Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition

I’m sure I’ve brought up Chrono Trigger before. It is my favorite game of all time, after all. It’s an objectively great game, but it’s also very important to me on a personal level. I played it at a turning point in my life. I got it for my 15th birthday – my first after my parents had gotten a divorce and just as I was preparing to leave my middle school friends to start anew at a huge, intimidating high school. Not only did it distract me during those tumultuous times, it also fundamentally changed my relationship with video games and my identity on the whole. If I had to mark a specific time when I went from a kid who played games to a “Gamer,” it was just then. I’d loved games since I was a small child, but it never felt like much more than a fun distraction. My intense love for Chrono Trigger made me realize how deep my love for the hobby ran.

I could probably literally go on until the End of Time (eh? eh? get it?) about Chrono Trigger but suffice it to say I was beyond excited when Square announced a sequel would be coming to the PlayStation, which I had only recently acquired. Chrono Cross was released in 1999 in Japan, just four years after Chrono Trigger. Looking at the two games, that seems wild. It also seems wild to me because I am old now and four years seems like such a short period of time, whereas when I was 15 it seemed like a lifetime to wait for a sequel to the best game of all time. The game wouldn’t release until 2000 in the US, which made the wait that much more excruciating. I avoid prerelease hype for the most part now, but back then I devoured any scrap of info or media that I could find about this mysterious new sequel. I had only recently gotten the internet (insert old man emoji here), but I scoured sites like IGN and Gamespot for any rumor or news, and any gaming magazine that even mentioned it was an instant buy. The strategy guide, published by BradyGAMES, was released almost a week before the game and I snapped it up and tried my best to avoid flipping through it and ruining any surprises that were in store.

My original encounter with Chrono Cross was not quite as magical as my experience with Chrono Trigger was, which seems like a pretty common experience among Chrono fans. [Plenty of spoilers ahead.] Don’t get me wrong, I loved the game, and it was one of my favorite RPGs, but (like many) I was undeniably disappointed that the story wasn’t a direct continuation of the previous game. I wanted to know what my favorite characters were up to after Lavos was defeated. Did Crono still have all of those cats? What did Marle’s eventual reign look like? Where did Magus go? It felt, at the time, like Chrono Cross purposely neglected any and all questions of the sort. There were nods to the first game, but this felt like its own thing, and that was something of a letdown, if I was being honest. Even the major inclusion of Schala, one of my favorite characters from Chrono Trigger, seemed somewhat tenuous, at best. I loved Schala so much that I called the Nintendo Tip Line for the first time ever and asked if there was some way to save her from her fate in the Ocean Palace. I awkwardly, nervously lied and said, “I heard somewhere that there was a way to prevent her from dying so I, uh, just wanted to check.” The Game Counselor™ was like “uh… yeah, I don’t think so.”

I tried! Believe me! I tried. 😦

So, when I found out that Kid, one of the central characters in Chrono Cross, was Schala’s clone, and that you were fighting to free the real Schala from the Time Devourer, I had mixed feelings. That young Joey that called Nintendo to try and find out if Schala could be saved should have been thrilled! But this Schala, or her clone, didn’t seem like the character I knew and loved from Chrono Trigger. She was the opposite, in fact. Instead of being quiet, reflective, concerned, selfless, and sporting flowing purple hair and royal robes, she is spunky, brash, reckless, determined, loud, and wearing sporty clothing with a blonde ponytail. Look, I really like Kid as a character, but she is more like a mix of Ayla and Marle than anything remotely close to Schala. This is just one example of the ways the game changed or kind of glossed over familiar elements from Chrono Trigger, making it feel more like a game inspired by CT and not a sequel. Again, I enjoyed my time with it and even got all the endings and characters, but I don’t know that it hit me as hard as I was hoping it would.

Enter the long-awaited Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition. Like many Chrono fans, I’d had my fingers crossed for years that this would come out. While I love Chrono Trigger and would love some kind of remaster (Pixel Remaster, pls) or reissue, I’ve played that game on the SNES, PlayStation, Nintendo DS, Steam, and iOS, while Chrono Cross hasn’t been offered the same kind of multi-platform accessibility. Plus, it’s a 3D PS1 RPG, which requires a bit more polish to make it run and look good on contemporary hardware, whereas the 2D sprites of Chrono Trigger are pretty timeless. I was eager to try Cross again, not just because it would be slightly prettier and more accessible (and I could get trophies for it, heh), but because I’d hoped that with time many of my conflicted feelings about the game would situate themselves. I was worried, though. What if I didn’t like it this time? What if years of newer and more streamlined RPGs had spoiled me and Chrono Cross felt stiff and hard to navigate? I’d tried to play the Final Fantasy VIII remaster and quit shortly into it because of these reasons, so what if that happened again with one of my favorite RPGs of all time?

It did not, dear reader. After beating this edition of Chrono Cross five times, getting all the characters and endings, and snagging the platinum trophy on PS5, I can say that I have a much deeper appreciation for the core game now. It’s not perfect, but it was wildly ambitious, and I think it achieved much of what it tried to. For example, when I first entered combat and saw the multi-attack/hit percentage system, I was like “oh no.” I’d forgotten about this little wrinkle to the combat system, and even now I’m not a fan of the misleading percentages. But I think the system itself works. Having to think about whether I should swing big and go for a critical strike at the cost of possibly whiffing, or use lighter, more guaranteed strikes to build up my stamina for a big magic attack, made combat feel dynamic and active, which I liked. The magic system, where each character had an affinity, but you could slot most magic attacks into anyone’s inventory was perhaps needlessly cumbersome (I still wish there was an easier way to save builds, rather than manually slotting them in over and over whenever you switch characters, or using the crappy autofill option), but I also appreciated that it allowed for seemingly infinite unique builds of your enormous roster of teammates. Yes, I relied on the same handful of spells for most of my runs, but with every new playthrough I thought about new and interesting builds I could do if I was more adventurous.

I was also worried about how janky and jaggy it might look, and although it took me a bit to get used to the shuddering that seems to persist with remasters of PS1 games (where, say, character idle animations sort of shudder without cause), I was overall very impressed with how the characters look (in particular) They retain the odd proportions of early 3D humanoid character models, but the colorful, vibrant cast look so good now, and their new portraits are gorgeous. I read somewhere that they lost the original high-res files for the background art, so they had to use AI upscaling to make them 4K compatible, and it seems to mostly work. Some backgrounds do look a bit murky, making it hard to distinguish between paths that you can navigate and environmental art, but some backgrounds seem to look more ethereal and artistic, which was a nice surprise. The Sea of Eden looked especially stunning.

I don’t know that I need to say much about the music. Chrono Cross’s soundtrack has been lauded as one of the best in video games since it came out, and I’ve been happy to see new people discover how vibrant, eclectic, and haunting it can be. I can’t even say that it stirred my nostalgia like other video game music has, mainly because I still listen to it pretty frequently while I’m writing or doing something that requires concentration. What didn’t quite stick in my memory as well were the finer details of the story, though. And, having played it again several times now, I can see why. Like many Japanese games, the plot really requires you to pay attention (and even then, its vague, twisty nature means it can be hard to track). Having played it before allowed me to pay even closer attention to subtle details, and I actually came to a much deeper appreciation for the story and how it really does continue the core premise of Chrono Trigger. What I’d once thought of dismissively as “nods” to the first game are far more significant. There are characters that are close to CT characters, like Glenn (a brave knight, like Glenn from CT) and Luccia (a genius scientists with a lively laugh, much like Lucca from CT), and I used to think of them as not-so-subtle tributes. But there is a line in a late-game dungeon that talks about how people exist as forms across many timelines and dimensions, which makes me think that these are not “nods,” but legitimate alternate versions of known characters. A “what if this character was born in a different world or time” kind of thing. I also don’t know that I fully appreciated Robo’s role in the story back in the day, but his sacrifice moved me this time around. I also really loved Balthasar’s significant role, though I really wish they’d given him a Nu companion.

Okay, yes, let’s just move on, shall we?

Speaking of companions, the ability to recruit a sprawling, freaky cast of characters to follow you into battle was so ambitious and I appreciate the dev team for getting in as many characters as they did. I’ve read that they’d hoped to make it so that every character you speak with could be recruited but had to scale back due to scope, but I’m happy with the current roster. The game forces you to switch it up a few times (with the forced protagonist body and team swap), and I rotated pretty often, but some of my regular team members were Kid, Leena, Starky, Marcy, Riddel, Luccia, and Harle. Being able to slot most magic into any character meant that I didn’t have to think as much about who was good at what, so I usually went with who I thought would be fun to have in my party. I have to say, I feel like a Luccia apologist. She is framed as a typical mad scientist, more interested in making strides in science than morality or doing what’s “right” (plus she has poor Pip in a cage). I couldn’t help it, though. Look at her! Maybe it’s the new, high def character model, but I was smitten.

But she could never take the place of my main squeeze, Harle. I fell in love with Harle when I first played the game, and I guess playing Chrono Cross again after all these years does cast her in a different light. I remember her being a much more sympathetic character. While she does express conflicted feelings and regret about (seemingly) having to oppose you, she ultimately does just that. Was I mostly smitten with her because she seemed to have a thing for “me” (Serge)? I mean, she is adorable, and I love her French accent and how flirty and feisty she is, but she’s also pretty rude to my friends. At one point, she says “If you had to chooze between ze world and moi… which would you chooze?” I think I’ve always said that I would choose her, yet she seems unwilling to make the same choice for me. One of the endings does make it seem like you’re living a happy(ish) life alongside Harle as Lynx, though, so I guess that will have to be enough. With the rising popularity of romance systems in games, I do look back at JRPGs from this era, like Chrono Cross and Final Fantasy VIII and wish they could somehow retroactively add a dating system. If they did, I tell myself that I’d end up replaying the game many times over to date most or all the roster, but deep down I think I can admit that I would just keep picking Harle and muttering “next time. Next time I’ll choose Luccia” under my breath.

In the end, I was shocked by how much I loved playing through this game again, over 20 years after my first time with it. There was some nostalgia, but that didn’t impact my opinion of it nearly as much as I thought it would. Yes, there are some minor performance issues and I wish I didn’t have to stand exactly in front of chests and doors to open them, but there was far more to love about this experience and after getting the platinum trophy I walked away reluctantly, somehow still wanting to play more. I have other games to get to and there’s not much else for me to accomplish in Chrono Cross, but these playthroughs brought with them a more profound appreciation for the colorful, quirky, lovely world and characters I spent so much time with. Square’s willingness to release this with such fanfare gives me some faint hope that, should this game find success, we might actually see the fabled Chrono Break someday. They trademarked the name at some point and seemingly dropped the project, but with their recent investment in HD-2D games and willingness to develop games with retro art styles that are less development intensive in terms of funding (like I Am Setsuna), I remain somewhat hopefully that they’ll see the potential in giving a small but experienced team some funding to close out a Chrono trilogy. I mean, they could also throw a ton of money at a 3D remake of Chrono Trigger. After this experience with Chrono Cross, I just want more, damn it.

Ugh. Heartbreaking.
Gato. 😦
Okay, so the fourth wall breaking was a little silly.

Diving Into 2022

The weather here in sleepy Sycamore, Illinois, is cold and dreary. It’s a grey and snowy day… and it’s April. You know what’s not cold and grey, though? My love of video games. That was the absolute worst segue anyone’s ever written but I am tired, and I’d like to get back to playing the new Chrono Cross remaster, so let’s just let that one slide. It seems a fact that time works differently during a pandemic, so I’m not sure if I should say “it’s already April” or “it’s only April,” but I wanted to jot down some thoughts about the games I’ve played recently, regardless, because I feel like Chrono Cross will get a post of its own soon. I’m still playing Halo Infinite online, but I don’t have much to add other than I am absolutely styling in my cat ears and sparkly purple armor. They keep adding new armor components and accessories but, no. Get out of my face. I just want sparkly purple kitty time.

13 Sentinels Aegis Rim

I do have more thoughts on 13 Sentinels Aegis Rim, though, since I’ve finished it. I’ll keep it short, since I’ve already talked a bit about it, but I ended up really loving it and getting the platinum trophy for it. Admittedly, much of my love remains centered on the aesthetic. The water-color inspired character and background art is just gorgeous, and I never lost my sense of awe and appreciation for it as the game went on. The music and voice acting are also stellar, making the game feel as close to a 1980s-isnpired anime as you can get. The story was very hard to follow, but at a certain point I gave up trying to untwist the knotted narrative because more twists would inevitably pop up. I feel like I was rewarded for that, in a way, because everything became clear in the end. Well, most things. Look, if you asked me to recount the story I’d probably get lost in my own attempt, but I think the gist of this multi-layered story is get-able.

The combat sections were alright. I’m not a huge RTS player, so I was more than happy to set the difficulty to easy and handily hand the enemies their ass time and time again. There is yet another character that deals with gender issues in an annoyingly indirect way. I’ve written previously on characters in Japanese games that flirt with trans-ness or gender fluidity, but yet again the developers fail to commit. Tsukasa Okino is a “male” character that chooses to dress up as (and embody) a woman, flirts openly with a male character, and [SPOILERS] in the epilogue, when “he” embraces living in a simulation, he makes a comment about switching genders, saying “It’s not just the clothes. I can be whatever I want here.”  While I applaud Japanese developers for dealing with things like gender and sexuality more often and openly in their games, I wish they wouldn’t dance around it as much. This character’s gender is such a big part of their story – why not just use clear language instead of talking around it?

What I won’t talk around (aren’t you loving this terrible transitions?) is my adoration of Yuki Takamiya. What a badass cutie. I didn’t love who she ended up with, but I looked forward to playing her story segments every time. She’s a delinquent and a detective, which is not a common combo in Japanese media, in my experience. Young detectives are usually virtuous, working with police or other agencies to bust the bad guy (or that’s used as a ploy to hide the villain, ala Persona 5). Yuki does work with law enforcement, but only because she’s forced to, essentially. But, yeah, I just wanted to shout out my favorite character. Carry on.

Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth

Have I mentioned that I love Persona games? They are, for me, the types of games where I feel a sadness when I’m close to completing them. I get so invested in the worlds that P-Studio makes that I want to live in them forever and rub shoulders (or eat beef bowls) with the wonderful characters that inhabit them. After each Persona game, I attempted to fill the new Persona-shaped hole in my soul by buying merch or other Persona games. It’s how I ended up with Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, which I was honestly not very sure I’d like. It’s a dungeon crawler and the character models are chibi – two things I’m not much of a fan of. I hadn’t played my handheld systems in a while, but since I’d busted out my cool SNES 3DS to play Metroid games, I figured I’d finally give Persona Q a shot. If I didn’t like it, I could just stop playing it, right?

Well, I’m probably 50-60 hours in so far and you couldn’t make me stop playing this game. I say “probably” because I ordered a new, sealed copy from Amazon and it came with save files, meaning someone obviously owned this “new” copy before. If you owned a copy and had a P4 protagonist save file named “Mike” or a P3 protagonist file named “Minato,” I have your game. Well, it’s mine now. But thank you for the save file because I used it to start a new game plus and got your personas and weapons (and impressive playtime), which helped a lot. While it’s true that I prefer to see my characters (and enemies) as I run around dungeons, the first-person dungeon crawling is pretty fun, and I can’t deny that I quickly came to like drawing in the map on the 3DS screen. What I love about this game is, of course, the characters and story. Yes, they’re in chibi form, which is unfortunate, but when I realized that all of the original voice actors from both Persona 3 and Persona 4 were back and delivering tons of lines, I was so in. The writing, too, is just as good as the core games, and I’ve found myself legitimately laughing out loud a few times. Add in an amazing soundtrack of P3 and P4 tracks, and I am in love. I’m not yet finished with it (I’m on the last dungeon) but I’m also in no rush to beat it, despite looking forward to Persona Q2 with much excitement now.

Persona 4 Arena Ultimax

As further evidenced above, every Persona game I’ve played so far has been a hit. Persona 3 Portable, Persona 4 Golden, Persona 5 and Royal, Persona 5 Strikers, all three dancing games, and Persona Q have all won me over in one way or another. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is the first game in the series that I haven’t loved. Please, don’t get me wrong: it’s a solid game. As with Persona Q, the full cast of P3 and P4 voice actors return, which is always a big deal for me. They do stellar work and it brings so much to the games when they’re present. I also really liked seeing big, high definition art assets for the characters. There are lots of great, classic Persona settings and expressions to enjoy, and I will never shun more time with super bae Mitsuru.

The writing doesn’t seem quite as good as the other Persona games, though there is a ton of it. This is a fighting game, yes, but there is a lot of story. Fighting games usually foreground the gameplay and the story (if there is one) takes a definite backseat. Not so here. Not only can you play through the story mode from three different perspectives, each character also has a very healthy story that you can play through separate from the main story. There are some great moments and exchanges here, but overall the writing was much weaker than what I’m used to in Persona media. Ultimately, though, the kind of fighting in this game (think Guilty Gear) is not really my thing. I am no fighting game expert so I am ill-equipped to explain why I don’t vibe with the feel of this kind of game, but I mostly button-mashed my way through the first half of the game and turned on auto-play for the rest. The sprite work is great, though, and I was charmed by new (to me) character Labrys. I beat the three story runs and Chie’s segment (she’s my favorite fighter, I think) but I think I’m okay with putting it aside now.

Hitman 2 and Hitman 3

I played bits of the first Hitman trilogy back in the day, but I don’t think I ever finished any of them. I really liked the gameplay and, more to the point, the concept of a world of possibilities. The assassination part was fun and fulfilled some boyhood James Bond/The Professional fantasy, sure – but I have always dreamed of a video game that allows for ultimate realism. A fully rendered world where I can do the same things I can in real life – pick up a random can from the ground, enter any closet or room, turn on faucets for no reason, etc. The Hitman games aren’t fully realized in that sense, but they were moving in that direction, even with the early entries. The idea of having choice in how you complete levels wasn’t new, but the number of choices you had in these games seemed staggering. It wasn’t just “go in stealthy or go in loud.” It was “go in stealthy or go in disguise or snipe from far away or don’t go in at all and rig an explosive that will catch them on the way out or poison a drink that will be carried to them or go in loud or…” you get the idea.

I’d heard so many good things about this latest Hitman trilogy, and after Tab listed Hitman 3 as their game of the year for 2021, I decided to pick it up. I’d also nabbed Hitman 2 on PSN, so I started with that game and played them back-to-back. Generally, it was the same great concept from the early games but with a lot more style and attention to detail. The story was very good but my favorite thing about these new games is the level design. So much thought and care seem to have gone into considering the many ways players might approach a level. Yes, there are specific ways in which the game seems to want you to tackle it, but it doesn’t restrict you too much. I will say that I felt like a very lazy assassin the first few missions. I would sneak in, very stealthily, just trying to scope out the scene and find access to the target. But as soon as I was close, I would just find a dark corner, pew pew them with my silenced pistol, and slip into the shadows. It sounds kind of cool but in practice it was pretty dull and uninspired.

I knew it was on me, though, so with the “Ark Society” mission, where you attend an elaborate secret society party and have to eliminate two socialites and, if possible, extract someone without being detected, I decided to take my time, listen to conversations, and establish a plan. I found out that one of the socialites was planning to hold a ceremony where she faked burning herself alive in a huge effigy, Wicker Man-style, so I sneakily sabotaged the escape hatch below the effigy, dressed as the master of ceremonies, lit her on fire and walked away as everyone cheered, thinking it was a part of the show. For the other socialite, I followed an old fling of hers, knocked him out and took his clothes, stole a very expensive artifact/necklace they were both after, and got her alone before offering to put the necklace on her – and choking her with it. I then found the extraction target and walked right out the front door. Pew pewing people from the shadows is all well and good, but there is a far more rewarding thrill when a level unfolds like that. I didn’t have the same experience with the oft-discussed Knives Out-like mansion level (I didn’t steal the detective’s outfit and was in the middle of scoping things out when I saw an opportunity for a quick, easy kill), but I did have similar experiences with the mission set during a ritzy party at a vineyard. I took the winemaker’s outfit and acted as him as I took one of the targets on a tour of the winery. At each stop, Agent 47 described a way in which someone might accidentally perish, so I knew I was probably able to eliminate this target any number of ways here. When we got to a grape pressing station with a massive hydraulic press, which she stepped under, I deactivated the safety mechanism and turned on the press. The target disappeared into a squishy red puddle and everyone in the area just thought it was a terrible accident, so I walked away with no consequence.

