Analyzing Games the Aether Way

If you’ve read some of my older posts, you probably know that I just love to put too much thought to many of the games I play.  Explore the themes.  Read into the little features.  Even when the developers didn’t intend that to be there.  Especially when the developers didn’t intend that to be there.  You probably also know that I am an amazing human being, and every living human either desires me or desires to be me.  You wouldn’t think that would be related to my tendencies for over-analysis, but to be honest, I don’t know how I make my magic work, so it very well could be.

Maybe you want to be amazing just like me.  You shouldn’t.  You should want to be amazing in your own way.  But if that way involves analyzing video games and other creative works, maybe I can help you with that.  Let’s take a case study, and go over the sort of unconscious method I use to dig into the plots, the settings, the themes, the meanings, the hidden little features of things in a way that makes experiencing them so much more meaningful to me.

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To play along, I ask that you give Loved by Alex Ocias a go.  It’s a quick little platformer, minimalistic, not really heavy on the mind, but it has a lot of features that we’ll be able to apply the following lessons to.  So please, if you have 10 minutes to spare, give that a quick playthrough before continuing on with the rest of this post.

Anyways, let’s get going.  You want to analyze a game?  Here’s how I do it.

1: Understand Your Filters

We’re all on our own lives here.  Every single one of us has our own backgrounds, morals, beliefs, values, set of experiences, and whatnot.  Your family, your friends, your work, all of them will have their own, different cultures.  Every one of us has our own path through life, and have absorbed so many little unique bits into ourselves that make up a huge chunk of who we are today.  And that impacts the way we view our media.

Assuming most of us here are human adults, our brains don’t experience most things in a vacuum.  Rather, our brains will process stimulus by comparing it to what we’ve experienced in the past and basing it on that.  Our past experience color and change the way we have our current experiences.  We have lens.  Biases.  Filters.

Usually, this is not a bad thing.  These lens can become overpowering, to the point where you’re primed to see something based on almost no indication and you ignore the contrary and deeper points and you end up having big, dumb, easily refuted rants about the deeply offensive targeted political statements of Princess Tutu or something, but most of the time, they’re just a thing to be aware of.  They can be helpful to you, in fact, giving you an interesting and unique way of looking at the media you’re going through.  And these change with time as well, as we all go through life.  Our understanding of the world evolves, and with it, the way we enjoy our fiction.  To make the most use of them, however, you need to know what they are and where they’re coming from.  Knowing what you connect with and why, what’s going to make the most impact on you and how it gets there, is really the prime step in going for a deeper understanding.

So, in the case of Loved, it starts of strong with just its title.  For those of you who aren’t playing along, a) c’mon, seriously? and b) Loved is a simple platformer where the narrator is continuously putting you down and ordering you to do things which are commonly not in your best interest.  Obeying the narrator adds more details to the environment and gives the interactable objects distinct shapes, but leaves the world black and white.  Disobeying adds color to the world, but leaves things as indistinct squares.  There’s only two characters in the game, you and that narrator, and you’re given very little details on either.  Because of the title, you know it involves love of some sort, and it’s clearly an unbalanced sort of love, with the way the narrator treats you, but other than that, the specific impression of the relationship between the two, that all comes from you.  So who were they?  A romantic couple?  Parent and child?  Owner and pet?  The game gives little indication.  Your sense of their relationship is going to come from your filters.

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Reaching Out on Mobile Games

I’ve invested into my gaming computer, and although I’ll never be an overclocker, I still have a pretty good rig.  With the exclusion of the Virtual Boy, I’ve owned every one of Nintendo’s consoles and handhelds.  I have the machinery to play any Playstation game I want.  The lower section of my TV stand is an absolute mass of gaming equipment, with a web of power cables that put most spiders to shame.  And yet I’ve never owned a phone that I could play any significant games on.

It just never really mattered to me.  I use my cell phone to call, text, take pictures, and idly surf the internet.  If I’m going to get games, I’d rather use a console.  It’s been rare that I’ve felt the need to even download an app, outside of the ones that are tied to my job somehow, but I’ve got my second cell phone provided by my job to handle that and make my pockets less comfortable.

