Eyes on The Witcher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ninja Gaiden

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

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

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

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

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

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Just look at it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demon’s Souls

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Moving into the next stage of my quest to defeat all the games I own, I knew the first game I conquered had to be a statement piece. Something that would make all the other games of this generation, who had been previously watching from the sidelines, quake in fear knowing the unstoppable domination that was coming for them. It was very purposeful that the first game of this generation I chose to target was perhaps the harbinger of a wave of pointedly very difficult games, Demon’s Souls.

I did a bit of research online before diving into this game. From what I understood, the goal of this game was to ‘git gud’. Every single challenge everyone brought up was met with the command from other players to simply git more gud. So by my understanding, as you defeat the challenges throughout the game, you collect more and more gud, and once you collect enough of this ‘gud’, the magic governing this world then transforms your player character into an amazing asshole that posts on the internet without providing anything of value.

Hmm… maybe I’m halfway there already.

Luckily, playing the game, I found that the internet has a very different understanding of the game than what it actually has to offer.

Demon’s Souls is Dark Souls’ somewhat less cool older brother. I love the Souls series’ design philosophy, the idea of building a huge challenge, but having it all centered around the idea that no matter how skilled a player they are, with enough preparation, practice, and patience, anyone can beat any challenge therein. That’s absolutely interesting to me. Things are absolutely tough in Demon’s Souls. At no point is success a given, and there are always true threats available. But everything is made to be overcome. Things are hard, but never overwhelming.

Demon’s Souls also carries with it a very interesting variation in combat design too, one that did carry over to later games. In nearly every combat oriented game out there, offense is key. In most games, your main advantage over AI characters is not that you’re better equipped or innately stronger than they are, although that is often true. It’s that you’re more aggressive than they are. You will launch more attacks per unit of time as one person than they will as a whole horde. You will attack while dodging. You will attack while navigating obstacles. You will attack while maneuvering between cover. You will attack when you wake up, when you eat your breakfast, when you brush your teeth, when you go to work, and every single moment throughout your day, your attacks are key.

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Visual Novel Theatre: Doki Doki Literature Club

Okay everyone! Here’s the deal. Assuming you’re not turned off by the content warnings but don’t even worry about that, I want you to play Doki Doki Literature Club. It’s a free visual novel that takes about three hours of time and is great. But it’s also one of those things were you need to know about the experience in order to be motivated to get it, but you’re going to have a better time the less you know about it when you start it up. So we’re going to do a thing here. If you trust me, just close this now, go download Doki Doki Literature Club, play it, and come here when you’re done. Once again, it’s free.  And it’s amazing.  You have no reason not to.  Don’t worry, I’ll still be here when you get back. For the rest of you, I’m going to post about the game. We’re going to start very shallow, then get deeper and deeper into what this is the further we go. If at any point you get to thinking you might like to check it out, stop reading this post right there, leave me a comment telling me how amazing I am, then go get the game. Seriously. Try it. It’s good. I promise. Just play it all the way through. I know, I know, it might not be your cup of tea to begin with. Stick with it, though. It will take you places.

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If you get to the end of the post without wanting to give it a try, or you do play through it and find you don’t like it, please submit a complaint that’s as scathing as possible to my official complaint box at theotakujudge.com/about/.

Seriously. Go play it. You won’t regret it. Actually you might but don’t worry about that!

Ok, for those of you who don’t trust me yet, here’s getting into the experience.

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Doki Doki Literature Club is a romance visual novel. About a literature club. Full of beautiful women. Who all think you’re great, and want to spend all sorts of time with you doing that thing you like. Seriously, I don’t even know what you’re into, but this place has got it. You like that super energetic child hood friend budding romance? She’s there. You like to help a shrinking violet come out of her shell with your love? Oh, she’s just waiting for you. You into that girl who looks a bit underdeveloped but is still 18 so you can totally talk about the sex stuff with her without being creepy? All over that. Into the over-achieving class president type who has those challenges no one can see? Well she’s mostly wingman here but she’ll still help you get in with those other girls.

