Game Review: Guacamelee! 2

I enjoyed the first Guacameleefor its light-hearted Mexican-themed reskin on classic Metroidvania adventures, those types of games with exploration, ability upgrades, and plenty of backtracking. The first game arrived at a time when it felt like good Metroidvanias were in short supply. Fans of Super Metroid or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, are always on the lookout for the latest take on this style of gameplay, and in spite of the corniness of its humor, Guacamelee felt like a fun modern take on those games replete with references to Mexican culture. To be clear, there’s nothing in either Guacamelee or its sequel that could be accused of deepening cultural understanding, but in an ongoing time of racism and xenophobia, there was something charismatic about the fact that the Mexicans were the ones making the jokes rather than being the butt of them. I appreciated that, and found that in general, the first Guacamelee was mapped and paced in a satisfying way. It’s the type of game that parents and kids alike could enjoy for its emphasis on rock-‘em-sock-‘em combat and adventure.

          Guacamelee 2 is a bit of a double-dip in the same bowl of salsa. Graphically there have been zero upgrades from the predecessor, and many visual and audio assets have been copy-and-pasted. That goes for the story too, which hits its beats with a lackadaisical attitude and lack of focus that makes the whole game feel more like DLC than a full-fledged sequel. Sometimes routine can be a good thing, as when you’re unlocking fun new power-ups and moves for the game’s chicken transformation. The high-flying aerials and precision platforming generally work in the game’s favor, but after the infinitely better Hollow Knight, a game even referenced in the background of this one, it’s hard to see Guacamelee 2 as anything other than a cheap cash-in.

          That’s not to say that this game isn’t fun, but it might be vastly more enjoyable for someone who never played the first game (or a Metroidvania in general). The game’s humor is less potent this time, as much of it comes from the characters making mistakes or being tired of having to repeat the same bits over and over. There are new characters introduced, but they barely have anything to say or do besides providing a skill tree or being around for a boss fight. The villains are intriguing, but they’re merely functionaries, filling the role of the guy you’ve gotta beat at the end of each level. Things push toward a conclusion at such a rapid and inevitable pace it feels like even the game designers wanted to get the whole thing over and done with as quickly as possible.

          One of the odder things about the game is how straight-forward it is in a genre known for back-tracking and exploration. If you follow the game’s instructions from beginning to end you can complete the story with zero motivation to explore. This undermines the Metroidvania feel, where you’re suppose to be rewarded for your exploration and creative thinking, using the tools at your disposal to find things that power up your character along the way, like the cleverly hidden energy tanks in Super Metroid. There are upgrade rooms in Guacamelee 2, but they all tend to be an obvious offshoot of the main path, and seeing as they’re the only alternate path available, one per main track, it feels less like exploration and more like a pit stop.

          I didn’t hate the game by any means, but I wished it had done more to capture some of the original game’s freshness rather than sitting on its laurels and expecting praise. A fresh graphical update, a more complicated story, more interesting relationships between the characters- any of these would have been enough to spice things up. Even a closer focus on level design and pacing could have been helpful, as many of the levels felt endless in spite of their relative brevity. Every area and room looks basically the same and the shape of the levels is arbitrary, fitting power-up usage more than slowly expanding to give you the shape of this unique world like in Hollow Knight. A Metroidvania doesn’t have to hang together perfectly like a real-world location with logical ins and outs, but it should give you that amazing feeling of discovery where you can’t believe you ended up where you did. There should be that satisfaction from opening up a door you found at minute fifteen after two additional hours of gameplay. The fantastic Resident Evil 2 remaster has this sensation in spades, and since there seem to be more examples of this style of gameplay than ever, it’s hard to be on the dev team’s side here. I got this game through Game Pass, and I can only imagine how annoyed I’d be if I paid full price only for the game to be like, “Yeah, you know the drill. Yadda yadda yadda.”

          The parts that work are the combat and platforming, which while often undermined by repetition are basically good, clean fun. As you get further in the game, you’re often asked to quickly press multiple buttons in such rapid fashion that it feels a little bit awkward. The game is easy and very forgiving, but it seems to want to argue with you about how challenging it really is by arbitrarily throwing in a few rooms where the difficulty stems from the fact that you only have two thumbs. Is it particularly fun or rewarding to have to precisely hit the specific inputs in a platforming section? Not really, especially when compared to the combat system that allows you a bit more free-wheeling fun. Maybe the game could have done better to follow the example of Breath of the Wild, allowing for multiple paths to completing puzzles. Sometimes allowing for more creativity lets the player find their own fun, and overall the lack of creativity in Guacamelee 2 is its downfall.

