Final Fantasy VIII was the first RPG I played that had an explicit love story at the center of its plot. Others had hints of romance, but you mostly had to create your own romantic relationships in your mind if you wanted that to be a part of your story. Having said that, FFVIII was also the first game that made me wish I could actually choose my romantic partner, as the BioWare games would go on to become famous for. Don’t get me wrong, Rinoa would make a fine partner, but I found myself being angry at the game for not letting me date Quistis Trepe, the talented, smart, badass Garden instructor.
There’s a reason she has a fan club. She was so capable that she became a SeeD at 15 and had classes full of students her own age at 18. I don’t have anything against wilting flowers, but there’s something so attractive about a woman that is that intelligent, accomplished, and strong. When she almost made a pass at me (as Squall), early in the game, and the game forced me to dismiss her coldly, I was furious. How is this not the woman I’m supposed to be with? Her aesthetic is beautiful and bookish, stoic and stylish. She can be stern and serious, and compassionate and playful. She has a freaking whip. Those glasses! That hair! Ugh. I swear, if they ever remake FFVIII, I want options to socialize and romance different people, like in the Persona and BioWare games. I know they won’t, I know, but I want it. Trepies for life.
So the semester is well under way, and although this is my first semester with no coursework, between lesson planning, grading, and reading/prepping for my prospectus (not to mention making time for games/relaxing), I’ve once again fallen behind on posting blogs. I really want to write out my thoughts about Resident Evil 2 before they slip even further from my mind, though, so this is going to be a ramble-y mess of a blog, but here goes.
First off, as I like to do, I should explain my history with the series to contextualize my feelings. I grew up a Nintendo kid, so I loyally bought a Nintendo 64 even though the then-new PlayStation was getting a surprising amount of hype. There were several games that got my attention and made me want to betray my fanboy roots, but ultimately it was the original Resident Evil 2 that pushed me to convince my parents to buy me a PS. Before then, my sister’s boyfriend had one, and we three played the hell out of the first game, Resident Evil. I usually played while they watched, but we turned the lights off and eagerly consumed every classic, b-movie moment.
So of course Resident Evil 2 was the first game I bought for my shiny new PlayStation, along with Resident Evil: Director’s Cut. I wrote about the former on my Top 25 list, saying “Resident Evil 2 was magical in that it retained the same haunted, abandoned feeling that the first game had, but amped it up in every aspect.” I think that sums up my feelings about it pretty nicely, so let’s fast forward 17 years to when Yoshiaki Hirabyashi announced in a 2015 YouTube video that Capcom had approved a remake for RE2, and you can probably guess that I was pretty ecstatic. Over the years I’ve learned to be cautious with my excitement, though, so after my initial freak-out session, I allowed myself to forget about the game until it came out this year. And here we are.
Having said all of that, I might come off as biased, but I objectively think this game is going to make for an interesting conversation piece when the game of the year discussions begin. It’s clearly going to be in the running for some awards, but will gaming sites consider it a new game, thereby eligible for the top spot? Or is the fact that it’s ‘mostly’ a remake disqualifying? I suppose what matters more is the standard it will set for future remakes and reboots. This game didn’t have to be this good. Look at the recently released Spyro Reignited Trilogy. That game’s developers largely left the core game untouched, but they did an excellent job of updating the presentation. Fans were, from what I hear, mostly very happy, but the game(s) didn’t seem to reach a profoundly expanded audience. Resident Evil 2 sold millions of copies and was all over social media for weeks. It seems likely that many of the people who played it had never played the original, meaning that if done well, remakes can actually greatly expand a series’ fanbase and not just appeal to the base that already exists.
I’m waxing philosophical, so let me get a little more specific in what I loved about the game. I’d like to start with the feeling I had when first entering the police station. Although I was more excited to play as Claire, I chose Leon to start with because he was the recommended starting character for the original game, so I wanted to experience this version just as I did its source.
Entering the police station in the original RE2 was like entering the mansion in RE (with the difference being that you are in control of the frantic fleeing that precedes it). It was a safe space, a refuge from the madness outside, but in both cases something seemed… off. In RE2 it’s a combination of the looming, carefully lit statue that dominates your view, and the emptiness and quiet of a seemingly-abandoned police station during a massive emergency. If the police are gone, how bad must things be in this city? This is one of the things the developers nailed: atmosphere.
Atmosphere is one of those nebulous things that is really the result of several elements coming together, though. The original games felt atmospheric in their own ways, but the improvement in graphics allowed the team to make a key change to this iteration: it is dark. Like, almost pitch black where your flashlight isn’t shining. Where the original games used camera angles to obscure your vision and create anxiety about what might be in each new room, this game uses darkness, and it’s super effective. Sound is key in both games, because a common strategy is to pause when you enter a new area, listening for a telltale zombie moan or licker click. It made for an exhilarating back and forth, where one minute you’re lulled by the security of a cleared room, only to exit into an unknown and potentially deadly situation.
But, really, what do you know about anxiety in the first half of the game? You certainly feel like an old, grizzled veteran of it… until you meet Mr. X, when a new kind of terror promises to haunt you at every turn. In the original game you’re treated to a cutscene that shows some kind of pod dropped through the roof of the station – a hint of something menacing to come. There is no such hint in this version, which I think is great because even though I was very familiar with the old game I was still caught off-guard when he popped up in this one.
He was a son of a bitch in the old game, but in this version he is absolutely overbearing. Where you used to be able to duck into a safe room and have him leave you alone for a while, in this one he is relentless in his pursuit. The sound of his heavy stomps triggers a sense of panic, and the use of context-specific controller vibration dependent on his distance from you is a reminder of how effective (and neglected) that technology is. The pulsing music that follows him contributes to the fear, and it reminded me of the use of harsh, grinding music in the old horror movie The Entity, where the music is used as a way to indicate when the invisible spirit is ‘on-screen.’ More impressively, I think, they managed to give Mr. X a personality using posture, head movement, and gestures, without him ever uttering a word, which is something that I don’t think the old game accomplished nearly as well. I’m being too clinical in my description, I think, but it’s difficult to capture his presence without shifting into narrative prose. If I recommend this game to someone who hasn’t heard about it, it will be in part because I’ll want to hear about their response to Mr. X.
