Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin Review

Dark Souls II is something of the black sheep of the Souls series. Given the standard laid forth by the original Dark Souls, it was always going to be a tough act to follow. In addition to not achieving the same impact as its predecessor, Dark Souls II is also noted for being the only entry in the series not directed by series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki, who merely took on a producing role this time around. Dark Souls II would be directed by Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura  (as such, it’s also the only entry in the series to not feature Miyazaki’s signature character, Patches, who even found his way into Bloodborne).

It probably didn’t help Dark Souls II that it didn’t get a whole lot of time to build its own legacy. Dark Souls II was the first in a line of three “Souls” entries released in as many years. While there was a three year gap between Dark Souls and this sequel, Bloodborne was released the year after Dark Souls II, and Dark Souls III capped off the series the year after that. Bloodborne is widely considered the best follow-up to Dark Souls, and has a setting distinct from the Tolkien-esque fantasy worlds of the rest of the series, while Dark Souls III felt like the proper culmination of all previous entries. Dark Souls II, by comparison, got a little lost in the shuffle, with less identity of its own to make it stand out.

When Dark Souls II was first released in 2014, it was the highly anticipated follow-up to one of the biggest hits of the decade. But because of the aforementioned reasons – as well as a couple of questionable design choices – Dark Souls II has gained that reputation as the black sheep of the franchise.

But being the black sheep is really a relative term in instances like this. Despite its drawbacks (and yes, it does fall short of its predecessor, successor, and Bloodborne), Dark Souls II is still an excellent game that retains the series’ quality. And for my money, it’s still a much better game than Demon’s Souls.

The “Scholar of the First Sin” edition of Dark Souls II was released on the PS4 and Xbox One in 2015, and featured improved visuals and some minor tweaks, and also included all of the downloadable content from its original release.

If Dark Souls II has any immediate drawback, it’s that it’s a little tepid when it comes to branching out of its predecessor’s shadow and constructing its own identity. Now, given that the first Dark Souls is one of the best games ever made, that’s not a horrible thing. But suffice to say that Dark Souls II is the safest entry in the series, creatively speaking.

The gameplay retains the depth and intricacy the series is known for. You create a character whose play style becomes more and more customizable as the game goes on. You can equip weapons, armor and shields, as well as gain magic abilities (which come in the form of sorceries, miracles, pyromancies and hexes). You fight your way through incredibly difficult lands and dungeons – where many foes can fell you in a single hit – and search for those heavenly bonfires for those blessed moments of reprieve.

That’s not to say that Dark Souls II doesn’t feature any tricks of its own. One feature – unique to the series – is that each area has a finite number of enemy respawns. True to its predecessor, igniting a bonfire may serve as a checkpoint and a means to recover health, spells, and your ever-trusty Estus Flask, but doing so will also respawn every enemy in the area surrounding said bonfire. Unlike its predecessor, or either of its successors, however, is that if you slay particular enemies enough times and keep using the local bonfire, these enemies will eventually cease to spawn for the remainder of the playthrough.

It’s an interesting concept, admittedly. And if you’re having too much trouble with a particular area or enemy, it gives you something of a cheat in that you can keep chipping away at such troublesome moments until the source of said troubles just disappears entirely and is cleared out of your path.

However, this concept of finite enemy respawns comes with a few caveats. Notably, if a certain type of enemy holds particular items or materials you’re looking for, you only have so many chances to try to farm said items during any given playthrough. And should you choose to use the aforementioned method of exhausting certain enemy spawns  to make progression a bit smoother, be prepared for a large amount of tedium.

Unfortunately, I get the impression that the developers assumed many players would go the route of slowly extinguishing enemies, because there seems to be way more foes in any given area than in any other entry in the series. That’s not innately a bad thing, but it becomes an issue when some places within the game feel like they’re just tossing in hordes of enemies willy nilly.

“This place may look heavenly, but with the sheer excess of sorcerer enemies and monsters that pop out of the water, it’s probably closer to Hell.”

By that I mean one of the strengths of the first Dark Souls (and Bloodborne and Dark Souls III) is the sense of staging. The games not only feature excellent level and enemy designs that add to the gameplay, but the placement of those enemies in those areas really add to the gameplay. There’s a brilliant sense of staging that few games can match. But in Dark Souls II, there are more than a few areas where it feels like there’s no cohesive structure in the enemy placements, and that it simply bombards the player with as many enemies as humanly possible as it assumes said player will gradually exhaust the spawning of these enemies.

For those who would like to farm items and souls (the series’ combination of experience points and currency), you can start the enemy spawn cycle of a given area over again by using a rare item called a Bonfire Ascetic, but even that comes with the drawback of upping the difficulty of the area (for example, using an Ascetic during your first playthrough will up that area’s difficulty to that of New Game Plus, with each additional use upping it further to the difficulty of the next playthrough). And doing so can’t be reversed for that character. So it’s a bit of a double-edged sword.

The finite enemy respawns are a mixed bag, then. But at least I understand why FromSoftware experimented with the idea. Less understandable is that Dark Souls II saw fit to resurrect Demon’s Souls’s punishment for defeat by lowering your maximum health with each death!

Like the other games in the series, the player’s acquired souls are dropped upon death, but they have a chance to reclaim them, if they learned from past mistakes and make it back to the spot they died. But die again before reclaiming them and those souls are gone for good. This element is fine, as it has always been a key part of the series, and one that proved influential to video games as a whole. But lowering the player’s maximum health upon every defeat is a component of Demon’s Souls that never needed to be brought back. It just feels like the game is punishing the player for its own difficulty.