Best part of it is that they all want on your jock. Or maybe you’re a woman. In which case they want on your lady-jock. That’s right, you could get a girlfriend! Just pick who you like. Look, you guys are jerks to each other but you’re friends so it’s all banter with her! She’ll bring you cupcakes, and the way to your heart is through your gullet, right? She’ll give you quiet book time in that cool young librarian way!

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And I guess there is that but don’t worry about that! Look, here’s the president. You don’t get to date her because she’s kind of a tutorial/facilitator but look at the way she smiles at you!

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Her skirt even flips up when she does that, for some reason! Doki Doki, right?!

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Corpse Party

I guess I’ve just been in the mood for this. After I finished up with the Witch’s House, I started up its fellow Japanese RPG Maker developed horror game, which seems really too specific to be a thing but it totally is, Corpse Party. Corpse Party isn’t a freeware game like the Witch’s House, so although it’s got the same basic DNA, it’s got a much more professional presentation. And when you think of professional, of course you think of your main man Aether, so given that totally excellent segue, let’s get down to our review of the game.

Corpse Party is a version of a game that’s a remake of another game from like 1996 or something. There’s a couple different versions of the game, and they all seem to be slightly different in presentation. Basically a horror adventure. Trapped in a school. An evil school. Have to pixel hunt and solve the occasional puzzle to get out. All the while avoiding things that will happen to you. Bad things. Just in case you were thinking you might have to avoid ice cream or something. Wanted to be clear on that. The school is full of traps and also haunted and some of the traps might be haunted to. Maybe you’ll get possessed. Maybe you’ll go crazy. Maybe you’ll make the wrong move and find yourself sliced in half. Doesn’t that sound like fun? And if you die here, there’s no pearly gates waiting for you on the other side. Your soul will linger, feeling the pain you felt at the moment of your death for all eternity.

So it goes without saying that the death scenes are some of the best parts in the game. But let’s get into that later.

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So, like I said, Corpse Party is an RPG Maker Horror game. That should give you at least some idea of what you’re looking at. Sprite art everything, text boxes with occasional options the main means of progressing story, simple chase scenes mixed in sporadically, the works. And let’s get the conclusion out of the way here. Horror games are always going to be a ‘your mileage may vary’ type of thing. It’s so personalized, so built on tapping into just who you are and what makes you tick and twisting that against you, that how you react to it is definitely going to be an individualized deal. And I’m going to say that Corpse Party is going to be even more that than most. The horror is really all it has to it. The gameplay is as white bread as it gets, the puzzles barely require thought, plot is totally ehhhhhhh, so it’s all atmosphere here.

And there’s a lot of ways that horror media. Some go the psychological route. Some fill themselves with jumpscares and play off the fear of that momentary panic. Some will present you with things from your everyday life and twist them into freakish interpretations of themselves. Corpse Party goes the route of just being straight disturbing.

The ghosts aren’t particularly scary, in themselves. Nor are the traps. It’s what they do with you that gets to it. You know how most media, right before it does the horrible gruesome thing, will cut away and leave it up to your imagination? Corpse Party doesn’t do that. Corpse Party shows you the horrible thing the whole way through. And the creators are very creative with their horrible things. You get a few stinkers, sure, but for the most part, the game is full of cruel and unusual ways to die, rendered in disturbing detail. You get spared a bit by the fact that it’s all in pixel art, it’d probably cross the line into being rather disgusting if it was in a more representative form, but the descriptions and audio bits do a really good job of carrying that through. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. And if it’s not yours, nothing wrong with that. You’re probably what the professionals call “well-adjusted”. If that is the sort of thing you’re into, well, it’s what really carries the experience for you.