That was probably my most outrageous kill, but my favorite level overall was the nightclub level in Germany. A trope in some espionage stories is when the agent is betrayed by their own agency and other agents of equal(ish) skill and ability are hunting them. This level lets you live out that scenario in a loud, thumping night club, and there was something so thrilling about weaving in and out of large crowds, hunting these agents who are becoming increasingly nervous as their partners on comms stop responding, one by one. It was a far more active level than most, but it still required a lot of legwork and intel gathering, making it so rewarding in the end. I also had a moment where I really appreciated the depth of the DualSense’s vibration feature. I was several minutes into the mission, very focused, when I had a moment of realization that maybe my TV was too loud. I could feel the loud bass in the controller, and it legitimately felt like speakers pumping. My TV, it turns out, was not that loud. That’s not what really impressed me, though. After realizing how subtle and realistic the vibrations were, I paid closer attention to them and found that it’s also directional. When Agent 47’s right side was toward the speaker, the right side of the controller vibrated. As I rotated, the vibration shifted to the front of the controller (when facing the speaker), then the left side (when that side was facing it). And it was dynamic, too, of course – the closer I was to the speaker, the more pronounced the vibration was, and all that. A small detail, yes, but it made me appreciate the artists who probably put a lot of time into things like it.

Metroid Fusion

After playing and loving Super Metroid, Metroid Dread, and Samus Returns, I wasn’t done with Metroid games. All three of those games were bangers, as the kids say, so I ready for more baddie-bopping and spooky-scanning as Samus, and I turned to one of the two remaining games that I own: Metroid Fusion. A version of the “Title” theme plays over the intro cutscene, which portrays a critical part of the Metroid lore (the, well, fusion of Samus’ DNA with Metroid DNA), so I was all ready to delve into another atmospheric environment. And then I started playing and the music was more action-suspense than eerie horror. It was also a bit jolting to go from those previous games, which had very tight, intuitive controls, to controls which felt a little trickier to master. I’m sure they felt great on a GBA back in 2002, but let’s just say I was not spinning and grappling with the greatest of ease. There was also an incredibly annoying end sequence, where I was forced to traverse my way to a very hard boss, defeat them, then traverse my way to another boss that I had to defeat. That sounds reasonable, but they purposefully block off a save room between fights (and there is no auto-save), so having to re-do that segment several times was infuriating and time-consuming.

Source: https://www.polygon.com/22715304/metroid-dread-fusion-recap-story-lore-samus-aran-chozo

I’m starting with my complaints, but my experience overall was positive. Those are some notable grievances, but I loved the corrupted Samus chasing you [SPOILER] and I especially liked that they pulled the ol’ enemies to allies twist at the end, where the “bad” Samus attacks the final boss with you. I still loved the core gameplay of puzzling out each new area and frequently obtaining new powers, and I am always down for new suit color combos. Yes, there were a few annoyances with this experience, but overall I was still very into it and I’m ready to move onto the original Metroid soon.

Find Love or Die Trying!

This is an indie visual novel by Auden Jin that I played for an episode of the podcast. For Valentine’s Day, we chose a romance visual novel or dating sim from itch.io to play and discuss. The premise of this game seemed like silly fun and the art looked good, so this was my choice. I wasn’t expecting much (the quality of games on itch.io varies wildly, which is not a bad thing but is a reality), but I was totally charmed by this game. There are so many twists and turns in the story, some of them very goofy, but I was fully on board. The characters were fun takes on existing tropes, there were some genuinely funny moments, and I legitimately found myself invested in the story. This was a nice surprise.

Minecraft

I’ve written about Minecraft before, but somehow I keep coming back to it. Tab and I jumped back in recently and we built a very, very long railway to a jungle biome we had scoped out last year. We started building a new town there, so I decided to make a Wayne Manor/Batcave. I have on almost every server I’ve played on, save this one, so it was time. As I was digging out and shaping the Batcave, guess what appeared? Bats! I was so excited. It was a little embarrassing. But I am nearing the end of construction and I can’t wait.

Horizon Forbidden West

What was not a surprise (this is the last game so you no longer have to suffer these terrible segues) was how much I loved Horizon Forbidden West. Horizon Zero Dawn is one of my favorite games of last gen, so I made sure to get my collector’s edition of Forbidden West pre-ordered as soon as I was able. I think, as I did with Zero Dawn, I’ll mostly let the screenshot dump do the talking here, but there are some things I want to say about my time with the game. If you follow gaming news or know/follow people who’ve played this game, you’ve likely heard about how gorgeous it is by now. And, well, it is. I would say I don’t think these screenshots do it justice, but they come pretty close. The game is gorgeous in screenshots and in motion. You can pause the game at almost any point, go into photo mode, and find a cool or beautiful picture to take. The environment, the character models, the enemies, even the small animals scurrying about, all look amazing. I even found myself staring up at the night sky several times, looking for unique features or constellations. And, you know what? There are constellations! None that I recognized as real, but I can tell that there are clusters of stars that some environmental artist went to the trouble of making look like little constellations. I really appreciate little things like that.

Speaking of little things, there was that whole, dumb controversy (if you can call it that) about Aloy having facial fuzz. First of all, how is it a bad thing that we now have video game consoles powerful enough to render such a minute detail? Second, you can actually see it in the game. It wasn’t some highly rendered cut scene or piece of promo art. Character models are so highly rendered and beautiful in this game. As with the first game, I frequently found myself stopping to marvel at graphical details big and small. Hair! Look at Aloy’s hair!

Amazing. One of the things I love most about these games is the combat, though, and I loved it just as much here. I didn’t find myself using as many gadgets as I did in Zero Dawn, but I also didn’t really mind that. I was perfectly happy rolling out of the way of a charging thunderjaw at the very last second, spinning, notching an arrow, then releasing it to strike a tiny component on its back and running for cover. I played over 150 hours of this game and never got tired of the combat. Some of the new dinos were challenging, but I still love the thunderjaws and tallnecks. I have some thoughts on spoiler-y things, so I’ll add a [SPOILER WARNING] here, which includes screenshots that show spoilers. They begin after these next two pictures.

The story didn’t pleasantly surprise me like the first game’s did (how could it, though, since I had no idea what to expect from the first one?), but I did end up really liking it. As soon as I saw the primary villains floating down from the sky, I was like “is this a Superman movie?” And it kind of was. The villains in this game are absolutely Kryptonians. Advanced civilization hailing from an exploding planet, impermeable to damage (save one key weakness!), flight, Lex Luthor-looking-ass as the leader… But I dug it! They were campy and fun, and it was very rewarding to take them down. Celebrity performances aren’t always great in games, but I also thought Carrie-Anne Moss was excellent.

The other spoiler-y thing I want to talk about is the sunwing travel mechanic, unlocked later in the story. It was vaguely spoiled for me by the kind of people who are like “I won’t spoil it but” and then proceed to drop specific “hints” that then actually spoil it. I wasn’t terribly mad about it, though, because it allowed me to push through the story early enough to have plenty of time with my beloved sunwing. I wasn’t sure I would use it much because I don’t use the other mounts in the game and I generally like travelling in open-world games on foot, but I almost instantly fell in love with it. It felt very good to control, it looked and sounded amazing (the dino sound design needs more credit in this game, too), and it was so useful. One of my favorite things to do was call the sunwing just before jumping off a high ledge and having it swoop down and snatch me out of the air. So fucking cool. I do agree that they waited a little long to introduce the option of flight, but I was able to get a ton of flying time in and I loved it.

I also loved the swimming in the game. Well, after obtaining the breathing apparatus. Before then, I would try and explore deep, scary caverns and start to feel a bit of real panic when I’d get turned around or stuck on something. Once I got the device, I was free to explore submerged ruins, deep caverns, oceanic wrecks and more to my heart’s content. And I did, and it felt great. The swimming controls in this game are like most others, but they do feel slightly refined and very responsive, making cutting through the water feel more natural and smoother than I’m used to. I should wrap this up, but I’ll add a few more minor thoughts. I loved some of Aloy’s outfits. The Carja Shadow was by far my favorite aesthetically, so I rocked that for a big chunk of the game. Once I started nearing end-game stuff I decided to take the time to earn and upgrade the Nora Thunder Warrior ‘fit, which doesn’t look as cool but has pretty great stats. The glider was very cool but I’m glad they kept climbing mostly the same. It seems like a lot of people want to climb everything in games post-Breath of the Wild, but I really like the minor challenge of having to think about where I’m climbing, how I’ll get from one place to another, if there is a best route, etc. It reminds me of Tomb Raider in that sense, and I like it. Okay, I’d meant to let the screenshots speak for themselves, but I ended up doing plenty of yapping myself. I’ll shut up now, though I could go on and on about this beautiful, amazing game. Thanks for reading.

Closing Out 2021

Wow, it has been a while, has it not? 2021 was a light blogging year for me, mostly because recording/editing the Pretty Pixels Podcast takes up the time that I would have been normally dedicating to writing about games. I haven’t given up on it, though. I love writing about games and, with some luck, maybe I’ll do it professionally someday. For now, I’ll continue to post some general musings about the games I’ve been playing (if you’re interested in more regular thoughts, feel free to check out the podcast!). Given that my last post was in August, I have a lot to catch up on. Like, a lot. Let’s get into it. Grab a mug of your favorite hot beverage (I’m sipping hot chocolate out of a Meg Turney mug I bought myself for Xmas) and join me on this meander through the many games I’ve played through fall and into winter. [Spoiler warning: there will be some spoilers in both the text and images, so skip any games you don’t want spoiled]

Back 4 Blood

Back 4 Blood was one of my most anticipated games of the year, due in no small part to my love for the Left 4 Dead games. It was mostly just my friend Ron and me playing those games, but this time we had a full crew, as we were joined by my friends Tab and Paul. The best parts of my experience with this game mostly came from playing with friends, but there were some things I really liked in the game itself. I was very worried about the card system that the game introduces to the Left 4 Dead formula. I’m personally not a fan of card-based systems usually, so the idea that I’d have to worry about building and managing decks instead of just running around and gunning down zombies did not sound appealing. Almost immediately I realized that I didn’t need to use the cards at all, if I didn’t want to. They boost and modify your stats, but I could safely ignore them and still contribute to the team.

I did want those boosts, though, so I began adding cards here and there, looking for cards that fit my playstyle. Before I knew it, I had a regular run deck, a healing deck, an endgame deck, and a grinding deck. Clearly, I was more into the card system than I thought I would be. I was also into the character classes. Again, I could ignore them if I wanted to, and I didn’t give them much thought when choosing to play as Doc. She’s very cute and she’s a doctor. That was good enough for me! Once I started getting cards that significantly boosted my already increased healing abilities, though, I decided to become a great healer in order to help the team out. The running around and shooting zombies part was as fun as I’d hoped it would be, so the fact that I came around on the two things I was worried about – the card system and character classes – means that my time with this game was fun and filled with great moments with friends. The fun came with some frustration, however. The uneven difficulty was very annoying. We usually play games on “normal” difficulty, but we unanimously agreed to play this game on “recruit,” and even then, we found certain levels very, very hard. We have yet to beat the final stage, in fact. We only tried a few times but had no interest in beating our heads against the wall. The card/cosmetic progression is also very weird and annoying. Why can’t I just earn things for my character? Why do I have to unlock many, many cards and accessories for characters I never use, just to get one thing for my own character? And why can’t I earn experience in solo play? This is not a competitive game. The clothing variety is also severely lacking. They’ve fixed/addressed some of these issues in a recent patch, so maybe they’re no longer applicable, but aside from these complaints I had a great time with Back 4 Blood.

Jurassic World Evolution 2

Jurassic World Evolution 2 was also one of my most anticipated games of the year, and I was more and more excited about it as we got closer and closer to the release date. I really loved my time with the first game, so even if this game was more of the same, I knew I was going to play the hell out of it. And I did. I haven’t gotten the platinum trophy for it because it requires that I beat the challenge modes on the hardest difficulty and, yeah, no thanks. I tried one of them and got my shit rocked so I’m good for now. These games aren’t really about challenge for me. Well, that’s not totally true. I started the first game with the intent of just using sandbox mode to make a beautiful dinosaur sanctuary, but I ended up really enjoying the campaign and the challenge of building parks on islands with different terrain/environmental challenges. The same was true with this sequel. My parks are rarely very pretty, but I love the thrill of having a new map handed to me and pausing to quickly generate a number of different layout possibilities in my mind.

In the end, it still came down to the dinosaurs, though. Completing objectives is rewarding, but my main mission was always to keep my dinos happy and safe. Setting up a new paddock was always fun. I was so excited when I was finally able to unlock and afford to hatch a T-Rex. Like an expectant parent, as my new baby girl was synthesizing in the hatchery, I was constructing a large, roomy pen for her, altering the terrain to be mostly sand in the center with a nice half-moon grass border for the goats (and so she had something soft to sleep on), placing feeders both near water (convenience) and in a quiet spot near the back of the paddock (to get away from the guests when she needed some quiet time), planting a few patches of thick trees for scenery and hunting, digging a few water holes so she had some choices, and generally just making sure my baby gir- er, my T-Rex’s living space had everything she needed to be happy. It was experiences like this that I enjoyed most, as it was with the first game.

There were also some nice upgrades, big and small. I love the new terrain and weather options (though some of the storms can get fucked), the addition of avian and aquatic dinos is awesome, and the smoothing out of small things like path snapping was welcome. There were some seemingly small but fairly annoying bugs, though. Rangers can’t enter the water paddock or aviaries, so they send in drones. These drones would sometimes get stuck on things, causing all kinds of headaches. I had a Pteranodon that got injured in a fight. I sent a helicopter to tranq her so the medical team could treat her. The drone that was supposed to tranq her got caught on something in the dome, so the helicopter just kept circling the dome and the drone wouldn’t tranq the dino. I couldn’t reassign the helicopter, and when I took over manual control it would immediately return to circling as soon as I gave up control. My Pteranodon was slowly flatlining right in front of me and I couldn’t do anything about it. Well, I could, and I did, but no thanks to the glitchy drone. I built a new response station and viewing gallery, then sent the new helicopter team to do the job of the old one. What an expensive solution. Overall, however, I had a marvelous time yet again, hatching, raising, and caring for some beautiful dinosaurs.

Super Metroid

Oh, Super Metroid. You’d been on my backlog for over two decades. You were on the list of games I asked for leading up to my 13th birthday, those many years ago. Though I never did get you then, you were one of the first games I bought for the Virtual Console on my Wii. I was determined to knock you off the list – one fewer game for people to be like “wow, how have you not played that?” But I didn’t. I kept putting it off and putting it off. Then Metroid Dread was announced, and the new-2D-Metroid hype train left the station. I try very hard to avoid hype normally, but in this metaphor, I found myself standing in Grand Central Hype Station, watching the train leave with a wistful sadness. A new reminder that I had never played Super Metroid, oft celebrated as one of the greatest games of all time. As the release of Dread neared, I’d decided to give it a shot. Finally, a solid reason to also play Super Metroid, which Dread would surely be compared to by many.

And people were right. It is truly an excellent game. Returning to an older game can be hit or miss, but Super Metroid ages incredibly. Its controls feel tight and intuitive (a couple of special moves aside, which I’ll talk about later), the sprite graphics and animations are still beautiful (is this one of the earliest examples of “floaties,” multi-layered atmospheric graphics, being used in games?), the music and sound remains iconic, and the level and game design was so masterful. The way the game introduces a new power or mechanic and immediately requires you to use it (by, say, trapping you in the room you got it in and making the only exit blocked by an obstacle that requires your new power) is also great. The way many of these elements came together to create a unique atmosphere of disquiet, loneliness, and horror was probably my favorite thing about the game, though. It just felt cool. As mentioned, I did find myself a little frustrated by the lack of clear tutorial for some of the special moves, like the Shine Spark. A friend mentioned that there are little creatures that show you how to do them, and I was sure I must have missed them. I looked them up (the Dachora) and I feel very confident that I never saw one of them. Granted, I didn’t explore everywhere and was rushing through a lot of the areas, so maybe I just missed them altogether. Space and wall jumping also seemed slightly delayed. Like, instead of hitting the jump button as soon as Samus touched a wall to jump again, you had to wait a split second for one frame of her foot to change, so it was more difficult than most other wall jumping mechanics I’ve tried. These are very minor complaints about a game that is approaching its 30th anniversary, so don’t take them too seriously. I loved my time with Super Metroid and was fully stoked for…

Metroid Dread

Having just played Super Metroid, I was immediately struck by how familiar Dread felt. There were two Metroid games released on the NES before Super Metroid came out on the SNES, but you’d be forgiven for not knowing that given how often every subsequent Metroid game was compared to its SNES forebearer. It’s clear that Nintendo wants to be faithful to that template, and I don’t blame them. Despite the Prime trilogy’s success in moving the series to a 3D perspective, Super Metroid’s legendary status seems to be something fans want to revisit in the 2D titles. Having finally played it, I can understand why. Dread captures much of what I loved about Super Metroid, irons out the couple of wrinkles, and delivers a more easily digestible (and arguably more fleshed out) story via cutscenes and voice acting. I loved Samus in Super Metroid, but she has so much more attitude and personality in Dread. Her poses are so deliberate, her head movement and gestures are subtle but full of emotion, and the final scene was so incredibly badass and cathartic.

Cathartic might seem like an odd word choice, especially given my limited experience with the series, but let me explain. With how long the Metroid series has been around, I’ve had many plot points from previous games spoiled. I knew that a lone baby Metroid becomes attached to Samus and views her as a motherly figure, and given that the baby isn’t present in later games I had a feeling that it probably died. None of that seemed to prepare me to actually play through that scenario. I was so excited when I ran into the baby Metroid near the end of Super Metroid. Maybe because it was a “baby,” and seemed to want to follow me, I was instantly enamored with it. I love (most) baby animals and creatures, so the idea of having a “pet” or “baby” Metroid was very appealing. I’d known this little parasite for but a moment and I was in love. Yes. Give me all of the baby Metroids. So, when it swooped in during my seemingly impossible and highly frustrating boss fight against Mother Brain, saving my life, I got misty-eyed. My little, strong baby, stepping in to save me and bestow me with great powers. My heart. And then that bitch-ass, shit-eating Mother Brain killed it. She killed my baby. I was furious. Should I have been? Well, that’s subjective, I guess. This was my first Metroid game, so these characters were new to me, and (as I said) I had barely just met the baby Metroid – but the feelings came, regardless. I was so sad to lose my new baby friend, and so angry that Mother Brain had done so callously and with great malice. I relished the opportunity to use my newfound Metroid powers to murder Mother Brain in kind.

Samus’ Metroid DNA is a huge part of the Metroid Dread story, and although I haven’t played any of the games between Super Metroid and Dread, I can’t help but imagine that some of that DNA must come from my poor, sweet baby Metroid’s gift of power near the end of Super Metroid. Regardless of whether it’s canon, in my head I was carrying the death of my Metroid baby with me, infused in my DNA. So, when Samus scream in fury and transforms into a beastly Metroid-infused hybrid and blasts away the final boss… I felt like my baby Metroid was with me, helping me once again. I should also mention the EMMIs, which I really liked. They weren’t as pervasive as I’d expected, but that was a good thing. I wasn’t looking forward to being stressed out constantly, so only having to quickly navigate the EMMI zones was fine. Also, I think the EMMIs highlight the great level design. Every EMMI is the same in terms of powers and abilities, so the methods you employ to take them down don’t change with each new EMMI. What does change is the level design, and thus your strategy to employ those methods. It takes some time to blast away the EMMI’s face shield, then charge a shot, aim, and hit their weak spot. In order to have that time, you need to evade the EMMI and find a spot that will give you the time you need. With the first EMMI, they give you a nice, long, straight platform. By the later EMMIs, the zones are designed so that you have to evade a lot and keep an eye out for an area that might work. You might find one, set up and start blasting as soon as the EMMI rounds the edge of a platform, only to find that you’re just shy and have to perform a counter to evade again and find a new spot. It was very thrilling. Speaking of the counters, the sensation of landing one of those successfully is amazing. It’s one of those video game chef’s kiss moments that just feel so good. Overall, as with Super Metroid, I loved my time with Dread.

Metroid: Samus Returns

I loved my time with Dread so much, in fact, that in the middle of playing it I went and looked to find other Metroid games to buy. I am, I guess you might say, a Metroid convert. Well, not really a convert, since I never hated it. Maybe a newly minted Metroid devotee? A baby Metroid fan, if you will. See what I did there? Because I’m a fan of the baby Metroid… and I’m also… never mind. Anyway, I already have the original Metroid and Metroid Fusion (thanks, 3DS Ambassador Program!), so I ended up getting Metroid: Samus Returns, since it is a remake of the second game in the series and one of the more recent entries. I was a little concerned about playing an intense platformer with potentially tough boss fights on my 3DS, with the shoulder buttons being in a position that makes my hands feel weird, but I barely noticed that. What I did notice was the similarities to Dread, which make sense given that they were made by the same developer just four years apart.