You can undo this effect with a particular item (the “Human Effigy” this time around), but this item is much rarer that the “Humanity” item of Dark Souls, and chances are you’ll run out of them faster than you can get more, until maybe your third playthrough. So you’ll be spending a good portion of the game with only a fragment of your full health. The game would already be more than difficult enough without this feature.

I’m probably sounding a bit negative by this point, but these are the major issues with Dark Souls II that prevent it from being on the same level as its immediate predecessor and its successors. With these negatives out of the way, however, it should be emphasized that, when Dark Souls II hits the right notes, it’s exceptional.

The core gameplay is as fun and deep as ever, and the world design remains exquisite. The boss fights are still epic encounters, though perhaps a bit less memorable than other entries in the series due to a relative lack of variety (a good portion of the bosses are giant suits of armor with swords). There are secrets and hidden areas around every corner, instilling a strong sense of exploration into the player. And while I may have noted the cumbersome nature of the areas packed with excessive enemies, there are still places in the game that are the opposite, and evoke the series’ usual design strengths.

There are a few other tweaks made to the Dark Souls formula. Like in Demon’s Souls, the player doesn’t level up at any given bonfire, but instead has to speak with a particular NPC (the “Emerald Herald” in this case, who resides in the game’s hub of Majula). Some might say having to go to a specific spot to level up isn’t as accessible as its predecessor’s method, but given that you have the ability to warp to any previously visited bonfire from the get-go this time around, it’s not a problem.

Some may also not be too keen on the way the Estus Flask upgrades in Dark Souls II. Rather than Dark Souls 1’s process of boosting the individual bonfires to give you more uses of the Estus Flask, you now have to find two different rare items that, when burned at a bonfire, increase the number of uses of the Estus Flask itself (to a maximum of 12) and increase how much health each usage heals. But I don’t find it to be any worse than its predecessor’s method, just different.

As usual, Dark Souls II looks and sounds great. Although the Scholar of the First Sin edition doesn’t look as pretty as its sequels that were made from the ground up for PS4 and Xbox One, its art direction and visual aesthetics have held up nicely. And, when coupled with its sweeping musical score and the series’ untouchable sound design, it all really gives the game a strong sense of atmosphere.

On the subject of atmosphere, Dark Souls II follows series’ tradition of having the majority of its story and world building told through the level design, item descriptions, and passing NPC dialogue. The story and world here are still interesting (and tell of how the kingdom of Drangleic fell to ruin), but it is a little odd that its story and setting seem far removed from that of the first game. This would be emphasized all the more later on when Dark Souls III felt like a closer follow-up to the first Dark Souls, while only giving the world, characters and elements of Dark Souls II a few passing references. So if Dark Souls II weren’t already seen as the black sheep of the series by fans, it seems its sequel would canonically magnify this labelling.

That’s a bit of a shame. While Dark Souls II undoubtedly falls short of the two Dark Souls entries it’s sandwiched between (and Bloodborne. Can’t forget Bloodborne), it’s still a great game that expands on the world of the series.

Dark Souls II’s faults may be few, but they are certainly more noticeable than those of its sister titles. Only in a series of this pedigree could a game as good as Dark Souls II be considered its “black sheep.” If taken by its own merits, Dark Souls II is close to triumphant. It’s only when one remembers what came before and what came after that its blemishes really start to show.

 

8

Demon’s Souls Review

The Dark Souls series – and its sister title Bloodborne – have become so influential and acclaimed in the video game world that it often seems like people forget that the Souls series didn’t start with 2011’s Dark Souls, but with Demon’s Souls, released two years prior. Before Dark Souls became the all-encompassing influence on video game design in the 2010s, Demon’s Souls helped cap off the 2000s, opening the door for its spiritual successor to take charge in the new decade.

The video game world is no stranger to spiritual sequels to beloved titles, but its rare that a spiritual sequel completely eclipses its predecessor. Unfortunately for Demon’s Souls, that seems to be the case. Though Demon’s Souls remains a uniquely engaging experience, some of its more aged elements make it apparent why, whenever a game is dubbed “Souls-like,” people are comparing things to its spiritual successor, more so than Demon’s Souls itself.

Now, that’s not to say that Demon’s Souls didn’t have an impact. When it was released in 2009, it received widespread acclaim, and even won its share of Game of the Year awards. Some fans still hail it as the best (or second best) entry in the franchise (although I think that’s a stretch). But comparing Demon’s Souls to its successors is like comparing Super Mario Bros. to Super Mario World. The former may have laid the foundation, proved influential and still holds up in its own right, but it would be incredibly difficult to argue its merits over those of its sequel.

Granted, some might say my current perception of the game is slightly tainted by the fact that Demon’s Souls’ servers shut down in 2018, so there’s no interaction with other players. But during my most recent playthrough of the Switch version of Dark Souls Remastered, I barely summoned anyone to help me (and when I did, it was more out of the sheer surprise of actually seeing a summon sign – which seemed sadly rare in the Switch version – as opposed to requiring the help), and I enjoyed it every bit as much as I ever did. So I don’t think the lack of online features has clouded my judgement too much.