I do really have to give props to the game for its audio design. You don’t get the usual freesounds.com bits here, the audio is used very, very well to match the scenes. They’re unique, and really carry along the activity, and most of all, are the biggest piece carrying along that horror atmosphere that’s so important in this type of thing. The soundtrack is notably strong, as well. The voice acting was all recorded binaurally, meaning that if you’re listening to the game through headphones, you’ll get some pretty sweet 3D sound out of it. I’m too lazy to walk across the room and pick up a pair, but I imagine it’s a pretty interesting experience.

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From the Outside Looking In

A good critic is not a good creator. We saw this well with Roger Ebert, who became one of the most important voices in the film industry for his critiques and reviews, but the actual movies he was behind saw a troubled reception at best. Critiquing something takes a totally different skillset than creating something, which itself takes a totally different skillset than getting someone interested in something. Talking about what did or would make something good in retrospect is a completely different picture that building something good from the ground up. And frankly, creators have the harder job.

I used to follow Shamus Young’s blog pretty consistently. Dude’s pretty prolific with it, so I’ve read a lot of his words. His former LP series was the first Let’s Plays I got into, so… yeah. He’s put a lot of thoughts on video games out into the world, and I’d absorbed a lot of his ideas over the years I spent with him.

About the time I moved on from his content, he was working on building a game of his own. I ended up being surprised that it actually existed when I caught it by chance on a Steam sale last year, so I picked it up, toyed around with it a few times, and finally gave it a good, earnest playthrough relatively recently.

There’s something very surprising about Good Robot. Namely, after all his commentary on games that I’ve consumed, this would be the last game in the world I would have expected him to make.

Which, to be fair, he didn’t end up being the only person making the game. He took it to a point, but got another team involved once it turned out he couldn’t get it to where he wanted himself. But still. There’s a lot in that game that runs completely along the same lines as things he’s been completely dour for before.

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Let’s give you a picture of what we’re looking at first. Good Robot. It’s a twin-stick shooter roguelike. And… that’s about it, actually. The real notable things about it are the interesting things it does with vision, and the fact that the levels are truly procedurally generated rather than being a collection of pre-built rooms in random formation. Aside from that… meh. The engine seems pretty solid, and it feels good to move and shoot, which is what you do most of the game, but it’s aggressively simple and feels like it’s just wasting a lot of potential. Also has some pretty major, avoidable flaws that just make the game less fun.

And it’s those flaws that are really interesting to me, because I’ve seen Shamus identify them in other works before.

Let’s talk about the most apparent one to me, and probably the biggest one with the game. Good Robot is a rogue-like. Meaning that death is a complete restart of the game. But it’s a slow, long rogue-like. The game encourages hesitant and defensive play by virtue of having the permadeath in the first place, and the levels are just so loooooong. I beat the game. It took about two hours, start to finish. If I had made a stupid mistake (which I never do, but hypothetically) at any point during the latter part of that run, that’d be a solid two hours of my life cut down by a video game punishing me for essentially pressing buttons wrong.

That’s a problem on its own. But then that comes from a guy who once termed the “Dark Souls problem” wherein failure makes you repeat something you’ve already done in order to get to any new content. This comes from a guy who stated that rogue-likes don’t have to do this, followed by examples of some who have circumvented the problem by implementing a level select. This comes from a guy who complains about a game’s difficulty coming from punishment rather than challenge, yet built what’s potentially the most punishment-heavy game I’ve played in a long while.

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There’s plenty of examples like that, but I don’t want this post to be turning too negative on an innocent blogger I haven’t followed in a while. Rather, the big thing I want to focus on is why that happened. And why you’ll see that happen in most critics-turned-creators. It all comes down to what I mentioned, that there’s completely different skillsets involved.