The game also gets a lot of the little things right. One of my favorite little things about the older games was the brief notes and journal entries you’d find. You didn’t need to read them to understand the main story, but they made the world so much more real and rich. In this iteration, when I came across Chief Irons’ notes on his taxidermy subjects, I excitedly flipped through each macabre page. And then I came across this:
The tone was definitely different than the previous pages, and the measurements didn’t seem to make sense. It was pretty clear that he was talking about a woman, but… did he kill her? It says “captured,” but also “forever.” Did he kill a woman and stuff her, like an animal? I didn’t think much about it beyond that, but later, when I was playing as Sherry and sneaking through Irons’ secret office, I found answers.
It’s the little things. Another one: the gore. Of course a game where you’re killing zombies will have some gore, but there were a few particularly noteworthy scenes where they really turned it up a notch. I’ll just let the screenshots speak for themselves.
After beating the game with both characters and thus getting the “true” ending, I still felt like I wasn’t quite done with it, so I decided to get the platinum trophy, which would require at least a few more playthroughs. On one such playthrough I decided to try Claire’s alternate noir costume. The game flashed a prompt asking me if I wanted to use the included filter, but I honestly didn’t read it or think about what that meant. I was happily surprised, then, to see that the game was in black and white once I was dropped into the world.
Having studied film in grad school, I was a little embarrassed to realize only as I made my way through the game just how noir it was the entire time, even without the filter. Gumshoe with a heart of gold, femme fatale, rainy urban setting, symbolic use of light and shadow, Mr. X’s trench coat and fedora (plus the fedoras strewn all over the police station)… how did it take me so long to see it? It’s something I’ll probably write more about later, but things like that are really exciting to me, because if we read video games as texts with ‘authors,’ like we do with film, we have a Japanese team making a game set in the west and very clearly influenced by western texts (themselves influenced by German texts). And how does a Japanese player read it? Super fascinating stuff.
Okay, I have a million more things I could gush about (performances, story tweaks, enemies, gameplay, etc.) but I’ve already spent more time than I should have writing this, and there is something that really stood out to me but that I haven’t seen anyone talking about on social media or in the press. I mentioned the lighting earlier, and while that’s great on its own, in some cases it highlights how excellent the textures in this game are. The textures in Resident Evil 7 were great, but Capcom really seems to be mastering the RE Engine.
Okay, these screenshots aren’t big enough to do them justice, but check out the shot of Leon in his alternate Arklay Sheriff’s costume. There’s lots of impressive stuff here, like the fact that everything on his uniform bobs and sways realistically with his movement, but let’s just focus on textures. The braided belt actually looks braided, not like a pattern overlayed on a flat surface. His handcuffs have a realistic metallic gleam. His pants are a heavier weave fabric than his shirt. You can see that the display and buttons on his walkie-talkie are actually depressed and the light creates appropriate shadow on them. Most impressively, I think, are the textures of the different leathers on his belt segments. Look at the walkie-talkie holster closely. You can not only see a realistic imperfection on the surface, a bubbling where the leather may be separating, but it too casts a very minor shadow of its own. Crazy.
Look at Leon’s uniform in this next shot. You can not only see that his shoulder pad is a different material than his shirt, but it’s saturated from the rain that he just came in from in a different way, too, and in a different way than his neck, which is shiny as opposed to soaked. You can also see the stitching at the seam of his shirt in great detail. Ada’s dress is another feat, as it looks like real, slightly bunched (there must be a word for that) fabric, even when she moves.
You can see several textures in this shot of Claire, too, like the lighter leather of her knife sheath, the metal of the gun, the fabric of her fannie pack, and more, but what I really want to draw attention to is the design sewn into the back of her vest. It might be a little difficult to make out because I made this image smaller (to save muh tables), but you can see that it truly looks sewn in, as the stitching is very detailed, follows realistic patterns, and actually casts a shadow as if it were really imprinted on the vest. Plus you can see the little wrinkle/bunching of fabric just below the pattern, which is also realistic, because stitchwork like that is often more stiff than the surrounding fabric, so it doesn’t bend as easily as that same fabric.
I could talk extensively about William Birkin’s mutated design, but I just wanted to specifically draw attention to the way the bones in his ribs protrude from his side (it looks cooler in motion) and his main eye (below). His eyes are especially impressive, because they look realistically gelatinous, including the ability for us to see through the cornea when it’s angled to the side. These are things that developers could only sort of achieve in cutscenes in the past, but now this is all in real time.
Lastly, just check out this zombie. The most basic and common of enemies. The filminess of the eyes, the gloss of the teeth, the hair matted with filth, the wounds… the level of detail and the ability of this engine to render even the most mundane of enemies as interesting and exciting to look at just blows me away.
So, yeah, I don’t have an elegant conclusion to this unwieldy beast of a blog, so I’ll just end by saying that this is one of my favorite games of all time. I loved the original, but Capcom improved on and added to virtually everything that made that game so great. It makes me so happy to see the near-universal love and praise the game’s been getting, so I hope when the end of the year does come it gets the accolades it deserves. And as much as everyone seemed to hate Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, I really liked it, so I would be so beyond excited if they brought the same level of refinement and innovation to remaking that entry next (can you imagine if Nemesis could break through almost any barrier!?). But, hey, I’ll be happy with a Resident Evil 8 announcement at E3 2019, too.
Oh, Ace Combat. Where do I even begin with you? I played Ace Combat 2 and 3 around the time of their release, but I wasn’t all that enamored with them. I mean, they were (like many 3D games from the mid-late 90s) pretty ugly.
