Kingdom Hearts 3 Review

*Review based on the Playstation 4 version*

Is it possible to love half a game? Or to half-love a game? Because I think that might describe my feelings for Kingdom Hearts 3. I honestly can’t remember the last time a game had me grinning from ear to ear and feeling like a kid on Christmas one minute, and then leave me aggravated and annoyed like an adult at the DMV the next. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that made me feel so emotionally polarized.

Kingdom Hearts 3 is the long-awaited “third” installment in the main Kingdom Hearts series, arriving thirteen years after Kingdom Hearts 2. Of course, considering how every handheld “spinoff” entry in the series that was supposedly intended to whet the appetite of fans in the interim between Kingdom Hearts 2 and 3 are all part of the main story, Kingdom Hearts 3 isn’t really Kingdom Hearts 3 at all. It’s more like Kingdom Hearts 9. And that kind of takes away a little something from the long-awaited experience.

Even from the game’s opening moments, it doesn’t feel like the thirteen-years in the making trilogy capper it should be, but just another random episode in a series. In fact, if it weren’t for the game’s final stage (which somehow simultaneously rushes plot resolutions and drags things out at the same time), you’d probably never even think Kingdom Hearts 3 was serving as the end to the storyline that began with the series’ first entry.

Kingdom Hearts is, of course, Square-Enix’s crossover franchise which sees original characters created by Final Fantasy alumni Tetsuya Nomura travel across the different worlds of classic Disney films. The series also used to boast the occasional Final Fantasy character, but that aspect has been dropped  almost entirely for this ‘third’ entry (sans for the Moogle shop, and a few cameos via constellations in the stars. No, not even Sephiroth returns as a super boss).

It’s the Disney half of the game which is the half I love. As a particular fan of Disney’s recent animated films and those of the Pixar brand, Kingdom Hearts 3 is especially enticing in this regard, as Disney’s recent animated output and Pixar films are what Kingdom Hearts 3 really emphasizes this time around with its Disney-themed worlds.

There are seven primary Disney worlds featured in Kingdom Hearts 3 (plus the traditional, optional Winnie the Pooh world, which focuses on mini-games), five of which fall into the modern Disney and Pixar categories: Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Tangled, Frozen and Big Hero 6. The additional two Disney worlds are based on Hercules (which has been present in all three ‘main’ Kingdom Hearts titles) and Pirates of the Caribbean (specifically At World’s End, a movie I actually very much enjoy despite its general reception). Additionally, the game’s best side quest involves Sora and company seeking out ingredients and making new recipes for Remy from Ratatouille.

Even though it’s a smaller lineup of Disney worlds than some of the previous games, Square was clearly aiming for quality over quantity. And in that sense, they nailed it. This is the best lineup of Disney films the series has represented. And it’s within this Disney fan service that Kingdom Hearts 3 is at its very best.

There’s an inescapable delight every time you enter a new Disney world and Sora, Donald and Goofy interact with characters and events from the films. Many of these characters even have their original voice actors from their respective movies (the cast of Frozen, Mandy Moore as Rapunzel, James Woods as Hades, and the perennial John Ratzenberger as Hamm are particular highlights). Of course, this also means when a character doesn’t have their original actor, it does kind of stick out like a sore thumb (I’m looking your way, Pirates of the Caribbean world).

If you’re a Disney fan – particularly a fan of modern Disney, such as myself – it’s impossible not to have a smile beaming across your face during many of the game’s Disney-centric moments. Naturally, seeing Frozen’s Let It Go recreated for the game stands out as my favorite, but you also get the lantern scene from Tangled, get to ride on the endless door conveyor belt from Monsters, Inc., and fly around San Fransokyo atop of Baymax. It’s moments like this when Kingdom Hearts 3’s many flaws wash away and you can simply bask in the charm of the Disney worlds.

With that said, the game often bungles what should be easy fan service. In both the Tangled and Pirates of the Caribbean worlds, their unique party members (Rapunzel and Flynn Rider in Tangled, Jack Sparrow in Pirates) seem to repeatedly leave your party at every other turn, leaving them feeling underutilized (particularly in Tangled’s case, as Rapunzel no longer joins you if you revisit the stage after its story is done).

In perhaps the game’s most dumbfounding (or hilarious) creative hiccup, the Frozen world doesn’t see Elsa or Anna join Sora’s party, but Marshmallow the snowman (geez, they couldn’t even make it Olaf). Some might say they were trying to do something unexpected, but that seems like the wrong place to do it. Wouldn’t getting an unexpected party member in a returning world like Hercules or Pirates make more sense? They have access to the most popular animated film in history, and don’t fully utilize the main characters? Is it a joke? Especially seeing as Rapunzel – who barely seems to join your team at all – is the only female party member you get in the game, it makes Elsa and Anna’s omission even more baffling still.

Another disappointment with the utilization of the Disney brands is in the boss fights. In past Kingdom Hearts titles, you would at least battle against a fair amount of Disney villains. In Kingdom Hearts 3 there are only three boss fights against Disney characters: The Titans in the Hercules world, Marshmallow in Frozen (they’re certainly getting a lot of mileage out of Marshmallow, it seems), and Davy Jones in Pirates. You can’t help but wonder why they couldn’t have added a few more.

The non-Disney half of the equation is as clunky as ever. What’s even worse is how the game seems to reinforce the idea that the Disney stuff isn’t important, and only Tetsuya Nomura’s characters actually mean anything in the grand scheme of the Kingdom Hearts mythos. Nomura’s original creations simply don’t have any of the likability of the Disney characters with whom they often share the screen.

Even after all these years, Sora remains the atypical “anime boy doofus” character you’ve probably seen a thousand times over in other sources. The villainous Organization XIII consists of one-note, entirely interchangeable bad guys (with the game almost self-awarely reinforcing this when the Organization starts swapping out some members for other characters). Sora’s love interest, Kairi, still amounts to little more than a damsel in distress. Riku is the archetypal ‘rival’ who flirted with the dark side. There are other Keyblade wielders thrown into the mix without any real purpose to be in the story at this point. There are clones of characters. Clones of clones. Characters who aren’t clones but look exactly like other characters. There are even characters who share the same name as other characters!

