BACKLOG is a “whenever” casual video game blog feature tasked with checking in on how I’m progressing through video games, old and new, which are typically pulled from an outsized ‘to do’ bin. Here I’ll generally update my progress in any and all games I’ve touched in the past
month year. This includes minor updates on video reviews I’m writing, some full reviews, and games I’m looking forward to.
You awake at your desk with a white-hot e-mail blurring your vision, you’ve gone over your 1.2 terabyte data limit for the month. So the downward spiral begins as you wander the Earth, knowing you’ve… re-downloaded Elex, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and The Witcher III for your second playthrough of each but only lasted 20 minutes before deleting ’em all from your brand new Playstation 5. I hear Blood & Wine is great, though. The whole backlog of video games I’ve been intending to play on console has taken a bit of a sweep kick to the ankles beyond December 25th or so as my significant other treated me to a brand new Playstation 5 and a copy of Demon’s Souls (2020). That means yep, it is time to retire the Dreamcast-loud fan whirr of my barely three year old Playstation 4 Pro and good riddance, all of those last-gen games still work on the new console or feature free ‘upgrades’.
What else is new? Games cost $69.99 now? Fuck off. Microsoft bought a third of the popular gaming industry? Fuck off. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, Outer Worlds 2, and Starfield are only on Microsoft machines? Man, fuck you. Chinese megacorp and Amazon own other thirds of the industry? Fuck off. Twitch streamers have replaced video game journalism nowadays and the top tier actors make millions for some reason? Fuck off. Amazon owns Twitch? Fuck off. Also Fuck off: NFTs in games, or anywhere else. Anyhow, I’ve pre-ordered Elden Ring and Elex II and those will likely keep me busy for the next 3-4 months. I’ll wait for a sale price on Horizon II: Forbidden West. Looking to the future, I’ve got feelers out for Salt & Sacrifice, Dune: Spice Wars, Dolmen, God of War: Ragnarok, and Star Ocean: The Divine Force. I’ve also purchased Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth more recently, a metroidvania.
Before I cut into a review for one game I’ve finished and another that is seemingly never-ending you’ll note I’ve added a few older bucket list titles from the late 90’s and early 2000’s games to the backlog in place of some 2010’s PC games I’d had on the back burner. My PC just isn’t cutting it for gaming as it ages but I am able to properly play Sega Saturn and Playstation 2 games now, so I’ll be cutting into a few RPGs I’ve never finished: The Shining Force III trilogy and the Grandia trilogy to start. I’ve been threatening to do a weekly “retro” video game feature for years and now I’ve got the idea + the weekender free time to do it, so expect that to kick into gear on Sundays once I’ve got a few weeks worth of ’em in the chamber.
Demon’s Souls (2020)
The year was 2009… I’d read Kevin VanOrd‘s against the grain (in terms of popular coverage consensus) review of Demon’s Souls on GameSpot in late 2009 and I couldn’t wait to play the game after seeing the screenshots, their video coverage, and reading about the fantastic brutality of it all. In fact this was one of the last times the popular news outlet seemed to veer into their own pointed, based editorial form that wasn’t so concerned with pleasing the biggest crowds in gaming. They’d even end up naming it Game of the Year. Hell, they were already posting screenshots of Dark Souls on Japanese gaming websites a month later and the hype couldn’t have been hotter as we rolled into 2010 when I’d bought a copy of the game. Then I played it, didn’t understand it, and had a terrible time for the first day or two as I was unable to figure the path towards the first boss. An acquaintance of mine made a key suggestion early on, noting that I played a lot of JRPGs at the time: “It is technically a Japanese made RPG, right? Well, grind some levels just like you would in Dragon Quest’s early game.” Yep, ok. Got it.
Set your own pace. It wasn’t that long before I was tossing molotovs at the Phalanx demon, switching to a sorcery n’ big sword build, and slowly cheesing n’ chopping my way through the game. From spending 40 minutes shooting weak arrows at the Red dragon while it repeatedly scorched the bridge on Archstone 1-2 to grinding out millions of souls by killing the reapers near Archstone 4-2 I’d found a way to make it through most of the game with only a few instances of co-op needed for bosses. Even if I was a rat bastard in many cases the damned game was a complete asshole, too. It all felt like a thrilling, shoulder-hiking and heart pounding experience that’d demanded rapt attention at all times. Beyond the tension of the gameplay I’d loved the dead grey world, the drabness of its dramatic high fantasy art style and foggy lighting. Dark corridors and danger lurking around every corner made the “shields up” and creeping forward pace necessary as stamina dependent combat and challenging “fuck you” encounters along the way lead to death (or, failure) you could feel. It was a terrible place to be, but I was having fun making my way through every bit of the world until my stats and skill level became strong enough to feel confident heading into every part of the game that weren’t just sudden death. I could count myself as a dedicated fan of the series from that point. So, why was I never invested in the idea of a remake? Surely it was the ugliest, most archaic game in the series and deserved it? Needed it, even? Why not jump for joy at the idea of a complete overhaul?
