Dark Souls II : Scholar of the First Sin

Hot off of playing Bloodborne's The Old Hunters DLC, and with Dark Souls III just over the horizon, I thought I'd get myself hyped up by playing through the re-release of Dark Souls II, Scholar of the First Sin. This version of the game was a next-gen enhancement of the original game that was released on the PS3, XBox 360, and PC a year prior, and it includes improved graphics, faster frame rate, and more challenging enemy-placement. It's available on PS4, XBox One, and PC, and is treated as a completely different game as the original version. It's not a DLC or a patch update (though it does include all three of Dark Souls II's DLC content).

Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin - graphics comparison
Scholar of the First Sin looks much smoother in motion, with higher resolution and framerate.
Lighting and textures are (at best) only marginally improved from the last-gen release.

I was honestly expecting Scholar of the First Sin's graphics to be considerably better than they are. In fact, I honestly don't think the graphics are much better than the last-gen release; I think the only difference is that it displays at full 1080 resolution and plays at a high end of 60 frames per second. Colors are a little more vibrant, and the game doesn't look as washed-out, but models and environments don't seem any more complex, and textures are only maybe slightly more detailed. Unfortunately, darkness still isn't as dark as it needs to be to make the torch as necessary for exploration as it was apparently intended to be. In pre-release demos, darkness was implied to be a complete fade to black that rendered objects within the dark invisible. Simply adjusting the brightness of your TV wouldn't change that. In the released version, darkness doesn't go completely black, so objects are only hidden if your TV brightness is low - lower than the recommended brightness level of the game. Even then, the release game looks brighter, and Scholar of the First Sin does very little to change that.

Dark Souls II - preview footage graphics comparison
PREVIEW FOOTAGE showcased greater contrast between light and dark, and more detailed textures and geometry...

This graphical downgrade, the complete failure of FROM or Namco/Bandai to inform the public about it, and the resultant misleading marketing that repeatedly showed demos, screenshots, and footage that wasn't representative of the final product left a huge negative impression on a lot of players - especially those who pre-ordered it. That poor initial taste is probably a huge part of the reason why this game has gotten such a negative reception, even though that negative reception is mostly warranted. Scholar of the First Sin was an opportunity to wash that bad taste out of consumers' mouths and give us the game that was advertised, marketed, and pre-ordered. But Namco and FROM didn't bother.

Darkness is just rarely ever a meaningful component of the gameplay. Darkness may lower the range of target locks though, so even though I could plainly see enemies, I felt like I wasn't able to target lock them as readily as I could in the PS3 version. Even so, there's enough sconces laying around that you can light a sconce, extinguish your torch to fight, then re-light it at the sconce after all the enemies have been dispatched. It ends up just being some extra overhead if you care enough to bother with it, and not an essential element of gameplay.

Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin - graphics comparison
... FINAL PRODUCT shows low contrast between light and dark, frequent repeated textures, and simplified geometry.

Textures, character models, and world geometry don't look noticeably better. Many areas still have generally blander textures than what was presented in pre-release videos, and the textures noticeably repeat. World geometry also seems less detailed and intricate compared to pre-release videos, which takes away a lot of the personality that these preview areas exhibited. I was expecting Scholar of the First Sin to restore many of these superior textures and models from the previews, and I'm really disappointed that the game doesn't look better than it does.

Darker contrast in previews [LEFT] made real-time shadows more vibrant,
and creatures more threatening and mysterious than in the release build [RIGHT].

The improved textures also don't do much to help the game's generally bland art design. There aren't many visually-appealing locations in the game, as they are all just variations of run-down castles and forest paths. Most of them have pretty sparsely-decorated hallways with simple geometry that has little-to-no personality. There's nothing here that even approaches the ominousness of Demon's Souls' Latria, and the oppressive environments of Bloodborne make Dark Souls II almost serene by comparison. Again, Scholar of the First Sin does little-to-nothing to address this. No Man's Wharf probably remains my favorite location in this game, as it's one of the few locations that takes place in a fairly unique setting that actually utilizes light and dark for gameplay purposes.

