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Friday, 11 August 2017

Persona 5 - Review










Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus/Deep Silver 
Platforms: PS4 (version played), PS3

Persona 5 had a lot to live up to. I don’t exaggerate when I say that Persona 3 & 4 are two of the greatest J-RPGs ever made. Persona 3 made the series what it is today; rebooting the older games and melding classic RPG mechanics with a layer of social simulation. Its successor, meanwhile, has some of the strongest character writing...well...ever.

One of the strengths of the previous two games was how unique they both were on a thematic level. Persona 3’s exploration of existentialism, and a melancholy look at death contrasted with Persona 4’s more light-hearted, but still poignant, examination of hope versus nihilism.

Persona 5 continues that tradition, bowling over any assumptions that this was going to be a safe and predictable sequel. As with the last two games, it has a primary colour, and it’s bright red. Fitting, given the subject matter. This is a game that’s about freedom, challenging authority and facing injustice.

It wastes no time setting up these themes either. Within the first hour you’re introduced to a host of characters who, quite frankly, don’t seem to want you around. The head teacher of your new school sees you as a problem student, and the guy you’re sent to live with stuffs you in the attic and tells you not to cause trouble.

This is a gritty, grimy contrast to the otherwise innocuous charm of the previous games’ school environments. Persona 5’s opening arc, essentially a tutorial, is about a gym teacher who abuses his students, driving one of them to commit suicide.

It’s a blistering gut-punch to start your game on, mining some genuinely disturbing emotional mileage from themes and story beats that other games wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. Persona 5 though, is all the better for it.

This story thread soon results in your character and his friends forming the Phantom Thieves; anarchic warriors committed to rooting out injustice. As with Persona 3’s Tartarus and the Midnight Channel from Persona 4, the Phantom Thieves have to visit another world, this time through an app on their mobile phones. In this case, it’s to root out a particular villain’s subconscious, stealing their prized treasure, and forcing them to undergo a change of heart.


If the story and themes are a deviation from the previous instalments, the combat and dungeon-crawling remains relatively familiar territory. Given that you’re playing as thieves, there’s a general emphasis on stealth, ambushing enemies as you slowly explore your target’s “palace”; the home of their subconscious desires.

There’s an indication that Atlus have wanted to make these sections more evocative and tighter than in other Shin Megami Tensei games. The dungeons are more linear than before, comprised of fixed rooms and locations, rather than the procedural generation of the last two games. Likewise, the focus on stealth, ambushing foes in order to initiate combat, is given greater significance than before, bordering on a stealth mini-game. Get spotted by too many foes and you risk being booted out of your targets palace early, forcing you to return on another day in order to complete your mission.

The focus of these dungeon-crawling sequences still remains the same, however. Bonus turns are doled out for successfully striking weaknesses or inflicting critical hits. It makes for tactical forward-planning when constructing your team; whilst each party member has their own particular Persona, your main character has access to a menagerie of alter-egos that you accumulate as you progress. Since your opponents benefit from the bonus turn system in the same way that you do, there’s a Pokemon-like mentality to building up your collection of Personas, attempting to diversify their weaknesses and ensure you have a broad range of strengths.

Talking to enemies makes a return from other MegaTen games as well, adding a little more nuance to acquiring new Personas for your main character. There’s a smart risk versus reward element here, as a conversation that goes south will leave the enemy with the initiative, turning what was initially an advantage (you have to down all the enemies with super effective hits in order to initiate a dialogue), into a potentially dangerous situation.

This is still a game that rewards wiping out enemies as quickly as possible. Fights might be turn based but there’s a breezy quality to encounters, with taking down enemies with that important all-out attack being almost always the primary goal.

Series veterans will also be right at home with the game’s fusion system. As in other MegaTen games, fusing monsters isn’t just a quirky pass time but an outright requirement in order to stay ahead of the curve. Personas level up far too slowly to justify keeping them around forever, and so frequently making trips to the Velvet Room in order to splice various creatures together is something of a necessity.

It’s arguably even more important here than in other instalments because of the game’s social simulation mechanics. Part of what makes these Persona games what they are is that a significant portion of your playtime is devoted to building up your relationships with the people around you. Persona 5 is no different.

Atlus have made some tweaks to the social side of things by threading them back into the core theme of working as the Phantom Thieves, with each social link you acquire also providing a number of different bonuses as you level it up. Make friends with a socialist politician running for office and you’ll unlock abilities that make it easier to recruit new Personas, build up stronger connections with your party members (as with Persona 4 each of them comes with a unique social link) and they’ll gain additional abilities for use in combat.


It’s a nice touch, and one that adds even greater strategy when it comes to working on the game’s relationships. Prioritising some social links in order to gain access to specific bonuses is a valid tactic throughout the game, and all the while you’re fighting against the fact that you’re on borrowed time. There’s never enough time to do everything you want in Persona 5 and so you have to make decisions, who to spend time with, what to do after school. It’s not long until your social schedule is overflowing with things to do.

Between completing palaces and building social links, there’s also Mementos to tackle. If the game’s main dungeons have become more linear and story driven, then Mementos is the more typical, randomized floors seen in the other game. Like Tartarus, Mementos is divided up into a series of floors and zones as you progress deeper.

I’ve avoided talking about the game’s story largely due to spoilers. Atlus, likewise, seem especially nervous about spoilers, with my PS4 repeatedly telling me that every other scene is blocked from recordings and screenshots.

