Categories
Game Reviews Gaming Writing

Game Review: Yakuza 3 Remastered

Kazama Kiryu is back, but his lady love is not, in the third installment of the generally fantastic Yakuza series. Picking up where the previous game ended (but quickly dispatching its female lead for unclear reasons) Yakuza 3 sees Kiryu running a beachside orphanage before being dragged back to Kamurocho, Tokyo for more seedy criminal conspiracies. While Yakuza 3 Remastered provides plenty of the quirky charm that makes this series so lovable, its lack of a strong story and bountiful filler quests make it notably less satisfying than the rest.

Yakuza 1 and 2 were remade beautifully as Yakuza Kiwami 1 and 2. The same cannot be said for Yakuza 3 Remastered, which looks and feels ancient in comparison. The dip in quality should be immediately apparent to anyone playing the rereleases in chronological order. While Kiwami 2 ran on Yakuza’s newest game engine, making the combat and visuals silky smooth, Yakuza 3 looks and feels like a mid-tier Dreamcast game. Some of the cutscenes weren’t polished up for this supposed “remaster,” meaning you’ll occasionally see important story beats presented in stunning standard definition. When you get past the visual issues, the awkward storytelling is another reminder that this game could have used some Kiwami polish to bring it up to speed.

As aforementioned, the previous game’s romance is nixed with little fanfare. Kiwami 2 spent numerous cutscenes solidifying Kiryu and Sayama’s romance, only to have her written off as a self-serving career-chaser in Yakuza 3. In a series that murderers its sidekicks left and right, couldn’t they have found a more tragic or interesting method of dispatching Sayama at the very least? Perhaps her death could have motivated Kiryu’s return to his old Kamurocho stomping grounds. But no, she’s lazily shuffled off to the side, so everyone can romanticize the importance of Daigo, a character who almost feels like a Mary Sue for how often he’s referenced without ever doing anything meaningful.

Before you’re allowed to curb-stomp strangers on the streets of Tokyo, you have to deal with the interpersonal conflicts at Kiryu’s orphanage. It’s a weird left turn for the series that might have been a funny troll on the players, ala Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 2, if it wasn’t so sappy and humorless. It feels like the writers want the player to authentically care about the day-to-day struggles of grade schoolers in a series mainly known for shirtless rooftop battles and bloody betrayals. (This kind of overly saccharine writing has an echo in Yakuza 5’s repetitious soliloquys about the power of dreams, but at least there it feels thematically on point.) Rather than sidelining the orphanage stories to optional side quests, the player is forced to deal with them for large chunks of the story. As they have very little direct relationship to the Yakuza storylines, they come across more like filler than fun.

Okinawa is a likeable, tropical locale, an interesting shift for the series, but aside from one extremely memorable side quest in which a gold digger keeps cucking over her obsessive simp, there aren’t that many laughs or reasons to dig for buried treasure. The Yakuza series usually has some hilarious or surprising mini-games tucked away in random corners, rewarding the player for straying from the story and exploring its cities. Yakuza 3 has the flimsiest minigames of any Yakuza game I’ve played, with its chief offender being a painfully tedious hostess club minigame that pales in comparison to the RTS version in the Kiwamis. Maybe the worst part of the hostess club is that you can’t quit out of it early. If you accidentally enter the venue you’re trapped for three rounds of slow walking and boredom. The hitman missions sound cool but just amount to beefed up street fights, and given that the combat here feels a lot sloppier than the other games, they aren’t worth the trouble.

There are a few interesting moments in Yakuza 3. Kiryu tangling with a relentless CIA guy is fun, and a chase through a sex hotel is entertaining. But when you have a whole game series packed with bizarre, quirky action, it’s hard not to write this entry off as a dull misstep and easily the most skippable Yakuza. I kept hoping for clear explanation as to why Kazama Kiryu, the superhuman Dragon of Dojima, decided to give up his life of crime and become a boring orphanage manager, but besides the obvious conclusion that deep down Kiryu is a swell guy, there’s nothing particularly interesting there. This is the only game in the series that I’d say this about (so far) but, it’s not really worth your time.  

Categories
Article Game Reviews Gaming Writing

Game Review: Slay the Spire

It’s difficult to gauge the full shape of Slay the Spire, because the game intentionally makes itself such a mess of RNG. Ostensibly the game’s challenge comes from its randomness. The player’s advantage comes from the chance to build a deck of complementary cards that stack together to form a barrage of death to mow down enemies. This is especially evident in the first of three decks the game hands the player, wherein strength and direct combat are the keys to victory. When playing as the Ironclad warrior class, the game’s mix of random chance and strategy hit a sweet spot. It’s only when you move on to the next class that things become a bit hairy and a bit more problematic.

