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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.  

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Game Review: Disco Elysium

Play an alcoholic rockstar cop or a moralist sorry cop or a socialist hobo cop in Disco Elysium, a novelistic adventure game that reinvents storytelling in gaming. Imagine Divinity: Original Sin on a shroom trip and you’ll have the scent of it. Elysium is elusive and seductive, disgusting and plodding, ugly and beautiful. It is all of us, a social commentary that accounts for the implausible, a miracle of narrative fiction, better than most (if not all) modern lit. Its pretention is only matched by its obsession with guttural urges and sweet fleeting feelings. It is the darkness and sadness of humanity, an episode of Black Mirror without ending, a suggestion of what’s to come and what came before.

A standard cop game might see shoot-outs a plenty. Not so with Disco Elysium. Wander from misbegotten scene to another like Guybrush Threepwood and have seemingly aimless conversations. Pick from a long string of options that either make your character seem quirky or jaw-droppingly insane. Trigger warnings fail to make an appearance, but delicate sensibilities need not apply, until the warmth swells in your heart and you see the beauty in the madness.

Like a D&D game, Disco Elysium offers you checks and dice rolls. You level up weird qualities with unclear advantages. You can also dwell on thoughts to unlock new abilities (or screw yourself up emotionally). You’re supposed to be solving a mystery but your body is a sack of crap and your head is swimming with substances. Good thing you’ve got Kim by your side to keep you straight. That is, if he, or anyone in this punctured city can be trusted.

Who’s to say you’ll have the same experience I did when playing this game? All roads lead to Revechol but it’s the journey you take to reach your destination that really sets the vibe. Will you recover your badge and gun? Will you help cryptid hunters find the truth? Will you allow local tweakers to run a drug den in a church? These are all optional, but the consequences make them feel like they matter. Finally a story game that accomplishes its own ambitions. No more “Harry will remember that” from those Telltale Games. Real stakes, heart, not just cartoon platitudes about darkness and light.

Your mind speaks to you in Disco Elysium. But you can shut it off if you like. Be an analytical cop running visual calculus. Be a sexist cop with a feminist streak. Be a capitalo-fascist union scab. Revel in your own misery and misdeeds, your inability to change the past. But if Disco Elysium’s message is about the weight of consequence, the inescapability of past, present and future, it also provides a sly smile. Who says disco’s really dead? The spirit’s still alive, baby.

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Game Reviews Gaming

Game Review: Red Dead Redemption 2

Sadie is Bae-die
“Hold on, Arthur. Them’s a lot of words comin’ at us!”

There are some who will not be able to surmount the tedium of riding a horse through scenic landscape. For those people, Red Dead Redemption 2, the latest opus from Grand Theft Auto creator Rockstar Games, may be a tad on the boring side. However, if you’re interested in a deep, beautiful, and rewarding slice of interactive literature, look no further.
The story is as follows. You play as Arthur Morgan, a member of Dutch Van Der Linde’s gang of outlaws. You steal carriages, rob trains, and murder countless people (whether or not they deserve it). That ‘whether’ bit is the center of the moral quandary. When the walls are closing in, should you live life amorally? Or should you try for REDEMPTION? It’s up to you to decide, and that’s the fun part.

The not-so-fun part is how slowly it all unfolds, according to some naysayers. You really are locked into playing Arthur’s story, making this narrative more along the lines of Geralt’s in The Witcher than say the free-wheeling randomness of Skyrim. There are some random bits, strangers lurching out at you from the side of the road with advice or peril. You can be a white hat or a black hat and dress yourself in the skin of whatever you catch. The open world is picturesque. So much care was given to every blade of grass, the placement of every hillside, that it is stunningly awful when something glitches, and a man goes flying hundreds of feet in the air.

The glitches, thankfully, make up a small percentage of the overall experience, and they remain one of the few reminders that you are not in-fact inhabiting this world yourself, but playing a simulacrum. Upon finally completing the somewhat bloated and hilariously overlong story- (fans of Persona 5 will likely find that game neat and tidy by comparison) there is a palpable loss of something magical. Not that the game has faltered, just that the dream has ended. It does indeed have an ending. And the paltry offerings of the online mode will never live up to the beauty and wondrously drawn characters of the main story.

