, you are still guided by invisible hands that ensure you check the boxes in the order that they want. Breath of the Wild crushes this expectation, and hands you all of the tools that you will need to complete literally every aspect of the game within the first hour or two. With all of your abilities in hand, you are thrust into an open world that screams to be explored, with no area that you can’t immediately get to. While there have been games before it that offer a vast open world in which you can explore such as the Fallout or Witcher series, none have empowered the player to explore, bend, and twist the mechanics of the world to this degree, and all the while maintaining the same level of polish that you learn to expect as you scavenge every nook and cranny. BOTW does this so well, that there is no doubt in my mind that this will be game developers and analysts alike who study just how they mastered this level of gameplay experience.

Now there are a couple of small additions to the system that can and will cause some frustration: the introduction of breakable weapons and of course the stamina system. While neither are a first time for the genre, previously executed in some of the other franchises I named earlier, I can definitely understand the feeling of defeat when you lose that sword you were so excited about after a short time. There was more than one instance that I found myself cursing the makers of the game as to why I needed to lose a bow after one boss battle. However, as with everything else in the game, you learn to adapt and later understand this system is implemented to force us to try new things instead of hoarding the same 4 weapons from beginning to end. As for the stamina bar? While it will impede the distance you run or the heights you can climb, again you learn to adapt by finding higher areas to glide from, as well as the ledges you can scale to. Throughout your journey, you will have several opportunities to expand your stamina meter, not to mention the use of food ingredients you can consume that will give you a temporary buff. 

If by now you haven’t guessed, I enjoyed this game thoroughly. From the shrines and trials that you wished never ended, to the peaceful music and sound of the breeze as you ride your horse across the countryside in search of another easter egg, this game is a masterpiece in nearly every aspect and must be played. It is a game that will continue to dominate water cooler conversations, and pop up in casual conversations of the greatest of all time. This game has earned every praise and acknowledgment that it has received, and will continue to dominate the background noise of my mind. Simply put, I can’t get enough of this game — and I cannot wait to see what is next for Link and Princess Zelda. 

Horizon Zero Dawn

It’s been almost a month since Guerilla games released their latest IP, “Horizon Zero Dawn”, and just last week, Sony Interactive Entertainment announced they had sold 2.6M units of the game in its first two weeks.  This is extremely impressive for a game that was released just days before everyone jumped on the Zelda train.  “Horizon Zero Dawn” is truly a breath of fresh air for the post-apocalyptic RPG genre, and should be a strong potential candidate for game of the year.  With the release of “Mass Effect: Andromeda” this Tuesday, I fear that the attention to this gorgeous game will continue to be overshadowed by the more established IP’s that have dropped since its release.

I’ll be the first to admit that this review is a tad delayed, but consider it “delayed with purpose”.   I’m a little selfish, but I don’t want the hype train for this game to end.  If there is one game that deserves to be riding the hype in first class, it’s “Horizon Zero Dawn”.  I tend to get hyper critical of RPG games because it’s the genre that I tend to favor above all others.  Call me an “elitist” but if an RPG misses the mark in either its storytelling capabilities or how immersive it makes the gamer feel, then it’s not worth my time.  The truly great RPG games are the ones that manage to capture both elements at once.  “Horizon Zero Dawn” is one of these games, and I urge you to check it out if you haven’t already.

This game is about Aloy, a young girl who is cast out the Nora tribe for seemingly just existing.  She has no understanding of who her mother is or why the “Matriarchs”, essentially the leaders of this tribe, seem to dislike her so much.  Eventually, she goes through a trial called “The Proving” where she not only comes out on top, but she also becomes a survivor after a cult massacres the other trial participants.  For her reward, Aloy discovers her origin but this ultimately leaves her with more questions than answers. With a burning desire for both vengeance and knowledge, and being granted the status of “The Seeker” by the Matriarch’s, she embarks on her journey outside of the Sacred Lands.  This is how the game starts, and it sets the tone that this is more than just another “Post-Apocalyptic” game.

One thing I commend the Guerrilla developers in doing, is creating a world that feels very natural despite having massive animalistic robots roaming around the world and vastly differing human civilizations strewn across a relatively small geographic area.  Human’s have rejected the technology that created the robots, and are living in various types of early governments.  The Nora are a tribal based society, the Carja are heavily influenced by Aztec/Mayan cultures, and the Oseram appear to have reverted to almost a medieval Europe society.  There are other tribes alluded to throughout the game, and you even find a few of these along the way, but these are essentially the big three.  Although the map in the game is quite large, it’s not massive.  Geographically, this game takes place in Western Colorado and sprawling into Eastern Utah, and it’s clear the design team did their homework when researching what this area actually looks like.  It’s no secret that this game is gorgeous, but it takes it to a whole different level when you realize that this whole game is based on real world locations and that it actually looks like the locations it’s trying to represent. This attention to detail in the setting is honestly what makes this game believable.  My one critique with the visuals from this game are the facial features on various characters.  The character models, as a whole, are beautifully designed.  But when you start interacting with them, they feel very robotic and plastic.  It’s a very petty thing to complain about, but it’s something that bothered me even up to my final hours of playing this game.  It was clear that the developers spent more time smoothing over the setting but didn’t spend as much time polishing up the characters found within the world, and that’s a miss.

Setting plays a big part in the immersion process that is vital to the success of an RPG.  Along with setting, you also need to have a sense of character progression or evolution.  From the mainline story to the little errand side quests you never have a moment of wondering, “Why the heck am I doing this?”.  Whether it’s avenging your tribe for the cult massacre, or it’s ultimately stopping a crazed warlord from killing an entire civilization, you feel the story unfold in front of you and you feel like what you do is impacting the world around you.  As a gamer, we need this sense of impact because it makes us actually care to keep discovering and saving this virtual world the developers created.  That isn’t to say that there aren’t some quests that one could deem as “grind quests”, but “Horizon Zero Dawn” has a really unique way of quest organization and classification.  There are, of course, the “main” quests.  But after this, you will find there is a separate section for “side” quests, “errand” quests, and then the subsequent grind quests.  My one critique with this section is that the distinction between what is a “side” quest and what is an “errand” quest is not very clear.  I consider “side” quests as quests that are created to specifically allow the player to delve deeper into a subsection of lore that wouldn’t normally get covered in the main questline.  On the other hand, when I think of “errand” quests I think of the typical, “Go to X location to get me Y thing(s)”.  This is not always the case with Horizon, and a lot of the classified “errand” quests actually fit more of what we are used to thinking as “Side” quests, which leaves me feeling confused on why the developers even felt the need to establish this differentiation.