I’ve had this $20 phone I got years ago, and have been really happy with it.  My service provider, however, has not.  They’ve wanted me to upgrade.  I’ve held up, until lately when they’ve announced my old, reliable phone wouldn’t work on their new network, and offered a lot of credit towards an upgrade.

So now I have a nice phone.  That can run pretty much anything.  That I never really wanted, but ok.  Now, players have denounced mobile gaming as being a haven for ‘filthy casuals’, but they denounced the Wii for the same thing, and you know, I have tons of phenomenal games for the console.  So I’m figuring there’s some real gems in cell phone gaming as well.  But I’ve been completely blind to that sphere of the craft.  So I’m reaching out to you all.  Those of you who’ve been riding the cell phone curve farther ahead of me, what games have  you enjoyed on your phone?

Eyes on >observer_

Between Amazon’s Twitch Prime and the various Humble Bundle stuff I’ve been a part of, I own a ton of games I’ve never even heard of.  I decided to start running my way through them.  First on the list, because I organized it alphabetically, was the oddly titled >observer_.  Looking at its Playstation Store page, I see the game bills itself as a ‘Cyberpunk Horror’, with the tagline “What would you do if your fears were hacked” which is not quite accurate to what actually goes on in the game.  But looking at the guts of the game, what really is >observer_?

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It’s cyberpunk as hell, is what it is.  Ugly technomodifications are commonplace, corporations act more like government, a high degree of enforced social stratification, Rutger Hauer is there, you get the whole cyberpunk shebang.  You play as Daniel Lazarski, one of the titular Observers, members of the corporate-owned police force who jack into the chips in people’s heads to experience their memories in abstract form.  He gets a call from his estranged son in which he seems to be needing help, which he tracks back to the most run down future apartment building you’ve ever seen.  Tracking things down there, he finds a headless corpse in his son’s room, with plenty of evidence of foul play around.  Shortly afterwards, the system detects the technoplague in that building, and locks the whole place down in quarantine.

>observer_ was made by Bloober Team, the same folk who made Layers of Fear, a game I actually own twice but likewise have never played.  From what I understand, though, it’s somewhat similar in gameplay.  It hews close to the whole Environmental Narrative/Walking Simulator thing.  When you’re not forcing your way into people’s memories, you’re pretty much just exploring the apartment building you find yourself locked in, searching out clues to lead you to the killer.  It wouldn’t be cyberpunk if you didn’t have technology to help you on that, and true to form, you’ve got three types of visions to work in there.  Night-vision is the obvious one, but you have a filter that highlights and gives extra information on all the technological objects in your view, and a filter for the biological objects as well.  Using these, you can pick up traces that are otherwise invisible to the eye, autopsy the other bodies you find, get a small degree of specified X-ray vision, and more.  The core of the gameplay is largely linear, you’re just moving along the path, seeing the sights, and picking up bits of information here and there that lead you to the next place to go.

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Things get shaken up quite a bit when you’re breaking into people’s heads.  At least in terms of tone.  They’re still crazy linear, and there’s usually much less for you to figure out and more just walking from place to place, but really that’s where this game shines.  You get into people’s heads and you can see their memories.  But it’s not clear, and it’s not direct, and it’s beautifully abstracted.  It’s where the game gets into the whole spooky freaky stuff it trades on.  The imagery it gets into is rather disturbing in the best of times, even when it’s delivering the more mundane moments in these people’s lives.  Early on in the story, our dear Lazarski, cut off from backup and with his son at risk, jacks into someone under situations that are supposed to be dangerous and harmful, and he actually has to disengage the safeties on his system to do so.  This has horrible effects on him, and those same effects he sees in other people’s minds start showing up in reality as well, as the lines between reality and his own mind start breaking down.  The visual glitches and imagery you see as this state takes hold forms some of the more interesting parts of the game.

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>observer_ does explore a lot of the ramifications of the cyberpunk setting it’s using in interesting, albeit generally shallow, ways.  You see the effects of people getting addicted to VR, what happens as body modification gets more extensive, the idea of people choosing to go without implants and being thought of as fringe for it.  Most of it is explored in brief conversations, so again, you don’t get to go super deep into it, but you do get some really interesting ideas coming through there.