So while the visual upgrade doesn't really add much to the game, the higher framerate definitely does make a noticeable difference. The PS4 doesn't seem to maintain a full 60-fps at all times, but it seems to always run better and smoother than the 20-30 fps of the PS3 version. Animations are much smoother, and ambient effects (such as foliage swaying in the wind) look much better. I admittedly had to spend some time re-adjusting to the game's speed. After coming back from the rapid pace of Bloodborne, this game almost seemed to be moving in slow motion, and the higher framerate probably contributed greatly to that sensation. That's not necessarily a bad thing; it's just a stylistic difference. Scholar of the First Sin plays smoothly (on the PS4), and it looks decent (even though it should have looked better)...

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Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain

Are you one of the poor suckers who paid $30-40 for Ground Zeroes and were ready for The Phantom Pain to make up for your disappointment with what was little more than a glorified (and over-priced) demo? I wasn't, because I got Ground Zeroes for free from my PSPlus subscription around the same time that Phantom Pain was released. I was obviously disappointed with the demo's short length, and I didn't bother doing any of the side missions. But since I didn't pay for it, I wasn't as enraged as some other players might have been.

I actually really liked what little gameplay Ground Zeroes had to offer. The Guantanamo Bay arena was well-designed and offered some good infiltration challenge that tested my Metal Gear capabilities. The A.I. was surprisingly competent and adaptive - not so much that I couldn't exploit them occasionally, but still good. The graphics, lighting, and weather effects all looked outstanding. It was a fun experience. Not "forty dollars fun", but pretty fun. At least part of the battle at Mother Base should have been playable, and I didn't like that large elements of the story were hidden away in collectible audio tapes, but whatever.

I got Ground Zeroes for free on PSPlus, instead of paying $30-40 MSRP for a glorified demo.

Ground Zeroes gave me flashbacks to the phenomenal classic Sons of Liberty demo that came packaged with Zone of the Enders on the PS2. At least that only cost me a $3 rental, and I got to play Zone of the Enders too. After Ground Zeroes, I was looking forward to getting my hands on the much bigger Phantom Pain, and was optimistic that it would provide an equally good experience that would be worth the purchase price. Phantom Pain is a very long, very complicated, and very uneven game. So buckle up, friend. This is going to be a long review.

Table of Contents

After having written a lengthy blog post about how open world, sandbox game design almost necessarily puts the game's narrative in a state of limbo, I was amazed to start up Metal Gear Solid V and see the very first mission took my criticisms to heart. Of course, the game had already been released by the time I had written that opinion piece, so I can't take credit for having influenced its development, but it was still refreshing and gratifying. Anyway, in the very first mission, Ocelot tells you that Miller has been captured by Soviets in Afghanistan, has been tortured for intel, and has three days - tops - to live. You must rescue him before that time.

Metal Gear Solid V - three days to rescue Miller
Ocelot gives the player three days to rescue Miller...

At first, I didn't put much stock in Ocelot's claim. After all, sandbox games are notorious for saying that something needs to be done ASAP, but they never have the balls to actually walk the walk and enforce that objective. Until now. When checking my map, I noticed something in the corner that I hadn't noticed in other sandbox games before: an "elapsed time" counter. The game was plainly tracking how long it was taking me to complete the primary mission objective. I treated this timer with a certain degree of skepticism. But sure enough, failure to rescue Miller within the allotted time actually results in a "Game Over"!

This is exactly how I feel that priority objectives in open world games should be handled: make it apparent to the player (through dialogue and/or explicit notification) that an objective is being timed or that it is otherwise a priority, and make sure that there are reasonable, perceivable consequences for failure to achieve that objective within the expected conditions. Then design some early-game quests or objectives such that the player is put in a position in which they can (or must) fail; thus, teaching the player that when the game says "do x or else", the game actually means it. I put down the controller and gave Hideo Kojima a standing ovation. But would this opening mission set a precedent that priority missions must actually be prioritized, and would that precedent stand throughout the rest of the game? Or was this just a one-off occurrence that would not be representative of the rest of the game? Regardless, a tone was plainly set for the rest of the game, and the stakes had been raised.