Yes, it’s sad to admit that instead of learning from past mistakes, Nomura has instead doubled-down on them (whether through stubborn arrogance or blissful ignorance, I’m not sure). Instead of developing the core set of main characters, Nomura just kept adding more and more players throughout the series. This has left his original characters with about as much depth as a shallow puddle.

As stated, the Disney element has also suffered from this abundance of characters, with the different Disney casts being shoved to the side as the game constantly reminds us how unimportant they are. In one telling moment, an Organization XIII member discovers that the Dead Man’s Chest from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is not the macguffin he’s after, and immediately disregards it. Yep, that key item from the second and third Pirates movies is merely scoffed at by just another one of the original villains. It almost feels like Kingdom Hearts is now embarrassed of its crossover element at times.

The plot of the game and its characters would feel infinitely smoother if it made the Disney characters feel important to the narrative. Organization XIII alone would be a far more memorable villain group if some Disney and Final Fantasy villains were in its ranks (seeing as they’re established characters, you wouldn’t have to take time with introductions and getting to learn their personalities, thus leaving room to flesh out the original characters that are present). It seems like it should be obvious. You have a big crossover with Disney and Final Fantasy, why not make those aspects of this mythology feel like they mean something? But one is (admittedly delicious) dressing, and the other is barely existent anymore.

Suffice to say, the narrative of Kingdom Hearts 3 is a bit of a mess, with its only real charm stemming from the Disney characters and moments it borrows. But how is Kingdom Hearts 3 as a game?

For the most part, it’s pretty fun. The gameplay is primarily separated into two halves. The first half sees players control Sora, with Donald and Goofy serving as permanent teammates, and each Disney world coming with one or two teammates of their own (for a nice change, you no longer have to swap Donald or Goofy out of the party to make room for the new guys). The gameplay is predominantly a hack-N-slash RPG, with Sora and company hacking away at hordes of Heartless and Nobodies. The D-pad cycles through quick menus, allowing you to use items, cast spells and other such actions. In terms of control, Kingdom Hearts 3 feels a lot like its predecessors, which means it’s quick to get into if you’re familiar with the series, but also means some of the controls feel stuck in the PS2 era.

Sora’s jumps still feel a bit clunky, and cycling through those “quick menus” may not be as quick as one might hope once you start unlocking more abilities and options. If you found the combat of the past games to be a little repetitive, you may find that to be the case here as well. But there are a few new additions to the gameplay that may win you over.

Some may lament that Sora can no longer change into different forms like in Kingdom Hearts 2, but there’s been a fair trade in that the different Keyblades you acquire can change forms instead. By chaining together combos, your currently equipped Keyblade can temporarily transform into a new weapon, giving Sora new moves, altering spells, and boasting a powerful finisher.

Other abilities can be utilized by performing combos as well. Do enough moves when standing next to a teammate, and you can perform a special move with them. Chain together enough spells, and you can perform more powerful versions of said spells. And in one of Kingdom Hearts 3’s best new additions, defeating certain marked enemies during a combo will allow you to summon an “Attraction.” As the name implies, Attractions are vehicles based on Disneyland rides that work like transformations for all three main heroes.

The only issue I have with these different abilities is that they’re all used by pressing the same button (Triangle on PS4). You can cycle through the temporary abilities you currently have available (L2 on PS4), but in the heat of battle it can get confusing and you’ll often use a different ability than the one you wanted. But they do help keep combat fresh.

The other half of the gameplay are the Gummi Ship sections, and this is where Kingdom Hearts 3 has greatly improved on its predecessors.

Players travel between worlds aboard their Gummi Ships (and can do so freely, should they so choose). Whereas past entries placed the Gummi Ships in fixed rail stages that, frankly, weren’t very good, Kingdom Hearts 3 instead boasts three different sandbox worlds set in outer space.

Players are free to fly about the galaxy at their leisure, can fight enemies and bosses, and find hidden treasures. Most treasures consist of more Gummi Ship parts, as players can create their own vessels, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts style. The more you do in space, the stronger your Gummi Ship becomes, and the more options you have available when creating new ships.

For a nice change of pace for the series, the Gummi Ship sections actually feel like a worthy and complimentary alternative to the main game. I found myself willingly spending entire play sessions just in the Gummi Ship portion of things.

“The A113 gag is a nice touch.”

In addition, there are more than a few side quests in Kingdom Hearts 3 that will keep players occupied outside of the main story. Along with helping Remmy create fine cuisine, the Disney themed stages all host a myriad of Hidden Mickeys (referred to as “Lucky Emblems” in the game). By taking photographs of these Lucky Emblems, the player can unlock secret items and abilities (naturally, the camera can also just be used to goof off as well). And a number of worlds feature their own mini-games where the player can once again unlock bonuses and earn high scores.

Kingdom Hearts 3 is a beautiful game to look at. As usual, Square-Enix provides some of the cleanest looking cut scenes in gaming. But the real visual delight of the game is how accurately the developers have captured the look and feel of each different Disney world and the styles unique to them.

Perhaps Kingdom Hearts 3’s most consistently great element is its music. Once again composed by Yoko Shinomura, Kingdom Hearts 3 combines her unmistakeable style with renditions of classic Disney themes in addition to original compositions. Even when other aspects of the game seem to be pushing the Disney element to the sidelines, Shinomura’s terrific score brings it to the forefront, while also creating its own identity.

In the end, it’s hard to say that Kingdom Hearts 3 lived up to the thirteen year buildup. And if you weren’t a fan before, it may leave you wondering what all the fuss was about to begin with. The story aims for emotion but never resonates, due to the lack of substance in the characters (an obvious product of the fact that there’s just too damn many of them). The gameplay is decent, but lacks polish in a number of areas. And despite the franchise’s biggest selling point being its status as a Disney crossover, Kingdom Hearts 3 often comes across as dumbfounded as to how to make that crossover mean anything.

“Why can the loading screen give me what the game itself can’t?”

Yet, despite all the complaints, I’m still happy I played it. The gameplay is solid enough in its own right, complimented by the vastly improved Gummi Ship segments. Best of all are the Disney worlds themselves. Though they could have (and should have) been better implemented, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a persistent glee in my heart simply by running through these worlds, meeting the characters, and seeing iconic scenes recreated. Some might say I’m just a Disney fan who fell for Nomura’s bait and switch. But hey, when the bait is this enticing, can you blame me?

But seriously, next time have Elsa join my team.

