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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No Man's Sky

After experiencing some annoying performance issues on the PS4 version of Dark Souls III (including a framerate capped at 30 fps), I decided that I'd hold out the extra three days for the PC version of No Man's Sky. I assumed that the keyboard and mouse controls would be more comfortable, since the game is half shooter, half flight-sim. I assumed that the PC version would perform better and look better. And I figure that the game will eventually enjoy a vibrant modding community that is likely impossible to spring up on the PS4, since (as far as I know) the PS4 does not support modding in any way. I, once again, may have been wrong in my choice of platform

In addition to having to wait three extra days for the game to release on PC, I've read a lot of reports of severe problems with the PC version of the game at launch. It simply won't run on certain machines with certain graphics cards. Many rigs have consistent performance issues. My PC is a few years old, but it more than meets the system requirements for the game, yet I've been stuck having to run it on medium graphics settings. Upping the settings to high only results in the game becoming unplayably slow whenever I step into the cockpit of my ship. I'm talking, like half a frame per second, and the game dropping all my inputs. The final insult is that the game breaks when you alt-tab out of it, which prevents you from alt-tabbing back into it. If you alt-tab out, you'll have to kill the process in task manager and restart the app - which, of course, will cause a loss of any progress since the last autosave. So despite having a dual-monitor set-up, I can't alt-tab out to open up podcasts or play some tunes while I warp around the galaxy.

Most of these problems will likely get fixed at some point (and some of them already have), and hopefully I'll be able to run the game at high graphics settings. But in the meantime, if you're interested in playing the game, then the PS4 version is probably the technically superior one right now. Apparently, the PS4 version also has numerous performance issues, including crashes.

Sadly, technical problems are only the beginning of my complaints with this game.

Betraying the naturalist within

Instead of being a game about exploring strange new worlds and discovering exotic wildlife and natural wonders of the universe (as I'd hoped), No Man's Sky turns out to be quite the opposite: a game about conspicuous consumption. The core game loop does not consist of landing on an alien world to explore and catalog the local flora and fauna. Instead, you land your ship in a vibrantly-colored patch of minerals and plants, and you begin strip-mining the site clean. You harvest the raw materials that you'll use to refuel your space ship so that you can warp to the next planet to strip its resources for more fuel.

No Man's Sky - cataloging alien life
The incentives to catalog alien life feel extrinsicly-imposed and not a natural part of the core game experience.

Actually seeking out and cataloging the local wildlife takes a backseat - if you even bother to do it at all. The game isn't about that. There's nothing in the core gameplay loop or narrative that actually sets the game up to be about cataloging alien life. The only reason that the player has to even bother with scanning and analyzing is because you're rewarded with in-game currency for scanning stuff, even though there's no in-game reason (that I could discern) for why you would be getting paid to catalog alien life or who it is that's putting the money in your account. It all feels so thoroughly divorced from the rest of the game, and the money feels like an extrinsic incentive that is imposed from outside the scope of actual gameplay. In fact, I don't know why the game would have an in-game reason for why you would get paid to catalog stuff. After all, these planets are all already known by somebody in the game universe - they have space stations in every star systems and colony modules and trading posts on every planet long before you ever get there to "discover" them. So not only does cataloging life feel like an extrinsically-imposed mechanic, even this process of "discovering" feels completely fake and artificial...

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Silent Hills just won't seem to die. Shortly after the game was canceled by Konami, petitions started popping up demanding that it be re-instated. Then came the debacle of the Metal Gear Solid V release, which seemed blatantly incomplete and/or half-assed. Then Kojima officially left Konami, Guillermo del Toro tweeted that the cancelation of Silent Hills "breaks his greasy heart", and it all seemed done and buried.

Or was it?

Andrew House (Group CEO of Sony Interactive) announces a partnership with Hideo Kojima.

Within a week of the official announcement that Kojima had left Konami, he was reported to have already set up his own independent Kojima Productions studio, and that he had already partnered with Sony to develop an un-named PS4 exclusive. Geez, that was quick. Kojima has always had a good relationship with Sony. The Metal Gear Solid games were originally PlayStation exclusives, and were definite showcases for those Sony platforms. I mean, when you think of the original PlayStation, what are the first few games that come to mind? Probably Final Fantasy VII. Tomb Raider? Maybe Resident Evil? And definitely Metal Gear Solid. Even when Kojima was initially rumored to be leaving Konami, I had speculated that Sony might make a move to hire him. Contracting him to act as a second-party developer of exclusive content is just as good. I had also speculated at the time that there were three possibilities for Silent Hills to see the light of day:

  1. Konami could hire Kojima's independent studio to continue development of Silent Hills. This seemed unlikely considering the rocky conclusion to Kojima's employment.
  2. Kojima could buy the IP rights to Silent Hill (and maybe Metal Gear). This also seemed unlikely considering that both franchises are cash-cows for Konami.
  3. Lastly, there was the possibility that Kojima Productions could continue the development of what would have been Silent Hills, but without the "Silent Hill" title. Same game; different name.

