Category Archives: Review

Review: Per Aspera

Per Aspera is one of those games you can become obsessed with far beyond its actual quality.

Uh oh.

In short, the game is about terraforming Mars – a surprisingly crowded field these days. You are an experimental AI in charge of turning the red planet green, and must plan out a series of resource mines, factories, and resolve supply chain issues on your way. While you go through this process, you (the AI) will reflect on some of the philosophical ideas surrounding artificial consciousness, your role in terraforming Mars, and some political intrigue as major players swap out.

One of the reasons I don’t actually like the game is because it’s poorly paced. When you first start your journey, you have a single hub building providing minimal electricity, one worker rover, and some basic building materials. Your primary goal is to create a 2nd worker while acknowledging the existential threat of not having a Maintenance Facility, which is a building that’s required to keep everything else from decaying in the Martian atmosphere. One carrot, one stick. Okay. So what’s the path?

  • Worker Factory = Parts + Electronics + Glass + Aluminum (and Steel to construct)
    • Parts Factory = Steel + Aluminum
    • Electronics Factory = Silicon + Aluminum
    • Steel Factory = Iron + Carbon
    • Glass Kiln = Silicon
    • Aluminum Mine = Steel
    • Silicon Mine = Steel + Aluminum
    • Iron Mine = Aluminum + Silicon
    • Carbon Mine = Aluminum + Iron
  • Maintenance Facility = Polymer + Electronics (and Aluminum and Steel to construct)
    • Polymer Factory = Chemicals + Carbon
    • Chemical Plant = Aluminum + Steel
  • Solar Farm = Aluminum + Electronics + Glass

Basically, every fucking thing.

So you’ll start by building an Aluminum and Silicon Mine, then a Glass Kiln. This will get you far enough to place a Solar Farm or two, as your original landing hub won’t have enough juice to power many more mines/factories. Then you can get started on Iron and Carbon Mines to fuel a Steel Factory. And so on.

This entire time though, you have one single worker rover, which means it carries a single resource at a time to a location. Does something take six total resources to craft a particular building? That’s six trips. The game offers a speed boost up to 16x, which pretty much tells you everything you need to know.

Didn’t realize he pioneered driving electric vehicles down tunnels.

To say that the game is a slow burn is an understatement.

Having said that, I did start feeling the coals after a while. As soon as you get that second worker, things accelerate significantly. The 3rd/4th/Nth workers pop out as soon as you build the corresponding Worker Hubs, and you can get busy planning your expansion across the Martian surface. Your growth is kept in check by building limits, which is tied to Tech trees, which is tied to Research Points, which is tied to hosting human colonist and keeping them alive with Ice and Food. A lot of things to keep you busy planning and expanding.

Of course, it all grinds to a halt again in the mid-game when you slowly realize that “choices” aren’t really choices. Goal: increase temperature at Martian polar ice caps to release frozen CO2. Looking at the tech tree, you see things like “Construct Satellite Mirrors” and “Aerobrake Comets” and “Import Greenhouse Gases from Earth,” along with some lesser stuff like Greenhouse Gas Factory. What isn’t immediately obvious is that the comet is a one-time deal, and the Mirror project only heats things up by about 20% of the total. You’re back to doing all of the things, this time limited by how many Spaceports you build rather than Worker rovers.

I did this.

And spoiler alert: there’s a third grind at the endgame, notwithstanding however long it takes to get a breathable atmosphere. The last two hours of my “playtime” consisted of me having the game run at 16x while I dicked around on my phone.

Ultimately though, I did stick around to the bitter end. Why? It’s hard to say. The existential musings were a bit basic compared with other titles, but they seasoned the stew. And this was a very, very long-burning stew. But perhaps in a cognitive dissonance sort of way, I began to really enjoy myself once I saw Mars starting to change. Once water appears, the game just feels different. You start needing to place Water Treatment Plants near the water, but take care that they won’t get flooded should you continue to pump up the water table. Some unique buildings require you to use craters rather than just placing willy-nilly, and that changes up how you approach base design and/or expansion.

I haven’t played many other sims like this, so I cannot really speak for whether Per Aspera is more worth your time than Surviving Mars or whatever else is out there. Hell, I’m conflicted as to whether it was worth my time to play Per Aspera at all. But I did play it for just shy of 30 hours in less than two weeks, so that’s worth something.