The difficulty of the series is something I’ve come to expect and embrace. But it has to be said that Demon’s Souls – perhaps as a result of being the first entry in the series and thus lacking the hindsight of its successors – lacks polish in a number of areas. While Dark Souls and Bloodborne could get excruciatingly difficult at times, I never felt cheated by them. But there are a couple of instances in Demon’s Souls where it feels like director Hidetaka Miyazaki and FromSoftware simply stacked challenge after challenge on top of each other, without researching whether or not it was fair to the player. No matter how difficult they got, I never felt like the Dark Souls games or Bloodborne were unfair. But I have to admit there were a few instances in Demon’s Souls where I felt my failures were the result of questionable game design, as opposed to my own error.

For a good example of what I mean, the game’s fourth stage – The Shrine of Storms – features flying manta ray enemies that shoot their stingers at you, which hone in on your character, no less. That’s not so bad in and of itself, but many of these manta ray enemies are far enough in the distance that they won’t be in your focus and will be off-screen. When things start tracking players from off-screen is when I start to lose my patience. Still, I could live with it. When this scenario went from difficult to aggravating, however, is when I’m expected to fight skeleton phantoms who can kill me in one hit, all while on a narrow ledge, while dozens of these manta rays are shooting their homing stingers at me from off-screen!

There’s a difference between a steep challenge, and just stacking one obstacle after another over each other to the point that it becomes unreasonable to the player. Dark Souls and Bloodborne would learn this lesson, so I suppose Demon’s Souls was a necessary test run for its follow-ups to improve on those elements. But it doesn’t change the fact that, when replaying Demon’s Souls, moments like this can sometimes kill the fun of the experience.

If I’m starting to sound a bit negative, it’s not because Demon’s Souls is a bad game. It’s just that, relative to its spiritual successors, it does show its age a bit. Again, I compare it to Super Mario Bros. in relation to Super Mario World. That’s hardly the kind of company to be ashamed of being in.

While the core gameplay remains largely the same as it would in future Souls titles (equipable weapons in both hands, light and heavy attack variants, a stamina meter to prevent you from constantly spamming attacks, lots of rolling, etc.), there are some key differences.

The first, and most obvious, would be the lack of an Estus Flask. In Dark Souls, the Estus Flask would serve as your permanent means of healing (starting with only five uses, but you can refill it by resting at a bonfire, and increase the total number of uses by boosting said bonfires). But here in Demon’s Souls, you have more traditional, consumable healing items (grass). This alone feels outdated by comparison. The Estus Flask – one of gaming’s greatest items – tells you exactly how many slip-ups you’re allowed to make before you reach the next bonfire. Its presence makes you able to strategize every section of the game accordingly. It’s the perfect item for the gameplay provided by the series. By comparison, the grass in Demon’s Souls can be a bit of a pain to build up. Sure, enemies will drop it pretty often, but until you make it to New Game+ or have improved your stats enough, they won’t drop it nearly enough to keep up with what most players will need. Yes, there are vendors in the game that can sell you these (and other) items – charging the player’s acquired souls in return (souls work as both experience points and currency, per the norm) – but again, until New Game + hits, these items often cost more souls than you can keep up with. So you’re often caught farming enemies for souls to buy items, only to be killed (often in one hit) while farming, thus losing the souls you’ve gathered thus far. Yes, as would become a staple of the series, you can reclaim your lost souls if you make it back to the spot you died, but if you get killed again on the way, they’re gone for good.

Again, this is a feature in Dark Souls and Bloodborne as well. But here in its initial incarnation, the concept isn’t nearly as well executed. Part of that is because the Estus Flask was the perfect companion piece to the way the series is set up. By relying on more traditional consumables, you often get caught in a cycle of farming to try to claim souls for more items, only to get killed before you can get enough souls because you don’t have any items to heal you. It’s true that Bloodborne also featured more traditional healing items, but Bloodborne also learned from Dark Souls’ bonfires (with lanterns being its equivalent), which means there were checkpoints to stop and heal.

That brings us to Demon’s Souls other big gameplay difference: there are no bonfires in Demon’s Souls as there would be in later games. Now, there is something of a predecessor in the form of swords in stones, called “Archestones,” but there are some key differences here that make these stones considerably less useful than Dark Souls’ bonfires or Bloodborne’s lanterns.

For one, the Archestones only appear after boss fights, making them far less frequent than their successors. Second, they don’t automatically heal you when touched, instead merely asking if you want to go back to the game’s hub world (dubbed “The Nexus”). Third, touching the stones does not respawn enemies like the later bonfires would. That may sound like it makes things easier, but it just makes it all more tedious. If you’re trying to get specific items from enemies, or just trying to farm souls, you have to touch an Archestone to go back to the Nexus, wait for the loading screen, then re-select the stage and Archestone of your choice, and sit through the loading screen again, in order to respawn enemies. So if you’re trying to gather specific items to craft a better weapon, you’re going to be at it for a while. Compare that to Dark Souls: You touch a bonfire, and bam, the enemies are back. It sounds like simple stuff, but it’s changes like this that make all the difference in the world.

It’s true, there are items that return you to the Nexus that you can use at any time. But the item you constantly have on you that does this takes you back at the expense of losing all your acquired souls, while the items that send you back without penalty are in short supply. It’s demanding, to say the least.

“Another problem is that, in order to make room in your inventory, you have to manually take your excess items to an NPC in the Nexus. Otherwise, if you find an item you can’t carry, you risk losing that item for good if you die or leave the stage. Compare that to Bloodborne, where your excess items automatically transfer to a storage when you’re overburdened. That’s a godsend!”