 The second aspect of creating a successful RPG, is the story.  You can make your gamer feel as much like the main character of the game as you want, but if your story sucks then that desire to complete the game and see the end gets tossed out the window.  One thing I appreciate is that the developers established Aloy as a baby, as a determined child, and then finally as a strong young woman.  You understand her backstory, and you understand the impact of what this means to her.  Let’s be clear, this is not a story about “finding oneself” because she does this at the beginning.  This is a story about discovery and salvation.  As you progress through the game, your goal shifts from answering deep questions to saving your world from ultimate destruction.  It keeps you on your toes and is paced in such a way that you never get the feeling that you aren’t ready to tackle your problems head on.  

Although there is a leveling system in this game, at no point did I ever feel like I needed to pause the action to go complete a handful of the other quests in order to complete my objective.  Now don’t get me wrong, this game is not easy and can get very punishing if you don’t execute the objective properly.  Usually, this is heavily stealth based.  I tended to snipe heavily throughout the game, but there are also sneak attacks and traps that are at the player’s disposal to complete the game.  Since the main quests are paced perfectly, you never have the chance to lose sight of what the game’s story actually is.  This is fantastic because that’s what an RPG should be about.  It should be about creating an immersive environment to allow for you players to experience and appreciate the story that you are trying to present.  My one critique about the quest design and execution is that it leaves very little wiggle room to allow for various types of gameplay.  If you are a person who tends to run face first into your foes with guns blazing, you will die.  This game forces you to analyze the situation you are about to get yourself into and actually plan ahead what tactic you will use at your disposal.

This game is a solid 9 out of 10, based on my RPG criteria.  It creates a vastly immersive gameplay experience while also maintaining a consistent and interesting story.  It’s different from other games in the apocalyptic world genre in that you never feel a sense of loss for society, but rather hope.  You aren’t trying to restore society to what it once was, instead, you are trying to protect the world you have.  The small critiques that there are for “Horizon Zero Dawn” pale in comparison to everything that this game has done right.  Let’s keep this hype train going for a game that deserves it!  If you haven’t checked it out yet, I strongly suggest you give it a go

Gravity Rush 2

After experiencing a year of lackluster sequels, Gravity Rush 2 is a breath of fresh air and a hopefully a harbinger of great things coming in 2017.
Longtime fans of the series will be thrilled to know that this game follows immediately after the events of Gravity Rush and stays true to its roots throughout the game.  The game has gotten a makeover in both its gameplay as well as its setting, but the fundamentals of what made me a fan of Gravity Rush are still present throughout.

The story begins with Kat and Syd in a mining settlement called the “Banga Settlement” and a brief introduction of how you guys landed there.  For fans of the series, or those who are familiar with the lore in this game, these events occur almost immediately after the closure of Gravity Rush.  It almost feels like this was intended to be a “Part 2” to Kat’s story, rather than a sequel.  The game does a decent job of introducing the new characters within the world, as well as introducing both Syd and Kat to newcomers.  However, the game does lack in its later levels when introducing some of the other prominent characters that came from Gravity Rush.  

As an example, in Gravity Rush 2, you can play alongside a character by the name of Raven.  This ability is unlocked after a quest is completed in the main storyline, and the story of the quest is dripping with throwback lore to Gravity Rush.  Existing fans, or even people who have played through the first game would understand the prominence of both the quest as well as unlocking Raven, however, newcomers would struggle to understand its significance.  The game simply assumes that if you are playing this game, then you’ve played through Gravity Rush.  This may be the case for the clear majority of players, but doesn’t’ help to get newcomers to the series.  Which is unfortunate because when comparing the overall playability of Gravity Rush 2 to Gravity Rush, this game takes the cake.

I was never able to play Gravity Rush in its original form on the PS Vita, but I was lucky enough to play through the remastered version on PS4 shortly before Gravity Rush 2 came out.  Although the developers did an amazing job of making this remastered version feel like a PS4 game, there were still pockets here and there where it was blaringly obvious that this game was initially designed to be on a handheld system.  The controls for flying were cumbersome to master and the occasional weird glitch during moments of battle were all constant enough for me to feel like I was playing a PS Vita game on the PS4.  As a newcomer to the series, Gravity Rush was hard for me to get through because of how challenging it was to master the controls on a PS4 controller.  It felt like a grind at times, and I found myself running through the game to experience the story rather than the game itself.  

With Gravity Rush 2, I did not experience this feeling once.  I wanted to keep playing through all the side quests and challenge missions just to experience more of the gameplay.  It was polished and fun to play because it was such a striking change to the first installment.  The developers also added several new fighting mechanics throughout the game that you unlock at different points.  The level up system is still the same in that you obtain power crystals to then spend on upgrading Kat, but the developers have changed it to allow for more customization in how you play.  Instead of spending all crystals on one ability or upgrade at a time, you can allocate certain percentages of your crystals to different abilities to work around how you, as a player, play Kat.

The setting of Gravity Rush, although fun to play through, at times felt drab and dreary.  It was always a constant reminder that I was playing a remastered version of a game that had previously been released on a handheld system.  Gravity Rush 2, in comparison, felt alive and vibrant.  The city setting was so colorful and full of people to pick up with your stasis field and chuck around!  

Director Keiichiro Toyama cites that much of the inspiration for the setting of both Gravity Rush and Gravity Rush 2 was drawn from the surreal sci-fi styles of French cartoonist Jean “Moebius” Giraud.  “Moebius” was a pseudonym that Giraud used while creating some of his work and is defined as, “an impossible object that loops back into itself perpetually; a single surface that exists as both one and a pair”.  This is fitting for a game that you can literally play with dimension at the press of a button, a game where you can see the world as one way and then the next second see it in a completely new light.  Gravity Rush 2 far outshines its predecessor in capturing this feeling as you warp space around you and experience the beautiful world from all angles.  One critique that I had with Gravity Rush was that even if you were running around on the side of a building or underneath the floating city platform, it felt like you were doing just that.  It felt like you had just shifted your camera but that the world itself was still just the same.  In Gravity Rush 2 when you shift your gravity to go under or on the side, you feel like you have just stepped into another world within the world you were running around in before.

Putting aside the difficulties new players will face in grasping the story, Gravity Rush 2 is able to pick up where Gravity Rush left off.  The controls have drastically improved to make a much more enjoyable experience for both newcomers and longtime fans.  The concept of “Moebius” has been taken to the next level in level design and the vibrancy of the world helps to make it a much more immersive experience.  But for everything that it does well, if I had not played the first game I would have been lost in the character development and story.  This is unfortunate because if they had at least created a prolog to the game, this could have been resolved.  This game is far more enjoyable to play than the first game, but the confusion holds it back.  For this reason, I score this game a solid 8 out of 10.
 