Review: Outriders

This past weekend I completed Outriders via Game Pass. The game is basically an over-the-shoulder, cover-based, arena looter shooter. Think 3rd-person Borderlands or Destiny.

…and that’s it.

No, really.

OK, fine. There were two interesting things going on that kept me playing to completion.

First, the story. Or more specifically, the main character’s “Renegade Shephard with Charisma as a Dump Stat” schtick. I’m not certain if the writers were trying to make the main character into a badass anti-hero and overshot the mark, but the end result is so bad it loops back around to good. I kept expecting to see an attempt on character growth, or becoming a leader, or any of the other tropes in the genre, but nope! Your character basically doesn’t give a shit about hostages, is painfully awkward when NPCs share their trauma, and is content shooting first and never bothering with questions.

As far as plot goes, it’s all grimdark trauma-porn, but not the fun kind.

The other piece that was interesting was the crafting mechanics. As a looter shooter, you get a lot of loot, of course. One thing you can do though, is deconstruct the items you receive to unlock the ability to add the special properties of that item onto another item. For example, if a gun Freezes enemies, you can deconstruct that gun and replace any future gun’s existing ability with the Freezing ability. Epic/Legendary items can have two properties, but you can only swap out one of them. Additionally, Epic/Legendary items have higher-tier effects, which you can place on regular items to make them more competitive.

Really though, only the concept alone was interesting. The actual looting experience was pretty terrible, on par with the foundational problems with Borderlands. You have levels, guns have level requirements, and enemies get exponentially stronger the further you progress. This means that whatever cool items you receive will be useless trash within an hour of gameplay, and you will be scrambling for green replacements for your purples soon enough. While the above crafting system lessens the blow a bit, it never feels great to continuously get weaker, and the drop from 2-slots to 1-slot is especially painful.

I completed the game’s story despite it becoming progressively less interesting, and then immediately bounced off the endgame loop in disgust. You are intended to go on repetitive sort of strike missions and face waves and waves of the same sort of enemies you have fought all game. If you play solo, you will die almost instantly outside of cover, and death resets the entire mission. It is clearly intended to be played in a group, but… why? Destiny 2 is mechanically better and Outriders is not an MMO wherein you might expect to rewarded in some fashion in the future. “Borderlands!” Closer, but the Borderlands series has additional DLC content and is much more kinetic and less swingy besides.

In any case, you don’t have to take my word on it: Outriders is still on the Game Pass.

Undertale, Overrated

Yeah, I said it.

Undertale is a cult favorite and Kickstarter darling from 2015 featuring meme-ready characters, NES graphics, and unique game mechanics. Your character has fallen down a hole into the underworld and now must contend with anxious monsters who need your soul to escape their otherwise eternal confinement. Will you leave a traditional trail of bodies and tears on your way to the exit, or will you embrace the spirit of determination and the power of friendship to spare all that you meet?

The very ending(s) depend on it!

It’s possible that I played Undertale too late. The retro graphics did nothing for me, nor did the retro graphics + modern game twists, as I played LISA back in 2015 already. While I did not know exact plot details, I also knew Undertale had a True Pacifist route that led to the best ending – knowledge which prejudges one’s own behavior in the game. Finally, I had already played games that also shifted in narrative tone and 4th-wall breaking, like Nier: Automata. If Undertale was my first experience with any of these things, maybe I would have been more impressed.

My major issue with Undertale though is that it is… not fun. When fighting enemies, they attack you via 5-6 seconds of Bullet Hell in which you move a red heart around a predefined box. It’s an extremely novel concept, and the things Undertale is able to convey through this mechanism is commendable. But at no point is it fun to do. Doing a True Pacifist run means you must talk to enemies instead of attacking them, which consumes several “turns” which results in you doing multiple Bullet Hell levels for each randomly-encountered enemy. True Pacifist also means you never level up or get more HP, so the game just gets progressively harder. Finally, if you get dangerously low on HP, you have to spend your turn using a healing item instead of talking, which delays the end of the fight and can mean you catch more damage than you healed and otherwise wasted your time.

Did I mention that you need to purchase healing items, using money that you receive from successfully navigating monster neuroses, thus potentially trapping yourself into a losing battle of attrition? Indeed, the only way I was able to complete the game at all was from looking up the solution to a puzzle that gave me an item that sometimes gave me free healing items. Supposedly there is also some armor you can buy to trivialize fights if you die enough times too.

In any case, the Venn Diagram of people who enjoy the plot of Undertale and those who like Bullet Hell games are likely two circles on opposite ends of the Earth.

