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...

Friday, 23 June 2017

Injustice 2 - Review

Developer: NetherRealm Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment 
Platforms: PS4 (version played), Xbox One 

“Press X to purchase Darkseid”. It’s happening all over again. In my review of Mortal Kombat X I wrote how any appreciation of the game was always going to be overshadowed by the fact that it blatantly and shamelessly marketed its micro-transactions right there on the character screen. It seems nothing has been learned with Injustice 2.

It’s not the only fighting game to do this. Both Killer Instinct and Street Fighter V do something similar. Although at least in those cases there’s something to ameliorate the sense that you’re essentially being advertised to buy more of the game you’ve already paid for. For Killer Instinct it’s that the game is carved up in a free-to-play fashion, with people investing however much money they like, and in Street Fighter V’s case, there’s at least the notion that you can eventually unlock all of its extra characters and other DLC for free provided you invest enough time.

There’s no such luxury when it comes to Injustice 2, however. After avoiding the on-screen image of Darkseid, stuck smack dab in the centre of the character select screen just in case you might have missed him, you’re left with game where so many of its design decisions seeming to have been included, not just on whether they improve the core gameplay, but on whether they can be foisted upon the player base as more paid content.

Functionally, Injustice 2 is what you’d expect from a sequel. The original Injustice was a smartly designed and tightly constructed fighting game. It took its structure from NetherRealm’s revival of their classic Mortal Kombat formula, but with enough changes that it didn’t feel like a reskinned version of their flagship series, only with Batman and Superman shoehorned in.

Injustice 2 expands on the basic mechanics of the original games. Compared to other modern fighters, something that’s particularly noticeable with this game is its focus on meter management. Balancing resources is something that just about any fighting game has, but NetherRealm double down on this aspect when it comes to Injustice 2.

Meter can be spent on powered up moves, as you’d expect, but can also be used in just about any scenario, be it recovering from a mid-air juggle by the opponent, or extending one of your own combos to eke out as much damage as possible. The sheer range of uses that your resources have in Injustice 2 is one of its most interesting features. You don’t have the ability to spend it on everything in the heat of a match, so there’s the tactical strain of choosing what to save it for.

Likewise, clashes make their return unchanged. These cinematic head-to-head close-ups make for a decent catch-up mechanic, allowing players falling behind in a fight to regain some health, or an attacker to push there advantage. Again, it’s all governed by bidding meter, adding one more thing to save that special bar for.

Given that the game itself has changed relatively little, it’s the characters that make for the most interesting additions to the sequel. The returning cast members have received some minor changes, such as Batman, Superman and Aquaman, whilst being familiar enough to series verterans.

It’s the new characters that are potentially the most interesting however, because they highlight in many instances NetherRealms commitment to experiment with character playstyles. No where is this more apparent than with a character like Swamp Thing. It’s difficult to pin down where Swamp Thing sits as a character. He’s kind of a grappler, able to use three different attacks from his command grab, which, when coupled with his already hefty damage output, makes him an instant threat up close. Yet, he also has another command grab that’s available from almost all the way across the screen, making him far more of a threat that the typical “walking wall” kind of fighter.

Other new characters, likewise, experiment rather than being copy-pastes of previous character archtypes. Atrocitus and his cat Dex-Starr are the closest NetherRealms have come to making a genuine “puppet” style of character, similar to what’s more common in most anime fighters. Meanwhile, Dr Fate is an interesting take on a zoner; with his powers enabling him to heal when he’s on certain portions of the screen, forcing him to actively occupy different spaces during the fight, rather than idly sit there and just lob projectiles.

It’s hard to pick out any major dud in the new roster. Other characters have been craftily tweaked to cash-in on the recent movies. Joker has been given a significant emo overhaul to tie in with Jared Leto’s (horrible) Hot Topic take on the clown prince, whilst Harley Quinn has been remodelled to almost look exactly like Margot Robbie. Deathstroke meanwhile, has been dropped from the roster in favour of Deadshot, in order to maximise on the Suicide Squad cross-over appeal.

