God of War (PS4) Review

2018’s God of War – the fourth ‘main’ entry in the series – is both an expectedly and surprisingly great game. Expected because the series had already built a solid reputation for itself in the action genre, and surprising because of how effectively it matures the series in both narrative and in game design. God of War still provides the action you would expect from the franchise, but it’s now complimented by stronger storytelling and character depth, as well as a greater emphasis on exploration and discovery. In a lot of ways, it feels like an ideal example of how to rewrite a video game series.

The obvious difference between this God of War and its predecessors is its setting and mythology. While the series was previously built around Greek myths, Kratos now finds himself embroiled in the worlds of Norse legends. This not only gives God of War aesthetic differences from its predecessors, but also gives its overall world-building a fresh canvas to work with.

A deeper but more subtle difference is Kratos himself, who has grown into a fully fleshed out character. In the past Kratos’ sole motivation was vengeance, and he was willing to slaughter entire armies in order to see said vengeance come to fruition. Kratos now has a son, Artreus, with the protection of his child being at the forefront of the former god of war’s concern.

“Totally not the Mines of Moria.”

The motivation for the plot, however, is that Artreus’ mother is recently deceased, and her final wish is for Kratos and Artreus to scatter ashes from the peak of the highest mountain in all nine realms, which sets their epic journey in motion. Although naturally the story builds into something more than that once new characters and threats get involved, the fact that the setup of God of War is simply to fulfill the final wish of a lost loved one is refreshingly personal and simple.

Between the introduction of Artreus and the goal to meet his late wife’s last wish, Kratos has evolved into a three-dimensional character. Wanting to protect Artreus from living the same life of death and destruction as he did, Kratos has kept his true identity as a god from his son. As such, Kratos has learned to restrain his rage, only killing in defense of himself and his son, and doing his damndest to be a good father (despite his cold disposition).

This works on two narrative levels: the first, as stated, is that it has evolved Kratos into a proper character, having shown a genuine sense of growth from the simplistic “raging bald guy” video game archetype he once was. The second is that it almost seems to evoke a sense of meta-commentary on both its own series and, notably, gaming as a whole, and how the medium has matured since the first God of War hit shelves in 2005.

The God of War of 2005 is something that – while a good game – is kind of easy to laugh at in retrospect. Between it’s rage-fueled, vengeance-seeking hero, excessive brutality, and sex mini-games, it was almost a poster child for the gaming trends of the time. But gaming now is a bit less teenage boy-centric with its scenarios, and just as gaming has matured over the years, so too has Kratos.

Though the gameplay of God of Wars past may not share in that unintentional humorous aspect in hindsight, the 2018 PS4 exclusive still saw fit to improve on it. Kratos is now equipped with a frost-based axe that can be thrown and summoned back to his hand, much like Thor’s hammer. Not only is this axe used to slaughter monsters that would do Kratos and Artreus harm, but both its throwing and ice-based abilities are cleverly woven into puzzle-solving throughout the game.

Additionally, there’s a stronger emphasis on exploration than in previous entries, with secret items and side quests scattered everywhere in the game’s world. Though the main story is progressed in refreshingly linear fashion, Sony’s Santa Monica Studios has packed God of War’s world with so much to do that you’ll be exploring it long after the credits have rolled.

Of course, this wouldn’t be God of War if combat weren’t a key element. And even that is given some extra dimension. Both Kratos and Artreus can be leveled up and upgraded throughout the game, with the player primarily controlling Kratos, who can wield his axe or his bare fists – in addition to a later weapon – into combat. Players are also able to send commands for Artreus (who uses a magic bow) during battle with just a few buttons. Additionally, Kratos can build up his “rage meter” to build up energy that, when unleashed, sends Kratos into rage mode (noting that he now has control over his rage, and not the other way around), which temporarily grants extra strength and speed. Both characters learn new moves and abilities as the player advances, bringing a nice RPG sense of progression to the proceedings.

“Hello, giant snek.”

The combat remains as fun as ever, with the various moves and combos you learn along the way adding a good dose of variety to both characters. What’s interesting this time around, however, is that the combat never overshadows how well made God of War’s other aspects are. In past entries, the combat was the undisputed main course. But in PS4’s God of War, puzzles and exploration come into play almost as often.

“There are quite a few “move a big ass crystal somewhere else and shoot it with a magic arrow” puzzles.”

