Between writing a syllabus and assignments for a new class this semester and reading for my dissertation prospectus, I haven’t had much time to blog about what I’ve playing these last couple of months. I want to, but there’s nothing like “writing for fun” to trigger anxiety about the fact that I should be writing my prospectus as we speak. Well, I speak. Well, I write and you read. Well, I don’t have any readers so I just write NEVER MIND JUST SHUT UP JOEY. Ahem. Please excuse me. As I was saying, since I haven’t had much time to write individual blogs about what I’ve been playing, I wanted to write a catch-up blog before my thoughts about these games began to fade. I’m leaving out games that I’ve replayed recently, like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate or Arkham Asylum and Arkham City.
Untitled Goose Game
Wow, this little game really blew up, didn’t it? Chrissy Teigen is playing it, Blink 182 mentioned it at a live show, it’s all over social media — I’m not sure I could have predicted that this would be the next game to breach popular discourse outside of typical gamer threads. But it deserves it, I think, because it executes well on its quirky and cute concept. It’s a pretty short game, but it invites a lot of experimentation and messing around, which could extend playtime. I don’t know why I’m being so clinical here. There were lots of fun and adorable little moments in the game. My favorite was when my objective list told me to “get dressed up in a ribbon.” I saw a ribbon in a woman’s garden, but almost everyone in this game seems to hate me, so how am I supposed to get this cranky woman to put it on me? I mean it’s already on her goose statuohhhhh. Once I saw what I had to do, I had to distract her by dragging her paint brush across the yard, then when she was retrieving it I dragged her goose statue into the neighbor’s yard, and before he could throw it back to her I waddled back to where the statue used to be, crouched in place, and the woman found the ribbon and popped it on my neck. Then, of course, I honked at her and started running around her yard to get away from her and continue my goosely gallivanting.
These next few games are all VR games I’d been waiting to try with others, so when my friends came to stay with me for the weekend I finally got a chance to try them out. I’d heard so many great things about Tetris Effect, but like many VR games, you kind of have to experience it for yourself. This game was much the same. It’s “just” Tetris. Like, that’s all you need to know to play it. No fancy new mechanics, no weird gimmicks. But the presentation is what makes it such a new and unique and kind of mind-blowing experience. I’ve only tried hallucinogens once so I’m no expert, but I imagine this game is reminiscent of a really wild trip. The visuals and music and texture, if I can say texture, of the levels is crazy and beautiful and, surprisingly, not distracting. I didn’t get many screenshots from my time playing it, but I don’t think it would matter much if I did. My friend watched on the TV as I played, but it wasn’t until he put the VR headset on and tried it himself that he was like “wow.” Combining the hypnotic, rewarding gameplay of Tetris with stimulating, beautiful visuals is a singular experience that I would recommend to anyone who has the PSVR.
This is another VR game that I’d heard lots of positive things about, and like Tetris Effect it lived up to its reputation. I was a little skeptical about whether or not it would feel like I was actually holding a lightsaber, because I imagine them to have a little heft to them, but once I was in and slicing away, my brain was convinced that they were real. It’s definitely a lot of fun to slice through the various blocks to the beat of some pretty decent music, but I will say that some levels are confusingly difficult. Different levels have different requirements to beat them, and one of those requirements is getting to a minimum score. There are two levels that I can complete without missing a single block and still not reach the minimum score. Maybe I’m not hitting the blocks perfectly, but I don’t feel like there’s much in the game to teach you how to get better at hitting them. It’s not a huge problem, and the game is still fun, but it was a source of frustration for me and my friends. I can’t wait to get back to playing it, though, even if all of the squatting to duck under oncoming obstacles left me with sore legs the next day.
I had one friend in particular that has been recommending the non-VR version of this game since its release. I wasn’t opposed to it, exactly. The mechanic of only allowing time to move when you did sounded interesting, but I guess it just didn’t catch my fancy enough to get me to check it out. Playing it in VR seemed like a worthy venture, though, and it was surprisingly addictive. The game makes you feel like the ultimate badass by choreographing scenarios that make you feel like you’re really juggling guns, dodging helicopters, and punching out the onslaught of blocky, red bad guys. It was a fairly short game that we beat in just a few hours, but it is definitely a cool VR experience to check out.
Erica is an interesting experience, and I hope more companies take chances on projects like this. It’s not perfect. It’s not going to win many awards for its filmic or writing components, but it merges film and interaction well, making each choice seem like it makes perfect sense in the narrative. I played through the game twice but I’m still not sure I have a full grasp of the story. I don’t know if that means the writing is sloppy or that they’re purposely encouraging multiple playthroughs, but it was entertaining enough in both runs.