NetherRealms have kept up there commitment to offering a solid collection of single player offerings, too. Whilst the multiplayer options are threadbare, consisting of mainly ranked or unranked play with no current option for a rematch, the solo game modes are much better.

The story is as daft and weirdly enjoyable as it’s always been. Acting as a direct sequel to the previous game, it follows Batman and the evil version of Superman from an alternate universe. It’s a fun gimmick that’s self-consciously cheesy but worth the time it takes to see it through to the end. There’s even two different endings this time around as well, for those committed to completing everything the game has to offer.

It’s the Multiverse mode that gives the game more staying power, however. Rather than the typical challenge towers of Mortal Kombat, Injustice 2 has a series of generated challenges that change every day, or even several times a day. There’s a lot on offer here, with numerous themed fight lists that have players taking on different A.I. opponents of varying difficulty and under unique conditions such as reduced gravity. It’s nice to see a fighting game developer acknowledge that not everyone that plays fighting games necessarily wants to play online competitively, and in this instance it’s an embarrassment of riches when compared to Street Fighter V’s threadbare single player content.

It’s here where the quibbles start to rise, though. You see, rewards for the multiverse portion of the game see players receive reward “cubes” which unlock different costume pieces of varying rarity. As a collectathon concept, it would be a gimmick but little else, but NetherRealm tie it directly in to how your character performs, with better equipment influencing stats in every game mode except for ranked play.

Along with the aggressive “press X to purchase...” moments, it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Equipment cubes explode with the tactile feel of a pack of Hearthstone cards (the rarities are even colour-coded the same), and it smacks of a developer trying to awkwardly cram in as many free-to-play gimmicks into a game that people have already bought.

There’s nothing precisely wrong with Injustice 2. It’s a solid fighting game, one that builds on the mechanics of the original whilst introducing enough new elements in its character roster to keep things interesting, and it’s a gorgeous game to boot.

As with Mortal Kombat X, the problems lie in the aspects that surround the game. The business decisions that lead to a game that’s already being sold at retail, to be bogged down with nickel and dime aspects which push players to purchase even more stuff, less than a month after its initial release are what ultimately hurt the game. It begs the question, was the equipment selection added to Injustice 2 added to the game because the developers thought it was a good idea, or because it was an easy aspect of the game to monetize?

Either way, it certainly didn’t need it.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Prey - Review

Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks 
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One 

It’s been eleven years since the last Prey game. To be fair, for a game that’s often forgotten as a relic of that awkward first year or so of a new console generation, the original Prey is a surprisingly enjoyable first-person shooter that works hard to create some novel ideas out of a well-worn genre. We never got to feel what the (pretty interesting) sequel would have played like. Space bounty hunter is an interesting hook for a game and it’s a shame that it never saw the light of day.

Third times a charm then...right?

Arkane Studios immediately shift the series in a new direction. The modern day setting and Native American elements are swapped out entirely for a near-future setting where humanity is now reaching for the stars after the development of neuromods; machines that alter the brain in order to enhance human abilities. After a brief opening sequence that’s straight out of Half Life, Prey 2017 makes its aim clear; it’s Bioshock with a hefty dash of Dishonored.

The developers aren’t subtle about it either; the first weapon you acquire is a trusty wrench. From then on it hands the controls to the player and leaves them to explore the station in which Morgan Yu (heh), be they female or male, finds themselves trapped in.

As is usually the case with these kinds of games, the setting is king. Prey’s ominous space station, Talos I, is surprisingly lonely for those first few hours, with only the gentle creak of machinery and the occasional boom of an asteroid breaking apart against the hull. It’s a setting that’s been done before, countless times even, but it’s no less impressive here.

