You get those strange feelings sometimes. Those urges. Those unusual desires which can only be fulfilled in one way. You don’t need to speak them, I know. Deep inside you, you have a passion, a craving, a drive, screaming at you for relief. In polite society, you ignore it, pretend its not there, but its never far from your thoughts. It’s more than a want, you need it to feel whole. You find yourself saying in private moments, in hushed tones “I wish Aether would explain his thoughts on a bunch of video games in relatively short form.” And it makes you feel dirty. But it doesn’t need to. Those desires, they’re perfectly healthy. You don’t need to be ashamed of them. Besides, I’m here to satisfy. So go ahead. Get yourself ready, and relax. I’ll take the lead from here.
Batman: The Telltale Series
So there was that #LoveYourBacklog event we did a while back. Answered a bunch of questions, talked about my giant but slowly shrinking backlog. One of those questions was leading up to the #MaybeInMarch deal, where you take the game that’s been on your backlog for the longest time, Hitman Absolution in my case, and play through that in March. I didn’t do that. You might notice this about me, but I don’t play by your rules. In fact, I don’t play by your rules so hard, that I instead played through the game that’s been on my back for the least time, instead. So take that.
In that post, I expressed that I had grown tired of Telltale’s usual “Everything is suddenly awful because we said so but really it’s your fault” style of storytelling, but held out hope that, given that they’re working with a property in Batman that’s generally more optimistic than their usual licenses, they’d be avoiding their usual habits with this. And in large part, they did! It trends towards the darker end of Batman stories, overall, and there’s times where things just go clumsily sour and there’s nothing you can do about it, but in the greater context where it’s not trying to beat you over the head with how awful everything is all the time, I had a much better time with it than I had with many of Telltale’s other narrative adventure fare. It’s definitely not perfect, it still has a lot of the omnipresent Telltale Games writing flaws, false choices, and a sloppiness that grows the further the story progresses, but it also has a pretty strong beginning and does some unique things with the Batman property, and I did end up enjoying it much more than I though I would.
One thing I did absolutely love about this game was how it changed the standard Batman status quo. Batman is one of those properties that, whatever your medium of choice, everyone knows, and knows fairly well. You know Batman’s story. You know his character traits. You know his major antagonists. Comics, film, tv, video games, books, beyond, Batman has been in them all. It’s hard to make Batman stories in new mediums feel fresh. Whereas Marvel’s Spider-Man (the PS4 game) surmounted this problem by highlighting a really solid villain from the relatively more recent comics that hadn’t been around long enough to gain such a hold in the public’s consciousness for most of the game in Mr. Negative, Telltale’s Batman gets over it by taking their most famous antagonists and changing them up entirely. Batman and his usual circle of support are all the same, but the typical famous villains for him are completely different. Two-Face arises in a situation rather different than what we usually find him in and as a result you don’t really know where things are going with him until they get there. Penguin has a lot of traits in common with usual depictions of him yet is still completely unrecognizable. Other famous villains show up in roles pretty far askance of what you’d usually find. And the central villain of the piece is both a brand new character and is not at the same time. I loved seeing how they shook up the traditional Batman characters, and that really got me much more interested in it throughout.
And for the record, I’m partway through Season 2 of Batman Telltale now, and although it still does some nice things with continuing shaking up the villains and supporting characters, but, although it was clear they planned for a season two initially, it’s just not as strong as the first. Season 1 ends conclusively, minimal problematic sequel hooks and all, so it’s not diminishing the quality of the first, but it’s still a bit of a disappointment after how much I enjoyed the initial. Maybe it’ll bring it back by the end, though.
Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
This is a really interesting one. To some extent, with the more precise motion controls offered by the Wii Motionplus, this game feels like it’s finally delivering on the expectations a lot or people had before the Wii was coming out. Well, sorta. It still doesn’t work perfectly. Although to be fair, even motion controls now don’t work anywhere near the expectations people had for the Wii. Apparently making reliable motion controls is not easy. Besides that, they took some really interesting changes to the Zelda formula here. Having a relatively small and compact hubworld instead of a sprawling open land. Codifying a timeline for the Zelda series and making this the origin. Having a set of mostly unique and creative items that largely haven’t been seen before. Requiring very thoughtful and somewhat careful swordplay rather than the typical block and hack.
