The Last Guardian - title

Being the follow-up to a masterpiece is no small order. Being the follow-up to two masterpieces is a Sisyphean task. Ico is a masterpiece of its time. Fumito Ueda and SIE Japan managed to follow that game with Shadow of the Colossus - a masterpiece of even higher order. The bar was set tremendously high for the team's third project: The Last Guardian. Multiple delays, a change in platform from PS3 to PS4, and Fumito Ueda's departure from Sony squashed a lot of the hype for the game. Might the game turn into vaporware? Or might it release in a condition analogous to Metal Gear Solid V?

On the surface, The Last Guardian comes off as being a mash-up of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Superficially, it's much more in-line with Ico: you play as a small boy who must guide a companion through a maze of environmental platformer obstacles and adventure puzzles. The catch this time around is that the companion happens to be a giant animal that you can climb and ride on.

The Last Guardian - riding Trico
The Last Guardian share more with Ico, but your companion is a giant creature that you climb and ride on.

The big difference though, is that The Last Guardian is sort of an inversion of the gameplay of Ico. In Ico, the player character had to guide a helpless (some even speculated she is blind) princess through a castle and defend her from shadow monsters that try to drag her away. In The Last Guardian, however, it is the player character - the boy - who is mostly helpless. True, you have most of the agency and are guiding Trico through the maze. But Trico is the one with all the power, and your progress is often dependent on Trico getting you past obstacles.

This point is most hammered home by the game's combat mechanics - or rather, its almost complete lack thereof. The boy can't fight off the stone knights that hunt him down. You can only run away, or let Trico smash them into dust for you. If they catch you, they drag you off to a nearby mysterious blue doorway (a parallel to the smokey portals that the smoke monsters dragged Yorda through in Ico), and all you can do is mash buttons to kick and squirm. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus experimented with player agency by making the player question the motivations of the character and wonder if maybe you're doing more harm than good. The Last Guardian toys with agency in other ways. In this game, you, the player, are the helpless tag-along character in an escort quest. You get a glimpse through the eyes of Yorda from Ico or Ashley from Resident Evil 4.

The boy can't fight back, he can only kick and squirm - much like Yorda from Ico.

Not entirely though. The player and Trico make mutual contributions to progress, and their contributions are shared much more than Ico and Yorda. Much like how Yorda could occasionally open the magically-locked doors, the boy in Guardian also has to pull levers and open doors for Trico to pass from room to room. The boy also has to destroy glass eye murals that mesmerize and terrify Trico to the point of paralysis. The boy also hunts down barrels of [supposedly] food for Trico to eat whenever Trico is tired or wounded. But then there's also parts of the game in which the boy simply hops on Trico's back, and Trico leaps away to the next puzzle area without the player having to do anything...

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Cities Skylines: Natural Disasters - title

Cities: Skylines has always been a game that takes some different approaches to city builder gameplay. The base game explored how a city's geography can influence the development of the city, and also put a particular emphasis on designing efficient transit infrastructure by allowing the player incredible freedom to construct your own roads, highways, and interchanges, rather than relying on prefab ramps and over/under passes. None of these concepts were new to city builders, but Skylines added nuance to them and made them much more active elements of gameplay.

Its newest expansion DLC, Natural Disasters, follows suit. This is a very difficult expansion to review because its content - by its very nature - is random and unpredictable. Natural disasters aren't new to city builders. Disasters were a popular component of the old SimCity games, as many players enjoyed building up their beautiful metropolises only to unleash earthquakes, tornadoes, meteor impacts, and even alien invasions and dinosaur attacks and watch it all burn. Now Skylines has support for this fan-favorite SimCity feature, but it takes this commonplace feature in some new and interesting directions.

Cities Skylines: Natural Disasters - warning system
Installing early warning and detection systems will give you advance notice when a disaster is imminent.

Most notably, Cities: Skylines' take on disasters puts emphasis on preparation for disasters, rather than on the chaos of the disaster itself and the clean-up in its aftermath. Like with its SimCity forebears, disasters are something that you can toggle on or off in the game's menu, and you can also adjust their frequency. When enabled, you'll encounter disasters of various flavors ranging from forest fires to lightning strikes, to tsunami and meteor impacts. You'll have to make sure that your city is protected by preventative measures, and that it's protected against these eventualities.

Early-warning systems like firewatch towers, weather radar, and space telescopes can warn you about forest fires, storms or tornadoes, or even incoming meteors (respectively), and can mean the difference between your citizens having enough time to evacuate, or half your population being buried under rubble. You'll need evacuation shelters for you citizens to escape to, and each shelter needs to built long enough in advance for it to be stocked with supplies of food, water, and other essentials (which must be pulled from your city's economy or imported). And lastly, you'll need radio towers to warn your citizens to get to their designated shelters.

Building emergency shelters, stocking them with supplies, and planning evacuation routes will protect your citizens.

You can also create planned evacuation routes similar to bus routes that will pick up residents and take them to a shelter. I had some trouble getting these routes to work properly though. The fact that the buses are dispatched when an evacuation is activated means that they often create a log jam on your roads as they all funnel out of the shelter. I also had issues with the buses apparently not picking up people who were at more distant stops on the route, since the areas along the route that were far from the shelter never managed to evacuate. Maybe there's some trick to getting these routes to work properly that I just haven't found yet. But this does highlight one problem with the expansion: its new systems are not very well documented or explained...

