Death's Gambit - title

Being that Death's Gambit is produced by Adult Swim, I wasn't sure if it was going to turn into an outright parody of Dark Souls. Was this going to be some kind of comedic satire? Or a serious and thoughtful game? Or just a mindless hack-n-slash with little regard paid to story or narrative. It surely wastes little time before mocking Dark Souls.

Death's Gambit wastes little time before mocking Dark Souls.

Much of the game's design is blatantly inspired by Dark Souls, except for the title's font, which is evocative of Demon's Souls. From the menus, to the character creation screen, to the main character's armor that looks suspiciously like Artorias of the Abyss' armor, to the death mechanics, you'll see Dark Souls mirrored in almost every element of the Death's Gambit's design. As such, it's very hard to judge Death's Gambit without appealing back to the game(s) that so clearly inspired it.

Music is one strange element of production in which Death's Gambit deviates considerably from its inspiration. The main menu music is reminiscent of old-school RPGs, such as Final Fantasy X, rather than silence, and this trend of not being silent extends to the rest of the game. Instead of a mostly-quiet experience with calming strings in the hub and an intense orchestra for boss battles, Death's Gambit has pretty constant background music as you traverse the world. This makes the music, overall, feel less memorable, as it kind of just disappears into the background. The background music for the Central Sanctuary reminds me of Resident Evil's save room while I'm listening to it, but I can't actually remember what it sounds like once I stop playing.

Lessons from Dark Souls

Death's Gambit is, sadly, plagued by a lot of nagging little problems and lack of polish. Some of them are even issues that have been present in the Souls games, but which have been fixed (or at least addressed) by FromSoft in sequels. In these cases, White Rabbit should have known better. The most egregious of such offenders might be the inability to purchase multiple copies of any given consumable at a time. The Buy screen doesn't tell you how much of a given item you already have, and the Enchant screen doesn't tell you which items are equipped. If you use up all of a given consumable, it's removed from your item bar, and if you buy more, they are not put back into your item bar.

Nagging annoyances include text and foreground decorations obstructing the action.

The game also puts text overlays on the screen, sometimes while enemies are present. You can't read the text while you're focusing on not dying, but the text also gets in the way of the action. It's nice that they make sure that the player sees some of the important lore that you find, but don't do it if you're going to have enemies attack the player at the same time!

To top it all off, a lot of the text is really small and difficult to read, with no option to enlarge it. If you're playing on a console, sitting more than about 8 feet from the TV, you will probably have to lean forward and squint to read most of these menus...

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The Dark Souls remaster was recently released, but it doesn't make enough [single player] improvements for me to really care to buy it. I might pick it up for the Switch when that gets released, because portable Dark Souls could be fun and interesting and fresh enough to warrant another purchase. However, the Switch version is being developed by another company, and it doesn't even support 60 fps, so I may not bother getting it anyway.

In the meantime, I decided to try out another "remaster" of sorts, and I got some friends together for some jolly cooperation in Steamforged Games' Kickstarted Dark Souls: the Board Game. This is a co-operative dungeon-crawler. I think the closest comparison that I can make is that it's a Dark Souls-themed variation on Descent: Journeys in the Dark. Unfortunately, Dark Souls: the Board Game doesn't seem to hold a candle to Descent.

Opening the box sets the tone of the game right away.

YOU DIED

The big mechanic that is imported from the video game is the inclusion of the video game's bonfire and respawn mechanics. Like in the video game, resting at the bonfire (or dying and being returned to the bonfire) resets everything. This includes all enemy encounters, as well as all the players' resources (such as the Estus Flask, Lucky Coin, or Pendant -- which actually has a function in the board game). However, a bit of the sense of attrition is also lost in translation, as your HP (and stamina) fully resets after each encounter. I think I would have preferred if the Estus Flask had a certain number of uses, but only restored a subset of your damage. That way, you'd retain some of your damage from encounter to encounter.

All the party's souls are dropped
on the spot where a character died.

Nevertheless, the Bonfire mechanic is probably the one mechanic that is most successfully translated from the video game source material. Despite the lack of health attrition, the desire to conserve as much resources as possible for the upcoming boss fight pressures the players into riskier play. Trying to conserve resources can lead to a lot of deaths.