 

5

Advertisements

Kingdom Hearts 3’s Most Appealing Element is Also its Biggest Missed Opportunity

Maybe it’s because I haven’t played a Kingdom Hearts game since the second proper installment, and I was younger when I played the previous entries, so maybe they suffered from this as well. But as I delve further into Kingdom Hearts 3, I’ve noticed a glaring flaw with it that I (at least at the time) didn’t notice with its predecessors: The Disney crossover element feels tacked on, and ultimately, underutilized.

Again, maybe this was the case with past entries, but whether I’m just more aware of it now or the issue has magnified in Kingdom Hearts 3, the franchise’s biggest selling point – it’s very nature as a Disney crossover – feels largely unimportant. All of the classic Disney movies, characters and storylines feel completely drowned out by Tetsuya Nomura’s original characters (I use the word ‘original’ loosely here, given how Nomura seems to just copy-and-paste the same handful of anime archetypes repeatedly).

Whenever I bring this up to Kingdom Hearts fans, I always get the same responses: “It has to have its own mythology.” “The original characters bring everything together.” Things of that nature.

Such responses are shortsighted, however. Of course Kingdom Hearts should have a mythology of its own, and yes, it should have characters unique to that mythology. But the fact of the matter is, the series is a crossover with the different worlds of Disney movies. As such, the Disney worlds should actually feel like an integral part of the mythology to make the crossover mean something. Instead, the Disney element feels like window dressing, and only Nomura’s original characters have any importance to the overall story. It makes the series’ biggest selling point as a Disney crossover feel…kind of pointless.

Even Donald and Goofy, two of supposed three main characters, just feel kind of there. Mickey shows up as a deus ex machine from time to time. And Sora, Donald and Goofy travel to the worlds of different Disney movies, only for one of a seemingly endless supply of black robed zipper enthusiasts to show up and take the focus off the Disney storyline just so they can say the words “Hearts” and “Darkness” ad nauseam.

Some might say I’m just a salty Disney fan, and while I’m certainly more in favor of Disney movies than Nomura’s creations, my issue isn’t that Nomura’s characters take center stage, but that the Disney half of the equation ultimately comes across as irrelevant.

The sad thing is, the first Kingdom Hearts – from what I remember – did a decent job at weaving the crossover element into its story. The main original characters at that time were Sora, his friends Kairi and Rikku, and the villainous Ansem (who was actually Xehanort…or something). Donald and Goofy joined Sora as they searched for the missing King Mickey, and Ansem/Xehanort manipulated Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent (who in tern rallied other Disney villains) into his plot, with the Disney baddies then playing the role of big bad in their respective worlds. The Disney characters felt like they had a place in the mythology.

But then, when making the sequels, Nomura apparently forgot he made a world that featured Disney characters, as they increasingly began to feel tacked on as an afterthought. The villainous Organization XIII was introduced, with its members now taking the role of the antagonists in every Disney world. It totally undermines the Disney worlds you visit in the games when the Disney villains aren’t even allowed to be the villains of their own world. When it was one singular bad guy orchestrating everything, and the Disney villains had their place in their own world, it worked. But now in Kingdom Hearts 3, the bad guy’s henchman are ranked higher than the Disney villains. Way to undermine your own crossover.

It’s not just the Disney stuff that ends up suffering, either. Tetsuya Nomura apparently has no filter when making characters, and he’s added so many of them to the series over the years that they all feel interchangeable. They’re spread so thin that they aren’t allowed to have any depth, and only possess the most token distinctions imaginable (this bad guy has a guitar, but this bad guy rambles about his scientific research). Nomura’s original characters are defined almost entirely as “good guy” and “bad guy,” with no real sense of individuality among them. It gets so excessive that when the characters mention Kairi – one of the original main characters in the series – I’m almost left in shock. I had nearly forgotten that Kairi even existed. That’s not an exaggeration.

All this before we even get into all the other characters thrown into this messy narrative. There are even characters who are alternate versions of other characters!

This all could have been avoided if, again, Tetsuya Nomura understood how to make the Disney crossover mean something to his mythology. Instead, Kingdom Hearts 3 follows an annoying pattern of throwing Sora, Donald and Goofy into a different Disney world, and just as you start to get excited about reliving your favorite Disney movies in video game form, one of the Organization XIII goons shows up, delivers the same repetitious monologue, and it just becomes a total buzzkill. Kingdom Hearts is at its best when it’s indulging in fan service, making you feel like a goofy kid grinning from ear to ear as you meet one Disney character after another. But Testuya Nomura seems adamant to remind the player that his characters are the only ones that matter, and repeatedly kills the magic.

There are two kinds of Disney worlds in Kingdom Hearts 3: those that follow the stories of the movies they’re based on (more or less. Though at times Sora, Donald and Goofy come across as little more than interlopers in these classic Disney plots. And sometimes, their presence even creates plot holes in the original stories). And there are worlds that take place in the world of a certain movie, but tell a story of their own.

The latter category suffers a little bit less, since they aren’t trying to recreate the Disney movies themselves. But even they often fail to deliver it what should be easy fan service. The former category, however, feel like massive missed opportunities.

“One of my favorite scenes of the entire Pirates of the Caribbean series, where Jack and company flip the Black Pearl upside down, is barely touched on in a cinematic after being subjected to yet another Organization XIII monologue. Gee, I wish I could have played this.”

I haven’t beaten Kingdom Hearts 3 yet, but I think I’ve visited most of the Disney worlds (I’m currently at Pirates of the Caribbean). And before I sound too negative, I will say that there still is a wonderful sense of charm every time you visit a new Disney world and meet iconic characters, and overall I am enjoying Kingdom Hearts 3. But that’s exactly why the game’s shortcomings sting all the more.

“Enjoy teaming with Rapunzel while you can…because it’s only for like five minutes.”

Take, for example, the Tangled world. It looks great, you visit locales from the 2010 feature, and you get both Rapunzel and Flynn Rider as party members. But Rapunzel and Flynn seem to leave your party at any given opportunity (in one particularly hilarious instance, Sora tells the Tangled duo to move on ahead because they can’t fight a horde of enemies… after they’ve already helped Sora and company fight hordes of enemies). And once you revisit the Tangled world after beating its story, Rapunzel no longer joins your party. What a ripoff!