There were some genuinely funny moments in the game, don’t get me wrong. But all I could really think about while playing was that Undertale did not respect my time. Which seems strange considering the game is like 9 hours long. Or perhaps that is expected when you know that every random encounter represents a possible permanent loss of player power (e.g. healing items or money to purchase more) instead of, you know, your character growing stronger over time. Technically you do find better equipment along the way, but that is really a bare minimum to keep parity with ever-stronger foes when you are stuck with 20 HP and losing a quarter of it each time you touch something.

Ultimately, I am glad I finished Undertale’s True Pacifist route. I understand that there are a myriad of alternative endings, including one which requires you murdering everyone you meet, but I don’t see the point. I sure as shit ain’t spending another 5+ hours on the endeavor when I already disliked combat.

Will do, Flowey. Will do. In fact, it’s already done.

Review: Fate Hunters

Fate Hunters is a deckbuilding roguelike in the same… well, not vein, but same circulatory system as Slay the Spire.

In truth, the game plays more like Dominion meets Darkest Dungeon – there is no energy, so you can play all of the cards in your hand every turn, but unplayable treasure cards can gum up your deck if you get too greedy. Monster attacks are straight-forward: they do the thing as what their card says, from left to right, every turn. After each boss fight, you are given the opportunity to leave with all your treasure cards or continue the climb, with each successive boss adding a multiplier to your treasure. If you die, that’s it, you get nothing.

And that’s the entire review. The end.

…I’m being kinda serious.

Some very evocative art

What I can say is that the game is very addictive in the just-one-more-fight way and feels amazing even though it seems low-budget. The card art is very Darkest Dungeon and consistent throughout the game. There is a fairly decent amount of cards available, including a half-dozen classes which have their own specific cards. There are also meaningful choices as you level and when you defeat bosses. For example, do you want to pick one of three random Fates (passive abilities) out of 20+? Or choose one of three Legendary weapons? Or choose one of three Heroic spells?

There is a fairly high variance in card effect quality which can lead to some swingy runs, but overall you are not likely to be shut out of possibly winning. And besides, as long as you get make it past at least one boss, you can just exit the dungeon with whatever spoils you happened to collect and try again.

As for the downsides? Well, the game is done and will no longer get any updates. Which is a real shame because there are a number of tweaks that could have been made to buff the weaker cards/abilities into usefulness. The nature of the game also lends itself to very specific strategies too – you pretty much have to always build a discard-themed deck given how treasures work. There is also zero story or lore of any kind, if that is important to you. The default price of $15 is extremely ridiculous.

But, honestly? It’s on sale for $3.74 right now and I have put in 18 hours already. If you are someone who enjoys deckbuilding roguelikes, it’s a no-brainer. Just be wary of using it as “filler” or a palate cleanser in-between other games, because every time I try and do that, it’s suddenly 2AM and I never get to the other game. Which is a pretty glowing review, now that I think about it.

Slay the Spire, Android Edition

The Android version of Slay the Spire is out. It’s $9.99 on the Google Play store, although you have to scroll down to find it.

And I recommend waiting a while before buying it.

It is indeed Slay the Spire on your phone. If you are not familiar with the game itself, well, you’re in for a treat. I’m sure there were other deck-building roguelikes out there before, but this one is so good that it has basically consumed the entire genre – anything new is basically “Slay the Spire but with X.” Being able to finally play this on my phone without streaming it or other nonsense is something I had been looking forward to for a while. In fact, I had been holding my Google Play credits from surveys for more than a year just to purchase it as soon as it popped up.

The issue is that it is a bad port.

It’s not just the bugs, of which there were many game-crippling ones (stuck on Merchant screen, continuous de-syncing, etc.). The Android port is just poorly designed from a UX perspective. Text is tiny and borderline unreadable, even with the “Big Text” option selected. Cards are shoved far at the bottom of the screen, which means half the time you try playing one, you end up minimizing the app – this behavior can be disabled via Android options, but I haven’t had any issues with Hearthstone like this. Perhaps the most frustrating though are the inconsistencies with selecting things. On the Reward screen, you have to double-tap to collect Gold, but a single-tap will select 2nd option (Potion or Relic), and your card reward requires you to click confirm. That’s three separate behaviors on one screen. Who designed this shit?