Just like in the video game, if you die, all your souls are dropped on the floor where you died. If any one player dies, the whole party "dies" and is transported back to the Bonfire. The deeper into the dungeon you died, the more you have to fight through [again] in order to reclaim your souls. If you die again before reclaiming your dropped souls, all those souls are lost.

As I understand the rules, you can't leave an encounter once it's started, so you won't be making any "soul runs" to pick up your souls and then run back to the bonfire. You also can't open treasure chests until the encounter is won, which means you can't make suicidal "loot runs" either, which are a trademark strategy of the Souls video games. If you need to level up or buy new equipment in order to beat the encounter that killed you, you'll have to risk losing your dropped souls by farming against other encounters...

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Assassin's Creed Origins - title

Hey, I actually managed to play and review all of this past holiday season's big, Triple-A releases! Hooray for me! I mean, sure it's the end of February, and I'm just now reviewing a game that came out last October, but at least I did play it.

Since the refreshing exceptionalism of Black Flag, the Assassin's Creed franchise has been scarred by mediocrity and controversy. As such, I opted to buy the game used off of eBay so as not to support Ubisoft. This is after I had enjoyed Black Flag so much that I happily bought a retail gift copy for a friend and recommended the game to yet another friend. Heck, if the save file could have been transferred over, I would have gladly traded in my PS3 copy of Black Flag for a PS4 retail copy.

Even Ubisoft realized that the series was growing stale, and stopped their cycle of releasing two or three games per year. It's been two full years since the last full release (Assassin's Creed: Syndicate in 2015). The extra time certainly helped elevate Assassin's Creed: Origins above the chaff of the rest of the franchise, but not quite enough to propel it to true greatness.

I played Origins on PS4, which means that I avoided the frustrations that many gamers reported involving Origins' multiple layers of DRM slowing down their computers. Wait, isn't Ubisoft the company that, years ago, publicly stated that DRM doesn't work, and that they "don't want to punish a paying player for what a pirate can easily work around"? This same company is now putting not one ... not two ... but three separate DRM applications on a single game? One of which is their own proprietary distribution service, U-Play? Is the company lying, or are they just scatterbrained and can't make up their mind? Or is the management just incompetent?

Would exploring tombs and temples by torchlight become a common mechanic?

Well, when I started up the actual game, I was pleasantly surprised that it starts off pretty damn strong. Even Black Flag was mired by an opening act that stranded players in a tedious, bog-standard Assassin's Creed sandbox city for a couple hours before opening up the seas by giving us our own pirate ships. Origins, however, has a very strong, distinctive opening chapter that eventually gives way to a more bog-standard gameplay experience.

After an admittedly-silly and confusing opening cutscene that utterly fails to establish the setting or characters, Origins throws the player into a one-on-one duel to highlight the new combat mechanics, then hands main character Bayek a torch and asks the player to explore and escape from a derelict Egyptian temple. Then we head off across an intimidating swath of Saharan desert to the oasis that is Bayek's home town. Here, we have some open-ended exploration, hunting, rescue, and assassination missions. During this, we are introduced to the game's shining star: its setting and environment.

Classical Egypt is magnificently brought to life in this game. The map is vast and spread out, with large swaths of barren desert and sand dunes separating some of the game's regions. Small farming settlements and market hubs dot the environment, and each feels like a necessary part of a functional society. Best of all, Bayek isn't stopping every ten steps to pick up some random, meaningless collectible, and our map isn't cluttered with icons representing all this meaningless garbage.

Egypt feels vast, is beautiful, and is brimming with life and energy.

Not only does the map work well with its sense of physical scale, but it also excels at representing the temporal scale of Egypt. Even though we are playing in antiquity, the game world is still dotted with tombs and abandoned settlements, some of which are thousands of years old. Remember, ancient Egypt is one of the longest-lasting civilizations in the history of the world, having been a world superpower for over three thousand years! The time span between the building of the Great Pyramids in Giza, and the life of Cleopatra is longer than the time span between Cleopatra and our lives today. Assassin's Creed: Origins completely nails that sense of living in this ancient kingdom...

