BACKLOG 10/11/18: Going hollow, senseless automation, and resurrecting the drowned dead.

BACKLOG is a “whenever the fuck I feel like it” blog feature focusing on how I’m progressing through video games, old and new, that are stuck in my backlog. Here I’ll generally update my progress in any and all games I’ve touched in the past 2-4 weeks. This includes updates on reviews I’m writing, games I’m looking forward to, thoughts I’ve had, and things I’ve purchased.

The great curse of a buzzing arcade aghast with hulking cabinets sporting competitively tuned speakers loud-bleeping their value, vying for attention and quarters alike is entirely dead to me. I have been away from the arcade for so long that I am nothing more than a over-sensitive husk in need of no more than one spectacle to focus on. That game that I choose demands only my attention span for a month, or several months, before I can be released. This imprisonment is intentionally immersive, familiar and a bit of a disgusting reality as I get older and have less and less time to spend with video games. I can’t necessarily consider visiting an arcade for various reasons and where I live it is easier to find ‘barcades’ where you’ve got the option to play shitty iPhone games on big screens at Dave & Buster’s or a local bar that has a bunch of pinball and Ms. Pac Man machines. I’m far too 90’s TV baby to settle for anything less than a mutant turtle, a Neo-Geo MVS, or a Michael Crichton movie turned into a pinball machine. Anyhow, lately I’ve missed living in Portland if only just for Ground Kontrol and the food trucks.

Even a true escapism addict grows weary of beauty in time.

I was looking over a list of games I was still moderately interested in as I wrote off Red Dead Redemption II and Fallout 76 due to their time-sink/microtransaction potential versus my need to finish Vampyr and Dragon Quest XI and I felt I needed to make sure I didn’t miss anything important in the meantime. The first oversight is Celeste, a simple skill-based old school 2D platformer that emphasizes risk/reward movement and fast reflexes. It looks like some elements of puzzle-platformer games certainly pop up but Super Meat Boy style precision becomes a huge focus as it progresses. I’ve purchased it so that I will feel an obligation to consider it for the end of the year list I’m compiling for video games released in 2018. The second game is another sort of platformer featuring a female lead, but Timespinner is closer to a later era Super Famicom game and instead of being level based it is a metroidvania. If I can manage to save another twenty bucks before the end of the year I’ll take a fair crack at that game as well. Ah well, there exists no shortage of 2D pixel art platformers to jump on. Including the ‘surprise’ release of Hollow Knight onto consoles earlier this month…

Hollow Knight: Voidheart Edition (PS4)

Filthy false gooey worm, fattened by your sinister lies.

If you weren’t already overwhelmed by choosing between the nearly simultaneous release of of Chasm, Dead Cells, and Death’s Gambit all within the same month, October finally brings Hollow Knight‘s definitive edition to the PlayStation 4.  I specifically waited for the console port of this game to play it and it feels like the game has been out for years. The Voidheart Edition comes with its four part suite of expansion content fully integrated along with numerous bug fixes that balance and optimize the game. As soon as it was announced I had it pre-ordered and I stayed up that evening to play it for 2-3 hours (Click HERE to watch the stream on YouTube). My connection was bad that day, so I followed up the next day with another 90 minute stream (Click HERE to watch the second part). My platforming skills were slick the first night and less so the second as I kept getting distracted by other things.

Few modern 2D action-platformers feel truly terrible in terms of controls. Precision is  key in creating the signature progression offered by the niche systems characteristic of the sub-genre. Most modern creators understand that responsive ‘feel’ is entirely necessary for the ‘metroidvania’ genre but very few improve upon the formula in creating a flow-oriented experience that becomes a joy to play as you earn ease of movement. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a master class in this as you begin sluggish and eventually feel like an vicious tank, but Super Metroid is the most key example in the sense that you are able to move much faster by the end of the playthrough with screw-attack jumps and a mad dash. The best example of this failure to distinguish from those major examples of the metroidvania feeling comes with Thomas Happ’s Axiom Verge, a game that is a pleasure to play but an iterative slog in terms of controls that never picks up beyond the expected. If I can say anything after my first 20 hours with Hollow Knight it is that the controls and environmental design feel flawless in their elevation beyond the standard Castlevania-cum-Metroid formula. If anything the platforming mechanics feel more demanding and precision based.