There are other, smaller differences between Demon’s Souls and its successors that showcase the former’s rough edges. Example: As would become tradition for the series, Demon’s Souls includes a poisonous swamp stage, where trudging through its waters is necessary, but will inevitably poison the player. However, in the later games in the series, a status bar will pop up on screen to show the poison building up until it takes effect. In Demon’s Souls, there is no visual cue. You won’t know when the poison will take effect until you’re poisoned. Similarly, Dark Souls informs the player when their weapon is close to breaking and needing repairs. But again, in Demon’s Souls, you won’t know until it happens. These are small issues, sure, but it does show how small visual and audio cues in games can really go a long way.

The biggest difference between Demon’s Souls and its successors, however, is in the structure of the game world itself. While Dark Souls onward would feature one connected world a la Metroidvania, Demon’s Souls instead has the Nexus serve as a hub, where the player can then access the game’s five proper stages, with each stage being separated into different segments, and each segment being capped off with a boss fight. Stages 2 through 5 have two proper segments, with a third that is mainly just the world boss, while stage 1 has four segments. Thankfully, you don’t have to completely finish a stage before moving onto the next (once the first boss is defeated, the other four stages become available), so there’s still some leeway for player’s to tackle the game at their own pace.

While I love the Metroidvania style adopted by Dark Souls and its kin, I also find myself enjoying Demon’s Souls more Mario 64-esque approach of having a hub world and stages. I honestly would not mind if FromSoftware adopted Demon’s Souls structure for another game, albeit with some of adjustments learned from the later games in the series (again, gotta love those bonfires).

One thing that’s surprising about Demon’s Souls is that, despite being the predecessor of Dark Souls featuring many of the same gameplay elements and a similar dark fantasy world, said fantasy world of Demon’s Souls still manages to feel so distinct from what came later.

The mythology here is that the kingdom of Boletaria has – under the king’s instruction – reawakened an ancient entity known simply as the ‘Old One’ in order to resurrect the “Soul Arts” the creature’s existence provides. The Soul Arts are a great power once known to Boletaria, but they came at a great price. Though the Old One’s presence grants mankind this power, it also unleashes a deep fog that encompasses the world, with soul-hungry demons existing within that fog. As the fog spreads, so too do the demons, who in turn transform humans into mindless monsters upon taking their souls. As you may have guessed, the king’s lust for the Soul Arts and awakening of the Old One has brought the fog back into the world, plunging it into chaos. Thus it’s up to the hero character to slay demons, and acquire ‘Demon Souls’ powerful enough to lull the Old One back into its slumber.

As always, further details of the game’s mythology are sprinkled throughout the level design and descriptions of characters and items. In some ways I may even like this mythology more than that of Dark Souls, but it’s a testament to Hidetaka Miyazaki and company’s world-building abilities that Dark Souls became its own entity simply due to publishing issues preventing a direct sequel to Demon’s Souls, and yet both games feature such deep, unique worlds of their own.

It’s in its world where Demon’s Souls truly shines. Not just in that world building, but also in level and enemy design. While, as stated, the levels do feature some sections that don’t know the difference between a tough-but-fair challenge and mindlessly stacking obstacles on top of each other, the level and enemy designs on their own right remain as strong as any in the Souls games.

Despite my previously stated grievances, the fourth stage, Shrine of Storms, is probably my favorite. A dilapidated temple that looks like it was pulled out of a Team Ico title, filled with ghosts and surrounded by storms, capped off with those intriguing (if infuriating) flying manta rays. It’s an absolute beauty to look at. The other levels are similarly interesting. Stage 1 takes place entirely in Boletaria’s castle, stage 2 is a fiery mine filled with exploding beetles, and stage 3 is a dreary asylum run by Lovecraftian monsters (a concept that would be revisited and bettered in Dark Souls 3). Admittedly, the fifth stage is a little more of a mixed bag. I love the look of the first segment, which reminds me of Davy Jones’s ship from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but once that part is done and we move into the poisonous swamp, its a lot less appealing both in look and gameplay.

There is, unfortunately, one other weakness to Demon’s Souls that was removed from its successors: World Tendency.

Back in its day, Demon’s Souls featured both an online and offline mode to the World Tendency feature. Seeing as the online servers are no more, there’s not much point to address them here, but the offline equivalent – at any rate – is a convoluted mess. I just don’t understand it.

World Tendency describes the status of each stage. The different phases are pure white, white, black and pure black. From what I can gather (the game largely leaves the details unexplained), if the world tendency of a stage is in the white, your character is more durable to enemy attacks, making things slightly easier on you. But when a stage goes into the black, more enemies show up – including painfully difficult “black phantom” versions of enemies – but with the benefit of more frequent item drops and more souls granted from each foe.

Like in the later Souls games, once your character dies, you come back in ‘soul form,’ only here, that comes with reduced hit points. Once again, Dark Souls made the process of reclaiming your physical form a much more tolerable ordeal by means of the “humanity” item, which you give to bonfires to reclaim your body. In Demon’s Souls, you reclaim your ‘living’ state either by defeating a boss, or by using an item called “stones of ephemeral eyes.” The problem is there are only so many bosses per each level, and once defeated they won’t show up again in the same playthrough, and the stones of ephemeral eyes are – yet again – quite infrequent to find, with the sole enemy that drops them being found in the last section of stage 5. So unless you want to brave stage 5 early on and farm the heck out of its final section, you likely won’t have too many ephemeral eyes at any given time. Naturally, with how difficult the game is, this means you’ll likely be in your weakened soul state for most of your playthrough.