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Soulsborne series

On the Branch Gaming

In my recent time playing Dark Souls for On the Branch Gaming, we discussed several ideas for ways that the game could have been improved. I'm not sure if From Soft will be making any more Dark Souls or Bloodborne games (at least not anytime soon), but if they do, here's a list of some things that I'd like to see them improve. At the very least, we can consider this to be a retrospective, "How could they have done it better?" brainstorm, and any other developers who want to try their hand at a Souls-Borne-style game could maybe try these alternative designs out for their games.

This isn't a wishlist of changes that I'd like to see in specific games. I've already done those for each of the Souls games:

Some of these posts (and the ideas presented in them) haven't aged very well, but I do stand by most of the suggestions offered in the above posts. At the very least, they offer perspective on how my own perceptions of the games have evolved over time.

Table of Contents

More informative UI

The UI is something that could definitely use some work. Each game in the series made minor tweaks to the UI - sometimes improving the overall experience, other times seeming to regress to a clunkier interface. But there are some things that probably should have been present, if not in Demon's Souls, then at least by Dark Souls or Dark Souls II. Some of these things seem so obvious that it boggles my brain that nobody at FROMSoft thought of them. Or maybe they were always items near the bottom of the priority list, that the team simply ran out of time to ever implement.

Collection log

Something that persitently bothered me across all the Souls-Borne games was the intrusive item-pickup notification. That giant, black box sitting almost dead in the center of the screen, partially blocking your view of your character and his or her immediate surroundings, did not need to be there. If you pick up an item in the heat of battle, then having to press X to dismiss it could be just enough of a distraction to get you killed.

Dark Souls - item pick-up
While playing Dark Souls with On the Branch Gaming,
I was reminded how distracting the item-pickup notifications are.

Instead of this big notification box, I propose an alternative: put a smaller notification in the corner of the screen somewhere that vanished after a few seconds. Since we don't want to miss knowing what we just picked up, the game should also include an item-collection log in the menu. Heck, it wouldn't even need to be a separate screen, it could just be a sorting option in the existing menu: sort by recently-acquired...

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Dark Souls III: the Ringed City - title

FROM Soft has an erratic track record with how cryptic it can be to find the DLC in the Dark Souls and Bloodborne games. The first Dark Souls required an absolutely arcane process that you'd probably never discover if you didn't already know how to do it. Dark Souls II apparently had its three DLC planned form the beginning, as the vanilla game included shrines for accessing each DLC - at least one of which is in plain view and can't be missed. Bloodborne put a prompt on the screen telling you where to go, but accessing the DLC still required the player to counter-intuitively interact with a specific entity in the game world. And Dark Souls III's first DLC added a character that you could talk to who teleported you to the DLC.

So how would The Ringed City implement its entrance to the DLC? Would it require some arcane process of killing optional enemies in optional areas? Would a dialogue box just pop up to tell the player where to go? If you ask me, The Ringed City might have the laziest and most boring access point of them all. An extra bonfire just appears at one of two specific points, which teleports you to the new area. It makes the whole thing feel like a very detached afterthought.

Dark Souls III: the Ringed City - Ariandel bonfire
If you don't want to wait till the end of the game, you can access the DLC early by beating Ariandel.

If there's one common thread for the DLC, it's that it always requires the player to be teleported across space and/or time. Continuing that tradition is disappointing. I was really hoping for the DLC to be integrated into the actual game world -- that it would reveal some previously-blocked-off path in some obscure or interesting region of the map that would simply allow the player to walk to the DLC, thus revealing the game world to be much larger than originally believed. Like maybe defeating the Stray Demon gatekeeper above Farron could have opened the gate and revealed a path to the DLC. Or the Kiln of the First Flame could have a new path leading down into the Dreg Heap. Or you could descend into the chasm below the Profaned Capital. Something like that.

Maybe as a fun easter egg for fans, the access point could have been hidden behind a statue sitting behind Andre the Blacksmith in Firelink Shrine. But no, it's just an extra, out-of-place bonfire. Further, the fact that this expansion is an extension of the plot from Ariandel, and the very anti-climactic nature of Ariandel, makes it seem like Ariandel should have been the first act of this expansion, but was separated out into its own expansion for ... whatever reason...

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