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Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen

After playing ESO, I got in a mood for an open-ish world RPG that was actually fun to play. As it turns out, Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisin (DD) is precisely that. Minus the relatively garbage console port job the devs did.

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Another bonus: you can play as a 12-year old girl.

For the most part, DD plays like Dragon Age: Inquisition with a more Action RPG feel. Or maybe it’d be better to just compare it to something like Darksiders. You run around in 3rd-person left/right-clicking your basic weapon combos, or holding Ctrl/Alt and selecting a few more abilities from there.

Which, really, is my number one complaint: the controls and UI getting in the way. Running around with WASD while having to hold Ctrl and then pressing E is not fun. I can move the ability to Left or Right-click rather than E and that makes things a bit better, but why is “Ctrl/Alt Toggle” not an option here? Why does the mouse-wheel not work half the time (and never in menus)? Why does Inventory have its own specific button, but Map not? Why can I press Esc to back out of every conversation piece except the final “Goodbye” comment? Ugh.

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Large enemies are great fun, though.

Typically, fighting with the controls and such would be cause enough to drop a game, but everything else about DD is real fun.

There are nine classes in the game, each with their own Active abilities and passives called Augments. Actives are generally specific to a class and weapon, but some carry over. Meanwhile, Augments are character-wide once you unlock them, leading to a fun little optimization puzzle where you try and snag the best Augments from each class to bring to your “final” one. This also encourages you to try out each of the classes, so you don’t get stuck with an unfun class on the character select screen.

Pawns are really interesting take on traditional party members. Basically, you have one main pawn and two pawns that you borrow from other players. Your pawn stays with you all the time, and you can change their class and Augments just as you change your own. You can also customize the pawns you borrow in a roundabout way via Searching for specific traits you need. Borrowing pawns of your own level costs nothing, but you can spend Rift Points or whatever to get higher level ones.

Since the borrowed pawns don’t level, you end up having to cycle them out along the way, but it’s still kinda fun seeing all the ways other people have customized them (since they are copies of their main pawn). Plus, since you can borrow new ones for free at pretty much any town, you can radically change your team composition at your leisure.

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Graphics are nice too.

The biggest draw though, is combat. Specifically, combat with large creatures. I doubt DD is the first RPG-ish game to feature clamoring up the legs and back of huge-ass monsters on a routine basis, but it’s here in spades. Most mobs are typical goblins or bandits, but Ogres, Golems, and Dragons (thus far) are way more frequent than simple boss fights. And you know? It’s fun pretty much every time. Gimmicky, maybe. But fun too.

Amusingly, DD appears to have been fairly hardcore on release in regards to the open-ish world it developed. The PC version (which I have) gives you an Eternal Ferrystone right off the bat, which allows you unlimited teleporting powers to specific Portstone locations. The console version apparently had Ferrystones with just a single use. Traveling one foot is still a pretty big issue thus far, as I have only discovered two “destinations” at near opposite ends of the map. I think I’ll be getting consumable items that will allow me to create my own endpoints, but they have not appeared in-game yet. This might get more annoying later though.

Overall, I have about 15 hours into Dragon’s Dogma and am eager to play more. Maybe I’ll get tired about scaling Cyclopsi and stabbing them in their stupid eye, maybe not. All I know is that, right now, I’m having fun. A pretty ridiculous amount of fun, to be honest.

Review: Bioshock Infinite

Game: Bioshock Infinite
Recommended price: $15
Metacritic Score: 96
Completion Time: ~14 hours
Buy If You Like: Stripped down, Art-Over-Substance FPS console ports

If only everything had this level of polish.

If only this level of polish extended to the gameplay.

Something that I struggle with when starting a videogame for the first time, is under which critique rubric I am to judge the experience. Sometimes the circumstances makes it easy: a $10 indie title ensures low-expectations, with potential high returns on either an entertainment-per-dollar basis (FTL, Binding of Isaac, SPAZ) or even an artistic one (LIMBO, Bastion). Indeed, in the years since the indie game revolution gained steam, I have found it increasingly difficult to justify $40-$60 Day 1 purchases of even AAA titles. What is the point, other than proactively (and expensively) avoiding spoilers? It was with this thought and a few other development team concerns that I initially decided to forgo Bioshock Infinite’s Day 1 purchase. That is, until I watched this fateful Adam Sessler video review. I mean, how could you not whip out your credit card right there?

Now, some 14 hours later and $45 poorer, I am wishing for an alternate reality in which I waited for the inevitable 75% off Steam sale to purchase the game.

