Now that I've gotten through the gauntlet of massive AAA releases like Metal Gear Solid V and Dark Souls III, I wanted to take some time to clear out some smaller games that have been collecting dust in my Steam library before diving into any other massive, time-sucking games. One of my highest priorities was the Indie sci-fi horror title Soma, developed by Frictional Games - the same company that made Amnesia: the Dark Descent. I had heard pretty good things about this game, and I liked Dark Descent, so I was eager to finally have a chance to dive into this one.
Learning from failures and forgetting successes
Soma show signs of learning from the weaknesses of both The Dark Descent and A Machine for Pigs (which was actually developed by a third party), even though it still doesn't necessarily nail the mechanics this time either. It's a far better experience than Machine for Pigs, and shows the level of quality that helped make Dark Descent such a hit. The most notable improvements from Machine for Pigs is in the depth of gameplay and monster encounters; and the most notable improvements from Dark Descent are in puzzle design and narrative.
Monsters sometimes appear in where you get important story bits to incentivize you to not just walk away.
Monster encounters do still feel very un-threatening for the first half of the game. The first few monster encounters even seemed scripted to catch the player. This was possibly done in order to tutorialize the game's healing mechanic, but it also serves to desensitize the player to the monster and the threat of death right out of the gate. Unlike The Dark Descent, you don't start out terrified and cowering in fear from a mysterious and ominous enemy that can kill you in a heartbeat, and then gradually grow desensitized to it as it kills you and you realize that the consequences of death are pretty minor. Instead, you're taught right from the start that dying is virtually consequence-free, and that it isn't really worth the time and effort to try to avoid the monster by sneaking around, or to try to hide from it. The monster's appearance is never even surprising either. There's a screen-tearing effect and static noises to indicate that the monster is near, even if you can't see him. It's the same kind of effect that Slenderman played with. So even while you're walking around, you never feel the need to peek around corners or glance over your shoulder to make sure nothing's stalking you. This kills any potential for horror that the game might have been able to establish... [More]
PC elitists now have yet another bragging point. Considering that Bloodborne ran smoothly at 30 frames per second on the PS4 (from my experience), and that Dark Souls III was supposedly built upon that same engine, I expected that the PS4 version would perform on par with (or maybe even better than) the PC version. I was wrong. Both console versions of Dark Souls III are capped at 30 fps, but their actual performance doesn't even meet that standard. This is a big problem considering that the game plays almost as fast as Bloodborne. Dropping a few crucial frames of enemy attack wind-ups can mean the difference between a successful dodge or parry, or losing a third of your health to a single attack. Bloodborne had the load screen issue that was that game's near-debilitating "known shippable"; and now Dark Souls III has its console framerate as being the major launch issue that must be fixed. At least Bloodborne's problem didn't impact actual gameplay...
Table of Content
A challenge to Souls fans
This is probably the hardest game in the lineup. In fact, it may even be too hard in some ways. Enemies are very aggressive and relentless, they are very fast and swift at attacking, and they are very good at tracking your movement during an attack. I feel like the game is sadly front-loaded with excessive difficulty. Oh, don't get me wrong! It's hard throughout, and there's still some definite mid-and-late-game peaks of difficulty. But this game easily has the highest barrier to entry of any game in the lineup.
Dark Souls III is very hard and very much front-loaded with difficulty.
It's one thing to provide a challenge, but the early levels of this game maybe cross the line into outright cruelty. If I weren't already invested in the series, I might not have even made it past the Lothric knights in the High Wall. Yeah sure, Demon's Souls had the Red Eye Knights, and Dark Souls had the Black Knights, and Bloodborne had the warewolves; but in those cases, those difficult enemies were blocking optional paths and items. This is why I can kind of tolerate the mutating tentacle monster on the rooftop that hits very hard, has a ton of HP, obscures half the screen, and causes an annoying framerate drop. Yeah, it's located in a critical path of the level, but it can be easily avoided and is basically just guarding a crystal lizard. The difficult Lothric knights, on the other hand, are placed in critical bottlenecks that must be passed as part of the necessary path of progression through the level, and they will shred new players to pieces! Heck, even that fat, winged knight going around in circles in the courtyard is easier than the Lothric Knights.
And then you get to the Undead Settlement, which is a maze full of ambushes and difficult enemies. Those fat evangelists and the large cleaver undead hit hard and have deceptively long reach and multi-hit combos. This is at a time when your HP and stamina are so low that you can't reliably block their attacks. Their long reach and relentless aggression means you can't back away either. So you're stuck having to stick to close range and roll through their attacks - a maneuver that can result in a quick death if you make but a single slip-up. I had a lot of trouble handling these enemies (as I was still getting used to the new timings for dodging and parrying, and the stamina requirements for blocking), and so I imagine that many rookies will likely be completely overwhelmed.
Dangerous enemies have narrow windows for parrying their attacks, making it hard to practice this technique.
There's a higher skill floor than in previous titles, and the game demands a further degree of mastery of rolling, stamina management, i-frames, and weapon movesets that previous games simply didn't require. Bloodborne also toes with this line, but Dark Souls III seems to go a bit further. The problem here is that enemies become far too fast and deadly far too early in the game, and the player character remains slow and relatively weak. What's worse is that the game breaks with the original's insistence on fair difficulty by apparently completely failing to enforce the rules regarding stamina for enemies! This was also a problem in Dark Souls II, but it didn't bother me quite as much because those enemies had slower attacks that were generally easier to dodge.
There's no gradual ramping up of challenge for the player to learn things like roll and parry timings, and there aren't any large, slow enemies to practice these techniques against. Bloodborne had very fast enemies to go with its very fast combat, but the character was also equally fast. Bloodborne also had the Brick Trolls, whose telegraphed attacks gave plenty of opportunity to practice parrying in the very first level while still making progress. Dark Souls III simply doesn't have this. There's the undead spearmen that are easy to parry, but they're so slow and defensive that you'll likely just get bored waiting for them to attack and miss your opportunity to parry. Sure you could go back to the tutorial level to practice parrying, but then you're not making any progress. There's also a lot more instances early of mobs, including the presence of difficult casters (or even bosses) being among those mobs. Fortunately, the boss is very slow and lumbering, and the casters have good audio cues for when they're casting that help to make these mobs less frustrating to deal with.
The big, armored elephant in the room
Poise has been disabled for players, which means enemies will always stagger you, but you might not stagger them.
Perhaps the biggest contributor to the game's difficulty early on is the completely baffling way in which poise and defense work - which is that they don't. In addition to not being able to upgrade armor to improve its defenses, the poise stat appears to have been completely disabled for all players in the game's code for ... some reason. Poise was one of the best additions from Dark Souls 1, and its apparent removal completely baffles me. Is it bugged and they're planning on fixing and enabling it later via a patch? Is it planned to be part of DLC? "Hey, want poise back? Pay $15 for this DLC!" The value still shows up in the UI, and there's still rings and weapons that exclusively improve poise, so it definitely seems like FROM intends for poise to be in the game. The enemies seem to still have poise, so this situation seems completely unfair. This might be part of the reason why the start of the game feels so difficult, since those damned speedy Lothric Knights can hit through your attacks, but you can't hit through theirs! [More]
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).
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.
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.
... 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)... [More]
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.
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... [More]
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.
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.
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... [More]
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