But the PlayStation 2 was the first console I bought entirely with my own money, and as a teenager with disposable income, I was snatching up lots of different kinds of games. Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies was one of them, and I very quickly became addicted to its gorgeous graphics and intuitive controls. Now, if I love a game and don’t want to stop playing it I will try and get the platinum trophy for it because it gives me a great excuse to keep playing. With no achievement system in place for the PS2, I played AC4 until I had shot down every special (“named”) enemy, unlocked every plane, skin, and weapon, and S ranked every single map on all difficulties. I really loved that game a lot, and its sequel, The Unsung War, wasn’t bad either. But, as I mention in my Top 25 entry for AC4, I was “disappointed with every successor that attempted to revolutionize the flight mechanics or introduce outrageous enemies. Maybe someday they’ll return to their roots.”
Well, Joey-from-a-few-years-ago, hold on to your proverbial butt, because Namco must have heard the prayers of fans like me. Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is a gloriously crafted throwback to AC4 and AC5. One of the things I very much disliked about some of the later AC games was the way the aircraft controlled. I don’t just mean the control scheme, because that can be adapted to. In AC4 and 5, your plane controlled as if it were on an invisible plank, and you tilted that plank to make the plane roll, pitch, yaw, etc. I call it intuitive because when you consider the fact that the flaps that control movement are on the rear of the plane, and they determine which way the front of the plane points, it seems like a concerted effort, one that moves the whole plane, like a plank.
In some of the later AC games, instead of being on an invisible plank, it was more like your plane was being drawn by a string. Moving your joystick moved the tip of the plane, not a central axis that ran through the aircraft, the same way that the ships in the Star Wars Battlefront and Rogue Squadron games handle. It makes a little more sense for space combat (though I do still wish those games allowed for both approaches), but for a realistic jet it just seems unrealistic and cartoonish.
The first thing I noticed about AC7 was that it had returned to the control style of old, and I immediately knew how to masterfully control my plane. It felt like trying on an old t-shirt that you feel like you must have outgrown, only to realize it fits perfectly. The game also mirrors a lot of AC4 and 5’s narrative, mission types, and style, but has a healthy mix of new to go with the old so it doesn’t just feel like a complete rehash. There are the familiar narrow passages to fly in, giant airships to take down, and low canyons to stealth through, but also new drones, weather effects, and a messy sandstorm to navigate.
As for the graphics, which were a big draw for me back in the early PS2 days, they look a lot better in motion than in some of the screenshots I’m posting here. I was worried when I saw early screens of the game, because it didn’t look as photo-realistic as I was hoping. Once you’re moving, though, almost everything looks great. Some of the ground assets are a little muddy/blurry if you happen to crash and get a good look at them, but for the most part I was very happy with the visuals. There is one specific graphical choice I wanted to talk about, though, because I was thinking a lot about it while I was playing, then I saw it sort of come up on social media. Someone tweeted that the dog in the cutscene below, which they called dog.png, was the funniest part of the game. People jumped in the comments and joked about how lazy the developers were for using pictures instead of ‘real’ graphics.
The thing is, they do it a lot. Like, in most cutscenes. No one seems to notice, though, and I even found myself having a hard time determining what was real and what was fabricated in some scenes. The shot below, for example: the characters are models, but I feel pretty certain that the fencing, barbed wired, and prison background are real photos.
A more obvious one, and one that I recognized and knew I could verify, is the shot below. There’s a scene in the game where they show and describe a junkyard for planes, out in the desert. There is a real place like this, though, called the “Boneyard,” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, in Arizona.
I found the site on Google Maps and located the exact area that they pulled from (above). You can see that they copied and pasted extra planes from other parts of the site, and they added some B2 bombers that would almost certainly not be in a junkyard yet, but overall it’s obvious that they used a real photo instead of creating a scene from scratch. I made a gif of the two, to show the similarities and differences.
So the dog.png thing is funny, sure, but I think the developers should be applauded for trying to seamlessly mix reality and fiction and (mostly) pulling it off. It’s not a graphical style that would work for all games, but for a military game it brings a touch of reality to a fictional world, deepening immersion and grounding the narrative a bit more.
The final thing I want to touch on is a bit critical. The opening cutscene sets up a story of the granddaughter of a pilot from one of the wars from the old games. With her grandpa and his friends, she uses scraps from the planes in that boneyard to make a barely flyable jet that she uses to see the sky as her grandpa once did. She is shot down by a military fighter who mistakes her for the enemy, though, because she unknowingly makes her maiden flight just as a new war is breaking out. She manages to control her crash and survives, albeit with a serious leg injury, and is thrown in a military prison.
As all of this was playing out, I was thinking of how cool it was as a premise. If veteran players of the series are the grandpa, once flying and fighting in the wars of the old games, putting us in the shoes of his granddaughter who has to learn to fly and fight new aircraft in a new war is genius. We feel like we have something to prove. Other pilots are going to disregard us as just an amateur who couldn’t even evade the fighter that shot us down. But I quickly realized that the granddaughter is not the main character. We are another faceless, nameless character, meant to allow us to project ourselves on. I’m not complaining about that too much, because it is still a little thrilling when the other pilots talk about how awesome you are. But I can’t help but think that the old pilot’s granddaughter was set up to be a really great protagonist, and her story is kind of wasted as a side story. That aside, I loved this game a ton, and if it weren’t for the trophies that require online play I would probably try for the platinum. Either way, I see myself logging lots more flight hours in the future.
If you looked at my game collection, you might say “wow, you sure like fighting games!” And I would say “uh, excuse me, I don’t know you, how did you get into my house?” But after you explain that you are madly in love with me and broke into my house to steal a lock of my beard hair and my heart, I would settle down a bit and explain that, even though I have some of the newest games in the Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, SoulCalibur, King of Fighters, Dead or Alive series (and more!), I don’t actually consider myself much of a serious fighting game fan. I think I have some kind of compulsion to rekindle the years in my youth when Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat II were the absolute biggest things in gaming.
I like fighting games, don’t get me wrong. I just don’t make any real attempt to learn move sets, combos, etc. The way it usually goes, is: I see a newly released fighting game in a series that I once loved a lot; I don’t immediately buy it because I’m afraid I might not like it as much as the older one; I eventually cave and buy it; I don’t like it as much as the older one; I stop playing after a few hours.
