Dark Souls Review

*Review based on Dark Souls release as Dark Souls Remastered*

Dark Souls is a difficult game. Many enemies and bosses can kill you with one stroke, deadly traps will lead to instant death, and invading players always have it out for you. The challenge of Dark Souls has become the stuff of gaming legend. And yet, that difficulty is hardly the summation of Dark Souls. Rather, the steep challenge is justified by being part of one of the most tightly constructed, immersive and overall satisfying experiences in all of video games. Yes, Dark Souls is difficult, but it’s so much more than that.

Director Hidetaka Miyazaki followed the blueprint of his earlier title Demon’s Souls when crafting this spiritual sequel. Dark Souls transcended its predecessor by delving into deeper gameplay territories. The most prominent of which being its merging with the Metroidvania sub-genre, with each land to be discovered in the game connecting with another, and shortcuts between them to be found once you meet the right requirements.

The world in question is Lordran, one of the great settings in video games. The people of Lordran suffer the curse of being undead. Unlike most fantasy stories, the undead of Dark Souls look like human beings, but they are unable to die, instead losing more and more of their humanity upon death, eventually becoming a ‘Hollow’ (essentially a mindless zombie, and more akin to what is usually labeled as ‘undead’). Players take on the role of the ‘Chosen Undead,’ who escapes from the Undead Asylum and arrives in Lordran, where they begin a pilgrimage that is destined to bring them face to face with Lord Gwyn, an old god responsible for the undead curse.

As is the standard for the series, most story and world elements are intentionally vague, with snippets of character dialogue and flavorful descriptions of items giving insight into the world of Lordran. It proves to be one of the more effective means of video game storytelling, with players able to delve into the narrative should they choose, or simply bask in pure gameplay.

From the get-go, Dark Souls’ gameplay presents a staggering amount of variety: Players can customize their character to be more focused on heavy physical damage, magic attacks, healing, quick strikes, and more. And even when you do decide which direction to take your character, there are still several different routes you can take with each build. Even the core gameplay provides different styles, whether it’s a weapon in one hand and a shield in the other, two weapons, a weapon and a staff, there’s no shortage of options. You can even swap into holding a weapon with both hands at the press of a button.

The depth in gameplay just never lets up. There are new mechanics constantly being introduced, and some which are so subtle you may not realize they were there until late into the journey.

Two of the key mechanics players will need to know are souls and humanity. Souls are acquired from defeating enemies, and work as both experience points to level up your character and currency for buying items, weapons and armor. Humanity is a bit rarer, being an occasional drop from enemies and scattered about the world, as well as rewarded for helping other players fell bosses. When the player dies (and you will die), they become Hollow which – along with making their character look more deathly – prevents you from summoning other players for help. Adding to the game’s challenge, every time you die, you lose your souls and humanity (though you retain unused humanity in your inventory). You have a chance to reclaim your lost earnings if you can return to the spot you died, but if you die again before you make it, you lose everything.

The now-iconic Bonfires serve as checkpoints, but are also where you spend souls to level up, repair and upgrade equipment, and where you can spend a humanity to undo the effects of Hollowing. Resting at bonfires also refills your Estus Flask – your primary source of healing – and you can increase the usage of your Flask at any bonfire you’ve kindled, which also costs a humanity. Suffice to say, discovering a new bonfire after a series of rough patches is a godsend.

The sheer amount of detail that emits from every environment of Lordran is staggering. The level design is among the best of any Metroidvania title, with every destination being perfectly staged with enemy and item placements, not to mention secrets around every corner (a number of which rival Symphony of the Night’s inverted castle in how they change and expand upon the whole experience). Even in its most painfully difficult moments, it’s all too easy to get absorbed in Dark Souls’ structure and depth.

If things get too difficult, you can always call on other players to help you out by finding their summon signs across the land (with players usually leaving them around bonfires and boss doors). You can summon up to two other players to aide you in an area until you rid it of its boss, but you can’t summon players when hollowed. There is a caveat to staying human, however, as whenever you’re not hollow you are susceptible to invasion by enemy players. Of course, if you’re getting stuck on a particular segment, or simply want to help or hinder someone else, you can always leave a summon sign or invade another player for a change of pace.