Then we have the Toy Story world. Again, at first, it’s magical. Sora, Donald and Goofy become toys, and you quickly befriend none other than Woody and Buzz Lightyear. But then most of the stage takes place in a mall that looks nothing like it came out of Toy Story, and despite the stage’s token Organization XIII bad guy having the ability to corrupt toys (I guess), the level doesn’t even have the decency to end with a boss fight against Evil Emperor Zurg. You just fight another Heartless monster who follows the same general character design, just in UFO form. What a ripoff!

Perhaps the biggest offender is none other than the Frozen world. Yeah, I often go on about how Frozen is my favorite Disney movie. But personal fandom aside, it’s also the most popular animated film in history, which makes it baffling how Kingdom Hearts 3 manages to bungle it up so much.

Now, to be fair again, being the Frozen fan that I am, it of course felt magical to visit the land of Arendelle in the game. The original voice cast from the movie reprise all their roles (hell yes!), and recreating ‘Let It Go’ is already a contender for best video game moment of the year. I don’t want to sound like its presence is a total waste, but it ends up feeling like the biggest missed opportunity in terms of its translation as a video game stage.

“Hi, Elsa! Will you join my team? Please? Please? PLEASE?!”

You don’t get to visit most of the iconic locations from the movie. Arendelle’s Castle Town? Nowhere to be seen. Elsa’s Ice Palace? It’s in cinematics, but the best the player gets to see is a generic snow dungeon that could have come out of any video game ever (what’s worse, this dungeon is created by an Organization XIII member, making it feel even more taunting). And while the Tangled and Toy Story worlds at least had the common sense to make the main characters of their respective films join your party, the Frozen world doesn’t even get that much.

“Riding atop Marshmallow’s back is pretty cool. But you know what would be cooler? Teaming up with Anna and Elsa and visiting locations from the movie!”

Elsa seems like the obvious choice for a teammate, given that she has ice powers. But since the stage (attempts to) follow the plot of the movie, I at least expected Anna and Kristoff to join your party. But despite being the main characters of the highest-grossing animated film in history, you don’t get any of them. The team member you get in the Frozen world is Marshmallow. Y’know, the monster snowman who’s in a couple of scenes in the movie. And you don’t even get him for that long in the stage. What. A. Ripoff.

You really have to wonder how they could have squandered these opportunities so badly. But it all goes back to the same issue: the Disney element of Kingdom Hearts needed to feel important to its overarching story and mythology.

Again, I have no issues with Tetsuya Nomura making his own characters to tie everything together. But there are just too many original characters, to the point when they feel bland and lifeless. At its worst, it almost seems like Nomura drew a sketch of an existing character with a different hairstyle, and decided to make it a separate character in the game because why not.

Both Kingdom Hearts’ status as a crossover, and its own original creations, would feel so much more fleshed-out and meaningful if it gave the Disney characters more integral roles in its mythos. It would be an easy way to rectify the series’ most glaring narrative flaw (too many characters), and make the crossover element feel worthwhile.

I am enjoying Kingdom Hearts 3 for the most part. But playing a video game where I get to visit the worlds of Frozen, Toy Story, Tangled and Monsters, Inc. should feel special in and of itself. But what should be an easily magical experience ends up feeling like a massive missed opportunity more frequently than it should. And that’s a damn shame.

I guess it’s safe to assume that when Kingdom Hearts 4 hits store shelves sometime in the next decade, I can look forward to playing the Frozen II world and teaming up with the Duke of Weselton.

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review

*Review based on Red Dead Redemption 2’s single player campaign. A separate review based on the game’s online mode will follow sometime in the future*

I don’t think I’ve ever played a video game as big as Red Dead Redemption 2. The sheer scope of its world, countless playable activities, and excruciating attention to detail are second to none. Though Red Dead Redemption 2’s ambitions can prove to be a bit of a double-edged sword. Its journey and world-building can feel miraculous at times, but daunting in others. The whole of Red Dead Redemption 2 is a thing of sheer beauty, but its individual pieces can frequently expose its weaknesses on both a creative and technical level. Tedious gameplay elements, bloated objectives, and technical issues eventually do add up to hold back what is otherwise a classic and unforgettable gaming experience.

Set in 1899, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a prequel to its beloved 2010 predecessor. Players take on the role of Arthur Morgan, a member of the Van Der Linde gang (named after its leader, Dutch Van Der Linde), who happen to be going through a rough time after a big heist went horribly wrong. Members of the gang, authorities, and innocent civilians were killed when the job went awry, leading the Van Der Linde gang to go into hiding, and Arthur to begin questioning their future.

Dutch and the gang are on the run from the law, trying to find a means to survive both nature and civilization. Dutch believes one last successful job can lead the gang to prosperity, but that’s easier said than done when Pinkertons, wealthy oil magnate Leviticus Cornwall, and rival gangs such as the O’Driscals are out for the blood of the Van Der Linde gang. In Arthur’s shoes, it’s up to the player to help the Van Der Linde gang get back on its feet, in hopes of a better future.

That’s the basic setup of everything, but as the game progresses, Red Dead Redemption 2 turns into a pretty compelling, character-driven narrative, complimented by some of the best voice acting I’ve ever heard in a video game.

As the game begins, the Van Der Linde gang is low on resources, so naturally the gang has to start small to build itself back up. As Arthur Morgan, players can simply progress through the plot – completing necessary objectives to push the story forward – or they can partake in seemingly countless endeavors across the game’s vast open world.

“Yes, you can even dictate Arthur’s facial hair depending on if you shave or not (and drink hair tonics). Of course, for me, the only way to play is to go full Gimli.”

Unlike most open world games, there’s never a moment when Red Dead Redemption 2 feels lifeless. Every inch of the game feels packed with things to do, whether big or small. You can ignore the story entirely and just get lost in hunting wild animals for meat, robbing trains, playing poker, or making new discoveries in the game’s world. You really have to hand it to Rockstar, they left no stone unturned in regards to making their interpretation of the Wild West feel like a living, breathing world. There is so much to do in Red Dead Redemption 2, in fact, that it would be impossible for me to detail them all without this review turning into an instruction manual.

“The dude in the river who thinks himself a preacher may be a little on the crazy side, but he’s harmless. As such, harming him will do your morality no favors.”