... Failure to rescue Miller within the allotted time results in his death and a Game Over.

Would this refreshing precedent carry over into the rest of the game? Well, sort of...

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Silent Hill 4: the Room

While I was playing through recent horror titles like The Evil Within, I noticed some interesting similarities with Silent Hill 4 that started to give me a new appreciation for some of this game's stronger aspects. In addition, while doing research for my Silent Hill timeline, I had to go back and play through Silent Hill 4: the Room again. I had only played through the game twice before, so I had to replay it in order to figure out how the timeline would work out. And while I was playing the game, I figured that I might as well go ahead and review it. At the time, it seemed like a novel idea to do a retro review of a Silent Hill game that wasn't Silent Hill 2, but lately, I've been seeing a lot of retro-reviews of The Room popping up other places. I haven't done any retro reviews yet; probably the closest thing has been my review of Demon's Souls. But in light of how unsuccessful the later Silent Hill games have been, the unfortunate cancellation of Silent Hills, and the uncertain future of the franchise, it's a good time to go back to look at what worked and what didn't about the previous games, and explore the question of whether we even want the franchise to continue.

The Room has the reputation of being the "bad" black sheep of the original Silent Hill tetralogy. I always thought that this reputation was unfortunate, and that the game wasn't quite as bad as people made it seem. I actually liked it better than Silent Hill 3 up until I was able to track down a copy of the first game and play through it (at which point, Silent Hill 3 suddenly made a whole lot more sense). The release of future games by third party developers has only made The Room look better in retrospect.

An experimental formula

The game itself is a bit rough around the edges. It deviates significantly from the controls and mechanics established by the previous games in the franchise, and these changes are very hit-or-miss. This might be due, in part, to the possibility that The Room started out as an independent side project that was developed concurrently with Silent Hill 3, and that was eventually redesigned to work as a Silent Hill game in order to be more commercially viable. Whether or not that's true is still a hot issue of debate among the fanbase, but it's obvious to everybody that The Room plays a lot differently from previous titles.

Silent Hill 4: the Room - combat
Movement and combat controls are radically changed from previous games in the series.

The most immediately obvious deviation is in movement and camera controls. The semi-first-person "tank" controls have been completely abandoned in favor of direct directional inputs, and the camera is significantly more limited than it has been in previous games. You can't snap the camera behind the character by holding the "look" button as you could do in previous games. Almost all camera angles are pre-set angles, and the player can usually only toggle between two possible camera angles in any given area.

This results in some very clumsy navigation of the environment, and it's very easy for the character to get turned around when camera angles flip. Most of the time, a camera change will go without a hitch, but there are a few frames in the game that consistently result in erratic and unpredictable movement. It happens most often when a camera change occurs concurrently with a change in direction of the character (to navigate around a corner or an obstacle). If the player's timing for changing the character's movement direction is not perfectly-timed, then the character ends up turning around, which can result in getting stuck in a loop between the two camera angles. This is the very reason that I prefer the tank controls. They may be a bit cumbersome, but at least they're consistent and always relative to a single frame of reference (the character's position in the world), rather than to an unpredictable camera.

The second major change is to combat. The game was designed to have a greater emphasis on melee combat, complete with new target-locking controls, a variety of breakable melee weapons, very limited ammunition for guns, and an on-screen meter for charging power attacks. The new movement controls do make it a bit easier to maneuver around enemies (especially multiple enemies), but only if you're in an open space and the camera angle doesn't go all wonky on you. The mechanics are serviceable, and I don't think they're as bad as some critics insist.

The designers were probably trying to mimic
the horror trope of fumbling for keys.