Thematically, Persona 5 is easily on par with its predecessors, exploring freedom, youth and, most importantly, anger at institutions of power in a way that feels earnest, genuine and remarkably poignant given the times we’re living in. It’s easily the most overtly “political” game that Atlus have written in recent years, with an anarchic sensibility. It touches on anti-capitalist themes here and there, with one villain being a business owner who sees his staff as nothing more than wage slaves, and makes for one of the game’s most interesting dungeon designs as you explore the subconscious version of his factory reimagined as a giant science-fiction fantasy staffed by robots.

Atlus manages to do all this without the themes themselves feeling pat or hokey. The game tackles these elements with enough subtlety that the player isn’t being beaten over the head, whilst still ensuring that those themes are resonant enough that it never feels flaky or vague.


It’s in the plot, then, the story that strings all these fascinating ideas together, that Persona 5 risks stumbling. The characters this time around are less engaging and memorable than those in Persona 3 & 4. It was always going to be a tough standard to live up to, but both the main party members, and the social links, never leave quite the same impression. There’s no relationship here that catches you off-guard, like Akinari in Persona 3 or Rise in Persona 4. It’s also hard not to look at some of the new teammates and just see older ones pasted over with a few different character traits; is Ryuuji really all that different from Yosuke and Kanji, isn’t Makoto just Mitsuru done all over again?

Persona 5 is so focused on its central story that the sub-plots and downtime, the moments that are arguably just as important to these games, is made much weaker. It’s made worse by the fact that the later parts of the game suffer from some poor pacing. Again, it’s difficult to articulate this without revealing massive spoilers but, as the game progresses, there’s little build-up to its climax, scenes can feel repetitive or altogether redundant (it wasn’t necessary for characters to repeat the same phone text dialogue every three or four days) as the game seems to shuffle towards its ending rather than build up to it in a suitably dramatic fashion.

None of this takes away from the fact that Persona 5 is  a fantastic game. It’s made by a team that’s still at their peak when it comes to crafting J-RPGs. It might stutter a little when compared to Atlus’ other efforts, but, barring some miracle, it will easily go down not just as one of the best RPGs of the year, but as one of the best games of 2017.

Friday, 4 August 2017

The Weird Genius of Digimon World - [Part 3]













The Town

If raising Digimon is one half of Digimon World, then it's rebuilding the town at the centre of File Island that comprises the other half of the game. Rather than simply make File Town a generic hub from which to start the game off, Digimon World uses this part of the game world for a fascinating part of its level design.

Digimon World is almost completely non-linear in terms of how its game space can be explored. A quick look at the game’s map reveals that it loops around in an ingenious fashion, with the (typically) more difficult areas being at the back of the island, furthest from where the player starts.

Yet, aside from this general tendency, there’s very little order in which the Digimon you encounter have to be recruited. Since recruiting Digimon is the goal of Digimon World rather than, say, completing specific areas or defeating bosses, there’s a much more free-form structure into how each part of the game can be completed.

It’s a tightly interconnected game world that rewards players for mastering its locations and understanding their relation to one another. It’s difficult to find an accurate modern comparison for Digimon World’s level design. It’s (sort of) like a Metroidvania structure, albeit without any abilities that cordon off specific zones. Another similar comparison would be classic survival horror level design. As with Resident Evil’s mansion, there’s numerous paths in Digimon World that interconnect various zones, meaning players that master its level design can benefit from more efficient travelling from zone to zone. This is a major benefit to the player when you consider the fact that their Digimon partner has a limited lifespan and requires feeding and taking to the toilet every few in-game hours.


Of course, recruiting Digimon feeds back into this free-form navigation. Each Digimon that joins the city typically contributes something to the place, be it a new shop, resource, or just an aesthetic improvement. Convincing Centarumon to join opens up the medical clinic, whilst Birdramon sets up a transport hub that can warp you to specific locations you’ve already visited.

It’s an incredibly satisfying gameplay element, as you eagerly wait to see what your latest Digimon friend has contributed to the town. Yet, it also reinforces the game’s focus on navigation and strategy. Being able to tackle any of the game’s areas/Digimon essentially in any order means that there’s a degree of strategy, especially early on, in terms of recruiting the most important and valuable Digimon in order to give you a head start.

I suspect this is why the game is so enjoyable to replay; precisely because each time you play through there’s the option to remix the way you experience things. Grabbing different Digimon earlier/later might make some parts harder/easier further down the road.

Likewise, this links up neatly with the slightly chaotic evolution system. Just as each playthrough is different from a non-linear exploration perspective; you can go wherever you want, it also changes based on the Digimon that you end up having. Finally, this brings together the game’s move system, which, given the different Digimon your partner can evolve into, might prioritise going to different places earlier in order to acquire specific moves. Freezeland is one of the game’s most difficult areas, yet it becomes much more enticing to get there sooner should you have evolved your partner into a water-based Digimon for example.

Chaos 

All of this sums up Digimon World’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. It’s a game that plays out differently each time you play it. Exploring one side of the map first and getting a certain evolution might make for a different experience during the second half of the game compared to another player. Despite you starting off in the exact same spot with potentially the same Digimon, you both end up in radically different places.


Yet, these two elements, its randomness and its vague design, are also what can make it so frustrating to play. It’s hard to recommend this game to people without also kindly pointing them to a guide to have at hand. Many of Digimon World’s elements could certainly do with a rework, especially its battle system, which, whilst not terrible once you’ve tackled its initial problems, still remains far from ideal. It’s also hilariously unbalanced when it comes to the game’s movepool, with some abilities being powerful to the point of broken, and others being nearly useless.

Despite these niggles, and despite me having to look at the game without the benefit of nostalgia goggles, Digimon World is a smartly designed game. Its gameplay systems; the exploration, training/battling and town-building, slot together like an intricate puzzle; three disparate gameplay concepts that gel together and enhance one another.

