If you’ve been reading this blog, you probably know by now that I’m a big Yakuza mark. Love the games. I love the deep social conspiracies, I love the badass manly drama, I love the big dumb crazy sidequests, I love the action, I love the tone shifts, I love the gameplay, I love the world, etc. A new Yakuza game came out a few weeks ago. And it reflects a big shift for the series. So much so that the localized version completely removes the sequel number from the title, opting to be released as Yakuza: Like a Dragon rather than having it a proper Ryu ga Gotoku 7 as it’s called in Japan. Yakuza 6 provided a soft end to the saga of Kazuma Kiryu, meaning this game introduces a new lead character for the series and with it a whole new story thread. And the gameplay’s been changed up so significantly it’s not even in the same genre as the rest of the series anymore.
Well, with such a monumental step for one of my favorite series, I felt it only right that I give my esteemed judgement on how well they did. Because who else understands and appreciates this series more deeply than I do? Nobody I know, that’s for sure. My word on this is pretty much the bottom line. I play through these games pretty slow, though, take my time, explore every inch of it until I am satisfied, so if you want the full review, that’s going to be a while off. But here’s my impressions of this new Yakuza not-7 from my playtime so far.
With Kazuma Kiryu out of the main event picture, Yakuza: Like a Dragon has us in the shoes of new series protagonist Ichiban Kasuga and his hair. I like Kasuga. Not so much his hair. For the most part, the Yakuza series has been really reliably good with the characterization, writing, and design of their player characters, and Ichiban Kasuga is no different. He’s got a heart of gold and an ass of dumb, and he’s very outgoing, kind, and earnest, and seems not to let setbacks bring him down. He’s a very likeable character, and with the depth and development they gave him, particularly in the early stages, it’s clear how a lot of facets of his personality developed. Kasuga doesn’t always make the most sensible decisions, but I found myself really understanding him and his thought process in the decisions he was choosing to make, which is something that’s really not easy to establish with a fictional character. And for as charmingly dumb as he is, Kasuga has a great gift for insight, and it’s a really common plot factor wherein someone is acting brusque and off-putting in an attempt to hide their intentions but he’s able to understand what’s really going on with them.
With the developers seemingly intending Kasuga to take Kiryu’s place as the game lead for future titles, it’s really interesting both how many parallels he has to Kiryu as well as the very clear ways they approach things differently. The basic backstory is the same for both men. In order to protect someone they considered family, they took the blame for a murder they didn’t commit and spent long years in prison, only to find out on release that the person they sacrificed huge chunks of their lives for changed drastically in the time they were gone and now act very much against the values and yakuza family they once held dear. Both believe very strongly in the romantic ideal of the yakuza, and that forms the basis of a plot-long struggle against the reality that these are organized criminal who do horrible things to innocent people for personal gain. Kiryu’s back is tattooed with a dragon, while Kasuga is emblazoned with a dragonfish. Both model themselves after father figures who are in deep with yakuza leadership, and admire the high ethics and nobility they display in their roles. Their backstories are very similar. Yet their approaches from there are very different. Kiryu, through his building of alliances and his just being harder than everyone else was very effective as a yakuza. Kasuga was a horrible yakuza, being too nice to earn much. Kiryu was very well-respected before his fall from grace and infamous and reviled afterwards. Kasuga was unpopular among his fellow yakuza beforehand, and utterly forgotten afterwards. Kiryu was stoic and reserved. Kasuga is expressive and a giant dork. Kiryu’s largely self made, whereas Kasuga relies on the assistance of others. Kiryu made things go right by having a highly developed moral code and being strong enough to crush whatever goes against it. Kasuga, at least so far, makes things go right by using his background to understand others and taking bold action to bring them around to his point of view. Kiryu was laser-focused, whereas Kasuga rolls with changes and takes a more short-term mindset. It’s starting out with the basics of a similar story, but their divergent personalities end up making them approach it in very different ways.
Akihiko is basically the ace of your group. Which is fitting. He is left-handed, after all, a member of that genetically superior race. Dude is good at nearly everything. He’s an excellent boxer, and is riding on a 16-match win streak as of the game’s start. He’s a great combatant against shadows as well, shown taking them on without backup in the game’s opening act and being one of two people you need available to be allowed to take on the tower of Tartarus in the early game. And he’s got a sharp mind and a stable core, to boot, coming up with great tactics on his own while also keeping S.E.E.S. emotionally grounded during its most difficult moments.