Game Review: Divinity: Original Sin 2

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For the sake of clarity I am reviewing the single-player experience on Playstation 4. I have not tried the multiplayer or the PC version.

Little things can make a big difference in Divinity: Original Sin 2. Whether it’s the note containing key information buried somewhere in your inventory, the elusive mouse that teaches you the trick to beat a difficult boss, or the many small annoyances that eventually add up to undermine the overall experience, the minute details of Divinity 2 are the deciders of whether or not you’ll have a good time. A devout Divinity fan might say that every choice you make matters, but the game’s lack of a coherent narrative and its focus on free-wheeling exploration results in each choice flying like a firework in a random direction. This would be fine if each one ended in a bang, but more often than not, the myriad choices, plot threads and side-quests result in a fizzle.

There are exceptions of course. A few of the companion quests end pleasantly enough (assuming you decided to help your friends and not murder them ruthlessly). Divinity 2 is the type of game that allows you a lot of leeway in how you solve puzzles or fight bad guys. You might level up a character’s persuasion ability and convince a guard to let you interrogate a criminal, or you could just kill the guard and enter the cell.  Then you can kill the criminal, find out where he lives, and kill his cat too. This might aggravate the guards in the city, but if you over-level your character and manipulate the combat system enough, you’ll find that bashing your weapons against the skulls of an entire city-state is a welcome alternative to diplomacy.

Even if you like the diplomatic approach, chances are the game will troll you and make diplomacy result in exploding death puppets. Divinity 2 has a pedant’s sense of humor, punishing you for misunderstanding its painfully obtuse systems on a regular basis. For example, one status condition known as ‘decaying’ makes healing potions poison your characters. If you’re not exceedingly careful you might murder your own team while trying to play doctor. In this way, it’s the perfect game for the streaming age, where eight-year-olds can’t wait to watch you fail and laugh at your misfortune. “You should have known that the fifteenth lever from the left was the non-murder-y one!” Remember to save often, as the game’s hour-long battles can sometimes end unpleasantly.

Many of these critiques could be leveled at Divinity 1 as well, but Divinity 1 understood pacing and balance a bit better. In the original game you played as a ‘Source Hunter’, an investigator on the hunt for powerful, illegal magic called Source. You investigate a magic-related murder, which in turn leads to an epic conflict with an evil space dragon and an undead psychopath. Though the story struck me as a bit barebones, there was at least a focused core narrative, something that the player could glom onto amidst all the chaos. Divinity 2‘s plot is almost unintelligible in comparison, with much of it hinging on your character following the whims of a sarcastic witch.

The game opens with the player’s Source powers muted by the magical equivalent of a no-bark collar. Your ship is attacked by a Kraken and from there on you’re stuck in a penal colony until you can find a way to remove the collar and escape. This all takes about twenty hours of gameplay to accomplish (longer than the entirety of Spider-Man) and constitutes the game’s tutorial. From there you discover that you’re Godwoken, the game’s fancy-pants name for Dragonborn, which basically means that you and your compatriots are on the short-list for divinity. Only one of you can ultimately ascend to godhood, so you’re forced into a difficult decision. Do you help your friends succeed in their own ambitions, or use them, then leave them flailing in the dust? In this way, it’s just like life as an actor in Los Angeles.

Who wouldn’t want to be the god of a fantasy universe- Hollywood or otherwise? It’s unclear what qualifies your character for such a position, what you might do with godhood if you got it, or what makes divinity distinct from being a really, really badass wizard. A couple levels into the game you can turn people into chickens, so how much more powerful do you need to be, really? Those are some questions that are never really answered, at least not to my satisfaction.

You’ll try to ignore them as you bumble your way to victory, accidentally finding secret lairs only to be told that you couldn’t possibly have found such a place by accident. The relentlessly boring lore is a ball of knots waiting to be untangled, but I preferred to turn it into a chicken and set it on fire. I like my fantasy Kentucky Fried.

It’s a shame that Divinity: Original Sin 2 has such interesting systems and beautiful music, because a lot of it feels wasted on a blasé story. Aside from killing whomever wanted to take my Source, I never got a sense of what my character wanted or needed. Divinity, sure, but to what end? The characters felt like passengers on a train, headed in the same direction whether or not they wanted to go that way, their individual plot lines mere distractions. Every character aside from the ridiculously arch villains existed in a moral gray area without any specific layer of nuance. While superior to the wafer-thin characters in the first Divinity, the Godwoken here still felt like watered-down versions of Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s cast. Even the romantic elements felt phoned in. Love was just a matter of clicking a few text boxes.