Red Dead Redemption 2 features a morality system, which will change Aurthur’s moral alignment (and his interactions with others) depending on the choices the player makes. So even though Read Dead 2 gives players the freedom to go about Authur’s life and journey as they see fit, there are consequences for your actions. Killing random passersby and looting them will, of course, take away Aurthur’s morality. Should anyone else notice evidence of Aurthur’s crimes, a bounty will be placed on the player’s head. And whenever bounty hunters are close by ready to collect said bounty, certain game elements (including side quests) become unavailable. Conversely, if you happen to come across people in need during your journey (whether it be a blind beggar or a victim of a snake bite requesting Arthur to suck out the venom), lending them a helping hand will reward you at a later time (in a few instances, the people I helped later appeared in towns, and offered to buy me whatever item or weapon my heart desired). Although Rockstar games have a reputation of indulging in deviant behavior (and that can even be true here), Read Dead Redemption 2 bucks that reputation with an emphasis on every action having a consequence.

As stated, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a massive game, filled to the brim with content. On a technical level, the attention to detail and the amount of things to do are unrivaled. Though there is a downside to this insane level of intricacy, with the game sometimes being unable to handle itself, leading to some unfortunate technical issues.

The loading times can be extensive, but that’s fair, given everything the game has to load at any one time. Less tolerable however are the glitches you’re likely to run into across Arthur’s journey. During my playthrough, I encountered more than my share: In one instance, I had to restart a tutorial after enemies spawned on top of the camp I was setting up, who then proceeded to disappear and reappear. For another example, I even had one of my bounties disappear into thin air just as I was taking him in to the local sheriff. Thankfully, I never encountered anything game-breaking, but these issues were big enough and frequent enough to lead to more than a few moments of frustration.

Another aspect of Red Dead Redemption 2 that may end up feeling like a double-edged sword is its emphasis on realism. Now, again, the level of detail is truly stunning, and that’s reflected in the game’s sense of realism. But these realistic elements can also border on tedious.

Arthur’s stats are divided into three categories: health, stamina and deadeye. Health is self-explanatory, and serves as Arthur’s hitpoints. Stamina dictates how long Arthur can run or swim without getting exhausted. Deadeye grants players the ability to slow down time during gunfights, allowing you to mark your targets and get easy shots in the process.

It sounds simple enough, and aside from the addition of deadeye, it brings to mind Breath of the Wild. But while Breath of the Wild streamlined things by simply having certain items recover (or boost) Link’s health and stamina, Red Dead Redemption 2 adds an extra layer to the equation in the form of cores. Cores more or less serve as the base stats of Arthur’s three attributes, and can be leveled up throughout the game to increase the maximum amount of health, stamina and deadeye Arthur can possess.

“You’ll have to set up camp pretty frequently to get some food and rest.”

The downside to this is that the cores also deplete if Arthur has ran out of the stats themselves. And the cores require their own items to recover, separate from those used to heal their respective attributes. So you’ll often have to pause whatever you’re doing to cycle through menus (which thankfully is rather easy in itself, adopting the “wheel menus” originated by Secret of Mana), and use a myriad of different items just to get back to your standard. You won’t believe how many times I got killed in gunfights simply because I couldn’t keep up with all my stats, and kept getting riddled with bullets as Arthur stopped to perform the required animation for using each item.

Yes, Rockstar’s efforts in making the game realistic are admirable, but it also means keeping Arthur in top shape – as well as putting up with every little animation (you can’t simply grab an item by pressing a button, but have to wait for Arthur to crouch and pick up the item himself) – may try the patience of some gamers.

“You never know who, or what, you’ll encounter next when traversing RDR2. Here I was hunting in the wild when I came across a friendly drunk.”

Unfortunately, there is one other big drawback to Red Dead Redemption 2. I mentioned that the story of the game is well written, and I mean it. The character development (particularly that of Dutch Van Der Linde) is truly captivating. But – as is a bad habit of modern games – the story can become dragged out with padding on a few occasions. With how massive of a game Red Dead Redemption 2 already is, and the countless things you can do at any given time at any given place, it really seems unnecessary for the main plot to be as long as it is. The story could have been trimmed down a good number of hours and not taken away its impact, and left the optional elements to fill out the game’s content.

In the most blatant example of padding in gaming since Uncharted 3’s cruise ship sequence, the entire fifth chapter of Red Dead Redemption 2’s story feels completely unnecessary. The plot would have worked just fine without it. What’s worse is that this chapter is the one instance in the game where you aren’t free to do as you please, as it forces the player to do what it wants. As great as the rest of Red Dead Redemption 2 is, the game’s fifth chapter brings its momentum to a dead stop.

“Yeah, I think it’s safe to say I tend to play RDR2 a bit humorously. This is my Arthur’s poker face.”

These may be considerable complaints with the game, but Red Dead Redemption 2 is so well made in just about every other regard, that it’s still easy to get lost in it all despite its issues. None of its flaws are deal-breakers, but in many areas Red Dead Redemption 2 feels like one of the most masterfully crafted games I’ve played, and these issues sadly prevent it from reaching its full potential. In terms of ambition, content, and execution, Red Dead Redemption 2 feels like an all-time great. But the myriad of technical issues, gameplay tedium, and story padding do become something of a wet blanket, leaving Red Dead Redemption 2 to being “merely” great.

Still, it can’t be stated enough how much Red Dead 2 gets right. On the visual front, it’s a non-stop spectacle. The character models are some of the most believable and realistic I’ve ever seen (with only Uncharted 4 and 2018’s God of War matching it in those areas). And the scenery is absolutely breathtaking. Aside from actually stepping outside and experiencing nature in real life, you probably couldn’t ask for more beautiful natural environments.

Complimenting these beautiful visuals is an absolutely terrific musical score that rivals any movie western soundtrack. There were countless moments in my playthrough where the score not only set the mood for what was happening in game, but really pulled me into the moments themselves. Rarely have I been so involved in what was happening in a game as I was riding on horseback with Dutch and the gang, dodging gunfire and riding to safety as Woody Jackson’s epic score flooded my ears.

Adding even more to these audial pleasures is some stellar sound work, which ranks as some of the best you could hope to hear outside of FromSoftware. Red Dead 2 is – like FromSoftware’s Souls series – one of those titles where every last sound helps create the emersion of its world.

“Yeah, you can even find a viking helmet, which hilariously shows up in cinematics.”