Unfortunately, Akihiko’s also the character most ruined by the sequels completely discarding a lot of what makes him special and the character growth he went through here in favor of over-emphasizing just a few strange moments from him. So let’s go over just who Akihiko is in Persona 3.
The big, central thing to Akihiko’s arc and personality is his constant drive for self-improvement. He’s incredibly competitive, although it often seems that he’s competing more with himself than others. He often drives others to do the same as well, taking on a sort of mentoring/managerial role. He’s the one who guides and protects you as you’re new to the art of shadow-fighting, introducing you to all the resources S.E.E.S. has mustered thus far and making sure you’re adequately prepared. He also takes a direct hand in helping the academically-challenged members of S.E.E.S. prep for big tests. When others are trying to temper your expectations of an upcoming athletic meet you’re competing in in the face of the stiff competition you’re set to face there, he’s the one to encourage you most whole-heartedly. His drive to improve does go too far at times, seeing him take risks alone that others are really uncomfortable with and leave him injured, refuse to rest to allow his injuries to heal, and do make him seem insensitive others when they think he’s focusing on the wrong things. It can also make him a bit single-minded. Shinjiro does remark at one point that he is so focused on the future that seeing him think about the past even a bit means that something is dearly wrong.
The game dances around this a bit, spending a lot of time hinting that Akihiko’s got some traumatic events in his past, before coming out that this drive for self-improvement comes from the death of his sister in a fire. It seems they were living at an orphanage at that point, but otherwise, there aren’t a whole lot of details to go around on it. He felt a whole lot of guilt for not being able to save her, and devoted everything to getting strong enough that he’d never lose someone like that again. That pursuit of improvement has its good and bad points throughout the story, as seen above, and continues up until the death of one of his closest friends, Shinjiro. At that point, he’s forced to come face-to-face with the fact that, as powerful and skilled in so many different ways as he has gotten, there are things in life that he will still be completely unable to prevent. His pursuit of improvement as a safety measure will never be absolute, and he won’t be able to save everyone important to him from everything arrayed against them. At that realization, he recommits himself to fighting against the dark hour, knowing that he’ll need to find a new way to live once its done.
And with that, maybe you can see a bit why I find the ‘Let’s eat protein! Train all the time! Fight fight fight!’ personality he adopts in Persona 4 Arena and Persona Q so disgusting.
Man, it’s been a while since I’ve done one of those business analysis posty things. Do you remember those? How I would use my business education and past experience as an entrepreneurial consultant to sound smart while talking about video game business things and everyone thought I was so cool? Yeah, good times. So let’s do that again. Because I’ve got some thoughts. About a thing.
And that thing is the Epic vs. Apple lawsuit.
And, looking back on that post after I’ve written the thing, those thoughts are really rambling and I’m not sure what kind of point I was trying to make, but hey, it was on my mind and now it’s out here so I hope you enjoy.
Now, going into this, I should put in a couple of caveats. Epic has chosen to make their case in terms of antitrust law. Now, my education did include a class in business law, but we didn’t devote a whole lot of time to antitrust, and my work following that was largely in small business and microenterprise and other areas where that sort of thing just doesn’t come up too often. Also, I hate antitrust law. So I’m haven’t devoted any more time to looking into it than is required to pretend I know what I’m talking about and properly enjoying the drama of this case. I’m going to seem like I’m well informed here, probably. But keep in mind that I’m not, and it’s not especially important to me that I am, really. So although I am incredibly wise and intelligent and sexy and you can usually put a lot of trust in the things I say, don’t base any judgments on what I’m talking about with regards to the law, here. Also, there’s a bunch of other factors I could look up here, like the contents of the emails between Epic and Apple leading up to this, but I choose not to. Because I’ve got better things to do with my time. Like making this post. So go me.
