Observation - title

It's real refreshing to come across a science fiction game that isn't just about shooting aliens with laser guns or blowing up space ships. If you're in the market for a thoughtful, well-presented science fiction experience, then I highly recommend that you check out Observation. If you're also into horror, then even better, because this game definitely has some horror elements as well. They're much more subdued, but this game does do a fantastic job of creating a building sense of tension and intrigue as its over-arching mystery is slowly unfurled.

The gimmick here is that you play as a malfunctioning artificial intelligence on a near-future orbital research station. The game is presented as a sort-of found-footage narrative (think along the lines of the Apollo 18 horror movie) told entirely from the point of view of the on-board A.I. Something goes wrong, the crew are all missing and possibly dead, and you help the sole survivor try to find the remaining crew and piece together what happened to the station. Think along the lines of playing as the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or as Kevin Spacey's character in the [fantastic] movie Moon. You do this by jumping between different surveillance cameras (a la Five Nights at Freddy's, but, you know, with ambitions of being more than just a random jump-scare-generator). Through the cameras, you interact with various technology and station systems within your line of sight. You'll occasionally be asked questions or given commands by the surviving astronaut, and you chose how to respond.

You are an unreliable A.I.?

From the start, there's a certain degree of unreliable narrator going on. One of the very first actions that the game asks you to do is verify the identify of the surviving astronaut via her voice print. You are initially told that her voice print does not match, and you're given the option to accept or reject her voice print. If you reject, she'll repeat her authorization code, and you'll be told that it matches this time. Is she not who she seems? Are your own systems providing you with misleading information? Are your systems merely damaged? This creates an immediate sense of distrust. You (the player) don't necessarily trust the survivor, the survivor doesn't necessarily trust you, and you can't even trust your own perception and judgement.

From the start, it's unclear whether you can trust Emma, or whether she can trust you...

This immediately creates a dense atmosphere of intrigue and mystery and sets a level of tension that persists through the entire game.

This atmosphere is helped by the richly-detailed near-future space station that you inhabit. The visuals are immaculately detailed, and the station looks and feels like it could be modeled after the real-life International Space Station. The spaces are tight and claustrophobic. Accessories and stationary are strapped or velcroed to the walls, floors, ceiling, and desk surfaces in order to prevent them from floating off in the zero-gravity environment. Everything is believable.

The game further builds its atmosphere with its immersive U.I.. Every button press, command, and interaction has some in-universe context behind it that helps to keep you in the mind-space of your A.I. character. The U.I. is mostly easy to use, and most actions feel intuitive.

This game hooked me in with its setting and atmosphere, and I just had to keep playing to find out what happened and where this would go!

The space station and U.I. are believable and immersive.

...

[More]

UPDATE 28 JANUARY, 2019, 6:44 PM (PST)
Twitter user @HillardHouseDan referred me to a gamefaqs post at gamefaqs.gamespot.com/boards/179835-resident-evil-2/77419853 that has a work-around for this issue. That post claims that disabling HDR (High Dynamic Range) in the PS4's video settings will allow you to stream and capture Resident Evil 2 footage. Commentor Jon had also posted the same work-around just as I was loading up RE2 to test it. So thanks readers!

I had actually come across this post last night, but had dismissed it because it was specifically about "Share Play" and not about streaming. I have been streaming Red Dead Redemption II for two months with HDR enabled without any problem, so it didn't even occur to me to test that setting.

Besides, the message was telling me that the scene was "blocked", so I had assumed that Capcom had blocked it as a "spoiler" section. Games in the past have done this for screens in which players enter email accounts, passwords, credit card numbers, or other sensitive information (which is the only acceptable use of blocking share functionality!). But Atlus had also recently blocked streaming of Persona 5 in order to prevent spoilers from leaking onto the internet. I was assuming that Capcom was doing the same thing. Atlus had patched Persona 5 to remove the streaming block for after about a week.

So, long story short: If you disable HDR on the PS4's video settings, you should be able to stream Resident Evil 2. You'll be playing at lower resolution, and with less color range, but it'll be playable and streamable. I guess I'll have to chalk this one up to a bug for now? Maybe Capcom will fix it with a patch. I can't imagine that they had deliberately blocked HDR or 4k streaming, but left non-HDR and regular HD enabled.

So pending any other setbacks, I do expect to play Resident Evil 2 this week, and will hopefully have a review out in a couple weeks. I'm leaving the rest of this post intact for posterity. Some of the points about fair use and blocking functionality of the console are still valid for situations like Persona 5, so maybe this blog will serve as a cautionary tale for any publishers or developers who do try to pull something like this deliberately.

UPDATE 26 February, 2019:
I have a full review up for the game now. I have also adapted that review into a video critique on YouTube:

I have adapted my review into a video critique on YouTube.
I was really looking forward to this remake of RE2.