All Samus Returns screenshots taken from: https://www.gamestop.com/video-games/3ds/products/metroid-samus-returns—nintendo-3ds/10149393.html

Much of what I loved about Super Metroid and Dread was present here, too. The beautiful backgrounds and environments, the haunting, eerie music, the responsive controls and carefully considered level design, and the generally immersive, addictive atmosphere. After three Metroid games, I feel like I can say that one of my favorite things about the series is the boss fights. The enemy design and combat are great, sure, but I think the developers have done a great job with difficulty balancing. In all three games, I found myself in similar boss fight situations: enter a room, get absolutely demolished by the boss, wonder if I’ve ever played a video game before as I softly weep to myself, try again and get crushed again, consider the possibility that this boss is impossible and these developers should die, try again and start to get the first couple of wave patterns, die a few more times as I get better and better, then beat the boss and feel like a superhero and the best gamer in the history of the world. I loved that most bosses seemed so hard at first because it made the victory so rewarding. I kind of rushed through Super Metroid, so I think I got something like 45% of the collectables but didn’t feel particularly compelled to get the rest. I got 50% of them in Dread but was also pretty satisfied with that number. Somewhere in the middle of Samus Returns, I realized I wanted to extend my time with the game and get all of the collectables, so I 100%ed this one. I’m so glad I’m finally Team Metroid. I love these games.

Halo 4

As with Metroid Dread, I felt a need to play older Halo games that I’d missed prior to jumping into Halo Infinite. I’d played the first three Halo games and liked or loved them all, to some extent. Halo 3 was my favorite, and I played a ton of it, so playing Halo 4 seemed like a given when it first launched. I can’t recall why, but I passed on it when it came out. It might have been in the two-year window where I had mostly stopped gaming because I was busy with school, or the concern about the studio switch from Bungie to 343, or any number of other factors, I guess. I did end up buying it at some point, but it’s sat on my backlog along with Halo 5 Guardians, which I also purchased at some point (but wouldn’t play until I’d played 4, for obvious reasons). One of the most interesting things (to me) about playing Halo 4 was the controls. I’d played a fair amount of the Halo Infinite multiplayer before diving into 4, and those controls seemed so intuitively Halo to me that when I played 4, with its slightly outdated and uncustomizable controls, I kept making mistakes and crouching when I meant to melee and reloading when I meant to throw a grenade. It wasn’t a deal breaker, but it just felt weird.

I played the Master Chief Collection version of the game, so it looked amazing. I was frequently impressed with the graphics, the sound design was as solid as always, and some nostalgic gaming itch was scratched when I woke up on a spaceship in distress, having to procure weapons and fight my way out. The reason I’m most happy that I played it before Infinite, though, is that this entry seems critical in terms of Cortana’s storyline. I’ll talk about why I was so glad when I talk about Infinite, but I enjoyed the plot wrinkle of Cortana having to deal with the concept of death.

Halo 5: Guardians

Halo 5 seems to be a controversial entry in the series, as I’ve heard that so many fans were deeply disappointed in the campaign. In terms of gameplay and fun, I thought it was great. The presentation (graphics, production, actors, etc.) was above and beyond the previous entries. It seemed clear that this was meant to be a much “bigger,” even more mainstream addition to the overall story of Halo. The controls were modernized, and the addition of the ability to mount ledges was very cool. I had a ton of fun with the game overall, though I can see why hardcore Halo fans were probably disappointed in it. The story of Halo had always followed Master Chief and Cortana, so when the narrative is shifted so dramatically to where they’re more like side characters in a grander story, it was probably jarring and unwelcome. Pair that with Cortana’s switch to galactic villain, after the previous game further made her into a close, intimate partner for Chief, and I can see why fans were upset. Still, I did have a hell of a time playing it, and I think the knowledge that I was immediately going to play Infinite after and get a resolution to the Chief/Cortana story made it not feel quite so severe.

Halo Infinite

My time with Halo Infinite involves the online mode and the campaign, so let me start with the online multiplayer, which was available first. Halo 3 was one of the few games that I really, really got into online, and I played a whole lot of it. I was just shy of the rank of Staff Captain and had almost 500 ranked matched under my belt. My time with the Infinite multiplayer is giving me the same kind of magical feels that Halo 3 did. Part of it might be that I have/had a dedicated group of friends to play with, but I also feel like the matches are just fun. It took a while to get back into the rhythm of playing Halo online, though. When we first started playing, I did what I do in most shooters: try to shoot people to death. The problem in a Halo game is that it’s designed to force you to think creatively because of the shields. If you’re very accurate and you get the jump on someone, you can take them down with just your rifle or pistol. That rarely happens, though, so you must get into the habit of using your weapon to down their shield and then either switching to a secondary weapon, getting close enough for melee, or hitting them with a grenade to finish them off. When you get in the rhythm, it feels so good. I played a match the other day where I went 17-3 (rare for me) and everything was just clicking. I had at least three kills where I use a clip of my assault rifle to down their shield, then switched to my pistol and finished them off. I felt like such a badass, heh. It can also (often) not go right, and it’s frustrating to feel like you’re always a second shy of winning every faceoff you get into. Either way, I’ve been having a blast online. I do wish the battle pass rewards were better and more frequent. They break every aspect of appearance into numerous items, so it takes forever to unlock a small component of an armor set that you might not even use. Still, I see a great many more matches in my future.

As for the campaign, I really loved it. The open world was a little sparser than I’m used to from modern open world games, and many of the activities just involved killing enemies or grabbing something, but that was fine. I still enjoyed zipping around with the Grapple Shot, clearing out FOBs, and finding Spartan Cores or multiplayer cosmetics. The story is what I really appreciated, though. This entry returns to the classic Chief-centered adventure involving Cortana. I really liked his new AI companion, Weapon, and this is where my previous note about being glad I played 4 and 5 comes in. I’ll throw an extra [SPOILER] tag up, since this game is still so new. The Weapon’s reaction to finding out she was a copy of Cortana hit me so hard. She was genuinely hurt when Chief tried to delete her as a safety measure, since he had failed to do so to Cortana, and in this moment, she was confronted with the reason why, and her emotional response was powerful. Add to it Cortana’s final goodbye, near the very end of the game, and I was a misty-eyed mess. These moments wouldn’t have been nearly as impactful if I hadn’t played Halo 4 and 5 just before, so I am very happy that I did. The ending wasn’t nearly as final as I was expecting, which is good. I am ready for more Chief and Weapon adventures.

Life is Strange: True Colors

I loved Life is Strange and Before the Storm, and really liked Life is Strange 2, so I was very excited for this game, especially because they finally ditched the episodic release schedule of the previous entries. I think the nostalgia and charm of the first game and its characters keeps it my favorite in the series, but True Colors comes close to unseating it. While the story wasn’t quite as epic and dramatic as the other games, it felt more focused and grounded. It felt shorter but tighter, narratively. I love the smalltown Colorado setting, and the characters were great.

One of the things I appreciated most about this entry was the range of emotions you encounter throughout the game. In the previous games, it felt like a one-way street in terms of plot development and tone: they started cheery and “normal,” then became darker and darker as the story progressed and more supernatural elements were introduced. It was all justified by the narratives, but it was kind of a bummer. By the end of Life is Strange 2 I was just sad. True Colors does so much more with emotion and jumps around a lot, which made it feel more dynamic and satisfying. I loved the soundtrack, the chapter where you play out an epic, town-wide LARP game, and overall I thought the story, choices, and ending(s) were great.

Before Your Eyes

I’m going to go light on the spoilers with this one, because it’s a short and narrative-heavy game, but it’s going to be difficult to talk about my reaction without giving anything away. Before Your Eyes is a short and relatively inexpensive game ($9.99 regularly on Steam, currently on sale for $5.99), so if you have any interest in playing it, I’d recommend to just avoid my (and other people’s) thoughts and just play it. This is the kind of story that’s most impactful without a heads up about what’s coming. Having said that, let me first talk about the “gimmick” of controlling the game by blinking your eyes. If you haven’t heard of this game, it’s a narrative indie game that uses your webcam to detect blinks, advancing the story every time you blink. I thought that this meant that if you didn’t blink, a scene may play on for many minutes, but that’s not the case. Scenes are mostly contained and very deliberate in what they are showing you. If you just stare, refusing to blink, the dialogue will end and you’ll find yourself just watching someone looking out to sea, or someone doing the dishes, for a long time. So that made it feel less gimmicky to me, because it wasn’t about the novelty, it was still about the story. It worked really well, in terms of implementation, too. There was maybe one or two times where the scene advanced and I didn’t feel like I blinked, but it accurately registered my eye motion a vast majority of the time.

Beyond the blinking mechanic, which I think is such a cool, novel way of involving the player in a story about memory, the story just crushed me. As I said, I won’t get into specific spoilers, but broadly speaking the narrative takes a turn at a certain point and I found it very difficult to avoid blinking with all the tears spilling from my eyes. This sadness was different than the sadness that I felt at the end of, say, Life is Strange 2, where after hours of trauma and horror, I just felt drained. Before Your Eyes is such a short experience that I walked away weirdly thrilled by how much it moved me. I’m no stranger to crying during video games, but it’s rare that I’m struck by the kind of emotion that overcame me with the ending to this game. I don’t watch many streamers nowadays, but this is the kind of game that I’d love to see people play, so maybe I’ll have to look up some reaction videos.

C14 Dating

I’d picked this game up on a whim during a sale, and it took me a bit to get into, but I was mostly pleasantly surprised by it. It’s a dating sim that puts you in the role of Melissa, a young student who attends a summer research trip to Belgium. I was all in for the dating sim part, but when the game introduced a social management system and an archeological dig puzzle, I was worried that they would distract from the dating.

Not so (besides, you can turn the puzzles off if you want to). The digging puzzles turned out to be pretty fun, and the social management stuff was inobtrusive and also kind of fun in its own way. I don’t know why, but I really like journals in games, so that helped. Some dating sims can really drag on with too much dialog, but I found the pace of this game to be solid, and as a former wannabe geologist, I appreciated the many geology/archaeology puns throughout. Even the title is a pun (C14 dating is carbon dating)!

The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes

As a big Until Dawn fan, I’ve been chasing that high with every new Supermassive release. I was very disappointed in Man of Medan, I liked Little Hope enough to get the platinum trophy for it, and House of Ashes was… somewhere in between. I’m a fan of the photorealistic graphics of these games, and this game doesn’t disappoint in that arena. The characters and environments look great. The setting was hit or miss for me, though. Isolated cabin in the woods? Yes. Ghost ship. I can dig it. Abandoned witch town? Aw yeah. Caves and ancient ruins? I guess? It’s not bad, but it was my least favorite of the series’ settings, especially given the military angle as well. As a veteran, it was hard not to be distracted by some of the silly mistakes, given that most of the presentation seemed to strive for realism (supernatural/alien elements aside, of course). Eric is way too young to be a Lt. Col. It’s highly doubtful the other soldiers/Marines would speak to such a high-ranking officer in the way that they did right off the bat, too. There was one of those terribly incorrect military salutes at one point. Again, I know it’s silly to get caught up on stuff like that, but it was distracting.

I didn’t hate the game, though. I didn’t even dislike it. I just had some minor problems. I found the moral choices to be fairly solid (though they still do that annoying thing where they seem to deliberately imply that you should make a choice that ends up being the wrong one), the story was pretty interesting, and I thought the twist was pretty cool. There was one thing I did want to touch on, though, because I haven’t seen anyone mention it. There is what certainly seems like digital brown face in the game. The character of General Dar is an Iraqi general, voiced by a Canadian actor of Egyptian descent who speaks fluent Arabic. The character model, however, is of a white actor – the same one used for the character of John in Little Hope. I get needing to reuse assets to get these games out as frequently as they do, but there’s something about using a white actor and just changing the color of their skin to make them another nationality that feels wrong. That and my previous quibbles aside, I mostly had fun with House of Ashes and look forward to the next Dark Pictures installment.

Nekopara Vol. 1 and 2

Like C14 Dating, I nabbed these games for very cheap during a PlayStation Store sale. I seem to buy a lot of visual novels when they’re super cheap and then never play them. Well, I had family staying with me recently and I was looking for PS4 games that I could passively play in my room while they slept in the living room, where my primary consoles are. The Nekopara games seemed like good candidates. I like the anime art style, and because they’re straight up visual novels I could just put them on auto and journal or do other things while I watched them in bed. The story was more interesting than I’d expected, and I really liked the “E-mote” animation system. It made the art so much more dynamic. I knew that the games were sexual in nature, but when I got to the first scene with nudity, I was surprised by how heavily edited it was. I also have the games for Steam (got them in a visual novel bundle in a previous Steam sale), so I decided to see just how heavily censored the PlayStation version was.

And, let me tell you, they are heavily censored, especially if the 18+ patch is installed on Steam. In the PlayStation version, when you become intimate with a cat girl, you… kiss. That’s it. There is at least one nude scene, but it’s heavily censored. In the 18+ version, there is graphic, animated sex. I was shocked. Not in the bad way, mostly. I like sexy games, when they’re good. But I will say that the question of age in these relationships is kind of weird. These are “cat girls,” so they age differently than humans, but it seems heavily implied that these girls are maybe too young to be having sex with their owner. The fact that he is their “owner,” too, and calls them his “daughters” struck me as a little icky. I’m guessing it’s part of the appeal of these kinds of stories for some people, but it felt a little off to me. Still, I like the art and story, and I’m all for pervy sex games, so I’ll probably finish the series.

Lake

I was very excited for Lake after seeing it in one of the indie showcases at E3 earlier in 2021. It looked like a perfect fall game. Cozy, quaint, and charming. I think the phrase I used to describe it when it came out was “good, but rough around the edges.” There were some pretty significant bugs at launch, including one that prevented me from continuing the game until it was patched. Some of the character movement and action prompts seemed loose or glitchy as well. The story, of a woman who takes a break from her high stress IT job to deliver mail for her dad in their hometown, was good. I really enjoyed getting to know the characters of this small town, though I was left wanting more. There seemed to be some stories or things in the world that may have been meant for something and were never mentioned again. You meet a character who says she’s the town mechanic and will fix your mail truck whenever you need, for example. This is pretty standard telegraphing in video games/storytelling. Now you know who to go to when you need to repair your truck later. But that time never comes, so why include that line? It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to think that vehicle repair was supposed to be included at some point but was dropped.

So, the story and writing were good (if a bit unpolished), but the thing I really wanted more of was delivering the mail. You start each day with a number of letters or packages, then you just drive around and drop them off. It’s so simple yet so satisfying. It’s the core of the gameplay, so I imagine the relaxing, rewarding nature is meant to play into the big decision you make at the end of the game – to stay in this small town and keep delivering mail, or go back to your big city IT job. Which is great and all, but when you make a mechanic that’s so satisfying, why not give players the option to do more of it? I really wanted an endless mail delivery mode. I chose to stay in the small town, so I was somewhat disappointed when the game didn’t allow me to keep delivering mail after the end credits. Maybe they’ll patch it in later, or make a sequel that’s just called Mail, where that’s all you do is deliver mail. That would be nice.

Deathloop

I wasn’t all that excited for Deathloop until it was close to release, but the prospect of a pop-in-pop-out stealth espionage game got the best of me and I got it day one. None of my friends played beyond the opening of the game, though, and I was too nervous to open the multiplayer to strangers, so I ended up never having the (reportedly) thrilling experience of chasing or being chased by a friend as you/they tried to complete campaign levels. I still really enjoyed the campaign, though. It felt to me like the ultimate evolution of old school FPSs. After Halo, Medal of Honor, and Call of Duty, shooters took a very cinematic, guided turn, which I’m certainly not complaining about. But if you’d asked me in 2001, after playing games like GoldenEye 007, Perfect Dark, TimeSplitters, etc., to predict what an FPS produced in 2021 would look like, it would be Deathloop. There are so many facets that remind me of old school console shooters, like sneaking around unique areas, listening in on guard chatter, trying different approaches and weapons with the same levels again and again, quirky bosses who have specific routines, and more. The level design, which allows for numerous paths through and approaches to every level, was a great addition to the classic mix, and the overall presentation was stellar. I was happy that Maggie Robertson won the award for best performance at the (dumb) Game Awards for her performance as Lady Dimitrescu, but Jason Kelley and Ozioma Akagha’s performances as Cole and Julianna, respectively, were amazing. I loved their personalities and wanted even more interactions between them. The story was interesting, though it felt a bit disjointed, and the end was fairly disappointing, but after the first handful of hours or so I really got into the gameplay and, overall, had a lot of fun.

Far Cry 6

I was late to the Far Cry fandom, but I really liked my time with Far Cry 4, 5, and New Dawn. I know people complain about Ubisoft open worlds and the plethora of activities and collectables contained within, but I am such a fan of how well designed and crafted these worlds are. In terms of environmental variance, realism (geological features and topography), and tiny details, Ubisoft worlds are top-tier, so I always love exploring and experiencing the massive, beautiful landscapes. The island setting in 6 was beautiful and enchanting, and the cast of characters in this installment is probably my favorite of the games I’ve played. El Tigre! Everyone in the game was so mean to my Dani that I was initially suspicious of El Tigre’s motivations. He quickly became my favorite person to see at base camps, though, because he always greeted me warmly and really believed in me.

I also really liked Jonron. Mostly because of her abs. I’m kidding! She was very fun and friendly, and she was very athletic and cute. I also really liked the amigos. They were all great in their own way, but I stuck with the adorable, clumsy lil croc Guapo for most of the game – until, that is, I got Oluso. I have a black cat whom I love with all my heart, so when I found Oluso, a magical black panther who sneaks around and poofs enemies into the nether when she pounces on them, I was in love. She never left my side, and I wished that I’d had her with me from the start. Add the series’ typical solid gunplay, an interesting and well-acted story, and lots of fun activities and collectables, and I had a great time with the latest entry in the long-standing Far Cry series.

Sakura Succubus 3

Much of what I wrote about the first two entries carries over here, so I won’t retread too much. Like Nekopara, I played this on PlayStation first, then tried it on Steam. It’s more explicit on Steam, but not to the extent of Nekopara. The story is contrived and silly, but I dig it. The writing is mediocre, but I really like the art, though Nekopara has maybe spoiled me because now I want all of my static 2D characters to be animated in some way. Still, I can’t deny that I’ve enjoyed the Sakura Succubus games to this point.

Pantsu Hunter: Back to the 90s

This game looked so weird and, frankly, bad, that I had to snatch it up when I saw it on deep discount during a PSN sale. It’s a point-and-click adventure game where you do various things to try and collect panties from several women’s apartments. It is… very weird and bad. But in a good way! The writing is so bad and poorly translated and the main character is terribly problematic, but the (also bad) limited voice acting, dumb scenarios, and retro art style was strangely charming. Kind of a so-bad-it’s-good thing.

For example: in one scenario, if you decide to sit down in a chair in the kitchen, you die. You just die. Later, in a different scenario, you find a story that describes a local legend in which a woman’s husband is unfaithful and she orders a chair from a place that reportedly makes furniture for women who’ve been scorned by men. This mysterious company takes a while to get your furniture to you, but when it arrives it’s covered in a thin layer of poison that is undetectable and only harmful to men. The woman in the story (who is obviously the woman whose apartment you visited earlier in the game) breaks up with her boyfriend long before getting her freshly poisoned chair, so by the time she gets it she forgets all about the poison. That, apparently, is when you show up and decide to sit on it, dying instantly with much confusion. So, thanks to silly stories like that and a b-movie level of camp, I actually found myself liking this game. I wouldn’t say it’s good, exactly, but I had fun with it.

Dead by Daylight

As a huge horror fan, I’d been hoping to play Dead by Daylight for a long time. As soon as they started partnering with classic horror franchises like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Silent Hill, and more, I was in. It’s an online multiplayer game, though, and I didn’t know anyone who played it. Enter Halloween 2021 and some friends who were looking for spooky games to play. We only played a handful of times, and it’s not a perfect game, but I thought our time with it was pretty fun. I especially liked being the killer, of course. Creeping around menacingly as Freddy Krueger, chasing my terrified friends into corners and slashing them to bits… that makes me sound a little disturbed, but if you’ve played it, you probably know that thrill. As a survivor, I found myself genuinely yelping a few times when a friend rounded the corner as the killer or found me hiding behind a bush. I wasn’t into it enough to continue playing online with strangers, but I had fun with my time hiding and slicing.