Roguelike games require the developers to craft a replayable loop. Each time the player fails they are forced to begin again, perhaps with a few added advantages such as foreknowledge of the challenges ahead or a few items or abilities they clung onto from the previous run. Slay the Spire, with its dozens of card combinations, allows the player to feel powerful and clever as you stack together card powers that feel overpowered when used in unison. In fact, the game plays best during those rare instances where the RNG works in your favor and you accrue the perfect assortment of cards and relics to make it feel like you’re cheating. In every other instance, you’ll wonder why you aren’t allowed some advantage from previous runs, a single card of your choice, a relic or something else. It becomes quickly clear that the game has been designed with the Wizard of Oz-like stratagem that the player must never see behind the curtain, where the truth of the carnival game lies. In order for Slay the Spire’s loop to be replayable and not easy as pie, the developers needed to make the player’s odds of success so slim they have no choice but to play over and over hoping for that one sweet run.

The basic gameplay is simple enough and should be familiar for fans of Magic, Pokemon: TCG, or Hearthstone. You won’t be buying new card packs here, but you’ll be gaining cards each time you defeat a foe. This works simply and perfectly in the Ironclad run, where the deck consists of basic shields and sword attacks. When you try The Silent, aka the rogue deck, things start to fall apart. You’re supposed to be using sneaky tactics, poison and shivs, but your base card set doesn’t provide you with any of those skills, so you’re forced to grind for them. Of course your chance of picking up any cards that you might need for a successful run are random, even as you select from a few options after each fight or buy cards at the merchant’s shop with your accrued gold. That means you’re already starting at a deficit with your basic deck, unlike in the warrior’s deck where the basic skills you needed to succeed were handed to you. Even a successful-seeming-run can be ended suddenly by a chance encounter with a particular enemy type, and then it’s back to the beginning with your progress undone.

The game tries to seem fair and more roguelike by allowing you to accrue “unlock EXP” which takes forever to do anything, and when it does finally unlock something it merely adds the chance of a few new cards or relics being added to the pool in each run. A magic whale-thing will give you a few seemingly helpful options at the beginning of each loop, but the benefits of each choice are minimal, and when playing as the rogue would be easily outweighed by the addition of a few shiv or poison cards from the offset. The reason for this lack of generosity appears to be because the overall game is incredibly shallow, and if the devs made the odds in the player’s favor you’d be done with Slay the Spire in an hour. To make the game feign depth, the devs decided to screw you over at every turn, giving you more time to ponder why the artwork looks like construction paper.

As a ‘free’ game via Game Pass, this was a fine find, as the initial character’s path through the spire was a fun and engaging one. The parts are definitely there for a fun and addictive game, but the overall experience is more like a slot machine or carnival game, where the fun comes specifically from the player’s ability to ignore how easily they’ve been sold down the river on a boat with a hole in it. If you’re the kind of player living in denial, unable to understand the way the mechanics function, capable of convincing yourself that despite your repeated failures and lack of chances to succeed the developers really do have your best interests at heart, then sure, Slay the Spire will captivate you for hours to come, in the same way a bright light dancing on the wall might captivate a kitten. For anyone with a more thorough understanding of strategy, this game feels broken or half-finished at best.

Categories
Article Game Reviews Gaming Writing

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.

Categories
Article Game Reviews Gaming Writing

Game Review: Blazing Chrome (Windows 10)

Blazing Chrome feels like the lovechild of Contra and Mega Man X. It’s a 2D side-scrolling shooter with six levels. It should be short and sweet, but ala Contra each time you’re hit by an enemy you die immediately. You’ll pop right back up, blinking with momentary invulnerability, hoping the same enemy type or boss pattern doesn’t wreck you again. It’s classic hardcore gaming for people who don’t mind a little frustration. At times the frustration might be too much to bear, but for certain old school gamers that’s half the fun.

          Like with old coin-op arcade games, there are a ton of sucker punches. Enemies pop out of nowhere and gank you easily, forcing you to memorize patterns and carve a replicable path through each level. It’s also a game where each time you die you learn something and can improve your strategy, assuming you don’t get too tilted. Levels start out feeling unfair and cheap, but once you recognize what the game wants you to do, it’s actually manageable. Sometimes the controls feel a bit clumsy, like when you’re trying to gauge how fast or far you can swipe with your melee attack. There are also occasional visual glitches, but they aren’t game-breaking, and in an odd way they make the whole thing seem more authentic. Unlike a lot of nostalgia-fueled games, this one seems to forego an added level of irony. For the most part it really does feel like a classic game, right until the clever CD gag in the credits.

          I wouldn’t put this game in the same category as Cuphead because it lacks the visual beauty and replay-ability. Finishing a section of Burning Chrome comes with the feeling of, “Good! Now I never have to do that again.” You’re proud of yourself for completing a difficult challenge, but there’s no incentive to ever experience that hell a second time. Cuphead is better balanced and a more polished experience overall. While Cuphead pushed the genre forward, Chrome is stuck in the past. It’s a callback to the omnipresent hyper-masculine shooters in the early 90’s, no more, no less. It’s a style of gaming perhaps forgotten because it’s no longer tenable, but that doesn’t mean it’s without its charms. Blazing Chrome embraces what made Contra work while never straying too far outside the SNES’s technical limitations. It’s a specific game for specific fans, and if you’re in the mood for some challenge and carnage you may very well be satisfied.