After having to wait all of Saturday night for Resident Evil 2 remake to download and install on my PS4 (and playing Red Dead Redemption 2 to pass the time), I tried booting up the game on Sunday and played 15 minutes, only to find that the entire game is blocked from streaming. Even the built-in "capture" functionality (of the last 15 minutes of gameplay) of the PS4 console is disabled! I didn't even know games on the console could disable the built-in capture.

This realization sent me into a rabbit-hole of digging through the internet to find out if there was a work-around. I couldn't find one. Apparently, only the PS4 version of the game suffers from this problem. Players on Steam and XBox One do not seem to have any issues streaming.

I was very exciting to play this game. I really loved the REmake that was released on PSN a couple years ago, and I've been looking forward to an "RE2make" ever since. Resident Evil VII was also pretty damned good, and a return to form that made me optimistic about the series moving forward. But the game being blocked from streaming and capture put a damper on the experience that makes me not want to play the game. Basically, my night -- and my weekend -- were ruined by this petty decision from Capcom (and the fact that Sony even allows this bullshit on their platform).

This makes blogging about the game much harder

Why is this such a big deal? Why can't I just play the game and not stream it to Twitch? Well, the reason is that I use the streaming and capture functionality to get screenshots (and occasionally video) for use on this blog. After playing the game, I go through the archived footage to get relevant screenshots for blogs, strategy guides, analyses, or whatever I happen to be writing about the game -- all of which is legally protected under fair use!

It isn't just streaming that's disabled; even the capture function built into the PS4 is disabled!

I could maybe have lived without the Twitch broadcast, as I usually prefer to save important footage using the PS4's built-in capture function. The captured footage is much higher quality than what is saved by Twitch, and so it's essential for getting good screenshots of action segments. But the PS4 only saves the last 15 minutes of footage, so I have to make sure to remember to capture any video that I feel I'll need. I use the Twitch stream as a backup in case I forget.

The principle of the thing

More importantly, however, is the principle of the thing...

[More]

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?...

[More]

Dark Souls III

PC elitists now have yet another bragging point. Considering that Bloodborne ran smoothly at 30 frames per second on the PS4 (from my experience), and that Dark Souls III was supposedly built upon that same engine, I expected that the PS4 version would perform on par with (or maybe even better than) the PC version. I was wrong. Both console versions of Dark Souls III are capped at 30 fps, but their actual performance doesn't even meet that standard. This is a big problem considering that the game plays almost as fast as Bloodborne. Dropping a few crucial frames of enemy attack wind-ups can mean the difference between a successful dodge or parry, or losing a third of your health to a single attack. Bloodborne had the load screen issue that was that game's near-debilitating "known shippable"; and now Dark Souls III has its console framerate as being the major launch issue that must be fixed. At least Bloodborne's problem didn't impact actual gameplay...

Table of Content

A challenge to Souls fans

This is probably the hardest game in the lineup. In fact, it may even be too hard in some ways. Enemies are very aggressive and relentless, they are very fast and swift at attacking, and they are very good at tracking your movement during an attack. I feel like the game is sadly front-loaded with excessive difficulty. Oh, don't get me wrong! It's hard throughout, and there's still some definite mid-and-late-game peaks of difficulty. But this game easily has the highest barrier to entry of any game in the lineup.

Dark Souls III is very hard and very much front-loaded with difficulty.

It's one thing to provide a challenge, but the early levels of this game maybe cross the line into outright cruelty. If I weren't already invested in the series, I might not have even made it past the Lothric knights in the High Wall. Yeah sure, Demon's Souls had the Red Eye Knights, and Dark Souls had the Black Knights, and Bloodborne had the warewolves; but in those cases, those difficult enemies were blocking optional paths and items. This is why I can kind of tolerate the mutating tentacle monster on the rooftop that hits very hard, has a ton of HP, obscures half the screen, and causes an annoying framerate drop. Yeah, it's located in a critical path of the level, but it can be easily avoided and is basically just guarding a crystal lizard. The difficult Lothric knights, on the other hand, are placed in critical bottlenecks that must be passed as part of the necessary path of progression through the level, and they will shred new players to pieces! Heck, even that fat, winged knight going around in circles in the courtyard is easier than the Lothric Knights.

And then you get to the Undead Settlement, which is a maze full of ambushes and difficult enemies. Those fat evangelists and the large cleaver undead hit hard and have deceptively long reach and multi-hit combos. This is at a time when your HP and stamina are so low that you can't reliably block their attacks. Their long reach and relentless aggression means you can't back away either. So you're stuck having to stick to close range and roll through their attacks - a maneuver that can result in a quick death if you make but a single slip-up. I had a lot of trouble handling these enemies (as I was still getting used to the new timings for dodging and parrying, and the stamina requirements for blocking), and so I imagine that many rookies will likely be completely overwhelmed.

Dark Souls III - parry
Dangerous enemies have narrow windows for parrying their attacks, making it hard to practice this technique.

