The Free Games Faceoff

The Epic vs. Apple trial came and went back in May.  We won’t have a decision for some time yet, and if you want the legal analysis of it, there’s plenty of better educated (maybe) places you can go elsewhere for it.  But, in between all the grown professionals degenerating to high school level drama, a whole bunch of private information was revealed, as is common for these trials.  One of those bits was that Epic Games had spent $11 million dollars in its first nine months on the free game giveaways they do every week.  Which is a lot of money.  As you may have guessed.

PCGamer put out an article around the time that was revealed raising the question of how many of those games have their staff, you know, actually played?  And the answers were, univerally, few to none.  And had me thinking as well.  I’ve been picking up on Epic’s Free Games pretty religiously.  I have this thing, where if you offer me a free game, I’m probably going to take it.  So right now, I’ve got a library with Epic Games Store of 160-something games.  None of which I’ve spent a dime for.  How many of those have I actually played?  Exactly 10.  

Now, to be fair, some of the games in my EGS library are backups of games I own in other formats or storefronts, which I redeemed because consoles might break down or discs scratch, and I don’t quite trust a service like say, Amazon to keep their games launcher active in perpetuity.  So those shouldn’t really count.  And given how common it is for players, PC players especially, to have massive backlogs, to the point of being a joke these days, many of us have already got a glut of choice, and although we might be interested in the games we’re picking up, if it’s not one we’ve chosen ourselves, it’s not likely to be at the top of the to-play list.  And frankly, you get a lot of free games through Epic Games Store.  1-2 a week.  If you habitually add them to your library whenever they’re available, as I do, it’d be very difficult to keep on top of all of them unless you were focusing all your play time on the Epic Games Store exclusives.  

But, all of that also applies to Amazon’s Twitch Prime/Prime Gaming service.  5 free games a month, at least, if you have an Amazon Prime subscription.  I’ve built up a massive library through them without spending a dime.  And yet, although I’ve still have more unplayed than not, I’ve played around 20% of my Twitch Prime library, well more than the 6% of the EGS.  And that has me wondering, why is that? Epic’s giveaways are generally of higher-profile games, giving out a lot or really notable, if mildly aged, AAA productions and some notable darlings as opposed to the mostly unknown indies you get through Amazon. You’d think I’d be going for the more known quantities. But I don’t.  And I know why.  Because I’m a genius.  

I like starting up new games.  Getting into something anew, learning brand new systems, and going through the generally more highly polished opening stages of the game is good times.  And it can be extra fun trying out a completely unknown game.  So sometimes, I just get in the mood to pull something I’d never heard of from my library and give it a try.  Usually kind of a whim of the moment thing.  The thing about digital games though, as well as current gen gaming in general, is that it requires a bit of lead time.  Games have to download and/or install. How much time specifically depends on the game.  Could be mere minutes, or it could be, on my slow rural internet, an all day affair.  Epic Games Store is definitely a much more robust launcher than the Twitch Desktop App I use for my Prime Gaming, but one really basic feature that Twitch has and Epic doesn’t is that it’ll let you know how big the darn game is before you start installing it.  How much downtime you’ll need in advance.  And for my whim-based “I’m gonna wanna try something new in like 15 minutes” tastes in those moments, being able to see what games I can actually get ready in that time is invaluable.  

The Epic Games Store launcher has had, in my experience, some reliability problems as well.  There was one notable time where the whole thing hardcore crashed on me, and required a reinstall to work again, in the process severing its connection to every single game I installed through it and requiring a lot of manually sorting through program files to get my hard drive space back from those then-inaccessable games.  And even without that, the Epic Games Store app takes a long time to load, even when I’ve got a shortcut to the game I want to play.  It’s got a lot of other features that Twitch Prime does not, like the super valuable ability to pause a download, but overall, it’s not an easy one to work with.

The Epic Games Store overall has been an experience that Epic is obviously putting their big fat Fortnite profits towards bringing people to and getting initial customers from, but not so much into making an easy or pleasant thing to use.  I’ll keep going for it as long as it continues to give me free games, such as it is, but I imagine usage rates are probably still going to be low until the storefront gets a bit easier to use.  Until then, the Twitch Desktop App may be a bit clunky and featureless, and obviously not especially meant as a game delivery service, but it gets me what I need in a more convenient manner.  And my games used seems to reflect that.