Bandai could have quite easily got by phoning it in, riding the coattails of Pokémon without much effort. Yet somehow, they resisted that temptation and created not only something that stands apart from Pokémon, but a game concept that still remains incredibly original to this day.

Sequels

It’s not surprising then, that Bandai followed up the game with several sequels. Ironically, none of them kept the gameplay ideas of the original game. Digimon World 2 and 3 were released for the PlayStation, whilst Digimon World 4 was released across all three sixth generation consoles.

Digimon World 2 opted for being a dungeon crawler, whilst Digimon World 3 took the conventional approach of meshing the series with contemporary J-RPG elements, much like a PS1-era Final Fantasy albeit on a smaller budget. Digimon World 4 in 2005 went the route of an action-RPG, even going as far as to kit out all the Digimon with weapons

Needless to say, all of these different experiments with the franchise never paid off, and it was the original 1999 game that garnered the cult following. Finally, in 2012, Digimon World Re:Digitize saw a release exclusively in Japan on the PSP, followed by the recent worldwide release of Digimon World Next Order on the PS4 earlier this year.

Digimon World is the kind of game that needed a sequel. Not simply because it’s good and there needs to be more of it, but because it’s a game that isn’t perfect, there’s room for it to grow, develop and iron out the myriad of problems it has. It has room to evolve, in other words. I’ve yet to play either Re-Digitize or Next Order, but hopefully, that’s precisely what the game’s do; building on the core foundations of the original.

Digimon World is an example of a game that works in spite of its problems, and also because of its remarkable originality. If you’ve never played it, it’s well worth tracking down a copy in order to check it out, if only to see how many unique and fascinating ideas it has whirling around in one game.

If you do take a look at it though, you might want to keep a guide handy. You'll need it...

Friday, 28 July 2017

Outlast 2 - Review







Developer: Red Barrels Studio
Publisher: Red Barrels Studio
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One 

Outlast and Outlast: Whistleblower were solid foundations on which to build a contemporary horror game. Red Barrels took the minimalist design philosophy you see in Amnesia: The Dark Descent and combined it with a found footage aesthetic in order to create something that, whilst not overwhelmingly original, certainly had a good amount of polish.

Despite coming packaged with the previous two games, Outlast 2 sidesteps any newcomer problems by having its story be entirely self-contained, with only a few blink-and-you’ll-miss nods to the other instalments. Red Barrels swap the Lovecraftian setting and plot of the original (Outlast was essentially an adaptation of Lovecraft’s From Beyond short story) for the American south; replacing weirdo inmates with crazed religious zealots.

It’s a familiar enough setting, both in video games and film. Resident Evil has mined this territory multiple times both with the creepy Spanish town in RE 4 and more recently in Resident Evil 7. Still, Outlast 2 does a good enough job of creating a creepy enough setting. The weird Jim Jones-esque cult is run by Father Knoth, a batshit insane preacher with the perfect southern drawl for reeling off twisted Bible quotes.

The player character meanwhile, is another investigative journalist. Outlast 2 wastes no time throwing lead character Blake Langermann and his wife into the deep end, as the journalist duo’s helicopter crash lands on the outskirts of Father Knoth’s messed up village.

Whilst the plot and setting might be a significant change for the series, the mechanics that underpin it remain unchanged. Again, the game is distinct not so much in what it does but in how little it actually hands to the player. You can run, you can hide, be it in a barrel or a cupboard, and you can maybe survive an attack or two from an angry villager, but that’s about it.

Whether or not this is a good thing depends on how much you enjoy this modern trend in horror games. Sequences in Outlast 2 are short and tense, broken up into bits of exploration, followed by some sneaking around, and then a scripted mad dash for an escape route as you’re spotted.

In some ways it’s an odd game in that it plays differently for those that don’t play many video games. Those that aren’t familiar with the puppet strings that underpin most encounters (enemies won’t follow you past certain set locations and, despite being threatening, some enemies have ludicrously short sight ranges so as to prevent frustration) are likely to be more shocked and frightened than those that play games more frequently.


That’s the big take away from Outlast 2, it’s less a game and more a haunted house simulator. You enter a zone, find out what you need to do; be it move a gate, get a key or what have you. Then, you sneak around, monster goes boo, and you run away.

Outlast 2’s location harms it here. Whereas the original game and its expansion had twisting corridors and hallways to better disguise the boundaries of each area or “level”, much of Outlast 2 takes place outdoors, making such zones feel even more scripted and prescribed than even some of the original game’s weaker beats.

It doesn’t help that, for a sequel, Outlast 2 rarely progresses many of its mechanics. The camera returns and is essentially a torch, with its night vision mainly being in place both to up the scare and to simply see where the hell you’re supposed to be going.

Other moments seem to actually regress some concepts, rather than expand upon them. There’s a notable lack of stand out stealth sequences in this sequel. The original game’s best parts were when it slowed the pace down and eked out as much tension as it could from having you creepy around evading whatever twisted baddy was lurking around the area with you.

Outlast 2 frequently doesn’t bother with this however, favouring outright chase sequences instead of tense games of hide and seek. This leads to many moments devolving into a frustrating version of Mirror’s Edge, as you try and work out where the hell you’re meant to be running whilst looking through the grainy night-vision filter.

Of course, the story is meant to be the glue that holds these kinds of games together. Yet, Outlast 2 manages to botch this up despite having a solid atmosphere and location to draw upon. Whilst the promotional material, and even the game’s cover, push the notion that this is a game about getting out of a nightmare Jonestown, a lot of the game has more to do with Blake’s personal demons, which are explored via flashbacks.