There's a higher skill floor than in previous titles, and the game demands a further degree of mastery of rolling, stamina management, i-frames, and weapon movesets that previous games simply didn't require. Bloodborne also toes with this line, but Dark Souls III seems to go a bit further. The problem here is that enemies become far too fast and deadly far too early in the game, and the player character remains slow and relatively weak. What's worse is that the game breaks with the original's insistence on fair difficulty by apparently completely failing to enforce the rules regarding stamina for enemies! This was also a problem in Dark Souls II, but it didn't bother me quite as much because those enemies had slower attacks that were generally easier to dodge.

There's no gradual ramping up of challenge for the player to learn things like roll and parry timings, and there aren't any large, slow enemies to practice these techniques against. Bloodborne had very fast enemies to go with its very fast combat, but the character was also equally fast. Bloodborne also had the Brick Trolls, whose telegraphed attacks gave plenty of opportunity to practice parrying in the very first level while still making progress. Dark Souls III simply doesn't have this. There's the undead spearmen that are easy to parry, but they're so slow and defensive that you'll likely just get bored waiting for them to attack and miss your opportunity to parry. Sure you could go back to the tutorial level to practice parrying, but then you're not making any progress. There's also a lot more instances early of mobs, including the presence of difficult casters (or even bosses) being among those mobs. Fortunately, the boss is very slow and lumbering, and the casters have good audio cues for when they're casting that help to make these mobs less frustrating to deal with.

The big, armored elephant in the room

Dark Souls III - hyper armor
Poise has been disabled for players, which means enemies will always stagger you, but you might not stagger them.

Perhaps the biggest contributor to the game's difficulty early on is the completely baffling way in which poise and defense work - which is that they don't. In addition to not being able to upgrade armor to improve its defenses, the poise stat appears to have been completely disabled for all players in the game's code for ... some reason. Poise was one of the best additions from Dark Souls 1, and its apparent removal completely baffles me. Is it bugged and they're planning on fixing and enabling it later via a patch? Is it planned to be part of DLC? "Hey, want poise back? Pay $15 for this DLC!" The value still shows up in the UI, and there's still rings and weapons that exclusively improve poise, so it definitely seems like FROM intends for poise to be in the game. The enemies seem to still have poise, so this situation seems completely unfair. This might be part of the reason why the start of the game feels so difficult, since those damned speedy Lothric Knights can hit through your attacks, but you can't hit through theirs!

[More]

Dark Souls II - title

I've been trying to get myself hyped up for Dark Souls III by playing through the Scholar of the First Sin edition of Dark Souls II. I made myself a knight character as well as a sorcerer character. I hadn't played as a dedicated caster in the original release, so I made the sorcerer my primary character for Scholar.

So I put myself through the misery of trying to farm the Lizard Staff for my sorcerer character. This staff is one of the three or four best staves in the game (for Int-based sorcerers), but it's extremely rare. It is only dropped by the two Hollow Black Mages that accompany the Executioner's Chariot in the Undead Purgatory. So it's only even possible to acquire in this one, specific location in the game, and once you beat the boss, the mages don't respawn. So it's even harder than trying to farm the Sea Bow or other such items, because you can't simply go back to the area later and farm the enemies.

To make matters worse, I didn't realize that this staff could be acquired here, so I made the mistake of killing the boss early in the game (before I had equipment to raise my item discovery rate). So the only way for me to acquire this staff now would be to warp to the Undead Purgatory bonfire, use a Bonfire Ascetic to respawn the boss, fight may way back through the Huntsman's Copse, and hope to get the rare drop. I had to fight harder versions of the Purgatory Executioners. It was tough, but doable. I was able to lure them out one at a time and easily dispatch them. It's only if they ganged up on me that I had problems. But then I also had to get past the Red Phantom Tower Knight (who now respawns because of the Bonfire Ascetic). I died several times trying to run past them all, as the Tower Knight's weapon tracking was pretty spot-on. Eventually, I resorted to spell-sniping him from just outside his pursuit range. It was cheap, but I wasn't here to fight, I was here to farm a staff.

Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin - Lizard Staff
Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin - Sea Bow
The Lizard Staff and Sea Bow are among several items in Dark Souls II that are extremely rare drops.

Then I made it into the Executioner's Chariot boss fight, and I died. And then I died again. And again. This was getting tedious.

Bonfire Ascetics, Soul Memory, and grinding / farming in Dark Souls II

I hate grinding and farming in games. I really do. It's something that I really don't think games need to have anymore. It was something that worked fine when games were relatively short, and grinding or farming for obscure items and secrets was a challenge reserved for the most dedicated players. But Dark Souls II is already long enough without including grinding for hours for rare item drops. It's one thing to hide items behind secret bosses or particularly tough challenges, such that the item is a symbol for overcoming a challenge. It's a totally different thing to hide items behind random drops from enemies that appear literally in one spot in the entire game, and who despawn after beating them.

In Dark Souls II's case, there's even mechanical reasons why this sort of grinding or farming should not be in the game. And that reason is Soul Memory...

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A gamer's thoughts

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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