A Grinding Pain

I don’t like grinding.  Controversial statement there, I know.  Not exactly a whole lot of outlets out there being all like “This game has tons of beautiful grinding therefore 11/10!”.  Once upon a time, I actually rather enjoyed grinding.  Because I was a weird kid.  But particularly on handheld games, there was just something satisfying about having the GBA in my hands and the TV on and being able to pummel goons mindlessly as background noise while watching all my numbers go satisfying up.  I ground my way to a full 150 in my Pokedex way back in the day which is a hugely time consuming feat and don’t let anyone tell you different.  Of course, that was back in an era in which I had few games but copious amounts of free time.  Now, the situation has reversed.  And so too has my opinion on grinding.

The act of doing repetitive activities over and over past the point of enjoyment with minimal new content introduced in order to incrementally make your numbers bigger or gain desired resources.  Looking back, I realize I’ve done it a lot over the years.  The aforementioned full Pokedex.  Getting the Sword of Kings in Earthbound.  Building myself up to be able to take on the post game superdungeon in later versions of Final Fantasy VI.  Running back and forth in the sewers to level my party up until they have the skills I wanted to take down Matador in SMT: Nocturne.  Going through huge long ordeals to get the materials needed to craft better equipment in Dragon Quest VIII, which ultimately killed my interest and led me to quit the game just before it allegedly ‘gets good’.  Spending over an hour dodging lightning bolts in Final Fantasy X.  And I can go on.  Actually, it’s amazing how many distinct memories I have of grinding in games.  Like, all my gaming experiences, and that’s what I devote mental real estate to?  Weird.  Anyways, Red Metal had a game review a while back, I don’t remember which one but will probably update this with the link if he’s kind enough to remind me in the comments, where he talks about grinding as resonating with the Japanese cultural values of seeing results from hard work, and something that’s been frequent in JRPGs because of it.  And that makes a lot of sense to me.  At one point, I shared in it.  A lot of those memories above I look back on fondly.  But it’s not anything I want much to do with now.  

And my recent experiences show this is a practice that’s far from dying out.  Two games I’m currently playing, one from last year, one from a decade ago, both hit a point where grinding was necessary, for very similar reasons and for very similar results.

So, RPGs, right?  Some have more room for strategy and skill and alternate approaches than others, but at some level with all of them, you’ve got a set of numbers and you’re mashing it up against another set of numbers until you get the result you want.  But usually you’ve got plots going up alongside them too.  And when you’ve got gameplay and you’ve got plot, you want them to kind of sort of go along with each other.  Plot climaxes should follow or be followed by gameplay climaxes, generally.  So when you’ve got a game about numbers, that means big important characters should have big important numbers.  Now, your numbers are the most important, of course.  But they might not be the biggest.  So you have to grind to make them bigger.  

I’ve talked about Yakuza: Like a Dragon in this space before.  For the most part, my opinion is unchanged on it; I love most of it, but dislike the combat.  But I’ve also spent 55 hours in the game to this point, so you can take that for what you will.  Anyways, the game is divided into chapters.  I’m currently midway through Chapter 12, which so far, seems like the biggest chapter as far as the plot goes.  The game spends all of its early and mid acts setting up a complex and somewhat nonsensical set of dominoes, some of which it inherits from previous games from idly, and Chapter 12 is where it feels like it starts giving you all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to get the full picture and put together your gameplan for moving into the endzone.  I mix my metaphors like a boss.  Anyways, it’s a big momentous chapter.  And it starts by saying “HEY WE NEED 3 MILLION YEN FOR REASONS AND ALL THE CRIME LORDS ARE BROKE HOW ABOUT YOU GO GRIND FOR IT?”  Well, I didn’t grind for it.  Because as I said, I hate grinding.  Instead, I just spent 20 minutes running my bomber businesses, and got that 3 mil much easier.  So then, after that, it takes you some place.  And you’re like, “Oh man, I wasn’t expecting the game to go here, this is awesome!”  And then it’s like “OH HEY HOW ABOUT I TAKE THIS OPPORTUNITY TO INTRODUCE YOU TO THE PERFECT PLACE TO GRIND.”  And you’re like, “No, thank you, grinding totally sucks.” And then your party members start encouraging you to GRIND but you ignore them because you’ve had no problem with any story encounter up to this point.  So you get back into the plot, which is really moving, and you’re heading to resolve a plot point that’s been hanging over things literally all game, so you move through the dungeon to do that, but then you run into some guys I don’t want to name because of spoilers but you’re like “Oh these guys are here? Things just got like 10 times more awesome now.  And I get to fight them?  That’s sweet!”  But then you realize those awesome guys who absolutely should be a challenging fight are ten levels above where you’re expected to be by this point and have some absolute bullhonky numbers that you can’t do anything about so they wipe the floor with you.  Like, not even trying. If you follow the game path as intended, even doing almost all the side content available to you up to that point, you’ve got no chance of beating them without grinding.  Your numbers just aren’t high enough to match theirs.  And Yakuza: Like a Dragon isn’t a game where strategy and prep work make a huge impact on the momentum of combat.  So you can’t smart your way out of it.  No, you have to take all that story momentum and all those awesome feelings at seeing those two badasses, for whom you’d be honestly disappointed if the boss fight was easy, and put them on hold while you go back and grind.  