This wouldn’t be a terrible idea, were it in any way interesting or engaging. So much of Outlast 2’s actual story is more akin to a CliffNotes version of Silent Hill 2 than anything else, tacked onto hackneyed visions and jump-scare hallucinations. By the time the game reaches its conclusion, it’s hard to care because this kind of story has been done to death in horror games (character has dark past, whole world is metaphor for dark past) at this point, and in much more creative ways than Outlast 2 ever does.


Perhaps the game’s biggest problem however, is one that it shares with its predecessor; Outlast 2 has one volume, and it’s cranked to 11 from beginning to end. Every blood-covered wall, every gory death sequence and every (obvious) jump scare is filled with over-the-top audio cues and violin stings. This is a game that wants you to know that it’s serious goddamnit, it’s serious horror and you’ll take it seriously.

Except, all this does it make the game feel weirdly more juvenile. Compare it to Resident Evil 7’s Baker family, that manage to be both tongue-in-cheek and frightening, because the writers know the concept is ridiculous and so run with it. By contrast, Outlast 2 feels increasingly dull and one-note the further you play it.

This isn’t to say that the game isn’t without its moments. The central location, when the game isn’t flinging you into hokey flashback sequences, is striking and memorable. Its gore-soaked locations, quite literally towards the end, as the entire town is trapped under a perpetual rain of gore, is more memorable and unsettling than any of its crazy residents or dumb monsters. The moments where it feels as if Blake is literally trapped in the nine circles of hell, where the game draws on a mix of Dante’s Inferno and Forbidden Siren, are its most striking and interesting sequences. Sadly, they don’t make up the majority of the game here.

Outlast 2 isn’t dreadful but it is muddled, and, if we’re being honest, a little bit lazy. It mistakes minimalist design for bland design, and hopes that the haunted house-on-rails will distract from how hollow the experience is. It’s a game with both too many ideas and not enough.

I’d say, if you were a fan of the original two games, then it might still be worth checking out. Although, they might just be the kind of people to be most let down by Red Barrel’s latest offering.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Gwent: The Witcher Card Game - Beta Impressions










Gwent: The Witcher Card Game is the latest in a long line of games spawned, primarily at least, from the absurd success of Hearthstone. I’ve covered several of them on this very site at this point, and I can’t deny that I’ll always enjoy flinging a few digital cards every now and then. Card games just manage to scratch that certain “itch” that no other game can.

Gwent is somewhat unique in that it’s not simply from a video game series, but that’s it’s spawned from a game within a game. Gwent was an absurdly involving pass time in The Witcher 3. I’d be lying if I said I spent more than a few hours playing it, my deck quickly fell behind to the point where there was little point in me continuing.

For those like me, new Gwent gives us a reason to jump straight back to slinging cards. The game system has been largely overhauled, not in any dramatic fashion, but changes clearly had to be made to change something from a throw-away mini-game into something that can be balanced for play between human opponents.

For me, the game’s most intriguing aspect is how little it resembles other card games. Look at Hearthstone and you see the basic skeleton of Magic: The Gathering draped over simplified mechanics and chunky card art. Elder Scrolls Legends does something similar. By the time you reach Eternal, you have a game that’s gone full-circle; baking in more complex Magic mechanics but still trying to fit them into Hearthstone’s accessible interface.

It’s hard at this point to not think that the free-to-play card game genre has become, well, a bit inbred, and Gwent’s biggest plus is that it shows there’s far more interesting and original design spaces to mine for those willing to do the leg work. If nothing else, I hope it causes other developers to think a little more in what they can do when it comes to designing yet another free-to-play card game.

Mechanics

Rather than operate on a card combat basis, Gwent functions by having players commit cards to the board that are worth a set value of points. Each card typically comes with some rules text to change its function in some way. For instance, you’ve got the battle-hardened warrior that gets stronger each round, or the siege machine that takes points off the opposing side each turn by firing at them.

Furthermore, there’s the concept of rows. Cards can be committed to either the front rank, the ranged rank or the siege rank. Whilst some cards don’t have a choice about what rank they occupy (it’s printed on the card) others can be positioned in any row, adding an additional layer of tactics.


If that were all there were to Gwent, it’d simply be a case of playing the biggest and baddest thing and being done with it. There isn’t, after all, any resource or mana cost to any of the game’s cards, another interesting difference from similar card games. Matches, however, take place over three rounds, with players drawing ten cards at the start of the game, two additional cards in the second round, and another if the game runs into the third.

Passing on your turn, rather than playing a card, gives up any further plays you can make in that round, but allows you to save cards for future rounds. Gwent can perhaps best be summed up by the idea of losing the battle to win the war; it’s rarely the kind of game where doggedly playing the “best” card turn after turn will win you the game. Sometimes, it’s best to give up your chaff, throwing away weaker cards in order to, hopefully, tease stronger ones out of your opponent’s hand.

All this means that many games of Gwent are about eeking out the tiniest margins in the hopes of achieving victory. Card advantage in Gwent is devastating; going into a second round and being two or even three cards down is likely going to be the end of you. The game lacks the tactile, board-smashing fun of a daft game of Hearthstone but that makes it no less satisfying. Craftily pushing your opponent to commit one more card to the board, before folding the round anyway, is the kind of “yomi” that makes Gwent so fun to play.

With no randomness to speak of (a few cards have some general RNG, but it’s scarce for the most part), Gwent is both fun and strategic, rewarding players for optimal lines of play and a good understanding of the game’s systems. It might not always look or sound particularly exciting, but there’s depth to the gameplay here, and Gwent is certainly better off as a result.