But some of my favorite games are fighting games. I’ve spent dozens and dozens of hours playing Street Fighter II, Street Fighter Alpha 3, SoulCalibur II, Super Smash Bros. Melee and a few others. I don’t stick with fighting games that don’t grab me, though, because there’s usually not much narrative or lore to follow to a conclusion. The Injustice games do a great job at weaving a story in with gameplay, but very few fighting games that I’ve played put that much time and effort into narrative. So, for me, if there isn’t an engaging story, there has to be something else that hooks me. Fun, accessible controls, incredible graphics, fun multiplayer, etc.
The SoulCalibur series has interesting enough lore, but the reason I got into it in the first place was how absolutely stunning the graphics in the second game were. The series became, for me, a place to see some of the best looking characters and environments on any given platform. I loved the second and third games, but despite purchasing and playing IV and V, I didn’t connect with them in the same way that I did with the other games. When I heard SoulCalibur VI was coming out I was excited by the potential for an SC game on the current generation of hardware. With graphically impressive games like Horizon Zero Dawn, God of War, and Red Dead Redemption 2 out there, SoulCalibur VI has the potential to be the most beautiful, detailed fighter of all time. That’s what I was thinking, anyway.
SoulCalibur VI doesn’t look bad by any stretch of the imagination. It is a pretty game. But it’s not as mind-blowing and breathtaking as I thought it would be. Look at the ground in this screenshot:
The background is blurry for style, but the area of ground in focus is blurry and muddy, too. It looks like something from a last-gen game. The characters look decent, but some of the same rough details show up on their costumes:
I don’t like crapping all over games, so I’m not doing this to be spiteful or suggest this is a ‘bad’ game. It could have been a limitation of the engine that they used, I don’t know. I’ve read that Bandai Namco didn’t want to make this game at some point, so I’m glad that they made it and I know I’m being a bit nitpicky, but I guess I was hoping for something a bit more cutting edge. The story mode is cool in theory, but ultimately the writing was a little stilted and it didn’t hold my interest for long. So this was one of those fighting games that I mentioned earlier, where I bought it hoping that it would be as good as the one(s) that I really loved, but I ended up giving up on it after just 7-8 hours.
Similarly, I was super excited when I picked up Street Fighter: 30th Anniversary Collection, but I only ended up trying to play the original Street Fighter (yeesh, it is rough) and playing through Chun-Li’s story in Street Fighter II. I’ll probably get back to it, but with so many big titles being released early this year it’s hard to be motivated to revisit games that I’ve already played. *shrug emoji* I did appreciate the development notes and images from the different games’ productions, though. I can’t wait to dig deeper into that stuff at some point.
I was one of the many, many kids who saw Jurassic Park in theaters back in 1993. I loved it so much, in fact, that I saw it seven times in theaters. I was obsessed. I had the toys, I wanted to be a paleontologist, and anytime my family went on a long car ride where there were trees lining the highway, I would imagine a tyrannosaurus rex bursting through the treeline. When I saw any kind of fern or remotely tropical-looking plant, I’d wish I could have a huge yard filled with them, so I could have a real jungle for my toy dinos to play in. A quarter of a century later, Jurassic World Evolution would give me that opportunity, in digital form.
The bar for Jurassic Park games is not too high, to be frank. Of the games I’ve played, the SNES Jurassic Park was an okay but not great adventure game, the Sega Genesis version was beautiful but otherwise clunky and forgettable, and the Lost World games for both PlayStation and the arcade (different games, same title) were also visually appealing, and the gameplay for both was pretty decent, but ultimately neither was anything too special.
Is this why I loved Jurassic World Evolution so much? Because its predecessors shined less brightly? I don’t think so. I heard a game reviewer on a podcast say that Evolution was “a good game, but not a good Jurassic Park game.” I disagree. It’s not perfect. There could be more park options and sometimes the building tools were a wee bit wonky. But the game captures the magic of an island filled with dinosaurs in a way that no other JP game has.
I think many of the earlier games shared a problem with Jurassic Park III: they forget that the dinosaurs are the stars. Sure, we all loved Drs. Sattler, Malcolm, and Grant, but we went back to the theater and we bought the toys and we wore the t-shirts because of the raptors and the t-rex and the veggiesauruses (none of whom held doctorate degrees, to my knowledge). In The Lost World, Spielberg realizes that the dinos are the real heroes, so the plot revolves largely around saving and protecting a baby t-rex and its parents. In JP III, one of the first scenes we are treated to is a showdown between a spinosaurus (Newer! Bigger! Meaner!) and our beloved t-rex, in which the spinosaurus wins easily, tossing the t-rex aside like it was nothing. We are supposed to feel a sense of fear and foreboding, the tone set by the introduction of a new villain… but I have trouble believing I was the only person that felt a little sad and kind of angry. Can you imagine if Temple of Doom had started with a younger, buffer adventurer snapping Indiana Jones’s neck and throwing him aside? You don’t kill your showpieces off to make a point.
The next film in the series, Jurassic World, addresses this, as the narrative is essentially about greedy big-wigs who think a newer, bigger, flashier dinosaur is what people want to see, only to have it almost destroy their brand. Who saves the day? The t-rex and the raptors. The real stars of the series. And then Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom forgets the lesson all over again, but that’s neither here nor there. My point is that many of the games in the series make the dinosaurs out to be typical villains, meant to be dispatched without much thought. Jurassic World Evolution is probably not the Jurassic Park game that we want (that would probably be a Tomb Raider/Uncharted-like adventure through the various famous islands, right?), but it gives us the opportunity to birth, raise, and care for the stars of one of our favorite film franchises. It respects your will to have them fight, if you want, but you can also create the most dino-friendly parks possible. I think that’s why I ended up liking this game so much and playing the hell out of it.