Controlling a masked bug wielding a nail through the complex, treacherous and beautifully designed dark labyrinth that is Hollow Knight feels incredible and a new ability typically rewards curiosity and exploration with greater traversal speed. It is a challenging and very distinctly ‘flow’-based platforming game that feels entirely sound in its tutorials and regional conjoining of areas. The world makes as much sense as any Metroidian planet, at least. This game has taken over my video game time so far this month as I’ve largely set aside the bland (and very easy) slog of Dragon Quest XI. Hollow Knight is easy to pick up and chip away at for an hour or two per day and it seems every new area offers something compelling. I am roughly halfway through completing the main game, so it will be a 30-40 hour experience considering all of the secret areas and small extras I could indulge in before finishing.

Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age (PS4)

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Though I was enthusiastic about a return to a console style Dragon Quest game after almost two decades off, it turns out that no part of me actually wanted it to be so rigidly traditional. The going is slow, easy and most challenges are spelled out far beyond surprises. I’ve grown so glazed over during my sessions with the eleventh main Dragon Quest game that I’ve actually used the auto-battle feature almost exclusively, even in boss battles. Instant fast travel with free Zoom! spells, which can be used at the world map, make for very easy backtracking. Most bosses are complete pushovers in basic combat and a few have offered any challenge. All of the problems I had with Star Ocean’s later entries reappear here with similarly sluggish voice acting and grotesquely blocky environments. Despite a much more robust list of grievances than I expected, there is a desire to keep going and at least finishing the game’s main story line this year. I wish I had just gone back and finished Persona 5 or Ni No Kuni II, but I am already balls deep enough that I won’t pull out.

I’d been avoiding battles half of the game and I have still been over-leveled for most areas.

I’m already dreading having to draft a review of Dragon Quest XI because almost none of it needs to be explained and the story will take one relatively short paragraph. To have to explain the most basic form of RPG is no challenge and the game itself is not a particular challenge outside of sitting through the terrible voice acting. To go on about the game any further would absolutely just be a list of complaints rather than points of enjoyment. Discovering the many towns and different worlds the game has to offer is fun, but many are quite shallow and require a ton of backtracking through inconvenient waters to pad out the experience. This is the major gripe I have so far, so it hasn’t been hell… Just slow, and still feels like a bad Japanese children’s high fantasy manga.

Destiny 2 (PS4)

Since this game was free last month on Playstation Plus I decided to download it since I spent many hours with the original Destiny when it launched. So far Destiny 2 is faceless, sluggish, and devoid of interesting exploration. The series really seems to be doubling down on the MMORPG aspect if its scope with endless grinds and increasingly complex lore serving to muddy the waters far more than the vanilla Destiny. Of course I need more time with it, don’t take this blab too seriously as I’m literally two hours into the main story and most of that was fiddling with menus and trying to shoot birds. I’ve barely done anything. (Click HERE to track my progress).

Vanilla, straight out of the box Destiny had myriad problems but the storytelling was actually very intriguing and I felt like I was discovering a really cool open world as I went. The progression was interesting enough and worked despite having zilch for a meaningful story resolve. At least nothing memorable happened that you didn’t need all of the story expansions to figure out. They ‘fixed’ Destiny with The Taken King but I had played a good 45 hours by the time they did and with nothing interesting left to do besides grind or do million hour raids, I was out. Destiny 2 doesn’t yet feel like a narrative driven experience and its overall structure is messy and bland. But I will give it another 2-3 hours to warm up and get back into its gameplay loop before I duck out completely. I feel like I should get some worth out of the game since it took fuckin 75 gigabytes and a good hour to get it on the PS4 Pro.

SteamWorld Dig 2 (2017) REVIEW

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Over eleven hours is a long time for this type of smaller game. I definitely took my time and still didn’t discover everything possible.

After completing the first SteamWorld Dig game, which was also the first PlayStation 4 game I purchased digitally, after three years of avoiding it I felt compelled to try its bigger and better sequel as it released not long after I finished the first game. Because I really stretched out my playthrough of this game across almost a full year my impressions of it are fuzzy, tired and a testament to how little of an impact the experience left on me. That isn’t to say that the second SteamWorld Dig game is anything but a high quality, polished video game that was bug-free, annoyance-free, and a great deal of fun to pick up here and there as I took a break from other more demanding games.