On its own, the multiplayer of Dark Souls – both cooperative and combative – has rightfully proven influential over the years, as it remains a fun and refreshing change from multiplayer norms. But to add another layer to everything, players can join Covenants throughout their journey, which often have their own benefits and rewards for both friendly and fiendish multiplayer.

I suppose we do have to go back and talk about the notorious difficulty of Dark Souls. While the game can get brutally difficult – to the point of intimidating some players – it’s never unfair. Whether its equipping the proper armor to withstand poisoning or finding the right spot to best hide from a boss’ devastating attack, there are always methods to what seems like madness. More importantly, there is always a sense of strategy, with players able to survive any onslaught if they know when to dodge, block or attack. While a lesser designed game may simply leave you throwing your hands in the air and giving up under such difficulty, Dark Souls is so well designed that it will leave you wanting to push yourself to see things through. Dark Souls may have you feeling like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, going about the same situation in different ways until you get it right. And when you do get it right, there’s seldom an experience in gaming that even approaches its sense of reward.

Though it was originally released in 2011, Dark Souls’ visuals have held up nicely, with the remastered version making it look all the more at home on current hardware. Better still is its art direction, which should rank among the best of the medium. There’s not a location or creature that doesn’t stick with you. Combine that with the game’s incredible musical score and unparalleled sound work, and Dark Souls is quite the spectacle, and presents perhaps the most absorbing fantasy world in gaming.

There are a few minor issues with Dark Souls, but nothing that truly undermines its overall excellence. Later in the game you gain the ability to warp between specific bonfires, though you may wish you gained the ability a little sooner when you find yourself going back and forth in the earlier half of the game. Then there’s the backstabbing mechanic, which is just far too easy for players to perform on one another. While being invaded by opposing players may be par for the course, it kind of sullies a lot of player-versus-player encounters when everyone is simply trying to pull off a backstab on each other in place of using their full moveset. But again, these are little more than quibbles.

Yes, Dark Souls is a very difficult game, but it’s so much more than that. While most of the video game world became preoccupied with trying to replicate the spectacle of Hollywood once the medium made the jump to 3D, Dark Souls instead feels more akin to what would have happened if the older style of games from the 80s and early 90s had evolved into the present day. Like the best games from those early years, Dark Souls requires its players to gain an intimate knowledge of its every last location and trinket in order to see things through. It combines those older traditions with one idea after another that are entire its own, and continues to build on them throughout its entirety.

Dark Souls is a difficult video game. But it also happens to be one of the very best.

Praise the sun!

 

10

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Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom Review

A kingdom reborn…

The original Ni No Kuni, Wrath of the White Witch, is not only one of my favourite games on what is arguably my favourite Sony console, but it is arguably the greatest modern JRPG in recent memory – ranking meteorically high amongst the small repertoire of contemporary greats. With its brilliantly realized world – complimented with gorgeously animated sequences produced by the masterful Studio Ghibli –, an exquisite musical score co-composed by the brilliant Joe Hisaishi, a Tales meets Pokémon battle system, and a surprisingly poignant narrative that resonates on multiple accords, Wrath of the White Witch is a rare treat of an RPG that never fails to impress. Its sequel, Revenant Kingdom, takes a number of steps forward -establishing some new ideas while polishing the original’s foundation – but questionably stumbles in other areas, arguably taking a few steps backwards. Studio Ghibli’s involvement is objectively non-existent, exposition is divulged in extensive text-based dialogue sequences, the intuitive hybrid active/turn-based system is entirely replaced by a simplistic, yet fun, action-based combat system, and its narrative is disappointingly shallow in comparison to the original’s emotional brilliance. Despite its disappointing nature, Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is an undeniably fun experience that is exceptionally beautiful and surprisingly engaging. Revenant Kingdom never reaches the resonating heights of its predecessor but manages to establish an aura of its own, thanks to its fantastic world-building and unexpected level of gameplay variance.