And a blast from a decade earlier, at about the same time I hit that point in Yakuza: Like a Dragon, I also hit something similar in Devil Survivor.  Day 3, for which anyone who’s played the game instantly know what I’m talking about, but there’s a boss there that’s already been well established as one hard beefcake, who has shown up in gameplay before and left you no choice but to flee for your lives before him, and who is already prophecized to straight up murder your party at exactly that time.  This fight has to be tough.  And it delivers.  The general monsters around you are a step above the ones you have been facing up to this point and could potentially overwhelm you on their own, but the boss himself goes well beyond that.  Offensively powerful, can hit every member of your group on the map, and invincible to absolutely everything except for a single attack your protagonist has just for this battle.  Now, Devil Survivor is an SMT game, which usually has a heavy emphasis on the mental work over just raw numbers, so there’s still plenty of room to strategize your way past challenges without having to do a huge amount of grinding, but the only attack you have that can damage him?  It’s a physical attack, which means if you sacrificed physical might to make your protag an arcane powerhouse like I did, you still need to back off for a while to go hammer out a few levels you can put in your strength to do some decent damage.  Once again, at a big climactic plot point, but I had to run it back to go spend time doing something of minimal value only to go at it again feeling much more irritated.  

So, I’m not going to say there’s no value to mandatory grinding in a game.  I absolutely hated Dark Souls stupid checkpoint placements, but I do remember feeling early on in the game that there was an odd benefit there in needing to practice with the jobbers and slowly build up resources over the course of replaying familiar sections of the game again and again every time you lost.  But I am going to say I hate grinding, and if it has to happen, it needs to be well placed.  Both these examples landed their difficult spikes, and thus the necessity of grinding, right when their story momentum was reaching a height, and the necessity to take a break from the plot in order to get what I needed to move through it robbed the big moments of a lot of their impact and emotional gravitas.  It was horrible for plot pacing, in short.  And both of these have big story moves following those spiked battles, but it lost a bit of narrative continuity because I needed to stop and grind.  I don’t have a good solution to that.  Both of those fights needed to be hard, and needed to be harder than anything else you’ve faced.  But I do know that grinding is not the solution there.  Both of those imposed grinding at absolutely the worst place, and the stories suffered for it.  

Snap Judgements: Springfell

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.

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Eyes on Transistor

Hey, Supergiant Games has been getting a lot of attention with their latest release.  Apparently, Hades is a good game.  So I thought today, we’d take a look at… something completely different.  

A while back, we took a look at Supergiant Games’ first published effort, Bastion.  I like the game, a lot. And I wrote a lot about it, once! Today, we’re going to follow up on that, by taking a look at their follow up, Transistor.  

Transistor is a pretty obvious spiritual successor to Bastion, working off of the same DNA while really doing its own thing.  In Transistor, you play as a woman without a voice using a sword that is also her lover in a world that’s cyberpunk as all hell and maybe is inside a computer or is a virtual reality thing or something to fight beasties that are probably computer programs gone wrong.  Uhh… it gets a little weird when you phrase it all out like that.  Let’s start over.

In Transistor, you find yourself in the city of Cloudbank, a city where absolutely everything, down to the weather is democratically determined, and as a result, has a bit of a problem with constant meaningless change and mediocrity.  Whatever’s the lowest common denominator catches on the most, and never sticks around to make an impact.  Nearly everyone is registered and set towards two determined goals, and individuals rise and fall all the time with barely anyone caring.  You play as Red, a popular singer and maybe something of an activist who’s become ‘the voice of the people’.  The local illuminati, the Camerata, who want to break Cloudbank out of that democratic quagmire it’s in, attack you, trying to stab you with the titular Transistor.  Your romantic partner, a mysterious man who’s somehow entered Cloudbank without anything about him being registered, takes the hit for you, and his soul is absorbed into the Transistor.  And then the Camerata take your voice somehow.  You escape, get your hands on the Transistor, through which your boyfriend is still able to speak with you, and then you get attacked by computerized beasties as a result of something called the Process running amok.  So, there’s the background of the game.  In much more accurate and describing wordy-things this time around.  