Paper Mario: Color Splash

      There are few games in this world that I get so excited for that I’m willing to pay for an entirely new console just so that I can play them.  I had previously not owned a Wii U up until this weekend as I thought the whole concept of a tablet/console hybrid would lead to gimmicky gameplay.  While wandering around my local gaming store, my boyfriend and I just happened to meander on over to the Wii U section.  I noticed a simple little title called “Paper Mario: Color Splash” and after a moment’s hesitation, ended up purchasing not just this game but also a brand new deluxe version of the Wii U.  Yes, I know there will be an entirely new console coming out in March but the fact remained that there was a brand-new installment to my absolute favorite franchise of all time out NOW on the Wii U.  This need for my fix was enough to drop the money needed to buy this soon to die out console just to get this game.

       Now for a little backstory, I have been playing the Paper Mario franchise since the days of Paper Mario 64.  As a young girl, my brother and I would routinely visit the Blockbuster at the bottom of the hill that we lived on.  Normally we would go immediately to Super Smash Bros. or one of the Mario Parties on the N64.  But, it was on one of these occasions that I made the fateful decision to rent the original Paper Mario game and play it over the weekend.  I beat it in one weekend and for the following months, this was the only game that I would rent and play.  I finally ended up saving enough money to buy the same game from Blockbusters during one of their game clear outs and to this day I still have it.

      The Paper Mario franchise is unique in its gameplay, storytelling, and graphics.  You control Mario, in a 2D world with 3D elements.  The game is a weird child of the original side-scrolling puzzle platformer movements with some vertical elements thrown in depending on the areas that you go in.  The battle system is turn based and you engage in battle by either attacking or being attacked by enemies in the field.  What makes this game genre stand out from the other Mario games is the writing and storytelling in this game.  It’s very clear that from the get go, the writers were basically given free rein to create characters and dialogue for the entirety of the game.  In every game, it’s like taking a bath in a google search engine.  Characters in the world will routinely not only reference cannon from the past and present Mario games, but also will throw in references to real world problems or occurrences that we, as players, experience as well.  The whole thing sounds like a hodgepodge, but it all comes together beautifully and helps build the player/character connection that is so important for an RPG.  Finally, just the name of the franchise suggests, the concept of “Paper” is vital to the overall aesthetic of the world.  All the characters appear as if they were paper cutouts and even elements of the world react as if it were made from paper.

      It’s been unfortunate, but this franchise has been suffering from an identity crisis for the past two installments.  I call it the Nintendo Curse, and it’s when a game that has garnered popularity from out of nowhere gets drastically changed in how it plays, to accommodate some gimmicky feature that Nintendo pushes out.  Comparing Paper Mario 64 (N64) to Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (GameCube), it is very clear that the latter is a direct sequel to the first.  The artistic style, map design, turn based mechanics, characters, etc. are all very similar.  This is not a bad thing.  The first game was amazing, and the sequel basically took everything that was good about the first and brought it the next level.  I have a theory that it was because this game was released on the GameCube which did not have any potentially gimmicky add-on’s that Nintendo’s executive team could get overly excited about (except for those mini discs).  

      Then the Wii came out, and that’s when Paper Mario got Wii-erd.  We saw the release of Super Paper Mario which took the turn-based fighting mechanic and the unique world design, and effectively through it out the window.  Now fans essentially got a pure side-scrolling puzzle platform game.  Since it was on the Wii, you now had the capability to rotate your Wiimote and suddenly the world would flip and you would be able to move vertically instead of just horizontally.  Just like with the original side-scrolling Mario games, but not like with the original Paper Mario games, enemy battles were now fought live out in the field by simply attacking the enemy rather than being fought in a battle screen.  This was not widely received with fans, and although I give the creators props for attempting a new way of battling, I am happy they have since moved away from this.  The writing and story aspects were essentially the same, but the gameplay mechanics and the world design were so different that it put a bad taste in fans mouths.  Nintendo changed a game to make it “better” even though no one was asking for it.

      With the rise in popularity of the Nintendo 3DS, it was no surprise to anyone that there would be a Paper Mario game released on this console as well.  This was the first time this franchise made it to the handheld market.  Initially, a lot of fans were excited for sticker star as it looked like the game was moving back to its roots.  No longer were we forced to deal with the Wii mote gimmick of flipping your control to get to other portions of the map, instead, the maps appeared to be designed in the same manner of the first two games.  However, in true Nintendo fashion, they realized that the 3DS had two screens to utilize and decided to bring this into the game.  The battles went back to a turn based system, but this time instead of choosing your attacks and then deciding which enemy to use the attacks on, you had a sticker book.  The sticker book was essentially the screen in your palms and the stickers in the book were your attacks that you had to attack the enemies.  You would attack in consecutive order, down the line of enemies, using the stickers that you had in your book as if they were normal attacks. You also had what were called “Things” that were 3D objects you found throughout the world that could turn into stickers.  You would use these stickers to solve puzzles throughout the world as well use during boss battles.  Since most boss battles had a one-shot mechanic that could only be countered by a certain “Thing”, it was of the utmost importance that you kept track of these. Not only that, but this games story was literally thrown out the window by creator Shigeru Miyamoto.  It has come to light since Sticker Star’s lukewarm reception that Miyamoto informed writer’s and developers of this game that “story wasn’t important” to this game.  The lack of story and the gimmicky use of the 3DS dual screen capability caused this installment to be the least well received of the Paper Mario franchise.

     Needless to say, Color Splash had its work cut out for it.  At this point in time, the fans and the developers are at odds as to where this genre should go.  Developers are continuing to try and utilize the usage of their systems mechanics whereas fans just want to the games to return to their roots.  When the initial trailer for Color Splash was shown at E3, many fans were disappointed as it appeared to just be a rehash of Sticker Star in the battle system.  This was a fair disappointment, as the battle system in this game is annoying, to say the least.  To attack an enemy, you now select a “Card” from your “Hand” (IE your Wii U gamepad).  The whole concept of Color Splash is repainting the world of Prism Island, finding the missing paint stars, and defeating Bowser who has covered himself in Black Paint.  This paint concept bleeds into the battle system as well, and before you can play your card you must then “Paint” it with your stylus.  Once painted, you then flick it towards the top of the Wii U pad and then Mario attacks.  This is the only part of the game that feels remotely gimmicky, and I honestly wish they would have done away from this as it is a big part of what is holding this game back from true potential.

     Honestly, this is the only part of the game that in any way feels gimmicky. The story, though not nearly as in depth as the first two games are charming and the world feels alive.  I had an odd relationship with this game during the first little playthrough because it was still so different from what I know this game has come from.  Initially, the game appears to be another sticker star with its weird battle system and no story whatsoever.  For the first two chapters, the story is very disjointed and one can’t help but feel disconnected from the world that they are trying to ultimately save.  Around the second chapter, the writing starts to pick up and at times you feel as if you are back with the original Paper Mario games.  This is such a nice relief and I hope that with the next installment we as fans finally get the game we have been asking for. The only disappointing part of the story is the fact that the only NPC model the creators used in this game were Toads.  Yes, they give the Toads unique personalities, but all toads are the same and have the same underlying characteristics. Not only that, but frankly, no one gives a damn about Toads.