Likewise, Arkane Studios’ work on Dishonored can be keenly felt straight off the bat. Areas can be approached in a bunch of different ways depending on your playstyle. Early on, Morgan gains access to the “Gloo” Gun, a traversal tool that allows you to stick balls of, well, glue, to the walls and floor and create your own paths around locations. Ostensibly it’s Prey’s equivalent of Dishonored’s Blink ability; a core mechanic that shapes the game’s level design, but it’s arguably more inventive and interesting to wield. With the Gloo Gun, you can technically go just about anywhere but there’s more to it than simply pointing on the ledge you want to get to and hitting the trigger button. Instead you have to plan your paths, keeping a look out for more efficient routes which you can build for yourself. The fact that the Gloo Gun also doubles up as a weapon is just icing on the cake.

Naturally, it’s not all about wandering around on your own. Prey’s enemies are primarily the Typhon; shape-shifting aliens that have infested the whole of Talos I. To begin with, it’s simply a handful of Mimics to take care of, skittish little headcrab-like creatures that hide in objects and then jump out and attack you. It’s not long however, until bigger foes start showing up.

Prey takes the unusual step of making its combat unique simply by being rather difficult, and by that I mean that even one lone enemy is likely to be a threat. It makes for a different kind of pace, rewarding players who plan ahead and make use of the environment around them. Ammo is rather scarce, especially during the game’s first few hours, making efficient combat an absolute necessity. Likewise, the focus on a few challenging encounters, rather than a constant stream of enemies, plays to the game’s strengths, whilst also making different playstyles more viable. It’s certainly possible, depending on your level of patience, to sneak your way through good chunks of Prey without firing a shot or swinging your wrench.

This is all stitched together with a fairly robust level up system. Neuromods can be found throughout the station and additional ones can be crafted from other resources scavenged up in the environment. As with Dishonored, Arkane Studios try not to pigeon-hole players by giving them plenty of different toys to play with. There’s the usual upgrades on offer, such as better medikits and more health, but there’s also the more bizarre alien upgrades that soon become available, such as the odd power to hide your body inside a coffee mug, amongst other things.

This level up system is also smoothly integrated into other aspects of the game. Rather than simply slap a morality system into a series of binary choices, it’s moulded directly into the game’s progression system. Take more “alien” upgrades such as the ability to transform yourself or launch blasts of psychic energy, and you’re literally making Morgan less human, a fact that the game outright tells you will influence the endgame. It’s a subtle change, but one that allows the way you play to affect the story being told in a way that’s organic and doesn’t break immersion.

Likewise, too many alien upgrades will register you as an alien to the station’s security systems, meaning they will then start identifying you as a threat. Again, it’s a simple addition but one that allows the game world to feel like it’s responding to you organically rather than simply existing as a static game space.

The biggest threat that comes from too much alien modifications however, is the Nightmare. It’ll show up regardless but (in theory), will stalk players more frequently if they’ve taken more exotic neuromods. As a gameplay concept, the Nightmare functions as the game’s Big Daddy spliced with Alien Isolation: a larger, more dangerous threat that will stalk you from zone to zone and must either be evaded, or, provided you have the resources, fought head on. Again, it’s a fairly simple concept but one that dovetails neatly with Prey’s focus on player choice, and how each individual player chooses to react to the game’s situations based on the upgrades that they have chosen.

Where Prey falters however, is in the fact that this fun level-up system is rarely put to the test. Enemies are tough in Prey but not so tough that they require different strategies. In fact, the variety of enemies alone is bordering on lazy. The main Typhon enemy comes in three different forms but the fundamental strategy to killing it will remain the same, regardless of what type it is.

Similarly, the Mimics, the headcrab-type enemies, are a poor way to create combat encounters. A good portion of Prey’s fighting will take place with you awkwardly scanning the floor as the enemy runs away, hides and then pops out now and again to hit you. Many of the other variants you encounter operate along similar lines. The Poltergeist, simply turns up, throws you in the air and then disappears, before doing the same thing again. It’s rarely threatening, in fact, a lot of the time, its attack won’t even damage you, it’s just annoying. Weavers meanwhile, spawn hordes of floating “cyst” enemies that simply explode in proximity. The end result is that combat rarely feels satisfying. Despite the weapons, gadgets and powers at your disposal, most enemies in Prey feel like pests rather than threats.