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Some places call >observer_ a horror game.  Some stick with thriller.  I find it a little hard to place.  The game wants to be scary.  If it was a movie, what it does might have succeeded.  Not so much as a game thought.  Part of it might be how limited it is in scope.  It feels a lot like it was built under limitations, like a game jam or a NaNo thing.  They had a set amount of time and/or resources they were wanting to keep this within, and they stuck with that.  There’s not a whole lot of assets here.  In fact, there’s only two NPCs that you see outside of cutscenes, two enemy types (of which one is only in one scene), with nearly all your interactions taking place through communicators or beyond doors so you don’t actually interact with much more than voices.  You have to stealth by the enemies, but the main enemy is incredibly simple to get by once you learn the rules it operates with, and it becomes clear some time after they’re introduced that there’s nothing that’s going to happen to you outside of those enemies.  Granted, game overs are really bad for maintaining a horror environment, because they completely ruin immersion, but there has to at least be the threat that the bad things are going to do bad things to you, and the monsters here are so disconnected with anything that they don’t do it.  It ends up being a scary game without much in the way of threat to it.  It can get very tense, but that lack of threat keeps it from being very frightening.

It’s also not a very clean game.  Your eyes are robotic, which gives it an excuse to be throwing a lot of visual glitches at you, many of which can be somewhat headache inducing, to be honest.  Problems come in when there’s plenty of actual glitches as well.  And it’s hard to tell what’s a real glitch and what’s an in-story glitch.  There was a point in time where I used up all the ‘stop freaking my eyes out’ medicine I had to no effect, then continued on, frustrated at the designer’s choice, only to find out later that it was something that wasn’t really supposed to be happening.  Some time later, I spent a good ten minutes in a completely black room trying to figure out what to do, before checking out a walkthrough and figuring out that the game just failed to load.  Kind of put a damper on the whole thing.

Overall, I’d say I had a decent time with it.  Especially knowing nothing about the game going into it, it was a very interesting experience, and you see some real bursts of creativity there.  It’s probably worth saying that, judging by online reviews, the people who like this game really like this game.  I didn’t quite go that far, but if you’re into cyberpunk and environmental narrative spookiness, maybe it’s your cuppa.

Eyes on The Witcher

The Witcher’s become kind of a big name in games.  One of the prime examples when you think of Western RPGs.  It’s a little weird, looking at the first game in the series, and realizing nobody expected that game to be successful.

It makes sense.  A game by a developer that had never done a project from the ground up before that goes deep into the lore of the obscure Polish novel series it’s based on that has never had any presence in the greater market?  Yeah.  That’s not going far.

Except it did!  The first Witcher game is a lot of fun!  And more than that, you can tell it’s made with a lot of love.  A lot of love by people who don’t know perfectly what they’re doing, sure, but that care for the material just oozes out.  The creators are obviously big Witcher nerds.  And more than anything else, they wanted to deliver the feeling of being the Witcher in the Witcher’s world to you.  And it makes for a good time doing so.

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So, to get this going, in this game, you are Geralt, the titular Witcher.  The game takes place shortly after the final novel in the series, in which Geralt, total badass that he is, got killed like a chump by some random farmer with a pitchfork.  Makes things a little awkward that he’s up and walking around here.  It’s awkward for the people in-universe too.  Geralt did, explicitly die there.  Then he came back to life, sans his memory.  This is a plot point.

And there, you come in.  Yeah, typical “amnesiac hero so we have an excuse to explain all the stuff to the newbies” thing, but it feels more natural here than it does in a lot of other properties.  I think the amnesia was better implemented throughout.  You are Geralt.  As a Witcher, your job is to find monsters and witch them.  Usually, there’s people who will pay you to witch specific monsters.  Sometimes, you have to witch people too, in pursuit of your goals, but never for pay.  Also, you get to carry three swords.  At the same time!