Bioshock Infinite follows the story of Booker DeWitt, as he searches the floating streets of Columbia to bring back a girl to erase his debts. It is immediately clear at the beginning that Columbia is both visually stunning – seriously, where did these guys pull this fidelity out of the Unreal hat? – and an overt, artistic repudiation of Pax Americana fetishism. While rifling through picnic baskets and trashcans for every last silver dollar, you will run into signs of the blunt, religiously-justified racism and bigotry of the early 1900s. While I would be surprised if this is the first videogame rendition of this particular theme, Sessler is not wrong about game aspect of Bioshock Infinite functioning as a more effective prism to explore this theme, than had this been a book or movie and showing the same thing.

She is the color in this Paint By Numbers.

Elizabeth is the color in this Paint By Numbers.

Sessler and the other reviewers whom have catapulted Bioshock Infinite to a 96 (!!) Metacritic score are also not wrong about the brilliant elegance of Elizabeth. Rescued fairly early, Elizabeth initially serves both as a foil to the stoic/cynical Booker and as a player narrative stand-in. As the game progresses though, she provides a sort of… warmth that becomes noticeably lacking from the game proper whenever she is absent. Sometimes it is mesmerizing just watching her run around – the number of animations are incredible – or when she sits at a park bench as Booker stuffs his face with candy bars looted from the pockets of the slain. Immune to all damage, Elizabeth nevertheless avoids feeling like mere window-dressing (even in combat), while also avoiding the immersion-breaking pathing bugs we have come to expect from companion AI. She is simply… there. Present. And Bioshock Infinite is better for it.

I would also be remiss if I did not briefly mention the absolutely amazing soundtrack. While the omnipresent “angry violins” battle music gets old pretty fast, nearly everything single other ambient score is both haunting and melodic. Periodically there will even be barbershop-quartet-esque pieces that quite literally caused me to remove my hands from the keyboard and mouse to simply experience. Hearing songs like Will the Circle Be Unbroken and God Only Knows satisfies a need I never even knew existed. Any game that can fit in classical Mozart in a way both consistent with the fiction and powerful in execution gets mad props from me.

Unfortunately, where Sessler and all the other reviewers go off the rails is when they talk about (or conspicuously omit talking about) the actual game bits.

Simply put: Bioshock Infinite is not a very good FPS title, and absolutely not at all a good Bioshock title from a gameplay perspective. The skeleton is all there, with Vigors replacing the Plasmids, but there isn’t any meat. The gunplay is simplistic. Environmental damage combos are virtually non-existent. While the eight Vigors available seem to be a comparable number to the original Bioshock, the (usually) extremely open battle environments lends itself to one or two extremely OP strategies. For example, in an early combination with some equipment, using the secondary fire of Murder of Crows to create a single nest trap can disable dozens of enemies across the entire map; when one nest triggers, the crows chain from enemy to enemy, stunning and damaging them, and all enemies leave nest traps if they die while afflicted. Alternatively, once the Possession Vigor is upgraded, it essentially one-shots most enemies in addition occasionally scoring you kills if they actually get in some damage on friends.

For the record, I played beginning to end on Hard difficulty. So when I say things like the gunplay was simplistic, I do not mean that enemies fell over from one or two shots. Instead, firing the guns takes little skill, and there is little variety in the types of guns – there is no reason to have the Machine Gun, Burster, Repeater, and Crank Gun in the same game, for example, as they all occupy the same design space. While the skylines provided a useful gimmick to certain battlefields, their primary purpose seemed to be giving you the opportunity to one-shot weak enemies with a melee attack that would otherwise only remove 20% of their health.

Da Birds, da Birds.

Da Birds, da Birds.

The fingerprints of Console-ification are also all over the place. Bioshock Infinite uses a completely oblique Checkpoint system, with no Save & Exit option. There are no Quicksaves.  Booker has a regenerating shield, and can carry only two weapons at a time. There are no First Aid Kits or other inventory-esque items, although there is “clothing” that acts as swappable passive abilities. While changing clothes might have added some depth to the combat, the reality is that most of the items are hopelessly weak in comparison to the aforementioned OP combos.