It’s never especially clear what exactly Cloudbank’s nature is, what’s outside of the city, etc.  The game’s short on details in general.  We’ll get into that later.  Anyways, programming themes abound, which does lead to the impression that it’s all software.  Most of the potential interaction points are highlighted using what looks like code, all your moves are code terms, your enemies and so much about the setting are computer terminology, Red, at least, seems rather adept with programming language, etc.  It overall gives the piece a somewhat surreal tone.  Visually and auditorily, the world hear is very somber.  Colors are high contrast, but very muted, and the music, although nearly as good as we heard in Bastion last, are much less solely listenable, serving more to set the mood in combination with the story and the game, rather than standing on their own as great listens.  Between that, the game feels a lot more lonely and oppressive than even Bastion’s post-apocalyptic romp with less characters than this game did.  The music, they do some really interesting play with that I have to commend them for.  Red, your character, is a singer, and you can unlock some of her songs.  Moreover, even though she lost her voice, she can still hum, and will do so along with the background track at the press of a button.  So you get your lead pretty heavily involved in the game’s soundtrack, hearing her voice where you can’t hear her otherwise.  It makes for a really interesting tour through the game’s soundtrack.

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Gushing about Bastion

Alright, boys, girls, ladies, and gentlemen, I think we need to set some ground rules here.  Normally, I wouldn’t say I entirely adhere to the traditional review format, but with my “Eyes on” pieces, I like to take things as objectively as I can when looking at an inherently subjective medium.  But try as I might, I can’t really do that today.  Not with this piece.  I absolutely love Bastion.  And I love it for reasons that are a bit hard to articulate, and definitely aren’t universal.  It connects with me in a particular way.  A way others share, absolutely, so it’s not perfectly unique to me, but it’s a way that not everyone is going to connect with.  But maybe some of you reading this would!  So, in order to bring some light to it, I’m going to talk about Bastion today.  But keep in mind, this is going to be less a review, and more me just gushing about one of my favorite games.  

The game begins with your hero, the Kid, waking up after the Calamity, an apocalyptic event that blew his home city to pieces and turned most of the people therein into statues of ash.  In third-person isometric action gameplay style, the Kid then makes his way to the titular Bastion, which was supposed to be the safe haven gathering spot for the city in the event of disaster, accompanied only by the ongoing narration of Rucks.  Upon reaching the Bastion, the Kid learns that it has a function that can maybe do something about all of this, but it’s incomplete, so he needs to venture off to the various parts of the territory that had been sent sky high to regain the pieces it needs to work.

One of the most striking things about Bastion is how much it leverages its unique character.  This most notably presents itself in the aforementioned ongoing narration.  Rucks is, for the most part, the only character in the game to get any lines and personality, but he’s showing it to you constantly.  As long as you’re continually moving forward and you’re outside of fights, he’s usually commenting on whatever’s going on.  Your actions, the surrounding area, the backstory of the city and the calamity, the motivations of the enemies you’re facing, everything.  All of your interactions with the world and people around you that go beyond hitting them with a hammer are relayed to you by the narrator rather than you seeing them directly, which in most instances would be absolutely frustrating to get through, but Rucks has such flavor to him that the game makes it work.  The voice-acting, direction, and writing of the narrator is so beautifully on point, and it adds so much life to the game.

It helps that Rucks has a lot of good material to work with.  The setting is a very interesting and unique one.  It strikes me as being the type of place you’d see more often if the standard fantasy tropes were influenced by early American culture more so than Western European.  The city of Caelondia was founded by pioneers from outside the area, and grew into a major economic and technological center in the world.  They originally bought land from the natives to it, then ended up having a lot of friction with them.  The city grew large, but it still had a lot of wild, untamed areas, of which many people were set to explore and master.  Judging by Rucks, the people of Caelondia have a southwestern twang to their voice, and you see railways, revolvers and muskets, and other standard from the Wild Western genres.  The major god of the parts is stylized as a ranch-style bull.  One of the locations is called a Melting Pot, another is a straight up bayou, you take barges down big rivers, etc. If you mixed the classic western with fantasy, you might get what you see here.  That, and the interesting applications and hints of a guild structure, the variety of items and descriptions you find, and the way Rucks adds so much character to even the simplest of things ends up making the game world so interesting.  