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The game’s definitely a lot more plot- and setting- based than it is combat based.  Not that there’s not plenty of combat, it’s just not where the focus is.  It wants you to feel the world of the Witcher.  Which isn’t a happy place to be.  I don’t think it goes full out dark fantasy, but man-eating monsters are a very common occurrence there, people are horrible to each other, and everyone’s survived several different wars in their lifetimes just to get to this point.  The most common enemies you face are either creatures that feed on the dead or are the risen dead themselves.  You spend more time in the grungy underbelly of the host city than any place nice, and even the nice places aren’t that great.   It’s largely typical medieval fantasy, but it’s really interesting to see it from a different perspective, filled to the brim with classic Polish folklore and beasties.  The novels originally were pretty significant for taking the classic fairy tales and giving them dark twists.  They’ve moved well beyond that, and you don’t see those elements directly in this game, but that’ll give you an idea of the level this is on.  I feel like the big strengths of the Witcher’s setting as a whole lie in its subtleties.  It’s not a big super-unique fantasy setting, but it does have some twists on it that show how much thought went into these things.  And it’s kind of neat how much of that world building got carted into this game without being super explicit about it.  I played this game before I ever read any of the books, and it never felt like I was missing out, but now that I’ve read a couple, it interesting to see the little bits they imported without ever bringing real attention to it.  Like, in the novels, the only women that ever wear their hair down are royalty, prostitutes, or sorceresses, all women who are in control of their own occupations and lives.  The game never calls direct attention to it, but they still bring that feature right over.

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The plot is… it’s interesting.  It has some depth to it, although it can be rather simple in points, but it does go in some interesting directions.  It only carries over a handful of characters and one major faction from the novels, but the style of tale it tells fits in with the original stories fairly well.  It is a bit stop and start, though.  Part of that is natural, coming from trying to carry an involved plotline in a somewhat sandbox world, while the rest is just from the plot and game structure not quite matching up.  The Act structure often brings things to a rather abrupt stop and shift, often when the transition is unexpected.  I lost out on both the best weapons in the game because the Act I was in ended without warning before I had all the sidequests I wanted to do done.  In any case, you’ll have long moments of moving slowly, before everything gets moving at a good clip once again.  I won’t call it persistent pacing problems, because it’s always at the player’s control, but you may not always elect to move through the lines as fast as you’d otherwise like.  In any case, it’s a decently ambitious plot, but the Witcher was obviously designed with gameplay progression in mind first, and story delivery second.  Still, it is multi-faceted enough to hold your interest when the plot does arise.  It plays really nicely with Geralt’s amnesia, in a way a lot of games ignore.  By that to mean, it actually addresses it more than twice.  Geralt has explicitly lost things in losing his memory, both becoming more gullible as he doesn’t have his experiences to draw back on, as well as losing track of who he is and his place in the world.  He has multiple conversations with old friends trying to figure out the role of witchers in this world that might be moving past them, and there’s some times where he has to recreate his personality and choose who he wants to be going forward.

Outside of wandering around and talking your way through situations, most of the gameplay comes through combat.  The combat engine here is really interesting to me.  It’s similar to the Dragon Age games, where all the action you’re seeing on screen are really just visual representations of a bunch of dice rolls going on behind the scenes, and a visual representation that doesn’t always match what’s actually going on.  You’ll see Geralt making some total acrobatic moves on his enemies, completely stun-locking them so they can’t even move, and his HP will still be chipping down bit by bit.

So yeah, the combat engine is interesting, here.  There’s not a lot of performance-based stuff you can do.  Essentially, once you’re in combat, there’s not a lot of choices you can make, and your skills won’t make much of a difference.  You get up to a five-hit combo with proper timing, but the timing is very easy to pull off, to the point that when you’re far enough into the game that enemies start presenting a challenge, you can get the full combo almost by rote.  You can switch styles at a whim, but in almost every situation, there’s a clear ‘best’ style to use, so you don’t get much utility out of that.  You do have some status-inducing bombs you can use to really change the tide of battle and a few spells you can mix up in combat, but other than that and your choices of target prioritization, all the other things you ‘could’ do to affect the outcome of battle take too long to have a meaningful effect. The core of the combat gameplay is going to play out as it plays out once you start the fight, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.