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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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Civilization VI review

Firaxis has given me a belated birthday gift by releasing Civilization VI. They've also ensured that I don't get very much productive done during the months of October and November this year, since I've been sinking a whole lot of time into "one more turn"-ing myself late into the night. I've barely scratched the surface of the newly-released Dark Souls III DLC, my Madden franchise has fallen behind, and I haven't even bothered buying recently-released games like the new Master of Orion. My board game collection has been collecting dust, and my Dungeons & Dragons campaigns have been on hiatus. I'll get back to all those things after one more turn.

Oozing with production quality

The first thing that stood out to me upon entering my first game was the artwork. It's a pretty stark contrast from Civilization V's visuals. Civ V favored a semi-photo realistic quality. Many screenshots of the game's map look like satellite photos, and units (though exceedingly large) looked and animated realistically. This created a lot of pretty screenshots (still images), but the game looked kind of static, washed-out, and dull in motion. VI, on the other hand, goes for an exaggerated, vibrant, and more cartoonish look that reminds me a lot more of Civ IV and Civ Revolution.

Civilization VI - informative graphics
The graphics are vibrant and highly informative. Everything that you see on screen genuinely means something.

What I really like is how utilitarian the visuals are. Almost everything on the game map is communicating part of the state of the game to the player. You can see every piece of infrastructure in and around a city, as well as exactly which tiles are being worked, all without having to open a separate screen and without having to clutter the screen with extra UI icons. There's even different graphics to represent the different phases of a building or wonder's construction that tells you exactly what that city is currently constructing, and how close it might be to finishing that wonder. It's attractive, but it's also clean and informative.

The fog of war is also wonderfully functional and neat to look at. This game renders the fog of war with the style of a hand-drawn map on canvas (similar to Total War: Shogun 2, which I loved). Heck, there's even an animated day/night cycle that was seemingly added because ... why not?

Improvements have different graphics for when they're un-worked [LEFT] versus worked [RIGHT].

The rest of the game shows similarly high production quality. There's actual cinematics for the win screens instead of dialogue boxes with a static image. Finishing a wonder results in an in-game cutscene of that wonder's construction. It isn't quite as pretty as Civ IV's pre-rendered wonder movies, but makes up for it by providing a sense of context that makes me feel like I'm seeing "my Oracle" instead of just the Oracle. There's more historic quotes, all of which are narrated wonderfully by Sean Bean. Firaxis even brought back composer Christopher Tin for some of the music. The new theme music, "Sogno Di Volare" ["The Dream of Flight"] isn't as immediately catchy as "Baba Yetu", but it's still an uplifting, memorable track that stands out more than the menu themes of Civ V. Put simply, this game just looks and sounds terrific...

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In between games of Madden 17, I need something to tide me over until the release of Civilization VI consumes my life at the end of October. As such, I did what I usually do in these situations, and I dove into my Steam backlog to look for something that's been sitting around, unplayed, for a couple years. Usually, I try to find some short games like This War of Mine or Papers, Please. I try to avoid the bigger games because they can end up consuming more of my time than I want them to, and if I jump to something else, then I may not go back to such a game to give it a fair chance. Sorry, Master of Orion, Endless Legend, and Endless Space 2, you'll all have to wait until after my upcoming Civ VI bender before I can give any of you a fair chance. That being said, I decided to take a risk and try out a city-builder that I've had sitting around for awhile. I love city-builders, and so this could easily have dragged on for weeks or months, but I hoped that the narrow scope of this game would mean that it wouldn't take as long to get my fill of it.

Banished is a game that offers unforgiving tough love. I feel like this game is the "Oregon Trail" of city-builders, and it's enjoyable as a challenging game of resource management. Unfortunately, it isn't exactly the best at explaining itself, and so it requires a lot of trial and error in order to get going. There's a lot of cycles of cascading success or failure, so you'll likely be restarting your games multiple times before you get anything remotely close to a sizable village. I would also advise that you try to keep multiple save states for your early cities so that if you make a small mistake that starts to spiral into catastrophe, you can reload and fix it without having to restart the entire game.

The tutorial explains a lot of the basic functionality of the buildings, but it never really addresses how to get the most out of these buildings. This results in an unnecessarily high learning curve and bar of entry as you try to stumble upon the optimal placements and uses of buildings. I kept making little mistakes that had big repercussions that forced me into restarting my very first game multiple times - even going so far as to save the random map seed so that I could restart in the same map and try different approaches to some things.

Banished - sub-optimal settlement
I had to iterate through some sub-optimal building placements before stumbling upon a viable city.

An example of a small misstep that crippled a game was that I built a farm that overlapped slightly with a single tree in one corner. Normally, farms are created as soon as you finish zoning them, and you simply have to select which crop to plant and assign workers to work it. But if there are any rocks or trees, then you must first remove them in order for the farm field to be built (like with any other building). So while I waited for some laborers to come chop down the trees (uncertain why nobody was bothering to cut down that one fracking tree!) spring passed and the window for planting closed. So the farm went un-used for the rest of the year, I had no crops saved up, and several adults and children died, leaving my village under-staffed for the following year. So I restarted and placed my farm entirely in an open field, planted during the first spring, and collected a healthy reserve of wheat to keep all my villagers fed through the winter...

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Grid Clock provided by trowaSoft.

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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