Classes

Given that there’s no resource system, Gwent separates its three-hundred or so available cards across five separate classes. Each represents a country or faction from the Witcher series, with a number of neutral cards rounding out the card pool.

As you’d expect, each class has specific things it’s good at, or a selection of strategies it wants to focus on. Skellige decks are better suited to focus on graveyard synergies, for instance, with a number of cards getting better in later rounds of the game. Likewise, Nilfgaard decks are the best at using spies. Spy cards are played on your opponent’s side of the table, but typically coming with powerful abilities, or, given the way the game’s rounds work, allowing you to stay in the round another turn whilst not really playing a “proper” card.

All five of these classes currently come with three different heroes, each of which typically highlight that faction’s signature themes or strategies. So, weather-based monster decks for instance, clearly want to use Dagon, with his ability to “spawn” new weather effects on to the board.

All of these elements; the ten-card hand at the start of the game (with the option of three single-card mulligans) and the “heroes” which nudge you into particular strategies, make for a game that’s about having a plan in mind even before the game starts, and then trying to implement it. This is refreshing when compared to Hearthstone and its ilk, where the biggest question each turn, typically, comes from whether to simply trade away on the board or start attacking your opponent’s face. More than anything else that Gwent does right, it’s that it simply asks interesting (and different) questions in each game.

Wrench in the Works

Of course, there’s always issues, and so far, given that this is the Beta, there’s definitely some here.

As with the rest of the game, Gwent’s issues are themselves unique. A lot of its weaker aspects and potential problems are spawned precisely because it does other specific things really well, or at the very least, differently from other collectible card games.

First off; card acquisition. Gwent’s free-to-play model is about as generous as its counterparts. Gold is accumulated for each string of daily wins; first six, then twelve, then eighteen and so on, leaving players to decide for themselves how much grinding/investment they want to put into the game each day without being hamstrung by a limited number of quests/challenges.

It’s possible even, that the game is more generous than similar games. Decks are comprised of a minimum of twenty-five cards, with all silver and gold cards (you can have a maximum of six and four of these respectively) being singletons in your deck. This means piecing together a deck, in theory, is perhaps quicker than in other card games.

That’s where part of the problem comes from, however. In order to take this aspect into account, accruing cards in Gwent feels slower than in, say, Hearthstone or Eternal. Whereas those games,  feel like they’re doling out new cards to you on a regular basis, it takes longer in Gwent simply because there’s less to actually collect. You’ll build a deck faster, but the cards will feel as if they’re coming to you slower, which means grinding it out with the same deck over and over again.

By far the biggest issue so far, however, is that the game’s strategic qualities risk undermining it’s enjoyment for those without the best cards. Like I said, Gwent is fun precisely because it avoids the lazy randomness that has come to riddle Hearthstone, but because of this, and because the game typically rewards decks that function as engines; there’s the issue where the player with the better cards typically wins a lot more often.

The randomness inherent in many card games allows weaker players to not only “catch up” or even win a game or two, but it also highlights a different kind of skill. That randomness forces players to conjure up new strategies on the fly, or to adjust old ones, the chaos baked into the game’s systems is what makes for a challenge. Randomness isn’t a particular elegant mechanic, but it does prevent stale gameplay scenarios.

In contrast, Gwent is very much a game built around enacting a plan and then sticking to it. Skellige decks built around graveyard interactions want to dump their weaker cards in round one, so that they’re ready and waiting to be resurrected back in rounds two and three for significantly more value. Northern Realms decks that are built around siege units, want to get those out early and then use “crew” cards to trigger additional benefits off of the units they’ve already played.


Obviously, to a certain degree this is the simple synergy at the heart of most card games, and it’s a good thing. However, some games of Gwent can feel futile when played against a player with stronger cards and a linear plan to their deck. Without any randomness stopping them (meaning they’ll almost certainly get to play some of the cards they want), and no real “spoiler” effects aside from a few damage cards and weather abilities, games can feel non-interactive and predetermined, as the opposing player snuffs you out with their superior card power and more potent engine.

It leads to an awkward quandary for Gwent. On the one hand, the lack of RNG is certainly a good thing, and makes for a satisfying, tactical game that rewards smart play. Yet, it also highlights the pay-to-win nature of these kinds of games even more than their more random counterparts. The moment there’s a power level difference in player’s decks in Gwent, it almost certainly begins to feel like an uphill battle.

There’s a strong basis for a solid game here. CD Project should be commended for building a CCG that’s genuinely unique and not simply a reskin or subtle change to one of the preceding game’s systems. The artwork, the different decks, and the breeziness that it all plays out make it satisfying to play but without getting bogged down in stuffy rules management.

The main issue for the game at the moment is making that grind worth going for. Players willing to part with plenty of money from the get go will likely get more from the game at the this point, which makes sense, I suppose. But, if the game is to have any lasting and long-term appeal, it’d perhaps best work at finding unique ways for games not to become too prescribed or engaged in auto-pilot.

If the good parts of the game are anything to go by, however, CD Projeckt definitely have the ability.

Friday, 14 July 2017

The Weird Genius of Digimon World - [Part 2]













Evolution

I referred to Pokémon a lot in the last part of this series because, whilst I’ve stressed that the series have a lot of creative differences, Pokémon undoubtedly created a lot of expectation of what Digimon World would be. Bandai could easily have released a complete clone of Pokémon and have likely been successful.

But they didn’t, which led to a lot of disappointment.

First getting to grips with Digimon World is frustrating. Many of its mechanics are obtuse (more on that later) and it’s vague about what exactly a lot of the different systems it has actually do. Digimon World is a surprisingly deep game, but it’s not particularly clear.