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That’s because the big meat of the combat engine is in preparation.  You may not be able to do much to change the result of a combat encounter after you start the fight, but you’ve got a huge amount of things you can do before it.  From the start, you carry at least two swords, one steel for humans and one silver for monsters (both are for monsters), each of which can be forged and reforged with a variety of buffs and effects.  Each of those swords has three styles, one for heavily armored enemies, one for evasive enemies, and one for groups, that get different moves and effects depending on the choices you make as you level up.  And then you get a huge array of potions and blade oils to add additional temporary effects to you and your weapons.  You can’t just take an unlimited amount of potions, those things are somewhat toxic, and as you take more than a handful Geralt starts feeling the sting from them, so figuring out the most effective combination of the limited amount of potions you can take is vital for success.  The game is really big on having you do the in-universe research on the monsters and situations you’ll encounter and figuring out what you’ll need to counter them.  You have to find books.  Knowing about the monsters clues you into what they’re weak to, what swords and styles are best for them, and gives you extra ingredients for making your concoctions.  Books also contain the recipes for your potions, blade oils, and bombs which prove so vital, and enable you to gather alchemical ingredients in the wild.  The in-combat gameplay is very simple, but the mental work before it is anything but, which lends to a really interesting take on the typical RPG sword and claw business.

I guess I should also talk about one of the more famous/infamous parts of this game.  So, there’s porn in it.  Not like, hardcore porn or anything, but, well, Geralt has a lot of sex.  It’s pretty integral to the lore, a chaste Geralt would be like a virgin James Bond.  In this game, when you have sex with someone, you’re treated to a really tame kissy kissy fade out like you’d see most every other time something like this pops up.  And then you get a beautifully hand-drawn picture popping up that shows you what the character looks like naked.  It’s not an omnipresent thing or anything, and, with a few notable exceptions, you can ignore the sex scenes without missing out on plot or in-game rewards, but this is before the age of bathtub Geralt, so the sexual appeal is pretty one sided.  I’m a pretty sexually open person, so getting to know what a bunch of fictional people’s breasts look like doesn’t bother me at all, but if it’s not to your taste, I can’t fault you at all for not wanting it in your video games.

Overall, the Witcher does show a lot of signs of being a freshman game.  Designed pursuing the ideal over execution, the untempered ambition of the piece, and a fair bit of jankiness that experience probably ironed out of the later ones.  For all it’s flaws, it’s a really good game.  It delivers a unique experience, and it’s totally accessible yet becomes even deeper on repeat playthroughs and after having read the books.  It’s grown a little dated, but the game was solid enough to launch a very well regarded franchise and position its company well enough to put together the closest thing Steam has to a competitor.  I enjoyed my time with it, and I look forward to jumping into future games in the series.

Ninja Gaiden

You remember those parts in the original Castlevania, where you had Medusa Heads flying at you from all over the place, spawning endlessly, all of them seeking not to wear down your life bar but to knock you into an instant death pit for the cheapest, most frustrating failure?  Did you love it?  No?  That was your least favorite part of the game?  It really didn’t make you feel good?  Well, the makers of the NES Ninja Gaiden think you love that.  In fact, they’ve developed a whole game around that mechanic.

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Ninja Gaiden hates your controllers, and it wants to make you break them all over your knee.  It was made by taking some absolute horseshit, distilling it into its most pure form, inscribing some coding onto it, and compressing it into an NES cartridge.  Ninja Gaiden despises you personally, and it wants to do everything in its power to make you feel like a worthless piece of scum.  This game thinks fair play is for the weak, and the weak are not worthy of stepping foot into these halls.  This game is hard, and not hard in the way something like Dark Souls is, where it’s actually intended for a human being to be able to beat it.

I beat it earlier this week.  And that feels glorious.

Ninja Gaiden is actually an excellent game, as long as you’re the type of player that enjoys staring down the most blatantly unfair obstacles and keeping at it until they blink.  Mechanically, it plays like a faster-paced classic Castlevania with a more maneuverable protagonist.  Enemies are constantly surging onto the screen, but anything short of a boss can be slain in a single hit, and those you can’t cut down, Ryu’s got the speed and the leaping ability to avoid.  You’re given a selection of sub-weapons that extend your attack range beyond just simple sword strikes.  It has a pretty heavy emphasis on platforming, all the while enemies are charging at you or launching projectiles.

