Ghost of Tsushima - title

I don't recall the last time I played an open world sandbox game through to the end credits prior to writing a review for it. Usually, I've made my decision about the game long before credits roll. If I like the game, I usually stop before it becomes too tedious, finish up my review, move on to something else, and I rarely ever go back to finish these games. That was the case with Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, Shadow of Mordor, and others. Ghost of Tsushima is a rare instance of me actually liking an open world sandbox game enough that I couldn't stop playing.

One of the sad ironies for me, as an amateur critic, is that I usually play a game longer if I don't like it -- sometimes all the way to end credits. As was the case with Assassin's Creed III and Shadow of War. This is because I want to find out if there's anything late in the game that might redeem it -- even if in some small way.

In this regard, Ghost of Tsushima is a rare exception. I was enjoying the heck out of the game and wanted to see how it ends before I commit to a review. It wasn't even a case of me rushing through the main story just to get it over with (as is the case with many bad open world games). In fact, I completed all the side missions (including the mythic missions), liberated a majority of the occupied towns, and found a majority of all collectibles. I might even play some of the epilogue. So I can say without reservation that I like this game! And it all begins with the presentation.

This is not a promotional still! Nor was it taken with the included "photo mode".
This is just what the game looks like!

You have to see it to believe it

Ghost of Tsushima is not necessarily the most technically impressive game that I've played. Games like Red Dead Redemption II and The Last of Us Part II have had better facial animation, lighting, textures, and/or draw distance. But where Tsushima lacks in technical capabilities, it more than makes up for in aesthetics and artistry. The environments are beautiful, and the weather effects (especially wind effects) are second to none. Whether it's fields of vividly-colored flowers swaying in the wind, or ocean waves crashing on a sandy beach, or the plum trees on a rocky mountain dropping their blossoms into the breeze, or a thunderstorm threatening over the horizon, or a shinto temple towering over a forest of golden trees, there is something pretty to look at no matter where you go.

Screenshots do not do the game justice. You have to see it in HD motion to appreciate it.

I'm not normally one to gush over a game's graphics, but Ghost of Tsushima really stands out for its environmental design. Over the crest of every hill, it seemed a majestic screenshot opportunity awaited me. Picking just one or two to highlight in this review was a real challenge. Even the best screenshots that I could capture do not do the game justice. You really have to see it in high-definition motion (without the compression of an internet stream) to truly appreciate it.

I haven't seen weather effects this good since [maybe] The Witcher III.

This game is perfect as a virtual vacation during the travel-restricted social-distancing of the COVID-19 pandemic. Or at least, it would be, if not for the densely-packed sandbox content making it so that I can't take 10 steps without running into an ambient encounter of some kind. I could be trotting along on my horse through a forest lit with the golden glow of a sunset beaming through the canopy, with the serene ambiance of the wind harmonizing with the background music of Japanese flutes. But I can't enjoy this serenity for more than 5 seconds before a pack of Mongols shows up, the flutes give way to battle drums, and it's back to the swinging of swords and showers of blood.

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Sekiro - title

I never got into Tenchu because the
demos were too hard for younger me.

Oh, boy, was this a tough game to play and review! Frequent readers should probably know that I'm a huge Souls-Borne fan -- to the point of writing strategies and lore analyses. Sekiro is a bit different, however. It's much further divorced from Dark Souls than even Bloodborne was. Despite the lack of "Souls-Borne-ness" of Sekiro, I find it very difficult to put this review in any context other than of a new Souls-Borne release.

Sekiro is, ostensibly, a stealth game. There's more of Tenchu and Metal Gear in Sekiro than of Dark Souls. That's not necessarily a bad thing. I like stealth games just fine. The Metal Gear Solid games rank among one of my favorite game series ever.

I'm not terribly familiar with Tenchu, though. I think I played a demo of a PSX Tenchu game on one of my Official PlayStation Magazine demo discs (back in the day when publishers let players play pre-release demos, for free, instead of expecting us to pay for games long before they're even released, or holding the "open beta" hostage to a pre-order). I never bought the full Tenchu game because the demo was far too hard for my little 13 or 15-year-old gamer skills to handle. This was, of course, long before I started playing more demanding games.

Sekiro is in an awkward juxtaposition between Tenchu-inspired stealth, and Dark Souls-inspired boss fights.

However, there seems to be a certain degree of juxtaposition between Sekiro's desire to be a Tenchu-like stealth game, and its desire to feature demanding boss fights in-line with what is given in Souls-Borne games. In essence, we have two games here: a stealth game about staying out of sight of enemies and picking them off one-by-one; and a melee boss gauntlet in which the stealth isn't applicable at all. The first of those is good enough. The second one is where my problems begin...