Much like the animated series, the player is cast as a young boy who unwittingly finds himself transported into the digital world through his Tamagotchi device. Once there, he’s tasked with restoring File Island to its former glory after a mysterious force has caused most Digimon to forget where they came from and abandon the city at the heart of the island.

The player is given a partner Digimon as their sole companion throughout their playthrough. Rather than steer closer to Pokémon and adhere to a more conventional J-RPG structure, Digimon World sticks to its virtual pet roots and has the player focus on raising and training their partner Digimon instead of building up a party or team.

This central virtual pet conceit is really unusual precisely because few other games, especially RPGs, have ever dealt with it. Much of your time in Digimon World is spent feeding your Digimon, taking it to the toilet (wait too long and it’ll poop on the floor), and training it at the local gym. It’s a quaint, surprisingly moreish loop of gameplay that stays engaging for far longer than you’d expect it would.

More importantly, it’s something the player has to actively engage with in order to succeed. Recruiting other Digimon, expanding the city and exploring the further reaches of the game world require that the player understands and takes care of their little virtual critter.

All of this simulation-like focus on raising, training and caring isn’t just done for the sake of it, however, Digimon World has a rather expansive evolution system, one that allows the player’s partner Digimon to evolve into a host of different forms throughout the course of the game.


Whilst players are initially given a Rookie level Digimon, eventually, in around six game days, it’ll evolve into a Champion level Digimon. Then, if they’re really on-point when it comes to training and caring for their partner, it’ll evolve into one of the games stronger Ultimate forms.

Getting an Ultimate level Digimon in Digimon World is a genuine challenge. In fact, evolving your Digimon into anything that’s half decent requires significant time and effort in order for it to pay off. Most evolutions are determined by a Digimon’s stats, and it’s here where the developers adhere to a more conventional J-RPG design, with Digimon able to be trained in a range of areas including HP, MP, Speed, Defence and so on. More importantly however, the number of care mistakes (such as pooping on the floor, not feeding your Digimon) contribute to the evolution that you’re most likely to get, tying the game’s virtual pet elements directly into how you grow stronger as the game progresses.

Evolution in Digimon is more of an art than a direct science, even fifteen years on from the game’s initial release, you’ll still see forums pop up debating what leads to a Digimon evolving into what form*. It’s a system that, like I mentioned earlier, is weirdly obtuse, vague, and you have to remember, was released at a time when the internet wasn’t a common fixture in many households. All of this makes the quest to evolve your Digimon that much more of a personal discovery, rooting around a game system that isn’t willing to divulge much information.

So, whilst it was possible to get a super-useful critter like Greymon as your first Champion Digimon, it was more likely you’d be left with the poop throwing Nunemon or Sukamon for your troubles; both of which would struggle to fight their way out of a wet paper bag.

Digimon World went one step further by having your Digimon eventually die. Rather than be locked into one partner for the entirety of your playthrough, your partner Digimon would eventually pass away, becoming reincarnated as a Digi-Egg, and forcing you to start the process all over again.

I can’t stress enough how this weird, poorly explained but fascinating system is at the heart of what makes Digimon World so engaging. It’s not always the case that you’ll get the Digimon you wanted, sometimes you’ll have to make do with what you get and it can make future playthroughs of the game just as satisfying as the first. It adds an almost rogue-like element to the game, one where you have to adapt and adjust to a series of chaotic and sometimes unexpected events; plans change, you don’t get the monster you were hoping for, and so now you have to make do with what you have.

Battles

Obviously, raising, training and evolving Digimon eventually translates to one thing; battles. As I said earlier, it was easy at the time of the game’s release to presume how Digimon World’s fights would take place. Pokémon had already established a robust system of J-RPG mechanics, turning what is actually a rather complex dungeon crawler RPG into one of the most widely enjoyed and accessible popular video games of all time.

Rather than filch ideas from Pokémon or from other nearby J-RPGs however, Digimon World goes in a completely different direction. Opting for a real-time combat system, the game’s fights play out effectively with the player taking the role of a ringside cheerleader. Rather than have direct control over your Digimon, or be able to issue it specific actions, you’re instead left with only vague orders or tactics, such as having it focus on aggression, be more defensive, or simply do its own thing.

This is initially an alienating aspect of an already confusing game. Fights can regularly feel as if they’re out of your control. Sometimes, your Digimon will simply stand there for several seconds, gawping, rather than actually fight their opponent.

Digimon will carry out one of three moves that they can be equipped with. The move tree is another poorly explained element of Digimon World’s combat.** Rather than learn new abilities by levelling up, Digimon learn moves by being hit by a move during a fight. Each Digimon has a different “pool” of available techniques that they can be equipped with. Learned moves pass on through your Digimon’s life cycles, meaning attacks acquired in one form will still be available, provided a Digimon can equip that ability in the first place.



None of this however, avoids the fact that Digimon World’s combat itself is by far the most frustrating and difficult aspect of the entire game. Fights can quickly result in a swift knock out because you got ambushed or because the opponent has a faster move than your Digimon does. Animation speeds play a huge role in what attacks are best in Digimon World, locking out the opponent by having your partner (hopefully) spam a weak yet speedy attack is a perfectly viable strategy for almost the entirety of the game. The biggest, most damaging attacks are rarely the best, and understanding how best to take advantage of the game's combat system is hardly intuitive and will lead to countless defeats whilst you get to grips with it.