And this game made some real achievements.  It was really advanced for its day, in a lot of ways.  For one, look at it.

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Just look at it.

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The game is gorgeous.  Way more detailed than you’d expect for most games on the NES.  They use the limited color palette very well, and it makes for some very striking visuals.

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Ninja Gaiden is also notable for being one of the first games made to implement cutscenes.  This enabled it to tell a story well beyond what you’d normally find in a game of it’s day.  Granted, it’s not exactly recreating the works of Shakespeare here, but you actually get a decently complex plot out of it, with twists every act, betrayals, murders, surprises, deadenings and re-deadenings, and the super tough ninja Ryu turning out to actually be pretty dumb a lot.

Have I made the point that this game is good?  Because I want that in place before I get into all the ways it delivers its complete bullhonky to you.

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I really enjoyed my time with Ninja Gaiden, but if you’re going to do the same, you’ll need to embrace that part of yourself that enjoys facing down things doing their utmost to ruin you and overcoming them.  Playing this game is like riding the bull, in that you’re finding yourself on top of something that’s focusing the totality of its being into throwing you off and running you through.  I said earlier Ryu can slay most any enemy in a single hit.  The game is designed around that.  Most of its enemies, it doesn’t even make them that hard to hit.  Instead, it seeks to overwhelm you with their sheer quantity, and have them come from multiple directions.  One guy in front of you isn’t so bad.  But when you’ve got one guy slowly making his way at you from one direction, another charging from behind, a third chucking axes at your from a distance, and a bird dive-bombing you, all at the same time, it gets a little more complicated.  And you’d better get used to that.

Because enemy spawning in this game is absolutely brutal.  Every enemy has its spawn point.  Cross a certain part of the stage, and bam!, they’re in your face.  And the enemies in this game are good at keeping the pressure on.  Might be that you need to back up a little to get the space to deal with them.  If you go even a pixel beyond their spawn point though, they’ll be right back as soon as you cross over it again.  Hell, if you kill them while standing on their spawn point, they will immediately pop back up and charge right back at you again.  When their spawn point is at the edge of a gap you need to leap over, that gets to be a problem.

For that matter, you know that comparison to Castlevania’s Medusa Heads here?  Yeah.  Nearly every gap has something on the other side prepped to knock you back into it.  If you play anything like I do, you’ll be losing far more to getting knocked back into a pit than you will to losing your health.  That is a frequent challenge.  Frankly, every time you see a gap, you have to wonder where the enemy is going to spawn while you’re mid jump to try and shove you back into the pit.

And sometimes it gets into straight “Screw You” territory.  One of the things that makes this game work is that it’s actually really generous with it’s check points.  Lose a life, and it only takes you back to the last stage transition you had.  Lose a life to a boss, and it’ll knock you back to the previous stage transition.  Lose all your lives, and you continue on from the start of the stage.  You’re not limited on how many continues you can have.  Each level has 3 or 4 stages, so that’ll usually have you in pretty good position to continue.  Until you get to the final boss gauntlet.  Three bosses in a row, all of which require you to learn their mechanics and patterns a lot more than any other in the game, and if you lose a single life to any of them, you’re knocked back a full three stages.  For no reason whatsoever.  This is especially ridiculous considering that as you’re playing your way back through them, there’s checkpoints inside of that span.  I swear, the endgame benefits so much from having savestates.

And you know what?  That’s all fun.  It’s fun.  I had a great time.  And I get to feel super proud and smug for having beat it.  The game tried to break me, but I am harder than it is.

Microthoughts-Darksiders: Style vs. Substance

I have difficulty mentally placing Darksiders.  Given that I just beat the game, that’s probably a sign that either something’s a little odd with the game, or something’s going wrong with my mind.

You know, I’m not ready to admit I’m losing my wits just yet, so let me make a case for the former.