I unlocked Isla Nublar very early, and as the only island where you get infinite money and no missions to bog you down, I decided to save it for my last park. I didn’t particularly enjoy all of the missions that take place on the other islands, which are required in order to unlock all of the dinosaurs and other things, but I generally liked the challenges that some of them brought. It was rewarding to overcome a ravaging storm or treat a dino-virus before it spread. When I finished every mission and was happy with all of my parks, I set up “a kind of biological preserve,” as Hammond once said, on Isla Nublar. No guest shops, monorails, viewing platforms, or restaurants. Just five of the biggest paddocks I could make, a small support sector, and lots of dinosaurs.
I gave the t-rex her own paddock, of course, and I had a pack of five raptors with their own pen. I decided to hatch an indoraptor and give her her own space, too. The last two paddocks were filled with lots of herbivores: one pen with a few types of sauropods and smaller dinos, and another with medium, anti-social dinosaurs like sauropelta and stygimoloch. They had lots of food, water, grassland, and forest, and when I left them they were all happy and healthy. Farewell… to Jurassic Park.
I’ve shared my love for Persona 4 and Persona 5 in previous blogs, so it probably comes as little surprise that as soon as Atlus announced that Persona 3 and Persona 5 dancing games were not only coming out late in 2018, but would be offered in a limited edition bundle that included a digital version of the Persona 4 dancing game for the PS4 (for the first time), I immediately pre-ordered it. I played through P4 (Dancing All Night) and P5 (Dancing in Starlight) recently so I just wanted to jot down some thoughts because I’ve been playing a lot of games and am getting behind on writing about them.
I played Dancing All Night first, because I had more recently played Persona 4 and it was the first of the Persona dancing games. I said in my blog about P4 that it is funnier than P5, and that humor made a welcome return in Dancing All Night. There was a surprising amount of story and dialogue in this game, and though the writing was generally less developed and punchy than it was in the core game, there were still several scenes that made me burst out laughing.
The gameplay was pretty standard. It was simple enough to get into and appropriately challenging at times, even if sometimes there seemed like there was way too much going on at once to really see the prompts. I also find it impossible to watch the dancers while I’m playing, but thankfully they have a replay mode where you can watch a perfect version of a song. And it was a small thing, but I liked that you could dress your characters up in various outfits.
I realized immediately that Rise’s (P4 bae) voice actor had changed, but I was happily surprised when I saw the character was now voiced by Ashly Burch, who I think is great. I was even happier with the introduction of Kanami Mashita. When I’d heard that there was a new character, I worried about how they would fit into such a fun cast with established chemistry, but Kanami totally fits right in. She’s cute, funny, and I like that she represents a totally different kind of idol than Rise. It’s too bad she wasn’t in Persona 4: Golden or I might have had a harder time deciding who to romance.
So, overall, I loved Dancing All Night. The remixed P4 songs were great and I liked the stylish slight redesigns of the characters. Did the story drag on a little too long? Sure. But what I actually appreciated about that was that it just offered more opportunities to see the characters interact and talk, and that’s really what these games seem to be about: getting more time with your favorite characters. So this didn’t feel like a shoddy side-story, it really did feel to me like an expansion of the P4 universe that I already loved so much.
And if I loved the Persona 4 universe, I was head over heels for the world of Persona 5. The gameplay is virtually identical in Dancing All Night and Dancing in Starlight, so the thing that stood out the most to me was the graphics. P5 was a gorgeous, stylish game, but you can kind of tell it was originally developed for the PS3 when you look at the character models and environments. They’re well designed, but they’re also fairly low in detail and sharpness. It didn’t bother me at all when I played it, but as soon as Dancing in Starlight loaded up and I saw the new, crisp, beautiful versions of the P5 crew, I was (unreasonably) overjoyed.
Not only did the characters themselves get a graphical facelift, many of the environments they dance in are 3D, high def versions of locations from the original game. They also added detailed, explorable bedrooms for each of the characters. This is all very exciting not just because it’s a prettier version of art I already liked looking at, but because of the possible implications that it has for a re-release, like Atlus did with Persona 4: Golden. In fact, not long after this game was released they announced P5R and said nothing other than the fact that we would have to wait until March to learn more. I keep seeing the weirdest rumors about what this project will be (Persona 5 Racing? Really?), but I think it’s going to be Persona 5: Ruby. Yellow was the primary thematic color of Persona 4, so when they revamped it for re-release the new subtitle was the more valuable, flashy name for its primary color. With red being P5’s primary thematic color, ruby would be the parallel if they were going for a consistent naming convention, which we see that they like because of the similar subtitles for all of the dancing games.
Regardless of the subtitle, my whole point was that these new character models and environments (and the ability to interact with rooms and characters in both first-person and virtual reality) make me wonder if they are recreating all of the assets for a P5 re-release in tandem, and we can look forward to an even more breathtakingly beautiful version of the game, one where we can actually explore the streets, buildings, and environments from a variety of perspectives – and maybe in VR! That is too exciting to consider.
As with Dancing All Night, I like that you can collect a bunch of costumes for the characters, and I really liked some of the remixes of these songs. I did think the playlist was a little short, but they offer several free downloadable songs, and I went ahead and bought a live version of “Whims of Fate” (favorite track from the P5 soundtrack) and a song from P4.
While the writing in Dancing All Night seemed a little weaker than that of its original game, I thought the writing and dialogue in Dancing in Starlight was actually a little sharper and more natural than some of P5’s. I loved that the twins played such a big role, and almost every one of their scenes was hilarious. But in general, as with Dancing All Night, I was just so happy to have an opportunity to revisit the world and characters that I love so much from Persona 5. I’m waiting to play Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight until I finally get around to actually playing Persona 3, but all of this Persona activity, along with the remake of Atlus’s Catherine gives me such high hopes that we’ll see a new version of P5 for PlayStation 4 and Switch a lot sooner than I might have once expected.
When Super Smash Bros. came out on the N64, I thought it looked like a lot of fun and I loved the concept of Nintendo characters like Link and Princess Peach fighting each other. Pair this with the TV spots Nintendo released for it, which seemed out of character for Nintendo at the time, and it’s no wonder that I wanted to play it.
But N64 games were expensive, and Smash Bros. was released so late in the system’s life that I was more interested in purchasing the cheaper and more readily available PlayStation games. So Smash Bros. remained a rental for me, but I did have a lot of fun playing with friends.