      With this latest installment of the Paper Mario franchise, I can’t help but wonder where the series will go next.  The thing is, although, at times gimmicky in true Nintendo fashion, this game is surprisingly a lot of fun to play.  I’m overall satisfied with my purchase, and although the replay value is just not there unlike its predecessors it’s a step in the right direction that this franchise has been missing for a while now.    The Switch is scheduled to come out sometime in March of 2017, and with it the death of dual screen capability and/or motion capture.  I’m hoping by making this “Switch” the Nintendo higher ups are done playing games with their fans heartstrings and begin to get serious about making their beloved franchises shine.  For Paper Mario: Color Splash, I’ll give them an 8 out of 10.  It was a genuinely good game, but I’m a little afraid of where this series will go since this is the third game in a row that has incorporated the gimmicky game mechanics.  With the Switch, I’m not seeing how they will manage it at this point in time, but Nintendo is always full of surprises…

Review: Civilization 6

By the time this review goes live, Civilization VI will already have been available for nearly a full month. I’ve been playing the game regularly since it launched on October 21st, and I had been intent on giving it a proper review since well before I actually got my hands on it. It was important to me that I invest an appropriate amount of time in the game before adding my reactions to it to the larger discussion surrounding its release, and as a result, I intentionally held off on releasing a premature review. The good news is that Civilization VI is a great if imperfect game, one that re-defines the series in some important ways, and I’ve had a very enjoyable time getting to know it better.

“Civilization VI is a special game worth remembering even among the surfeit of terrific releases this season”

At times I’ve wondered if I were already too late. During the holiday season, when major and long-anticipated titles release literally on a weekly basis, even great games get forgotten about, and it feels like there’s a very limited window of opportunity to discuss even those titles that would demand a lengthier conversation had they been released at any other time of the year.

But Civilization VI is a special game worth remembering even among the surfeit of terrific releases this season. It’s been the better part of a decade since Civilization V, and the disappointing (although not necessarily bad) spinoff title Civilization: Beyond Earth failed to sate the series fans hungry for a true sequel. It’s been a long time coming, and as with the titles that came before it, Civ VI represents the very beginning of a new era for the series, one that we’re sure to see continue on for the coming years with both official expansions and community-created mods.

The challenge to reviewing a Civilization game is that each new entry in the series is built upon the same stable and consistent foundation as its predecessors. The general concept, rules of play, and formula of the series remain largely the same such that each new release feels more iterative than revolutionary. It’s a bit like a sports franchise in that way, although lacking the mandate of an annual release cycle that might burden, say, the Madden franchise, Civilization’s mechanics have yet to ever feel stale or uninspired to me. The roster gets changed up, the game modes might see some tweaking, the visuals get an overhaul, but just as Madden is required to adhere to the (typically) unchanging rules of its sport, Civilization VI plays out largely in the same way that each of its predecessors has. There are still multiple paths to win the game, for example, ranging from military to scientific or even religious victories, and the turn-to-turn progression of the game is relatively unchanged.

 The leaders in Civ VI have more personality than ever thanks to wonderful animations and delightful art design
The leaders in Civ VI have more personality than ever thanks to wonderful animations and delightful art design

It’s a formula that doesn’t really need to be changed and one that defines the series and helps to define the entire 4X sub-genre of strategy games. But Civ VI is more than a mere facelift for the series; Firaxis have implemented a number of new ideas this time around, most of which are great and well-implemented while others are not so much.

The biggest and most publicized one is, of course, the new approach Civ VI takes to how cities are developed. Settlements in previous Civ games were self-contained objects that evolved over time as upgrades were researched and developed. As you progressed through the ages, your humble villages would grow into skyscraper-filled metropolises, but they’d never expand beyond the borders of a single tile or hex. Any structures you implemented over the course of their growth would simply enhance the city’s production, research, or military strengths, and players would interact with these structures via a self-contained city UI.

In Civilization VI, city upgrades take the form of “districts,” each of which occupies its own hex. Not all hexes are created equal for district building, however, and different districts benefit from different types of terrain and surroundings. For example, universities, which enhance your scientific research rates, benefit from proximity to rainforests and mountains. Other districts benefit from being adjacent to the city center (itself treated as a district). Likewise, wonders occupy their own hexes, but in order to construct a desired wonder, you need not only to have unlocked the relevant research criteria but also the appropriate terrain and proximity to certain natural features in order to build them. The Great Pyramids, for example, can only be built on the desert plains, and the Colossus requires a nearby harbor with a lighthouse.

“I managed to eek out at least one scientific victory even stumbling through the game with next to no forethought as to how I’d develop my city”

It’s a cool expansion to how cities are developed and managed, and it requires deliberate city planning in a way that Civ players have never really had to worry about. My first few times through the game, I’ll admit the entire concept was overwhelming, and I don’t yet believe I’ve mastered the mechanics. At the same time, I managed to eek out at least one scientific victory even stumbling through the game with next to no forethought as to how I’d develop my city. As a result, I’m inclined to believe that the system rewards careful, strategic players far more than it punishes newcomers.

Civ VI has also split the research tree of the past games in half. Scientific research still produces new technology that allows you to develop new buildings or units or harvest new resource while Civic research unlocks new forms of government and policy cards that provide bonuses to various play styles. Early examples of these cards include one that provides a bonus +5 attack to combat encounters with barbarians while another improves the rate at which worker units are developed. It’s an interesting system that higher-tier players will likely be able to exploit to their great success, although I found that I often neglected or forgot to update my government policies regularly enough or that I simply wasn’t dynamic enough in my own use of them.

Speaking of workers, Civ VI takes a slightly different approach to how resource hexes are developed and roads are constructed. Laborers are now designated as Workers, and each one has only a limited number of actions they can perform (three for most civs, although China gets a unique buff that allows all workers to complete one additional project). Because these units must be developed or purchased from your city like any other, deciding when to spawn them and how to utilize them is a more deliberate and tactical process than before. Workers can develop land and resource tiles first while roads are paved automatically as traders begin to work their routes between cities and later more deliberately as military engineers become available.

There is a multitude of other changes that Civ VI brings to the table for the series, many of which are far more subtle than these. One other worth mentioning is that the conditions for winning the game now include a religious victory, although that victory path seems to have come at the expense of a diplomatic victory condition, as the player can no longer win the game through traditional diplomacy. While religion as a game mechanic has seen some cool expansion and integration into the game, I found it’s a less than satisfying path to victory that could be largely boiled down to rushing to found a religion as quickly as possible, and then “bombing” neighboring civs with as many missionaries as possible. It would have been nice to see some additional diversity in the types of units and strategies available to a religion-focused player, so maybe that’s something we can look forward to in future expansions.