The partnership with Sony opens up a fourth possibility: Sony could buy or lease the licensing rights to Silent Hill and then contract out development to Kojima Productions. This is the only way that the game could possibly see the light of day and still maintain the "Silent Hill" name. Konami has already expressed its disinterest in continued first-party console game development. It's just too expensive, and the company wants to focus more on its gambling business and mobile games. If Konami wants to continue to see revenue from those IPs, then they are stuck either making smaller in-house games (such as mobile games, pachinko machines, or browser-based games); or they would have to license out the IP to third-party developers. Sony certainly has the buying-power that Kojima, by himself, doesn't have, and could certainly afford to buy those rights, if they so desire.

A trailer for Konami's next Silent Hill game. Not exactly what fans were hoping for...
Hideo Kojima and Norman Reedus

However, Silent Hill fans probably shouldn't get their hopes up for a triumphant return of their tarnished, yet beloved, franchise. In the video announcing the partnership with Sony, Kojima says that he is "thrilled to embark on creating a new franchise with PlayStation". So this project does not appear to be Silent Hills. At least, not in title...

Kojima is rumored to be collaborating once again with Guillermo Del Toro, which opens up the possibility that the two are going to work on realizing the plans that they had for Silent Hills. During a keynote address at DICE, Kojima and Del Toro stated that they would like to continue to work together. Del Toro even went as far as saying that he would "do whatever the fuck Kojima asks him to". He even made an off-hand comment about famed Japanese horror illustrator Junji Ito. I don't know much bout Junji Ito, but his work is apparently a pretty big deal, and he's also been seen with Kojima. Kojima and Norman Reedus have even been seen together, and it's been rumored that Reedus will be working with Kojima again. All the pieces seem to be fitting into place...

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Dark Souls III

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.

Dark Souls III - parry
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

Dark Souls III - hyper armor
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!

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Bloodborne title

I haven't talked about Bloodborne on this blog yet, other than in passing. This has been because there wasn't much information on it except for the most superficial information and a few minutes of gameplay video. But over the past few months, more information has come out, so I'm going to take a moment to talk about some of the features and mechanics that I am excited about.

If you're not already aware, Bloodborne is the PS4's spiritual successor to FROM Software's hit games Demon's Soul and Dark Souls. Both of those games are among my favorite games on the PS3. I'm eagerly awaiting this game, as it is likely going to be the reason that I end up buying a PS4.

Overall, the game looks to play similarly to the Souls games with one major exception: it takes place in a steampunk, Victorian setting instead of a medieval fantasy universe. This means that the traditional sword and shield gameplay doesn't transfer to the new setting. In fact, shields don't seem to play a role at all. Instead, the player's off-hand can be used to equip a second bladed weapon or a gun. The lack of a shield means that the game is designed to be faster-paced, and combat is intended to be more aggressive and offensive so as to encourage players to attack and dodge rather than backpedal behind their shields.

Bloodborne - bloody combat
Bloodborne looks to be a darker, bloodier, and faster-paced variation of Dark Souls - with guns!.

Little is known about the game's story so far, except that it involves people transforming into vicious beasts, and the player character is hunting them. There might also be a bit of a "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" theme here, as it's been hinted that players can transform into beasts. This is presumably a replacement for the "soul form" and "hollow form" in Demon's Souls and Dark Souls (respectively). There will be multiplayer components similar to the previous Souls games, but specific details are limited.

According to a preview at a recent Sony expo, the PS4-exclusive Bloodborne will have some interesting new features:

A demo shown in December's PlayStation Experience expo in Las Vegas, Nevada (apparently, there was an official Sony PlayStation convention in Vegas that I didn't hear about until the week after it was done?) revealed an intriguing new feature: the game will include a procedurally-generated dungeon.

The "Chalice Dungeon" (as it is called), is an optional dungeon that will vary from player to player, or character to character, or game to game, or visit to visit, or moment to moment (depending on how you interpret the tranlator). A key semantic point is that the dungeon is being called a "procedurally-generated dungeon", and not a "randomly-generated dungeon". The extent of the randomness isn't entirely clear ...

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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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