I’m also a bit salty when I straight-up lost a run right before the final boss because the wrong card was played. You cannot read the text on a card without lifting it up a bit with your finger, but lift it up too far and it will automatically be played (if it’s not specifically a targeted card). There is a “long press to Confirm” option in the Settings, but inexplicably that’s just for the End Turn button and nothing else. Incidentally, this lost run was the same one in which I accidentally skipped a Relic – the Select button became Skip after highlighting the Relic once – and then accidentally picked a bad choice in one of the “?” rooms because I was hovering my finger over the option so I could see what the Curse did.

Of course, by “accidentally” I really mean “because of dumbass UX designers.”

So, yeah, the thing I had been looking forward to for literal years was immensely disappointing. The lesson here is to don’t look forward to things don’t purchase things Day 1.

The Outer Hype, Also

I finished Outer Wilds last week. Finally.

/review over

As with its similarly named cousin, The Outer Worlds, I walked into this experience under the cloud of effusive praise. Polygon named Outer Wilds Game of the Year 2019 and added it to their Game of the Decade list (#25). Which… makes sense, I guess. It would be kind of awkward for a GOTY to not be good enough for the decade.

But if Outer Wilds is Game of the Year 2019, then 2019 must not have been a good year for games.

To be fair, there are a number of praise-worthy elements to Outer Wilds. The premise of a time-loop mystery is fairly unique (Majora’s Mask notwithstanding). The lack of any form of combat is similarly rare. The game does a really nice job of simply letting you jet around the solar system right from the get-go. The soundtrack is great and the visuals and setpieces can be breathtaking. In truth, there is a lot to like here. The fact all this novelty and ambition came from an indie dev with a dozen people is the commendable bow on top.

Setpieces are pretty crazy original.

It’s just that… the game isn’t for me. Or possibly you.

Everything was great for about two-thirds of the experience. Once you get the controls down, you can wake up from the beginning of the time loop and be orbiting any planet in the solar system within minutes. The impending supernova did grate on my nerves a few times, as it always seemed to occur when I was 90% done exploring a specific location, requiring me to make a return trip to finish up and then suiciding so as not to limit exploration time somewhere else. 

As with all videogames though, things escalated from there. Exploration started requiring some gnarly platforming, where failure often resulted in survival… but lost minutes, of which you only ever have 22. So it may as well have been death. Then the game required gnarly platforming AND specific timing. It wasn’t enough to discover where you needed to go for the next clue, you also had to be there at a specific timeframe.

Up to this point, I had been doing everything on my own. But when I encountered a particularly annoying timing puzzle I could not solve after repeated attempts, I was ready to abandon the game. As is often the case, when I broke down and looked up the solution, it was something that should have been obvious. But immediately following that one sequence were many more that would not have been obvious (to me) at all. Still later sequences require you to sit on your hands for 7+ minutes before getting the opportunity to finish navigating a hallway that becomes impossible to complete within 30 seconds of the window of opportunity opening. Who is this fun for?

I too recreated that one scene from Sunshine.

And that’s the $25 question. Or in my case, $17.80. And the answer is: Not me.

This should not have been much of a surprise. I don’t actually like Adventure/Puzzle games. Or more specifically, I abhor games in which you can come to a hard stopping point and flounder around not even knowing what it is the game is asking you to do. Can’t beat a boss? Gain more levels, or memorize its attacks, or try a different strategy. Can’t get into a locked room? Well, unless there are some movable statues right outside or a monster with the key, then good luck. There could be any number of reasons why the door is locked, up to and including the fact you aren’t supposed to go through the door. And when the solution ends up being “attach a probe to it and then wait FIFTEEN MINUTES for the entire structure to be sucked into a black hole and ejected out into space and then go through a different opening altogether,” I’m not exactly happy at the designer’s cleverness.

Nevertheless, I am glad I played Outer Wilds, if for no other reason than to see for myself as to whether it is a transformative experience. Again: not for me. I can see how it could be for some people though. Maybe. I’m not really sure, actually, because I find it difficult to imagine the sort of person who is capable of working through the entire game without a guide and also receptive to its underlying message. The guides I used didn’t ruin any of the details, but the experience itself gets a bit disjointed when you’re Alt-Tabbing every few minutes.

But if you are a fan of timed, Adventure platforming roguelikes though, you are in for a treat.

Fell Seal Complete, plus tips

Just beat Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark after almost 60 hours.