After I’d discovered a majority of the combat abilities you can acquire, I was desperate to push forward to the ending. The game had other plans, hoping I would enjoy thirty more hours of combat. The joy I’d felt when concocting strategies for my undead summoner at hour forty was absent at hour eighty. Once you learn how to manipulate the game’s systems things become rote. Can I persuade this person? No? Then I shall murder him. There are no real consequences either way, aside from some quests not appearing because you killed a related character way back in Act One. And it’s not like any of the quests are particularly interesting- aside from the Red Prince’s companion quest, which allows you the insane and deeply questionable option of watching him have sex with his fiancé. That quest has a happy ending in both senses, even if it leans way too hard on Game of Thrones.

You could play Skyrim for a hundred hours and not get bored, carving your way through a vast world, following your heart. You don’t have quite so much freedom here, because each of the game’s areas are separated by huge bodies of water. Once you leave an area you’re gone forever. It’s off to the next “Act” to chicken-ize new victims. This becomes problematic occasionally, when your character learns of something bad, like a terrorist plot, but you are unable to prevent it until forty hours later when you get to the right locale. You will go where the sarcastic witch wants you to go, when she wants you to go there, and not a second sooner. It’s never clear if it’s a worthwhile endeavor to work with this woman, but since you have no alternatives in this masterclass of choice, you will do your wicked queen’s bidding, over and over.

What it all amounts to is a hundred-hour board game, which wouldn’t be so bad if the game had ever bothered to tell you the rules. The first unspoken rule seems to be ‘combat first, story TBD.’ Every time I was expected to care about a turn in the story, the return of a character from the first game, I sighed or shrugged. The combat is the through-line here, but as soon as you run out of new tricks to learn, the story’s shortcomings steal the spotlight. It is a game that requires patience and strategy, so you can imagine how frustrating it is when you want nothing more than to get to the ending, only to be repeatedly punished for rushing things. Maybe you’re too low in level, maybe you forgot to talk to the random NPC who knows the secret phrase for a puzzle on the other side of the island, or maybe the game just wants to kill you. In any case, you’ll finish when the game lets you finish. And if you’re like me, the only thing you’ll find satisfying about the ending is the promise that you’ll never have to play it again.

Spellbound Sword Passes 100,000 Reads!

This post is a post of appreciation for my fans, friends, family and readers who’ve helped my book get as far as it has already. That’s right, your eyes tell no lies. Spellbound Sword is officially past the 100k reads mark! I’ve had that milestone in my mind for quite some time now, but never did I believe we might actually get here. Every day I thought the popularity might wain. Call it imposter syndrome or anxiety or fear or what have you, but you’ve proven me wrong, and I couldn’t be more delighted. This is a cause to celebrate!

Thank you so much to everyone who’s stuck with this book and read it beginning to end, putting up with my spelling errors, logical fallacies, and other first draft nincompoopery, not to mention my habit of replying to comments I deem ridiculous with further ridiculousness. (Some might call this trolling. I call it ‘interacting with my fanbase.’) You are all very much appreciated, even those of you who leave mind-boggling comments at the bottom of the screen. I could not have achieved this without you, even the people who started the book and said, ‘Nah, not for me.’ Haha, the jokes on you, you impersistent suckers! I’ve used your reads to achieve this monumental goal, so even your hatred fuels the fires of my creativity!

All kidding aside, I feel really great today. My life has not always been wine and roses. Anxiety, frustration, and personal issues have often left me a mess of discombobulation, unsure of which way to push forth. My previous novels have not seen much praise. When I started Spellbound Sword I thought, well, if no one likes this one, I’m going to give up writing forever. I was convinced that I had misled myself all these years, that I just didn’t have it in me to produce anything of actual value. And now here we are! Just a brief year later and you wonderful lot have ballooned my success to untold fortune! (Now if I could somehow get paid at some point, I might be able to abandon my commitment to artistic poverty- but, ya know, baby steps…)

Thank you once more for your help and kind words. I’m going to keep writing and editing, working on this book and its sequels. I hope you enjoy all the twists and turns to come, and I hope we can keep growing this audience until it eclipses the solar system.

Sincerely,

Matt Shore