Why do I bring this up now? Because apparently dying in your physical state on a given level is how that level falls into the black in World Tendency. I guess dying in your soul form doesn’t affect a stage, but the more times you die in your physical form, the darker the level gets, and you can only reclaim it by progressing through the level and defeating its bosses. But think about that for a second, there are only so many bosses, so if you’ve completed a stage but want to revisit it to farm some enemies, but you end up dying numerous times, the level will fall into the black and there’s nothing you can do about it for the remainder of the playthrough.

So basically, we have an incredibly difficult game, that gets more difficult upon defeat, and only gives you a few chances to set it back to normal. Demon’s Souls is essentially punishing the player for its own difficulty in this regard. It’s this convoluted World Tendency mechanic that sums up how far the series has come since Demon’s Souls. Hell, just going from Demon’s Souls to Dark Souls 1 feels like a night and day difference.

I know, I’m sounding incredibly negative, but I stress again that Demon’s Souls is a good game in its own right. And back in 2009, when there was nothing else like it, it’s easy to understand why it may have seemed so incredible. But now that we live in 2020 and have an entire trilogy of Dark Souls and the exceptional Bloodborne, it’s impossible to not see the rough edges of FromSoftware’s initial Souls outing.

Yes, the gameplay is still intricate and deep, the world and level design are still engrossing, and even when it pulls some cheap tricks, there’s some weird sensation to keep at it and push yourself ever further in Demon’s Souls. But just because Demon’s Souls laid down the blueprint doesn’t mean its successors didn’t perfect it. And boy, did they ever do just that.

While Demon’s Souls may have launched one of the greatest video game franchises out there, it has to be said that it now feels like the rough draft of the winning formula that was to come.

 

6

Shadow of the Colossus Review

*Review based on the PS3 release as part of the Ico/Shadow of the Colossus Collection*

Shadow of the Colossus

Shadow of the Colossus is a gaming experience quite unlike any other. When it was first released on the Playstation 2 in 2005, it instantly became one of the most acclaimed titles on the platform due to its unique gameplay and artistic approach to game design, which has proven incredibly influential in the years since. Though its flaws have become more apparent with time, Shadow of the Colossus remains a highlight in video game history, and my personal favorite game to come out of the Playstation 2.

Shadow of the Colossus follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, Ico, in that it utilizes similar subtleties in its gameplay and storytelling. Players take control of a man called Wander, who has travelled to a forbidden land with his horse Agro. The purpose for Wander’s venture is that his beloved has passed away, and he has brought her lifeless body to the shrine of an ancient being called Dormin.

Dormin has the power to resurrect Wander’s fallen love, but Wander must first perform a profaned ritual, and slay the sixteen Colossi that inhabit this forbidden realm. Dormin promises that completion of the ritual will return Wander’s love to life, but that it may have severe consequences on Wander himself. And that’s if he’s even able to survive against the Colossi.

Shadow of the ColossusThe story is told with a beautiful sense of minimalism, leaving many elements to interpretation. What at first seems like a selfless adventure of heroism and sacrifice quickly unravels into a selfish tragedy. Never once does the game make players feel too triumphant for downing a Colossus, with every one of the beasts being presented as an innocent creature tragically caught up in Wander’s mission. And every one of Wander’s “victories” comes with a sense of sorrow for the felled creatures, and will have players second guessing the nature of their quest.

Suffice to say Shadow of the Colossus is quite an emotional game. It’s that sense of emotion and thematics that have helped Shadow of the Colossus become a classic that continues to influence game design today. Perhaps the best thing about Shadow of the Colossus is that it’s also a more than capable game.

It wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate to label Shadow of the Colossus as an extravagant boss rush, as there are no enemies for Wander to face aside from the titular beasts, and even the puzzle elements from Ico are largely relegated to the fights themselves. Wander is equipped with only a sword and a bow to do battle with the Colossi, with his horse Agro serving as a means to travel from one battle to the next.

Wander’s stats are comprised solely of a health bar and a stamina meter, with the latter serving as an indicator for how long Wander can hold onto a Colossus before being thrown from it. Wander’s stats improve after every battle, with his health also being increased by finding fruit throughout the game world, and stamina seeing additional increases by finding white-tailed lizards, and collecting said tails with a little help from your bow.

Shadow of the ColossusThe real star of the show are the Colossi themselves. Each Colossus is a masterpiece in character design, and each one is just as creative in being a stage and puzzle in their own right. Each Colossus presents a unique challenge, with every creature being presented as its own platforming obstacle or puzzle that needs to be overcome in order to expose its weak point and bring it down. The variety of the Colossi keep the experience fresh, and also help make Shadow of the Colossus one of the very few games to evoke a genuine sense of majesty.

Unfortunately, as wonderful as the experience is, Shadow of the Colossus isn’t perfect. Age has revealed the camera controls to be far from ideal. Especially when a Colossus is trying to shake Wander from its shoulders, the camera can be particularly chaotic. Similarly, Wander himself can feel a little awkward to control when perched atop a Colossus, often fumbling even when a Colossus isn’t trying to remove him. The controls and camera can become a bit cumbersome, maybe even frustrating at times. Which is unfortunate given how, otherwise, Shadow of the Colossus only evokes deeper feelings than most games.

While it may not be mechanically perfect, Shadow of the Colossus can still easily be regarded as a classic. Its artistic approach, unique gameplay, and genuinely epic battles are entirely its own. And although the visuals may look dated (though the PS3 remaster gives a nice, updated sheen), the orchestrated score is one of the all-time greats in gaming, with the Colossi being given themes that equal their sense of grandeur and mystique.