Ah, Yukari. In my view, she’s the most realistically complicated character in the Persona series. She is complex and inconsistent in much the same ways that real life people are. She is very open and socialable and popular and has no close friends whatsoever and is incredibly lonely. She’s a caring person who keeps an eye out for the needs of those around her and she frequently lashes out at others with little to no provocation. She is incredibly insightful, often picking up on things that nobody else even notices and remains grounded even when everyone else is distracted, and also fears abstract concepts and fictional spooks greatly. She’s a lot more complex a character than you usually find in fiction. As a very complex character, fan opinions of her also vary quite a bit. Some like her. Some hate her. Some are annoyed by her at first, but like her more as the game goes on and she develops as a character. Some start out a fan of hers, but then hit a point in her social link where Japanese and western principles and values vary greatly and she ditches you if you do what seems most natural and supportive to her from our perspective. Fun times.
Yukari officially joined S.E.E.S. a short while before you did, although she’s been on their radar for a while before. She just recently awakened to her persona before the start of the game, and isn’t yet adept at facing down the emotional hurdle required in summoning it. When Yukari was a kid, her father was one of the scientists working on the Kirijo Group’s Shadow project, the thing that ended up creating the Dark Hour in the first place. When things went south there, the only thing the public knew was that there was an explosion that killed a lot of scientists, for which the survivors used Yukari’s dad as a scapegoat, posthumously. Because we’re dealing with a society that’s horrible and hateful in this game, although Yukari’s dad also died in the blast, everyone around treated Yukari and her family horribly because of it. Between the grief from their loss and the combination of pity and hatred they faced, they had to move quite a bit of times, preventing them from building any real connections with anyone. In her grief, Yukari’s mother sought solace in a series of short-term romantic entanglements, which led to Yukari being neglected, at least in her view. Yukari started living alone, some time before starting at Gekkoukan High School, and it seems she and her mother rarely talk, now. Ten years after her father died, Yukari gets a time capsule letter he left for her, full of good feelings and love, and with that, Yukari doesn’t believe he really could have done the things he’s been accused of, and, knowing his experiments were tied with Gekkoukan High School somehow, enrolls there to figure out what exactly happened.
So, Dead Cells is a roguelike action platformer with some Metroidvania elements. It’s awesome. Sorry for spoiling the rest of the review there.
It’s also hard, as befits a roguelike. But sometimes you have to play and beat those hard games. Because that’s how people know that your penis is big. Even if you don’t have a physical penis. Your metaphorical penis is big. The penis of your soul.
Anyways, Dead Cells is really a great model of what makes roguelikes so enjoyable to play. For those who aren’t super familiar with the model, let’s go through what makes a roguelike a roguelike. The model traditionally built around having a high degree of challenge, a very high skill ceiling, and permadeath, meaning that the games are very hard and if you die you’re right back at the beginning, but there’s a lot of room for you to get very very good at them and they’ll throw challenges at you for near every level of skill. Given that you’ll be dying and going back to the beginning a lot, the model makes heavy use procedurally-generated levels (well, at least semi-procedurally generated, a lot of games will cheat by just having premade rooms connected in a randomized layout) and randomized gear and resources, which cuts down on the repetition by changing up the levels and your playstyle each time. In fact, the randomized gear adds a lot to the gameplay of the model, as you have to try out and adapt to a lot of different capabilities and your strategy needs to adjust constantly to the specific things your character is capable of. In more recent games, roguelikes have started adopting a practice of having you collect resources in each run that unlocks upgrades or new weapons or whatnot that linger between characters, meaning the game will grow as you play it more. Success in a roguelike usually relies on three factors, your knowledge of the game and its future possibilities and various microcomponents, your ability to use that knowledge to make strong decisions about how you’re building your character with the limited and randomized resources available to you as well as your decisions to manage risk, and your in the moment gameplay skills in whatever genre the roguelike is.
So Dead Cells takes that foundation, just as described there, and builds on top of it a very technically solid action platformer. Your main character is… well, a sentient blobby mass possessing a headless corpse, but it really doesn’t control like a sentient blobby mass possessing a headless corpse. Your character is quick and incredibly responsive, and it feels very natural controlling them. It does take a little bit of getting used to, but soon you’ll be zipping back and forth around enemies, dodging through their attacks, leaping through platforms and coming up behind them to bring the pain in no time. Moreover, this game does a thing. A thing with speed. Every time you kill an enemy, you get a speed boost for the next several second. This stacks to a certain extent, so if you’re smacking down enemies over and over again, you’ll get pretty darn zippy, which you can then use to beat the level in record time or to be even more deadly against your foes. Complimenting the great controls and speed here are that your rank and file enemies are very distinct in their moves. They telegraph their attacks really well, both with their sprites rearing back as well as with a nice exclamation point decal alerting you to the attack, even if it’s coming from off screen. They’ll also pause just long enough for you to take a single action, aggressive or defensive, as long as your reflexes are on par. There may be a bit of trouble time as you get to recognize the enemies and the nature of their attacks, but once you learn how and what they do, if you get hit, it’s because of a mistake you made and you know exactly what that mistake was. Usually. Because there was at least one point where I got killed by an enemy that attacked in half the time its fellows did with absolutely not warning. Jerk. But yeah, the game is hugely demanding and its very easy to make mistakes, but aside from those few times, its completely fair in its challenge.
