God of War - title

Vikings and norse mythology seems to have been a popular concept in games recently. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, for instance, is an excellent hack-n-slash adventure through Norse hell. I've also been playing the Wasteland-like RPG Expeditions: Vikings on Steam (which I'm hoping to review soon). I also have games like Mount & Blad: Viking Conquest and Total War: Thrones of Britannia on my short list of games I'd like to play. And there was also the Viking character in For Honor.

Now, Sony's PlayStation flagship God of War has jumped from Greek mythology to Norse mythology. Having killed all the Greek gods, Kratos has apparently settled down in the mythological Midgard with a wife and son, only for his wife to die and his son be attacked by the Norse god Baldr. This sends Kratos and Atreus on a father-son bonding adventure to spread Atreus' mother's ashes from the highest peak in all the realms, and to learn why the Aesir are suddenly keen on hunting them.

Norse mythology seems to be a popular subject in media lately.

A father-son murder team

Atreus has some of the same problems that The Last of Us has with Ellie. Atreus doesn't feel vulnerable enough to demand protection, and he's rarely relevant outside of combat, except for his running commentary about what you're doing. Because of this, the actual game rarely feels like it's about protecting or escorting Atreus. And even though the game is ostensibly about Kratos teaching Atreus how to fight and be a man, the player never has an opportunity to actually teach the kid or take on any parental responsibility for him. It's just about Kratos throwing axes at draugr, and Atreus occasionally shoots them or jumps on their heads to help you out. The puzzle sections rarely require using Atreus (other than occasionally shooting something with his bow or having him scamper through a small tunnel).

Atreus is basically just an extra ranged attack.

That being said, I think that God of War makes some strides in the right direction (compared to The Last of Us). The player (and Kratos) can command Atreus to attack a target with his bow, which is one of the easiest and most consistent ways to deal stun damage to enemies, which opens them up to an intant-kill attack from Kratos. It's also a strategy that is pretty much essential on the harder difficulties. This creates a much greater sense of playing in tandem with Atreus, as he and Kratos often work together to defeat foes.

Atreus and Kratos can also break each other out of being grappled or stunned. I've never gotten a "Game Over" as a result of Atreus being defeated, so I'm not sure if that's a possible fail state. Being grappled or stunned only seemed to ever temporarily take Atreus out of the fight and negate the ability to use his bow. Either way, this is an improvement over Ellie from The Last of Us, who (as far as I recall) operated entirely independently from Joel, was never at any risk, and could be completely ignored for most of the player's time actually playing the game.

Kratos and Atreus can break each other out of enemy grapples and support each other in combat.

The important take-away here is that, unlike with Ellie in the combat encounters of The Last of Us, I never forgot that Atreus was there when playing God of War...

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Shadow of the Colossus (PS4, 2018) - title

I debated whether to turn this into a retro review of Shadow of the Colossus, or to focus this review on whether or not this particular remake manages to re-capture the magic of the original. Honestly though, what could I possibly say about Shadow of the Colossus that hasn't already said? I might as well try to write a retro review of Citizen Kane or Hamlet!

The original game (released in 2005 by Fumito Ueda's Team Ico at Sony) is a classic and a masterpiece of interactive art. It ranks right up there with games like Portal, Half-Life, Super Mario Bros., and Tetris as a contender for the title of "best video game ever made". Virtually every creative decision that the original team made was the absolute perfectly right decision to make. From the desolate and bleak, yet hauntingly-beautiful landscape. To the immense sens of scale and grandeur that embodies almost every crevice of the game and the sheer smallness of the protagonist himself. To the intimidating, yet majestic aesthetic design of the colossi themselves. To the bittersweet death animations of the Colossi, accompanied by Kow Otani's outstanding score, that makes you question the rightness of your actions. To the way that Agro's independent actions, slightly imprecise controls, and occasional insubordination sell the idea that she's an autonomous living character, rather than a simple vehicle that you pilot as an extension of the player avatar. To the decision to not drag down the game's pace or pollute the overworld with a single encounter with grunt enemies. And on and on...

Shadow of the Colossus was like a digital vacation when it was released in 2005.

It's as perfect a video game as has ever been made. It's the centerpiece of any "games as art" argument (if we still even have to have that argument anymore). Critics and analysts before me have already consecrated Shadow of the Colossus far beyond my petty powers to add or detract.

Bluepoint is the masters of remasters and remakes

Why couldn't Bluepoint have done
the Silent Hill HD Collection?!

Because of how absolutely brilliant the original game is, I had reservations about any attempt to remaster or remake it, especially after the debacle that was Hijinx Studios' Silent Hill HD Collection. Fortunately, however, the remake privilege (or burden, depending on how you want to look at it) was given to Bluepoint Games, the veritable masters of remasters and HD collections. Bluepoint had already released an HD remaster of Shadow of the Colossus on the PS3 back in 2011. I never played it because I thought the PS2 version of the game still looked fantastic and didn't need to be remastered to be enjoyed. That HD remaster was very well-received by the general public, as have been all of Bluepoint's remasters, as far as I am aware. Why couldn't Konami have given Silent Hill to these folks?!

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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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The Last Guardian - title

Being the follow-up to a masterpiece is no small order. Being the follow-up to two masterpieces is a Sisyphean task. Ico is a masterpiece of its time. Fumito Ueda and SIE Japan managed to follow that game with Shadow of the Colossus - a masterpiece of even higher order. The bar was set tremendously high for the team's third project: The Last Guardian. Multiple delays, a change in platform from PS3 to PS4, and Fumito Ueda's departure from Sony squashed a lot of the hype for the game. Might the game turn into vaporware? Or might it release in a condition analogous to Metal Gear Solid V?