Continue reading “Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom Review”

Goat Simulator Review

At what point does a joke go too far? That’s a question you’ll likely ask yourself when playing Goat Simulator, a game that’s sole purpose is to be as stupid of a game as possible. Now, games purposefully designed to be bad isn’t exactly a new concept, and at times it can make for some good laughs. This is the case with Goat Simulator, a game that will at times leave you howling, but will just as often have you wondering if its unfinished nature feels like part of the joke, or if it’s genuinely bad.

In Goat Simulator, players take control of – what else? – a goat! The goat is then thrown into sandbox environments, where the player gains points by doing… pretty much anything. Knocking stuff over, jumping over things, licking everything in sight, and just being a general nuisance will award you with points. So you basically just walk around the city messing with people. That’s it.

The premise is on a bit of the “so stupid it’s brilliant” side of things, with the game rewarding you for the stupidest things possible, and the maps featuring some hilariously surreal situations (enter a water tower and you’ll find yourself in a throne room filled with fellow goats, or bring bread slices to an oversized toaster and you can transform into a flopping slice of toast!). Messing around the maps doing such stupid antics can provide some good entertainment, despite its utter pointlessness. You can even turn on some modifiers – such as jetpacks – just to add to the stupid fun.

Where Goat Simulator begins to falter, however, is in its lack of polish. Developer Coffee Stain Studios purposefully left many of the game’s aspects unpolished – from graphical errors to inconsistencies in the game’s physics – all as part of Goat Simulator’s overall joke. While there is some humor to be had with seeing one of the human character’s ragdoll physics get all wonky after knocking them down, other elements – such as having the goat get stuck in place randomly, or being unable to lick an object that’s right in front of you – can get more than a little frustrating with how annoyingly frequent it becomes.

It’s the technical issues like this that keep stacking up which may leave you wondering if the joke of Goat Simulator is ultimately worth it. You may get a good laugh out of the first hour or so of the experience, but after that the game may go from being a funny joke to simply feeling like an unfinished product. Sure, that’s the punchline. But like any gag, if you keep recycling it over and over it loses the humor, and just becomes stale.

In a sense, Goat Simulator does accomplish what it set out to do by making a blatantly stupid experience that will likely leave a grin or two on your face. But you can’t help but wish that it could at least feel like a more fleshed-out game. The stupid charm can win you over for a while, but once that affect wears off, you’ll likely wish there were more to Goat Simulator than the joke. Just because the concept is stupid doesn’t mean the game had to be.

 

5

PlayerUnknown’s BattleGrounds Review

*Review based on the Xbox One version of the game*

PlayerUnknown’s BattleGrounds is a rare kind of video game, the kind that – despite a heavy amount of drawbacks – nonetheless delivers the feelings it intends to elicit. When it was released in its early stages throughout 2017, PUBG’s popularity spread like wildfire, with even it’s open-beta becoming more widely played than titles such as Overwatch for a time. PUBG was only “properly” released at the tail-end of 2017. Though this finished product still feels largely unfinished, PUBG ultimately succeeds thanks to the intensity and atmosphere it provides.

The modder known as PlayerUnknown became somewhat infamous for his many mods to existing games, which modified them after the 2000 film Battle Royale, pitting players in an all-out fight to the death amongst each other. BattleGround serves as PlayerUnknown’s means of making his own game out of the concept.

The premise is simple: up to 100 players join a game, parachute onto an island, and scourge that island for weapons and armor in a fight to be the last person standing. Players only have one life, and the placements of weapons and items are randomized in every session, meaning you’re in a constant scramble to find the best gear before your opponents can do the same. Things get more complicated as time goes by, however, as the playable area of the island gradually decreases over time, and those caught outside of the safe zone will take damage and eventually die. Additionally, red zones show up from time to time, forcing any players within them to take shelter or risk being bombed. This means that the longer a game goes, the more the remaining players are forced into tighter scenarios to do battle, no longer relying on the safe hiding places the early game provides.

The ultimate goal is to be the last person standing, which is much easier said than done. However, because of the difficulty of that task, you are awarded points for your overall performance (how long you survive, how many players you kill, how many items you collect). If you can get well equipped and survive to the top 10, all while taking down a few opponents along the way, you’re guaranteed a pretty hefty score. On the downside of things, the points you get are only used to obtain customizable options for your character, which are of course obtained randomly, and more often than not, cost more points than they’re worth.