Categories
Article Game Reviews Writing

Game Review: Pokemon Ultra Moon

pokemonusum10.5610

As a long-time fan of the Pokemon series let me tell you, Pokemon Ultra Moon represents both the highs and lows of being a Poke-fan. The graphical leaps the series has made since Red and Blue in 1996 are impressive, but the 3DS’s limitations become ever more apparent as designers try to push beyond them. Graphically the game looks like a half-step between an N64 and Gamecube game, which sounds alright for a handheld series that began without the ability to display color. (The idea of playing a “black-and-white” game called Pokemon Blue seems a bit ridiculous now, doesn’t it?) The Pokemon are all beautifully rendered in three-dimensions. The environments look alright but somehow feel both confining and empty. You’re not wandering around a big open Pokemon world. You’re still sticking to paths and one-way ledges.

This again feels like a metaphor for the series. Two steps forward, one step back. I remember when Ruby & Sapphire introduced Pokemon Beauty Contests. That always struck me as unnecessarily creative for a series that has eighteen Pokemon types yet still makes you choose from fire, water, or grass types at the beginning every time. Some things are set in stone and some are up for grabs, and it’s never clear which is which or why. For example, the setting of Pokemon Ultra Moon is a surface level riff on Hawaii. This shakes things up on a cursory level, but also removes a diversity of environments from the level design. And in a move that feels like something a stoner might ponder on a pile of pillows at 3 AM- “What if there weren’t even gyms?”- this game does away with Pokemon Gyms in favor of new Island Trials. Ostensibly this was to make things less repetitive, but it ends up being a momentary distraction. The only thing that truly sticks here is the idea of Totem Pokemon, larger than usual boss Pokemon that your team has to take down. These boss battles felt worthy.

Inconsistency seems to be the general theme here. Even the name Pokemon Ultra Moon reveals the truth of the matter. There were two previous versions of this game, Pokemon Sun & Moon, that were considerably less good, and even so this new version isn’t perfect. So what you’re seeing in Ultra Moon is a course correction but not enough of one to really set things straight. It’s not uncommon for each generation of the Pokemon series to have two competing titles, both generally the same except for some version exclusive Pokemon, thus encouraging trading between versions. There is often a third version of the game that follows a year later, adding a few new features, exclusive Pokemon and a new mission or two. There have been variations on this formula, from the full-on story sequels of Black & White 2 to the remastered Alpha Sapphire which acted as a spiritual successor to the well-received X & Y. Ultra Moon is the first ‘third-version’ Pokemon game that I’ve played where it felt like a director’s cut. Plot events and situations are changed to make the story work slightly better. It still has its gaping obvious flaws, but now it feels a bit more polished.

If you were turned off by Sun & Moon their Ultra versions might smooth over some of your problems. Then again, there are plenty of reasons to scratch your head and say, “What?” at these versions too. At some point, the bottom half of your screen becomes dominated by tutorial tips from your talking Pokedex. This is the screen also used for your map and menu information. It is incredibly annoying to glance down at the map only to see the Pokedex rambling about a great place to take photos of your Pokemon. Oh, and by the way, you can only take photos of your Pokemon at the Photo Club, even though your Pokedex clearly has a camera on it for story reasons.

There’s lots of little barbs like this. Lillie and Hau, the game’s insufferable companions, have been toned down a bit but are still load-bearing. The game’s villains seem to be less brutal and are let off the hook a bit easier in this version. The one update the game didn’t get but sorely needed was a line-by-line revision of its dialogue. The awkward phrasing and weird non-sequiturs would be forgivable were any of it funny, but it constantly feels like the localization team is dancing around the idea of jokes without delivering any. The writing in this game makes the writing in Red & Blue sound like Shakespeare, and that includes the little kid who shouts about his love of shorts.

pokemon-comfy-shorts-english1

The biggest let down is how the game mishandles things that were done better in previous entries. The online system is worse than Alpha Sapphire‘s and while Super Training was dull, its replacement in Ultra Moon is a convoluted nightmare. Pokemon fans love to battle and some of them take it very seriously. The game acknowledges the existence of its adult fans. It just refuses to cater to them.

Deriders might say that I am putting too much stock in a children’s property, but Nintendo tentpoles like Mario and Zelda continue to deliver for all ages. Like the best Pixar and Ghibli movies there is a sweet spot where everyone can get a kick out of something, and for a while, Pokemon resided in this spot. To be frank, this sweet spot should be Nintendo’s wheelhouse.

I’ll refrain from my traditional rant in which I beg Nintendo to release a next-gen Pokemon MMO. “Do yourself a favor. It will be like printing money,” etc. Instead I will end this review with a reminder of the inconsistency of Ultra Moon, one that I think will speak to fans of the franchise or even ones that haven’t played it since the old Game Boy versions. What’s the catch phrase associated with Pokemon? “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!” That signature slogan is the battle cry of the trainer. You’re supposed to fill up your Pokedex with all the Pokemon you’ve caught, hoping to one day “catch ’em all.” In Pokemon Ultra Moon there is no national Pokedex, meaning there is no complete list of Pokemon in the game. You literally can’t catch ’em all. “Catch some, why worry? Mahalo for buying this game twice, ya dummies!”