Sadly, there are a few downsides to the gameplay. A number of puzzles feel recycled throughout the game. And sometimes, the combat sections can drag on longer than they need to. God of War definitely gets an A+ in its balancing act of its different gameplay ingredients (combat, exploration and puzzles), but it can at times feel like its running out of ideas to keep each element fresh. The repetition is never too bad, but it can feel like a means to pad some sections out.

Another issue arrises in traveling throughout the game. You don’t have access to fast traveling until very late in the game, meaning that for most of the journey, you have to either walk or row a boat to your destinations. If you’re only aiming to do the main story, it’s not much of an issue, given the linear nature of the adventure. But even if you wish to do the side content before finishing the game, I think you’re better off waiting until after the main story, as traveling from one area to another can get pretty time consuming until the fast travel option unlocks.

None of these issues are deal-breakers, of course. God of War is too well crafted of a gaming experience for any shortcomings to hinder it too much. The gameplay is incredibly satisfying, especially its fluid combat. And the well-written story and fleshed-out characters add a level of narrative depth that the series lacked in the past.

“Welcome to Arendelle, Kratos.”

God of War is an engrossing gaming experience, made all the more absorbing by its stunning visuals and audio. God of War is one of the most visually captivating games I’ve ever played. The realism in the character models is rivaled solely by Uncharted 4 and Red Dead Redemption 2, the creature designs are creative and memorable, and every location is a wonder to behold (why don’t more games aim for snowy landscapes and less on post-apocalyptic wastelands and grungy cyberpunk worlds?). And the musical score, with one sweeping, epic piece after another, really makes Kratos’ journey feel like something special.

God of War is something special. It not only pushes the PS4 to its limits in terms of technical power (which is abundantly clear with every last stunning visual), but also reinvents its franchise in a meaningful way. Not every gaming franchise has the same ability to reinvent itself as Mario or Zelda. Franchises like Mass Effect and the once-untouchable Halo have fallen from grace. But PS4’s God of War does such a great job at reinventing its franchise that it ensures a bright future for Kratos and Artreus.

 

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Wario Land 3 Review

Wario’s misadventures continued on the Game Boy Color with Wario Land 3. As the third installment in Wario’s initial platforming series, Wario Land 3 polished what its predecessors started, and added some new tricks of its own into the mix. It was such an improvement over the first two entries that, upon its initial release in 2000, Wario Land 3 was widely hailed as one of the best handheld games of all time. While the aging process has taken away some of the game’s spectacle (especially when one remembers the far more timeless Gameboy Advance was released the following year), Wario Land 3 remains a fun platforming adventure in its own right.

Like Wario Land 2 before it, Wario Land 3 sees its nefarious anti-hero as an invincible brute. He can charge through enemies without any worry of defeat. The greedy Wario risks losing only his precious treasure when struck  by attacks that would do in other platforming heroes. And just like its predecessor, Wario doesn’t grab power-ups, but receives new abilities via ‘conditions’ which are inflicted upon him by enemies.

If Wario gets smashed on the head, he becomes as flat as a pancake and can float in the air. If snow should fall on Wario, he’ll become a snowman who can roll down hills and destroy enemies and obstacles. And in one of the game’s funniest gags, eating a donut will transform our hero into Fat Wario, who can fall through floors and, despite having reduced jumping height, will launch enemies into the air when he lands back on the ground.

Once agin, this not only makes for some fun gameplay and unique twists on platforming norms, but also shapes Wario’s character. Mario is a selfless hero, so we want him to succeed. Ergo, Mario getting hurt results in losing a life. Wario, by contrast, is a greedy buffoon who only wants to make himself richer. As the player, we may help Wario out, but he still has to pay for his greedy ways by means of getting hurt to gain his powers. It’s actually a pretty unique example of building gameplay around a character, and visa versa.

Another unique aspect of Wario Land 3 is in its level progression. There are twenty-five levels total, but each stage has four different goals. The goals are four different treasure chests, with each chest requiring a similarly colored key to be opened. Although most of the time the chests have to be opened in a set order (often requiring the completion of another stage before you can get the others), you don’t need to open every chest in the game to face the final boss (Wario only needs to collect four magic music boxes from different treasures before the big showdown). This of course means that many of the chests are optional, and the game can continue after the final boss, should you so desire.