Quality of the gameplay remained high throughout the campaign. I could probably have shaved ~20 hours or so off the time to complete, but I enjoyed getting most of my team to a point where they had OP combos and synergies. The plot itself is nowhere near Final Fantasy Tactics, but the dialog is surprisingly humorous and there are some slight twists. The main thing that could be improved was the lack of different battle music, but luckily what exists is not annoying.

There is some “post-game” areas and New Game+ options – and some DLC just dropped – but I do not anticipate coming back. I got my fill of the systems and progression; anything else would be going through the motions, like grinding out the rest of a Civilization match.

Gameplay Tips

I would not consider the following to be “spoilers,” but if you want to know nothing else about the game systems, you should probably skip this part. This is merely the text I wish I was able to see as I started playing the game.

Units gain AP after battle in two ways. Everyone who participates in the battle get a large chunk (110ish for random encounters, twice that for Story) of AP for their primary class. There is a second, smaller “Vicarious” AP gain (~40) that is doled out to each battle participant based on the primary classes of the other participants. So, for example, if you have a Knight, two Wizards, a Mender, a Mercenary, and a Scoundrel in a battle, then the Knight will get some AP towards its own Wizard, Mender, Mercenary, and Scoundrel classes, and so on with the other 5 people.

The above is useful to know because some of the best-in-slot Passive abilities comes from Classes that are only unlocked after some esoteric prerequisite classes. For example, if you want to unlock the Assassin, the chain goes:

  • Assassin
    • Gunner 4
      • Mercenary 4
      • Knight 4
      • Ranger 4
        • Scoundrel 4

That doesn’t actually seem that bad for a martial class, aside from the ranged portions. But something like the Warmage or Fellblade will require some Mender and Wizard levels, which can be awkward for some of the story characters. Luckily enough, all you really need is for there to be A Wizard or Mender in the party for 10-15 battles, and you’ll have enough AP to level the class to the minimum to unlock the higher classes. Characters get that Vicarious AP even if they have not yet unlocked the the class in question; it will be waiting for them once they do.

It’s not immediately obvious, but Kyrie is the main character of the game – she will be required for the vast majority of story missions. The other story characters can be unavailable for 1-4 missions.

Debuffs are very important throughout the whole game (including the final boss). Some boss-esque characters have 999+ HP that is much easier to chew through when you give them Bleed/Poison (% HP loss), for example. There are very deadly characters that are NOT immune to Sleep or Berserk, which means you can essentially delete their turns while you mop up the flunkies.

At the beginning of each battle, before deploying units, you can actually go into the unit screen and re-equip or change up abilities or whatever else based on what it looks like you’re facing. Is there water on the map and enemies who can move your units around? Equip some Flippers on your guys that can’t swim. Poison water around? Equip the rings that give immunity to Poison. And so on.

The most useful classes I found were Knight, Fellblade, and Assassin, surprisingly in that order.

The Knight’s Defensive Hit is probably the most damaging attack you will have for the early game, especially if you stack armor. Knight also has Taunt, which inflicts Berserk 100% of the time from two squares away, which can turn an enemy mage into an ineffectual melee attacker or make an enemy bruiser kill his own team. Life Font (gain HP when moving) is something I slotted into all of my characters, which pretty much removes the need for a dedicated healer.

Fellblade was pretty much my “default” class for all my characters due to versatility and debuffs. Sleep Slice to delete enemy turns, Poison Slice for high HP targets, Evade Magic as a counter-ability to ignore magic-users entirely, and Black Blade as a backup attack that deals magical damage and inflicts Blind. Plus, the Malice passive makes sure your debuffs have a good chance to stick.

Assassin is pretty much a splash class. What you’re really going for is Dual Wield, which enables some crazy damage. The ranged Blind and Sleep abilities are nice, but usually only have a coin-flip chance to succeed. Sabotage can be incredibly powerful in certain situations though. Specifically, if there is water in range and an enemy unit who cannot swim – Assassin hops in water, use Sabotage to switch places with enemy, instant death for them.

The sort of ultimate damage combo is a character with Dual Wield passive and Warmage class. Use Infused Edge, and your character will get two attacks plus an elemental bonus attack (or other spell). Personally, I was fine with Dual Wield + Attack Expert (Scoundrel’s passive +Attack based on level) and two weapons that had debuffs on hit. Indeed, I strolled into the final battle with story characters having primacy classes of Scoundrel and Knight.

Don’t forget the lowly Rock. It has a 100% chance to hit and always deals the full damage (50 when maxed out). This is useful for monsters that have crazy defense values like those jellyfish spellcasters, or even enemies with 30% evasion.