Shadow of the ColossusThe adventure is also an appropriately short one. Whereas many games may overstay their welcome with excessive amounts of padding, Shadow of the Colossus lets nothing get in the way of its story. But for those who may want a little something more out of the package, completion of the game unlocks both a Hard Mode and Time Attacks for each Colossus, with additional items being unlocked via the Time Attack battles (like a map that points out all the aforementioned fruit, or upgrades to Wander’s sword). So there are incentives to come back other than just to experience the adventure all over again (though that may be incentive enough for many).

Perhaps the greatest testament to Shadow of the Colossus’ brilliance is how it achieves so much by doing so little. Video games are continuously getting bigger and bigger, with developers seemingly cramming in as much content as possible in order to produce a classic. Shadow of the Colossus is defiant. It strips away the bells and whistles of the games of its day, and feels all the more rebellious today. It utilizes only the bare essentials, but it proves that with enough imagination and craftsmanship, those bare essentials can provide an adventure unlike any other.

 

8

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception Review

*Review based on the remastered PS4 version as part of Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection*

Uncharted 3

Video games have a much better track record in regards to sequels than most mediums, though threequels can still be a bit of a mixed bag. In the video game world, the second entry of a series usually learns from its predecessor’s missteps, rectifies them, and expands on the merits of the original. The third entry can either enhance a series even further and bring it to new heights, or be the point where things start feeling a bit repetitious. Naughty Dog’s 2011 title, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, falls somewhere in between. It’s a stellar experience that lives up to the heights of Uncharted 2 in many ways, but still suffers from some of the shortcomings of being third in line.

In terms of gameplay, Uncharted 3 is pretty much identical to Uncharted 2. Nathan Drake still wields two weapons at a time (a pistol and a larger weapon) to partake in third-person shooting action, while combining that run-and-gun nature with platforming and Indiana Jones style puzzle solving. There have been some small additions to the experience, with a notably greater emphasis on melee combat (this title introduces “Brute” enemies, that can be fought in bouts similar to the recurring fights Indiana Jones had against big men). But overall the gameplay remains largely the same.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since Uncharted 2 is a tremendously fun game, and that same sense of fun carries over to Nathan Drake’s third outing.

This time, Nathan Drake, Victor Sullivan, Elena Fisher and Chloe Frazer are on a quest to find the lost city of Iram of the Pillars. Naturally, an evil organization, lead by Katherine Marlowe – a former acquaintance of Drake and Sully – is also trying to find this lost city.

The good thing about the plot is that it’s a lot more character-driven this time around, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between Drake and Sully (perhaps as a means to rectify Sully’s questionably limited role in the second game). The story takes a number of cues to Lawrence of Arabia, but might also need to cite Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as an equal in inspiration. There are even segments that see players in the role of a young Nathan Drake in a way not dissimilar to how Last Crusade gave us a glimpse of Indiana Jones’ earliest adventure.

On the downside, the very setup of finding a lost city, and the way it plays out, almost mirrors the plot of the second game. They more or less just dropped the snowy mountains in favor of the deserts of the Middle-East (personally, I find the snowy setting to be both more unique and aesthetically pleasing). Additionally, the main plot takes a detour midway through, with a few chapters serving as little more than padding (albeit one of the game’s finest set pieces is included among them).

Uncharted 3Where Uncharted 3 shines brightest is in the action itself. There are a number of instances where the set pieces and action scenarios of Uncharted 3 match those of the second game. The adventure opens with an extensive bar fight. Later in the game Drake has to escape a burning building, run from countless deadly spiders, jump from horse to truck and back again in yet another nod to Last Crusade, and in one of the game’s best moments (the aforementioned one that takes place during the dip in the plot), Nathan Drake must navigate his way out of a sinking cruise ship, with the overturned ship changing up the platforming of the series in inventive ways.

These set pieces are Uncharted 3’s greatest strength, but the title also benefits from its terrific implementation of the series’ overall mechanics for much of the game. Along with better utilized melee fights, many of the puzzles found in the game rank as the best and most clever in the series. The game even continues what Uncharted 2 accomplished with more compact and focused gunfight segments. At least it does all this until the last few chapters.

It’s a shame to admit that, although Uncharted 3 recreates the spectacle of the second entry, the last few chapters ensure that it never consistently captures the quality of its predecessor. Though the majority of the game is on equal footing with Uncharted 2, the last few chapters bafflingly resurrect the greatest misstep from the first Uncharted.

Like the first game, the final few segments feature overly-long gunfights against enemies that seemingly eat bullets, and once you’ve finally managed to finish them off, they are followed by reinforcements who do the same. The puzzles and set pieces all but disappear by the third act, and they are replaced by seemingly endless fights against armies of enemies that grow more and more repetitious.

Uncharted 3This means that Uncharted 3 ends on a more disappointing note than it begins. Coupled with the familiarity in gameplay and plot, and unfavorable comparisons to Uncharted 2 were bound to happen (and they still do today). But don’t think that Uncharted 3 is a failure by any means. Its predecessor is simply a landmark title. One that Uncharted 3 couldn’t quite live up to. But by its own merits it’s still a pretty remarkable game.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is a great game filled with fantastic action and fun gameplay that lives up to the series’ reputation, as well as that of its inspiration, Indiana Jones. The visuals are terrific, the music is appropriately epic, and much of the game displays a great sense of variety. It’s a thrilling experience.