 The map-like appearance of the game board, particularly the way the fog of war peels away, is very charming
The map-like appearance of the game board, particularly the way the fog of war peels away, is very charming

At the end of the day, the changes Firaxis have made to the Civilization formula seem to fit in just right. As has often been the case for me, at least, the way Civilization VI works seems so natural, that the mechanical distinctions between it and its predecessors start to blur, and I mean that as a credit to the game. There’s enough going here to make Civ VI feel like a new experience without demolishing the familiarity of the game or diminishing that drive to see what’s going to happen in your next turn that the series is famous for.

Civilization VI may not be exclusively a visual update of the series, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t feature a major graphical overhaul. Its general aesthetics seem to have been polarizing within the series’ fan base, but I think it’s the best-looking game in the series. The game board is colorful and diverse. Forests and rain forests run into one another, oases dot the deserts, and mountain ranges stretch out majestically across multiple hexes, which while technically uniform in size and shape, appear to shift and conform to accommodate whatever unique detail they feature.

Unit and building animations are surprisingly detailed and delightful, too, with easily overlooked flourishes that reward careful examination. A hex developed with a plantation structure will, for example, feature an animated fountain and a lit window when occupied by one of your cities citizens. Combat units like Japan’s samurai carry out attacks with unique animations: dashing forward lightning-fast like a character in an anime before cleaning and sheathing his katana. So much love and attention has been paid to these unit animations, that it’s truly disappointing that you’re all but compelled to disable them. In singleplayer, keeping movement and attack animations enabled draws out the length of each turn as you have to wait for the game to render any and all enemy animations within your line of sight. In multiplayer, this problem is particularly egregious, and the friends I played with and I agreed unanimously to turn them off.

“At the end of the day, the changes Firaxis have made to the Civilization formula seem to fit in just right”

Civ leaders, too, have been given a dramatic animation overhaul, and they all seem to have stronger identities and personalities as actual characters in the game. Queen Victoria of England comes across as prim and proper, friendly yet condescending. Cleopatra’s haughty yet flirtatious. Teddy Roosevelt’s real chummy, quick to give you a pat on the back or a punch in the arm. And Ghandi always seems like he’s got a knife behind his back, which feels appropriate given his history in the series. They’re all wonderfully voiced and animated, and just plain charming.

And—as strange a thing as this is to say—the game’s fog of war system is utterly gorgeous. The game board appears as a blank map, the corners of which peel away as you explore it to reveal the terrain below. As you lose line of site, however, it’s replaced again with a map-like, hand-drawn representation of the hex in its last known state. While I’ve read some complaints that the fog of war system is confusing, in part because of its tan color, I’ve always been too enchanted by it to mind terribly. That said, one of Civ VI’s imperfections is its challenge to intuitively and quickly convey information to the player, and this is only one example of the problem.

Finally, players once again have the option to switch back and forth between the game’s default view and a less hardware-intensive “strategic view,” the latter of which has received a similarly, perhaps even more significant overhaul from its appearance in Civilization V. Strategic view does away with combat and environmental animations and replaces the game board with a vibrant cartoon-like visualization. Civ games have always played like highly complex board games, but they’ve never looked quite so delightfully like one as Civ VI does in strategic view. It’s tempting to say that it’s my preferred way to play the game, but the fact of the matter is that I found myself switching freely between the two on my desktop PC while I’ve played in strategic view exclusively on my laptop out of sheer necessity. My one complaint about it is that unit icons, while consistent with the default game view, seem almost out of place in the strategic view’s aesthetic, and I initially had trouble discerning which units were located where.

In fact, if there’s one overt complaint that I have about Civilization VI, it’s that the game really seems to struggle to convey important information to the player, particularly to newcomers. Like previous Civs, the game tries to advise players on where to found their settlements, which units or districts to build, and how to extract the most benefit from your districts, but I’ve often felt—especially in my first few games—like the game just wasn’t communicating enough to me. The searchable help index returns, and there’s a wealth of knowledge about the game’s intricate systems, but all too often I found myself being pulled out of the game in search of what should have been a simple explanation. For instance, I didn’t learn until partway through my second full playthrough that I could literally buy great people with gold or faith. In another case, I had great artists ready to produce great works, but I discovered that I didn’t have anywhere to actually deploy them so they sat instead in Tokyo, twiddling their thumbs and just generally wasting their genius.

To be fair, I found in almost every case that the game did have a way to get me the information, but figuring out how to extract it was always more difficult than it should have been.

 Strategic mode is utterly gorgeous and lends the game even more of a board game feel than it already has inherently
Strategic mode is utterly gorgeous and lends the game even more of a board game feel than it already has inherently

There are other UI issues, too, that fall into this same category. Alerts might go off to signal a barbarian approach, but I wasn’t sure where they were coming from or why the alert was triggered. Recent alerts show up above the end turn button in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, but it’s sometimes difficult to tell when new notifications replace old ones, and I’ve found the game sometimes struggles to call up the notification’s explanation when I hover over them.

In fact, there seem to be some pervasive issues in the overall responsiveness of the UI. I’ve found that I sometimes have to issue commands multiple times. Directing a unit to move to a new hex may not register depending on where in the hex I click, and telling a unit to move beyond its limit for the turn doesn’t produce any immediate action at all but merely queues up the action to take place once you’ve ended your turn. At one point I declared war on another civilization, watched my opponent draw his sword in the diplomacy screen, but then found I still couldn’t cross his borders with my troops. I had to re-declare war, and it was as if the game had simply disregarded my previous attempt.

These kinds of issues creep up frequently, and at least a handful of them are the result of human error on my part, but they give off the sense that Civ VI didn’t get quite the level of polish I’ve expected from the series. Even still, they never really managed to hamper my enjoyment of the game, and the frustrations I felt from them were always minor at worst and humorous at best.

“Its general aesthetics seem to have been polarizing within the series’ fan base, but I think it’s the best-looking game in the series”

More deflating to the game are its AI quirks, which I hope we’ll see improved over the course of post-release patches and future expansions. For the majority of the time, the AI civs appear to act as expected, but I’ve not yet shaken the feeling that something just isn’t working quite right under the hood. Part of this is simply the nature of the game, however. Each civ leader is assigned two agendas. One is public and static to that particular leader (like a trait or characteristic). You can always count on Teddy to get testy if you start a war with a city-state or civ located on his content, for example. The other agenda is secret and picked at random. This is supposed to make for some cool diplomatic dynamics and reward players for collecting intel on their neighboring civs, but it can also result in some erratic behavior. A leader might, say, detest other civs with weak military strength while also being biased against civilizations prone to war. Other times it feels like neither agenda really matters, and getting the other civilizations to like me feels all too often like a roll of the dice.