The crafting system is… annoying. Always go to Component View to see what your other crafting options are before using a resource you don’t think you can easily farm back. SAVE YOUR QUALITY THREAD. It’s a mid-tier Component used in an endgame armor (light helmet) and is supremely difficult to get any more once you’re in said endgame.

The Outer Hype, part 2

When I started playing The Outer Worlds back in December, I was not impressed. Having just completed the game yesterday, I can report that the game did not particularly redeem itself.

Dystopian dark humor only works when the rest of the game is dystopian, guys.

To be clear, the game may have been rigged from the start, so to speak. This was Obsidian, makers of Fallout: New Vegas! With a brand new IP! Like some kind of Mass Effect x Fallout space western! Except it wasn’t. At all. Like not even remotely close.

Was that Obsidian’s fault? Probably not, but they suffer the consequences of the hype just the same.

Parvati made most things bearable.

Regardless, the game did not improve. I was playing on Hard difficulty and the combat was just a mess from start to finish. Companion AI is tough to get right in any game, but here they are glorified abilities that you press once per combat, as they typically die immediately after they use them. Exploration was pointless, rewarding trash consumables or weapon mods you never have need of using. The whole Tinker/Upgrade system for level-based gear starts out as a promising way of keeping unique weapons (etc) relevant, but the escalating cost of doing so spirals out of control. When it’s easier and cheaper to just buy guns from a vending machine rather than try to upgrade the super-special gear you spent time exploring/questing for, you know things have fallen off the rails.

Quest-wise, things did not improve either. If you treat the game overall as a comedy, things might play out better from a tone perspective. And indeed there is some witty dialog to be had. Aside from that though, there was precisely one moment towards the end of the game in which I was surprised at the visual impact of a particular decision. Arguably though, it was surprising precisely because nothing else was ever taken seriously.

Kind of like this game, amirite?

Overall… well, I was going to suggest to give this game a pass, but I myself played it for a whole dollar via the Game Pass, so… do what you want. If you get past the first planet and aren’t feeling it though, don’t feel bad about moving on. It’s not going to scratch a Fallout itch, a Mass Effect itch, a BioShock itch, or any itch beyond a bizarre one for BBB Unreal engine comedy games.

And if you have one of those, you might want to see a dermatologist instead.

Review: Far Cry 5

I completed Far Cry 5 a few days ago.

farcry5_view

The visuals are quite amazing.

Mechanically, this is the best Far Cry in the series. The gunplay is smooth and tight, weapons are reasonably varied, and vehicles are generally fun to drive. Many of the more rote Far Cry-isms have also been removed. You are no longer forced to climb towers to explore the landscape, nor hunt down sharks to craft a bigger wallet. The whole map is available to explore right away. Screen clutter is practically non-existent, and what quest markers exist are fairly subtle.

Narratively, I feel it is one of the weakest in the series.

farcry5_boomer

That dog ends up being a very Good Boy.

I have no problem with the Christian iconography, the political parallels to present day, the rehashing of Spec Ops: The Line-esque navel-gazing about who the real demon is (hint: it’s you), or the sometimes absurdly comical cruelty. A lot of that is part and parcel to the Far Cry series. What is fairly new is the simple fact that the player is kidnapped NINE TIMES over the course of the story. The purpose is obviously to engineer a scenario in which the player can interact with the cult lieutenants and witness some exposition first-hand. The frequency though, and the ham-handedness, obliterates any semblance of story cohesion.

Seriously, one time I completed a mission, got the “You’re Being Hunted” message, and was apparently taken out by a blowdart… while piloting an attack helicopter hundreds of feet in the air. Cue cutscene and sub-boss taunting, in which it was revealed I had been imprisoned for seven days (!?!) undergoing psychological torture and starvation. Then (spoilers) I broke out of prison for what had been the fifth time at this point, and went back to what I had been doing originally.

farcry5_walls

Walls, eh?

I think the principle problem is that Ubisoft simply cannot outrun the shadow of Far Cry 3. That game had an insufferable trust fund frat boy as a protagonist, but it also had a narrative arc with some progression, substance, and you know, a main character that talks. With the lack of any sort of internal dialog, the devs leaned real hard on Vaas wannabes and contrived capture scenarios. Hell, the main character might have been captured just as many times as in Far Cry 3, but it never felt this arbitrary before.