The problem is that it fails to improve upon its predecessor. Instead it simply goes through the same motions, but throwing different obstacles in Nathan Drake’s way. And by the end, the game’s genius devolves into something of a monotony.

A great game under most criteria, but perhaps not quite the spectacle that Uncharted 2 is.

 

7

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves Review

*Review based on the remastered PS4 version as part of Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection*

Uncharted 2

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is not only seen as the turning point for the Uncharted series, and a benchmark for developer Naughty Dog, but also as a modern classic. Released on the Playstation 3 in 2009, Uncharted 2 reaped critical acclaim and is often cited as one of the best video games of all time. Its reputation isn’t undeserved. Uncharted 2 took all of the good points of its predecessor, and cranked them to their limits.

Much like its predecessor, Uncharted 2 aims to capture the feeling of an Indiana Jones style adventure film into the world of video games, and it could be argued it accomplishes this feat better than any game that came before it. Maybe even after it.

Nathan Drake is on a quest to find the mythical city of Shambala and the legendary Cintimani Stone hidden there. He is joined by Chloe Frazer, a more rough-edged, coquettish contrast to “good girl” Elena Fisher from the first game. Though Elena ends up playing an active role in this adventure, Chloe knocks her down to the tritagonist role.

As you might expect, a psychotic villain is also in pursuit of Shambala and the Cintimani Stone, in the form of Lazarević, and his band of Serbian mercenaries. He’s a pretty cookie-cutter, brutish villain, but he does what he needs to for the game’s simple plot.

In terms of gameplay, Uncharted 2 remains similar to its predecessor, albeit with considerable more polish. The game still combines third-person shooting with platforming, but it handles both of its gameplay halves better than the original.

Whereas the first game often had Nathan Drake involved in gunfights that would go on for a bit too long, Uncharted 2 more gracefully spreads out the action. The gunfights are still present, of course, but they are trimmed down, and made even more exciting and varied due to the game’s greater set pieces and staging.

Meanwhile, the platforming has been made more polished. In the first game, the majority of platforming consisted mainly of jumping from one ledge to another while hanging off cliffs. Though such mechanics remain, they are given greater variety with better presented platforming challenges. And the ledge-hanging segments have been made more fluid, since Drake can now move across ledges using the control stick, and only needs to jump between them when necessary.

Nathan Drake can still use two guns at a time, a pistol and a larger weapon. But the stealth mechanics and melee combat, as well as puzzles, are better utilized this time around, making things consistently fresh.

Uncharted 2Better still are the aforementioned set pieces. Many adventure films involve action scenes that involve the characters jumping from one speeding car to another while battling villains in each vehicle, and that very scenario is beautifully recreated here. We even get an extended sequence aboard the roof of a train, a must for any self-respecting adventurer.

It’s in moments like these where Uncharted 2 shines brightest. The Uncharted series wants nothing more than to be ranked alongside the adventures of Dr. Jones, and the game is wise to use a greater variety of action set pieces than its predecessor, and only ever reusing one of them (for narrative purposes). There are few games that capture such feelings of exhilaration so consistently.

Uncharted 2Uncharted 2 even ups the ante in aesthetics. The game looks great, with a wider range of environments to explore, with the most beautiful being snowcapped mountains and icy caverns. The music is similarly epic, and would feel right at home in a Hollywood blockbuster (albeit Uncharted 2’s score is more atmospheric and less generic than most big Hollywood pieces these days).

The game does have some issues, however. Some may find that the plot is sticking a little too close to the adventure film rulebook, with most of its twists and turns being predictable from a mile away. And once again, the villain is a bit underwhelming. Perhaps the game’s biggest narrative misstep is the demotion of Victor Sullivan. The show-stealing buddy of Nathan Drake has a greatly reduced role this time around, aiding Drake in some early segments in the game before declaring himself to be “too old for this stuff.” It’s an oddly unceremonious way to write-off a fan favorite character.

It should also be pointed out that there are some chapters within the game that drag on for a bit. While most of the game is exciting and fun, a small handful of chapters overstay their welcome. This is especially true later in the game, when the chapters start becoming lengthier, with some of them simply feeling stretched out, instead of justifying their additional timeframes.

These are ultimately small complaints though, since Uncharted 2: Among Thieves remains a highlight in Naughty Dog’s library, and one of the most fondly remembered exclusives on any Playstation console.

If the original Uncharted was the Indiana Jones game we all dreamed of, then Uncharted 2 is perhaps the Indiana Jones game we never dreamed we’d actually see. Let’s be glad we did.

 

8

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune Review

*Review based on the remastered PS4 version as part of Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection*

Uncharted

When it was released on the Playstation 3 back in 2007, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune brought a newfound success for Developer Naughty Dog, who became something of the Playstation brand’s premiere first-party from that point on. Though its sequels are more revered, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune remains a fun and exhilarating experience even nine years later.

Drake’s Fortune marked the debut of the Uncharted series and its now-iconic protagonist Nathan Drake. It tells the story of the treasure of El Dorado, and Drake’s quest to retrieve it, aided by his friend and partner Victor “Sully” Sullivan and journalist Elena Fisher. But they are pursued by rival treasure hunter Gabriel Roman, and his bands of pirates and mercenaries.

It’s a really simple plot, one that would feel right at home in an action-adventure film. It is also a very fitting plot, since Uncharted draws heavy inspiration from the likes of Indiana Jones, and even manages to replicate the kind of action scenarios found in Dr. Jones’ adventures for the video game medium.