Unfortunately, there are some aspects to Wario Land 3 that haven’t aged well. Throughout the game, some treasure chests will reward Wario with a new move, enabling him to reach previously unreachable places. That may sound like a cool, light Metroidvania twist. But the issue is that most of the moves Wario learns along the way are moves he had from the start of Wario Land 2 (ground pound, picking up and throwing enemies, etc.). It actually makes the character progression feel a bit pointless if you’re mostly learning basic moves from the game’s predecessor.

Another problem arises with the game’s puzzles elements. While credit is definitely due for how Nintendo tried to expand on Wario’s various conditions by building new puzzles around them. But issues arise when the puzzles in question are either too easy (with Wario gaining the required ability then and there) or too vague, leaving you wondering what power you even need.

One other notable flaw in Wario Land 3 is its ‘Golf’ mini-game. This mini-game is already required for more treasure chests than it needs to be, but what’s worse is that it costs a decent number of coins every time you try it. And of course this mini-game has to have finicky and imprecise controls, meaning that you’ll be forking over a good amount of your hard-earned loot just to try the mini-game over and over again. And if you run out of coins, you have to scour the stage for more, which can take time. I would honestly take Wario Land 3’s vaguest puzzles over this mini-game, so it’s a real shame it shows up as often as it does.

While these elements do make Wario Land 3 feel more like a product of its time than one would hope, it still provides some classic Nintendo fun and Wario’s distinct charm. The levels are fun, and it’s entertaining just seeing what other messes Wario can get himself into all in the name of gold. But  Wario Land 4 on Gameboy Advance and Wario Land: Shake It on Wii probably hold up better.

 

6

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.

The 800th Blog Spectacularsaurus Indoraptor III: Third Strike

Behold and quake in fear, mortals! For I have amassed 800 blogs here at the Wizard Dojo!

Gee, I’ve certainly been a busy bee, haven’t I?

Thank you, my kind, dear readers, for sticking with me for these past four-plus years and seven-hundred and ninety-nine blogs. You people are what keep me keepin’ on keepin’ on.

Anyway, let’s get to celebrating this milestone with some answers to questions and lists and stuff!

Now then, let’s hop to it.

 

Continue reading “The 800th Blog Spectacularsaurus Indoraptor III: Third Strike”

My Gaming Future

I love video games. I really and truly do. I love them so much so that, as I’ve stated in the past, I’d like to make my own games someday. In many ways, gaming is better now than it’s ever been. But gaming is also a mighty expensive hobby, and I’m not made of money. Even more so, gaming is becoming more and more time consuming.

Now, I realized some time ago how much of a time commitment gaming was becoming, but it really hit me personally when I played Persona 5. Now, don’t get me wrong, from what I played, Persona 5 was a pretty great game. But once I had put more than ten hours into the game and still wasn’t done with the first dungeon, it kind of lost me. I still want to go back and finish it sometime, but it really hit me just how long games get these days. And it would be one thing if it were a couple of games here and there, but it seems like most major releases these days require 50+ hours just to get through the story.

Somehow I actually managed to beat Red Dead Redemption 2, which was a great game, but took forever just to get through the story (and as I mentioned in my review of the game, it’s fifth chapter feels like little more than extensive padding just to drag out the story longer. And yes, this was the primary reason I scored RDR2 an 8 as opposed to a 9, despite its many, many strengths). For as much fun as I had with the game, it seemed like its main story – great though it was – went on much longer than it needed to, when the countless side activities the game’s open world provides would have more than sufficed in regards to content.

In short: these games are too damn long.

That’s not an innately bad thing, of course. But if you have one game after another after another that each take forever to complete, you begin to not have time for any of them.

That’s why, as of 2019, I’m trying to cut back on my video game purchases. Yes, I bought the Bowser’s Inside Story remake and Kingdom Hearts 3 already. But the former is a remake of my favorite DS game, a title I enjoyed so much I definitely want to give it another whirl in its new guise, while the later has been in the making for thirteen years (and, more importantly, I love me some contemporary Disney, so I couldn’t resist playing a game that featured Frozen, Tangled and Big Hero 6 in it). So that’s two games so far in 2019, plus a couple other I have on pre-order. But if we went back to this time last year, I had pre-orders up the wazoo! And, as is evidenced by the fact that I’ll only now be getting to my reviews of games like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and God of War (and still need to get to a point where I can review Ni no Kuni 2), I’ve gotten pretty backlogged.