On the surface, The Last Guardian comes off as being a mash-up of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Superficially, it's much more in-line with Ico: you play as a small boy who must guide a companion through a maze of environmental platformer obstacles and adventure puzzles. The catch this time around is that the companion happens to be a giant animal that you can climb and ride on.

The Last Guardian - riding Trico
The Last Guardian share more with Ico, but your companion is a giant creature that you climb and ride on.

The big difference though, is that The Last Guardian is sort of an inversion of the gameplay of Ico. In Ico, the player character had to guide a helpless (some even speculated she is blind) princess through a castle and defend her from shadow monsters that try to drag her away. In The Last Guardian, however, it is the player character - the boy - who is mostly helpless. True, you have most of the agency and are guiding Trico through the maze. But Trico is the one with all the power, and your progress is often dependent on Trico getting you past obstacles.

This point is most hammered home by the game's combat mechanics - or rather, its almost complete lack thereof. The boy can't fight off the stone knights that hunt him down. You can only run away, or let Trico smash them into dust for you. If they catch you, they drag you off to a nearby mysterious blue doorway (a parallel to the smokey portals that the smoke monsters dragged Yorda through in Ico), and all you can do is mash buttons to kick and squirm. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus experimented with player agency by making the player question the motivations of the character and wonder if maybe you're doing more harm than good. The Last Guardian toys with agency in other ways. In this game, you, the player, are the helpless tag-along character in an escort quest. You get a glimpse through the eyes of Yorda from Ico or Ashley from Resident Evil 4.

The boy can't fight back, he can only kick and squirm - much like Yorda from Ico.

Not entirely though. The player and Trico make mutual contributions to progress, and their contributions are shared much more than Ico and Yorda. Much like how Yorda could occasionally open the magically-locked doors, the boy in Guardian also has to pull levers and open doors for Trico to pass from room to room. The boy also has to destroy glass eye murals that mesmerize and terrify Trico to the point of paralysis. The boy also hunts down barrels of [supposedly] food for Trico to eat whenever Trico is tired or wounded. But then there's also parts of the game in which the boy simply hops on Trico's back, and Trico leaps away to the next puzzle area without the player having to do anything...

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No Man's Sky

After experiencing some annoying performance issues on the PS4 version of Dark Souls III (including a framerate capped at 30 fps), I decided that I'd hold out the extra three days for the PC version of No Man's Sky. I assumed that the keyboard and mouse controls would be more comfortable, since the game is half shooter, half flight-sim. I assumed that the PC version would perform better and look better. And I figure that the game will eventually enjoy a vibrant modding community that is likely impossible to spring up on the PS4, since (as far as I know) the PS4 does not support modding in any way. I, once again, may have been wrong in my choice of platform

In addition to having to wait three extra days for the game to release on PC, I've read a lot of reports of severe problems with the PC version of the game at launch. It simply won't run on certain machines with certain graphics cards. Many rigs have consistent performance issues. My PC is a few years old, but it more than meets the system requirements for the game, yet I've been stuck having to run it on medium graphics settings. Upping the settings to high only results in the game becoming unplayably slow whenever I step into the cockpit of my ship. I'm talking, like half a frame per second, and the game dropping all my inputs. The final insult is that the game breaks when you alt-tab out of it, which prevents you from alt-tabbing back into it. If you alt-tab out, you'll have to kill the process in task manager and restart the app - which, of course, will cause a loss of any progress since the last autosave. So despite having a dual-monitor set-up, I can't alt-tab out to open up podcasts or play some tunes while I warp around the galaxy.

Most of these problems will likely get fixed at some point (and some of them already have), and hopefully I'll be able to run the game at high graphics settings. But in the meantime, if you're interested in playing the game, then the PS4 version is probably the technically superior one right now. Apparently, the PS4 version also has numerous performance issues, including crashes.

Sadly, technical problems are only the beginning of my complaints with this game.

Betraying the naturalist within

Instead of being a game about exploring strange new worlds and discovering exotic wildlife and natural wonders of the universe (as I'd hoped), No Man's Sky turns out to be quite the opposite: a game about conspicuous consumption. The core game loop does not consist of landing on an alien world to explore and catalog the local flora and fauna. Instead, you land your ship in a vibrantly-colored patch of minerals and plants, and you begin strip-mining the site clean. You harvest the raw materials that you'll use to refuel your space ship so that you can warp to the next planet to strip its resources for more fuel.

No Man's Sky - cataloging alien life
The incentives to catalog alien life feel extrinsicly-imposed and not a natural part of the core game experience.

Actually seeking out and cataloging the local wildlife takes a backseat - if you even bother to do it at all. The game isn't about that. There's nothing in the core gameplay loop or narrative that actually sets the game up to be about cataloging alien life. The only reason that the player has to even bother with scanning and analyzing is because you're rewarded with in-game currency for scanning stuff, even though there's no in-game reason (that I could discern) for why you would be getting paid to catalog alien life or who it is that's putting the money in your account. It all feels so thoroughly divorced from the rest of the game, and the money feels like an extrinsic incentive that is imposed from outside the scope of actual gameplay. In fact, I don't know why the game would have an in-game reason for why you would get paid to catalog stuff. After all, these planets are all already known by somebody in the game universe - they have space stations in every star systems and colony modules and trading posts on every planet long before you ever get there to "discover" them. So not only does cataloging life feel like an extrinsically-imposed mechanic, even this process of "discovering" feels completely fake and artificial...

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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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