Alright, so this post is proving to be too large and taking too long to write, because it turns out I can run my mouth about things. So we’re breaking it up, rather than going through all the characters at once. Here’s the first bit of our Persona 3 character analysis. We’ll be at this for a while.
Here’s a fun time! Let’s talk the characters! Persona is a very character-driven series, and Persona 3 marks a point in the series where you started going over each of them with a magnifying glass. So what say we dig into them, and see what they’re all about. Starting with the PCs. Well, the PC and the sorta-PCs. They’re not NPCs. But you don’t control them directly. Except for that one version where you do. Uh… maybe I should just lower-case it then. Let’s talk about the PC and the pCs.
Also, another warning here. This is spoiler territory. I would imagine that if you’re going to play the game, you would have done so by now, but just in case, if you still want to take it on, might want to stop here. Else we’ll be revealing all sorts of secrets.
The party as a whole. S.E.E.S. is an officially sanctioned student club at Gekkoukan High School, who apparently don’t blink at having a club with “Execution Squad” in the name. Given the Shadow stuff is all supposed to be secret, I wonder what school staff think S.E.E.S. actually does. Staff advisor is the school principal, Shuji Ikutsuki, who you never actually see doing any principalling, although in my experience the principal’s only duties are to yell at you when you’re having fun and keep you from flirting in the hallways, so… In any case, leadership structure is a little varied. Mitsuru Kirijo is definitely the group’s leader, and she and Ikutsuki are usually the ones to set goals, plan strategies, and coordinate activities, with Akihiko Sanada serving as the group’s underboss, taking more direct action in building up its members and keeping them in line with Mitsuru’s direction. In the field, however, the protag calls the shots, due to his unique wild card ability allowing him the greatest degree of tactical flexibility.
I think S.E.E.S. is unique in that it’s not your typical group of fire-forged friends. Most every other RPG will see a lot of strong bonds develop amongst the cast. Even every other game in the Persona series will have the main cast incredibly strongly together by the game’s end. Except for Persona 2: Innocent Sin, which ended by killing one of the characters and wiping all the remaining one’s memories except for one who responded by turning into a huge douchebag so the rest wouldn’t lead to the world being destroyed again. That’s the odd one out. Anyways, S.E.E.S. is a lot more realistic about it. The main characters do feel strongly for each other, and do develop good bonds among each other, but the natures of those bonds vary from truly being friends in some to just being good coworkers of sorts in others. There’s a lot of intergroup conflict, as you would expect if you stuck a bunch of teenagers together and pushed them to do just about anything. Yukari seems to really hate Mitsuru for much of the opening, before their joint conflicts and traumas lead them to opening up to each other and becoming great friends. Akihiko is welcoming but aloof and doesn’t really get close to anybody except Mitsuru and Shinjiro. Junpei spends a big chunk of time resenting and constantly trying to one-up you before he ever actually gets close. The group starts out rather impersonal among each other, before many, but not all, start developing some true bonds, and they’re not a perfectly cohesive group, in all. There’s times where the group loses their way, individual members drift apart or strike out on their own aims, or something shocks them and they each need to spend time alone to process. It leads to a lot of that good character development that we love in these sort of stories, and also sets this group apart from many others. This is a bit outside the scope of this game, but the Answer shows that the protagonist, your character, did a lot to keep everyone together and moving in one direction; after they’re dead, the members of S.E.E.S. lose a lot of what bound everyone to each other and start drifting apart, although they do find common ground and a good level of trust in each other again when Mitsuru later reorganizes anti-Shadow activities, as seen in the Persona 4 Arena games.