What I would consider to be good critiquing largely comes down to being able to analyze oneself, particularly one’s own thoughts, and being able to communicate them well. Sure, being able to analyze the work itself, break it down into its component parts and talk about how that works, because that gets people to understand how what relates to you would relate to them, but overall, critiquing is really a selfish process. It’s all about your own opinion, how you’ve arrived at it, and what reactions you have to what’s going on with whatever you’re looking at. I’d like to say that good critics are able to analyze themselves the whole way through and track their emotional development throughout, but particularly in video games it seems that the most popular critics never leave their first impressions, just making things work because they’re good at communicating those first impressions. In any case, though, critiquing is very self-focused, very reactionary, and has a strong basis in communication.

Creating has a strong basis in communication as well, but aside from that, it’s where the similarities with critiquing end. It’s not about communicating a reaction, it’s about communicating a vision. Which of course, requires being able to build an interesting and full vision in the first place, having the technical chops and the resources required to achieve that vision, and a whole bunch of other skills I probably can’t speak to very well because I’m not a professional creator. Creating is forward-looking whereas critiquing is reactionary, building the material to deliver that reaction from whole cloth.

Which is not to say that being good at one can’t help you with the other. But there’s a lot of primary skills in both that don’t cross over. There’s a lot of stuff we can bemoan about a bad game, and armchair game design is a lot of fun, but we probably wouldn’t be able to build anything better without a lot of skill-building to overcome some of the realities of game creation. I can rail against the rogue-like nature of a game that seems poorly suited for it here, but perhaps without that the game had some even greater flaw.

It’s easy to be a critic. I’ve done it. So have plenty of other random internet weirdos with some free time and a checklist of slightly edgy jokes. And critics are very valuable. I’d say they’ve become even more valuable as it’s become easier to be a critic. And it is still important to call out bad games for what they are. But I have found Good Robot to be an excellent reminder that just being a good critic doesn’t mean anyone would be a good creator. Bad games are bad usually because game creation is hard and complex way more than anyone not involved in the process can understand, and that can sometimes be hard to see from the outside looking in.

Snap Judgments: Persona 5

Everyone who knows I play, which is a lot less people in my personal life than one might think, have been asking me about Mass Effect Andromeda.  Figuring I would have pounced all over it.  I have had to keep reminding them that although I’m not disinterested, there’s another game that my heart already belongs to, coming out at right about the same time.  And although I’ve got a lot of love to go around, in this case, I’m wanting to take the time.  Make myself a commitment, at least for a while.

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Persona 5.  I have been looking forward to this game like none other.  At least looking  forward in the sense that I totally consumed the first couple trailers they put out years ago, then avoided every single piece of content about the game since in the hopes of protecting my precious virgin experience.  I like to play hard to get.

It came out yesterday.  I’ve spent most of my free time since it came into my hands with this little beauty here.  And, it’s so rare that I play a game when it’s so fresh that I thought I’d make note of the occasion and record my thoughts so far.  In brief, though.  The more time I spend here is the less time I spend playing Persona 5.

So, a bit of book keeping up front, I’m 5 and a half hours into the game so far.  So this might have spoilers for that bit of it.  Outside of that, though, nothing.  And really, that 5 and a half hours is still the intro.

Persona 5 has a slow paced start.  So did Persona 4, and 5 is a bit faster paced than that, but even so, outside of the en media res opening, it still takes a good hour before you’re getting into any action.  So, you know, be ready for that.

Although it is also possible to lose the game before it actually starts, just by answering the first question incorrectly.  That was pretty fun, actually.

The big things that stand out to me about Persona 5 is just how messed up the game world is.  Even before the series started exploring the social aspects between characters, that’s always been a big feature, seeing how the supernatural junk you’re fighting impacts the day to day life of what should be an otherwise normal town/city.  In Persona 5, whatever’s going on seems to be hitting the town hard.  Every single adult you run into is a total piece of trash.  Completely self-focused, all your interactions with them center on how much they would rather be without you, and none of them seem to have a single care for anyone else around them outside of doing their jobs.  All your playable characters are the subjects of some nasty rumors and the derision of their peers.  The city is plagued with people just randomly losing their mind, and most people only care about how it affects them.  If this wasn’t so total, you could take it as just a part of the ‘oppressive order vs. emancipation’ theme they’ve been pushing since the first trailers, but the fact that the city gets so dour, there’s definitely something more going on there.