Well, for the same reason remaking any of the King’s Field games would be fucking stupid. Their niche appeal and tendency to fight with the player, allowing zero unearned conveniences, are one and the same. Without this struggle these would be particularly moody but dry medieval action RPG fare with almost inadvisably minimalist storytelling. Demon’s Souls getting all of its dead-eyed grit and brutality polished away for the sake of “playability” and graphical updates is akin to melting down a two thousand year old sacrificial dagger to make an oversized grill for a SoundCloud rapper. Sure, BluePoint games did a fine job with this (and their remake of Shadow of the Colossus) and I am glad that both of those things exist but at no point during my ~40 hour playthrough did this remake of Demon’s Souls make its case for being necessary or improved beyond a bit of generic flash.
Before I take too hard a turn into the puritanical rant arena I’ll concede that I’d gone into my first playthrough of this remake consciously repeating my original play style back in 2009 — A magician starter who over-levels into the ability to wield sword, shield and heaviest armor with prime magic damage in hand. This meant getting my preferred Bastard Sword early on, making it a Moon Bastard Sword (for the memes, as it were) and then focusing on getting the Gloom or Biorr armor set (or some combination) equippable while still being able to do solid damage with sorcery. Instead of detailing the playthrough, which was uneventful and full of farming and re-running each level several times for items, I will say that the flaw of doing all of this in my first playthrough of the remake only emphasized that ten years wasn’t enough time for me to have developed the need to play this game in refurbished form. I still have the Playstation 3 game and hadn’t thought about sparking it up more than once despite having played through Dark Souls four times (plus the remaster twice), Dark Souls II twice (original vanilla and scholar), Dark Souls III at least eight times, and Bloodborne twice in the decade since. I’d eventually have to accept that Demon’s Souls was a time-and-place kind of experience, the first wave of better things to come.
The lost feeling. There isn’t a real “hit” in the experience for my taste anymore and the tension I’d felt back in the early 2010’s is completely gone at this point. Without the sophisticated level design and expansive connected world that came with iteration the out-of-ordered hubs you’re forced to make staggered progress through feels all the more undeserving of old praise. The AI hasn’t changed, the uselessly punishing world tendency system hasn’t been reworked, and the only real modern convenience I’d noted was the ability to pop multiple souls at once rather than re-opening the menu for each one. It’d all been a conflicting experience on my part: Great nostalgia but no serious drive to replay this eyeless husk. Great remake quality but no “soul” or meaningful innovation behind it. If nothing else I’d realized that replaying away my nostalgia for the Souls lineage of games only began to chip away at those fond memories. Dark Souls III was the last necessary iteration, the apex, the one to get everything right and make good on the initial promise of Demon’s Souls. This game didn’t need a V-tuber style masking and a high budget buttwipe to be more fun or “playable” nowadays and I wouldn’t consider it mandatory by any stretch. Otherwise the load times are incredible, the controls are still perfect, and they’ve been faithful enough to most of the experience that none of the remake feels like a disaster, or frankly worth my complaining either. I just didn’t need it, didn’t actually want it after all and can’t justify the $69.99 price tag, either.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning (2020)
2012 was an exciting enough year for video games if we consider the spheres of mainstream fandom were about to be sandwiched between the endlessly couching exhaust pipe of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and the heavily hyped and still being re-released Grand Theft Auto V. If you were a weirdo like me you’d played nothing but Dark Souls that year as the Artorias of the Abyss DLC came out and extended the reach of the game considerably. It was likewise the year of a few personal favorites: Dragon’s Dogma, Dishonored, Far Cry 3, and yeah man, even Mass Effect 3 was great. Though it was arguably a point of peak sequelitis for the near dead consoles on the cusp of the next generation but just like the Playstation 2 generation you knew what you were getting from quality franchises on some level. The market was huge, both consoles retailed for a hundred bucks and “western” style RPGs had never been bigger so, I’d never really gotten why Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was such an infamous commercial failure… admittedly because I’d never played it until now. I get it after ~50 hours with the game but hey, I’m still having fun with it.
The pitch was huge, hah, as the MLB Hall of Fame pitcher and nutty conservative conspiracy theorist Curt Schilling + the State of Rhode Island funded the ex-MMORPG turned single player RPG which’d featured designs from Todd McFarlane and a script at least partially written by fantasy author R.A. Salvatore. They’d essentially overpaid themselves, focus grouped everything to complete generic shit, pivoted the entire project’s focus, mismanaged the work, and despite the huge handouts they’d done for promotion there was no way such a plain-assed, surface level slog of a game could’ve appealed to the mass market without fleshed-out RPG mechanics or expedient storytelling. An MMORPG sized action RPG looter has to be serious trash to fail within said niche, even the worst Diablo clones which feature MMO elements thrived then and now (look at the garbage-assed dreck of Lost Ark for a direct example) so… Is it -really- that bad?