The core gameplay in mostly well done. Players can choose between first-person or third-person perspectives, each boasting their own advantages and disadvantages in combat. For the most part, the controls are your standard shooter affair. Nothing all that new, but certainly functional with its tried-and-true approach. What really makes PlayerUnknown’s BattleGround work, however, is the sheer intensity of the concept itself.

If you see another player’s parachute landing nearby when you make contact with the island, you know you’re probably going to have to fight them for gear early on. You’ll race to the safe zone once the warning of a decreasing playing field approaches, hoping you don’t run into a more prepared player along the way. You may take solace in finding some stronger weapons and equipment, and choose to hide away for awhile, staring at the entrance to your hiding spot and anxiously wait for a would-be killer to enter so you can (hopefully) get them first. You’ll jump for joy when you see an unmanned vehicle lying around, effectively ensuring you some protection in addition to fast travel; and you’ll quake in fear if you’re walking out in the open, but hear a running engine approaching.

It really is something else to experience. Though this all comes with the caveat of frequent long stretches between finding opponents – leaving some matches feeling uneventful and empty – it also helps build a good deal of tension. You’ll never not be on your toes in anticipation and dread. PlayerUnknown’s BattleGround is a fight for survival, and boy, does it feel like it.

Unfortunately, despite no longer being an open beta, PUBG still suffers from some appalling technical issues. You’ll notice many of the game’s textures will take a good while to load in a game’s early moments, your character’s movements may become jittery from time to time, and you may even find you’re not picking up items when you’re clearly highlighting them and pressing the proper button. At its worst, you may even get booted from a game at a most inopportune time (no small deal with how lengthy matches can get), and should you actually manage to rejoin the game you were kicked from, chances are another player will have killed you in the interim.

With a game this popular, it’s disheartening that so many technical issues persist. Hopefully as the game is updated and development continues, these rough edges can be smoothened out and the experience can become more fluid and polished. But as of now, PlayerUnknown’s BattleGround still feels like it never left the beta.

Still, unfinished though it may seem, PUBG still manages to produce a uniquely intense experience. It turns the multiplayer shooter into a survival-horror sandbox. By dropping players into a massive open-world, leaving them to fend for themselves and kill one another, PlayerUnknown’s BattleGround creates something that’s as engrossing as it is brutal and unforgiving.

 

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Video Game Awards 2018: Best Online Multiplayer

It seems like ever since playing games online through consoles became a thing in the mid-2000s, online gaming has taken priority for many gamers and developers. I suppose it’s not difficult to see why. Being able to test your skills against the world for a few quick rounds or lengthy play sessions makes provides a constantly changing experience.

With online multiplayer reaching new heights in the last few years, picking the most standout example of the genre in 2017 is no easy task. But in the end, I had to pick something.

 

Winner: PlayerUnknown’s BattleGround

Truth be told, this category was a toss up between PUBG and Splatoon 2. While there’s an easy argument to be made that Splatoon 2 is actually the better game in terms of polish and refinement, I tip the scale to PUBG here for the simple fact that Splatoon 2 – though great – stuck close to the playbook of Splatoon 1. And sure, PlayerUnknown’s BattleGround may not be the most original title, either, but it has become the definitive “battle royal” style of game.

I’m not about to pretend that PUBG isn’t without its problems, as a host of technical issues (ranging from textures taking a notably long time to load and even getting booted from matches far more frequently than you’d hope for a title this prominent), and it’s true that it only left it’s beta phase at the tail-end of 2017 (and it can really feel like it at times), the fact of the matter is PUBG captures a sense of survival and loneliness to an almost poetic level.

PUBG can be hectic and stressful as you scurry across the map looking for weapons and gear for your inevitable showdowns with other players doing the same (all while your available survival space keeps shrinking), and there may even be lengthy stretches where you don’t even see a hint of another player. But few games have you on the edge of your seat quite like it.

Staring at a door as you duck inside of the bathtub of an abandoned house, fingers on your trigger as you wait for a would-be killer to emerge can be truly intense. So much so that you may forget you’re just staring at a door for a while. It’s part action, part survival and part horror, which helps the experience thrive even in the midst of its many blemishes.