My first span of gameplay was very involved as I completed a good 20-30% of the main story progression in the first several sessions. The platforming was slightly loose and some of the controls were slightly different compared to the first game but by-and-large it really just picks up exactly as fast and easy as the first game. The dialogue is a bit better written, the trouble of needing to backtrack when you dig too far down is made easier, and in general you’re getting better quality-of-life solutions across the board. I was into it until other things came along and I more or less dropped it for several months. I didn’t really yearn to go back to that world, to dig aimlessly and get upgrades and I had no idea I was on the verge of a few game-changing traversal upgrades. This was back near the end of January, as Assassin’s Creed: Origins was taking up all of my gaming time.

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This is a major spoiler for the last boss, and you can’t unsee it!

Once I was finished with several large games across several months the lull of numbness following Dark Souls: Remastered‘s platinum trophy gave me enough resolve to finish SteamWorld Dig 2 and after some hemming and hawing about whether or not I should even bother I jumped back in and got two key upgrades. The fire axe and the jet pack. From there the game opened up and I was able to quickly finish it with a mind for exploration that was not satisfied by Death’s Gambit‘s brokenness. Once I finished the game I had nothing to say about it and didn’t immediately draft a review as I normally would. Looking over my notes from the year it would seem that I always had a positive impression of the game and it was fun whenever I did pick it up. SteamWorld Dig 2 just never mattered to me despite being a very good sequel.

The cog upgrade system encourages exploration of puzzle-like caves that allow for more upgrades which allow for completing more caves and getting more cogs! It is a brilliant loop that will have you trying to finish and figure out every cave, dig for every resource and generally keep-on going on with your mission to figure out the mystery of Rusty‘s (the previous games protagonist) disappearance. A strange cult is supposedly causing tremors, humans are poisoning the Earth from within, the underground is Swiss cheese and earthquakes. It is a fascinating post-post apocalypse that ends in complete collapse. The controls are tight once you upgrade a bit and traversal is a blast. Enemies provide reasonable dangers, new areas offer tons of secrets and routes back to home base appear often enough that resource gathering never feels like a slog.

SteamWorld Dig 2_20180916151911
Everything dies. Everyone dies.

So, why didn’t I come out of the game beaming about it? It is kind of like watching a kid’s cartoon as an adult and never laughing at the jokes. It feels vapid, looks twee, and does absolutely nothing to enrich the mind. Were I more of a stoner these days I think I could overlook that feeling but, I am obsessed with gaining something meaningful from the media I consume lately. SteamWorld Dig 2 felt like a ‘numbing’ diversion, a wasteful encounter that didn’t help grow any new neurons outside of the occasionally challenging platforming puzzles. This leaves me in an odd position where I highly recommend both games in this series but would never play another one of them. I’m sure I sound like a snob or a no-fun dweeb; It is what it is.

Title: SteamWorld Dig 2
Genre 2D Action/Adventure
Released September 21, 2017 | Image & Form Games
Platform(s) Reviewed Playstation 4 Pro [Digital]
Score 3.0/5.0

Rime (2017) REVIEW

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The real spoiler of this game isn’t how the story ends, but to spoil the opening area’s appeal is a greater sin.

The first time I saw Rime it had been announced at a Sony E3 press conference and it was immediately clear what it was intended to be: A story based game serving as a colorful take on the innovation offered through the vision of Fumito Ueda and his Team Ico studio with games like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. At least it seemed that it was that sort of game directly. The reality of Rime is actually a combination of Myst‘s simpler visual environmental puzzles and the ‘natural’ controls of Ueda‘s games where you only have some agency over the character. This turns out to be a huge detractor from my experience with the game, which controls like a slippery wet log and offers a progressive funneling of the player through island ruins and worlds beyond as they puzzles there way forward without any great hints as to why.