The story’s really solid as well.  It’s a lesson in minimalist storytelling, you only have four real characters, and everything is filtered through the viewpoint of a single one of them, but it ends up having a real impact in its execution.  You get hope, guilt, betrayal, redemption, sacrifice, salvation, all flowing into each other really well.  In optional challenges, you can explore everyone’s backstory as well, which proves itself to be really well thought-out and rounds them out as characters while also tying them into their role in the current plot really well.  It makes them all, and their actions, seem very relatable, whatever they end up doing.  Without spoilers, the endgame in particular makes me want to chef kiss at how it plays out.  It really uses the imagination well, leaving just enough gaps for you to fill things in and bring things more to life in your head, without underexplaining anything or avoiding conclusions.  It also has some capital letter THEMES, and it hits those beautifully.  It really doesn’t feel like the freshman effort it is by Supergiant Games; the game moves its pieces around that central theme so adeptly I’d swear the team was all old hands at this. It really works best because it’s a somewhat short game, and has so few moving parts, as I feel like if they made it more complex than it was it’d all start to fall apart.  As is, the basic elements of the plot may be things you’d see in many other places, but the way it’s handled here really sets this game apart in terms of storytelling.  

Beyond that, the music of this game is absolutely stellar.  This game has one of my absolute favorite soundtracks, and it’s probably the one I’ve returned to most often over the last decade.  The southwestern instrumentation lends a lot of the songs a classic western feel overtop the modern and industrial foundation while all maintaining a pulse-pounding energetic feel.  They evoke emotions and a sense of action very well, and truly add a lot to the piece.  The songs with vocal tracks also provide a bit of a glimpse into the characters behind them, and really gain a lot of emotional grounding in context as well.  So yes.  Music.  Marvellous.  Dig it.

And I’ve been talking about the presentation a lot.  You’re probably wondering about the gameplay.  And you know, it’s good.  Not quite as overwhelmingly stellar as the narration and music, but it’s still very solid.  Walking around and bashing things feels very good, and you’ve got a great degree of control over your character.  The Kid is pretty slow in ground speed, but that seems deliberate, and puts a greater emphasis on using your other tools for defense than just walking around attacks.  There’s a really big variety of enemies for how long of a game this is, so you’re constantly changing up and adjusting your combat operations.  You get a huge amount of options in setting up your character’s loadout, making the Kid incredibly versatile.  It seems like every other level you get a new weapon, all of which play completely differently from each other, and you can mix and match upgrades to significantly alter their functionality.  You’ve also got a number of buffs you can apply between levels that, again, significantly change the way you play, and, if you’re so inclined, a number of debuffs you can apply to yourself as well.  If you’re interested in a combat systems that gives you a lot of control and is constantly introducing new things, Bastion scratches that itch well.  Navigation is a bit of another story, however.  Between the Kid’s slow movement and the fact that the world is remaking itself around you, it’s not too much fun to be walking around the parts in between when you’re crushing baddies, and it can be pretty confusing to get to where you’re going.  Unless you’re willing to spend a lot of time slowly hugging the walls, expect to leave a lot of goodies behind.  You can buy them later, but that takes resources you can probably put to better uses.  It’s a lot better experience when you have the opportunity to just flow from one fight to the next.  

The visuals of the piece are kind of ok.  They’re colorful, and characters, creatures, and sprites are very distinct, making things really pleasant to look at and really easy to navigate in the midst of really complicated sequences.  I do kind of get tired of nearly everything being made of tiles, but that’s kind of a necessity with the way they set things up here.  Artistic design is a little mixed, most of the characters and some of the monsters do look really nice, others are kind of bland or visually confusing.  It hits right when it matters most, at the very least.

But yeah.  Less of a review.  More of me raving about a thing I really like.  But I REALLY like it.  And now you know.  So there.

Early Impressions on Yakuza: Like a Dragon

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.  

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Epic vs. Apple, Round 1

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.

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Mommy’s not here, gotta fight! The Persona 3 Retrospective, Part 6(b) – Characters: Yukari and Junpei

Part 6(a) S.E.E.S. and Protag

Yukari Takeba

The Lovers

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.  

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Eyes on Dead Cells

Yeeeeeaaaaaah!  Let’s talk Dead Cells!

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.

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Eyes on Blood and Truth

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.  

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