Your Personae are unexpectedly dark as well.  Whereas previously, they found strength in your self-assurance, and were based in the faces you put on to interact with the rest of the world, in this entry, your personae are based in your rebellion against the rest of the world, and call upon your hatred and lust for vengeance for strength.  I don’t know if it’s forthcoming, but I’d be really interested in seeing an explanation for that.  Philemon’s still hanging around, and although Igor seems a bit changed, he’s still the one managing your Personae for you, so it seems they’re at least closely related to the old personae, but still, there’s a pretty clear difference here.   Likewise, the real-world source of your personae have changed.  Whereas the leading personae used to be drawn from mythology and folklore from a specific nation, here, they seem to come from fiction and history from all over Western Europe.

That most assuredly center’s around the otherworld of this game, the Metaverse.  You travel between the real world and the Metaverse by means of a cell phone app OF DOOM.  In said Metaverse, you find ‘Palaces’ who have ‘Rulers’ which are the shadows of people in the real world.  Shadows, as you may remember from 2 and 4 or if you know Jungian Psychology, are the repressed parts of the personality that a person will refuse to recognize in themselves.  In the Persona-verse, if a shadow gets strong enough from a single person, they can take a form of their own.  To be honest, the shadows were some of the narratively deepest parts of Persona 4, so I’m glad to see them get some more play here.  At least judging by the only shadow I’ve encountered so far, they’re going to be based on more than just your party members this game.  They can seemingly impact the behaviour of their real-world counterparts as well, possibly explaining why everyone in the real world is such garbage.

The Metaverse itself is heavily based in perception and belief.  Regions get altered in the Metaverse based on the perceptions of strong personalities in the real world.  To use the only example I’ve run across so far, an overpowering teacher’s view of his school turns the school in the Metaverse into a castle with his shadow as king.  A pretty direct metaphor, there.  Toy weapons work just fine in the Metaverse if they look real enough, because their targets believe they’re real, and as a result, an airsoft store turns into your armory.  This gives me HUGE flashbacks to Persona 2, in which if enough people believed something, it would change reality to make it true.  I’m kind of interested if that callback will actually come to fruit.

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The mechanics of this game are going to be very familiar if you’ve played Persona 3 and/or 4.  It’s obviously running off of the same design, although it does work in some refinements.  Some might justifiably take issue with the fact that the gameplay is largely the same as it used to be even after a 9-year gap between major releases.  I’m cool with that, though, largely because 1) Persona 4 was a masterpiece and I would gladly take more of that and 2) there’s nobody else who’s delivering the type of experience Persona does, so the model has not been spoiled or even really advanced in the interim.  Your mileage may vary on that front.

One of the few major shifts in gameplay mechanics comes in the form of dungeon design.  Namely, that there actually is some now.  I am excited for this.  Persona 3 and 4 had procedurally generated dungeons, which is almost never a recipe for compelling gameplay.  Now, at least in this first area, we’re getting premade dungeons.  I’m a little hesitant about this, because even at their best, the SMT series has never had great dungeons, but it’s still sure to be better than the randomly generated ones of the past two games.  The initial ones show some promise, playing into the stealth mechanics the game uses.  It puts a lot more weight on sneaking up on enemies and starting the fight from behind them than did previous games, and I got a lot more use out of obstacles, corners, and other dungeon features than I have in previous SMT games, so yeah, good signs here.