Every member of S.E.E.S. has some sort of complications in their relationships with their parents that lead to them growing and operating independently of them. Some don’t get along with their parents, some have been deeply hurt by them, and some are tragically orphaned. Likewise, everyone outside of the protagonist doesn’t really fit in with society as a whole. Akihiko is popular for his looks and accomplishments but has no social skills, so doesn’t really have any close bonds outside of S.E.E.S. Mitsuru has a hard time relating with anyone that doesn’t have her same upbringing. Junpei is so wild he puts people off. Fuuka is very shy and has a hard time opening up with people. Etc. Between the two of those factors, perhaps that level of disconnection from one’s family and community is necessary to independently muster up a persona in corporeal form.
You know Dark Souls, right? It’s a great game. Absolutely phenomenal. Honestly one of the best I’ve played. We’ve spent some time on it. Well, let’s imagine you’re a game designer. And you look at Dark Souls. And you see how fantastic it is. And you’re like “Aww, I wish I made that.” You find your craft at the top of its form and wish you could be there, making something of that level.
Well, Death’s Gambit is what you would get if you just went ahead and made Dark Souls again anyway, and put your stamp on it and called it yours.
Honestly, that describes the game really well. This is 2d indie action-platformer Dark Souls. Everything about the game, from its structure, to its set up, to its atmosphere, to its means of storytelling, absolutely everything was incredibly clearly inspired by Dark Souls. Even the unique things it does were built on a Dark Souls base, rather than truly standing on their own. For a while, I wasn’t sure what I thought about it. The game is good. No doubt about that. This is a team that was just making Dark Souls in a different form, sure, but also a team that truly understood what makes Dark Souls great, way more than most of the game’s imitators. But the thought I struggled with was whether or not there was a place for a game like this. Like, why would I play a Dark Souls imitator if I could just play the original?
It took a while, but eventually, the unique bits about Death’s Gambit won me over. Particularly, it was the more compact nature of Death’s Gambit that did it for me. I love Dark Souls. It is a hugely dense, long-form game. The run we did here took me over 70 hours of game time, and there are plenty of those hours I didn’t make any real progress in, just trying and failing and learning and trying again over and over. Dark Souls is a huge, multi-layered cake. Death’s Gambit is a cupcake. And sometimes, you just want a cupcake. You get the complete experience in around ten hours game time. Even though the bosses required a similar mechanically complex means of handling, and had the same scale of tension as Dark Souls, they were far more achievable and it doesn’t take quite as much an investment in time to achieve them. The levels have less back and forth, better placed checkpoints, and it doesn’t take as long to traverse them. So yeah, here, you get a lot of what you probably love about Dark Souls, but you’re able to do it with less of an investment of time. And I ended up finding that really valuable. Snack size Dark Souls is really meaningful as well, especially when you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to do the “Try, Die, Learn, Repeat” for hours on end that Dark Souls requires before you complete any particular challenge.
And I do rather like a lot of the unique things it does here, some of which wouldn’t work out in OG Dark Souls. In addition to your starting class being a selection of stats and starting equipment, they also come with their own abilities and skill trees. You can still spec any class however you want and gear them with whatever they have the stats for, but your unique abilities and your skill trees are different for every class, and both give more replayability as well as more impact. I wouldn’t want that in Dark Souls, the ability to design anything however you want there is really powerful to the game’s structure, but it works a lot better in a quicker game. So does the way they’ll sometimes interrupt your deaths to give you a bit of story before they revive you. Your character here is a defined personality with a bit of backstory, which I wouldn’t want in Dark Souls but I feel they were able to make work here. I also have to give particular props to the way this game handles death. Normally, in Dark Souls and all the games that copied it thinking this was why Dark Souls was good without understanding the other factors around this, when you die, you lose all your money/experience points unless you can get to where you were and grab those back. Here, you leave behind one use of your standard recovery item. Which you can choose to pay out the nose with via money/experience if you can’t get those back yourself, so that option is there, but it’s not by default. It still keeps death feeling like it has consequence and impact, but it’s not as punitive and time-sinky as losing your combined cash/development resource. That’s something I’d absolutely like to see more Souls-likes picking up on. Between that and the better-placed checkpoints, you can bounce back from failure with a lot less frustration, which is fantastic in a game that’s built around you failing a whole lot. Honestly, the walk back after Death in Dark Souls was always my least favorite part of the game, and it almost absolutely ruined both Demon Souls and Bloodborne for me. You have a game here that mitigates it very well, while still using the same structure, so… yeah. Good going.
