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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Sid Meier's Civilization

With Civilization V apparently at the end of its life cycle and unlikely to receive any more major updates or expansions, it's time to start looking to the future of the franchise: Civilization VI. Civ V was successful enough to spawn several spin-offs: Beyond Earth, Civilization Revolution 2 on mobile devices, Civilization World, and even a Civilization MMO. So it's reasonable to assume that if work hasn't already started on Civlization VI, then it will begin soon.

One of the things that I most love about Civ V is that each civ has unique powers that give them their own playstyles and flavors. The expansions (especially Brave New World) showed a lot of creativity with some of the civilizations. I hope that these design philosophies continue, and that we'll see some even more interesting gameplay variations in the new civilizations of Civilization VI.

To that end, I have a few ideas and suggestions for designs and themes for some of the common civilizations that are likely to appear in Civilization VI. I'll provide at least a unique abilility and at least two unique units / buildings / improvements, but I may also provide additional or alternative unique suggestions in case Firaxis decides to include even more variety and specialization. Since Civ VI will likely be a whole new game on a whole new engine, I can't give specific examples of the mechanics of these ideas. Instead, I'll try to focus on more broad concepts and maybe include examples based on Civ V's mechanics and features if relevant.

* NOTE: this post is a work-in-progress, and will probably be revised as I come up with additional ideas or clarifications.

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Civilization V - Oda Nobunaga of Japan

Continuing my series of strategy posts about Brave New World's modified civilizations, I'm going to take a look at strategies for Oda Nobunaga's Japan. Since Brave New World's Fall patch Japan was given additional buffs towards culture and coastal starts.

Japan is a series of four large island and numerous smaller islands that were formed by volcanoes. It has been inhabited since the upper paleolithic era (about 30 thousand years ago), and its people have lived in relative isolation for much of its history. It has gone through periods of war with its closest neighbors across the sea: China and Korea, and has had significant cultural influences from both, such native Shinto's two competing religions: Buddhism and Confucianism. Throughout most of Japanese history, the country has been in a feudal state, with regional populations being loyal to a warlord who is granted land and titles from the emperor (or "Shogun"). In-fighting between warlords was common, and power often ebbed and flowed between different clans and families.

Civilization V - Oda Nobunaga, Leader of the Japanese Civilization

Samurai Daimyo Oda Nobunaga helped Ashikaga Yoshiaki to reclaim the title of Shogun for his clan in 1568, and Nobunaga used the leader as a puppet to enable his own conquests. He was a brutal warrior who once set fire to an enemy complex, killing tens of thousands of civilian non-combatants (including women and children) in order to put down a rebellion of farmers and monks. He eventually attained military control of more than half of the territories of Japan on behalf of the Shogun. His successor, Hashiba Hideyoshi, would complete the unification of Japan 11 years after political and personal tensions lead to Nobunaga's assassination by a vassal clan.

In the 19th century, Japan's isolation finally ended and it began the process of rapidly modernizing. By the 1930's, Japan had developed into a modern military-industrial machine that was almost the technological equivalent of the United States and European powers. It became the dominant power in the Pacific prior to being defeated by the United States in the second half of World War II.

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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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