Final Fantasy XV - title

I really don't know what to make of Final Fantasy XV. On the one hand, the game is trying to do something new and kind of interesting with the long-stale open world formula. I desperately want to be able to celebrate the game for these new ideas. That being said, the game just completely blunders so much of its fundamental design, and it tramples on many of these promising new ideas by falling back on too many of the very same tropes that have killed so many other open world games.

The obvious common criticism of the game is that it's got too much of the player just sitting in the car waiting. You don't even have to drive the damned thing, as you can set one of the NPCs in your entourage to do all the driving for you. And even if you do decide to take the wheel, the car drives itself. You just press the gas, and the car automatically steers itself to stay on the road. You can't even turn off of the road even if you want to.

You know what? I'm actually OK with that.

Final Fantasy XV - reading in the car
I actually don't mind the long drives, as I can catch up on some reading along with Gladiolus

A nostalgic road trip adventure

You see, having such restrictive travel mechanics actually forces the player to think more about how you're going to navigate the world. While in the car, you are confined to the game's roads and highways. You can't just point the car directly at your objective marker and drive off-road in a straight line to get there. You're also limited to traveling during the daylight hours, and you have to make sure that you budget the time and money to stop for gas and lodgings. There's a genuine amount of logistical planning required for accomplishing virtually any task in this game. You have to think about traversing this world in the same manner that the characters would have to think about it! This is a role-playing game, after all, isn't it? So these travel mechanics are actually pretty clever ways of putting the player in a role-playing mindset and giving you a game to play when you're outside of combat.

I get the feeling that Square-Enix wanted Final Fantasy XV to emulate being on a road trip. You spend large chunks of time sitting in the car driving across the countryside, passing rest stops, scenic overlooks, and roadside diners. You stop every so often to admire the view, take a walk through nature, or chat with the locals. When the sun sets, you are pressured to find a motel to bunk in, or to set up a camp site if you happen to be on foot.

For brief periods of time, this game hits a very serene high in which you start to feel like you're really in this world and with these people, as they sit bored in the car, or eat dinner over a campfire while going over the photos that they took of the day's adventure. It's the same sort of feeling that No Man's Sky hits in its early hours, when you're still awestruck by the sheer size and scope of the new planets you set foot on. Having been someone who used to take annual road trips with my family to visit national parks around the country, seeing a video game try to simulate and systemize that activity (and the human bonding that it engenders) is genuinely endearing and makes me more than a little bit nostalgic.

Final Fantasy XV - camping
This game makes me nostalgic for the summer camping trips of my youth.

Mundane video game adventure

But then, much like No Man's Sky, Final Fantasy XV shatters that experience by forcing you back into "video game land". It isn't the long stretches of non-interactive driving through a video game vacation that bothers me. Instead, I'm bothered by the sheer tediousness of the mundane fetch quests and busy-work that the game throws at you. You see, a road trip -- and an adventure in general -- only really works if you're always traveling towards a destination. This is a feeling that Final Fantasy X completely nailed!...

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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 Witcher III - DLC

I just don't understand how CD Projekt Red can be such masters at world building and quest design, but are completely inept at everything that involves Geralt drawing a sword or throwing igni. I almost gave up on Hearts of Stone because the beginning of its main quest just put me into a controller-throwing rage.

Geralt is tasked with killing a mysterious sewer monster who has been killing women who go into the sewer hoping to find a toad who can be turned into a prince with a kiss. One of The Witcher III's long-standing annoyances for me is that it makes such a big deal about Geralt being so analytical that he prepares for every monster hunt with potions and so forth, but whenever a quest boss comes along, the game decides to just throw the player in with no chance to prepare. This quest provided no opportunity to investigate to learn what the toad monster is or what its weaknesses might be. When you hit an arbitrary point in the sewer, the game triggers a cutscene that just throws Geralt into the boss arena, so you can't re-equip yourself, respec, or otherwise prepare.

To make matters worse, the game checkpoints you inside the boss fight, instead of prior to the cutscene. If you die, you have to wait for the game's god-damned-bloody long-ass load times before having to go through the trouble of resetting your equipped potions or any other preparatory activities, only to survive for thirty seconds before the fracking toad kills you again and you have to sit through another two minutes of load screen before having to start it all over again. Just unacceptable, CD Projekt Red; absolutely unacceptable.

In order to beat the damn thing, I had to reload from an autosave earlier in the quest (fortunately, I didn't lose much progress) and use the Potion of Clearance to respec Geralt to take points out of my [currently useless] support skills and put them into abilities that buffed my attack, defense, and the two spells that are actually useful for this fight.