 

Runner-up: Splatoon 2

Runner-up: ARMS

Portal Review

In 2007, Valve released The Orange Box, a unique compilation of five different games: re-releases of Half-Life 2 and the subsequent Half-Life 2: Episode 1, as well as the then-new Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2. It was the fifth game included in the bundle that perhaps stole the show. This title was called Portal, which was one of the most brilliantly realized pieces of creativity gaming saw in both that decade and console generation. Combining an innovative take on the puzzle and first-person shooter genres, Portal remains a highlight of its era due to its innovation, humor and all-around fun factor.

The premise of Portal is simple; Players take control of silent protagonist Chell, who awakens in one of the many chambers of Aperture Science, and soon realizes she is a test subject being held against her will by the diabolical-yet-hilarious AI named GLaDOS, who promises Chell a delicious cake if she can overcome the test chambers.

Chell is to test out Aperture Science’s greatest innovation: the Portal Gun! As its name implies, the Portal Gun fires portals (initially only a blue portal, which connects to orange portals found in the various test chambers. But soon enough the Portal Gun is upgraded to shoot orange portals of its own). It’s up to players to solve every test chamber’s puzzles by means of navigating through portals. Fire two portals. Go in one portal, come out the other.

It all sounds simple enough, but Portal’s execution really is something to behold. The game is constantly finding new ways to add twists to the puzzles, such as energy projectiles that need to be guided to their stations via portals, or walls that will erase your portals when you walk through them. The game even uses its portal setup to tamper with physics in some incredible ways (fall into a portal fast enough and you can fly through another if you’ve placed them properly).

Portal is played through a first-person perspective, like any of the countless shooters that ran rampant at the time (and still do so today), but here you’re not out to kill hordes of enemies by riddling them with bullets (Your only foes are a few bumbling, robotic turrets and a quasi-final boss against GLaDOS herself). Your goal is simply to survive by means of being creative. It’s as fresh of a twist on genres (and indeed, the video game medium itself) today as it was in 2007.

“It’s a pleasure to meet me!”

Visually speaking, Portal has held up pretty well. Its graphics may not wow players today like they did a decade ago, but the sheer splendor of seeing your environment (and Chell herself) in different perspectives through the portals remains one of gaming’s greatest visual delights. The music, though minimal, is similarly off-beat and charming.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of Portal comes in the form of its writing. Though Chell never speaks, GLaDOS is one of gaming’s great sources of comedy. GLaDOS reveals her more psychotic behavior as the game goes on, but she frequently tries to cover it up with some lightheartedness and the aforementioned promises of cake, making for some delightfully dark humor.

If there’s any caveat to be had with Portal, it’s that the entire experience is done within a few short hours. While the content that is here is almost flawlessly realized, it all ends all too soon. This has only been magnified since its sequel was released in 2011, and turned the concept into a much heftier experience, while also improving on basically everything the original started and introducing some great tricks of its own. While Portal remains a stellar game in its own right, compared to Portal 2, it now feels like a demo for what was to come.

A short run time and being overshadowed by an exceptional sequel are hardly unforgivable sins, however, especially when considering just how creative and fun Portal still is. It’s objectives may be a simple case of getting from point A to point B, but such a simple premise has seldom been so innovative as it was – and is – here in Portal.

 

9

A Hat in Time Review

In recent years, the 3D platformer has been seeing something of a resurgence. This was especially true throughout 2017, which not only saw the release of possibly Mario’s greatest outing in Super Mario Odyssey, but many smaller releases looked to once again legitimize the 3D platformer’s place in the modern gaming world. Yooka-Laylee – a spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie – was released by many of Banjo’s creators after a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2015. Though Yooka-Laylee’s reception was mixed, another Kickstarter success was to be released in 2017, A Hat in Time. Like Yooka-Laylee, A Hat in Time sought to be a spiritual successor to early 3D platformers like Super Mario 64, Sunshine and the aforementioned Banjo-Kazooie. Unlike Yooka-Laylee, however, A Hat in Time doesn’t come from industry veterans, but newcomers Gears for Breakfast. A Hat in Time is full of charm and boasts some impressive creativity, though like Yooka-Laylee before it, some technical limitations prevent it from reaching its full potential.