Yet, for all of its problems, the combat does succeed, oddly enough, at stressing that your Digimon partner is another entity, separate from the player character. Rather than being a robot that will launch specific moves at your behest, your Digimon must be coaxed into doing the right thing, much like training an animal in real life. As with The Last Guardian, the AI’s frustrating foibles; its stubborn reluctance to always do what its told, imbues the creature with its own agency, rather than simply being a slave to the player.

Digimon World’s combat is one of its weaker elements, yet, its flaws highlight how sometimes fixing supposedly broken aspects of a game’s mechanics would result in a weaker overall experience. Whether or not the sometimes ignorant AI was an intended design decision by Bandai, it translates into a more rewarding experience training your Digimon. When you finally level up your partner’s Brains stat so that you can tell it what specific moves to do in combat, something that will take a good amount of time, it feels as if you’ve reached a new threshold with your partner.

Reworking Digimon World’s combat might have made for a less frustrating experience, but it’s debatable whether or not it would have translated into a better game.

This was exacerbated by the game having one of the most inept and incomplete “official” strategy guides to be released at the time. The book went as far as to give incorrect information in many instances. 

** The process by which you learn moves in Digimon World was so vague that it took a forum post in 2013, more than ten years after the game’s initial release, to explain how it actually functioned. 

Friday, 7 July 2017

Yooka-Laylee - Review












Developer: Playtonic Games
Publisher: Team17
Platforms: Linux, Mac, PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One (version played)

Yooka-Laylee perhaps isn’t as interesting for what it is, there are, after all, plenty of character platformers out there. Rather, it’s interesting for being a character platformer in 2017.

Yooka-Laylee breaks the rules. It avoids the trend of moving towards more scripted, event driven isolated levels of more recent Mario titles, and the wonderful Rayman Legends, in favour of revitalizing mechanics last seen in the PS2-era. This should come as no surprise, considering the developer. Developers Playtonic Games are made up primarily of staff who previously worked at Rare.

There’s a sense of freedom when you first pick up and play Yooka-Laylee. You get the impression that it’s a game that’s made precisely because the developers wanted to make it, and are finally free to do so. The crisp, simple joy of platforming is at the heart of Yooka-Laylee and it smartly avoids bogging down its mechanics for the sake of it.

Its world design and level structure, likewise, will be familiar for anyone who played games in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. With a basic hub world of Hivory Tower, players are left to warp to five different worlds over the course of the game, all with the aim of scrabbling up new collectibles.

The game is charming largely because it’s so simple. Yooka and Laylee have the most basic of actions to begin with. A humble double jump and glide, along with a run-of-the-mill spin attack, are all that they initially come equipped with.

And they’re all you’ll need because, at least to begin with, your challenges are...basic. Clambering up a tower full of wonky platforms, racing a sentient cloud around a race course, its activities are as simple as the moveset that underpins them. Yooka-Laylee’s structure is that of a playground, dumping players into a game space and then having them work out what they want to do in it.


Naturally, there is some semblance of structure to the game. The primary focus of all this running around is in the collection of pagies and quills; the game’s primary collectibles with which it charts your progress. Pagies are needed to progress further through the hub world of Hivory Tower, whilst quills are used to purchase new moves.

This allows Playtonic to thread another layer of non-linear free-form exploration into Yooka-Laylee’s structure. Each of the game’s five worlds, each with satisfying alliterative names like Tribalstack Tropics and Moodymarsh Maze, can essentially be completed in any order, provided you’ve scrounged up enough pagies in order to unlock the next one.

Likewise, each world will undoubtedly have a few challenges that will require you to return once you’ve upgraded Yooka and Laylee’s move set. The final power-up even has you remove gravity from the equation, at least temporarily, with the ability to fly, making repeat trips to previous zones interesting in light of your new powers.

It all makes for a game that’s grounded in its level design. Each game space is fun simply to run around and play in, and you’re rewarded for becoming familiar with that game space. The game even quizzes you on these moments during trips back to Hivory Towers with Dr Quack’s quiz.  Like I said earlier, there’s a fascinating layer of charming simplicity to what makes Yooka-Laylee fun to play.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t always help shake the fact that so much of it feels overwhelmingly dated. Levels are built around basic objectives, such as climbing a bunch of floating platforms, smashing a bunch of igloos and what not. However, that’s all there really is to Yooka-Laylee and it doesn’t necessarily do this better than games that came out more than fifteen years ago.

Likewise, whilst the worlds themselves are wide, open and ripe for exploring, they also suffer from a vague sense of blandness. It doesn’t help that each zone can be summed up as “swamp world” or “ice level”. Yes, Yooka-Laylee is deliberately harkening back to older games but simply taking the lowest hanging fruit and building a game doesn’t always yield the brightest ideas. Generic, cookie-cutter levels were a problem for platformers years ago, and Yooka-Laylee often does little to rectify this despite having the chance to do so.


This hollowness to many of its levels, despite the abundance of things to do, is compounded with the enemies. Combat is never the primary concern in a platformer, but it is something that needs to be done right, and Yooka-Laylee fails in this regard. Enemies are small, generic gremlins that vaguely change from zone to zone but are rarely satisfying to beat up. The game’s combat lacks any satisfying oomph or tactile satisfaction. Yooka’s spin attack is a limp move when compared to Mario’s stomp or Crash's spin.

And whilst the game’s free-form, non-linear nature is commendable, and certainly one of its more engaging features, it does leave the game feeling rather...aimless. There’s no goals to aim for in Yooka-Laylee, save for the whopping one hundred pagies required to access the final boss. Yooka-Laylee is fun to frolic in for a little while, but it’s like a child’s sandpit; you’ll soon wander off in search of something else to do, and the game doesn’t have much in its arsenal to entice you back.