Another fun aspect of Red Dead 2 is that it has a pretty good sense of humor. Though the main story plays things straight for the most part (save for a now infamous drinking binge segment), there are many side quests and occurrences in the wild that frequently lighten the mood. Though the main game stays true to its American Wild West setting, the optional content will see Arthur encounter U.F.Os, vampires, robots, and many other oddities that might otherwise feel out of place. It’s actually a pretty effective and unique example of a game taking itself seriously in terms of its story, but also knowing when to take a break and just have a good time.

“Follow the buzzards! We’re here…”

Red Dead Redemption 2 is, in many ways, an absolute triumph of video game design. Even if you give the technical blips a pass for being a side effect of the game’s sheer scope, its aforementioned missteps in padding and tedium are creative choices that are a little harder to forgive, and prevent Red Dead Redemption 2 from being the flat-out masterpiece it otherwise would have been. But if Red Dead Redemption 2 is a flawed game, it’s one of the best flawed games I’ve ever experienced.

Red Dead Redemption 2 has it’s issues. But while those same issues may break a lesser game, Red Dead 2 is so full of life and surprises that whatever drawbacks it does have suddenly seem a lot smaller amidst its campaign and open world. In terms of sheer scope and ambition, Red Dead Redemption 2 is nothing short of peerless.

 

8

Donut County Review

Donut County is an indie game by Ben Esposito. Released in 2018, Donut County was one of the pleasant surprises of the year, and can be described as something along the lines of an inverse Katamari Damacy. While Katamari saw players bundle up as many objects (and people) imaginable to create one giant mass, Donut County sees players take control of a hole in the ground to engulf everything (and everyone) in sight.

“Sometimes the gameplay takes a break and sees the characters texting each other. You can select the duck button to send a quack to the person on the other end. Just because.”

Taking place in the titular county, the primary characters of the game are employees at the local donut shop; Mira, a human, and her boss, BK the raccoon. Whether or not this shop sells actual donuts is up for debate, as most of their business (unbeknownst to Mira at first) is that BK uses a cell phone app to deliver “donuts” to customers…except that these donuts are actually holes in the ground the slowly increase in size as they swallow more objects, and have ultimately been trapping people underground along with their homes and all of their stuff.

The majority of the game is told in flashbacks, as Mira and BK have been sucked down a hole themselves. The other residents of Donut County recount the events of how they got sucked underground, and their stories are then played out as the game’s stages. All the while, the residents of Donut County try to help BK come to the realization that what he did was wrong (he simply wanted to build up points with the app to purchase a drone). It’s a delightfully bonkers game that really does feel like a little love letter to Katamari Damacy.

As stated, the player doesn’t control any characters, but the hole in the ground. The hole always starts out small, and increases in size with the more objects it swallows. You’ll begin stages sending pebbles and flowers down the hole, and gradually work your way to larger objects, before the hole becomes so large it can overtake houses. It all sounds simple – and truth be told it is – but it’s a whole lot of fun and will keep a smile on your face.

Donut County does find ways to keep the concept fresh, with puzzle elements introduced early on, which continue to grow as the game progresses. For example, an early stage sees the player guide the hole to swallow a campfire, which results in smoke emanating from the hole, with the player then guiding the hole under a hot air balloon so the smoke can help it lift off. And later on in the game, BK purchases a “catapult attachment” to the hole, which can launch specific items out of the hole. You can catapult these objects to knock down out of reach items, which may be necessary to increase the size of the hole. Donut County takes its simplistic concept, and finds fun and inventive new ways to utilize it throughout.

The entire campaign of Donut County should take roughly two hours. So it’s a very short game, which isn’t a bad thing (give me a compact but complete game over an overly long one filled with padding any day). The downside, however, is that there’s not too much incentive for replay value other than to complete the ‘Trashopedia” (the collection of objects you’ve sent down holes, with each item having its own humorous description), but chances are you’ll already have the Trashopedia nearly complete after your first playthrough anyway.

There may not be a whole lot of content to make up for the short campaign, but everything that is present in Donut County – simple though it may be – is undeniably charming and fun. Similar to Portal or (you guessed it) Katamari Damacy, Donut County introduces an innovative gameplay concept, and presents it in so many playful ways it will continuously pique players’ interest to see what’s around the next corner.

There are few things in gaming as satisfying as the combination of fun, original gameplay and a unique, quirky charm. Donut County is a terrific example of just that.

 

7

Inside Review

Playdead became one of the premiere indie gaming studios upon the release of their first game, Limbo in 2010. A monochromatic platformer, Limbo was a stylistic little adventure that spanned about an hour of playtime. Though the atmosphere garnered Limbo immense praise, I was in the minority of people who found Limbo’s gameplay far too shallow to make it worth the praise. Six years later, Playdead released their second title, Inside, a spiritual successor to Limbo which garnered even more critical praise than its predecessor. While Inside does suffer many of the same faults that plagued Limbo, even I have to admit it’s a step in the right direction for Playdead.

Like Limbo before it, Inside is a side-scrolling platformer with puzzle elements. Though it is visually distinct from its predecessor, abandoning the 2D silhouettes of Limbo in favor of 3D character models that have more color, but are often masked in shadows. It’s a more varied aesthetic than Limbo, and it, combined with its minimalistic music and ambient sounds, gives Inside a greater sense of atmosphere than its predecessor.

The player controls an unnamed boy, who has recently escaped from a mysterious government/scientific facility. The agents/researchers of this facility are on the prowl for the escapee, so the boy must elude them at all costs. All while solving puzzles and obstacles in order to completely escape from the facility’s reach.

The boy only has basic actions, such as running, jumping, pushing and pulling objects, swimming and climbing. Immediately, the game sounds like a retread of its Limbo, but Inside rises head and shoulders above its predecessor with two simple improvements: better level design, and better puzzle design.

While one of my biggest complaints with Limbo was how the puzzles were too simple (push this, pull that, and go right), Inside has learned from its predecessor to make puzzles that require a bit more thinking and exploration. Yes, it still uses the same game mechanics, but they feel far more creatively utilized this time around. While Limbo’s puzzles often felt spelled out for the player, Inside’s will actually give you a sense of “eureka” every now and again.