Combat maintains the relatively slower pace, high consquence actions, and generally more thoughtful, tactical feel of Dark Souls, although it’s slight faster. You’ve got a couple of additional factors here, though. Being a 2D action platformer, of course you have to worry about aerial combat and environmental threats. Positioning becomes a lot more important, and you’ll need to know the range and arc of your weapons in a variety of different circumstances, both ground-based and in the air. As in Dark Souls, defense is your primary consideration in most circumstances, so you’ll need to keep an eye out for how you and your enemy will move in all these circumstances as well. In addition to your bread and butter weapon attacks, you also equip three abilities at a time, most of which will have you do a heavy attack, and will often also leave an ongoing buff, debuff, or other active factor for the next while. There’s a fair amount of variety to them, and I found myself really relying on them a lot as the game progressed. In fact, by the time of the endgame, my own success seemed to lie just as much as my designing equipment and abilities in effective combination as it did with my in-the-moment twitch reflexes and decision making.
Presentation in this game is a bit weird. The art is absolutely gorgeous. All over. It looks really fantastic in screenshots. The animation is horrible. The game makes heavy use of rotoscoping, even for basic animations, and with the complexity of the sprites, it looks particularly unnatural to see them wholly shifted into angles. You get stray pixels and mismatched components everywhere. Which is a shame. Because the art design is so good, and the pixel art, generally, so fitting, this game could have been a visual treat, but that ends up just making the poor animations stand out. Music is pretty great, though. Definitely worth a listen.
Storywise, it does have a lot of the opaque storytelling that Dark Souls did so well, giving hints and pieces in item descriptions and bits of dialogue and whatnot, and having a lot of features you come across that are only hinted at, while also having a more clear throughline than Dark Souls had. You’ve got a defined character, Sorun, a soldier of a nation that’s been locked in a decades’ long war with a nation of lizardfolk that had uncovered the secret to immortality. The rulers want the secret of immortality themselves, while Sorun’s looking for his mother, who was drafted into this same war when he was a child and never returned. Sorun, is killed in battle early on, but Death appears before him, and offers him a deal. Death, understandably, isn’t a fan of immortality being out there, and if Sorun is willing to slay all the immortals of the land, Death will grant him eternal life himself. However, he warns that immortality has costs of its own. Sorun agrees, and a contract is signed, although Sorun’s more concerned with his own aims, and uses the quest against the immortals as a means to an end.
The world of Siradon here is also rather interesting as well, and it does some nifty things of its own. As Death warned, immortality has not been kind to its residents, and although everyone else wants it, as you venture inward you find that it has caused this civilization to tear itself apart. You’ll run across high magic establishments. You’ll run across unique takes on standard fantasy settings. You’ll get hints that things aren’t quite as clear as expected, through some enemies and locations that seem way out of place. You’ll end up in absolutely freaky locations that seem straight out of the depths of your fears. And through it all, you’ll get these hints, leading you along to greater places. The locations are phenomenal, both from a soulsian level design perspective as well as from a lore/backstory one.
Also, I’ve got to give good props to the boss fights here. The bosses are the best parts of the game, and all of them deliver a great amount of tension. Some of them used mechanics I hadn’t seen before in a game like this. And almost all of them hit that fantastic Souls level of skill ceilings, where they seem completely impossible at first, but you try, and fail, and learn and grow as you’re doing so, until you earn the ability to overcome them and feel absolutely phenomenal doing so. It doesn’t take as long as Dark Souls did, as I previously mentioned, and they’re not as complicated, but they’re still thrilling fights nonetheless.
So yeah, it took me a while to warm up to Death’s Gambit, but I ended up really enjoying my time with it. This is a game that copies Dark Souls so closely it’s not possible for it to be anything more, but it does feature enough smart changes and care in the design that it does create something different. I could definitely see myself diving back into it, and its more compact design makes it easier to do so when I’m jonesing for some Souls goodness but not ready to make a huge commitment for it.