The action is a combination of third-person shooters and platforming, with Nathan Drake able to carry two weapons at a time (a pistol and a larger gun) and use fisticuffs to take out enemies, as well as jumping, climbing and swinging across obstacles to make it through the environments. There are also puzzle elements thrown into the mix, which really add to the game’s Indiana Jones approach in crucial moments.

UnchartedNathan Drake mostly controls well, with the gameplay being pretty easy to learn. Some of the climbing can become a bit tedious, since the player has to keep jumping from various ledges and conveniently protruding rocks, which can feel a little awkward at times. And while the simplicity of the combat can be fun, many of the game’s later combat sections feel overly long and dragged out to the point of growing repetitious.

With that said, the core gameplay is really fun, and the aforementioned puzzles, as well as some exhilarating vehicle sections, help give the experience a good sense of variety. There are also some secret treasures that can be picked up, so completionists have a fun little detour to look forward to.

Uncharted also has a great presentation, with terrific visuals and an appropriately cinematic score that would feel right at home in a Summer blockbuster. Uncharted’s cinematic approach to presentation and narrative really make it feel like an Indiana Jones style adventure film found its way into a video game.

UnchartedIt also helps that the game’s three main characters are very likable. Nathan Drake may not have the mystique of Indiana Jones, but he has an everyman personality about him that makes him a refreshing character amid the countless waves of angry, vengeance-seeking anti-heroes in video games. Sully regularly steals the show with fun quips and a great sense of humor. And Elena feels like a more capable female sidekick than those that usually accompany action heroes (she still finds herself in need of saving from time to time, but she’s given some good moments to help out on the action, so she doesn’t come off as totally helpless).

All in all, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune remains an incredibly fun gaming experience. It has its flaws, and its sequels are obvious improvements, but the simple and fun characters, exciting gameplay, fantastic presentation and extravagant action set pieces made it a fitting start for one of Playstation’s most revered franchises.

Considering that there’s never been an Indiana Jones game that properly recreated the excitement of the movie series, one could say that Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was the Indiana Jones game we all dreamed of.

 

7

Puppeteer Review

Puppeteer

Puppeteer deserves credit for having honest intentions. It’s nothing if not an attempt to bring some color and whimsy to the Playstation brand, which is more renowned for the likes of Nathan Drake and Kratos. It’s a torch that has, for a while, been held solely by LittleBigPlanet, but Puppeteer looks to give Sackboy some company in the family-friendly department. Unfortunately, honest intentions cannot make up for a disappointing execution.

The presentation and story are charmers. Using the aesthetics of a puppet show, Puppeteer tells of a Moon Goddess who was overthrown by her subject, Little Bear, who became the Moon Bear King after stealing a magic stone. The Moon Bear King then takes on the hobby of spiriting children away from Earth, turning them into puppets, and eating their heads. One such child is Kutaro, whom the player controls. With his head gone, Kutaro is joined by the Moon Goddess’ cat, who shows Kutaro the ability to use different heads found throughout the journey, as well as helping him steal a pair of magic scissors, which become Kutaro’s weapon against the Moon Bear King’s forces on his quest to find the pieces of the magic stone, save the Moon Goddess and return to Earth (head intact).Puppeteer

The story often invokes a sense of childlike glee, though some of its more cutesy elements come off a bit forced. The puppet show motif works as a great setup, however, as this is a 2D platformer whose stages work in segments (think every segment as a new scene in a puppet show), and the aesthetics are perfectly complimented by the PS3 hardware. Puppeteer is simply a gorgeous game.

The downside is that, in terms of gameplay, Puppeteer just isn’t very fun. It’s ideas are inspired, but an awkward, sluggish sense of control brings them down. Kutaro’s jumping abilities may feel even more weighted than that of the Sackboys who inspired him, which makes the platforming lack fluidity. Using the magic scissors to cut down the environment as well as enemies is a fun trick – which also helps the puppet aesthetics mesh into the gameplay – but its uses are too simple and restrained, preventing what could have been a compelling gameplay mechanic from meeting its potential.

PuppeteerAnother missed opportunity is Kutaro’s ability to perform different actions through the different heads he stumbles across. Kutaro can store up to three heads at a given time, but they end up feeling more like extra health than they do power-ups (lose all three heads and it’s back to the last check point). The abilities the heads grant Kutaro seem limited to specific environmental situations – again preventing them from feeling like full-fledged game-changers – and like the scissors, they never seem to reach their potential.

A two player mode is present, with a second player having the ability to help Kutaro out by pointing out objects and finding items. It’s nothing extravagant, but should a less experienced player want to join in on the fun it provides them with the opportunity. On the downside, the second character is still present in single player, with Kutaro and his sidekick’s actions being controlled with separate analogue sticks on the same controller. It’s a setup that might work with the proper execution, but with Kutaro’s movements already feeling a bit on the clunky side, the two-characters-on-one-controller approach just makes the sense of control feel even more awkward.

I do not want to write off Puppeteer entirely. It is an appealing game that combines a great visual style with a charming, folktale-like narrative to make a game with an attitude that stands out among most of its Playstation brethren. But while Sackboy’s less-than-stellar platforming had a terrific level editor to fallback on, Kutaro is not so lucky. For everything Puppeteer does right with its presentation, it muddles just as much in the platforming department. It’s not broken, but it’s not desirable either.

Perhaps Kutaro deserves another round to take the ideas he’s been given, and fine-tune them into something great. For now, Puppeteer is a game of great style, ambition and whimsy. But one that lacks the polish it needs to send its ideas straight to the moon.

5