While some of these things do not sound bad on their own, the problem arises when you then apply these simpler systems to an artistic game so focused on encouraging  exploration inbetween the banal combat. Why barge into every non-locked house on the street – and see the thematically consistent bigotry – if there is quite literally no point to do so? Even if I accept that Checkpoints aren’t all that much different in practice than Quicksaves, the ever-present hunt to replenish my First Aid Kit supply drove me to explore every inch of Rapture, to my ultimate edification. Conversely, I explored Columbia out of a vague sense of propriety, like when an acquaintance takes you on a tour of his house even though you couldn’t care less about what the pantry looks like. Don’t get me wrong, I explored every masterfully crafted inch of Columbia that I could. But the whole time I sat there thinking “There is no reason for me to be here,” which I count as a deficiency in the game design, especially given how the original Bioshock played out.

Finally, in an effort to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, I will not talk about the specific issues I had with Bioshock Infinite’s plot or overall narrative. Suffice it to say, I did not feel that the actual message the writers were trying to convey made a whole lot of sense given what was presented and foreshadowed. Indeed, the whole narrative felt disjointed, likely due to the first half of the game consisting almost entirely of exploring Columbia’s working class issues, rather than the more fantastical premises that dominate the later game.

Ultimately, Bioshock Infinite is clearly an ambitious game, but at the end, I felt like nearly every aspect of it did not live up to its inherent promise. While that is a shame, that doesn’t mean you should avoid the experience altogether. Bioshock Infinite is definitely a game worth playing, it is simply not worth playing for full MSRP, or even half that amount. If you can wait, you should. And as far as Sessler and the others predicting Bioshock Infinite’s long-term “lionization” and discussion “for years to come,” well… I think they will be waiting for that for quite some time. Perhaps until the heat death of the universe.

Bioshock Infinite Impressions: Day 1

I am hoping things get better than this.

Granted, I do not consider myself “in the game” quite yet; given how prominently Elizabeth displayed, I’m guessing everything up to her will still be considered tutorial. Of that tutorial though, some things are becoming more and more clear to me:

1) Fantastic visuals have the opposite effect on me.

The visuals, objectively, look awesome. The visuals are also immensely distracting. When I am trying to shoot a guy with a pistol, seeing a particularly well-done cumulus cloud in the background adds nothing positive to that gameplay experience. I had the same issue with Battlefield 3 in the beginning – it was difficult to “see” enemies amidst the Ultra-High settings – so this is something likely to get better over time, e.g. when I start tuning out the visuals.

Just gotta ignore all of this.

Just gotta ignore all of this.

Incidentally, I never had this problem with Borderlands 2, and I think that is because the moments of cel-shaded beauty are more spaced out, and act as breaks inbetween more functional battlefield back-drops. I don’t want ugly games, of course, just games where you are not overloaded with visuals at time when precision and quick reflexes are called for.

2) Thus far, the theme isn’t all that compelling.

In the original Bioshock, the theme was taking Libertarianism to its extreme conclusion – a gaming subject matter particular novel for its time. Bioshock 2 introduced the opposite, showcasing the nefarious side of Collectivism. While it is still early yet, Bioshock Infinite’s theme of religious extremism slash Isolationism slash historical fetishism is… somewhat rote in comparison.

Bigoted religious cults in videogames are right up there with zombies, Nazis, and demons when it comes to stereotypical bad guys. This might be the first time we have seen such (intentional) overt racist imagery in a game, but I feel like I can already plot the rest of the story from here. There is still plenty room for surprises… yet Bioshock Infinite is going to have to surprise me, lest its thematic message be no different than the one you have seen dozens of times in the 32-bit era, or watching Glenn Beck for more than ten minutes.

Also… aside from some nice clouds and sunsets, so far the underwater motif of the original Bioshocks feels worlds better than open sky of Infinite. There was implicit danger at all times in the ocean, along with a sort of fantastic plausibility; underwater buildings are more impractical/expensive versus impossible. Conversely, in Infinite, sometimes it is not especially noticeable that you are in the air at all. Just look at that screenshot up there again.

3) Console Port

The very first sign a game is a console port is when it is Checkpoint-based. My dismay at discovering there was no Quick-Save was both immediate and visceral. Technically Borderlands 2 is also Checkpoint-based, but the difference is that A) those Checkpoints are a known quantity (you know where they are), and B) you can still save at any time when you Exit the game.

Ugh, really?

Ugh, really?

I am going to trooper on, of course, and perhaps it is a little unfair of me to expect brilliance from Minute 1. But given that I broke my Day 1 Embargo for Bioshock Infinite, I am a little bit weary of Buyer’s Remorse. I mean, I passed on Far Cry 3 for $30 for god’s sake!

Here is to hoping that I get blown away in the game proper, instead of musing as to whether I might have more fun playing Recettear like I was two days ago.