What makes the writing so wonderful is its restraint. Gone is the madcap insanity of Grand Theft Auto V. It even manages to avoid going comically mundane like that game did. Although most of the missions boil down to a shoot-out, there is a concerted effort to make each story set-up interesting or at the least mildly distinct. Getting to know each character proves to be rewarding as well. Like a good Mass Effect, you really do develop feelings for your crew. (But unlike Mass Effect, you don’t get to bang them. This is of course an oversight.)

The game takes extra care to dovetail into the events of the first game, being a prequel. It really did remind me of Hemingway, specifically For Whom the Bell Tolls. It’s imperfect, but no less beautiful for being so. It seems to express both the sublime of nature and the staggering reality of being unable to outrun your past. Since that last bit’s all you really get out of The Great Gatsby, I suggest substituting Red Dead Redemption 2 as it is vastly more fun. There’s romance, tragedy, joy, and so many horses you might grow hooves yourself. This is truly a game that wants you to take your time and appreciate life, because unlike Red Dead Redemption 2, life is fleeting.

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Game Review: Divinity: Original Sin 2

divinity2

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.

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Game Review: Spider-Man PS4

spiderman

Fans of Spider-Man will be happy to know that the new PS4 game does for their favorite wall-crawler what the Arkham series did for Batman, but hardcore gamers may be disappointed that in terms of groundbreaking gameplay Spider-Man on PS4 doesn’t swing too high above the watermark that Arkham set. The open world gameplay is heavily indebted to open worlds past, specifically those inhabited by Batman, Ubisoft’s many Assassins, and the Infamous gang. Spider-Man‘s Manhattan is littered with colorful icons indicating side missions to delight, distract, and occasionally bore the player. Of course this is all par for the course for the modern open world gamer. What sets Spider-Man apart is the sweet sublime feeling of swinging through the city streets, a kind of divinely relaxing routine that allows the player to forget their worries and get lost in the fun.

The story will be hard to discuss without spoilers, but I’ll try my hardest to keep this review spoiler-free. Suffice it to say that in general, the narrative takes an awfully long time to reach some familiar places, pitting Spidey against supervillains while his alter ego Peter Parker is dealing with guilt, grief and relationship woes. The game opens with Spidey on the verge of a criminal bust after eight years of work. Once a renowned mob boss is in jail, Spider-Man is forced to deal with the power vortex he’s created. A new supervillain rises to power, Mr. Negative, a photo-negative look-alike who can zombify people by unleashing their inherent darkness. This darkness idea isn’t really explored so much as it is shoehorned in amongst all the other madcap nonsense involving Dr. Otto Octavius and Norman Osborne, characters so thoroughly established that they feel like an odd mix of nostalgia and redundancy here. The story isn’t as artfully crafted as the dialogue, and eventually the crime narrative rubber-bands to a rapid conclusion, one feeling a bit short and sluggish. Thankfully the character moments are charming and nuanced enough to counter-balance these flaws.

Underwhelmed by is offerings, I rushed through the story so I could dig into what I cared about the most, swinging around the city and stopping crimes. Once the story is complete you’ll have plenty of time to explore, collect backpacks, try on new super-powered suits, and do whatever a spider can, even though sometimes ‘whatever a spider can’ feels oddly familiar to ‘whatever a bat did yesterday.’ The stealth mechanics aren’t quite as polished as Arkham‘s, but they get the job done. Combat is a bit looser and doesn’t feel as much like a rhythm/puzzle game as Arkham. Once you get a hang of the many different mechanics and how they can be hybridized to create your own natural rhythm, things get fun and fluid. Sometimes you’ll find yourself scrambling for that perfect swing or shot and inadvertently doing something more spectacular than you could have imagined. That moment of discovery and the glee that comes with it is enough to make any comic book fan feel like a kid again.

For the Spidey Squad this game is a clear no-brainer, but for everyone else I’d offer a caveat. Spider-Man feels more like a game that might have been released prior to Breath of the Wild or The Phantom Pain in terms of its workhorse aplomb. It never tries to push any boundaries or exceed expectations. It merely tries to match them and provide a game worthy of the name Spider-Man. By that metric it succeeds, and likely will pave the way for DLC and sequels that push the game engine to exciting new heights.