A lot of the renovations to the gameplay of Persona 5 seem to be drawing back from the mainline SMT series.  Once again, you have your player characters wielding both melee weapons and guns, which has been a mainstay of most of the Megami Tensei franchise but has been absent in the Persona series since the first game.  Demon negotiation is back, and it uses the classic Shin Megami Tensei call-and-response model rather than the activity/emotions system that the older Persona games used when they still had demon negotiation.  For that matter, I find it really interesting that the enemy shadows are now the traditional Shin Megami Tensei demons that had recently been only showing up as your personae, rather than the unique tarot-based shadows of the past two games.  In fact, that’s how you gain new personae, you talk to the demons once you’ve knocked them all down and remind them that they’re personae, and not shadows.  Given that these shadows are a part of the collective unconscious, and that assuming Persona 5 directly follows from Persona 4 it’s part of the same timeline as Shin Megami Tensei If…, the present-day Devil Summoner games, Persona 1 and the second half of Persona 2, in which these demons were running rampant all over the real world, well, it makes the Wild Fiction Theorizer part of me want to get busy.

While I’m in that vein, it’s not a gameplay feature, but the Persona series is set in Tokyo for the first time.  SMT games usually are, but the Persona series has avoided that thus far, preferring to go towards fictional cities and towns instead.  I find myself wondering if there’s going to something coming out of that.

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I haven’t gone into the plot long enough to make a good judgment on it, but I’ve been pleased with what I’ve seen so far.  It’s definitely one of those stories that’s going to take a while to come to fruition, so not wowing me yet, but I can see the same things that made me fall so in love with Persona 4 at play here.  I’m interested in seeing how it rolls out.  Themes of control, imprisonment, and crime are very strong, here.  The early marketing for this game promised that the story would be about breaking free from the imprisonments of the social order, and although I haven’t really picked up on that so far, I can see how theming that we’ve been given so far could translate into that pretty easily as the series progresses.  Thieves are heroes, authority figures are evil, and you need to save the world by criming.  I’m into the characterization, too.  I’d better be, because that’s been the strongest part of the series’s writing since the turn of the millennium.  Again, not been spending enough time to see things come to fruition yet, but I can see the promise there, so far.  I do find myself getting waaay too much of Morgana, the game’s mascot character, already, however.  So far, he acts like the bratty know-it-all you’ve seen in too many video game children so far.  I could turn around on him, I did on Teddie my first time through P4, but, you know, sooner would be better than later.

There is one big problem I’ve had with my time so far.  It’s something that’s not going to carry through the whole game, but I’ve been absolutely writhing underneath it.  The game has those tutorial rails on HARD.  Five and a half hours in, and I really don’t feel like the game has truly given me control.  You’re put in a whole new area that’s obviously deep and active and it won’t let you see a single inch of it that you’re not supposed to.  The game dictates where you go and when, which parts of the dungeon you see and when you have to leave, and so, so much of what you can’t do right now.  There have been a lot of times where I’ve wanted to go a direction the game wasn’t comfortable with me going yet, checking out a new store or some such, and I got the whole ‘you can’t get ye flask’ deal.  Every where I go, I’ve been running into limitations because the plots in a different area or the game hasn’t told me what to do yet.  And when it does tell me what to do, it will brook no disagreement.  I was forced to sacrifice my strongest persona because the game decided it was time to teach me about fusion even though I have played literally two dozen SMT games with that mechanic, and the only fusions I had available at my level involved that one persona.  Look.  I know I’m pretty, and some people think it’s impossible to have both looks and brains, but I’ve been around for a while.  I’ve played a game or two.  I know how to do it.  It feels so, so much like someone’s trying to teach me to walk like a baby when I’m capable of running a marathon.  It’s the biggest leech of fun in what should otherwise be a great experience.

So yeah, there’s my thoughts on this brand new part of my library.  To be honest, this game’s predecessors have meant so much to me that I’m almost certain to enjoy it even it’s a heaping pile of crap, so my objectivity is pretty busted, here.  Even so, I’ve been liking my time with it.  Brings a lot of the good from earlier in the series, draws on a lot of classic features, while the writing and characters seem poised to reach the heights that have been established by that which came before.  I’m liking it, even with that big tutorial tarnish.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I hear something calling to me.