In my defense, the reason I’ve been playing so many games these past few years is, well, because of this website. I greatly enjoy writing reviews and sharing my opinions, and I want to build this site up. What better way to do that than build up an extensive library of game reviews?

Well, I think I’ve succeeded in building such a library of reviews covering several different eras of gaming and many different genres. Not to brag or anything, but my Red Dead 2 review was my 328th video game review. So I think I’m at a point where it’s okay to slow down with the video game reviews for a while.

Now now, I don’t have any plans to stop updating this website. I plan to keep on keeping on with the Dojo. But when it comes to video games, I think I’m going to start prioritizing the games I still have in my collection for reviews, and that I don’t need to purchase more than a few new titles every year. Granted, that may make my annual Game of the Year awards less interesting (talking of which, my 2018 awards will happen really soon), but there are only so many hours in a day.

I still have plenty of games I already own that are in need of some reviewin’, and I’m still going to buy new games and review them. But because time and money are limited, I’m going to have to be more picky. I’m going to try and put a number limit on myself for games per year, and try to stick to that (there will be exceptions of course. If Nintendo suddenly announces they’re making Super Mario Galaxy 3 and it releases this year, I don’t care if I’ve met my limit, that’s a game I’d make exception for no question).

I remember in my younger days, I replayed video games a lot more. Star Fox 64, for example, is an easy game to beat. But I still probably spent countless hours on it over the years playing its single and multiplayer modes over and over. I find myself continuously wanting to replay games like Bloodborne and Super Mario Odyssey, but then I tell myself I’ve already reviewed them, and that I have other games to review. But games like Bloodborne and Odyssey are the kind of games that beg to be replayed over and over, much like Star Fox did all those years ago. Besides, it’s not like someone is paying me to play these games (though I am continuously trying to build up this website and hopefully can get some earnings from it. Wouldn’t that be dandy?). Plus, there are more ways to write about games than the direct reviews themselves.

While it’s been great picking up different big releases each year to review them, I think I’m at a point where I can also just replay games if I feel like it, and write other articles about them. Don’t worry, I’m still going to write game reviews, but probably less for newly released games every year. Gotta pick and choose.

Yeah, I will review Persona 5 and other extensively long games when I can. But I’m not going to try to rush those games to completion just to add another review to my belt sooner. If anything, my review of Red Dead Redemption 2 felt special. As long as that game was, I took my time with it, and my review almost felt like a reward to myself…as weird as that sounds.

Basically, my point is, it’s getting harder and harder for me to review every big game that gets released these days. So I’ll be slowing down with that for a bit. Again, I think I’ve reviewed enough games, covered different genres, and awarded each number on my scoring system more than enough to justify the majority of my reviews in the foreseeable future being games I already own. Like I said, that’s no shortage of games as it is, and with the occasional review for a new release, Indie games, and other articles focused on games, and I think I still have more than enough game-related material for my site. And of course I also have my movie side of things and, as I keep saying, I want to start writing about TV shows to some degree as well.

So…sorry I’m not going to be able to review every major release that hits shelves, but I will still keep the gaming side of this site strong and healthy. Like a kid who ate his broccoli. Plus, this opens up more time for me to work on other creative outlets, like my long promised videos and studying up on video game design. You’d want to play a game made by me, right?

Hope you enjoy what I have in store.

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

Kingdom Hearts 3 Impressions

Well dang, Kingdom Hearts 3 actually exists! Yeah yeah, I’ll get to my overdue reviews soon, but considering it’s been 13 years since Kingdom Hearts 2, I felt compelled to do a quick write-up of my playtime so far with this long gestating sequel.

Admittedly, I only started playing KH3 yesterday, so I’m not very far. I’ve completed the game’s first proper world (Olympus, based on Disney’s Hercules) and the first Gummiship segment, and am currently in the second world proper (Twilight Town, a Kingdom Hearts original). But even from my playtime so far, there are some things I have to say.

As we all know, Kingdom Hearts is the bizarre (yet somehow working) crossover between Square Enix and Disney properties, helmed by Tetsuya Nomura, who grew to prominence with his work on the PSOne-era Final Fantasy titles. Strangely, the Final Fantasy representation continues to be lost in the shuffle, which is understandable on the Disney side of things (with the possible exception of Nintendo, it’s hard to imagine another franchise machine that could have a spotlight in the face of Disney). But it always struck me as kind of odd how there are so many original characters in Kingdom Hearts, when many of them feel like they could easily be swapped out for Final Fantasy characters.