My first playthrough of Demon's Souls was spent
cowering behind a shield.

All parry, all the time

You see, this really comes down to play-style. I was never a big parry-er in my Dark Souls-playing days. I parried a lot more in Bloodborne, but a big reason for that was that the guns allowed me to do so from a relatively safe distance. Heck, my first playthrough of Demon's Souls was done as the Royalty class, starting with the mana-regen ring, stabbing out with a winged spear from behind a shield, and using Soul Spear to dispatch any enemies I wasn't comfortable fighting up close. I hardly realized the parry mechanic existed!

Of course, I've grown and matured since 2008, and parrying has become a common element of my play-style. But I've still never been particularly good at it. This is causing me a lot of trouble in Sekiro because Sekiro's combat is all parrying, all the time! The new posture mechanic (which essentially replaces stamina) also means that a single parry isn't good enough to riposte and kill your enemy. You have to parry each strike in flurries of blows. For those coming from Dark Souls, imagine having to fight a hollow undead, and needing to parry every one of its wild slashes before you can riposte, instead of just the first one. That is what Sekiro expects and requires you to do.

Sekiro requires that you parry most attacks.

If you were a master-level parry-er in Dark Souls III, then you'll probably segue right into Sekiro with no problem and wonder what all the fuss is about. But for the rest of us plebs, that isn't going to be so easy.

This game plays much faster, enemies are much more aggressive, and health is in much smaller supply. Almost everything will kill you with two hits, and many grab attacks will drop you from full health to zero. This game leaves you with virtually no margin for error! Yet the mini-bosses and bosses have ridiculously high HP and posture.

...

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E3

I don't generally give a damn about the corporate circle-jerk that is E3 (or any trade show for that matter). It's usually a bunch of cringe-worthy presentations of lofty promises and over-hyped trailers and tech demos that are rarely (if ever) representative of the final product. However, there is one game announcement that caught my attention this year, and that is From Software's Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. That's right, it has been confirmed that the mysterious Shadows Die Twice teaser is not a sequel to Bloodborne or Dark Souls, or even to Tenchu, as many fans had speculated. It is a new IP that takes place in a feudal Japanese setting (similar to Nioh).

Sekiro does not have a firm release date, and is slated simply for "2019". So it may still be over a year away.

Perhaps I'll hold myself over with the Resident Evil 2 remake ("REmake2"? "RE2make"?), assuming that the RE4-style over-the-shoulder camera doesn't ruin it. The REmake of the first Resident Evil is, after all, quite extraordinary, and Resident Evil VII was a surprisingly-solid return to form, so I am optimistic that REmake2 will be of similarly high quality. But I digress...

As much as I love Bloodborne, I am actually pleased to see that this is a new IP rather than a sequel to Demon's Souls, Bloodborne, or Dark Souls. FromSoft always seems to thrive when introducing a new IP, even though all the Souls-Borne games share many themes, plot elements, and mechanics between them. FromSoft's track record with sequels has been ... shaky at best. Neither Dark Souls 2 nor Dark Souls 3 are "bad" games. I still sunk something like a hundred hours into each -- with no regrets. Neither of them, however, comes close to touching the brilliance that was on display with Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne.

Besides, the Lovecraftian cosmic horror nature of Bloodborne makes a direct sequel risky. A sequel would almost necessarily have to further expound upon the Old Ones, the Pthumerians, the Healing Church, and the relationships between them. The more we know about these entities, the less mysterious and unknowable they become, and the less horrific the cosmic horror becomes. A sequel that removes the mystery surrounding the Old Ones, and which further empowers the player character would not only result in a weak sequel, but would also retroactively damage the first Bloodborne by providing answers to questions that were best left -- not only unknown -- but also unknowable.

E3 Announcement trailer for From Software's new IP: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

Implications from the trailer

Fortunately, a direct Bloodborne sequel is not in the works -- at least not yet. Instead, we have a samurai-inspired hack-n-slash that looks like FromSoft's direct response to Nioh (which is, itself, receiving a sequel and some additional competition soon).

Sekiro seems to put a lot of emphasis on sword play, including parrying with your sword (rather than with a shield). It's unclear if the player will have access to other types of weapons besides a katana, or if the katana will include multiple stances or combat styles similar to Nioh. In any case, I expect the swordplay in Sekiro to be much more technical and precise than in the Souls game.

Sekiro seems to use the sword for parrying, rather than a shield.

This may be a further fulfillment of the design philosophies of Bloodborne...