Radiohead: Kid A Mnesiac Exhibition

I am a big (if lapsed) Radiohead fan. Their early albums were a huge part of my teen years and are inextricably included in the soundtrack to my life. I haven’t kept up with them recently, but I still love their classic albums, especially OK Computer, Kid A, and Amnesiac, the latter two serving as the inspiration for this virtual art exhibit. There is no “game” to play, but exploring the many different rooms and exhibitions was very cool. The way they play with graphics, perspective, and sound is not easy to describe, and given that it’s free I’d just recommend anyone vaguely interested to just check it out for yourself. I’ll share just two key moments from my time, though, to give you a sense of what to expect. The entire museum or “exhibition” is made up of existing art and music assets from the Kid A and Amnesiac albums (thus the name), and many rooms are dedicated to one or more tracks from those albums.

“The National Anthem” is one of my favorite Radiohead songs, so of course I rushed into that room when I saw it. There were a few Radiohead bear characters standing around, looking at walls of televisions showing album art or other weird things. I could hear “The National Anthem” playing, but it was low and incomplete. There was a translucent, triangular column in the center of the room, which looked to be filled with some kind of amniotic fluid. As I stepped into it, the bass from the track kicked in and the song felt so much fuller and more alive. When I stepped out, it stopped.

There was also a room where a very large painting seemed to float in space in the distance. I walked toward it and, as I did, I realized that the painting was made up of thousands of what I might call 3D rendered pixels. The “pixels” that made up the flat-looking 2D image were actually long shafts of color that I then walked through. There is also a part where you enter and walk through the iconic cover art for Kid A, which was trippy. There were a number of other moments that would be difficult to describe, so if you’re interested in art, Radiohead, or just cool interactive experiences, I’d say just give it a look. It’s free, after all.

Mario Party Superstars

Some of my fondest multiplayer memories are of me and my friends Ron, Gari, and Tina playing the first three Mario Party games. We rented them often, playing for hours and even briefly adopting nicknames based on our character of choice. Mine was, of course, Peach, which is a part of where my love for that character stems from. What we loved about these games is that skill only counted to an extent. Ron and I were the big gamers in the group, so we had an unfair advantage in some of the multiplayer games we’d play. The Mario Party games even the playing field to an extent, because some of the minigames are less skill based than others (and some are outright based on chance), plus the games randomly give out stars at the end based on bizarre things that are usually out of your control, like how many Bowser spaces you land on. So, while Ron and I would dominate in some of the minigames, many of them were totally up in the air, especially when the game would pair us off in a 2 vs 2 or 3 vs 1 game. We had so much fun.

I’ve liked or loved most of the Mario Party games since, but I will say I was very disappointed with Mario Party 9 and 10, and also pretty unimpressed with 8. Super Mario Party for the Switch is pretty decent, but with no online play I’ve had little opportunity to play it. I played it by myself for a bit, but it’s never the same. Luckily, I’ve had lots of opportunities to play Mario Party Superstars with friends online, and this collection of boards and minigames from the first three entries (I think some of the minigames are taken from later entries, too) has fully restored my love for Mario Party. The game looks great, too, which is something I haven’t thought about the series in a while. I do wish there were even more boards, but hopefully they’ll fix that with DLC. Either way, I’ve had such a blast playing this game with friends. Peach is the Party Star, babyyyyy.

The Matrix Awakens

This “game” is a demo for Unreal Engine 5, and it begins with an intro that features the voice and likeness (both real and digital) of Keanu Reeves (as himself and Neo) and Carrie Ann Moss, then puts you in the shoes of a new character that helps Trinity evade pursuing agents by shooting them, vehicle tires, and a helicopter as Trinity speeds along a crowded highway. Eventually you’re free to explore this seemingly fictional city, walking, driving, or flying a drone around to look at the bustling metropolis. Many people have commented on the ability to look at various layers of the city, like surface mapping, lighting, the ability to increase/decrease population, etc.

These tools are cool and all, but I was mostly curious about how they made the city, in terms of building/road placement. I don’t remember reading that it was procedurally generated, but the placement of some of the buildings was odd and unrealistic. This is not a dig, necessarily. It made me think that the engine gave you the ability to sort of “paint” buildings into a city, with the engine placing them in somewhat reasonable places that you could then go in and tweak. That would be a pretty cool feature that would make city-building so much easier than what I imagine it’s like now.

13 Sentinels Aegis Rim

This is the game I’m currently playing, and I knew very little about it going in. I knew it was made by Atlus, who I love, it was an RPG, which I love, and had cover art in a visual style that, yes, I love. As it turns out, the whole game is in that 2D water color-esque style, and it’s so lovely. The characters are 2D and the narrative environments are kind of 2.5D in that they are mostly 2D but you can walk a little to the front and back of the space. The characters look hand sketched/painted, and their avatars, while made up of 2D static art, are also animated, making them look like paintings come to life. So far, the thing I like most about the game is just appreciating every new environment and character I come across. I really love the game’s art style so far.

The story, up to the point that I’ve played (I’m about 6 hours in and nearing the end of the “tutorial” segment) seems to be a cross between Neon Genesis Evangelion (high schoolers piloting giant mechs to defend Japan from kaiju) and Terminator (time travel as a means to avoid future catastrophe), but there is more at play, I’m sure. In the short time I’ve played there have been a ton of fun cultural references, too, like E.T., The X-Files, Men in Black, Godzilla, and more. I was also so happy to hear familiar voice actors from the Persona games (Xanthe Huynh, Cassandra Lee Morris, Laura Post). The combat is grid-based strategy, which is usually hit-or-miss for me. So far, the battles have been very easy, so as long as they remain intuitive and not too frustrating, I’ll be good. I’ve really liked what I’ve played so far, so hopefully I’ll have time to write about it more when I finish it.

And that wraps up 2021 for me. 2022 is set to be a huge year for gaming, if the release schedule holds firm. Starfield, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild 2, Horizon Forbidden West, Elden Ring, God of War Ragnarok, Saints Row, PS VR 2, and more? I’m going to have to find time to write more regularly.

A Summer of Reflection

Welp, between finishing up a summer semester, spinning up two fall courses, keeping up with the podcast, and, well, life, I haven’t had as much time to write here. That little voice has been nagging at me, though. “Why haven’t you posted?” “If you wait too long, there will be too much to catch up on.” “You are a worthless human being.” “Remember that time in third grade when you were in library class and everyone was lined up against the walls for an activity and you felt sick but the library teacher wouldn’t let you go to the bathroom so you threw up in front of everyone and then the teacher yelled at you to go to the bathroom so you ran out of the room and were puking as you ran down the hallway, legs spread wide to avoid the vomit?” Okay, voice, I get it, I’ll write an update post.

The truth is, I’ve been replaying some not-so-old favorites, so I haven’t exactly felt the same kind of pull to document my thoughts. When I play a new game, I like to write about it to sort through and preserve my initial feelings about it. That was the primary reason for starting this blog, after all. Much of this summer has been spent with familiar friends. I replayed the entire trilogy in Mass Effect Legendary Edition, Final Fantasy VII Remake, I got the platinum trophy for Arcade Spirits and Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!, and I’m currently playing the new Quake remaster and Persona 5 Royal. Yes, again. Get off my case. I have played some new games, like Microsoft Flight Simulator and Mario Golf: Super Rush, but I’ve mostly felt empowered for the first time in a long time to go back and replay older games this summer. It probably sounds silly, to some extent. I can do what I want with my time and I’m not required to keep up with the latest releases due to my job, so what’s the big deal about replaying old games? Well, for me, it’s our old, dear friend: anxiety.

Everyone’s anxiety manifests itself in different ways, and it’s only been in these last couple of years that I’ve come to know my own. One of my manifestations is the need to move forward, always. I think grad school is partly to blame for this, with its insistence that you are always working, studying, being “productive.” Internally, I’d look at all the things I haven’t done and feel ill. How many books should I read to be considered an expert on something? How many movies have I not yet seen? How many video games? Checklists of things formed in my subconscious. If I checked a box, meaning I read, watched, or played something new, I felt a sense of accomplishment. I was making progress. I was growing, learning, being some form of “productive.” Conversely, the thought of revisiting something made me feel anxious. I would have an urge to rewatch a favorite movie and immediately squash it. It felt wasteful when there were so many movies I hadn’t seen yet. The same for games, so for the first time in a long time I was actually keeping up with new releases, not out of a desire to be “in the conversation,” but to check those sweet, sweet, internal boxes.

Something changed this summer, though, and it makes me hopeful that all of the work I’ve put into addressing my issues with anxiety is paying off. When Mass Effect Legendary Edition was announced, I was as excited as anyone. But I worried that I would buy it at release, then just not touch it for months. When my friends said that they, too, were planning on playing it at launch, I had more of a reason to force myself to play it. I was happily surprised, then, that I felt no stress or anxiety when I booted it up. Just the rosy glow of nostalgia. Playing through the recently released Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade should have been even more likely to cause me stress, because I just played through that game last year. Nope. I played through the story again, plus the new content, and I never felt rushed or guilty. And so the summer went. I feel ready for the new flood of games coming this fall, but I’m glad I spent my summer revisiting old favorites. I don’t have time to write about my time with these games in-depth, but here are some “brief” little tidbits.

Microsoft Flight Simulator

I finally have a game for my Xbox Series X! When I saw the trailer for this game at E3 2019, I was so excited by the idea of being able to fly anywhere in the world, which is rendered in its entirety using Microsoft’s Bing Maps and Azure AI. That idea, that I could fly over places both foreign and familiar, was too cool to pass up. I didn’t have a PC that could handle it, but when it was announced for the Xbox Series X, I knew I had to have it. And I do. And it’s great. Well, the tutorial could use some work. They walk you through a series of simple tasks to familiarize you with flight controls, navigation, takeoff and landing, and more. But this is a complex game, and they sometimes just leave steps out. So I would be in the middle of a tutorial, following every step they walked me through, then a prompt would pop up like “flip the clapback switch before throwing it back” and I’m like “uh, the what switch? Did we cover that? Where is it?” I eventually got the basics down, enough to fly pretty well with some of the game’s assists on.

And that’s how I like to play the game. I tried flying without any assists and almost immediately got an alarm about mixed fuel, which we never covered in the tutorial. I was like nope, no thanks, I’m okay with using assists. That first flight was exhilarating, though. I wasn’t sure how I’d fare on my own for the first time, so I charted a flight path that departed from and returned to an airport in eastern Australia. I took off, cruised north along the coast, looked out at the beautiful city and scenery, and returned for landing. It was a simple thing, but also thrilling. It reminded me of the first time I flew in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It was the first big, open-world game I’d played where you could find a plane, hop in, take off, and land somewhere else, all with no loading screens. I found a crop duster, got up to speed on a dirt airstrip, and took off. The plane wobbled so much and I was sure I’d crash it, but I got it under control, flew to a nearby beach, and landed safely. There is something about that experience that really hits me. It somehow feels more “real” than so many other video game experiences. It did then, and it does now, in Microsoft Flight Simulator.

I’ve logged a little over 100 hours so far, mostly spent visiting places I’ve lived or places I want to go. I took off from Maxwell Air Force Base, where I was stationed for most of my time in the Air Force, I visited Chicago and looked for my first high school, flew over the places I’d visited on my road trip to the West Coast, skimmed the naval base in Bahrain, and more. My second flight was from a grass field less than two miles from my house to a small airport in Storm Lake, Iowa, where my friend just moved to. The buildings, roads, and other land features aren’t perfectly rendered, but they’re mostly recognizable. I could very easily make out the buildings I worked in at Maxwell AFB but my house and the courthouse I currently live behind are virtually non-existent, for example. Still, I am really digging the ability to visit places like Japan, England, Africa, and more, especially because I have no idea when I’ll get to do so in reality. I look forward to many more hours in the sky with this one.

Mario Golf: Super Rush

I was so excited for Mario Golf: Super Rush. Like Microsoft Flight Simulator, I was surprised by how hyped I was when it was announced earlier this year. It had been a while since I’d played a Mario Golf game, and I recently got back into Everybody’s Golf, which is so much fun. Ultimately, I’m pretty disappointed by it. To be fair, it’s not like I’ve played a ton of it yet. I’ve played through the tutorial, the first story match, and a few solo courses. I can see how this game might be fun with friends, but it’s not super satisfying to play solo (yet, anyway). My biggest complaint is how the game feels, which is subjective, of course. After having played so much of Everybody’s Golf, which has the exact perfect mix or realism and silly, cartoon fantasy for me, I don’t care for how intangible the ball and courses feel in Super Rush. When I hit a ball in EG, it looks, sounds, and feels like I hit a ball. The ball has depth and travels in a way that feels real. I look like a dopey, cartoon-y version of myself, and there is a big, silly mountain shaped like a man’s head in the far background, but the gameplay feels real enough to be satisfying.

When I hit a ball in Super Rush, it feels like I tapped a button and a flat, white dot is moving over a flat, colorful facsimile of a course. The ball doesn’t feel like it has weight or depth, so it ends up feeling like I’m playing one of those old school golf games on the NES or various handheld systems. I’m not looking for ultra realism here. I didn’t go into this expecting Tiger Woods: Mushroom Kingdom Edition. But when I look at how good the production values were for something like Mario Kart 8, I can’t help but want other Mario games to at least attempt that same level of polish and depth. I wanted a Mario Golf game with tons of fun characters and courses. The courses that I’ve played have mostly been uninspiring. The opening course in particular is dull and confusing. It’s supposed to be a beginner course, but why not have it be a Mushroom Kingdom course? And why are all the holes so tightly woven together? For the “Super Rush” mode? The Mario games have so, so many amazing levels that you could use for a golf game, but we see so little of that same inspired design here. I don’t mean to sound so negative, and I do still plan to continue giving this game a shot (maybe if I play with friends I’ll have a better time), but this was the first time I’d picked up my Switch in a while so the sting of disappointment was a little harsher than it might have been otherwise.

Fortnite

Speaking of disappointing, my friend Tab and I were very excited to attend the much-hyped Ariana Grande concert in Fortnite, but we walked away confused and a little underwhelmed. Neither of us would call ourselves Ariana Grande fans, but we’d heard so much hype about the Travis Scott Fortnite concert that we wanted to check out what seemed widely considered to be a true spectacle. It also gave me a chance to wear one of the [too many] awesome skins that I’ve bought over the last two years and have never touched. I chose my homegirl, Chun-Li.

The “concert” seemed like a recorded medley of music that played to pre-rendered/animated scenes with a large Ariana Grande moving through various colorful backgrounds. I guess I should have had my expectations in check, but I was expecting something like, oh I dunno, a concert? Not a music video. Still, the visuals were pretty cool and seeing a gigantic Ariana Grande stomping around was kind of fun. After a certain point, we were zapped back into the main map and weren’t sure if the concert was over. We were able to fly around and go through rings to collect points… but that was it. There was no indication of what was happening or whether or not the concert was over, and eventually we were just kicked from the server. It was a confusing and abrupt end to a dazzling but underwhelming “performance.” But, hey. I got to be Chun-Li and fly through a bunch of pink clouds and rainbows. I wouldn’t call it a complete waste of time.

Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!

I’ve written about Doki Doki Literature Club! in previous posts, and I’ll repeat what I’ve already said once again: If you haven’t played this game, it’s free on Steam so I encourage you to give it a shot. It defies expectations and challenges convention, so it’s best to go into it without any knowledge about the plot, themes, etc., which is why I’m always hesitant to talk about it in almost any capacity, regardless of overt spoilers. I will avoid those kinds of spoilers here, but if you have any shred of interest in a unique game that is made to surprise and provoke serious thought, don’t read anything else on it and just check it out.

Alright, preamble aside, I have not been shy about my love for this game, so when Dan Salvato tweeted that a deluxe, expanded edition of the game was coming to consoles, I pre-ordered a physical copy immediately. I paid for the pack of art and music that was released alongside the free Steam version of the core game back in the day, so I’ve already supported the dev team in that way, but this is the kind of game I want on my shelf. The cover art is beautiful, and I can’t wait to see the pack-in content (I played the digital version and am waiting for the physical edition to release). I won’t say much about the core game other than it was very fun to play through the game and get the platinum trophy in beautiful HD. The thing I want to comment on is some the new content that comes with this version of the game. The reveal announcement said there were “six side stories” that expand on each character’s personality and relationships more, but I think they undersold this content. What you get is more than “side stories” – you get a pretty thorough origin story for the club and every character. It’s hours of content, and it presents an expansive, substantial foundation for the core game. The core game still stand on its own just fine, but if you really want a full sense of these characters and the setting your character is walking into at the beginning of the core game, this added content is indispensable. I love this game even more now.

Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade

As with DDLC+!, I bought the PS5 version of Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade in part to play the new content, but also to experience a game I already love on my shinier, newer console. Playing through the core game with my old save file and stats was a breeze and allowed me to enjoy the story and enhanced graphics without having to worry about grinding or seeking out weapons/materia. I nabbed a few more trophies, like the one where you get Cloud, Tifa, and Aerith to each wear three different dresses during the Wall Market section of the game and the one where you defeat Bahamut and obtain his materia. Let me tell you, summoning a Bahamut later in the game, fighting some of the final bosses, was rad. And, of course, I spent more quality time with my number one FFVII bae, Jessie.

As for the new content, with Yuffie, I had a really good time with it. It wasn’t as impactful for me as the core game, of course, but I found the combo-based combat to be a lot easier and more enjoyable than I’d expected it to be. Yuffie was a very fun, cute, lovable character, and I thought her seemingly carefree attitude provided a ton of levity to the ending, which offered a look at the core game’s final moments from a different perspective. Somehow it felt even more heartbreaking from Yuffie’s point of view. I also liked some of the new characters introduced, the expanded look at characters from the core game, and I was very excited by the post-game scenes showing the main group from the core game leaving the city and traveling through the desert. It made the next installment feel so close, even if it is potentially still very far from release.

One Night Stand

One Night Stand is a short visual novel that puts you in the proverbial shoes of a man who has woken up in a stranger’s bed with no recollection of the night before. Through exploring the environment and talking to the bed’s owner, a young woman, you have to piece together the events of the previous evening and your relationship with this stranger. You can only choose to explore so many things each run (so, you might only get to investigate two of the eight or so items in her bedroom while she’s making you tea, then the story progresses), which means there are several paths through the game and multiple endings. These multiple paths aside, the main thing that distinguishes this game is its art style, which appears hand-drawn and rotoscoped. The game didn’t fully click with me, but I enjoyed it enough to play through all of the endings which didn’t take very long. There is some clever writing and a few funny bits, but I think the art style was, in part, why I didn’t get into it fully. Still, it was a pretty decent way to spend a few hours.

Arcade Spirits

I spent more than a few hours with the console release of Arcade Spirits, however. As with DDLC+!, I first played this game on PC and I loved the colorful cast of characters and fun retro game-themed storyline. It’s a silly, flirty game that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it was much lengthier than I’d expected. So, of course, when it released on consoles at the beginning of the summer, I yoinked it right from the PlayStation Store and decided to get the platinum trophy for it. This meant a considerable amount of replaying, but it allowed me to explore relationships with everyone. While I have yet to play a dating sim (or game with dating sim elements, like the Persona games) that really and truly makes the dating/relationship more of a focus than the story, Arcade Spirits comes closer than most. In Persona 5, for example, your relationship with your chosen partner is a very, very minor plot point that’s only explored in a few short scenes. In AS, scenes with your partner are written with a seriousness that gives a lot of weight to your decisions, and they feel more substantial.

I’d like more, of course, but I appreciate how deeply they allow you to explore these characters, regardless. Without spoiling too much, there is a character that’s struggling with gender identity issues, and I’d never have known that without dating them. The game is a fun, relatively “light” romp, but it does touch on some interesting social issues like gender and sexuality. I love the art style and character design, though I do hope there are more options in terms of main character appearance in the sequel. I appreciate that they allow you to make a character to vaguely fit any gender, but it winds up making every MC looks similar and not very much like the player. If I can name the character after myself and make choices about how I look, I want a character that looks more or less like me, and that’s not possible in this first game. That small quibble aside, I was more than happy to play this game multiple times through and spend more time with the crew at Quarter Up (the name I gave my arcade). I can’t wait for Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers, coming next year!