The game does have bosses, and they’re rather fun, not to mention funny. Fighting a sentient ramp who mistakes you for window salesmen is the kind of daft, oddball humour that’s at the heart of most Rare games and Yooka-Laylee is better for it. However, by making them optional, stuffing them away as just another “thing” you can encounter, hurts the game’s pacing. You rarely feel as if you’ve accomplished anything in Yooka-Laylee, you just go and do more stuff.

Between its flat pacing and mediocre levels, Yooka-Laylee is never bad but rarely is it anything better than painfully average. Nostalgia can only get a game so far, and whilst the game will likely go down better with the twenty and thirty-somethings that grew up on Banjo-Kazooie and its ilk, you still can’t shake the fact that this kind of game was done better many, many years ago.

Friday, 30 June 2017

The Weird Genius of Digimon World - [Part 1]












I’ve been wanting to write a longer discussion and analysis of Digimon World for some time now. It’s a game that is intimately tied to my childhood and therefore has a lot of nostalgic value. Despite this, I also genuinely think the game is something of a weird, confused masterpiece. There’s very few games like it, and it’s a series that’s only just recently received wider attention with the release of Digimon World: Next Order earlier this year.

What Are Digimon? 

A discussion about Digimon World can’t really begin without first discussing what Digimon actually are. Starting off in the mid-to-late ‘90s, Digimon were an off-shoot of Bandai’s successful Tamagotchi brand. Yes, those dinky little key-chain toys with the little virtual pets to take care of.

Whilst Tamagotchi were popular amongst girls and boys, Bandai eventually released the Digital Monsters line of virtual pets, as a kind of cooler, edgier brand primarily marketed towards a male demographic. Already you could see the changes made to the core mechanics of the Tamagotchi keychains. Whereas the original toys were primarily about raising animals and taking care of them, the Digital Monsters brand also incorporated battling with other players.

A little bit like a certain other monster-collecting franchise…

Pokémon struck in the mid-90s and then, boom, it was on. I could write an entire article alone on how almost every game company and toy manufacturer wanted to capitalize on Pokémon’s success. Digimon, however, was best positioned to take advantage of the sudden monster-collecting craze, and so Bandai immediately began the development of not only a card game (presumably to break into the market that the Pokémon Trading Card Game was currently riding high in), but also a video game and animated series.

It’s worth turning now to discussing precisely what Digimon actually are. Despite ostensibly being a collection of fun creatures designed to sell toys, Digimon designs are notably different from Pokémon. For a series that’s regularly maligned for having “ripped-off” Nintendo’s monster-catching franchise, Digimon are remarkably unique in terms of their inspirations and aesthetics.

Effectively, Pokémon are wild animals that simply inhabit another world. That’s essentially the entire gist of the series. Excluding the weird designs that reference sentient items (and are by far the worst Pokémon designs) almost all of the creatures are fantasy animals: Rattata is a rat, Pikachu a mouse, Ekans a snake, and so on.

By contrast, Digimon’s designs are, well...weird. Sure, there’s the usual gamut of anthropomorphized animals; lizards, cats, wolves, to name a few, but then things get a lot more bizarre. A whole swathe of Digimon reference various religious myths. There’s also a Digimon nod to Lovecraft, there’s a sentient turd, and it just gets more bizarre from there.

The vast majority of these designs were developed by Kenji Watanabe, who was brought on to work on the series during its inception as a line of virtual pets. In interviews he mentions how the designs were influenced by American comics and this is immediately noticeable. It’s fascinating to see things like H.R. Giger’s Alien work its way into designs.

All of this, I would argue, served to differentiate the series from its primary rival. Digimon as a franchise is weird and eclectic, with a darker edge to it, helping it contrast with the more wholesome charm and cuteness of Pokémon.

The Animated Show

This trend would also extend to the animated series. Pokémon has always had a cartoon show to compliment each generation of games. Digimon however, opted for a more conventional series that told a complete story. Whilst the show was initially only slated to have a twelve episode run, it was a huge success in Japan upon its release, causing Bandai to extend the series to a whopping fifty episodes.

Whilst this series is primarily going to cover the game, I do want to briefly mention the animated series. Digimon Adventure is an unusually well written kid’s show. For a cartoon that’s essentially only there in order to market and sell toys, the series maintains an incredibly high quality over the course of its fifty episode run, rarely delving into filler, and showing a remarkable level of emotional breadth for a show that’s about a bunch of cartoon monsters fighting each other.

Whereas Pokémon was largely a collection of “one-shot” episodes week in week out, Digimon Adventure spun a larger tale. Beginning as a kind of Lord of the Flies-type story, the show revolves around seven children who find themselves whisked away to the digital world whilst at summer camp.

The European cover art capitalized on the show's popularity.
All seven of the main characters (an eighth is introduced around halfway through the series) are surprisingly well-rounded, each with their own distinct personalities and flaws. They also all have their own Digimon partner, doubling the number of characters that the show has to juggle.Yet, somehow, it manages it. I suspect the franchise’s popularity in those first few years was largely down to the success of the show, both in Japan and especially abroad.

With the franchise-building in full swing, the last cog in the machine was the development of a video game. Digimon World was released in Japan in 1999, with a North American release in 2000, and a PAL release in the summer of 2001. It’s worth noting, during that time, all of the other bits and pieces of the Digimon franchise were being released. So, whilst the game actually predated the cartoon series in Japan (being released off the back of the card game), in North America, and especially Europe, there was a lot of Digimon “stuff”  long before the game came out.

Pokémon, meanwhile, was at its creative zenith with the release of Pokémon Gold & Silver in late 1999...