The way Civilization VI handles variations in difficulty settings can also feel unfair at times. Playing on Emperor, I’ve found that scouting a civilization you plan to attack may reveal a relatively weak military, for example, but the moment you declare war, they’re able to mass produce military units in quantities simply unavailable to human players. I believe this is an intentional mechanic implemented in order to add challenge to the game superficially, but it undermines some of the tactical tools it makes available to the player.

Still for every one of the game’s quirks—and I call them quirks intentionally, because none of these issues ever really feel like game-breaking shortcomings—it gets so much right. Civilization VI is every bit as addictive and fun as its predecessors, and it’s already working its way to being my favorite entry in the series to date. The changes Firaxis have made to how cities are developed in particular have added a level of depth and interaction to the Civ formula that for me have really re-defined the series. I’m looking forward to what they have planned for its future, but in the meantime, Civ VI already feels like the new king of 4X.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I still have time to actually play the game some more before I call it a night. Even if it’s just for “just one more turn.”

Review: Gears of War 4

As a ring into October, I challenged my followers on Twitter again to engage in yet another “Tina’s First” poll to decide what would be the next big leap into a new game franchise.  This was a big step as I had just come away from an incredibly hard month that caused me to shy away from all video games.  I needed something to just veg out on and was so excited when Gears of War 4 was selected as my latest game to test out.  I remember watching the gameplay demo at E3 and thinking just how stunning the game looked and how pumped the fans in the audience seemed to be excited for what was to come.  Needless to say, I was jumping aboard the hype wagon for a game I had never been a part of.  To say that this is my first exposure to the Gears of War franchise would be misleading.  I have seen about 20 minutes of gameplay from the first game in this series.  I own all the original three games in the franchise because the Xbox I purchased last Christmas was the Gears of War special edition, but I have never once played through them (much to the dismay of my gear head boyfriend).  Looking back, I consider the purchase of this special edition Xbox a foreshadowing of the fact this game has become one of my favorite co-op games.

One thing that got me pumped about this game was the fact that there was a female as one of the four main characters you play throughout this game.  As a female gamer, often I end up playing a man in the more ‘shoot ‘em up’ style of game.  This is something I’ve accepted and for the most part, I do not have a problem with.  Gaming has, historically, had a larger male audience than a female one and so it makes sense that developers would appeal to their audience.  But when a game markets the fact that there is going to be a key playable character who is female, I’m going to be a little excited and want to choose the girl.  When I bought this game, I got super excited to play the campaign mode as Kate.  It was thoroughly disappointing when I found out that if you are playing the single-player campaign mode, you are forced to play the main protagonist JD.  It is only with the co-op playthrough of the campaign mode can you get the option to choose to play either Kate or JD’s friend Del.  This is one thing I don’t understand, because the game plays out in almost the same manner regardless of if you play as JD or if you play as one of the other characters.  There is only the slightest difference but not enough to warrant a complete removal of this option from the single player mode.  It irked me because it meant that the character that I wanted to play, the character that was sold to me throughout the E3 presentation, and the character that I could relate to the most was not an option unless I had a friend who wanted to help me out for the campaign mode.  Do you know how hard it is to convince a friend to play co-op CAMPAIGN mode with you?  It’s not easy, especially if all they want to focus on is getting skins in Horde mode.  If you are going to sell a female character in your presentation, at least make sure it’s a viable option across both solo and co-op campaign so that way your female audience doesn’t need to try and find a friend to play with.

After I bribed my boyfriend to play co-op campaign mode with me, and after purchasing a brand-new controller to actually play co-op, we were able to play through the game.  It was surprising to me how easy the controls could be picked up by someone new to the series.  The game is kind in that theprologue not only functions as a sort of catch up in the story for those, like myself, who are not as familiar with the story of Gears of War, but it also functions as a tutorial for basic functions you will use throughout the game.  During this prologue, you also get familiar with some of the guns you will find in the series which is a huge plus to learn before getting into the actual game.  The motions were fluid and smooth and the punishment for not getting it done perfectly the first time around was not harsh which was a huge plus.  Even in the actual game itself, the games mechanics just felt so polished.  There was never once a moment where I felt like the game was bugging out or the controls were clunky.  From the beginning to the end I felt totally comfortable and within my element, which made for a very pleasing gameplay experience.  This kind of ease is so crucial for when you want to try and revamp a series as it helps transition new players into your game and ensure gameplay longevity.  Coalition did a great job at maintaining existing fandom while appealing to the newer generation of Gears.

 The actual story itself is decent, but it’s not amazing.  It kept me engaged while I was playing through it, but it’s not something that I will be playing again.  There are collectibles spattered across the game that you can discover throughout your adventure, but that is the only incentive to go back and play through it again.  There was a lot of throwback to the previous games that I was only able to pick up on because my boyfriend is an avid Gearhead and could clue me in on some of the key moments that went over my head.  Regardless of the throwbacks, the games didn’t rely on these moments to write the story of this game.  I appreciate this immensely, since it shows that the writers at Coalition are serious about revamping this series and are not looking for an easy way to make a buck from a popular game franchise.  I very much got the “Here’s where we’ve come from, here’s where we’re going” vibe from the games writing and it makes me extremely excited to see what’s in store.

All in all, this game was a lot of fun to experience.  At this point, I’m still playing the game but I am playing on Horde mode only which is a ton of fun.  If any of our readers are curious as to where to start post beating campaign mode, I highly recommend this since it’s familiar mechanics but does require you to multi-manage your base and mitigate damage a bit more.  I am not a great shooter in video games, so I don’t feel comfortable going into the PVP realm just yet.  I’m hoping to in the next week or so I’ll be ready because I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about it.  This game has created a new fan in me, and at this point, I’m planning on going back to play the first three games in this series within the next few weeks.  This game is heavily multiplayer oriented as the campaign story mode only lasts about 8-9 hour’s total.  This was disappointing as this was a $60.00 game and as a predominately RPG oriented gamer, I would’ve liked to see a little bit more from this side.  But this game has other perks surrounding the different modes including different skill points or skins.  The split screen co-op is also a huge bonus since this is a feature that is sorely lacking in many video games as of late.  All in all, this game gets an 8 out of 10.  
 

Review: Dear Esther

It’s been close to a month since my last written article for the HUD, and almost as long since I’ve last made an appearance on the Podcast.  Let’s make one thing clear, this was not of my choosing as I love all of you dearly and enjoy being a part of this awesome experiment.  It upset me greatly being away from not just my game console’s testing out new games but also my laptop writing about it!  I have an old as dirt house, an old as dirt junky car, and an old as dirt cat.  All three of which decided to nearly kick the bucket during this last month.  Despite all issues being resolved, for the time being, it has absolutely murdered my finances and my peace of mind.  Needless to say, I very much needed a cheap momentary escape from reality.