Sakura Succubus

I picked this game up in a PSN sale which, I have to say, have gotten so much better over the years – they went from the occasional 30% off discount to regular 30-70%+ discounts of games of all types, much like Steam sales. I’m here for it. I’m also here for the kinds of cheap, pervy dating sims that are also, like a good flash sale, making their way from Steam to PlayStation and other consoles. Having said that, this game was just alright. It wasn’t especially pervy and the writing was pretty terrible. I give developers a lot of credit, because by all accounts making any game is a long, difficult process. But writers have long been excluded from game making because, in part, everyone thinks they can write. You just come up with ideas and write them out, right? Why pay someone else to do that for you? Because, as we’ve seen throughout most of video game history, writing interesting, funny, rich, sexy, cool, etc. characters and compelling stories is not easy.

And, yes, maybe the player isn’t drawn to a game like this because of the story or characters. Maybe they just want to do some puzzles or, as is the case here, see some anime tiddies. And that’s fine. But why make your game less than when it could be more? You can have both. You can satisfy the tiddie lovers and players who appreciate a decent, charming, playful story. The writing in this game is bad on a story and sentence level, and it made me wish I had the opportunity to write games. I am a defender of smut, and I won’t say I didn’t enjoy this game at all, but I guess I just wish people took even smut more seriously. When we give into the narrative that sex-related media is “just smut,” it keeps sex and sexuality in the shadows, something that we should be ashamed of. To this day, games with sex in them are often scrutinized more closely and criticized for being exploitative (which, granted, some are) and “pervy,” which even relatively reasonable people don’t want to associate with. And, yes, that’s their problem, to some extent, but I guess I just want sex to continue to be destigmatized, and I think one way we can do that is by treating it as more than just something to pump out (pun not intended) for people to use to pump out (there it is) to. That’s not even a real phrase but it felt right. How did I get up on this soapbox for a dumb game about anime tiddies? Sorry! I’ll move along.

Quake Remastered

I haven’t played much of the newly released remaster of Quake on the PS5, but one of the first things I found in the game was the nail gun and a box of nails. Right there, in front of my eyes, was the Nine Inch Nails logo. I was more excited than I should have been, and a wave of nostalgia flowed through me. You see, my friend Ron and I are big NIN fans, and back in the day we went on a wild goose chase for a copy of Quake 64 because we’d read that NIN had not only done the game’s soundtrack, their logo also appeared on the nail gun weapon and its ammo boxes. This was sometime between the release of Quake II for the N64 and Quake III, I think. Neither of us had a PC capable of running Quake, so we set out on a number of mall and game store adventures over the course of days or maybe weeks (I can’t quite remember and time is a funny, mysterious thing now). We finally found a used copy of it and were so excited to rush home and hear those sweet, dark tunes and see the clever nod to the band logo.

We raced home, popped it in the N64, and… were not completely blown away by the music. Maybe it’s the N64’s poor sound quality, we thought. Or maybe Trent Reznor just kind of phoned it in? Then we found the nail gun and there was no NIN logo. M-maybe it’s just on the ammo boxes, we reasoned, starting to lose hope. We found an ammo box and there was no logo. We were kind of crushed. It was, as Ron pointed out on a recent podcast episode where we talk about popular music in games, our first encounter with the complicated mess that licensing things like music across multiple platforms can be. I still enjoyed what we played of Quake 64 then, and I went on to love Quake II and Quake III Arena, but I never went back and played the PC version of the game. That’s why, on entering a secret area and gazing upon the NIN-branded box of nails for my trusty nail gun in this PS5 version, I smiled and remembered the fun but ultimately disappointing adventure Ron and I shared. I’ve only played a few levels so far, but the gunplay is simple, smooth and fast, much like…

Back 4 Blood (Beta)

…the gunplay in the Back 4 Blood demo, which I played a ton of with Ron and Tab over these last few weeks. Okay, so it’s a different kind of “simple” than an old school FPS game, but I was pleasantly surprised by how unobtrusive the card system I’d heard so much about was. When I heard that this game was a spiritual successor to Left 4 Dead, made by the actual dev team, I was very excited. When I read that it had a card system, my excitement was immediately buffered by caution. Card systems just aren’t my thing, so I worried that this new system would interfere with the fast-paced, frenetic gameplay I loved in the original games. My worries were pretty much unfounded. If you want to play this game and never worry about the cards, you can. The cards add bonuses, but their implementation can be as simple or complex as you want it to be. You can ignore them and just play, you can just pick cards that have obviously attractive perks (like +5 health or 20% ammo capacity), or you can go through and build a deck with a specific role in mind and coordinate with teammates to fit different play styles. You can build a deck that puts healing perks early so you can be the team healer, you can make a different deck that prioritizes ammo and support perks so you can play backup for a healer and heavy hitters, etc. Or you can all just build whatever decks fit your playstyle and not worry about roles. I found it more than unobtrusive – it turned out to be pretty cool.

We played through the available campaign act several times, and other than a few small complaints (AI is dumb and kind of glitchy, the shared currency system could be better explained, etc.), I had a blast. The zombie (I’m sorry, “Ridden” *massive eye roll emoji*) hordes aren’t quite as massive and intense as those I remember in L4D, and some of the special zombies aren’t quite as memorable, but the gameplay remains just as satisfying as it was in the previous games. Fighting our way through crowds of undead to find ourselves in a house where we know we’re going to draw a horde, setting traps and strategizing the best way to account for the many directions they might pour in, and then losing our shit when it all starts to fall apart… classic. I can’t wait to play more in October.

Persona 5 Royal

I mean, if you’ve kept up with my blog in any way, you might be sick of hearing about Persona 5. I loved that game and the many Persona games I played after it so, so much, and I’ve made no secret of that. I beat the original P5 three times, and though I only beat Royal once, I did get the platinum trophy for it. So why revisit such a massive, time-consuming game? Well, part of it has to do with the preamble for this post – I had played several of these old, favorite games over the summer so I felt like I could actually play through P5R without the kind of guilt and anxiety that would normally come with replaying a huge game like this. So, you might call it a test. A test that I passed, I would say, because I just maxed my characters out at level 99 and am about to enter the endgame for the base game’s story, and I’ve enjoyed every second.

The only difference with this playthrough is that I’m romancing Makoto. I’ve dated Ann, Kawakami, Futaba, and Kasumi, so Makoto was next on my list. I did realize at one point that I’m going through a whole heck of a lot just to date one character, but I don’t mind it. I love this game. I did make a save before my first opportunity to romance a character, though, and am planning on a run in the future where I romance everyone. I know I’ll get yelled for it later in the game, but I don’t know that I’ll have time to play through the game five more times to individually romance the remaining ladies. Anyway, I’ll shut up about this game (for now) because I’ve yapped on and on about it elsewhere, but I’m once again very happy to be spending time in Tokyo with all of my fictional, virtual friends.

Mass Effect Legendary Edition

I will also keep my discussion of Mass Effect Legendary Edition short, because I recorded a four and a half hour podcast episode about it with my friend Paul. Four and a half hours, I said! It was a beast of an episode, but we walked through each game and talked about ways in which this experience was different than our first playthrough of the trilogy (at launch), who we romanced, favorite characters, the DLC, and much, much more. To be honest, I’m a bit ME-chatted out for now, but aside from linking you to the episode in case you want to hear me and Paul blather on for hours about it, I will share just a few thoughts and more than a few screenshots.

Let’s start with the biggie: romance. Tali is my girl, and in my first playthrough of the trilogy I pursued her without hesitation. I’m sure I’ll write a Gaming Crushes post on her at some point, so I won’t go into all the reasons I think she’s great here, but I will say I was so sad in the first game when she wasn’t a romance option. So, I went with the only other real choice in that game: Liara. I did the same in my Legendary Edition playthrough, because I still couldn’t bring myself to date the openly xenophobic space racist, Ashley. I wanted to change things up this time through, but I couldn’t bring myself to not date Tali in Mass Effect 2. I was a bit of a slut, though. Before I dated Tali, I hooked up with both Kelly Chambers and Liara, because you can do so without entering a relationship with them. I don’t find anything wrong with that, though, so if you try and slut shame me I will quickly remind you that I am a cool dude who is currently talking about sleeping with fake women. Take that.

The third game is where things get interesting, though. I slightly regretted not shaking things up and dating someone new in ME2, so I was determined to find a new bae in ME3. I began, as always, strengthening my relationships with everyone and flirting here and there, when I was interested in someone. Who might I go for this time? Miranda really redeemed herself and went through a transformation of character and conscience between ME2 and ME3, so maybe her? Kasumi is amazing and I loved her right away, due in no small part to having not played her DLC back when I first played ME2. Diana Allers was modelled on and voice by the very attractive Jessica Chobot, so maybe her? Or my old fling Kelly? As it turns out, many of those options (and more) were locked out for me. I’d forgotten that you couldn’t romance characters from ME2 in 3 unless you’d also romanced them in the previous game. I was able to hook up with Diana, but it wasn’t a serious romance. So my options, near the end of the game, were limited. Look, I dated the space racist, okay? Don’t judge me! I’d heard that she improves after the first game, and… well, that’s technically true, I guess, because she’s no longer overtly racist. But she never has a moment where she’s like “man, I was an idiot back in the day, aliens are actually pretty cool,” so I ended up feeling like I was trapped in a loveless relationship of my own design. She would embrace me and playfully slap my chest armor, saying some flirty thing, and I would just stare soullessly into the distance, wondering what might have been if I’d just dated Miranda from the start in ME2. Sigh.

Anyway, I did really enjoy some of the DLC that I didn’t partake in back in the day. The Leviathan DLC was amazing. I loved the image of the huge, Reaper-like Leviathans rising from the deep. I was disappointed that we didn’t see them show up later, smashing headlong into Reaper ships, but they were cool nonetheless. I did, however, literally shout in glee seeing the scene where the thresher maw queen took down the Reaper. I’d forgotten about that scene, but it was one of my favorites in this playthrough. Anytime you turn a long-hated and strong enemy against a new and stronger enemy is gold to me. I also loved the Citadel DLC, and having the opportunity to party with all of my space besties before what would potentially be a true suicide mission was amazing. The writing in much of the DLC was also superb. Lastly, and briefly, I’ll just say that I did feel differently about the ending of ME3 this time around. I had felt resigned to no more Mass Effect games when 3 first dropped, so although the definitiveness of the ending made me sad, I accepted it with little trouble. This time, knowing what was to come with Andromeda and the upcoming ME game trailer, I was a little more irked by how rushed it felt. I chose the Synthesis ending back in the day, because it felt like it was the “right” ending, but I didn’t like that every being would lose its individuality. I chose the “good” Destruction ending this time, because it was the only ending where Earth, the Normandy, and (most importantly) Shepard survive. I felt very close to my character and friends this time (probably from playing the games back-to-back), so I really wanted the ending where the most people survived. But I sacrificed EDI (my love, who I would have 100% romanced if I could have), Legion, and all of the Geth who I’d fought so hard to save from a war with the Quarians. Ugh. It was very annoying.

So, ultimately, I had a wonderful time revisiting these games, and if you’d like to hear me get into far more detail, check out the podcast episode linked above. We get really, really in the weeds, and I still feel like we could have said much, much more. I’ll try and be better about writing more frequently, but I am currently working on my dissertation, too, which is going to take up massive amounts of time in the coming months. So, until next time, here’s more Mass Effect Legendary Edition screenshots.

Video Game Crushes: Mitsuru Kirijo

If a game has a dating system, you can be pretty sure that I have a “crush” from that game. How could I not? I love romance systems in games, and I’ve gushed about how much I enjoyed those systems in the Persona series, which famously includes a dating sim-like feature. I’d already played Persona 4 Golden and Persona 5 by the time I got around to Persona 3 Portable, so I knew going in that my character would have to keep an eye out for his future bae. Wait… do people say bae anymore? I don’t think they do. I haven’t heard it in… a long time. Man, that word was all over the place for a while, and it was so useful for describing silly crushes on fictional characters. Let’s just pretend that I’m writing this post in 2018 and run with it. Where was I? Oh yes. In 2018. Looking for bae in all the wrong places.

You meet Mitsuru Kirijo pretty early in P3P, and as soon as I saw her I remember thinking “welp, call off the search, I think I found my future waifu.” Wait… do people still use waifu? Stop it, Joey, no one’s reading this and no one cares. Waifu. Bae. Booboo babykins. Okay, no one ever used that one. Let’s just move on.

I have long had a thing for red hair, so Mitsuru’s long, crimson locks, draped mysteriously over one eye, almost had me sold on her just by virtue of existing. It worked so well with her white and red outfit, too, so I pretty instantly had cartoon heart eyes and was ready to have my character virtually propose marriage. But I hope I’ve made it clear, if you’ve read any of the other entries in this series, that looks aren’t always what draws me to these fictional ladies. Some of them are stunning, yes, but there are literally thousands of attractively drawn/modelled characters, spanning decades of games. Hell, in the Persona series alone, most of the characters are some kind of cute/attractive. I needed to know more about Mitsuru before I went shopping for a little pixel engagement ring.

And, I have to say, as quickly as I fell for her appearance, I was almost as quickly turning my attention elsewhere. As beautiful as Mitsuru is, I found her to be cold, calculating, and dedicated almost exclusively to work. I found out pretty early that she is heir to her father’s company, The Kirijo Group, which executes shadowy research and development all around the world. As it turned out, Mitsuru took her responsibility to her father and the company very seriously, so every move she made was done in service to her role as future president of the company. Every class, every hobby, every friend had to either serve her future goals or stand aside. And romance? What’s that? Mitsuru agreed to an arranged marriage because it would strategically benefit her father’s company. It’s not uncommon to marry for reasons other than love in Japan, but Mitsuru’s fiancé was a really piece of classist, arrogant, manipulative, abusive shit.

It’s not that I didn’t respect her situation and the immense stress she must feel with such a future hanging over her head, but it created an impenetrable wall that I just couldn’t crack, no matter how charming and flirty I was. Well, the protagonist in P3P isn’t exactly smooth, so my many attempts to chat her up between missions were probably more awkward than debonair. Less “hey, baby,” and more “uh……………….. hi?” Which, if we’re being honest, is far more like me in real life, so I guess it works out. My point is that I didn’t get very far when I tried to get to get to know her. She was all work and no play, and as the leader of our merry gang, that philosophy extended to those around her as well. The summer break is much shorter in Japan than it is in US schools, but it’s still a welcome respite from seemingly endless exams and studying. Well, thanks to Mitsuru, we didn’t get that break, because she signed the whole group up for extra classes. For our own benefit, she said. So it wasn’t long before I just accepted that Mitsuru and I probably weren’t meant to be and began considering my other options.

Yukari seemed an obvious candidate, and maybe even the character the game intends for you to get with. She’s cute, funny, pretty laid back. She’s a good friend. And what about Aigis? She’s a badass robot chick! She is literally made to kick ass, she undergoes incredible growth and development as she becomes more and more human, and her voice is absolutely amazing. Heck, I was even considering Toriumi. As the staple teacher romance option, there is the taboo element that comes with a teacher/student relationship, even in Japan, but she is a writing teacher who loves video games and computers, and she’s pretty dang attractive. She is almost too perfectly suited for me. Luckily for me, I played Portable, the only version of the game that actually allows you to romance every character without penalty (unless you don’t make a final, definitive choice, I think). I was able to explore what relationships with all of these characters and more would be like. Mitsuru was not among them, at first. My uncertainty toward her may have played a part, but she was also not interested in pursuing a romance, given her arranged engagement.

So we beat on, fists against the faces of shadows. But things began to change. With the social, academic, and familial pressures on her mounting, Mitsuru came to some vital realizations about her life. One of the key lessons in Persona games (and most JRPGs, really) is that you can’t do it all on your own. We are at our best and most powerful, these games suggest, when we have the support of our friends, family, teammates, and community. Mitsuru began to let me in. We hung out. We talked. I actually made her laugh. And in what began as an uncomfortable conflict with her fiancé, where he threatened her and the future of her company if she didn’t honor their engagement, she snapped. Not then, in the moment, but the crack had formed that would break her open and reveal her true self. Like a true persona user, she was undergoing a dramatic awakening.

She maintained all of her strengths, including her brilliance with business, fierce intelligence, selfless leadership acumen, and determination to succeed, only now she added steadfast independence, loyalty to herself and her friends, infinite charm, and an empathy that allows her to see the world in a less fixed, impermanent way. She is still the heir to a huge company, still a top student with infinite potential, and still a badass fighter and friend. And, of course, she still rocks those red tresses and that coy smile, meaning she is a dangerous combo of beauty and beastly intellect and strength. I had fun flirting with the other characters in Persona 3 Portable, but with her awakening, Mitsuru became my clear favorite. I’m grateful that I was able to see her again in Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight, but I’m really hoping for the long-rumored Persona 3 remake/remaster to come out so I can revisit all of my friends and, above all, my bae. My waifu. My redheaded booboobabykins. Mitsuru.

E3 2021 Hype-rule Warrior (it me)

E3 is back, baby! Well, almost. Kind of. Sort of. Not really, but there are a bunch of exciting videos and streams from most of the big industry publishers coming up, so that’s good enough for me. It’s been a while since I’ve written out a wish list, but I just published the latest podcast episode, all about this very subject, so I thought I’d revisit my old wish lists and put the power of my desire for these games into the universe on the off chance that it somehow reaches the hearts of these publishers many months in the past and they begin working on these games with enough time to produce and show something for this event. Did that make sense? Probably not, but let’s move on.

Like many gamers, I have that nasty habit of getting my hopes way up for E3. I can usually keep my expectations in check, but there are always those little embers of hope that will burn eternally for some new, exciting entry in a long-loved series, or maybe some shocking new IP from a favorite developer. There are things we know we can reasonably expect, but it’s the things that seem farfetched that are the most tantalizing to dare wish for. My previous wish lists have been a mix of the two, and while I’m usually slightly disappointed when most of my hopes are dashed by any given E3 showing, my track record isn’t a complete disaster. From the two lists above, we did end up getting a new Animal Crossing game on Switch, Final Fantasy VII Remake, Dragon Quest XI, a new Tomb Raider game, Soulcalibur VI, plus announcements of new Fable and Perfect Dark games. And I want more? Yes. Always. Here are some things I want from some of the big publishers and platform holders.

Ubisoft

Sure, I want to see a teaser for a new Assassin’s Creed game, and I’d be pretty hyped for a new Splinter Cell even though I never played through any of the previous entries. What I really want from Ubisoft this year is info on Skull and Bones, though. I know they went back to the drawing board in terms of the game’s direction, and that set them back a bit, but they have to have something by now, right? Right? If I’m really being sassy, I don’t just want a new teaser, either. I want a full reveal. I want more than just ship-to-ship combat. I want exploration. I want to hunt for an old wooden treasure chest buried deep in the sand. I want to swim away from a cute fifteen foot great white shark who wants nothing more than to chomp my widdle feets. I want to sail under the stars, riding the wind and singing shanties with me maties. I want to pirate, not just fire cannonballs at another ship. And I want the option to do it offline, please. Give it to me, Ubisoft.

Microsoft/Bethesda

I don’t really know what I want from Microsoft, to be honest. They’ve heard my prayers for a new Fable game and even a new Perfect Dark game, so what else could a boy ask for? Well, mostly more of the same. Meaning, just show me the things I already know you’re working on. Give me a big ol’ substantial Starfield reveal. Show me multiple planets I can visit, show me a better and more fleshed out romance system (than the Elder Scrolls or Fallout games), show me a release window. Show me a better and more impressive Halo Infinite trailer. And, if you really want to be generous, actually show me something from the aforementioned Fable and Perfect Dark games. I get the sense that the latter is probably still very early in development, but even a flashy, brief teaser would be good. Even though I mostly want to see what I already know exists, I am pretty excited for Microsoft’s presentation, because they’ve done a good job of dropping big surprises in recent shows. They might even give me something I don’t even know I want yet!

Square Enix

Square Enix is a big one for me, due in no small part to the fact that they have made some of my favorite games and series of all time. They are one of the shows where my hopes are always way off the charts. Yes, I want to see more of Final Fantasy XVI and am hoping for a new Tomb Raider game, but what I really want I very much doubt I’ll get. Well, I’ll get Dragon Quest XII, because they just recently announced that at the Dragon Quest 35th Anniversary event. It’s probably also too early to see anything from the follow-up to Final Fantasy VII Remake, but boy howdy do I want to. And it would be perfect timing, given that the next gen version of the first game and a new DLC episode is dropping this month. If they do show it, I’d love for confirmation that there will some kind of overworld or open world for us to explore. I also want confirmation that Jesse is still alive. *teary-eyed emoji* The things I really, really want are probably not going to happen, but every year I cross my fingers and pray to the ancient gaming gods for Square Enix to do something with the Chrono franchise. The original game seems to get more and more love with each passing year, yet Square has done virtually nothing with it. I think many of us would love something dramatic, like a remake or a sequel, but at this point I would settle for a remastered version or a remake/remaster of Chrono Cross. Just some sign that they are aware that they have control over one of the most revered and highly regarded games of all time. I would also love a new Parasite Eve game, even if it’s just remasters of the two original games. Lastly, and this is a new one, with the reveal of an HD-2D remake of Dragon Quest III, I would love to see some classic Final Fantasy games done in the same engine/style. That one seems more plausible than my other two impossible wishes, but it also seems like something that we wouldn’t see until next year at the earliest.