It also doesn’t help that many of Prey’s foes are idiots, the game’s A.I. is woefully inept, incapable, in many instances, of even following you through a room or two. Nothing robs the Nightmare of any threat quite like seeing it stood staring directly at you, and realizing it’s unable to attack because it can’t enter the room you’re hiding in.

It’s hard to accurately convey what’s wrong with Prey’s combat, aside from the dumb enemies. It feels bland, mushy, not all that fun to engage in, which is disappointing when you consider the genuinely diverse selection of toys and upgrades the game is happy to hand to the player.

This leaves the game’s story and exploration to pick up the slack, and, admittedly, they are handled more smoothly than the combat. Exploration is still the game’s strongest suit; Talos I is an engaging location to explore and it’s organically opened up to the player largely at their own pace as they progress.

Side quests are doled out every now and then, and more can be located if you have the inclination to go rummaging around and snooping on people’s computers and messing around with the game’s hacking mini-game. Side-quests, for the most part, avoid the padding and instead either expand the story or add new gameplay elements. One side quest for instance, has you faking a satellite broadcast that allows you to distract the Nightmare a number of times, meaning there’s genuine payoff for completing some of the optional content outside of simply doing so for completists sake.

Story beats meanwhile, are mainly handled with audio tapes, another Bioshock/System Shock staple that Prey is only happy to nab a hold of. Despite investing a good portion of its time immersing the player and creating a distinct atmosphere, the story that hangs over it struggles create any real emotional hook or sense of urgency. Morgan Yu and her/his brother Alex are the central relationship which the game focuses on, along with some (pretty fun) alternate history shenanigans involving JFK never being assassinated. There’s not enough meat to the story that’s being told, however, with the central thrust simply being that there’s an alien entity and it needs to be stopped, but lacking the more primal immediacy of something like, say, Dead Space.

The last few hours of the campaign are bogged down in too much back-and-forth nonsense, in addition to a host of extra side quests being made available just as the climax is about to get into full swing, dragging down the pace even further.

Oh, there’s the usual multiple endings and different decisions that need to be made prior to the game’s final outcome, but the final cutscene comes across as a lazy cop-out rather than a satisfying conclusion, regardless of your choices. As with Dishonored, there’s a sense that Arkane Studios want to create engaging worlds, but can’t be bothered to then write interesting stories within them.

Prey, more than anything, is simply bland. It’s occasionally immersive, has a fun set of toys to play around with, but struggles to do anything creative or original with them. It slavishly apes its genre forebears, be they Bioshock, System Shock or Super Metroid, rarely improving on anything those games achieved and instead becoming stuck firmly in their shadow.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Monster Slayers - Review

Developer: Nerdook Productions
Publisher: Digerati Distribution 
Platforms: PC (version played), Mac 

Deck-builders and rogue-likes, despite initially looking like wildly different genres, actually share a surprising amount of design space. Both types of games are built around building cohesive strategies against a degree of randomness. The same tactics cannot be used each time, largely because the resources and challenges you’ll face will be different. You have to improvise, and improvisation is incredibly fun.

Furthermore, both genres scratch that “optimization” itch; that compulsive need to eke out as much advantage as possible from each situation. Both types of games typically work on a fine line of calculated risk.

And, what’s more, both genres are ferociously addictive.

Similar to Peter Whalen’s Dream Quest, Monster Slayers positions itself as a halfway house between these two different styles of games. It’s a deck-building game, where you start with a handful of basic cards, and, over the course of several dungeons, mould it and customise to fit a specific strategy. Anyone familiar with Legendary or Ascension will be right at home. The aim is simple; cull weaker cards and create a stronger deck to tackle stronger threats.