Inventory management is where things really start to get bad. Henry isn't a walking closet like the previous games' protagonists, and he has only a limited number of inventory slots. This is probably partly the result of the inventory being accessed in real-time by the directional buttons (which also might have played a role in the changes to the movement control scheme being entirely based up on the analog stick), in a desire to create a sense of frantically searching your pockets for a weapon or item while under pressure. It also adds more relevance to the Room 302 hub (another dramatic departure from previous games) by forcing you to go back to restock on supplies or swap out puzzle items.

But it's hindered by a lot of little mistakes. Identical items do not stack. Every individual health drink, med kit, and box of bullets takes up its own entire inventory slot. Bringing a melee weapon, a firearm, a single box of spare ammo, and a healing item or two easily takes up half your inventory. That's fine, until you start collecting more ammo and healing items in the world, and you quickly run out of space. And the game doesn't give you any way to drop an item from your inventory. So if you find a desperately-needed med kit, but your inventory is full of useless golf clubs and puzzle items, you have to travel all the way back to the last portal to the safe room, or risk pushing on ahead and hoping nothing kills you. This can result in a lot of backtracking to Room 302 and really slows down the pace of the game. The fact that many melee weapons can break means that I also never bother to use those weapons. The default steel pipe that you get early in the game never breaks, rendering the numerous golf clubs, wine bottles, and other such breakable weapons moot. I would recommend not even picking them up. And once I get the hand axe (which also never breaks), then the pipe gets retired into my item box also.

Other mechanical changes, such as the first-person segments in Room 302, the lack of a flashlight or radio, and so on fall more into the category of "different" for me, without necessarily being better or worse. The lack of a flashlight does mean that darkness doesn't play a role in the game at all, and your view of the environment is rarely restricted. So this game doesn't have the "what the heck is that?" factor that the previous games (particularly 1 and 3) nailed so well. The removal of the radio also makes sense (to me) as having emerged from the real-time inventory and focus on melee combat. Warning the player about incoming enemies (the radio's primary function in past games) would only lessen the "fumbling for your keys (or weapon)" sense that the inventory system was trying to evoke.

Silent Hill 4: the Room - nightmare stairwell
Henry must dive into the nightmare of a serial killer.

While I wouldn't want a Silent Hill game to be played entirely in first person, I do think that the first person perspective in Room 302 actually does add something to the game...

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Cities: Skylines: Snowfall

I described Cities: Skylines' first expansion, After Dark, as " just tak[ing] the Cities: Skylines canvas, and offer[ing] the player a few more colors to optionally paint with." That expansion didn't really do much to change the way that the game is really played, but rather just focused on adding further specialization options for any city that you care to build. I wasn't too upset because the core game is still a phenomenal foundation to build upon, and the expansion just gave us more to play with within that same phenomenal foundation. Snowfall, however, is even more narrow in scope.

I got really excited when I loaded up Steam and saw the title of the new expansion. I had written a wishlist blog in which I specifically asked for the next expansion to offer seasonal weather changes and more recreational and transportation specializations suited to those different seasons. On the surface, Snowfall seemed to provide that. There's now a winter, and snow, and you can build a specialized winter wonderland. But that's the extent of what this expansion provides, and that's disappointing.

Snowfall doesn't provide a full season system or any real changes to the game's core economic loop. Instead, it has a few snowy, winter-themed maps in which you can build snow-themed cities. Those winter maps are always snowy, and the non-winter maps are never snowy (although they can see occasional rain and fog). Note: I'm going to get real tired of saying "non-winter maps", so henceforth, for the sake of simplicity, I will refer to them as "summer maps", even though summer isn't really a thing (yet). Your city doesn't progress from springing to summer to autumn to winter (or even just from summer to winter) and then back again, and you don't have to manage your economy so as to maximize profits during your tourist season and find a way to maintain employment and revenue during the off season. Depending on which map you select, it's either always winter, or it's always summer.