“Style over Substance.”  You’ve probably run across a bunch of games that fit that description in your player career.  That applies to Darksiders as well, but in a bit of a different position, as far as that goes.  A weird position.  Usually, the games that’ll focus on the art, the story, the FLASH! before the gameplay will end up with creatively bad games.  Games that try at least one or two unique and interesting things, but do it badly.  Not so with Darksiders.  For one, it’s not a bad game.  What it does do, it does well enough.  Just, outside of the visual designs, it doesn’t break any new ground.  The game has a very distinct visual design, and a gameplay that screams basic competency.  Which I’m finding really interesting to think about.

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I get the feeling that the initial creative meetings about the game were a lot of fun.  And the concept art seems like it’d capture every single thing the creators love in characters.  Do you like crazy amounts of accessories, eclectic placement of skulls and sigils, and pure, concentrated 90s antihero dark age comics design in every character and beastie?  All right here.  And you know what?!  You play as War!  Horseman of the Apocalypse!  Which has already happened!  Heaven vs Hell!  In a city in ruins!  You love it!  You know you do!

The game buys into its character and general visual design so much.  You can feel that coming through in its DNA.  They are excited to show you the next Cool Guy, the next crazy detailed item, the next area, every little bit they could thrust some more visuals at you makes them happy.  And they love their little world here, their whole self-contained mythology and the Hell-dominated post-apocalyptic landscape they have you traversing and fighting through.  They are proud of everything behind those two facets, and you can feel it coming through.

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It’s just strange to me that they’re so creative in that area, yet you don’t feel that coming through in their gameplay.  Which to be clear, gameplay is good.  It’s fine.  You can tell they knew what they were doing.  You can’t even call it uninspired.  It’s extremely inspired, by obvious sources.  Combat is a simplified version of the Devil May Cry/God of War character-action stuff.  Dungeons are simplified takes off the Zelda model.  The rest of the world is a basic 3d Metroidvania.  It’s all fine.  But it’s not anything more.  It doesn’t try to be anything more.

I guess the big thing that’s sticking in my mind is the dichotomy there.  When something is creative in one way, it’s often creative in other ways as well.  That spirit of creativity travels across tasks.  But not so here.  It’s like all the creativity got sequestered in the initial design meetings, then forced on everyone else who were just wanted to make something different.  I’ve got this image in my head of Joe Madueira or however you spell that and all the other high level creatives being super passionate about their ideas and the rest of the team just going along with it without really buying into it.  Leaves you with a bit of an odd mix.

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Those characters do look super cool though.  In that 90’s antihero dark age comics kind of way.

Persona Dancing Games

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How did we end up in a world where there are three of these games?

Seriously, a rhythm game based on a series of JRPGs that somehow got successful enough to spawn two sequels?  How did that happen?

So, you remember that time, years ago?  The Persona series was great, everybody loved the last two entries, but the series hadn’t seen anything new except for the somewhat related Catherine.  Sure, they had given an opaque announcement for Persona 5, but we didn’t know anything about it except for “You are slave.  Want emancipation?”  Then one day, bam!  A slew of new games incoming.  Not just more details on Persona 5, but there was an announcement for a Persona 4 fighting game!  Really?  And a gameplay crossover between Persona characters and the Etrian Odyssey engine.  Huh.  And a rhythm dancing game with a new story based on Persona 4.  Ooookay.

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Those were some odd expansions.  The Persona series was very much a JRPG, and that genre doesn’t really have any natural overlap with others.  Sure, JRPG fans might well be fans of fighting games and what not, but there’s nothing that inherently makes a JRPG player more likely to get into those genres.  And yet, as time went on, and we got to see those games in action, well, things developed.  The fighting game turned out to be excellent, even by the genre’s standards.  The Etrian Odyssey mix?  Not so much.  So where did the rhythm game end up on that spectrum?

It’s good, but simple largely due to its delivery method.  There.  That’s the review.  Yeah, sorry, I spoiled that for you.  We’re not doing the traditional review here.   To be frank, you already know whether you want the game or not.  We’re just going to have some thoughts here.

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Frankly, the Persona dancing games are about as good of rhythm games as you’re going to get on the controller.  It’s mechanically sounds, your beats are usually well-suited to the songs, and the gameplay is complicated enough to be involved without being so complex as to be overwhelming.  Like all good rhythm games, it’s easy to get into but there’s a high skill ceiling, and it feels so viscerally satisfying to be hitting a good run.