Among the game’s best puzzles are those that see the boy take control of the many, zombie-like victims of the facility. At various points in the game, the boy can attach psychic helmets to his head, which allows him to animate the seemingly lifeless bodies lying about the facility. These ‘bodies’ can help the boy reach new heights, rip open doors and gates, push and pull heavy objects, and operate machinery. In some of Inside’s best moments, the boy can lead a body to an additional helmet, thus the boy controls a body controlling more bodies. This element alone gives the game a much deeper gameplay element than its predecessor, and comes across like a dark and dreary version of Pikmin.

There are other key elements that make Inside a vast improvement over Limbo. Namely, that the puzzles and obstacles of the game keep building upon themselves, and each “chapter” of the game continues to introduce new types of puzzles to solve, and obstacles to overcome. There are underwater sections where the boy pilots a submarine, and in a section that feels inspired by similar stages from Retro Studios’ Donkey Kong Country Returns and Tropical Freeze, the boy has to continuously hide behind objects to survive being blasted away by deadly shockwaves. The shockwaves have a timed pattern, so the player has to make sure to time everything just right to make sure they have enough time to make it behind the next object. And, without giving too much away, Inside’s finale becomes something of a grotesque version of Katamari Damacy.

In essence, Inside is pretty much a superior version of Limbo in pretty much every regard. Though it does still stumble in a few of the same areas as Playdead’s original title. Like Limbo before it, Inside is a very short game, though it has added an additional hour or two to the proceedings. That isn’t a bad thing in of itself (short games are a refreshing change of pace in this day and age), but there isn’t a whole lot of replay value to the game to make up for the brief campaign. There are hidden orbs to be found that – once all of them have been deactivated – will result in an alternate ending. But that’s about it. Perhaps more alternate secrets and endings could have extended the lifespan of Inside. Those who are engrossed in the game’s atmosphere and vague narrative may seek out the alternate ending, but everyone else may find the roughly three hour journey to be enough as it is.

Unfortunately, some of its predecessor’s control issues have sneaked their way over as well. Though it feels a little more polished, the boy of Inside often suffers from the similarly finicky physics and controls. The jumping still has that LittleBigPlanet-esque sense of imprecision, which makes some platforming feel more annoying than it should.

Similar to Limbo, it seems a few sections of Inside require a trial-and-error approach, forcing you to die in order to solve problems bits at a time with each respawn before figuring them out. This isn’t too big of a deal, since you  regenerate at the start of the current puzzle/problem, but it still makes some obstacles feel cheaper than others.

However, I can’t stress enough how much of an improvement Inside is over Limbo. Even these complaints, while still present, aren’t nearly as bad as they were in Inside’s predecessor. Limbo often felt hampered by its issues, as though Playdead’s confidence in their game’s atmosphere and visuals lead to some complacency when it came to their puzzle and stage design. With Inside, the game feels creative and well constructed enough that whatever issues it does have feel more like inconveniences in an otherwise exceptional effort.

It’s much easy to see how Inside garnered its praise than it is to see what all the hubbub was with Limbo. Pretty much everything about Playdead’s debut effort has been substantially bettered with their second go. Those who loved Limbo lavished Inside with even more profuse praise. And even someone like me, who considers Limbo to be an empty game, can consider Inside to be something of the “good version” of Playdead’s work thus far. Doesn’t that just say it all?

 

7

Red Dead Redemption 2 Impressions

Probably the most hyped video game of the year, Red Dead Redemption 2, was released last week. And after growing old waiting for my PS4 to install the game, I’ve managed to put a good number of hours into it. So here are my thoughts so far.

The good news is, it’s easy to see why people were so excited for the game, given its sheer scope not just in size, but content. It really does feel like you can interact with pretty much everything in one way or another. You can completely ignore the story and just spend time playing poker or robbing passersby on the road. You can make small talk with citizens, take baths, go hunting, and play Dominos (though even in a video game, I still don’t get it). It’s simply fun just goofing off and doing your own thing.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a very meticulous game, with all of the above activities (and so many others) having their own rules and mechanics. It feels like everything about the game’s world is given an extreme attention to detail. This level of intricacy is felt in the game’s sense of realism. Arthur Morgan – the player character – really feels like he has human limitations that other video game characters don’t have.

Similar to Breath of the Wild, Morgan needs to eat, dress appropriately for the weather, and craft materials in order to survive. Unlike Breath of the Wild, Morgan can’t climb every surface, and struggles against the environment as much as he does fellow outlaws. Your horses also need to be taken care of, and yes, you can even let Morgan grow a beard, and then decide how to shave his facial hair.

“If there’s one thing RDR2 does better than Breath of the Wild, it’s that you can actually pet the dogs!”

On the downside of things, I think this emphasis on realism can sometimes be frustrating. Having to stop and set up camp in the middle of a quest, and then needing to use item after item to keep all your stats in order can grow a little tedious after a while. Breath of the Wild’s similar survival elements were much quicker paced and always enhanced the experience. By comparison, Red Dead Redemption 2’s survival aspects can be involving, but just as often can feel cumbersome, and drag what is already a very long game out even longer.

Another problem I have is shuffling through items. Now, RDR2 is wise enough to have a Secret of Mana-esque item wheel for most of the essentials by holding the L1 button (though going to a menu is still required for many other items). But I kind of wish you had to hit a button to select an item, instead of simply letting go of L1 on a highlighted item, because this often causes me numerous problems when I’m in a firefight.

Although I’m less than twenty percent through the story, I’ve already encountered some notable technical issues. One especially egregious moment saw two bounty hunters randomly spawn in front of me as I was going through a tutorial on crafting while camping, the bounty hunters bumped into me with their horse, which canceled my crafting (and the dialogue that went with it). The bounty hunters then instantly despawned (and later respawned), and I couldn’t get back to my tutorial, so I had to kill myself to get back to the previous checkpoint. I’ve also witnessed a few instances of NPCs’ character models suddenly changing (a man working a hotel lobby inexplicably transformed into a bandaged version of himself and back again in the span of time it took to rent a bath). Granted, with just how massive and detailed the game is, you could say that such technical issues are almost expected. But does that really change the fact that they’re issues?

With all that said, I have had a mostly stellar time with Red Dead Redemption so far despite the flaws. It is a very easy game to get lost in and just have fun acting out the old west. I still have a long way to go before I reach the end of the story, so I guess I’ll have to wait and see how long the game remains engrossing. As it stands, Read Dead Redemption 2 has so far been an addicting, if flawed time.