Yeah, let’s talk about fault! Wow, it feels weird to force myself not to put the capital in there. That’s how it’s intended, but that goes against everything
Anyways, fault is a visual novel series characterized strongly by its sense of world building and science-based fantasy. It’s a kinetic novel, meaning that there’s not a lot of choice to be had, it’s pretty much a one-line story. It runs on the edge of high fantasy, you see a lot of immensely magic-based societies and the plot revels in introducing these incredible and well-thought-out settings, although I would say the story pulls back from the typical trappings of a high fantasy story by placing most of its story-telling emphasis on the secondary cast. Your primary cast do have a definite story as well, but it’s told slowly over multiple entries in the series, while it’s the people they meet and involve themselves with that move the plot forward within a given entry.
And as I said, this is a science-based fantasy. Not… not in the sense that the developers have a great grasp of science or anything, but the stories approach their magic as if it was a scientific discipline. Kravting, which is what you call magic if you want it to be magic without calling it magic ends up forming the basis of pretty much all society, and works according to a strict set of rules with various ramifications, requires energy sources, etc. It’s not the easy magic you see in many other stories, although it still does things that are completely wondrous. These limitations on magic, the rules by which they abide, form the basis of much of the story and setting. Conflict if frequently driven by the ill-effects of living in a magical society or the need to acquire resources so they can get the spells they need or spells gone wrong, or things like that. As I said, this characterizes the story, taking magic through to where it’s not just a fantastic wondrous thing but something that mimics real-world phenomena more in an absolutely fantastical way.
Rail shooters haven’t had a great time since arcades falling out of favor. The Wii picked up a few good ones, which makes a lot of sense, as I’d guess that controller was tailor-made to mimic light gun games if I didn’t know any better. But post Wii, what did we get? We get Blood and Truth. That’s what.
Not just Blood and Truth, really. The rise of VR opened up the genre all over again. I can’t say whether they’re good or bad, ‘cause, you know, I haven’t played them. But I can say that VR+Motion Controller+Rooty-Tooty Point and Shooty makes for something that’s just viscerally satisfying. It feels good. It feels right.
Blood and Truth is a Playstation VR exclusive made by the same Sony London Studios that made the Playstation VR Worlds collection of quick little tech-demo games, and specifically, this game is pretty much an updated, expanded version of The London Heist from that collection. The game has you in the shoes of Johnny Shootbangs (note: not his real name), a UK Special Forces soldier who gets a leave of absence and gets called home after his father, the boss of London’s largest crime family, passes away. From natural causes. Kind of unexpected given his occupation. Anyways, you go home to do the family stuff, and one of your dad’s crime captains kills your friends and kidnaps your family-family so he can take over your crime-family. So you have to go shoot everyone until things are better. Just like in real life.
I didn’t actually say that. FBI, please don’t add me to a list.
Anyways! Big thing with Blood and Truth. Think of action movies. Imagine you’re the lead character. This is that. I would say this is inspired just as much by movies as it is by video games. Except that’s almost certainly wrong, and I am never wrong except when I’m doing it deliberately for art, so I don’t say that. But still, very inspired by movies.
So yeah, it’s a rail shooter. Remember the arcades. Like Time Crisis or House of the Dead or Virtua Cop or something. You’ve got a gun that you can point and shoot. Or you can do two guns. If you’ve got the motion controllers, you’ve got two of them, and you’ve probably got two arms, so you can dual-wield like crazy if you want. I want. Makes me feel like a badass. Like I mentioned before, the gunplay in this game feels fantastic. Even better than those arcades. Something about the nature of VR and the specific feedback this game gives really makes it work. Normally, with rail shooters, the game controls the rate of your progression, but here, you do. To move forward, you have to point at a suitable location and press a button. So slightly more interactive than your typical rail shooter. I really have to complement the game on its handling of accuracy. Real-life aiming is freakin’ hard, but this game has it going to where it feels rather satisfactory. There’s enough give that you point and shoot, it feels like you get some real action to it. I’ve had mixed results shooting in meat-space, but here, I’m able to aim well enough to get some real progress, while still feeling like it’ll miss when I truly deserve it. Even dual-wielding, which is near impossible in real life, is rather achievable here. This game feels really good in gameplay as a result. I don’t know that I can overstate it enough. This game feels absolutely fantastic. It’s visceral and hits a really great level of game-feel, like you’re getting enough feedback through sound and visuals that that it seems more than just like you’re some incredibly sexy nerd with a doofy headseat and weird controllers in your hands.