Around the time that I started to finally crawl out of my stressed out ball, I noticed a little game called “Dear Esther:  Landmark Edition” pop up on my PSN account.  This was my first exposure to this game, and from first glance it looked hauntingly beautiful and seemed to be just what I needed to escape the constant feeling of stress that was lingering in the back of my mind.  It was for this reason, and the awesome $10.00 price tag, that convinced me to just give it a chance.  If you are a fan of this game looking for another raving review, please turn around now because I wish I had never purchased this game and instead saved my $10.00 for a game I am actually excited for (like Final Fantasy XV).

I have now played this game three times and still do not understand what the overall appeal of it is.  I’m almost ashamed to admit this statement since, at a glance, it appears that most players are critically acclaiming this game for its unique take on story progression.  Now don’t get me wrong, it is very pretty to look at.  Is it the most beautiful game I have ever seen? No, but it is by no means an eyesore.  What was most disappointing with the game’s visuals though was that the most beautiful moment I experienced in the game was spoiled for me during its game trailer on PSN.  The cave scene, with the beautiful glowing moss, was astounding.  However, I could’ve gotten the same experience I received in game by simply just watching the game’s trailer.  Usually when this happens with a movie, the movie gets generally negative remarks about it being lackluster but it seems like when it happens with a game it is praised as being experimental.

The story is also surprisingly hard to follow.  It’s played out randomly as you walk ever closer to the game’s conclusion.  This is a game that you need to play more than once, not for enjoyment sake, but because after your first play through you will be left to scratch your head and wonder, “What the heck did I just play”?  The gist of the narration centers around an old shepherd named Jakobson, an explorer named Donnelly, and a man named Paul.  Each one read aloud in no particular order which forces you to split your attention between what you are looking at and what you are listening to.  There is an overarching somber feeling that permeates throughout the game’s progression, which makes more and more sense after you’ve finally figured out what the story of the game is actually supposed to be.  It is a really sad story.  I think this is the first video game that made me really step back and be a little saddened by the ending.  But this unhappy feeling, which is the games core purpose, is too soon replaced with frustration that it took me so long to figure out the point of the game.

What irks me the most, though, is the promise of a fairly open world experience with the story narration playing in the background.  This game is as linear as linear can get.  You play a character in first-person who meanders around a tiny island while the story is discussed in the background.  You are generally faced with a “fork in the road” scenario, but it is made very apparent pretty short into your path if you’ve made the correct decision or not.  If you’ve made the correct decision, you can proceed to the next area, if you’ve made the incorrect decision you are blocked and have to turn around.  That’s it.  So there really is no such thing as a bad decision.  This is nice if you don’t want to deal with consequences, but it does create a feeling of repetition.  The game wouldn’t be half as frustrating if it actually allowed me to have a true choice and then allow for the game’s story to unfold based on which path I took.  There are other games out there that do this so much better and are actually fun to play because they have some replay value.  A great example of this would be “The Stanley Parable”.

After my third, and final, play through of “Dear Esther,” I have come to the conclusion that there is truly such a thing as something being too indie.  I’m normally a very vocal proponent of indie game developers since my experience with their games have, for the most part, been surprisingly enjoyable.  It’s always a blast to jump into a small game only to discover that there is a surprisingly deep story.  But with this title, I fear I may have gone too deep.  It was so out there that it has made me want to step away from the indie titles, at least for a little bit, and move on to something a little bit more “mainstream”.

What did you guys think of “Dear Esther”?  What did you enjoy about the game and what did you dislike?  Did I miss some major point to the game that truly won you over as a fan, or do you share my opinion?  Let me know in the comments below!

Review: Bound

The Summer of the Indie game continues strong with Santa Monica Studio’s latest installment, ‘Bound’.  Just like with my previous favorite, ‘Abzû’, this game is strongly reminiscent of the hit 2012 game, ‘Journey’.  But does it have what it takes to break away from this popular gameplay model and stand alone as its own entity?

The game follows the adventures of The Princess, who is a little dancer with ribbons tied to her wrists.  She is tasked with assisting The Queen with saving the kingdom from a monster who is trying to destroy it.  The games story is not particularly deep, but it is symbolic and the developers did a great job of pacing it out in this game.  At no point in my playthrough did I feel like it was dragging while I raced from point A to point B.  It’s also not a story that requires a lot of brain power to comprehend what’s going on.  After about level 2, I successfully called what was actually supposed to be represented.  Sure it created a sense of pride when what I predicted came to fruition in the end, but it would have been nice to have a little bit more depth to the actual story.

 Despite the shallow story, the visuals are stunning.  Everything that made ‘Abzû’ and ‘Journey’ peace-evoking in their settings, is sharp and harsh in this game.  The fluidity of your Princess’ movements is perfectly counteracted by the harsh geometric angles of her surroundings.  The most beautiful moments were the times where The Princess is getting bombarded with little paper airplanes in vivid colors against and she has to block them by moving in a series of piqué turns across the level.  This causes an explosion of color to manifest itself across your screen, and the combination of the fluid soft movements again sharp little paper airplanes will surely bring a smile to your face.

Not only did the developers successfully play with various angles to create a unique visual experience, they also play with the actual dimensions of the game environment.  I liked this, it kept the game from being yet another ‘Journey’ 2.0, and instead created more of a Super Mario 64 throwback.  At more than one occasion, I had to re-center myself mentally because my little Princess was upside down, or on the left wall moving either towards the ceiling or floor down.  The developers took huge inspiration from various M. C. Escher infinite staircase paintings when developing several of the areas that you play through.  This game has been confirmed to be released on the PlayStation VR, and I can’t wait to see how moments such as this translate onto that system. 

The music of this game is fitting.  It’s a combination of a hauntingly beautiful piano melody mixed with 80’s synth.  It sounds odd, but the effect is reminiscent of an old music box.  Considering the fact that you’re twirling around on various puzzles on a Princess, the effect is enjoyable.  During the actual gameplay, the music is a nice addition to everything else that is going on around your character.  You want to make your character dance, yes that is an option, to the music simply because it’s so cool.  However, trying to remember the moments of the soundtrack that really stood out, I’m at a loss.  Due to the fact that the music is so similar in its style for each level, it tends to just blend into one another.  It makes it difficult to pinpoint why exactly I enjoyed what I was hearing.  It’s just not memorable, even though it was fun to listen to during the actual game.  Audio is a huge component of the gaming experience if it’s not memorable it does potentially create a less than memorable experience for a game.