As seems to be the case for many, it was with Super Smash Bros. Melee for the GameCube where my love for the series eventually bloomed, though. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to make up for mostly missing out on the original, and hot damn if they didn’t add a ton of content. The original roster was quaint and didn’t necessarily seem anemic at the time, but when I saw the roster for Melee I was almost happy that I had passed on the N64 classic. 26 characters! Ness from EarthBound! It seemed too good to be true, but it most assuredly wasn’t.
I bought and played both Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, and I loved them both, but they didn’t quite hook me like Melee had. They added characters and levels, yes, but for whatever reason I didn’t find myself obsessively trying to unlock every character and playing through everyone’s campaign. Again, I totally liked them, and I did eventually unlock almost everything, but they just didn’t inspire the same kind of magical tinglies that Melee had.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, however, brought the tinglies. It’s hard to explain why, though. Sure, it has a LOT more levels and characters than the previous games, but the gameplay itself has always been the same, mostly, with minor refinements and tweaks (final smash not included). But when I dove directly into the World of Light, I immediately felt the same kind of excited rush that I had with Melee. Was it that I was forced to unlock characters? Or the cute and inventive ways they would set up matches to reflect certain games or worlds (like Zero Suit Samus in a white costume as The Boss from Metal Gear Solid 3). Or the fact that the graphics were obviously polished and not so jagged and rough, as they were in the Wii U version? It was probably a combination of all of these things and more, but I couldn’t stop playing.
One of my favorite things about the series is the crossover of iconic gaming characters, and I still find myself amazed that this game has fighters from Final Fantasy, Castlevania, Bayonetta, and Street Fighter, with icons like Sonic, Mega Man, and Pac-Man, fighting Nintendo characters from every major series in their history. I do have one small complaint in this arena, though. Perhaps the specific thing I loved the most, and what I spent a great portion of my time in Melee doing, was collecting trophies. Nintendo mentioned during one of their pre-release Nintendo Directs that trophies wouldn’t be a part of this game because of time constraints, and they hoped that the new spirit system would make up for it. The spirit system is great, don’t get me wrong. I am impressed by the number of major and minor characters from all of the games represented, and they are definitely fun to collect and browse, but first of all, looking at 3D models in the form of trophies is more fun, and second, I wish they had included some kind of little blurb about the original game that the character came from. A fairly small complaint, yeah, but it’s definitely one thing this game lacks, even if it’s the only thing.
And last but certainly not least, I have to mention how mindblowing it was to hear the announcement that Joker from Persona 5 was going to be the game’s first DLC character. I’ve rambled on about my love for that game enough, but I will just say that, like seemingly everyone, I was not expecting this at all. Not only has a Persona main title never been on a Nintendo platform, Joker just doesn’t seem like the kind of iconic character that Nintendo has been going for. And I have questions! Will these fighters come with their own set of spirits, like the other fighters? Will there be support trophies, and if so, will Ann be one of them? What about levels and music? What about a freaking amiibo!? Ahem. Okay, breathe, Joey. Breathe. I guess we’ll see. Eventually.
Sometimes I have to remind myself that I started this blog for myself, as a way to leave reminders and reflections to look back on in the future. I finished Red Dead Redemption 2 recently, and when I considered taking a break from exam studying to write a blog about it, I thought “but what hasn’t been said about it? Everyone has written and posted a million thoughts on it.” But that’s the line of thinking you practice when you have an audience, and while I am honored and grateful that I do have a few kind souls who check this blog on occasion, I try not to worry about ‘producing,’ because that can stifle my desire to write anything at all. So, like Arthur Morgan and his frequent note-taking and sketches, here are some brief and somewhat random thoughts about my time with RDR2. There will, obviously, be some spoilers.
There was some concern about the sim aspects of the game – the weight management, horse care, gun maintenance, etc. – and I have to admit I was a tiny bit worried about it as well. Rockstar used similar systems in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and I didn’t like how they (mostly the turf wars) intruded in my open-world exploration and adventuring. The opposite happened with RDR2. Because I started the game during end-of-semester madness and played the rest between intense study sessions, I almost slipped into shallow mission-hopping, just plowing through the game without enjoying the world. But I actually found myself embracing the little things, which quickly turned into a routine, just like the real world. These minute, world-building details gave the game a texture that few other games have.
I tried to make it back to camp every night, or every other night, to get at least four hours of sleep. I loved making it back in the evening, before everyone had gone to bed. I would hitch my horse (more on her later), feed her a few carrots and brush her down, then greet a few friends on my way to the stew pot. I’d ladle myself a bowl (no doubt made with the meat I harvested from the wolves that attacked me a couple of days prior), then wander over to one of the few people I actually liked, maybe Tilly or Mary-Beth, and chat with them as I ate. If I needed a beard trim, I’d do that before turning in, and in the morning I’d drink a cup or two of coffee while making small talk with whoever else was loitering around the low fire. Then it was off to work, as I’d feed my horse an oatcake, pat her down, and head back into the wild.
When I was out in the world, I was always aware of how dirty I was getting. It was dusty in the desert, muddy in the swamps, and dirty (and sometimes bloody) everywhere else. So I also tried to take a bath every few days, if I could. I wasn’t making a conscious effort to role play. I just felt like I needed to. I felt refreshed coming out of a hot bath, even if I could never quite get my clothes clean. I would forget about my guns more often, but once I bought and customized my two primary weapons, the Schofield revolver and a bolt-action rifle, both black with silver engravings, I kept up with the cleaning and maintenance more often.
