Death Stranding - title

I had no clue what to expect from Death Stranding. I probably would have bought it regardless because I usually enjoy Kojima's games. I was also curious if Death Stranding would be, in some way, representative of what the canceled Silent Hills might have been. Most of all, Kojima is a bold, and usually innovative creator, and I felt compelled to support his new studio -- if for nothing else than to give a middle finger to Konami.

After spending several dozen hours with it, I'm still not really sure what to think of Death Stranding. Much like with Final Fantasy XV, Death Stranding is loaded with novel ideas and messages that I find personally interesting or compelling. But just like Final Fantasy XV, those novel ideas take a back seat to time-wasting filler quests. Death Stranding can be hypnotically beautiful, zen-like, and maybe even emotionally moving, but it's also big, bloated, and convoluted, and it takes far too long to get where it's going.

At a very reductionist level, Death Stranding could be accurately characterized as "side quest: the game" or "Amazon courier: the game". But that characterization would be overlooking the nuance behind the game, and what it has to say about modern gaming and society in general. That makes it a very difficult game to review without giving one's self some time to let it soak in ... which is part of the reason why I've been mulling it over for more than a month now...

Rebuilding America, one Amazon delivery at a time

Carrying cargo is, in fact, the entire game! Our protagonist, Sam, is unwittingly tasked with delivering cargo across this post-apocalyptic America in an attempt to get in the good graces of the settlements dotting the land, and connect them all up to a vast information network to restore a semblance of civilization. On the way, you can literally build roads and bridges as you go -- rebuilding the American infrastructure little by little.

Online players will leave guideposts and infrastructure to help each other out.

This infrastructure is actually a clever implementation of the Demon's Souls / Dark Souls style of asynchronous multiplayer. In principle.

Instead of the ghostly visages of other player warning you of traps or ambushes or pitfalls, online players can build bridges, roads, vehicle charging stations, storage boxes, and other helpful infrastructure that will make your trek through the world legitimately easier. They aren't just cluing you in about what dangers to expect, or what course of action to take, the other players are actively helping you (and everyone else) without ever needing to set a digital foot in your game. Just like in FromSoft's Souls games, you can also leave little notes that take the form of emoticons, and which combine the function of the Souls player messages with avatar gestures.

When you first step out into the world, there's a sense of desolation and loneliness about the landscape. It reminds me a lot of Shadow of the Colossus, except our only company is a crying fetus instead of Aggro (who's such a good horsey!). The scenery itself is more evocative of Iceland, and doesn't look like any part of the United States that I've ever been. But then again, this is the same game designer who put a tropical rainforest in the middle of Soviet Russia, so... It's beautiful and serene, and figuring out how you're going to navigate the environment can be a legitimate zen-like puzzle.

Trekking through the map reminded me of the beautifully desolate environments of Shadow of the Colossus.

This game requires very precise and deliberate inputs from the player, and it can sometimes be very unforgiving of small mistakes. If you turn too quickly, Sam may lose his balance and fall over, possibly damaging or destroying the packages that you are carrying. Walk to quickly down a steep slope, and you'll risk loosing your footing and face-planting. You can hold one or both trigger buttons to try to stabilize yourself or catch your balance -- and there's no real reason to not hold both triggers the entire game, since balancing your load doesn't make Sam walk noticeably slower. And you'll have to manage Sam's stamina, the battery supply of vehicles or certain tools, and so forth. You might even find your hands cramping from holding down the triggers after a particularly long or strenuous journey over rough terrain, providing you with a small degree of physical discomfort to go along with Sam's physical exhaustion. And you'll be pushed along by occasional rainfall that will cumulatively damage your cargo and equipment.

Even though Sam will progressively get stronger and better able to keep himself balanced, and even though the game will gradually unlock new mechanics for making it easier to traverse the landscape, you can never get sloppy, and the game will punish you for impatience! It reminds me a lot of Dark Souls, except instead of getting killed by a hollow undead sword flurry because I thought I could sprint through a return trip through an early area of the game, I'm instead tripping over my own two feet because I tried to run down a mossy slope to get this delivery done faster.

Simply navigating the open world terrain without tripping and falling is a primary gameplay mechanic.

The terrain is important and relevant, and navigating it safely and efficiently is the game's core gameplay. You aren't simply holding the stick forward and walking a straight line to a point on the mini-map or radar, as you might do in, say, Skyrim or Far Cry. This is how you design an open world game! You make the traversal of the space into the operant challenge. Or, at the very least, make the space between landmarks -- and the act of traversing that space -- feel meaningful. I feel like game designers are really starting to vindicate all those blogs that I wrote years ago about the failings of open world design. The destinations aren't important in Death Stranding. It's the space in between (the open world itself) that is important.

...

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Monster Hunter: World - title

I've been playing Monster Hunter: World off-and-on since it was released (which was a few months ago at this point), and I'm still just not sure that I get it yet. The game just hasn't clicked for me. Maybe I haven't invested quite enough time yet. In the past, I've come around to games that initially turned me off with their tedium and/or difficulty. Demon's Souls is perhaps the prime example, as that game took a few days (almost a week) of banging my head against the walls of the Boletarian Palace before things started to click for me. It certainly didn't take months! Once Demon's Souls started to click, the game almost immediately became one of my all-time favorites.