Take-Two/Rockstar

There are rumors of a Red Dead Redemption remake/remaster, and of course we’re all curious about the state of Grand Theft Auto VI at this point, but who knows if/when we’ll see that. No, what I want is something I’ve been dreaming about for a very long time: Bully 2. Rumors of a sequel to the first game have kind of ebbed and flowed over the years, with pockets of certainty followed by some interview snippet that seems to completely shut it down. At a recent investor call, a rep for Take-Two said that “new iterations” of existing Rockstar IP were on their projected development table, and while that might very well just mean new GTA and Red Dead games, there is a silly little part of my brain that is hoping beyond hope that they mean the long-awaited Bully 2. Even a remake of the first game in the new engine with added content would be fine.

Capcom

Okay, so when I hear “Capcom” I automatically think “Resident Evil.” I haven’t played a Monster Hunter game yet, and Street Fighter VI is just a given, right? So, aside from a surprise new Marvel vs Capcom or Street Fighter Alpha announcement (doubtful), what I most want is, well, more Resident Evil. I know, I know, they just released one of my favorite RE games of all time, but it’s not just that I’m a greedy glutton for more (though, to be fair, I am). Capcom has released four mainline Resident Evil games in the last four years: Resident Evil 7 (2017), Resident Evil 2 (2019), Resident Evil 3 (2020), and Resident Evil Village (2021). All of those games are excellent, and if I remember correctly at some point they stated that they intended to stagger new entries with remakes. If that’s true, it’s remake time, babyyyyyy. I get the sense that people want a Code: Veronica remake but expect a Resident Evil 4 remake. Either of those would be fine with me, but if I’m being honest, what I really want is a re-remake of the original Resident Evil, or maybe even a combination of Resident Evil 0 and that game, since their stories directly tie together and overlap. The original has already been remade, true, and maybe that will be what delays or prevents its consideration for the remake treatment. But that remake was released almost twenty years ago and was still using the pre-rendered backround/tank control-style of old school RE games. Imagine it remade in the new engine with an over-the-shoulder camera, like RE 2. *drools* Capcom did confirm that they’ll be talking about Resident Evil Village, and my hope is that we see actual DLC and not just more of Re:Verse. Resident Evil 7 had some excellent DLC, so I want to see more of that with Village. Maybe one pack that follows Chris’s exploits, and two packs dedicated to showing us more backstory for the four lords? Two lords per pack?

Nintendo

Nintendo seems to have a habit of either completely rocking people’s shit and being the talk of the show, or being the biggest disappointment. They can’t help it, though, if you think about it. They have the biggest, longest standing stable of classic characters and series. At every turn, people are asking when the next Mario or Zelda or Smash or Kart or Crossing or Paper or you name it. So it’s a given that there will always be a swath of Nintendo fans that will walk away sad that they didn’t see their favorite series or character represented. And Nintendo is in a very comfortable place right now in terms of both hardware and software sales, so it’s not exactly like they need to make a big splash. Still, I hope they not only show what’s become known as Breath of the Wild 2, but also give us a release date. Some people think it will be a 2022 game, but I have a hard time seeing it slipping from this year. If it really is using the same engine and assets as the first game, which it seems to be, I bet they’ve finished most of the core game by now and are in the polishing/testing phase. Mid-November to early December seems like a fair release window to me. Having said that, what do I want to see from a sequel to what’s become my favorite Zelda game? I not only want to see more Zelda, I want this to be a co-op adventure. If you had to switch back and forth between Link and Zelda for certain puzzles and if you could have a friend take the helm of one character, that would be pretty awesome.

Mario Kart 8 is one of my favorite games of all time, and with the original release being a full seven years ago, you’d think we were due for another entry. 8 has been selling like gangbusters month after month since the Switch version released, though, so I kind of doubt Nintendo is rushing the next version out the door. Still, it would be exciting to get a teaser, at least, as unlikely as it is. The reveal of new Smash characters is always fun, and rumors about which multiplatform character might show up next are always a good time. I said this in one of the previous wish list posts, but the time seems more right than ever for Master Chief. Would I love a character from Chrono Trigger? Magus, preferably? Sure. But that seems like a long, long, long shot. Nintendo’s already put two Microsoft fighters in (Minecraft Steve and Banjo & Kazooie), so the emerald-armored Spartan seems more and more likely, especially given the presumably close proximity of Halo Infinite’s release. Given my love for Fire Emblem: Three Houses, I also want a peek at the first true Switch Fire Emblem game. Three Houses started life as a 3DS game, and with how simplistic and muddy some of the environmental art is, it showed. I’d settle for a game that looked the same if the story and characters were just as good, but I’d love for them to wow us with a game that takes advantage of the rumored Switch Pro.

And, of course, the two games I will never stop wishing for until Nintendo delivers them to us: Mother 3 and a new Eternal Darkness game. I mean, I’d take anything from either franchise. The long-awaited English translation of Mother 3, an EarthBound remaster, a whole new game in the series. An Eternal Darkness remake, ala Resident Evil 2, a sequel that utilizes the HD rumble and other Switch features, whatever. Just do something with one or both of those series, damn it. I fear that the most likely window for some EarthBound news has passed, with the 30th anniversary of the first game in the series and the 25th anniversary of the second having passed. Sigh. It seems like an eventuality, because the call for a localization or port have only increased over the years, but when we’ll finally hear something seems a mystery. Also, where is our new Virtual Console, Nintendo? The current set-up can’t hold a candle to the previous catalog.

Bandai Namco

Bandai Namco have lots that they could show, put there are two pretty specific things that I want: remasters of the first two Tales games (Tales of Destiny and its sequel), and Ace Combat 8. Given the fact that Project Aces, Namco’s internal development team behind the AC games, had to reportedly fight for the chance to make AC 7, I have to wonder about the possibility for a sequel. Still, it was fairly successful both critically and commercially, so I’m holding out hope. Can you imagine a photorealistic flight sim that takes advantage of next gen processing power? As the kids say, “sheeeeeeesh.”

Sega

Persona 6. I want to just leave that here. No explanation. But I can’t. It’s probably my most anticipated game for the near future, but we’ve heard virtually zero about it. We know it’s in development, but at what stage is Atlus in? Persona 5 came out in Japan five years ago, so it sure feels like they must be pretty deep in development by now, even if P-Studio did help out with all of the bonus Persona games we’ve been treated to these five long years. Like Square Enix, Atlus/Sega has been targeting worldwide launches as of late, so my deep, deep hope is that we see a teaser at E3, get a trailer by the end of the year, and see the full game released next year. In the meantime, give us a remake or remaster of Persona 3, you cowards! You’ve already made new assets for the dancing game! Do it! Please!

And what about all of those Sega acquisition rumors? They’ve persisted for years, ever since Sega moved away from hardware, really, but they’ve always seemed kind of silly and star-gazey. It wasn’t until GamesIndustry.biz reported that Sega’s parent company had divided its assets, including its games division, in what could be preparation for a sale of some (but not all) assets. Sega has made some acquisitions of its own in recent years, including Atlus, and it may have been part of an effort to bolster its appeal for a sale. The rumors always seemed far-fetched to me until now. But who would they sell to? The name I keep hearing is Microsoft, and while that would make sense from Microsoft’s side, Sega is an old, storied Japanese company, so I have my doubts about that. That’s not to say I can’t see it, but it would surprise me more than if Sony or even Square Enix picked them up, even though those two don’t “need” it as much (and could Square Enix afford it?). Either way, if the rumors are true, and we learned about it at E3 – holy shit. What a historic year that would make this.

EA/BioWare

While EA is doing its own thing, as usual, I’m including my wishes for them here. They have a huge portfolio of games, but there are only a few I’m dying to hear more about or, dare I demand, see. New entries in both the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series have been teased, but only very recently. Do they have enough to show something substantial? Probably not, but I would love to see it, if they did. I do think they could probably have a short sizzle trailer for Dragon Age by this point, so that would be amazing to finally get a glimpse of. In terms of a surprise, though, I’d fall out of my proverbial chair if they showed anything from the long-rumored Knights of the Old Republic remake. I think I remember reading that BioWare is not working on it, but I assume EA still has the rights, so if it was going to be at a show, it would probably be this one, right? If we did see it, it would shoot to the top tier of my most-anticipated games list for sure.

Sony

Sony is also doing its own thing again, but unfortunately we don’t have any clue when that might be. Guerrilla Games recently said that they are still shooting for a 2021 release date for Horizon Forbidden West but are waiting until they’re more certain before announcing a date. Are they waiting for Sony’s event, or is Sony holding off on their event until they have a firm date that they can announce? That’s the last bit of info for Horizon that I’m interested in. I want it. Just give it to me this year. God of War: Ragnarok was originally slated to release this year but has since been pushed to 2022, but that means they are well into development at this point. Far enough along to share some actual footage, right? So I’m looking forward to that. I’d also love to see a new Uncharted game, but who knows if Naughty Dog will have had enough time to produce something showable, given that The Last of Us Part II came out just last year. The real thing I want to see at Sony’s show, though, is PlayStation VR 2. They’ve announced it and teased its features, but I want to see it in action. Well, as much as you can with a VR headset. I want to hear about the comfort, the convenience, the games – give me all the deets, damn it.

There are other things I’d love to see, of course, but these are the big ones. I listed more than I have in the past, so maybe now if only 20% of these hopes/dreams/predictions come true, I won’t be as sad because that will still be several games I’m getting. *wink* Who am I kidding? The moment the Nintendo showcase ends and we’re left with no Mother 3 again, the post-E3 depression will set in, regardless of the fact that we got surprise Metal Gear and Silent Hill announcements and the Resident Evil 4 remake looks rad. Just kidding. I would absolutely settle for that. Until then, I’m grabbing my nachos and Coke Zero and settling in for an exciting few days coming up!

Hello, New Friend

Near the end of 2019, I wrote a post about saying farewell to my beloved custom pink DualShock 4 controller. As I mention in that post, I have a history with pink controllers and systems, as it’s been my favorite color for most of my adult life. Ever since Nintendo began offering multiple color choices for their controllers with the N64, I’ve frequently bought and cherished the options that really spoke to me. With the N64, it was the red controller I bought to celebrate my purchase of Castlevania 64. Hey, please stop laughing. I thought it was going to be amazing, okay? I was really excited for it. I even forced myself to beat the whole thing. You… you can stop laughing now.

Pink has, of course, long been offered as a “girls version” of various products, which (I suspect) is why the option typically comes after more “popular” or “neutral” colors like blue, red, yellow, etc. There have been some options, though, and I always jumped at the chance when an official accessory was released in pink. I have a pink Xbox 360 controller, pink Xbox One controller, a Princess Peach Pink Wiimote, pink Nintendo DS, and the aforementioned pink DualShock 4, which was a custom job by a company called ColorWare. I loved that controller, and even learned how to take it apart and replace the joysticks and battery so that I could extend the life of it. But that farewell post wasn’t exclusively about learning to let go of a cherished peripheral. It was also about letting go of the past.

The controller was a gift from my ex, who knew how much I loved my pink Xbox controllers and wanted to surprise me for my birthday. It was a great gift, especially given that Sony never officially released a pink controller (outside of rose gold, which is its own thing and is very different than the soft pink I like). Letting go of the controller was, in a way, me attempting to let go of my relationship, too. We’d been together for seven years and after our breakup I was living fully on my own for the first time in my life. I’d lived alone in the barracks when I was in the Air Force, and I’d had periods of living on my own (like being deployed for five months), but this was the first time I was living completely independently with no plans on that changing. I didn’t say much of this in that post about the DualShock 4. I tried to subtly imply it, but saying it out loud felt like a bit too much. Sometimes we process trauma with allegory and metaphor, sometimes we engage it directly. With this post, I guess I’m having it both ways, now.

I was talking with a friend about custom controllers recently, and we both decided to order a custom DualSense controller for our PS5s from ColorWare, who’d just began offering the service for next gen controllers. I went with a combination of soft pinks and opted to leave the buttons the default clear, because it was cheaper (and I still think it looks great). Both colors are matte, which feels very soft and nice. The exterior is a pink they call Glamour, and the center and trackpad are Cotton Candy. I received my controller just after beginning Resident Evil Village, so I’ve loved having it to play through both Village and Mass Effect Legendary Edition, two games I am having a blast playing through.

But, as you might have guessed, there is something symbolic about this controller for me. That custom pink DualShock 4 was purchased for me. I did love it, of course, but it was irrevocably tied to my previous relationship. I purchased this custom DualSense controller myself. It’s been four years since the end of that relationship and I’m still living on my own. I still struggle. I’ve had bad weeks. Months. Hell, 2017-2019 were the hardest years of my life in terms of mental health. I’d had plenty of dalliances with depression when I was younger, but the headspaces I would occasionally find myself in during these years were literally reality-altering. I’ll spare you the details, but it was (at times) rough. I’ve since had lots of therapy, done tons of journaling, and worked on myself and my mental health in a myriad of ways. I’m not at my best, but I am better. A part of my journey has been coming to terms with what it means to be truly independent. When I was younger, what it meant to be “independent” seemed pretty obvious. You pay your own bills, make your own decisions. But as I’ve aged into early antiquity, I’ve come to realize that it’s about more than that. You can pay your own rent and decide you’re going to eat that whole pint of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream for dinner, and that certainly constitutes a version of independence. But ultimately, for me anyway, it comes down to emotional dependence. Allowing the thoughts and feelings of others to dictate your mood or choices or path… that’s not very independent. You’re still living your life for others and not yourself. That’s not to say that you can’t be considerate and take others’ feelings into account, of course. But, in my case, I would find myself going through a depressive episode or feeling angry and sad that a joke didn’t land or a tweet went unnoticed or an idea was dismissed or even poked fun at. I would have periods of hypersensitivity like these, where a seeming lack of positive attention from friends (or even internet people) would make me wonder just how much I mattered to people. No one likes my tweets. No one reads my blogs. No one thinks I’m funny or smart. Those were the kinds of thoughts that would run through my head. Why try, then? If no one cares, why produce anything?

Look, I know. This all sounds very self-indulgent and selfish. And it probably is, to some extent. But I suspect that many of these thoughts are fairly common. Many of us have insecurities about what we do or don’t put out into the world, whether that’s content or commentary. But living on my own added a new layer of that for me. I didn’t have the one person to fall back on when feeling vulnerable. In previous relationships, when I would begin to feel things like that, it was easy to think some version of “well, it doesn’t really matter. At least they care about me.” Living on my own? I didn’t even have that. So, what would normally snap me out of these dangerous thoughts, was confronting myself with the question: “why does it matter?” And sometimes I would struggle with it, sometimes the answer was clear: “it shouldn’t.” And that process, of having to realize again and again that I don’t want my happiness and self-worth to be dictated by others, is what I come back to again and again when I think of independence. It’s what I struggle with, still.

And this controller, as silly as it might seem, is symbolic of that journey for me. Nobody bought this controller for me. I bought it for myself. It was, financially, an “independent” choice. But it means more than that to me. It is a reminder that I don’t need approval from others. If someone doesn’t like pink, they can judge me all they want for buying this controller, but it doesn’t change the fact that I like pink. If they think it was a bad financial decision, that doesn’t change my belief that, for me, it was worth it. I have a long way to go in my journey to be “truly” independent. I know there will still be plenty of instances where I allow myself to be negatively affected by what other people think of me. But I’m determined to keep working at it, beautiful new pink controller in hand.

Itchy. Thirsty. My Time with Resident Evil Village

It’s absolutely clear to me that the people behind Resident Evil Village were beyond thirsty when making this game. Maybe the term “thirsty” will lose its colloquial meaning at some point in the future, so let me be clear for future readers: these developers were horny as hell. Sure, the Resident Evil series has had some very attractive characters in the past, but they were usually limited to one or two a game. A Jill Valentine here, a Leon Kennedy there. Sprinkle in a little Sheva Alomar if ya fancy. But Resident Evil Village is filled with characters that seem made to lust after, which is in stark contrast to Resident Evil 7, which had virtually no characters worth pining for. I imagine an early development meeting where the game’s director was like “okay, everyone, with the power of the new consoles and the versatility of the RE Engine, I want this game to be very, very pretty.” And someone on the design team whipped out a forbidden thirst notebook that they’ve been sketching in for years. Anytime they had to draw yet another throbbing, slick, pustule-ridden monster, they would take a break and draw a character they wanted to kiss and do the naughty with. That notebook became the core design doc for this game.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up and start with my experience with the game. I’ve written about my love for the various Resident Evil games and characters in the past, so I guess for context I’ll just say that I’ve been a fan since the very beginning. I favor the earlier games and, like some other fans, was mostly turned off by some of the convoluted/silly twists and turns the series started taking. But I loved the new direction (also kind of throwback?) of Resident Evil 7 and I was all-in when I saw the first trailer for Village. Is there still silliness to be found? Sure. But Capcom has traded twisting, crisscrossing storylines for simpler narratives told in elaborate, well-crafted set pieces, much like the earliest games in the series. When I say that Resident Evil 7 and Village go back to the roots of what made the series special, that’s what I mean. I don’t mean that they’re returning to shuffling zombies and Raccoon City. They’re returning to interesting premises that are then fleshed out with minimal story and maximum atmosphere, and an attention to detail in world building.

We can see evidence of this shift even in how Capcom has handled the naming and marketing of Resident Evil 7 and Village. RE 7 was introduced as Resident Evil Biohazard, but many quickly took to calling it Resident Evil 7. The Biohazard moniker wasn’t just a tribute to the series’ Japanese title, which has always been Biohazard, though. Capcom treated RE 7 as a spiritual refresh of the series. New characters, new setting, new biological weapon type (fungus), new perspective. Old level design, themes, storytelling, atmosphere. I believe Capcom used Biohazard because they wanted the game to reach a new audience, and one thing that deters many gamers from a new entry in an old series is numbers. How many times have you heard (or asked yourself) “do I have to play the other games in the series to play this one?” The next Final Fantasy game is Final Fantasy XVI. 16! And there are still plenty of people who aren’t sure how the series works or whether or not you need to play previous titles in order to ‘get’ the newest entry. So, Capcom wanted players to think of RE 7 as a new title that was wholly unconnected from previous titles so that they could hop right in without worrying about feeling lost or confused about who a character was or why you were doing certain things. I don’t know how well it worked, though, because, as mentioned, people instantly began calling it RE 7 and not Biohazard. With Resident Evil Village, however, in some of the earliest interviews with developers about the game, they insisted this game be called Village. Yes, there is a very clearly highlighted VIII in the word “Village,” but when asked if this game was “Resident Evil 8,” the team stood fast and insisted that it was Resident Evil Village, probably for the same reason as with RE 7: they want to market it to people who may have never played a Resident Evil game before. This time, however, I think it worked. I hear the occasional person say “Resident Evil 8,” but for the most part both the gaming press and people I’ve seen on social media or Twitch refer to this entry as Resident Evil Village.

Whatever you call this entry, I loved it. I finished my fourth playthrough recently, a hardcore run, and I plan on getting the platinum trophy for it soonish. The above-mentioned blend of classic RE elements with gorgeous new settings and characters was a winning combo for me. In the early RE games, the pace was generally slow, plodding even, punctuated by moments of terror as you navigated just a few familiar spaces. Starting with Resident Evil 3, the series began working toward the concept of forward motion, where you’re constantly moving from one set to the next. It traded atmospheric horror for the anxiety of having to always be ready to act and react. I never felt like they got the balance between those two things right, if they were even trying. But with Village, it’s about as close as you can get. There are several areas in the game, each with its own style, design, enemies, and more. In some, the pace is slow and you’re meant to puzzle your way through various rooms. In others, you’re moving quickly and aren’t too concerned about exploration because the pressure is on and you have shit to get done. Maybe this blend of the two approaches to the RE formula will leave ardent fans of either upset that the game doesn’t lean heavily one way or the other, but I thought it made for a dynamic experience where in one stretch I was stressed and in distress, and in another I could take my time and explore the gorgeous scenery.