The Witcher III: Hearts of Stone - toad boss
The boss fights in Hearts of Stone seem to break the game's rules, and frustrated me to no end.

To add insult to injury, this boss fight ends with a cutscene, and the next playable, non-dialogue sequence is another boss fight, this time a mage with an entourage of soldiers. Without any of my support or crowd-control spells, I ended up having to replay this fight several times as well (it didn't help that the mage seemed to have a one-hit kill area-of-effect tornado attack). At the end, I thought I would be able to respec my character back to the way I had him, but apparently that potion is only a one-time use. I had to fast travel around to several merchants to try to find someone who would sell another copy to me (because Kiera disappears after you finish the main story, so I couldn't buy it from her). It cost 1,000 gold! Then, after finding my way back to the original quest-giver, I got stuck in yet another obnoxious boss fight.

All three of these boss fights seemed to break the game's established rules. The first one kept hitting me with poison, so I tried using a potion that was supposed to allow me to heal from exposure to poison. Except the potion didn't work. Neither of the other two bosses were vulnerable to Yrden or to dimeritium bombs to block or negate their magic abilities. This all was incredibly frustrating, as one of my biggest pet peeves with video games is when the developers give bosses immunity to all the fancy support items and spells that the player has, which you've been saving up for just such an occasion - a boss being the one place where such tools are actually useful or necessary. On top of that, all three fights are needlessly long endurance matches that quickly devolve to repeating the same few actions a hundred times in a row. Absolutely, unforgivably terrible boss fights, the whole lot of them! Needless to say, this DLC did not get off on the right foot with me - much like the base game didn't.

But I grit my teeth and played through the base game, only to find some of the most outstanding quest design and characters that gaming has to offer. So I would do the same with the Hearts of Stone DLC. And once again, I was rewarded for my patience with a quality storyline....

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Fallout 4

"Pirate Lord Captain Gregle, Slayer of Ancients and World-Renowned Trapeeze Artist" sounds like a pretty legendary character, right? Well, he wasn't. In fact, he was a very lucky, over-achieving halfling rogue in a short-lived campaign of Dungeons & Dragons. I rolled for the character's initial stats, got fairly low constitution, and then rolled the minimum value for hit dice for the first few levels. The result was a sixth-level character with a pathetic sixteen max hit points! A single lucky shot from virtually any enemy could be an instant KO for that character, and getting engaged in melee would practically be a death sentence. While some power gamers may scoff at the idea, rage against their dice, and then remake their character with a standard array and average HP, I decided to run with it and role play the hell out of little Gregle.

Dungeons & Dragons - Halfling Gregle
Character sheet for "Pirate Lord Captain Gregle, Slayer of Ancients and World-Renowned Trapeeze Artist"

With the low initial constitution, I focused my character around stealth abilities, disengagement and evasion tactics, and ranged attacks, and continued to improve those skills as I leveled. Knowing that he's a pathetic weakling, Gregle overcompensated by being a very flamboyant braggart and narcissist (I took inspiration from Stephen Colbert), and thought that he was more charming than he actually was. He routinely hid in the shadows, taking pot shots at vulnerable enemies and racking up kill steals from afar while his two warrior companions did most of the heavy-lifting. He would occasionally disarm a trap or unlock a door, and once used a clever trick to pacify (and subjugate) an entire band of pirates. He then took credit for much of the party's achievements.

Despite having only slightly above average charisma, he leaned on his halfling luck to succeed on some charisma checks and make himself a bit of a celebrity with the local townies for his exaggerated heroics. He reveled in the unprecedented access to their community that the locals provided, and he reveled in the adulant gifts that they showered upon him, happily hoarding it all in his bag of holding. The other party members never called him out on it in public, since they were just happy to have the cooperation of the locals.

While the other players and DM enjoyed Gregle's antics, their characters only barely tolerated his presence. During the actual adventuring, he was constantly getting into trouble and needing to be bailed out by his fellow adventurers. He once falsely awakened the party during his night watch after mistaking a wyvern for a dragon. In another instance, he was KO'd while using spider-boots to walk up a ceiling to pursue an enemy that had climbed a rope to escape the conflict, and he became stuck on the ceiling, forcing the party to figure out a way to get him down. They reluctantly obliged to help him, since Gregle was the possessor of the party's bag of holding, and was actually good at sneaking around to perform recon, unlocking doors, disarming traps, coming up with clever plans to avoid direct conflict, and other appropriately roguish things.