What seemed to be a Journey style of communication with the player turns into an irritating set of scenarios that culminate into an ending that is quite frankly out of fucking nowhere. You are a small boy in tattered clothing with a red bandanna/cape who washes upon the shore of a colorful island. This is the most gorgeous part of Rime, the initial open area that you can explore and find small collectibles while figuring out where to go next. It is beautiful. Primary colors offer brilliant contrasting shapes within natural areas and it makes a first impression akin to The Witness, Abzu, or the liberated sections of Prince of Persia (2008). The world is glowing with fantastic beauty, small creatures, and few real perils to begin with. But the slow progression from light into darkness comes quickly as threats eventually become real and clever puzzles slow progress to a reasonable halt. This is my biggest issue, the pacing relies so heavily on my interest in the puzzles that there were several points where I simply put the game down because I didn’t want to spend time thinking and doing nothing.

So much of the design is surreal that it feels hard to connect with the conclusion of the story.

“But dude, you can figure it out just keep trying” No, again like The Witness it helps to sleep on it and come back with a fresh head. None of the puzzles where that daunting but they seemed to become tiresome if I tried to play more than 45 minutes at a time. I came back to this game when I needed to relax and slowly jog through a pretty landscape without immediate threat or obligation. Where I ran into a wall was when things became darker and less inventive in the back third of the game. Once you’ve figured your way through the ‘death from above’ section and progressed beyond the underwater sections the game loses its ‘magic’. I had to see it through but even then I had no idea why I was chasing a yipping fox through all of these perils. At first it appeared I was creating beacons to signal that I was shipwrecked on the island, then it appeared I was purifying the latent dead from the land, fulfilling some kind of prophecy but it eventually became clear that I was passing from life-to-death.

In fact spoiling the ending won’t ruin the actual experience of playing the game because the meaning and fun comes from puzzling through it and enjoying the pretty shit around you. I would liken the act of playing through Rime to working my way through a long sheet of moderately difficult math review and having to push through at the end for the sake of accomplishment. Not to take away from the sense of glowing accomplishment of finishing a take-home math quiz, but it wasn’t great fun to get through. The ending itself is foreshadowed late in the game as a few cut-scenes suggest the dark figure you’re chasing through the game is actually your father who accompanied you on the boat. In the final moments of the game it is revealed that the game is essentially your father puzzling through the grief of his son’s drowning death at sea.

After all that yipping I was glad the little shit was vaporized.

I know it is supposed to be touching and surprising, especially since one cut-scene shows you failing to save the shadowy figure from drowning and you later realize it was a ‘why couldn’t it be me?’ fantasy on the father’s part. But here’s the major gripe with all of this being revealed at the end of the game: The rest of the game is so damn alien and unrealistic within a primitive, colorful fantasy world that there is no meaningful setup for that impact. You almost seem to stumble upon the ending of Rime and it was a real “What the fuck?” moment for me personally. This feels like a failure if you compare it to what is perhaps the only redeeming quality of a game like Shadow of the Colossus beyond spectacle in that everything is explained reasonably well as it ends resulting in an “Oh, wow” moment. While it is a fine puzzle game with some very problematically loose platforming controls and a beautiful art style it is difficult to recommend Rime unless you also got it for free through Playstation Plus.

Title: Rime
Genre 3D Puzzle/Platformer
Released May 26, 2017 | Tequila Works Studio
Platform(s) Reviewed Playstation 4 Pro [Digital]
Score 2.0/5.0

BACKLOG: Unfinished titles, in order of importance. % progress noted.

  • Hollow Knight: Voidheart Edition (PS4) ~50%
  • Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age (PS4) ~25 hours
  • Vampyr (PS4) 5%
  • Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir (PS4) 5%
  • Captain Disaster in: Death has a Million Stomping Boots (PC)
  • Dishonored 2 (PS4) 5-10%
  • Persona 5 (PS4) 10%
  • Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom (PS4) 1% [Tutorial]
  • Dragon’s Crown Pro (PS4) 0%
  • The Surge: A Walk in the Park DLC (PS4) 0%
  • Tales of Zestiria (PS4) ~1% (in first town across bridge)
  • Thief (PS4) 5%
  • Battle Chasers: Nightwar (PS4) 0%
  • The Technomancer (PS4) ~5% finished introduction
  • Batman: Arkham Knight (PS4) 0%
  • Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (PS4) 60%
  • Metro: Last Light (PS4) 0%
  • Mad Max
  • Deus Ex: Invisible War (PC) 0% (restarting)
  • Mafia III (PS4)

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