But, on the other hand, this is a genre that has come to be defined by its alternative control methods.  Your dance pads, your plastic instruments, your microphones, or even without the peripherals, your motion controls or your touch screens.  The Persona dancing games are played entirely with six buttons and a stick.  That makes them way more accessible, but also limits the sort of complexity you’ll see in them.

Persona’s music is great.  Really, one of the most distinctive parts of the games, and for really good reason.  And you get that fully delivered to you here.  Along with some remixes of the classic songs of… kind of mixed quality.  Some of them really do improve on the originals, while others, not so much.  You do get to see some Names in video game composition adding their talents into these, and they hit a good place, for me, more often than not.

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The visuals are really interesting, although you’ll probably be paying more attention to the notes you have to hit than the dancers.  Everyone is mo-capped by a dancer in a different genre.  Most of them are rather distinct, and fit the character really well.  The historically prim and proper Haru Okumura does ballet, for example, while the rough and physically oriented Kanji is into a more wild take on locking, and the idol Rise dances just like an idol.  They’ll do all that in settings that either fall into the game’s story in Persona 4 Dancing or call back to distinct locations from the game for 3 and 5.  There have been plenty of times I’ve watched a replay just to see the dancing again.

The characters have always been one of the stronger parts of the Persona games, and one of the big draws with the Dancing games is they give you more time with them.  Persona 4 does so through its original story, while 3 and 5 don’t have a story of their own but have some more social link scenes with them to unlock.  I am impressed by how accurate their characterizations are, given that other side games tended to… let’s say… highlight certain aspects of certain characters to a degree beyond what they used to have in the source material.  It’s something I appreciated, but it really doesn’t go deep into the characters.  You don’t see them facing their personal challenges and growing as a person the way you do in the original games.  You might say that the Persona 3 and 5 Dancing games have a ‘plot’ of their own, but that’s really setting up for disappointment.  They have some animated excuses for why everyone’s found themselves in a dance party, but those are really better off ignored.  The more the game calls back to it, the more it just reminds you that this doesn’t make any sense, and then the game just gives up on it anyways at the end.  Persona 4 Dancing does have an original story, which I do have to give it props for, even if it’s just sorta… there.

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As I said, you know if you want these games or not already.  These are total love letters to the Persona games.  If you’re a fan, and the music is already drawing you in with its siren’s call, then there you go.  If you’re not already into the original, these have nothing for you.  I really enjoyed my time with these games, because I both love Persona and really enjoy rhythm games.  If you’re not into either, this game is probably not for you.  Again, the rhythm gameplay is simple, but really satisfying, and the music and characters call back to the original games in a way that really tugs on that part of my heart that wants to marry Persona.  And the games are basically the same, so if you enjoy one, you’ll enjoy them all.

Well, mostly.  This is totally a meta thing, but the games do have a bit of a different feel on them.  Persona 4 Dancing All Night feels like it’s experimental, it’s trying a lot of new and bizarre things, and it’s made for the fun of it.  It was made in a time when this had to force it’s own way into the market.  Persona 3 and 5 Dancing came out years later.  They don’t try anything significant that’s not already done in Persona 4 Dancing.  And there’s really no reason they should be two seperate, full priced games.  They came out at the same time, and each seem to be lacking in the amount of content and creativity you’d expect in a $60 game that follows in the vein of something earlier in the franchise.  I still really enjoyed the games, but the latter two just came with the feeling that they were made because they wanted my money rather than because they wanted to deliver a good experience to me.  I have a few issues with tone, as well.  In Persona 4, you already had a pop star as a party member, so that was already established there, but Persona 3 had strong themes of death and trauma, and having that imported into a happy fun dance game left feelings a little off.  Persona 5 fared better, but it was still a little weird seeing the agoraphobic and generally scared of people Futaba exuberantly prancing around in a bikini. I still had a fantastic time with them, and fell so far back into my old OMG Persona All the Time fanhood that I’ve been motivated to re-pick up the old 90-hour RPGs yet again.   For a love letter game like this one, driving me to commit to replaying the originals means that it’s probably hitting right where it needs to.