Spring 2019 in Review

I let the semester overwhelm me again, so I ended up not writing about the games I was playing between grading, lesson plans, and research. I made time to continue playing games, but that didn’t leave time for much else. So this will be a catch-up blog, where I share just a few thoughts about the games I’ve played over the last few months. I’ll skip my return to Stardew Valley, but I did spend a whole crapload of time with a new farm, attempting to work toward the platinum trophy on PS4. I started getting antsy after the third year, so I moved on before getting the trophy, but I will just say that I married Leah this time around, because that’s important, right?

Kingdom Hearts III

Anywho. I feel like some of these games, like Kingdom Hearts III, deserve a lot more attention, but I want to do an E3 post soon, and I’m currently in the middle of working on my dissertation prospectus, so a few thoughts will have to do. Like many, I remember when Square Enix announced the original Kingdom Hearts, and it sounded like a game that was too good to be true. As a fan of most Disney movies and Final Fantasy games, I couldn’t believe characters from both universes would be in the same game, made only more incredible by the fact that Disney’s track record with video games was spotty, at best. Now, one of the biggest video game developers in the world was going to have license to create stories that bring some of the most famous Disney characters together and have them interact with characters from some of my favorite video games? Uh, yes. Hells to the yes, in fact.

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Having said that, I don’t think I loved the original two games as much as so many others seemed to. Don’t get me wrong, it was thrilling and super fun exploring each new Disney world, seeing Mickey, Aladdin, Simba, and more in the same game as Cloud, Squall, and Moogles. But I have never been a fan of the floaty, loose combat in games like Kingdom Hearts, Devil May Cry, and NieR: Automata. So, as fun as the story and interactions were, the combat was a bit of a drag, because it wasn’t engaging and I just wanted to get on to the next world. I think the same goes for Kingdom Hearts III. I don’t envy anyone who had to actually review this game. I can absolutely see two perspectives: those that played all of the side games may have absolutely loved it, but people like me, who have only played the three core games, were left feeling a little lost, even after watching the included “The Story So Far” videos and a 45 minute series recap on YouTube.

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In the end, though, my reaction was much the same as it was for KH  and KH2, if not slightly colored by my disappointment in the lack of Final Fantasy characters. I still really liked the game and spent many hours getting the Ultima Keyblade and doing various other side quests. I loved the summons, the Toy Story, Frozen, and Winnie the Pooh worlds were awesome, and it was actually really charming and adorable fighting alongside Rapunzel. It just didn’t hit me the way other big, narrative RPGs do, I think maybe in part because it has some old school game design elements that are not my favorite. I was so excited to get my own ship and explore the open seas in the Pirates of the Caribbean world, but then they just keep throwing wave after wave of enemy ships at me, preventing me from exploring in peace. And in most of the levels you know when enemies are going to pop up because of the way the physical space is designed. These are fairly minor complaints, sure, but they made for an experience that had me like “oh, this is great! I just wish…” throughout most of the game.

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Far Cry New Dawn

As much as I just rambled on about Kingdom Hearts III, I don’t have much to say about Far Cry New Dawn. I liked Far Cry 5, and New Dawn is a pretty straightforward extension of that game. The map is slightly smaller, there are less side quests, and a lot of the weapons are a little more slapdash, but it felt very familiar, which wasn’t a bad thing. It just means that it didn’t strike as deep. I had a lot of fun with the Blood Dragon bow, some of the neon landscapes were very pretty, and the story wasn’t bad.

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Anthem

Some of BioWare’s previous games are among my favorites of all time, but I knew going into Anthem that it wasn’t going to have the same narrative hooks to snare me. I’m not a huge fan of looter shooters, so that particular gameplay loop of going on a mission, getting loot, rinse and repeat, isn’t compelling to me. It’s fun, but I do get bored after a while. Such was the case with Anthem. I played through the main story, did all of the side missions (I think), and had an absolute blast exploring the world. Seriously, the gameplay loop may not have been compelling, but traveling around the map was so fun that it almost didn’t matter. I liked customizing my javelin (though I wish there were more options), pretending like I was starting a romance with Tassyn, and improving Fort Tarsis, but after all of that I was just kind of like “now what?” There’s always a new game to play so I don’t often return to games-as-service, and maybe that’s why no matter how much fun I have with them they never quite blow me away.

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The Division 2

Me, one paragraph ago: “I’m not a huge fan of looter shooters”

Me, now: “So here’s another looter shooter that I played for many hours!”

I said I’m not a huge fan, okay? I still enjoy them… I just don’t usually seek them out. I played the first Division after all of the ‘problems’ with the early release had been patched out, so I had a lot of fun running around the trashy streets of New York. The overall outbreak narrative was presented well, and they did such an excellent job of filling the world with little stories and Easter eggs that before I knew it I had sunk a few dozen hours into a game that I’d never expected to get into.