There’s a lot that’s good about the game. And a lot that’s very interesting about it. The art style is really solid, and I wouldn’t mind seeing more of this with future titles. And you know, with Breath of the Wild, we sort of did! Hooray! I kind of feel like I never really got a handle on the swordplay, though. The motion controls were just precise enough that usually I was able to get by, but just imprecise enough that Link ended up taking some unnecessary blows because he just wouldn’t do the thing I was trying to tell him to do. At the time I was constantly feeling like I just needed to learn to handle the motion controls better to get things going. But at the end of the 40 hour game, I still couldn’t have him cut the same direction I wanted him to perfectly.
It also, unfortunately, made the world feel a lot smaller, which is really not what I want in my Zelda games. You’ve got the sky and three major areas that you investigate again and again. They do mix it up in between visits, so those three areas aren’t as repetitive as they would be in lesser games; you do see different sides to it and progress through it differently each time. It’s still wears a little thin, seeing the same areas and going through dungeons with largely the same themes over and over again. In a really strange way, the progression is both wildly changing and really formulaic at the same time. First, it’s the typical Zelda structure, go to each place to find a dungeon and collect something important in order. Then, you find out you need to do something else, so you go to each place in sequence and open up new areas in each place, which gives ou wildly different items and passives, but each still sends you to the Twilight Realm and also has you gain basically the same things in the end. Then you’ve got to go back to each of them for different reasons, once again doing very new things in each place, but then it all ends up progressing the same in the end of each mini-adventure. So yeah, it feels like a weird mix, there. Overall, I kind of like the gameplay but wish it was cleaner and/or I was better at it, and don’t really like the overall progression there. Kind of on the lower end for Zelda games for me, but I could still see myself giving it another go sometime. It’s interesting enough for that. Even if it does have stupid right-handed Link.
Luigi’s Mansion 3
My local library offers video games for check out. That’s super wicked. The future is an amazing place to live in. In particular, given that the Switch is a really great co-op system, Switch games tend to stay high-priced forever, and my daughter’s too young to be able to handle most games well, it’s been a really great resource to test out Switch games I think might be good for her and I to play together to make sure she’s able to keep up and enjoy it before I spend the $60 the games always cost, no exception. And that’s how Luigi’s Mansion came to out hands.
I wasn’t holding out a whole lot of hope at first. I didn’t really like the original Luigi’s Mansion all that much. Nor the brief time I spent with Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon. Luigi’s Mansion 3, though, for whatever reason, really hits the spot for me. I’ve only played a few hours into it so far, before a bit of a vacation ran us out of the time we had in our library term, and there is a threat that a multi-story hotel might get a little too samey after too long, but I’ve been really enjoying the haunted hotel setting, and combat is both more mechanically complex and more action-oriented than previous games in a way that’s really gripping me. I’m really enjoying the character of the game and ghosts as well, and have been having fun with the various puzzles I’ve been coming across, too. It’s good in a way that I’m having trouble pointing out the specifics of now that I’m trying to write it all out, but it’s one of those things that maybe doesn’t really reinvent the wheel, but the wheel it has for you is so darn well-designed and polished that it’s great to see.
This probably won’t mean much to most who read this blog, but if you play your games with kids or non-player significant others or anyone else who isn’t as accustomed to games as you, this is a fantastic game for people of two differing skill levels. That’s kind of rare to find, most games, either the less-experienced player will be completely overwhelmed or the more-experienced one will be faced with a bit of boredom, but here, it manages it really well. Like most Kirby games and some of the classic Sonics, co-op here has it where only one player can truly die, the other can respawn eternally when they run out of health, but things are still really accessible for them to meaningfully contribute. So as long as one player is able to carry it, you can continue to progress, but the other player can always be involved in a very productive way. In particular, again, combat is rather complicated here in comparison to other Luigi’s Mansions, where sucking up even the most basic ghosts is a multistep process, but working in co-op, that multistep process makes it so much more gratifying. It’s really easy to have another player step in to stun the enemies or keep others off your back, even if they’re of pretty limited skill and it feels really satisfying to verbally coordinate with them to speed up the ghost sucking process, or to set the dominos tumbling to end up with your child sucking up like six ghosts at once. I imagine it might be a different experience with two perfectly competent players, might make it a bit more easy, but playing with my daughter, it’s a blast.
One frustration I have with it, which has popped up in a few other Nintendo games I’ve come across, comes with the timing of co-op. I love unlocking new things, and I really treasure it now that companies have taken the usual unlock and put it behind DLC so you don’t see it as often anymore. I’m also coming to love co-op. But having to unlock my co-op does not put those loves together. I see a box, that says it has two player co-op on it. I tell my daughter we’ll get to play together. We get excited when we pop it in. And then my daughter has to watch me play for an hour before she can step in. It’s not a good time at first, when we’re expecting something different than it’s offering. If you do want to set the co-op behind some progress, at least hit that flag right away.
Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity
Here’s one I didn’t really expect to like. Musou games are kind of a weird proposition in the first place. I know the engine has its fans, and more power to them, really, but for most, a Musou game is really just cruise control for a really mediocre experience. You know what you’re in for. A competent but not great action engine wherein you’re fighting through thousands of jobbers per level with a few bosses and other real threats thrown in, with tons of playable characters who vary in some degrees but otherwise play mostly the same. It’s kind of interesting that they’ve gotten so big, but they do play nicely with really fandom-driven licenses that have tons of characters, where you can enjoy getting a pop from seeing all those characters you like do cool things, but it generally doesn’t have the depth to make a good, long lasting experience. They’re interesting occasionally, but not a structure I ever really expected much from.
Well, here comes Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity. Which is the best Musou game I’ve ever played. Which is a bit like saying “You don’t get a C! You get a C+!” with a weird bit of gusto, but really, this game is good times. I’d go above a C even. It’s a B+ game. Pretty solid. And I find myself coming back to it a lot. It’s all standard Musou gameplay, but there’s stuff in there that really elevates it. Combat feels satisfyingly punchy. It’s got a good weight to it, and each character has their own unique take on how their combos work that keeps it from getting monotonous, which is a big pain point with a lot of other Musou games. For that matter, I really enjoy just how diverse each character is. Everyone has the light-light-light-heavy style combos, but each character has their own unique take on how their individual combat flow works that everyone feels very different. Hell, even just Link, with his three different weapon styles, feels very different between them. Everyone’s got a unique mechanic to their combat, and it works really nicely as you’re bopping between them. Items, too. Much like in the original Breath of the Wild, everyone gets a shiekah slate with the same four abilities in it, but everyone uses them completely differently. Like, while Link will chuck remote bombs at an enemy, Zelda will instead summon a giant robotic bomb, and Mipha will rain bombs down from above on her enemies. There’s so much variety in this game that even while you’re fighting the same enemies over and over again, it never feels too samey.
Where the original Hyrule Warriors was a fanservice dream, you could tell that the developers really loved the Zelda franchise, Age of Calamity is a game that goes beyond it and absolutely ADORES Breath of the Wild. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a game’s core mechanics and flavor translated into a whole other genre quite so well. The game is very different from the original Breath of the Wild, yet it feels so much like it. The menus, the sounds, the characters, the navigation, all of it feels so familiar while being in a new setting. The half-prequel half-alternate history setting really does it well, too. The original Breath of the Wild has a lot of really under-utilized characters from Link’s past, and seeing them set in this retelling of the events leading up to Link’s sealing and loss of memory is really refreshing and makes me want to go back and experience the original some more. I do think it’s maybe a bit reserved in that, it doesn’t take the characters any farther than Nintendo already did in their game, so you’re not seeing any new sides to anyone or anything and I’m really missing the lack of details on that Link-Mipha romance that was really heavily implied in Breath of the Wild, but maybe that’s still to come for me. It’s amazing that, even though they’re pretty clear this is not strictly the events leading up to Breath of the Wild, they were allowed to explore that period so earnestly in what’s usually their non-serious line of fanservice games in the first place, so I’ll take what I can get. Even if it does have stupid right-handed Link.
Left 4 Dead 2
There was a period of my life in which I played a fair amount of Left 4 Dead, original flavor. I won’t say I was a complete devotee, but I went through each of the maps several times over. Really enjoyed that community, where your drop-in multiplayer partners were incredibly supportive, and it was a blast joining together with strangers to get through whatever challenges you’re facing. I normally hate multiplayer with strangers, but Left 4 Dead showed me the good side of it. Then I moved onto Left 4 Dead 2, and the community was all the dumb try-hards or trolls, and I got banned from a game for trying to help a partner make it to the end instead of abandoning him and rushing through myself, and I figured this was exactly the sort of thing I hate about online multiplayer in normal times.
Well, years later, here I am checking back in. And the community has grown a lot more lie original Left 4 Dead used to be, when I was playing it for the first time. More trolls than I remember there, but I only ran across one group of hateful try-hards. The rest were all just as supportive as I remember in my best times with the original. And honestly, that was a really heartening experience in these quarantine times. When we can’t see anyone in person and anybody we run across could be death in disguise, joining up with strangers and having them watch your back as you mow down zombies… well, it really meant something to me. I had some real human connections through this game, in a world where that’s become rarer and rarer. And we used that to slay zombies all the better.