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Last week, FromSoftware released a cryptic teaser for what appears to be a new game. This teaser is all of 13 seconds long and doesn't provide much in the way of information, or even a title. Is it a sequel to Bloodborne? A sequel to Demon's Souls? A reboot of Tenchu? Or maybe a new IP altogether?

The teaser followed the announcement a few days prior that the Demon's Souls servers are finally going to be shut down -- for reals this time. The fact that every publisher (Sony, Atlus, and Namco/Bandai) announced a server shut down effective the same date -- the 28th of February 2018 -- has lead many to speculate that From may announce a sequel or HD remaster of Demon's Souls.

There's plenty that I'd like to see in a sequel (or remaster) to Demon's Souls, and also plenty that I'd like to see from any possible future Souls-Borne games in general. But I'm not completely sold on the idea of "Shadows Die Twice" being a Demon's Souls or Bloodborne sequel.

FromSoftware's "Shadows Die Twice" teaser from the The Game Awards 2017.

First off, the teaser has a very Japanese style. The music sounds very east Asian, there's Japanese script apparently chiseled into the background. Is it possible that this game could explore the fabled "Easter Lands" referenced in the Souls-Borne games? Every game has had such references. Demon's Souls includes Satsuki and the Magic Sword Makato. Dark Souls has the Eastern Armor and characters like Shiva of the East and the Swordmaster. Bloodborne even has allusions to an eastern land in the form of the NPC Old Hunter Yamamura, who traveled from an eastern land in pursuit of "honorable revenge" against a beast.

A game featuring an eastern land, in the style of the Souls-Borne series would probably add plenty of fuel to the speculation that all the games may have a shared continuity...

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Nioh - title

"If you own a PS4, and you aren't playing Bloodborne, then you are using your PS4 wrong!" That was the final line of my Bloodborne review. PS4 exclusives have been generally better than XBoxOne exclusives, but I haven't been particularly impressed yet. Until Dawn showed some promise and might be the only other PS4 exclusive that I'd even consider recommending. I gave up on Gran Turismo when GT4 started to turn into more of a car-collecting game rather than a racing game (I describe it as "Pokemon for cars"), and I've long since burnt out of the Uncharted games. I heard good things about the Ratchet & Clank reboot, but mascot platformers aren't really my thing, so I passed on that one. And I haven't gotten to play Horizon Zero Dawn yet.

Nioh - combat
Nioh has fast, dodge-heavy combat, in which each weapon had multiple move-sets.

Well now there's a new PS4-exclusive on the market, and it's supposed to be competition for the Souls-Borne series. Nioh definitely shares a lot of superficial design elements with Dark Souls, and its fast, dodge-heavy combat using weapons that have multiple movesets seems thoroughly inspired by Bloodborne. But Nioh is also heavily inspired by Ninja Gaiden, and the game feel is very close to the classic Onimusha games. Although the original Ninja Gaiden was a good game for its time (and some of the sequels have been good too), it's these Ninja Gaiden influences that start to hamper the experience for me.

A random loot-dropping quarter-muncher

Nioh really started to lose me with its second true boss fight: Hino-Enma, a flying vampire and/or succubus who deals paralysis. The problem was that most damage just seemed unavoidable. All her attacks dealt damage through my blocks, which meant that dodging was the only way to keep alive. But she has a cheap spinning attack that (as far as I could tell) could not be dodged if you are in melee range when she starts the attack. All of her attacks felt considerably overpowered considering the limited (if present at all) wind-ups and cool-downs for them, especially the frustrating paralysis-inducing attacks. Even when she left openings, my attacks didn't stagger her, so she often countered with her own combo when I was in the middle of an attack, which just leeched precious more health. She just kept chipping away at my health like an arcade quarter-muncher, making the fight feel less about skill and more about just being efficient enough to defeat her before I ran out of elixirs. The only way to get more elixirs was to backtrack through the level and grind for them.

Nioh - Hino-Enma
Bosses feel severely overpowered for their missions, and are tedious and uninteresting to boot.

After using a Travel Amulet to pick up my lost Amarita and return to the shrine, I power-leveled to 10 levels over the mission recommendation. This finally allowed me to beat Hino-Enma, but left me severely over-leveled for the next mission, which I cleared with absolutely no trouble at all. But then I got to that mission's boss (a lightning-spewing dog name Nue), and got repeatedly pulverized again. Even after grinding through some of the nearby Yokai (which posed virtually no threat to me at my level) to accumulate extra elixirs, I still didn't have enough to get through this boss's mile-long health bar. I don't mind being stonewalled occasionally, and I don't mind bosses being hard, but I expect the challenge to be more evenly-distributed. Am I missing some simple technique for dealing with bosses? Are the missions leading up to bosses supposed to be so trivial to deal with?...

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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