My experience with the sequel was similar. The narrative world building that they enact in these games is what makes me want to play them by myself. I restrained myself, though, to play through most of the game with my friend, Tabitha, because clearing out buildings and taking on overpowered, armored bosses was definitely more fun with a friend. One of my biggest complaints about the first game was the severe lack of character customization options. They added lots of options here, but it’s still far from perfect. I could have a beard of several colors except my natural color: red. Really? Purple is more common than red?

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One thing I realized while playing is how varied my history with weapon loadouts has been. Years ago, I used to go for mid-range automatic weapons. I wanted to be able to dump a lot of ammo if need be, but also have a decent chance of hitting someone from a distance; that held true for the first Division, where I almost exclusively used assault rifles, sometimes bringing a sniper rifle out to take a couple of shots before moving up into the fray. In the sequel, my loadout was primarily a sniper rifle with no scope, and a shotgun. I stayed at a distance when I could, but if I had to I was able to run in and single-shot a few guys with the shotgun. I bring this up not only as a general note for myself, but also to point out that I was happily surprised at how the enemy AI had evolved. When I first began playing, I thought that the game was very close to the original, but not in a bad way. After a while, though, I realized that the enemies were much smarter and more aggressive than they used to be. In the first game I could sit pretty far back with my assault rifle and take out the stationary enemies before picking off the few remaining guys that would take a pretty straightforward path to reach me. In The Division 2, they stay in cover longer, use gear to pin me down, and work their way around me while covering for each other. It was frustrating, but in a good way. Overall, I had a good time with the game, even if the post-campaign content didn’t seem to live up to the hype that I’d been reading.

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Punch Line

Oh, Punch Line. What a wonderfully Japanese game. The dissertation that I’m currently writing a prospectus for is about Japanese games, so when I heard that there was a Japanese game where you’re a ghost that has to avoid looking at panties or the world explodes and the game “ends,” I knew I needed to play it. It’s originally a PS Vita game, but was ported to the PS4, which is what I played it on. Being just a port, it wasn’t exactly pretty. It’s a subbed game, so the voices are all still in Japanese, and the game is actually more like an episodic anime (which is what it is based on) than what I was expecting. There is a ton of narrative and not much gameplay, but that was actually fine with me, because the game was genuinely very funny at times.

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Japanese games and anime are pretty notorious for their objectification of female characters, but sometimes I think they fail to get the credit they deserve for also making female characters warriors, protagonists, and villains more often than Western games and movies do. This game is a decent example of this dichotomy. Although the central aspect of the gameplay is to avoid looking at women’s panties (without their knowledge or consent), this is something that you can still choose to do, and there are trophies for looking at all of them (which means that the game both discourages and encourages you to do it). However, on the flip side, the cast of mostly female characters includes a famous superhero, a genius android, a hardcore gamer, and a horny, drunken almost-thirty year-old woman. These are roles and characteristics not often afforded to female characters in many Western games, and they’re all in this one game. I’m not casting judgement or making excuses for anything, but I do think that this is an interesting observation worth considering. There’s another observation I want to make in the next paragraph, and although I don’t expect many people will read this, I should note that it’s a major spoiler, so if you have any interest in playing this game, I’d skip the next paragraph.

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After a series of cut scenes setting up the premise of the game, you take control of Yuuta, a young man who, as mentioned, gets “too excited” when he looks at panties and if he does so for too long, causes the destruction of the planet. Except, fairly late in the narrative, you find out that Yuuta is a man’s spirit in a woman’s body, presenting as a man (and voiced by a woman). It’s a little convoluted. He was a man, and because of an event in the game, he ended up swapping spirits with a woman, who swapped spirits with another man. In the end, a plan does emerge to return Yuuta to his original body. So, technically speaking, Yuuta is not a trans character, but I think it’s interesting and important that the main character of this game is, in an abstract (or symbolic) way at least, trans. First, Yuuta is not depicted as being upset or ‘haunted’ by being in the body of a woman. He adjusts his style and physical actions to ‘pass,’ but at points he explicitly says he has no interest in trying to get his old body back. Further, the female characters surrounding him, while expressing surprise when finding out, don’t ostracize or shun him at all. In fact, they mostly ignore the idea and treat Yuuta as one of the group, as they always have. This gender swap isn’t made a central source for jokes and is a minor plot point that takes a back seat to most of the other character interactions and narrative beats. Does this make this a queer game, or a game that highlights a trans character in a glowing, positive light? I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that, but I do think it depicts issues of gender and identity in a way I’ve never seen in any game, Japanese or otherwise, and complicates the idea that Japanese games always mishandle queer characters and issues. I’ve only played the game once through, so I’m not trying to deliver a convincing thesis here, but I do think this game is surprisingly relevant and potentially important.

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