The rogue-like element comes in during the dungeon navigation. At the start of any given run, a player is given the option of tackling different areas, each with a randomly generated dungeon to explore.

Monster Slayers biggest strength is its breeziness. Most of the time fights conclude in a handful of turns, whilst the brisk snap of playing different cards is kept to a basic level of strategy. Rarely will a turn involve making more than one or two different calculations before attacking, but that’s almost the point. Monster Slayers keeps its pace breezy and light, rarely bogging down encounters with too much complication, all of which works in its favour.

This is all handled thanks to a basic system of AP and MP. AP governs physical attacks and is regenerated at the end of each turn, whilst MP carries over from turn to turn. As you’d expect, this means that the bulk of the more powerful cards are buried in the magic side of things, where the biggest challenge is finding a way to build up your mana pool enough to start slinging the big spells.

The game also hands you a welcome variety of classes to start out with. To give Monster Slayers some credit, there is plenty of variety here. The basic division, aside from the classes that depend on magic and those that don’t, is that some characters want to (typically) be proactive, whilst others more reactive.

The Rogue for instance is all about chaining together, card after card, in order to bury the opponent in a giant Backstab or Execute, two abilities that reward you for playing a handful of cards in a single turn. By contrast, the Cleric is dependent on powerful damage over time effects to grind out the enemy whilst healing away any damage they might incur.

It’s a smart, clear way to divide up the different classes and give them unique identities. And it must be stressed that variety is something that Monster Slayers handles rather well. This is almost an absolute requirement for any rogue-like; without variety, it’s the same thing over and over again.

The biggest issue the game has however, is that these two primary different strategies are currently woefully unbalanced. Being proactive is by far the better strategy when many enemies have such an overwhelming advantage over the player in terms of their cards and abilities. Simply not letting them get a turn, or at the very least only a few turns, is much, much safer than grinding it out in the hopes that you win the long, defensive game. In a game of risk versus reward, Monster Slayers is all about taking the risk, because the benefits for not doing so and playing it safe are often so incredibly slight.

It also doesn’t help that there’s some instances where players will simply be at a total loss regardless of their decisions. Again, a run where you aim for a grindy strategy or “control” deck can run you into an enemy that’s capable of regenerating away any damage they receive to the point of invincibility.

Monster Slayers simplicity can also be its undoing. Whilst fights are breezy and keep the pace brisk and to the point, they also risk devolving each run into a rote, by-the-numbers strategy. Cantrips (cards that draw a card) are king here, and having a deck that’s built to cycle through each and every card in your draw pile is arguably the best strategy to aim for, regardless of character.

This limiting focus on small draw piles and quick cantrips undermines some of the more interesting strategies that Monster Slayers toys with. The Necromancer is built around dumping cards into their discard pile to build mana, but this inevitably means having a bigger deck in the first place in order to gain any advantage from this strategy whatsoever; a death knell for most decks. By contrast, the Rogue, whose major goal is to cycle through their deck for big damage, is by far and away the best class it feels as if you’re handicapping yourself playing as some of the others. The different flavours that each character type brings to the table don’t compensate for this when the overriding “shrink draw pile/pick up cheap spells that replace themselves” is the major goal regardless of what deck/character you start out with.

Monster Slayers is unbalanced in other words. It’s a breezy, fun game, the kind that looks suited for mobile or tablet as much as it does PC. As a fast, speedy shot of dopamine, it delivers that successfully, but often skirts the line between being quick and accessible, versus simply being shallow. From the repetitive music (really repetitive music), to the widely swinging power levels from class to class, there’s a lot that needs fixing here, and there’s a sense that the mass of updates that it’s already had are more a case of getting the game to a good base state rather than improving on solid foundations.

Monster Slayers is impressive considering it comes from just one person, and the central concept is genius. However, it’s far from as satisfying as it should be, even when it is tempting you with just one more go.