In A Hat in Time, players take control of Hat Kid, a little girl who lives in a spaceship and keeps watch over Time Pieces; magic hourglasses that have the power to alter time. One day, while her ship travels over a somewhat Earth-like planet, a Mafia goon (who’s floating in space, mind you) demands that Hat Kid pay a toll for flying past their planet, and breaks part of the ship, thus 40 Time Pieces get sucked from the ship and fall down to the planet. Thus Hat Kid sets off on an adventure to recover the Time Pieces before anyone can misuse their power.

It’s a silly plot that, appropriately, harkens back to the genre’s heyday, and more or less serves as an excuse as to why a kid with a hat is scouring the world for hourglasses. But it’s a good excuse to provide what is ultimately a fun adventure.

A Hat in Time boasts four proper stages which, as is genre tradition, are progressively unlocked as you gain more Time Pieces. Where A Hat in Time provides something new to the genre is that all four of its stages change up the structure of how Hat Kid collects the Time Pieces.

The first stage, Mafia Town, is the most traditional stage. Playing like a direct homage to Super Mario Sunshine, Mafia Town throws Hat Kid into a seaside town that’s played in traditional 3D Mario-style missions, with each mission ending with the collection of a Time Piece. The second stage, Battle of the Birds, sees Hat Kid siding with one of two bird movie directors. As players choose the stage’s missions to aide one of the directors, they’ll win that director’s favor, thus determining the level’s finale and boss fight. The third stage, Subcon Forest, has players signing contracts with a spectral being called Snatcher to unlock its subsequent missions. Finally, Alpine Skyline works like a Banjo-Kazooie-style sandbox, where players can scour the level for its time pieces without the mission-based format.

The different level gimmicks certainly keep things fresh and interesting, even if some of them don’t quite hit the mark (Battle of the Birds, despite being the most unique stage, features some of the game’s less fleshed-out missions). But for the most part, the creativity at play is commendable. There are even Time Rifts that can be found within the stages and hub world, which place Hat Kid into platforming gauntlets akin to Sunshine’s bonus stages.

Two other fun twists to the genre come in the form of badges and hats. The badges can be purchased from a bizarre salesman by trading in Pons (green orbs that are essentially the equivalent of Mario’s coins). The badges then grant Hat Kid with newfound abilities (some give her new moves with the press of a button, others are passive). Meanwhile, Hat Kid can also find yarn hidden throughout the stages. Once enough yarn has been collected, Hat Kid can make new hats, with each hat having its own special ability (the witch-like Brewing Hat allows Hat Kid to throw an exploding potion, while the Ice Cap allows her to turn into an ice sculpture for a stomping attack which also strangely is used to fast-travel between certain platforms). Both the badges and the hats bring some extra depth to the gameplay and exploration, and bring a fun little Paper Mario element to the equation.

On the downside of things, there are some features in the game that could have used a little extra polish. Though Hat Kid controls well for the most part, a homing dive attack that can be performed in midair feels a bit awkward to pull off, which is especially noticeable when you need to use the attack for platforming segments. Additionally, I encountered more than a few technical issues throughout my playthrough, including Hat Kid getting stuck in some walls and some graphical flubs (like Hat Kid sitting down in midair next to the chair she was supposed to be sitting on). Not to mention that the camera controls can get a little awkward, much like those in the early 3D platformers that inspired A Hat in Time.

Still, when one considers A Hat in Time’s humble origins, such blemishes seem more par for the course, and though they hinder the experience somewhat, the game’s creativity and love for the genre should ultimately win players over. And with Wind Waker-esque visuals and a whimsical musical score, it can be all too easy to be sucked into A Hat in Time’s charms.

A Hat in Time, like Yooka-Laylee before it, is far from perfect. And like its predecessor, it may even feel like its limitations make its vision only partly realized (something that sequels for both games can hopefully fix, if their sales numbers allow it). But its heart is in the right place, and its charm can be infectious. It may be a distant second for the title of “Best Hat-Based 3D Platformer of 2017,” but A Hat in Time is anything but, well, old hat…

 

6