As I mentioned before, this game feels like an action movie. Which means a couple of things, different from your typical video game. First is that there’s actually long periods of time in which you’re not shooting things. Some games, that would be a bad thing. Not here. Honestly, they make incredibly good use of your non-combat time. The dialog in this game is really good. Sometimes you’re just spending time getting to know your siblings, or arguing with the CIA guy who’s interrogating you, or flipping off people you hate, and it works really, really well. The characters, although they largely take up pretty typical archetypes on paper, actually feel rather unique and charming in execution. The story, much like the characters, wouldn’t be much to write home about in summary, but honestly, in execution, it feels pretty solid. In terms of writing, things really shine in the details of the piece. I mean, we’re talking about larger-than-life professional criminals and killers whom we barely get any time with, relatively, but things feel surprisingly human in that. It’s the little pieces, your brother’s sense of humor, your rival’s love for his brother and for art amidst his pettiness in his campaign against you, the mystery amongst your handlers and that weird woman working for the enemy, they take this story from a simple one-paragraph summary to something that you can build a connection with. Second, the game is big in setpieces. Every level has at least a couple of big, visual capital-M Moments. Giant explosions or gunning down some sort of heavy enemy equipment or basejumping (which is an incredible experience when you’re using VR to treat a visual-motion disorder, btw) or making a daring escape by leaping on top of moving things that aren’t meant to be leapt on top of. This extends even to the non-combat scenes, which some absolutely fantastic look-what-we-can-do-in-VR interactables that are seriously impressive and stand as examples of what other genres should be doing in VR, even when there’s absolutely nothing that you want to point a gun at.
Hey! As it turns out, with this whole quarantine thing going on, all those people endlessly hounding me looking for romance actually back off for a bit, which means I’ve actually got some time for my hobbies for the time being. Now, I’m a man with many irons in the fire, so that doesn’t mean I can devote everything I have to games just yet, but I have been able to get in a bit more time than usual. And I’ve got some thoughts. As I do about everything. And as all my thoughts are, they are absolutely genius. So I thought I’d share. My gift to you. So here’s another installment of Snap Judgements. Many games! Short reviews! Three paragraph max! Let’s go!
Monster Boy in the Cursed Kingdom
I have to thank Red Metal for this one. He gave a great review of this game himself, one of his very rare 9/10s, then got it into my hands. And you know what? Turns out Red Metal knows what he’s talking about.
So this is an officially licensed and assisted indie-produced sequel to the Wonder Boy franchise. Fan-made products can be a real mixed proposition. Enjoying a game, even enjoying a game deeply, doesn’t give you a great insight into how to build one, and the flavor of any creative work requires such a sensitive balance that is not always apparent to its consumer. So yeah, when you have the fans creating the new media in an established franchise, sometimes it’s good, sometimes it ends up incredibly misguided. And this game, and I say this as someone with barely any history with the Wonder Boy series, is good. Even outside the Wonder Boy history, this stands alone as an absolutely fantastic game. At its core, it’s a very tightly designed Metroidvania built around a character transformation mechanic, where you get a number of different forms with a number of different combat and traversing abilities. It’s a little hard to describe what makes the game work exactly, it’s just really well-designed. You get to use abilities in a lot of really creative ways, but ways that they have great visual cues to indicate to you. Presentation is excellent, with beautiful visuals and music, and gameplay is generally tight. A lot of it works like a more responsive classic Castlevania, you’re up against a bunch of enemies with rather defined movement and attack patterns while your most reliable attack has a very specific range and spread that you need to manage constantly, although you do have resources and tools to extend of change that range. The world is also generally a joy to navigate, and again, it has some really creative puzzles before you.
Which is not to say there’s not some faults in it. It does have some issues. Checkpoints aren’t always convenient, and the game has a big problem with not giving enough health recovery out. The economy gets to be a bit of a problem in the end game, and you don’t get enough money naturally to get everything you might need or want. And the ability progression is a little lopsided, to the point that once you get your late game forms and equipment, you don’t have a reason to use the unique features of your earlier ones unless the game forces you to. But really, it is an absolutely marvelous game, even for someone who’s not a Wonder Boy fan by any means.