I complained about After Dark feeling like I had to go out of my way in order to use the expansions new features and specializations, but at least those features and specializations were available in all cities, and they could be applied to my existing cities from before the expansion. You have to go so far out of your way to use the Snowfall features that you have to start a whole new game on a specific subset of maps. It makes After Dark look like a broad game-changing expansion by comparison.

Cities: Skylines: Snowfall - snow maps
Only maps designated as "winter" maps will have snowfall, and they aren't very different from existing maps.

Disconnected from reality

The actual functionality of some of these winter buildings is also questionable. One of the first snow buildings that you'll unlock is the "snow dump", which is a landfill for snow. Snow plows in this game will drive around the city similar to garbage trucks, actually collecting the snow off the streets, and then taking them back to the snow dump building, which (according to its description) melts down the snow to make room for more snow. It seems like they just took the garbage truck functionality and copy-pasted it to apply to snow, only without the need for a separate incinerator building.

Cities: Skylines: Snowfall - plowing snow
Snow can slow traffic and must be plowed.

The really weird thing is that there is also a new general road maintenance office that keeps the roads in good repair and traffic flowing smoothly. If you don't bother to build the road maintenance office, or build the snow dump or plow the snow, it will slow down your roads and eventually make them unusable. Why did these need to be two buildings? Why couldn't the road maintenance office also be the depot for snow plows?

And then there's the ski buildings, which also don't seem to work in any way comparable to real life. The ski resort is an artificial ramp that you build on flat ground. Again, that's not really how ski resorts work. Typically, a ski resort would be built high up on a mountain, where there's a natural slope and a lot of snow. The game does include a separate ski lodge building, which you could build up in a mountain, but it wouldn't work all that well. It seems to me that the Ski Resort shouldn't be a ramp, it should just be the ski lift that you build on inclined terrain, and the Ski Lodge should be built nearby and should enhance the functionality of the resort. In fact, the new snow maps don't even include mountainous terrain on which to build a more realistic ski resort and lodge. So this all seems to be a result of the game's underlying framework not having very good support for building on slopes, and Colossal Order didn't bother to design a system to allow such niche buildings like a ski resort to be built on a slope.

I may live in a desert, but I'm pretty sure that this isn't how snow plowing or ski resorts are supposed to work...

Look, I live in the desert of Las Vegas, where it was 80 degrees by mid-February, and air conditioning is not an "option" for a car. Maybe it's not my place to tell a development team in Finland how ski resorts and snow plowing are supposed to work, but I'm pretty sure that this isn't how ski resorts and snow plows work!

Don't get me wrong, these buildings are all functional, and they all work within the game's existing mechanic set. It isn't like they are broken; they're just not very realistic, and they have a disappointing feeling of sameness to them, since they don't feel functionally distinct from buildings and features that already exist. For games like this, I tend to lean towards wanting more realism whenever possible, but that's a subjective personal preference. I understand that this is just a game, and certain amounts of abstraction and creative license need to be taken...

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Bloodborne - the Old Hunters DLC

The DLC level for Bloodborne is considerably easier to access than the DLC of the first Dark Souls. You only have to beat a mid-game boss, and the items that you need to access the DLC are literally just handed to you next time you visit the Hunter's Dream. Unfortunately, if you don't read the pop-up text that tells you where to go to access the DLC level, then you might be in trouble, as there's no other indication in the game of where to go. Not eve in the item description of the trinket that grants access. In typical FROMSoft fashion, accessing the DLC is fairly obscure and un-intuitive. In fact, it's even more obscure than Dark Souls because it isn't something that the player is likely to accidentally stumble upon. It requires players to do something that they might actively avoid attempting to do because it's something that probably got them killed in the base game. Granted, there is one other situation in the base game in which you are teleported to an optional location by this same method, so it's not entirely unprecedented, but it still feels contrived. Look FROMSoft, if you have to explicitly tell the player where to go in a text prompt, rather than allowing the player to infer it based on textual or environmental clues, that's probably a sign that you made it too esoteric...