Gregle was one of the most fun characters that I've ever played, and he provided me with one of my most entertaining gaming experiences. This is the power of role playing to a character's strengths and weaknesses. It's a power that Bethesda shows no interest in utilizing for Fallout 4.

Out of the vault and into the wastes

I have to give credit to Bethesda for making one really interesting decision with Fallout 4: the game starts in a time period prior to the Great War that triggered the nuclear holocaust, and so it explores as yet unseen elements of the series' backstory. Or at least, it does for all of fifteen minutes. Much like Fallout 3, the pre-war gameplay and time that you spend in the vault is really just an extended tutorial and character-creation process. But unlike Fallout 3, it doesn't give enough time and depth to those settings to make the player legitimately care about them or the characters in them.

Fallout 4 - pre-war home
You don't spend enough time in your pre-war home or vault to develop any attachment to the place or people.

After creating your character and setting your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats, you and your spouse immediately flee with your infant child to the neighborhood vault. Once inside, you're handed the trademark silly superhero pajama jumpsuit and then promptly cryogenically frozen. You awake to witness your spouse get murdered and child kidnapped by apparent raiders, but then get frozen again. Then you awake again to do the combat tutorial against radroaches before leaving the vault and starting the game proper.

You spend virtually no time in the pre-war time period; you don't bond at all with your spouse or child; you don't establish any connections with your home or neighbors. There is absolutely no emotional bond between the player and what is lost in the war. So when the game drops you in the wasteland with a dead spouse, a missing child, and a quest to track down the kidnapper/killer, it does so without creating any emotional connection or investment for the player. I could go to Concord and then to Diamond City and search for my son, or I could just wander off in any random direction fighting raiders and painstakingly building my own little settlement out in the middle of nowhere using salvaged car tires and scrapped raider armor. Fallout 4 doesn't waste any time taking a nose-dive into the open world limbo.

Fallout 3 - birthday in vault 101
Fallout 3 simulated an entire childhood in the
vault, with friends, family, and even bullies.

Compare this against Fallout 3's prologue. It spent a considerably longer time developing your character and immersing you in the vault. Your dad (voiced by Liam Neeson) plays with you as a baby to teach movement and camera controls, he teaches you how to shoot, and throws a surprise birthday party for you. You interact with a childhood friend, other vault dwellers, and even a bully in order to tutorialize persuasion and speech checks and learn how to solve conflicts without violence. You even go to school and take a test to determine your default skills. In the short amount of time in the vault, you've lived a montage of an entire life.

With only a little bit of buy-in from the player, Fallout 3's Vault 101 becomes a living, breathing place populated with people who you can relate to and care about. You, as a player, have an investment in it and the characters that inhabit it. So when shit happens and you have to leave the vault, it's a monumental moment, and the events of your life, and the decisions that you've made, will shape your character's development over the rest of the game.

Even Skyrim gave the player interesting role-play decisions in its tutorial by required your character to make an immediate decision to follow the imperials or the Stormcloaks (though the scenario makes that decision a pretty one-sided one). And your initial choices of weapons and battle tactics would level up those specific skills; thus, starting the character down a path towards specializing in those skills as the game progressed (though you were completely free to change all that if you want).

And Fallout 4 has a perfect opportunity to take that father / son dynamic from Fallout 3, and invert it! The game could have opened with the birth of the baby. Since Bethesda had to record dialogue for multiple names for the player character, they could just as easily have done the same with the child's name. The doctor could hand you a paper with "This Year's Popular Baby Names", and you could chose one of those names that were explicitly recorded in dialogue. You could even be given the option to type your own name and replace the child's name with "my son" in dialogue. You could fill out the child's name and your own character's name on the birth certificate. Naming the baby would create a sense of ownership and connection to the child that might help encourage the player to pursue the main quest.

Fallout 4 - leaving the vault
Fallout 4's vault serves only as a combat tutorial with no depth, emotional resonance, or meaningful decisions.

But it doesn't have to stop there...

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Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - title

Let me tell you a little story. It's a story of my first few days with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. This is a game that I eagerly anticipated. The previews for it were grand, and I expected it to be everything that Skyrim wasn't, and more! I was all ready to give my first 100/100 game review! I spent some time juggling whether to buy the game on PC or PS4. I knew that PC would likely be a better overall experience, with prettier graphics, shorter load times, and the eventual ability to mod. But I decided to go with PS4 instead for two reasons:

  1. my cousin had pre-ordered the PC version, so I could play his if I wanted to see if it was any better,
  2. I wanted a good showcase of what the PS4 is capable of compared to high-end PCs.
The Witcher III: Wild Hunt - open map
Previews talked up the large, dynamic world, in which your decisions supposedly have major consequences.