Speaking of gorgeous scenery, I really want to talk about how beautiful this game is. I’m not talking about the sexy thirst traps yet. We’ll get there. Keep your pants on. Pants on, eyes up, because we’re talking about some ceilings. There is so much visual detail in this game that I legitimately can’t fully do it justice in either writing or pictures. Virtually none of the screenshots I’m sharing really represent these visuals in their full glory. I do want to focus on a few examples of the graphics and visual design, though, and ceilings are one of them.

Our beloved Lady Dimitrescu’s castle is much like the lady herself: huge, beautiful, elegant, and I want to be inside it. Wait, what? Shhh. Let’s move on. At every turn I was overwhelmed by the level of detail in each new room or space I entered. Chairs, tables, shelves, a delicate teacup stained with lipstick and blood, a lace shawl draped over a regal couch with two black gloves thrown carelessly nearby. At some point I realized I’d also constantly been looking up at each new ceiling I stepped under. Ceilings in video games have long been an afterthought for game designers. Real house designers, too, I guess, but why would video game ceilings ever need to be unique and detailed? There’s never much of a reason to look at them. Yet here I was, constantly tilting the camera up to appreciate the virtual, digital woodwork, paint, and sculpting. I know that the designers use some kind of high resolution scanning technology to photograph objects and then render them in-game, so maybe these are real ceilings in some real castle or estate in Europe, but either way I was weirdly blown away by the care and attention that went into something as minor as this.

Something I liked more broadly about the game’s visuals was the variety of textures and the way light interacted with those textures. I’ve gushed about the RE Engine’s ability to render realistic looking surfaces before, but with the power of the PlayStation 5 at their disposal, the development team really went all out in producing an incredibly impressive variety of unique textures for this game. Again, these pictures don’t really do the game justice, but I want to talk through a few, starting with one that I think highlights how many different detailed and unique textures you encounter in the castle alone.

Maybe the picture above doesn’t look super impressive here, but if you get close to anything in this photo you’ll find a realistic surface that reflect the soft light from the window in its own way. The fabric of the carpet looks and “feels” different than the fabric of the decorative chair. The wood on the floor has a different grain and reflective surface than the wood of the wall or the wood of the chair or the wood of the small table. The canvas of the painting looks like canvas. The frame looks hand carved. The peeling wallpaper looks at once dated and perhaps formerly elegant, and it reflects both the light and shadow of the window and curtains. I could go on, but again, this is just one picture.

Also, I’m calling them “textures,” but for the majority of 3D gaming history, “texture” usually meant 2D art on a flat surface, meant to give the appearance of “texture.” So, a grass “texture” might have been mottled and green, maybe with some hash marks, to make it look, at a glance, like grass. Over time, other 2D elements were added, like clumps of tall grass, to increase the believability, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that some versatile video game engines were able to render surface to actually look like they had a texture and weren’t just 2D pictures plastered on a polygonal surface. The RE Engine is one of those engines. If you look at some of the surfaces in these pictures, like the floor here:

Or the table here:

You’ll see that things like imperfections, grooves, or separations, are actually rendered in 3D, meaning they’re affected by light and shadow as they would be in a real 3D space, which makes them look incredibly realistic. And these kinds of textures are everywhere. The basement floor in Donna Beneviento’s house, for example:

As soon as I saw it I knew what that floor felt like. I’m no interior designer or architect, so I don’t know if it’s glossy concrete or some other kind of poured material, but I just know that it’s hard, cool, and smooth, just by looking at it. And, again, you can see that it’s uneven, and the light reflects off of it as if those slight, broad bumps and waves are really 3D and not just a flat picture. I’m giving a lot of credit to the engine, but I think the actual visual artists deserve tons of credit, too, not just for the overall design of these spaces and elements, but for the amount of detail that they put into these designs as well. I went on a whole tear about Leon Kennedy’s radio case when I wrote about the RE 2 remake, and now I want to do the same for Donna Beneviento. I should give a general [SPOILER WARNING] here, because I’ll be getting into some light spoilers here, and then major spoilers later (especially in the pictures). Donna Beneviento is a great character, and I’ve seen some people claim that she “steals the show” from Lady D (blasphemy). And yet, we barely see her. She’s in, I think, two scenes (and a couple of very brief flashes), and you barely get a good look at her before she turns to dust. But let’s look at the level of detail they put into a character we’ll see on screen for less than five minutes, total:

Okay, so this isn’t her whole design, but there is one detail I want to laser focus on. Is it the lace doll dress, which has actual holes in the surface and isn’t just a picture of holes? No. Nor is it the thick fabric of Donna’s dress, the etched bone of the doll, the soft wood grain of the chair, or any of the other impressive surfaces and details of this model. You’ve probably guessed it by now, but it’s her hands. And not just the fine lines and creases of her skin, which are very realistic looking, but her nails:

Look at them! They are flawed and imperfectly perfect. Her nails have grown out a few days since they were painted, as evidenced by the fact that we can see some bare nail at the base, near the quick. The paint on her pointer finger looks bumpy, as if her first coat was uneven (or the nail itself is bumpy). The paint on the middle finger looks very smooth and glossy, and the light reflecting on it is clear and shiny. On her ring finger, however, the light is softer and more absorbed than reflected, which seems to indicate that she might have scuffed that nail or messed up the last coat of paint. And look at the little chip near the edge! All of this detail on a hand that virtually no one who plays the game will get close enough to see in their playthroughs. Might the visual designers have scanned in a real person’s nails and just mapped them on a model in the game? Maybe. Either way, a lot of care and thought went into these choices, it seems to me, and I will never shut up about how impressed I am by the visuals of these games. I legit want to live in either Castle Dimitrescu or House Beneviento. Elon Musk is running around spending all this money blowing up spaceships when he could be building an exact replica of one of these homes for me and I will never forgive him for that.

Visuals, aside, I found the gameplay to be surprisingly smooth and responsive. There’s a throwaway line in the very beginning the game that reveals that Ethan has been through military training, so maybe that’s why he’s so much steadier and more adept at using firearm than Leon Kennedy was in RE 4. When you tried to aim any weapon with Leon, it was like he was doing so while being tickled. He could not keep his aim straight. Ethan aims, reloads, and changes weapons like a pro, and it made for very satisfying combat, which is something I’m not used to in RE games (not that it was ever the point). With such precise aiming, shooting shambling zombies might be a breeze, but as with other recent RE games, the developers make up for it with enemies that have erratic, only semi-predictable movement. Lycans will walk menacingly, then suddenly shift to a low dash using their arms, then stand up and side-step a shot. Ghouls will shamble, like zombies, and lazily loll their heads or jerk their upper bodies dramatically to swing a weapon. The combination of precise weapon handling and erratic enemy movement meant that I mostly felt in control of situations, but when shit went sideways or I began to get overwhelmed, I panicked. I like that balance in RE games.

As far as the story goes, there are certainly some silly, anime-esque aspects (I mean, you fight a flying vampire dragon lady, a fishman, and a giant mech dude, all in the same game), but it all made sense in the context of the new storyline that started in RE 7. I especially liked the idea that this fungus, able to transform only specific types of people, was around for centuries in Europe and is likely the source of many mythic characters and creatures that we’re familiar with, like vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and more. It’s an interesting if minor twist on the original concept of a virus being the source of modern zombies. I’m not necessarily fully invested in Ethan’s story, but I thought they told his tale well. Do I think he’s really dead? Probably not, unless the developers want him to be. If his seeming unpopularity affects their decision, it would be easy to leave him dead. He did blow up, after all. But they wrote themselves a nice little insurance policy that would allow them to bring him back, too. Chris Redfield and his Blue Umbrella crew are in the area to investigate this new type of mold, and in one audio clip right near the end of the game, one of Chris’s team mentions that testing shows this new mold is very different than the mold found in Louisiana in RE 7. It’s revealed, again near the end of the game, that Ethan actually died in RE 7 and is, himself, a mold monster. How does he have all of the memories and mannerisms of the real Ethan, then? Well, they also explain that the European strain of mold has a huge underground root system that acts as a database, storing any and all DNA that it comes in contact with. It’s how Mother Miranda, the game’s antagonist, plans on bringing her dead child back to life. Her DNA is stored in this “database” and Miranda has been seeking a vessel to transfer her daughter’s essence into. If this mold has a “database,” it stands to reason that the mold in Louisiana did/does as well, given that Evelyn (the antagonist of that game and a test copy of Miranda’s daughter) was able to commune with all mold creatures in the area and communicates with Ethen now, who she recreated through potentially similar means. If that’s true, Ethan’s essence is still alive and able to be transferred to a new vessel or reformed by Evelyn at any time.

In another twist, the BSAA shows up in the final assault, and it’s revealed that they were using bioweapons that looked like ghouls in tactical gear to infiltrate Heisenberg’s compound. Chris is confused, and I think we are supposed to also be confused as the audience, especially given that at the very end of the game Chris says that he’s going to BSAA headquarters to investigate. There is one clue that I noticed on Heisenberg’s very low-effort, basic-ass conspiracy board that I think explains why the BSAA was there:

Heisenberg was creating an army of bioweapons in his factory. There were literal production lines of bioweapons constantly cycling in the background of the main factory floor. In his notes, he reveals that he is trying to create an army to challenge Miranda and basically rule the world. On this board, he very clearly writes “BSAA Come!!” While this could mean a few things, it makes me think that he summoned the BSAA, perhaps with the intent of partnering with them or selling them his bioweapon army. It can’t be a coincidence that the BSAA happens to be using bioweapon soldiers when they show up to a facility that’s manufacturing bioweapon soldiers. Either Heisenberg called them or he simply predicted they would come. I have a hard time believing the latter, given the lack of contextual evidence.

There’s so much more I could talk about but we’re getting long in the tooth here and I need to cover the most important aspect of this game, which is what you’re here for anyway, right? Let’s get to it. These character designers take the term “horny on main” to a new level. Instead of publically pining after virtual sexy people, they just went ahead and created them. A game full of them. The most obvious, of course, is Lady Dimitrescu and her lovely, bite-y daughters.

Besides being featured prominently in the game’s promotional material, sexuality is just a part of their design. Even as the Dimitrescu “daughters,” Bela, Daniela, and Cassandra, are hunting me down to kill me, they’re seemingly in an erotic frenzy, talking about tasting my man blood, tying me up, and shouting things like “don’t you love me?” as I attack them. They chain me up, sniff at a handkerchief that has my blood on it, and are desperate to “consume my man flesh.” When they catch me and chomp into my neck, their eyes roll back into their heads in ecstasy. Yes, most of this is about them wanting to eat me, but their mannerisms and tone are undeniably sexual. And look at them! They’re just sexy, vampy, Nicks-ian babes.

I really loved this flirty little flip of the handkerchief

Our most cherished and worshipful Lady D is, of course, the most famous of the sexy characters in this game, though, and my only complaint concerning her is that she wasn’t featured more prominently. That’s not a real complaint. I knew going in that she was probably just one of several major characters, but I love her design and personality so much that I just want more. So much is made of her size, but that is on the lower end of her most attractive qualities in my eyes. A huge part of it is just how she holds herself and her mannerisms. She is constantly aware of her posture and pose, and moves with determined grace. She doesn’t just command her daughters to string me up – she does so with a stylish flourish of her hands before placing them firmly on her hips. In her argument with Heisenberg, she booms at him with a commanding voice before switching effortlessly to a soft lilt and tossing her head back to show her superiority. Yes, I understand all of this makes her sound like a bitch. And she is. A big, boss-ass bitch. And that is hot. Her fair skin and dark eyes, peeking out from her wide, stylish hat don’t hurt either. I should note that she wasn’t as scary and intimidating as Mr. X from RE 2. If Mr. X caught you, there was a chance that he’d insta-kill you, but other than slashing at me, Lady D didn’t seem to have that ability, which was kind of sad. It would have made it that much scarier. I wish they’d either added an insta-kill move, or a hug move. That would have worked, too.

If I ever become wealthy, my first move will be to hire someone to recreate this for me

There are plenty of other sexy characters in the game, but there were two that surprised me. No, not Heisenberg and Chris (though I was actually surprised at how many people I’ve seen thirsting after Heisenberg. Really?). We’ve already talked about the first: Donna Beneviento. Okay, okay, so she has some issues and she is incredibly shy when it comes to showing her face. But she is a major, under-the-radar beauty. Yes, she plays with dolls, but I have shelves and shelves of action figures, statues, and amiibo, so if she can make Batman or Princess Peach fly around and talk, I’m going to take that as a fun party trick. She also loves games! We played hide-and-seek and tag. So. I’m just saying, I don’t think it would be hard to convince her to sit down and play some games with me. She would love Little Big Planet! And, like my high school self, she has a majorly goth, black-centric wardrobe. She doesn’t have Lady D’s presence, but I think we could make it work.

Lastly, the big baddie herself, Mother Miranda is a stone cold fox. And a stone hearted monster. A minor detail. Look at her!

I don’t know nearly as much about her as the others, because she doesn’t have her own house that I can snoop through to get a sense of who she is and how she lives. I know that she tore a baby apart and put it in jars that she gave to her friends. Which, you know. Not cool. She also did so in order to get a new version of her old baby, and I’m not necessarily looking for kids right now, especially of the moldy variety, but… well, that’s all I got. She’s hot. That’s about it. She’s got the face of an angel and six wings to match. The developers of this game were thirsty as hell and it came out in all of these designs, but you know what? I am not complaining. After a whole run of games filled with bulgy eyeball creatures and slimy mutant blobs of teeth and tentacles, I will take a slew of sexy ladies.

And their plus ones, I guess

Okay, I have to let you go, but I have so many thoughts about this game so I will just randomly throw out some final blurbs. I was disappointed by how they treated The Duke’s character. Many people seem to like him, but his design is very fatphobic. My first run of the game was surprisingly easy. I didn’t mind, though, and the hardcore run was, indeed, pretty tough. I’ve seen people claim that the House Beneviento part of the game “rips off” PT. It certainly seems inspired by it, but the game borrows from tons of horror media, including Dracula, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Saw, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and more. If anything, it seemed like homage to PT, particularly given the fact that there is little chance Silent Hills, the game that PT was a demo for, will ever come out. I was one of the people that thought Chris might become a werewolf at some point, but I wasn’t necessarily upset that he didn’t. He was a little more brusque than I would have expected. With how much Ethan suffered, and his pierced hands, and his sacrifice and resurrection, it’s hard not to see him as a Christ figure. I thought the concept of family was super interesting, especially given the previous game’s focus on it as well. Evelyn, in the previous game, was made from a sample of Miranda’s daughter’s DNA, right? And she was obsessed with family. She kept looking for a family. Miranda, her sorta-kinda mother, in this game, is also deeply concerned with family. Also, Evelyn seems to make Ethan as a mold creature, and he’s also obsessed with family and will do anything he can to protect/save his daughter, Rose. Was he “programmed” to do that by Evelyn? Hmm. I didn’t mind the action-packed Chris section at all. After being so precious and careful about my ammo and aim for most of the game, it felt cathartic to just let loose. Lastly, who is this figure in the very last shot of the game? They’re walking on the road in the far distance, and they’re far too small to make out any features, but I don’t for a second believe this was just a random design choice.

Spring Cleaning 2021

I just wrapped up the spring semester last week, and as usual, it was a bit hectic. I’d planned on keeping up with these posts, especially because I’ve recently played some games that I had lots of thoughts about, but ‘twas not to be. So, given that two of my most anticipated games of the year are coming out this week and next (Resident Evil Village and Mass Effect Legendary Edition), I figured I’d do a spring cleaning, as it were, and just jot down some brief thoughts about the many games I’ve played since my last post. These aren’t even all of the games, actually. I’ve continued to play Ghost of Tsushima and Minecraft with friends, I played a bunch of VR games with my family, and I’m finishing up a platinum trophy run of Arcade Spirits on PS5 since I picked it up on sale and was itching to replay it anyway. It’s been fun seeing the other romance options, but Naomi is still #1 bae. I just read that the sequel, Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is coming out early next year, so my hype for that will slowly be rising. Anyway, let me stop jabbering and get to… more jabbering.

Life is Strange 2

When I saw the trailer for Life is Strange: True Colors in March, I was reminded that I’d never gotten around to the second game in the series. I played and loved both the first game and Before the Storm, and I’d purchased LiS 2 in a sale, but I just never played it. Given that I’m writing this, I think you can guess that I ended up giving it a shot. Wouldn’t that be the worst twist? Write out a whole prelude about how I’ve been meaning to play each of these games and then just move on. No, no. I did play it, and I mostly really liked it. It follows the same formula of the previous two games, including having your character keep a journal. Where Max was big on snapping photos in the first game, our new protagonist, Sean, will find a quiet place to sit and sketch his surroundings, which you do several times throughout the game. You also collect little trinkets and sometimes if you investigate something in the environment while you’re exploring, Sean will write about it or add a little sketch to the journal. I love these kinds of charming details in these games. It goes a long way in developing these characters and complicating the story that is more directly told via dialogue and cutscenes.

There was a lot I liked about the game, but my main complaint has to do with just how much of a bummer the story was. I wouldn’t hold that against it in an objective review. Some of my favorite stories are tragedies. I think the game says some serious and important things about timely issues, like racism, the US justice system, homelessness and more. And I think it handles those issues pretty well. But, I tell you what, it makes for a depressing ride. The narrative structure is what I’ve come to call “tiered tragedy.” I don’t know if that’s a real phrase, but I couldn’t get it out of my head as I was playing it. The other games in the series might also be called tiered tragedies, as would something like The Walking Dead. In these kinds of narratives, our characters never seem to catch a break. There is a tragedy at the very beginning of the story (a popular girl goes missing, a father is killed, a zombie apocalypse), and our characters are ushered from one tragedy to the next, seemingly endlessly. They can never really catch a break, because any time they find some time to rest or begin to rebuild their lives, the narrative structure demands that they encounter a new tragedy, probably worse than the others. In LiS 2, this meant that no matter how hard I tried to make Sean a good brother, an honest survivor, a heroic figure, I seemingly just kept being punished for it. And, like I said, I wouldn’t say that this makes it a bad game. It just left me feeling kind of defeated in the end. There is no “happy” ending, as I verified by looking them up after I finished the game and got a pretty sad ending. Turns out it was one of the better ones. There is definitely a place for stories like this in games, though, and that sense of hopelessness may very well have been a part of the point of the game. These characters, Sean and Daniel, are not only burdened with being Hispanic during a time in the US when a violent, vocal minority despises them, they’re further  marked by this new tragedy that makes them orphans, criminals, and transients. What kind of life do they have ahead of them, even with the “happiest” of endings? But, again, maybe that’s part of the point. It’s hard to succeed and overcome tragedy when the system fails you again and again.

Fallout: New Vegas

Fallout: New Vegas was another game I’d been meaning to play for quite some time. “Some time” being, uh, just over a decade. Jesus. When “newer” games on your backlog are ten years old, you know with some certainty that you’re getting old. Sigh. Anyway, I absolutely loved Fallout 3 when it came out, and I spent many an hour scouring that game’s fictional Washington DC/Virginia wasteland. I collected every bobblehead, did every single mission I could find, and squeezed every ounce I could out of the story and world. So, playing New Vegas seemed like a no-brainer. I was a little worried that it was being developed by Obsidian, which by that time I’d only known as the developer of the very good but very buggy Knights of the Old Republic II, so when the reviews for New Vegas started coming out and reviewers complained about the many bugs, I grew even more worried. I hated the idea that I might encounter a game breaking bug 20 hours in. My friend, Ron, did play it at launch, and he reported that he encountered something very much like that. So I put the idea aside and told myself I’d come back to it after it was patched. And I did! Plus… an extra decade.

Anyway, let’s get to the game already. Like Fallout 3, this was a huge game, and I spent a lot of time with it. I didn’t quite exhaust every side mission and collect every snow globe, but it was pretty close. I started playing on my old PS3, but I ran into some technical issues with it so I switched over to playing it via PlayStation Now on my PS5, and near the end of the game I was plagued by some very annoying hitching. Between that and the encroaching release of Resident Evil Village, I sort of rushed through the final stretch of the game. When I started, though, I was at first a little put off by the graphics. Well, not the graphics. The movement. The game seemed very dark, and there was a certain amount of motion blur that made me feel… odd. I’d never run into that in a game before. I turned the brightness up and decided to press on, and I’m glad I did. As soon as I began doing quests for the townsfolk in the opening area, I could sense that same magic that I’d loved about Fallout 3. Roaming the desert, helping friendly strangers, sticking it to the scum that would take advantage of the less fortunate, stumbling upon stories and relics from people that died long ago in the war or shortly after.