The first fifteen hours or so I’d spent in this “remastered” version of the game were somewhat fun if not lightly challenging as I developed a build centered around Sorcery (Spells, staves, wands) and Might (Heavy armor, swords, heavy weapons) aiming for the Paragon “fate” (class, essentially) as a long term goal. Levels came fast, equipment and items poured from each enemy, there were about twenty new quests that’d pop up anytime I landed upon a new area and my progress through the first area had great momentum. By the time I’d unknowingly zoned out of that area for a quest and then fast traveled back to town the game had reset the level of the first area’s enemies to sync with my own (purposely over-levelled) character; Each region of the map scales its enemies to the level you are at when entering and this is apparently new to the remaster as they attempted to re-balance the combat to be more consistently challenging. As I hit my 20th hour of a completionist minded gameplay I’d unknowingly side-barred into the Teeth of Naros DLC and eventually got my armor rating and weapon damage far beyond that which is required for completing the main game. Even if the rest of the experience scaled with my level my custom-crafted gear was/is already only one tier beneath the best in the game.
I don’t mind this in the slightest and I’ll keep playing the game but I’ll admit the loss of challenge after I’d began to creep into the 40 hour mark became discouraging. The vaseline-rubbed lens effect of the graphics and Kingdom of Amalur‘s fairy tale twinkling Fable-esque soundtrack from Grant Kirkhope had me falling asleep in my chair every time I played the game. Sure, I work 60+ hours a week nowadays and putting me to sleep isn’t a challenge but, I guess I managed to only fall asleep once over the course of about 40 hours with Demon’s Souls by comparison. The story isn’t great and the world never makes a compelling case, or a direct one at all, for the world’s make and manner. Once you’ve made it outside of the dark caverns and lush forests of the opening area, through the spider-filled forests and troll crammed ancient ruins, unto the plains the rest of the game makes a notable shift into half-finished and bare areas. Cramped and blocky Playstation 2-era spaces are stretched into arbitrarily expansive fields, spacing most of the general biomes or regions with long stretches of trash mob fights and holding the dash button for several minutes at a time.
After some time with the game you’ll realize there are two ways to deal with the purposeless wandering encouraged by the inobtrusive main storyline: Slowly reveal each part of the map, complete each dungeon you find, take every quest as you find it, and let this loop determine your map discovery and progress — This will ensure that Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning takes about 120+ hours to finish, from what I’ve read. Otherwise you’ll have to strategize your attack by running to every NPC you find, skipping arbitrary fights, taking all quests but waiting until you’ve discovered all areas to pursue them. Using the fast travel system to finish blocks of quests is the only way to do this and not become lost in the wilderness of the game. Does any of that sound fun?
Yes, I’m in it for the sense of discovery and character progress. Role development, skill building and exploration are the only reason I play games anymore and I don’t mind low-level skill requirements if the game is interactive in some redeeming way. This is where I’m currently stuck on Kingdoms of Amalur, the only way to keep the combat interesting and/or challenging is to basically toss all of my gear and switch classes, the difficulty of the game is entirely trivialized by mass caches of potions, healing spells, and ruthless optimization (via the grind of it all) on my part. The gameplay is just fine, it might’ve stagnated in terms of combat but the main issue is the sense of consequence in the world being implied and not enforced. I’d saved the forest elves, saved the sorcerer’s guild, and saved the Kollossae of Idylla in the DLC before I’d realized I’d absolutely no idea what I was doing in this world anymore besides prodding it with my sword. Main quests and the side quests appear with equal importance and effort. Hell, there are side quests with better voice acting and loot than I’ve gotten from most any main quest thus far. Why do I exist in this world? What am I fighting for? Are you morbid? Am I evil? etc. I’ll reserve any harsher thoughts at this point until I’ve finished the game but I will say that I understand why this game is remembered as a generic slog and a bit of an overconfident failure on the part of the developers. From what I have read the other DLC and factions are more combat heavy and rewarding so I’ll keep slugging away at it.
BACKLOG: Next up…
1. Elden Ring (2022)
2. Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth (2021)
3. Elex II (2022)
4. Pillars of Eternity (2015)
5. Deus Ex: Invisible War (2003)
6. Panzer Dragoon Saga (1998)
7. Shining Force III – Scenarios I-III (1997)
8. Grandia (1997)
9. Horizon II: Forbidden West (2022)
10. X-Com: Enemy Unknown (2012)
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