All in all, this is another fun little indie game that has been released this summer and I think it really cements the fact that the smaller game development companies totally owned the games released.  ‘Bound’ very much feels like the last huzzah of the summer game releases before we get our fall lineup.  It’s a very bittersweet game, and I feel like it embraces the bittersweet feeling of saying goodbye to Summer 2016.  This game gets a score of 7.5.  Its ho-hum storyline is easily counteracted by the originality of its puzzle execution, but it’s just too similar in the type of visual play to another game we saw release just a few weeks ago without even having the same sort of memorable soundtrack.  Even when this game releases on the PlayStation VR, this game will still receive the same score.  I foresee the only change between traditional console and VR console, for this game, being an added dynamic to the already awesome puzzle set up.  It will be fun, and will be something to definitely check out, but it won’t make up for the portions of the game that are lacking.

What were your favorite moments of ‘Bound’?  Do you agree with our score?  How do you think this game will play out when it releases on PlayStation VR?  Let us know in the comments below!

Review: Headlander

     In what seems to be a renaissance period for metroidvania styled games, it has become a bit convoluted to find the ones that stand out among the rest. While Headlander does not attempt to reinvent the wheel per say, they do add enough flavor to make the experience enjoyable from beginning to end. This Double Fine developed game has all the classic flare that you would expect from one of their titles, and manages to give you plenty of laughs along the way.

     Set in a futuristic space station, they gave the game a 1970’s TV Show vibe that feels right at home between the art style the team took, and the stellar soundtrack that keeps you in the zone throughout your play through. Narrated by a mysterious voice, you are guided through the game as a human head that has the ability to attach itself onto enemy robots that vary in color- which later grants you access to different areas of the game. The gameplay loop, although simple, becomes very frantic and entertaining as you begin to upgrade your arsenal of abilities. From zooming across the screen by amping your thrusters, to the bubble shield that allows you to get close enough to your enemy to literally pull their head off- the name Headlander becomes an obvious choice of title. 

     One of the aspects of the title that I enjoyed the most, was the banter that I received from the airlock doors that I would attempt to run through, but lacked the correct color of suit that would grant me access. From awful puns such as “Are you REDdy” when I would run at the red colored door, to the direct insults doors would throw at me if I had attempted multiple times without success, “Seriously, I don’t want you near me”. While I loved the gameplay to a high degree, it was the dialogue of those around me, along with the narrator as he guided my quest to defeat the evil Methuselah, which gave me a continual smile. 

     The most important aspect of Headlander is the gameplay, which is a valuable trait, as it wants to join a genre that boasts some of the greatest games of all time. As I moved from room to room, it was becoming vastly apparent that I was getting the hang of the gameplay loop and never really faced a challenge that left me stuck for more than a few minutes. Learning your abilities is key to survival as you enter a new area, as well as the skills that the enemy robot offers as you take over their torso- Double Fine created a game that didn’t lose my attention for a single moment offering all of the special elements that make the metroidvania genre a favorite of mine. 

     Headlander is a great addition to the side scrolling action library that so many others attempt to fill. While they don’t try to change it up too drastically- the fact is that there was no need with this title. The development team at Double Fine knew exactly what they wanted to do with this game, make the metroidvania game with that flair and humor that we all know and love from their previous titles. If you are looking for a game that offers all the familiar strokes of others in its genre, but gives you a fun story with great pacing- then I couldn’t recommend this game more than I do. Fans of the genre will be pleased with what Double Fine has created, and I hope they have more like this up their sleeve as we look to the future. 

Review: Hyper Light Drifter

Hyper Light Drifter may be the most aptly named title ever made. Within the first few moments of Heart Machine’s latest game, you are treated to a cascade of color and sound as you introduce yourself to the character and the world you are about to explore. The opening scene is wordless, instead replaced with haunting, atmospheric music. The game creates more questions than answers at the start and instantly sets out the theme HLD is trying to put forth. You must find your purpose within it’s the world.

This 2D, old-school, action RPG is soaked in neon colors, making Hyper Light Drifter one of the more beautiful games I’ve played. The digital aesthetic HLD contains in its natural settings cause the world to connected, even with the variety of environments the game offers.  You’ll navigate wastelands, underground bases, crystallized forests and more as you try to piece together your past and your mission. Each of the different areas features unique enemies; adding variety to the game’s fast, precise action. 

Hyper Light Drifter’s combat is precise, requiring you to use the drifter’s sword attacks, dashes, and guns in every way possible to gain an edge in the game’s multiple battles. I found myself practicing the timing of ashes and counting the number of hits each enemy takes to kill to move through conflicts efficiently. I’ve learned these tactics through perseverance, as HLD surely does feature unforgiving fights. But never did I feel like the game was unfair. Every time I died it was my fault, and I had to adapt to move forward. Beyond your character’s base set of attacks, new skills, such as chain dashing or the ability to reflect back projectiles with the swing of your sword, are available for purchase using collectibles found in the environment. While these new skills aren’t required to proceed the in the story, they are extremely helpful; especially in the latter parts of the game. But people seeking the extra challenge can attempt to complete the game without any upgrades used. The game also features an interesting take on a new game plus mode, offering all upgrades unlocked at the start of the game, at the same time leaving you with reduced health, making survival depend explicitly on your skill alone.

Heart Machine has an apparent love for classic video game boss fights, as Hyper Light Drifter features fun, epic battles at the end of each area. Patterns are to be learned, and timing is to be practiced to defeat and navigate these tough bosses. The game does a great job of making you feel accomplished, as your character flourishes whenever you destroy a boss fight or complicated battle. It’s a small detail, but one I certainly appreciated. It’s as if the drifter is sharing in your joy and celebrating your victory.

That is what HLD does best. The game does a great job of capturing you in its world. Exploration is rewarding, but it does get a little tiresome at times. This frustration is due to HLD’s map system. The map gives you only a general sense of your location in reference to an area. This design choice makes finding your way difficult at times as you have to guess sometimes if you’re going the right way. Whereas giving me the exact location would give me a general sense of direction or quickly identify hidden areas littered throughout the world. And while I thoroughly enjoyed the environments, sounds, and combat HLD has to offer, a lot of the game’s story is up for you to interpret. Maybe a little too much. The game is wordless, with conversations reduced to pictures of incidents, and cut scenes that leave much to the imagination. I’ve played through the game three times by now, and still, have a lot of trouble piecing together a story. By leaving out most of the details, the game creates a sense of discovery and wonder, but I can’t help but feel this game would be much better with just a little more direction or clarification. By the end of the game, I completed one of the most epic adventures I’ve experienced, but I still don’t understand what I had done. All I have are theories as to what transpired in Hyper Light Drifter, but I know I definitely had fun.

Hyper Light Drifter creates a vibrant, dangerous world for you to explore. The lush colors and musical swells captivate you in between frantic and exhilarating fights but is ultimately held back by leaving it up to the player to find their purpose.