This game, more than the other two I’ve played, really plays up the concept of factions and their conflicting motivations. There were so many factions, major, minor, and even medium, and I truly had a difficult time choosing how to deal with some of them. I supported the NCR from the beginning, but I found myself trying to be at least somewhat diplomatic with the other factions so that they wouldn’t stand in my way at the final battle with Caesar’s Legion. Sometimes that meant actually helping them out, and sometimes that meant killing or ousting the current leadership and inserting someone who was easier to influence. It was much more complicated than I expected, but I appreciated it. The final battle could have been a little more engaging, but overall I loved this game, as I could have guessed I would. Oh, and for my primary companion, I went with Veronica as much as I could. Who doesn’t want Felicia Day following them around, punching heads off and quipping wise? As for my second companion, I switched pretty regularly between ED-E and Rex, a very good boi.

Emily is Away ❤

I was looking forward to this game from the minute Kyle Seeley, its developer, announced it. I loved the first two games in the series, Emily is Away and Emily is Away Too, in part because of how they tapped so directly into my nostalgia by taking place entirely in AOL Instant Messenger chat windows. The third game takes place in a fictional version of Facebook (Facenook) in 2008. Setting aside, the game’s narrative plays out just as the previous two did, via a series of chats with other characters. I named my character after myself, selected the pixelated profile picture that looked most like me (which wasn’t very close at all – I’d love future installments to allow actual character creation, but given that one dude makes these, I doubt it will happen), and jumped in, ready to find love… I hoped.

I don’t want to spoil much of the story, but I will say that I liked the writing a lot. The interactions seem very real and believable, and there were so many scenarios that seem ripped straight from my early years on social media. It’s what these games are really good at. They simulate memories that I’d nearly forgotten all about. There is something exciting and visceral about flirting with these virtual characters, in part because they stimulate real feelings I once had doing that exact thing. Unfortunately, as with the other two games, warm and fuzzy flirtation isn’t the only mood the game simulates. As I said, I won’t spoil anything, but there are several endings, and after my first playthrough I was bawling. I was hurt, and it felt a little too real. Just as with the happy emotions, I was all too familiar with the sad feelings of distrust, inadequacy, rejection, and abandonment.  I felt like I’d done everything right, and yet things just didn’t turn out my way. And that was the most painful part, I think, because that’s the kind of thing that goes through your head when a real relationship falls apart. In both cases, I was left looking back and wondering what I did wrong. Maybe if I’d done this different or said that another way… but that kind of thinking, as it is in real life, changes nothing. You have to move on. So I did. My second playthrough ended much, much better. Fuck Emily. Evelyn 4 ever. That should be the next game’s title.

Peggle 2

I don’t have much to say about Peggle 2. I played and loved the first game, and this entry is more of the same. The concept seems so simple, but there is a surprising amount of skill involved. Yes, you basically just launch a ball into a screen of pegs and hope for the best. But once you start getting the hang of it, you begin to see better and better ways to aim your ball, resulting in awesome chain reactions that result in those oh-so-satisfying endings that the series is known for. The new Peggle Masters are just as cute and charming as the first game’s, with Luna being my clear favorite. So spooky and cute. These games are old and I decided to play this one for the first time on a whim, but I do wish PopCap had churned out a couple more over the years.

Tender

Tender is an iOS game that simulates the dating app Tinder. You eventually learn that you are a human that’s travelled to an alien planet in search of… love? Maybe? You swipe through a variety of quirky, hand-drawn aliens, each with a short bio. These profiles aren’t as expansive as real dating profiles, but you see some familiar lines and attitudes. If you match with someone, you chat with them in much the same way as you do in Emily is Away. You choose between 2-3 dialogue options, and then tap your phone to pretend to type it out. If your conversation sparks interest, the other person (?) proposes a date, which you schedule in real time, meaning you have to actually pick up your phone and virtually meet the person at the time and date that you selected. If you forget, they understandably get pissed. It’s a very cool and interesting concept, and there is lots of cool and unique artwork in the game, but ultimately I walked away feeling underwhelmed. Part of the reason for this was that, of the eight or nine characters I chatted with, none of them went particularly well. What’s worse is, apparently the game asks for the name of your real life ex at some point (which I had forgotten and had to be reminded of by Tab, the friend who recommended the game) and it introduces them as one of the characters you can swipe on and romance. Not realizing this, I thought the name was a coincidence and swiped right on her. I then had to virtually chat and romance (and, ultimately, try and fail to reject) my ex. Not cool, man.

Layers of Fear

I love horror movies and games, but something the two share is that there are plenty of crappy releases of each. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, because there are some people who voraciously consume any and all horror, regardless of quality, and more power to them. I just don’t have the time to check everything out, and some of the bad stuff is, like, annoyingly bad. So, I was I hesitant to try Layers of Fear until I heard Brittney Brombacher recommend it on the What’s Good Games podcast. I’ve listened to that podcast enough to know that Brittney’s tastes pretty closely align with mine, so I figured I would give this game a shot.

While it does have the hallmarks of B level horror (less-than-stellar voice acting, cheap scares, weak writing), it also plays around with environment and expectations in some cool ways. I really like when horror games mess with perspective, perception, and other visual components. It’s why I loved Eternal Darkness on the GameCube so much, and why I’ve wanted them to make a sequel. LoF starts out as a pretty standard spooky-mansion game, then devolves more and more into an exploration of nightmare imagery. While I did appreciate the mind-bending visual puzzles, I was also a little sad that the story was told in an unsatisfying way, seemingly in service of the visual spooks. Where the story ended felt very different than where it began, so I almost wonder if they had given us more chances to revisit the mansion in its original state, knowing what we know later in the game, if the story’s conclusion would have felt more grounded. Maybe none of this makes sense if you haven’t played the game, but I’m trying to avoid spoilers, since this game is a mystery, too.

Sakura Succubus

I was tipped off to this game by that same friend, Ron, from the famed New Vegas blurb (above). “Play it and tell me how it is,” he said. Fine. I’ll play the erotic hentai game. For you. For friendship. Okay, so maybe it’s for friendship and maybe it’s because I’ve played a few other sexy-type games. Either way, I played it and was mostly disappointed. It’s rated M, but it’s hardly all that scandalous. It’s suggestive, at best, and despite the game’s tagline of “There’s no shortage of women to woo!”, there are only three. Three women to woo. If that’s not a shortage, it’s gotta be pretty close. I mean, granted I am single, so three women is a surplus to me, but in terms of a fantasy dating sim/visual novel, I’d count three as a shortage.

I didn’t hate this game, because it did have a few funny lines and some of the art was pretty decent. But that’s about all I can say about it. The reason I tend to avoid many visual novels is that they rely almost exclusively on two things: writing and art. There are rarely any gameplay systems or puzzles or even very much in the way of animation. They’re mostly static images and text, so if those elements aren’t interesting, impressive, or engaging, I get bored very quickly. This is where my main issue with this game lies. It has an interesting enough premise, and some of the static images are cool, but there isn’t very much variety in terms of different character poses, expressions, or minor graphical variations, and the writing is pretty bad. I don’t always like to criticize writing in games, because it’s historically been less than impressive to begin with, but the writing in this game contains the kinds of things they tell you not to do in writing classes and workshops. You’ll click through a scene, then the next scene begins with your character waking up and walking you through what you just did. Like “My memory’s a little hazy, but I remember talking with that sexy lady at the bar, and I followed her back to her place where she seduced me, and then I…” We just did that! Why do me need a recap! There is also a lot of unnecessarily elevated adjective work. It’s one of those things they try and break in novice writers. If you mean “face,” you should probably just say “face.” Put the thesaurus down. No one calls it a “visage” anymore. I’ll end on a positive note and say that this was the easiest platinum trophy I’ve ever gotten, though. I literally just clicked through a story for a couple of hours and *badoop* Platinum Trophy Unlocked.

Resident Evil Extravaganza (Resident Evil 0, Resident Evil Code: Veronica, Resident Evil 4, Resident Evil Village Demos)

In a previous post, I mentioned that I’ve recently felt like I could revisit old games without feeling like I was wasting my time (thanks, anxiety). Because of that, I decided to go back and finally, finally finish Resident Evil 0, the only mainline game in the series I haven’t finished. I’d started it twice and never got past the first or second boss, respectively. I think part of it was that I wasn’t a fan of switching characters frequently or the new inventory system, so for this run I decided to use a guide and lower the difficulty to easy. I probably could have just stuck with normal because it ended up being very easy with the guide, but I was able to blaze through the game and I’m glad I finally played it.

One of the things that really struck me about this entry was just how gorgeous it is. I played the HD remaster, sure, but the graphics were only scaled for HD, not reproduced. The move to fully 3D environments in Resident Evil 4, which came out right around the same time as this game, meant a sacrifice of highly detailed, pre-rendered backgrounds for more free mobility and camera movement. It was a good choice, to be sure, but there is something very cool about such an old game looking so good. At the time of those games’ release, gamers were pretty insistent on games being fully 3D, gorgeous, and highly realistic. Tides have changed since then, though, and I wonder if Capcom could get away with releasing an old school, pre-rendered-style ­Resident Evil game. Not a mainline entry, because people would probably lose their shit, but a throw-back side story. These screenshots don’t really do the game justice, but the lighting, shadows, and particle effects were especially impressive. The little leech eggs looked so gross and gelatinous and cool! A weird thing to get excited about, maybe, but you weren’t there. You had to see them in all of their jiggly, glistening glory.

Beauty aside, I did end up liking this one. It, like RE4, is where the series really starts getting into some of the batshit melodrama that would climax in RE6, but it also had a lot of fun stuff from the original games, like shuffling zombies, zombie dogs, big, creepy mansions, and more. Plus, it stars Rebecca Chambers, who I was always hoping to see more of after her brief appearance in the original game. She isn’t always given the same love as the other series mainstays, but I really hope she turns up again soon. Maybe Chris really will turn into a werewolf in Village, as Capcom has been teasing (probably misleading), and then he’ll attack Ethan and we’ll be like “no way!” but then right before he chomps his face, a huge syringe will plunge into his shoulder, and the camera will cut over to Rebecca, who will tilt her glasses down and say “who’s the Alpha now?” Because, you see, she was STARS Bravo Team, and Chris was STARS Alpha team… never mind, let me move on.

After having such a good time with 0, I had a hankering to play Resident Evil 4, even though I’ve played through it several times on both the GameCube and the Wii. It was… uglier than I remember, heh. Where 0’s HD makeover highlighted the benefits of static backgrounds (more processing power available to render the 3D models and other things), RE4’s makeover made some things look better (character models), but some things remained very muddy (environmental textures). It was still great fun, though. I remembered, as I was playing, how exciting and different this entry felt when I first played it. I was also reminded of how Capcom ran with some of the more action-oriented aspects of the game with RE5 and RE6, though. Some of the shooting and the action was fine, but what I liked about RE4 was less those elements and more exploring a spooky village and then an elaborate, deadly castle. Sound familiar? As long as there aren’t too many roundhouse kicks in Village, I’m hoping it takes the best elements of RE4 and RE7.

Deciding to stick with my Resident Evil kick, I chose to play through Resident Evil – Code: Veronica X, since I barely remembered it after playing it a little on a friend’s Dreamcast, and then all the way through when it first came out on the PlayStation 2. I remember thinking it was okay but not great back in the day, but I’ve since seen so much love from some corners of the RE fandom that I was convinced I must have been missing something. I mean, I like Claire a lot, so it is cool that she has (mostly) her own game, but after replaying it now I think my feelings are about the same. I began to get annoyed at having to backtrack in the last half of the game, especially with the annoying moths, who would not only poison me, but also force me to stop and endure the injection animation. This game did introduce semi-fully 3D environments, though. Partially-3D, I guess? So it was visually impressive for its time, but it didn’t have the brand-new excitement of the very different RE4, and it also didn’t retain the same retro-feeling magic of RE0. Plus, there are some very overt issues with gender, which was a little cringey. So, this is certainly on the lower end of my list of Resident Evil games, but I wouldn’t say I didn’t like it. It had enough REzzy charm for me.

And, of course, I have been playing the Resident Evil Village demos as they’ve been made available. I didn’t make it through the Village demo the first time I played it, even though I was trying to be pretty efficient and not linger too much on gawking over the beautiful environment. I made it through the Castle demo a time and a half on my first run, though, but much of that showed up in the MAIDEN demo so it wasn’t quite as exciting. With the 60 minute demo of both sections, I was able to make it through all of both areas. I’m sure I’ll have plenty more to say later, after I’ve played the actual game (out tomorrow!), so I’ll just leave you with some of the screenshots I took of the demos. I’ll be playing Village all weekend, so get ready for a big ol’ post about that soon, too!

I was obsessed with this corner. Look at how the light lands differently on the cloth of the curtain, the wood from the wall, and the metal of the gun. *heart eyes emoji*
More *heart eyes emoji*
Is this a Deftones album cover?

Persona 5 Strikers Steals… My… Heart (okay it doesn’t quite work this time around)

Oh, Persona 5. What is left to say about you? I’ve confessed my love for that game before, and I will probably continue to do so until my mind begins to slip and I forget the people and things that mean the most to me. Actually, I doubt I’ll stop even then. Someone like my sister will be visiting me in a care facility, and she’ll be like “It’s me, Joey. Christy. Do you remember me?” And I’ll be like “Eh? Who’s that? Is that you, Morgana? Turn into a freaky cat truck so we can get back to grinding XP.”

Okay, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch. But I do love the Persona games. A lot. Persona 5, in particular. So when I heard about Persona 5 Scramble, as it was called before the name changed to Strikers, I… wasn’t as excited as you might have guessed. I mean, I was somewhat excited, because give me Persona-anything at this point and I’ll be happy. I played and loved all three dancing games, for example. But if you’d asked me in 2017 what I wanted from the P-Studio team, it would not have been a “Dynasty Warriors Persona game.” What I’ve played of those types of games, musou games, is limited, I confess. I’ve played a couple of demos and I rented one of the earliest Dynasty Warriors games but bounced off of it. If you tell me a team is making a “musou-style game” with an existing IP, what I imagine is the assets (characters, environments, music) of the original IP slapped onto the 1-vs-100 battles of a Dynasty Warriors game and, well, that’s about it. There might be a story, told in brief cut scenes or in-battle dialogue segments, but the focus of a game like that is the fighting. That, to my understanding, is what draws fans of those games to that series.

I don’t have anything against that kind of combat in games, but it’s not really my thing. So when the playfully teased “Persona 5 S” turned out to be Persona 5 Scramble, a musou-style game, I was definitely excited to have more P5, but I couldn’t help but to be disappointed that we weren’t getting a “true” P5 sequel, or even Persona 6, or a remake of Persona 3. I knew I was going to buy Strikers at release and play it, but my expectations were pretty low.

Joey. You silly, silly boy. How wrong you were. Well, in my defense, I think the above explanation justifies my mild apprehension toward this game. It’s not that I was dreading it or anything. I just wasn’t expecting it to be much in the way of a real sequel to P5. I was expecting to plod through the combat, basking in the occasional injection of colorful dialogue from the characters I’d come to know and love. But, as I said, I was so very wrong.

Persona 5 Strikers should really be called something like Persona 5.5 or, less seriously still, Persona 5 2. Or, you know what? Persona 5 Summer Blast or something along those lines would have worked perfectly. Between the name and the pre-release marketing, the focus on the new combat system really distracted from what this game really is, which is a direct sequel to Persona 5. The story follows the exploits of our beloved Phantom Thieves during the summer after the previous game’s story ends. So much of the game is the same that it feels like a real sequel in many ways. The Metaverse still exists, and just as in P5, the team enters dungeons (now called Prisons instead of Palaces) to battle shadows and take down powerful bosses/”Monarchs.” After each Prison is successfully infiltrated, the Thieves regroup and move onto the next, all the while uncovering the mystery of who is behind it all.

So, in structure and narrative, the game is absolutely a direct sequel to P5. It doesn’t have the calendar system, where you have to manage your time and can only perform a certain number of actions in a day – which makes sense, because much of that system is centered around the idea that the protagonists are students who have to balance their school life with their extracurricular, paranormal activities, while in this game they are on summer vacation and there is no fall term to worry about (for the player, anyway). While that’s a welcome omission, this game is also missing the social link/friendship/dating mechanic of P5, which is a blessing and a curse. A blessing because you don’t have to worry about who to spend your time with and making sure you level up everyone so that you can unlock certain Persona fusions. A curse because that is one of my favorite aspects of the core games.

What really make this game feel so familiar and like a direct, full sequel, however, are the art and the voice acting. New levels and characters fit right into the P5 universe, which I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised about, but I guess I was expecting Koei Tecmo to be handling more of the game than just the combat systems. Everything outside of combat feels like it was made by the same team(s) who made P5. The art is stylish, the menus are dynamic and fun, and the dialogue sounds exactly as it should. All of the excellent voice actors from P5 return as well, which is a critical part of making this game feel like a warm, welcoming cup of hot cocoa. Maybe it’s because I spent so much time with P5 but I was so smitten with the performances of all of the voice talent involved, more so than any other game I’ve ever played. Halfway through my playthrough of that game, I found myself searching for the actors on IMDb, finding and following them on Twitter, and getting so excited when I’d hear them in a different game or anime. They brought the same charm and talent to Strikers, and I’ve once again loved every moment of hearing Max Mittelman (Ryuji) exclaim “for real!?” or Cassandra Lee Morris (Morgana) swoon over Erika Harlacher’s Lady Ann. My favorite short quip comes from the amazing Erica Lindbeck, though. It’s a very simple, small line, and she chirps it when you pick up a piece of loot in the prison: “Meh. I give it a 5 out of 10.”

Okay, so the game wasn’t the vehicle for non-stop musou combat with a sprinkle of story that I expected it to be, which is great. But let’s talk about the combat, because I was also pleasantly surprised by how much I liked that, too. In the previously mentioned musou games I dabbled with, there are waves after waves of enemies that surround you, and I was usually very easily able to get by with learning one or two simple combos and button mashing. While that is true, in essence, here, there are seemingly far fewer enemies, probably because P5’s elemental weakness/”All Out attack” return, and with them comes the opportunity for slightly more complex, strategic combat. It might sound convoluted, but I quickly and easily found a rhythm of scanning for weaknesses, attacking with Personas, taking advantage of environmental attack points, throwing in a few physical strike combos, and tagging teammates to increase Showtime meters (which are carried over from Persona 5 Royal). I got into trouble a couple of times early on, but once I found this rhythm I never struggled with any of the Monarchs or even the very difficult Dire Shadows (once I was appropriately leveled, of course). While I do still prefer turn-based combat, I ended up really liking this system, too.

I feel like I’m doing that line-by-line, clinical thing, but my love for this game and the other Persona games goes deeper than stunning art and excellent voice acting. The confluence of elements that make up these games creates a feeling that this world, these characters are real and I feel welcomed among them. Early in the game, I was happy to bounce around familiar settings from P5, but as soon as an RV camper was introduced and I was told I’d be going on a summer road trip all around Japan with my friends, I felt that warm and fuzzy feeling that I’ve come to know so well. Yes, the combat is great, but I was with my friends, and my favorite moments ended up being things like our time on the beach, or our many adventures with food, or any number of smaller, personal moments. Riding the Ferris wheel in Sapporo with Ann. Watching the fireworks with the whole gang, including the new, absolutely adorable Sophia. This entry, whatever the gameplay is, was just another excuse for me to hang out with my old, virtual friends. And I was 100% here for it.

I’m currently finishing up the platinum trophy, but there is one trophy that requires an ungodly amount of grinding for Bond points. Why does Atlus insist on always having at least one pain-in-the-ass trophy? The good news is that the music is, of course, bangin’, so I’ll just enjoy the amazing soundtrack while I grind these last hours away. I really loved my time with Strikers, and the steady release of Persona content since P5 (Royal, Dancing in Starlight/Moonlight, Persona Q 2, and now Strikers) has really kept me happy while awaiting news of the next mainline game. I fully plan on watching the anime for all three Persona games this summer, too. I’m glad that Atlus is dedicated to producing content outside of the core games, because it gives fans more time with the characters they love. As much as I am looking forward to Persona 6, I will be sad to leave my P5 friends behind, so having anime, manga, etc. to help me extend our time together is wonderful. Atlus has built up enough trust with me that I feel confident I will love P6, though, so as Futaba would say: “Bring on the buffs!” Er, “bring on the sequel!”

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