Bad first impressions

Oh boy, The Witcher 3 did not make a good first impression with me!

I started the game on the hard difficulty. I had just come off of Bloodborne, so I was in a mindset to be challenged. My first two reactions to the game were fairly negative. Load times seemed long, but then again, the world is supposed to be open and seamless, so loading shouldn't be a frequent necessity. I also had some comfort issues with the controls in the tutorial. I dismissed them as a result of my unfamiliarity with the game and assumed I would get used to it.

The biggest problem was trying to figure out how to reliably heal. I kept losing vitality in small skirmishes, and it just wouldn't recharge. I kept running out of potions, and the game wouldn't let me make more. I had to throw away the empty potion bottle in order to craft more of the healing potions. I assumed this was a glitch.

Does the game require absolute perfection from the player? If so, I wasn't sure if I could handle it. The combat controls are sketchy to say the least. As I got into the game proper, the nagging discomfort that I felt in the tutorial was only amplified as the game threw more enemies at me. Even Geralt's "fast attacks" are lumbering compared to most enemies, and he is fidgety in his movement. Enemies are swift and relentless. It was hard to find an opening for my own attacks without taking damage, and my finger started getting tired from holding down the block command that only sometimes worked. The dodge commands also seemed unreliable, the camera never seemed to focus where I wanted it, and the target lock was nigh useless. It didn't help that the spell and accessory wheel is cumbersome to use.

The Witcher III: Wild Hunt - Nithral
I almost gave up on the game at this first Nithral fight because I had completely forgotten about
the meditate feature, and didn't have any healing items (not that healing items do much).

I eventually hit a brick wall in which all the attrition set in. The sloppy combat mechanics constantly sapped my vitality, and I gradually ran out of healing items which the game was unwilling to provide more of. I ended up in a boss fight with literally half my health gone and no healing items left. My NPC companion spammed lightning spells at him, but these did no damage and only got him stuck in a corner so that I was unable to get behind him and actually attack. To make matters worse, my weapons started breaking, and I had no replacements, and only one repair tool. I tried lowering the difficulty, but it didn't help. It seemed to be a no-win scenario.

I had to reload from an earlier save and tried some other quests to hopefully gain experience, levels, and supplies. I tried exploring the world to gain experience from random encounters, and I sometimes come across mobs of monsters and try to draw the sword and start blocking as I approach. Instead, I go into Witcher sense mode, since witcher sense and block are the same buttons. Often, the enemies get close enough to attack me before the game switches me from witcher sense mode to block mode, and so they get to leech some health away with free hits. This lead to some cheap deaths.

The Witcher III: Wild Hunt - witcher sense in combat
Witcher sense is overloaded to the block button,
leading to some cheap hits while exploring.

I jumped between the quest menu and the map (because the map could only track a single active quest at a time) to try to find a quest in my level range that was nearby. I tried a missing person's case that lead to a warewolf den. The warewolf proved impossible for me to take on, since his health regened faster than I could cause damage. So much for that "doable" quest.

I tried picking up the lowest-level monster contract available (a level 5 one), and died to some kind of porcupine alghoul enemy that damaged me everytime I attacked it. After a reload, I was able to beat it, and for some reason, it didn't damage me when I attacked anymore. Weird. What had I done differently? But my health was low, I was once again out of healing items, and I wasn't even halfway to earning my 5th level yet. The next set of bandits killed me.

I was about ready to give up, as I was getting sick of staring at the long load screen every time I died and not having any sense of learning or improvement. I started squinting at the microscopic text of the menus to desperately find something to help me progress. It was then that I noticed the Meditation option in the menu. It was something that I had forgotten about all this time. I tried meditating for an hour thinking it might restore at least some of my hit points. I figured a full 6 or 8 hours would be required to fully heal. But, much to my surprise, that single hour fully restored my vitality. And it refilled my healing potions. Armed with restored health, some new weapons, and the knowledge that the constant war of attrition that I'd been fighting with the game was unnecessary, I pressed on, defeated the bandits, and managed victories against some other mobs of enemies in the overworld!

Perhaps now I could finally start enjoying the game?

This game certainly has a steep learning curve. But admittedly, most of my early troubles were largely my own fault for not remembering to use the meditation feature...

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A gamer's life...

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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