Now, let’s get something out of the way: the story. I honestly don’t have a clue what’s going on with half of the plot. But I can’t really blame myself, since Nomura and company saw fit to make every last “spinoff” entry in the Kingdom Hearts franchise an integral part of the main story. And I’ve only played the properly numbered Kingdom Hearts games up to this point, so it kind of sucks that people like me are left out in the cold because I couldn’t keep up with all the handheld and mobile games, re-releases (which contained new story content) and so on. Nomura’s storytelling tends to be convoluted by its own merit, so to spread out his story across so many platforms makes it nearly incomprehensible. I’m only a few hours in, and already Kingdom Hearts 3 has casually name-dropped a small army of characters as if I’m supposed to know who they are or their place in the story. Unless you’re a really hardcore fan who could fork over a small fortune to follow the series through the years, it’s more than a little alienating.

Thankfully, the Disney half of the equation is as charming as ever. And frankly, I wish the central plot were more focused on the Disney bits, and less on the dozens of Nomura characters who, frankly, seem largely interchangeable from one other in both character design and personality. But hey, I’ll suffer through some narrative gobbledygook if it means I get to visit worlds from classic Disney movies and meet classic Disney heroes and villains.

As for the gameplay, well, it’s mostly fun, but there are some dated elements. Namely, Sora’s jumping still feels awkward and floaty after all these years, feeling as though he comes to a dead stop when the jump is initiated, and can only decide which direction he’s jumping in once he’s in the air. Given how long the Super Mario series has been around, I don’t know why any game with platforming elements doesn’t try to replicate the fluid and intuitive jumping standards of Super Mario.

Aside from that, there are certain combat elements that feel a little too chaotic. As usual, Kingdom Hearts 3 is like a hack-N-slash RPG. You swing your ‘Keyblade’ amidst hordes of monsters, cast magic spells, and perform special moves. For the most part, it’s easy enough to figure out, but after you’ve combo’ed enough hits or spells (or Donald and Goofy have done the same) you can unleash special attacks of different varieties, go into special modes, unleash more powerful spells, and use team attacks with your party members.

The problem is that all of these specials are mapped to a single button (the triangle button, if you’re playing on PS4 like me). Oftentimes you have more than one of these specials built up at the same time. And I still don’t understand if there’s a way to swap which one you use next, or if you simply have to use them in order or wait for their window of availability to run out. I mean, when I have the special moves based on Disneyland rides/parades, of course those are the ones I want to use. I don’t care about Sora changing forms, just let me unleash the Disneyland rides!

As for the Gummiship segment, well, from what I remember these were the low points of Kingdon Hearts 1 and 2. But here, I enjoyed it a bit more, as you now have much more freedom to explore and collect items (of which I spent a surprising amount of time). Though the controls could have benefitted from learning a thing or two from Star Fox 64 (seriously, when it comes to controls, just do what Nintendo does…although I guess Star Fox Zero couldn’t even emulate Star Fox 64’s controls…).

Now, I hope I don’t sound too negative, because for the most part I’m having a lot of fun with Kingdom Hearts 3. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a huge wave of melancholic nostalgia when that title scene music kicked in. The game is proving to be a fun time so far, and as a fan of Disney’s modern day output, I’m excited that most of the worlds I have yet to visit reflect contemporary Disney films (if anything, the thirteen-year delay benefited the game’s Disney representation. The past games were released when Disney was in something of a low point, and thus relied on Disney’s past. Now that Kingdom Hearts 3 is released in a time when Disney has long-since got its groove back, the Disney aspect of the game feels less like a yearning for former glory).

Kingdom Hearts 3 is thus far shaping up to be a pleasing experience, but it is a shame some of its controls still feel stuck in the PS2 era, and I wish Nomura would have learned a little from the storytelling capabilities of the Disney movies his games feature, which could only have benefitted Kingdom Hearts’s narrative. Still, I admit that the Disney/Square crossover and the tone that comes with it still feels unique even today, and the gameplay (warts and all) feels more standout than ever in a time when everything else on the market feels the need to shoehorn open-world gameplay and gritty realism. I’ll take Disney characters and anime kids beating monsters with keys any day.