Bloodborne: the Old Hunters -
The DLC doesn't require players to jump through as many hoops as Artorias of the Abyss required,
but the actual entry-point into the DLC is even more obscure and counter-intuitive.

Once you're in the DLC's "Hunter's Nightmare" area, you'll be provided with a seemingly much more technical challenge than Dark Souls' Artorias of the Abyss DLC. While Artorias DLC threw a lot of magic-casting enemies at me that required me to cheese my way through the levels by using ranged weapons or mob-baiting tactics to cut down enemies one-by-one while staying out of range of the casters, Bloodborne's The Old Hunters DLC instead pits me in more one-on-one battles with fellow hunters that require more careful technique in order to vanquish. In fact, these encounters kind of subvert one of the common criticisms of the Souls games, which is that enemies are too easy to bait, and fighting one-on-one trivializes most fights. The mob monsters in the Hunter's Nightmare actually back away from you as if they're scared, and the other hunter enemies will actually kill those monsters for you, setting the stage for these one-on-one fights. I hope you've been practicing parrying, visceral attacks, and dashing towards enemies in the base game, because this DLC will test those skills. They aren't as obscenely difficult as the NPC hunters that you can find in the chapel of the Unseen Village or in the courtyard on the side of the Grand Cathedral (opposite the path to the Forbidden Woods), but they can easily destroy you if you overreach or get arrogant.

Or at least, most of the hunters aren't that difficult. There are a few notable hunters that posed quite a challenge. One pair of hostile church agents caused me quite a bit of trouble with the camera and target lock, since one was a ranged spell-caster, and the other was an in-your-face swordsman. These issues were exacerbated by the presence of environmental decorations that kept getting between my character and the camera, and thus blocking my view of the action. It always annoys me when game designers put challenges in the game that the mechanics are ill-equipped to deal with. It's something that Bloodborne and the Souls games rarely fell victim to (other than the occasional tight-roping and platforming), so it's really noticeable when it does happen.

This wheelchair enemy would sometimes wind up on the moving stairs and turn invisible.

There was also a recurring glitch in which a particular wheelchair enemy would sometimes fall onto a set of rotating stairs and would then become invisible. I'd be walking around, then suddenly BOOM! I'm blasted with gatling gun fire literally from nowhere! This resulted in two cheap deaths for me before I realized what was going on and remembered where it was.

Through the nightmares of hunters past

Another way that "The Old Hunters" is reminiscent of "Artorias of the Abyss" is that this DLC fills a similar role of further expanding upon backstory that is hinted at by the base game. Wheres Artorias literally took the player back in time to witness the legend of Artorias first-hand, "The Old Hunters" sends the player into a nightmarish limbo version of Yharnam populated by hunters and church members of ages past. The world is twisted and convoluted by the imperfect memory of the characters that inhabit it, and the result is another confusing trek through the maze of a barely-recognizable Yharnam.

Bloodborne: the Old Hunters - Hunter's Nightmare
The Hunter's Nightmare is a twisted and threatening re-interpretation of the familiar Yharnam.

But this time, the maze feels more organic. The opening level of Yharnam in Bloodborne really felt as though the developers wanted the player to at least have an idea of where to go, but just failed miserably at communicating any sense of direction to the player. For example, an NPC in original Yharnam told you to go "south", but there's no compass or signpost indicating which direction "south" is. In this nightmare Yharnam, I feel like direction is deliberately left ambiguous. The world itself feels like a surreal mystery that the player is supposed to unravel, and the first part of that mystery is answering the questions "Where am I?" and "What the heck is this place?" And the fact that Bloodborne already requires the player to go through portals and trek through nightmares makes the transition to the DLC area feel much less jarring and out-of-place than the journey to Oolacile felt, even though (as stated early) the entry-point is more esoteric than ever.

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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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'Civilization V' strategy: Oda Nobunaga lives by the sword'Civilization V' strategy: Oda Nobunaga lives by the sword01/07/2015 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...