As with the original RDR, I decided to stick with one horse: the one that came with the special edition. She was a grey war horse, big and powerful, so I named her Freya, after the queen of the Valkyries (at least in God of War lore, heh). I didn’t eat much myself and was perpetually underweight, but I kept a healthy store of hay, radishes, apples, peaches, oatcakes, and more to feed Freya because she was constantly working hard to get me from place to place, and she never threw me once. Plus I ran her into several trees, riders, and over cliffs, so she deserved to be spoiled. Speaking of spoiled, I know I gave a spoiler warning earlier, but just in case someone is reading this and hasn’t played the game, I’m about to spoil something big. So, you know. Just another warning. Ahem. Near the climax, when Freya was gunned down, I actually shed some tears. The game was emotionally intense at points, but I never teared up or cried during other beats. I don’t know if it was an extension of role-playing a hardened gunslinger, and I was definitely moved by some events, but I never broke – except for when Freya went down, and I crawled over to her to say goodbye. That hurt more than Arthur dying, because I knew that one was coming. Somehow I believed my faithful steed would survive that mess. Le sigh.
I do think that the epilogue was too long, as others have said. I think overall it’s great, and I love some of the same kinds of world-building minutiae (the house building especially), but it could have been half or a third as long and been just as effective. I do think that the epilogue and the clips that show up in the credits do a wonderful job of bridging the two games, though. I almost wish they’d release a remaster of the first game, because it would be really cool to jump straight from the sequel (prequel?) into the original game. I think having played through the events that prompted the first game’s narrative, many of the lines and scenes would have so much more power. They probably will release a remaster at some point, but if it’s not within the next few months I’ll probably pass on it. I really feel I need the emotions and memories to be fresh in order for it to be effective. Maybe I’d play them back-to-back sometime down the road, though.
Some final, random thoughts that I don’t have the time to expand on: I know Arthur was hung up on Mary, but I was quietly crushing on Mary-Beth. Sadie was annoying at first but became one of my favorite characters. She should get some DLC. Killing Micah was so. damn. satisfying. I didn’t hunt very often. I bagged a few legendary animals, but my main source of meat was animals that tried to kill me or what I bought from butchers. I only encountered one cougar, and (surprise, surprise) it killed me. There was what I guess was a witch’s hut up north, and I drank from the cauldron inside (don’t judge me, I’m adventurous, okay?) and passed out. I couldn’t tell if it had any other effects and I didn’t lose anything that I could tell. *shrug emoji* The game’s weather and atmosphere systems were incredible, as was the geology/topology, which is a continuing interest of mine in games. I have many more thoughts, big and small, but I think I’ll end it here, before this blog ends up as long as the epilogue. *badum csh*
I see a lot of discussion about self-care now, which is great, so I wanted to write about a self-care tradition I started last year without exactly realizing it.
2017 was a bit of a rough year for me. I won’t go into details, but my girlfriend of seven years and I split, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression for the first time in my life, and I was increasingly feeling aimless in my pursuit of a doctorate. My birthday, in mid-November, felt especially lonely and like something of a low point. Well, another low point.
As a collector of many things – video games, movies, books, toys, etc. – Black Friday is a great opportunity to pick up a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t buy normally because of cost or interest or whatever. I scour ads ahead of time and make lists of limited-time deals to look out for online or which stores are worth hitting up on Thursday or Friday. After all is said and done, I usually have a pretty nice stack of goodies that I won’t have time to watch/play/read for a while.
Christmas 2017 was going to be the first time I’d actually spent that day alone in my life. So when the packages from my Black Friday excursion started showing up, I had an idea: why don’t I wrap the things I bought and then open them on Christmas morning? I love wrapping and opening presents, and it would give me something to look forward to, aside from waking up and wondering what other people were doing with their families and friends and loved ones. So I put up my skinny apartment tree, wrapped the various movies and games and such, went out and bought some toys and treats for my cat, Bellatrix, wrapped those, and threw it all under the tree.
It turned out so much better than I’d expected. I was hoping it would be a distraction, at best, but I found myself giddy when I woke up on Christmas day. I couldn’t remember everything I’d wrapped, so opening the things I bought a month before was so satisfying, and knowing that I had all of this fun stuff to look forward to consuming in the coming months made me feel… hopeful. What made it even more magical was that Bellatrix was totally into it as well. I was expecting her to sit at a distance, watching and wondering what the hell I was doing. But she sat right next to me, sniffed curiously at every gift I opened, and tried to play with her new toys as I unwrapped them. What started out as a practical way to spend a holiday turned into something that made me feel the kind of warm holiday emotions I hadn’t expected to feel again for a very long time.
So, this year, I went all out. I started saving new purchases as early as September and hid them as soon as I could so I would at least semi-forget about them. I put my tree up on November 1st. I bought a bunch of new nerdy ornaments. I picked up a ton of deeply discounted movies and games on Black Friday. And, of course, I bought a slew of new toys and treats for Bellatrix. Over the course of three months, I had quite a stack of gifts to wrap, and when I wrapped them I only used my peripheral vision so I wouldn’t actually see the covers. I bought lots of fun new wrapping paper and fancy bows, and stuffed Bella’s little stocking with clearance cat toys.
This is a selfish tradition, yes. I don’t feel guilty about it, though. I’m not rich, so it’s not exactly like I ran out and blew a big wad of cash on this stack of presents. I bought them over the course of three months, most of them deeply discounted, and some of them are things I bought to use now and ended up wrapping out of excitement (like a pair of slippers that I need for laundry time on the freezing concrete floor in my basement, which means I’m suffering for an extra few weeks just to have one more present to open). The only thing I really splurged on was wrapping paper and bows, but I’m okay with that. They look so pretty under the tree that it seems worth it. And even if it is selfish, it keeps me excited for what would otherwise be an isolating and depressing time for me. I don’t know how normal this is, or if it would actually benefit anyone, but I wanted to write about it. Thanks for reading.
I really wanted to use this site to document my thoughts on games as I played them, but I kind of knew that that would fall apart when the semester picked up, and it has. A blizzard is currently raging outside, though, so I’m going to take a break from grading to catch up a little bit.
The Exorcist: Legion VR
One of the things I love to do with people when I show them VR is to play horror games. They’re often short experiences, though, so when I hung out with my family recently we found ourselves browsing the PSN storefront, looking for something we hadn’t already tried. Given that The Exorcist is one of my favorite horror movies of all time, I threw Legion VR in my cart and hoped that this wasn’t some cheap cash-in.