Mega Man 11 Review

*Review based on the Nintendo Switch version of Mega Man 11*

Mega Man is in a unique place among gaming’s classic franchises. Unlike Mario or Zelda, Mega Man doesn’t strive to innovate with each new iteration. In fact, the Blue Bomber more or less settled on its formula back in the NES days, which saw no less than six entries make their way on the console. Perhaps ‘settled’ is too negative a way to put it, as the series found ways to tweak and twist its classic formula, and each entry still remained fun to play.

After a decade of classic Mega Man titles (which saw two additional entries on SNES and Playstation/Saturn), developer Capcom simply stopped making further iterations in the classic series in favor of its various spinoffs like Mega Man X or Mega Man Battle Network. Then, after a decade of dormancy, the original Mega Man series returned with Mega Man 9 in 2008, which paid homage to the NES games. It seemed like Mega Man was here to stay once again, with Mega Man 10 following suit in 2010. But after 10, the series once again left the spotlight. This time, however, there weren’t even any spinoff titles to speak of. Mega Man simply disappeared (outside of recent compilation releases of past games). Series producer Keiji Inafune left Capcom, and many thought the developer was withholding the series out of spite.

Well, after an eight-year hiatus, the main Mega Man series is finally back with the aptly-named Mega Man 11. And while it still may not be an evolutionary step in gaming that we expect from Mario or Zelda, Mega Man shows no signs of rust after his extended absence. The wheel may not be reinvented, but Mega Man 11 still finds enough new tricks to feel like a proper sequel, and not just a nostalgic retread.

“Did that enemy come from Adventure Time?!”

The first difference you’re bound to notice between Mega Man 11 and its immediate predecessors are the visuals. While and 10 paid homage to the 8-bit origins of the series, Mega Man 11 looks like a proper follow-up to Mega Man 8’s more cartoony aesthetics. It’s a welcome change of pace to be honest. As nice as it was to see 8-bit Mega Man return on (then)modern hardware for the past two games, simply repeating the throwback visuals for a third time in a row may not have had the same appeal. By continuing the style of Mega Man’s 7 and 8, 11 feels like a more unique sequel paying respects to Mega Man’s most tragically overlooked gems. Not to mention the variety of bright colors and ‘softer’ character models transition really well into the current gaming age. As is expected of the Mega Man series, 11 also features a great soundtrack that – although not among the series’ best – provides some of the catchiest video game music of 2018.

“The eight Robot Masters here may not include any all-time greats, but they’re all unique to the series.”

As for the structure of the game, well, it’s exactly what you would expect: Eight Robot Masters are waiting at the end of eight different stages, which can be played in any order the player sees fit. Each defeated Robot Master gives Mega Man a new power, with each power being particularly effective against a different Robot Master. Once these eight stages are completed, Mega Man moves on to Dr. Wily’s Castle for a small series of especially difficult stages leading up to a confrontation with the mad doctor himself.

In another nod to Mega Man 8, the Blue Bomber can collect bolts throughout stages, which can then be used to purchase items in between stages. Some of these are the usual extra lives, E and W Tanks (for refilling health and weapon power, respectively), but you can also purchase special items like a shield that reduces damage by half and Beat the robotic bird, who will rescue Mega Man should he fall into a bottomless pit. You can also purchase items that will permanently boost Mega Man’s abilities during your playthrough.

“Even old favorite platforming obstacles return. Fear the disappearing/reappearing blocks!”

If the structure is the same, what exactly is new about Mega Man 11 that differentiates it from its predecessors? Well, the benefit of platformers is that, even if a series re-uses the same blueprints, the level design alone can distinguish one game from the rest. And for the most part, the level design in Mega Man 11 is stellar. The stages are lengthy, have distinctive themes that find their way into the gameplay, and provide a good challenge. On the downside, the game seems to overuse some swarming, constantly spawning enemies, which feels like an unnecessary means to make already difficult platforming sections even more difficult. Sure, past Mega Man games had some sections with constantly spawning enemies, but Mega Man 11 pulls that card a little too often.

“The Power Gear Allows the Mega Buster to go right through enemy shields.”

The big new mechanic of Mega Man 11 is the Double Gear System. As the name implies, the Double Gear System features two new abilities, both of which are activated with shoulder buttons, and can only be used for a short duration before the Double Gear System overheats and needs to recharge. The Power Gear boosts the strength of not only Mega Man’s Mega Buster, but also the Robot Master abilities, leading to a variety of super powerful moves. Meanwhile, the Speed Gear makes Mega Man move so fast that everything around him seems to be in slow motion.

“The game’s best mini-bosses will see the Double Gear System put to good use.”

The Double Gear System is a great addition to the classic Mega Man gameplay, though it can feel a tad underutilized. The Power Gear, in conjunction with the Robot Master abilities, adds an extra element to the series’ rock-paper-scissors setup, and the Speed Gear sees some innovative uses in auto-scrolling and sub-boss sections. But by the time you finish the adventure, you can’t help but feel that the game could have provided more opportunities where you felt the gears were needed. Mega Man 11 does feature some additional challenge modes – like time trials, collecting blue balloons for points while avoiding red balloons, and things of that sort – but they aren’t exactly game-changers. So while these modes may serve as fun distractions, they still leave you wanting a little more for the main adventure.

Mega Man 11 is a tried-and-true sequel. A worthy follow-up to an iconic series that feels all the more welcome due to the series’ lengthy hiatus. The Double Gear System is a nice little twist, but you may hope that, come Mega Man 12, the series might see a more radical change. Imagine a Mega Man title with 12 Robot Masters! Or 16! Or a sequel that lets you combine Robot Master abilities! The series already has a timeless formula to fallback on, so it could use a littler more experimentation. If Mega Man 12 tries its hand at something radically different for the series and falls short, they can always backtrack with Mega Man 13. This is a hard series to cause any permanent damage to itself.

“The screens that accompany the acquisitions of new weapons are always really cool.”

The classic Mega Man formula will admittedly always work to an extent, and Mega Man 11 is as fun as ever. But considering the Double Gear System feels a little underutilized – and other than that system this is a very straightforward Mega Man sequel – you can’t help but hope that the next entry will bring a little bit more to the table in regards to newness. Mega Man 11 delivers the Mega Man goodness the gaming world has been missing for far too long, but hopefully next time around, Mega Man can push himself to be even more.

 

7