In any case, after 15 hours, that’s that. Far Cry 5 has good gameplay and a stunningly beautiful open world playground to blow up stuff in. But… so do a lot of other games these days. What sets the series apart isn’t the open world or general shenanigans, it’s the story and general narrative experience. And that’s unfortunately lacking this time around.

A Bridge Too Nier

I have completed Nier: Automata (N:A) all the way.

NieRAutomata_Castle

Again, the visuals were extremely good.

As I mentioned a few days ago, the major impetus for my buying N:A in the first place was the seemingly unrelenting stream of praise it received. “Best game ever!” “GOTY 2017, if not of all time!” Those sort of proclamations immediately actives my Bullshit Sense, honed as it is after the Bioshock: Infinite debacle. That was almost five years ago now, and I’m still mad that it gets any praise at all. Seriously, people, that was not a good game.

Suffice it to say, Nier: Automata is not Bioshock: Infinite. In fact, it is extremely good.

But does that mean N:A lives up to its hype? Well… yes and no.

When I look back on the games I view as true epics with moving storylines and compelling characters, I see games like Xenogears. FF7. Chrono Trigger. The Mass Effect trilogy. In this context, I did not feel that N:A’s plot achieved a spot on that pantheon. At the same time, I can also recognize that Xenogears was released in 1998, which is possibly before many fans of N:A were even born. So, in a sense, I can see how someone can view N:A as being the best story they have experienced.

However, pure epic story-telling is not the only prism through which a narrative can be judged. When I think about my experience with Far Cry 2, for example, I found it deeply moving and incredibly clever from a meta-narrative perspective.

NieRAutomata_BossDead

Robotic hearts in the darkness.

Far Cry 2 was a slog of bloody, seemingly pointless firefights against interchangeable factions all the way to the very end. And that was the point. The gameplay itself was being used as an emotional vehicle for the player to show them experience the pointlessness of the conflict firsthand, and feel your own culpability in perpetuating a cycle of violence for ultimately selfish ends. When I was finally given the option at the end to either escape Africa or stay and sacrifice myself to save some refugees, the weariness and resignation I felt via the protagonist was real to me too. Staying behind to manually blow the bomb came as an immense, cathartic relief.

It is in this sort of reference point that Nier: Automata actually deserves the praise it receives. N:A is no Xenogears, but it is a Far Cry 2. Or Metal Gear Solid 2. Or Spec Ops: The Line. Not in the content of its message necessarily, but in its clever use of gameplay mechanics and subverting expectations to elicit emotions rather than relying on plot alone.

Indeed, one of the most poignant and moving sequences in the game occurs during the closing credits of the E ending. I went from rolling my eyes, to mild interest, to frustration, to finally… an emotion I had not experienced since Journey. And right at the very end of it all, the game asks a final, devastating question of the player, that I was not expecting nor prepared to answer.

And I blinked. Days later, I still feel somewhat guilty.

You would be forgiven for wondering why the above is not enough for Nier: Automata to take a seat next to Xenogears. I might just be obstinate. Or it may simply be as banal a reason that those PS1 classics came first, or were experienced in my more formative years, or both. But still, I hesitate.

Honestly, it is probably better for everyone to temper their expectations anyway. If you go into Nier: Automata thinking you will experience a 10/10, or something far and away better than whatever you view as your favorite game, you will probably be disappointed. If instead you go in with eyes open, acknowledging the fact that you will essentially need to beat the same game twice (from two different perspectives) before the “real” game begins, you will likely be more open to the emotional notes that the game elicits.

Plus, I hope you like action games. And twin-stick shooters. And… you get the idea.

NieRAutomata_Hacking

And hacking! Can’t (ever) forget that.

Speaking of notes though, the soundtrack is every bit as amazing as they say. It is a complete aural experience, with familiar themes expanding during epic moments, or contracting when the action inverts for a hacking mini-game. Some soundtracks have a few good songs, but Nier: Automata is good the entire way through, at every moment. Haunting, melodic… perfect. It absolutely deserves a seat with Mitsuda’s Xenogears and Chrono Trigger, even if thematically they differ.

So, yeah. Nier: Automata is worth playing. It’s not perfect, but it’s so goddamn ridiculous and bold and eccentric and sometimes horrifying and sad. And, ultimately, meloncholy. There are bad bits, some boring parts, and some questionable design decisions. Yet, more than anything, this is a game that ignored what everyone else was doing and shot for the moon. That ain’t nothing.