The Demon's Souls comparison is apt. Corners of the internet keep insisting that Monster Hunter: World is a game that should appeal to the same types of players who love Dark Souls (because everybody keeps forgetting that Demon's Souls did it first and better). Well, I'm sorry, but I just don't see how the two connect.

Yeah, there's the difficulty. But Dark Souls isn't good because it's hard. It's good because all the pieces around that central challenge make overcoming that challenge feel worthwhile. It's the world-building, the lore, the way that the obtuse characters and dialogue builds a growing sense of intrigue about the world, the sense of nervously tip-toeing into a dangerous unknown, the sense of leveling your stats into a character build that perfectly suits your desired playstyle, and that ominous sense of entropic dread that permeates every nook and cranny of the game. Those things make Dark Souls good! Those sorts of things are lacking in Monster Hunter: World.

The JRPG nonsense that usually turns me off of JRPGs

Sadly, Monster Hunter: World is bogged down by a lot of the kinds of JRPG nonsense that has frequently turned me off of playing these sorts of games. While I often appreciate that JRPGs tend to be more story and character-driven (something that I often wish western RPGs would focus more on), JRPGs also tend to undercut the seriousness of the stories they're trying to tell with lots of silliness and whimsy. Sometimes it's charming or endearing; other times it's juvenile or obnoxious.

You can track monsters by following their footprints or by studying their snot and turds.

I can tolerate this game's silly little cat side kicks. Monster Hunter's whimsical fantasy setting works well enough. What is less tolerable is that the game is littered with tedious, grindy, time-killer quests: harvest so many mushrooms, investigate a bunch of dinosaur footprints and [literal] crap, kill however many small monsters, capture yet more small monsters. and yadda yadda yadda. I guess, at a certain level, these activities make a certain amount of sense. Your character is, after all, one grunt in a whole army of grunt hunters being sent out to do the dirty work of the captains. But I have better things to do in real life than to wander around a forest picking flowers for 50 minutes.

Monster Hunter is loaded with grind quests.

Some of these sorts of quests are relegated to little ambient side-quests that you can perform while you're doing other major missions. These are the ones that are tolerable. Others (like the Investigations and other tangential story quests) require you to perform dedicated ingredient-gathering grind missions, in which the sole purpose of the mission is to fight monsters you've already fought and collect a bunch of stuff. Since my character doesn't have traditional stats or levels that improve as I complete these quests, the grinding just never really feels worth it.

I was hoping that I could just power through the main quests and skip all the tedious grind stuff. No such luck. I got to a point where I had to hunt the T-Rex-like Anjanath, and got stuck...

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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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Dark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandel - title

FromSoft has a pretty amazing track record with the DLC expansions for its Dark Souls and Bloodborne games. Heck, the Crowns Trilogy expansions basically save Dark Souls II from being completely dismissable within the Souls library. Needless to say, expectations for a Dark Souls III expansion were pretty high. Maybe they were too high, as FromSoft sadly seems to have really misfired with Ashes of Ariandel.

Is this mid-game content, or end-game content?

My primary problem with this expansion is that it has wildly erratic difficulty. It breaks with the tradition of having a very obscure access point, and so it's very easy to access very early in the game. It's basically un-missable. There are no arcane hoops to jump through this time, nor is it so obscurely-hidden that From needed to include a dialogue box to tell you where to go. Instead, there's simply an NPC in an area of the game that is accessible fairly early in the game. Talk to this NPC, and he'll transport you to the Painted World of Ariandel.

Dark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandel - developer hint
The developers recommend facing "the depths of Lothric Castle" before playing the DLC.

Once you enter Ariandel, you'll find a pair of developer hints. One reads "Before one faces the painting, one should face the depths of Lothric Castle.", and another claims that only the mighty will survive. So clearly, this area is intended to be late-game content (as you're recommended to have already beaten Lothric Castle and/or Oceiros' Garden). But take a few steps into the DLC, and you'll find some pretty simple basic enemies. The followers of Farron are easily beatable by any mid-level character. Some of them can throw spears at you while hidden behind the blinding snow while you're dealing with their comrades in melee. I didn't have too much trouble dealing with this though, as the melee enemies can be easily kited away from the ranged ones.

The wolves are pretty weak and are only tough if the whole pack gangs up on your or if the camera wigs out while they are jumping around. A level 50 or 60 character would probably have little trouble with these enemies. To From's credit, these wolves are actually pretty fun to fight. They aren't nearly as obnoxious as the dogs that have driven me nuts in previous games.

Dark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandel - pack of wolves
Most of Ariandel's enemies are pretty easy for mid-game characters
as long as you don't let them swarm and overwhelm you...

But then there's the Millwood Knights and Corvian Knights, which feel like they require the player to be closer to the 80-100 range. Seriously, there's like a 40-level difference between the enemies that you'll encounter in this level, and that's pretty ridiculous. Some of the Millwood Knights guard some fancy optional weapons and an optional area, but the other Millwoods and the Corvian Knights are placed along the necessary paths of progress. You have to fight them. Or at least try to run past them.

The Corvian Knights are a particular pain in the ass...

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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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