We only played the first two episodes, and it did suffer from some of the normal VR problems (floaty hands, sketchy play area), but it was easily the scariest game we’ve tried. Other games have creeped me out, or maybe made me flinch a little, but this game is the first VR experience that had my heart thumping and palms sweating (I suspect Resident Evil 7 might have done the same, if I’d played more of it in VR). Nothing too terrifying happened, really, but the game created an atmosphere with lighting and sound that scared the crap out of me. If you remember the low, rumbling growl they use in The Exorcist, imagine that coming from the dark corners of a church… in VR. Yeah. It was really effective.
Telltale’s Game of Thrones: Episode 1
I was in the middle of binging the TV series, so I finally got around to trying this game because I was caught up in the excitement of that world and those characters. It was pretty standard Telltale fare: clunky gameplay and animations, some interesting storytelling, a shocking moment. I was surprised and impressed that they got some of the actual GoT cast members to do voice work, but it made the ‘normal’ voice actors stand out because they just weren’t as emotive. I didn’t completely dislike this game; it just wasn’t very memorable or compelling.
I want to start by noting that this game pulls a lot from the Rocksteady Batman games, because I keep hearing people claim that it doesn’t. The combat and enemy types are almost identical, the open world mission structures are very similar, the Scorpion hallucinations are just like the Scarecrow hallucinations, and there a bunch of small but close similarities, like villains that leave clues that you have to find and take pictures of. Having said all of that, the fact that so much of it was derivative didn’t phase me much. The Arkham games are some of the best games of the last decade, and I am a fan of developers sometimes refining what works over trying to revolutionize just for the hell of it.
This game was just so much fun. There was a lot to do, between breaking up street crimes, taking down strongholds, looking for backpacks and more. The backpacks and their associated Spider-verse memories were one of my favorite things about exploring the world, along with all of the awesome Spider suits (though I do wish there were little tidbits about the history of the suits, like there was with the backpack items). My suit of choice for most of the early parts of the game was the Iron Spider, which I loved in The Avengers: Infinity War, and the glowing eyes made for some great photos. I also loved the Spirit Spider and Vintage suits, but they looked way too goofy in cutscenes, so I mostly saved them for post-narrative clean up. Speaking of narrative, I was pleasantly surprised by how solid the story and acting was in this. Like others, I was a little thrown by this version of Peter at first, but he grew on me and I ended up really loving how they handled his hectic double life and his relationship with Mary Jane and Dr. Octavius, specifically. I loved the photo mode and took a million pictures, and I wish I had written a full blog when I’d played it, but I’ll shut up and move on now.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider
I played and loved Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider, so despite my usual ability to avoiding getting too hyped for a game, my expectations were undeniably high going into this sequel. That might be why I was somewhat disappointed in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. I didn’t dislike it, but it just didn’t seem as polished and fine-tuned as its predecessors. The graphics, for instance — the previous two games were gorgeous, so running the game on a PS4 Pro, through a 4k HDR TV, I was expecting something breathtaking. In some respects, things like water and lighting didn’t even seem to look as good as the older games, oddly enough. Shooting the bow didn’t seem as satisfying, climbing didn’t seem as rewarding… and I don’t know why. Maybe the warm and fuzzy glow of my memories with the first two games overwhelmed me and made me expect too much from this game. Like I said, I didn’t dislike it. I liked it quite a bit. But I was expecting something just a little more polished.
Super Mario Party
I’ve only played a couple of games of Super Mario Party so far, but I was so excited to find that the series has made a rebound from the last few entries. I know that the series has never been about stunning graphics, but Mario Party 7 was an ugly, aliased mess of lazy visual work, and I am still confused about why they thought cramming every player in a car and not allowing them to take their own turns was a good idea for the last couple of games. I try not to act entitled when it comes to games and what they “owe” me or anyone else, but it was hard not to feel insulted by how bad the last few Mario Party games were. Super Mario Party, though, seems like a return to the fun, colorful, cut-throat world of the earlier games, so I am very much looking forward to making Peach the Party Star once again when I have more time. And friends. I am so lonely. Please help me (mostly kidding, haha, crying emoji).
Forza Horizon 4
I was really looking forward to seeing the different seasons in this game, but honestly I gave up on it before the digital leaves fell from the virtual trees. It’s a good racing game, but the handling is a little looser than I’d like. It’s a lot more arcade-y than the previous Forzas that I’ve tried, but I’m admittedly a little picky when it comes to the handling in racing games. It’s hard for me to enjoy cruising around when I have to keep overcorrecting because I’m sliding everywhere. But I might revisit this game. It’s pretty and I do like the idea of buying houses and filling garages with lots of custom cars.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
I just platinum-ed this game, so I could write extensively on it, but I’ll have to keep it short. I got the platinum trophy almost on accident, because after I beat the main storyline(s) I realized I was only two trophies short of 100%, so I took the extra five minutes and just got it. I did spend over 140 hours on the game, though, mostly due to my love for the expansive, detailed worlds that Ubisoft is so good at creating. As with other beautiful open world games, I found myself stopping to take pictures again and again, and the lighting and water effects from the last game made a triumphant and impressive return here. The sailing was similar to Black Flag‘s amazing contribution to the series, but not quite the same. Mechanically it was almost identical, but the concept of being a pirate and having a crew and your ship being your true home is absent from this game. My wish was that Skull and Bones would recapture that magic, but it seems as if Ubisoft understood gamer’s love of the pirating in Black Flag to mean a love of the ship combat itself and not the pirating life, so I have heavy doubts about how much I will enjoy that game.
The story didn’t grab me early on, but over time I ended up falling in love with Kassandra and got drawn into her complicated family drama. The addition of the ability to romance characters was welcome, though it would have been nice if it actually meant anything. Other than a fade-to-black scene suggesting sex, there was nothing to indicate that any of my relationships went anywhere. Speaking of sex, I was surprised at how toned down anything sexual was after Origin’s open embrace of the subject matter. I ran into a few annoying bugs, and some of the voice acting was distractingly bad, but this was another fun, immersive Assassin’s Creed game.