Catherine: Full Body
I played the original release of Catherine, on the Xbox 360, and I liked the story but not so much some of the punishing puzzle levels. Most of them were easy enough to beat on the first try, but having to replay a level that might take ten or more minutes again and again always rubs me the wrong way. So the fact that this release made the puzzles easier, added a bunch of new story content, and revamped the visuals, won me out. I played through all three romance options, and I really liked the new character, Rin. I gave a general spoiler warning earlier, but I should again mention that I will be discussing some serious spoilers here.
I could (and might) write a separate blog post about the way the game treats sex/gender, but I can’t talk about this game without at least mentioning it a bit here. When I played the original, one of the things that I liked was that it was attempting to deal with mature, real issues like infidelity, albeit in a goofy, anime-esque way. In this version, they really lean into issues of sex, gender, and societal norms. While they certainly stumble (by not using Rin’s new name in the credits, the main character’s initial response to her revealing her true identity, and more), I also appreciate that they do try to push a positive, accepting message about this new, trans character. They could definitely have done better, but it seems that discourse around games like this is always so polarized – it’s either totally condemning or totally defensive. I think Atlus deserves both here, especially considering the fact that representation matters, and very few games include trans characters period, let alone those that are depicted in a positive light. Again, I agree that Atlus has had some problems with depictions of LGBTQ characters in their previous games, but I feel like this game shows a purposeful attempt to get things right – even if they stumble along the way.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan
I am a huge fan of Until Dawn, and while some of Supermassive Games’ follow-up titles haven’t impressed as much, Man of Medan looked to return to the same great formula they established with Until Dawn. This game was not terrible. I still very much enjoy playing interactive horror games. The graphics are excellent and create a spooky atmosphere, and I liked the story setup. But some of the acting was less than impressive, and because this particular story isn’t an homage to b-level teen horror, as Until Dawn was, the lackluster acting seems less appropriate. My real gripe is with the writing, though. My friend and I played through the game twice but we couldn’t quite find a third act. In our first playthrough (again, spoilers), we got to a part in what seemed to be the middle act, where we had to fix a radio to call for help or to find a part to fix our ship so that we could escape. I missed a context prompt and broke the part to the ship, so as we fled to the upper levels of the ship we figured we were either dead or would have to do something else to escape. But, well, when we got aboveboard there was a helicopter approaching to save us. Uh, okay? So how did we resolve the conflict? And why give us those obstacles when they apparently don’t matter? It all seemed pretty arbitrary and made some or most of our choices feel cheap or inconsequential. It left us feeling disappointed, because we both loved Until Dawn and we want Supermassive to keep refining these experiences, but this particular entry seemed rushed and unfinished, or at the very least unpolished.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Last, but most certainly not least, I’ve spent an absolute ton of time playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses. 275 hours and two extensive playthroughs of both Black Eagle House routes, to be exact. I could/should probably just give this game its own blog post, because I have a lot to say, but as I mentioned, I have a lot of reading and prospectus writing to do so I’ll just slap it in here at the end, where I can ramble to my little heart’s content and post a bunch of pictures.
I’d never played a Fire Emblem game before Three Houses, but I’ve wanted to for a while. The appeal was the romance mechanics I’d heard so much about. I love me some good dating mechanics. What always scared me away was the strategy aspect. I’ve only played a few strategy games in my life, with mixed results. Some of them were completely engaging and rewarding, and others were overly dense and intimidating for a beginner. But Three Houses was getting lots of hype, and while I am usually pretty inoculated against hype, something about this buzz got me right in the impulse buy. I ran out and got it the day it released. It probably goes without saying, but I’ll be mentioning some major [SPOILERS] ahead.
I played it on Normal and Casual difficulty settings because I was afraid that, if it was as intense as some of the other strategy games I’ve played, I’d lose important characters and have to reload more often than I’d like to, to undo critical mistakes. I will say that I probably could have played it on Hard. The grid-based battles reminded me of the strategy mechanics in Suikoden II, so they were pretty straightforward. Early on, I went into each battle carefully zooming out and surveying the field, planning several steps ahead, adjusting for terrain and enemy types. I mostly employed a strategy of luring enemies into situations that were advantageous to me, so for a while combat was a fairly lengthy affair. But eventually I realized that if I matched our units well enough, I could just one or two-shot most enemies, so I began rushing in and striking fast and hard. Late in the game I very rarely lost characters, and by my second playthrough death was something I almost never thought about.
As for the story, I completely loved what I experienced of it (I can’t exactly claim any expertise on the Blue Lions or Golden Deer storylines). I can see why someone would play through all four major story paths, too. On my first playthrough, I chose to side with Rhea because she was very kind to me, everyone loved her, and, well, she seemed like she was supposed to be the good guy. It was a difficult decision to make, though, because I chose to join the Black Eagles House because I liked Edelgard. So to have to choose between the two was really hard. The new characters under Edelgard’s command (when she showed up to challenge Rhea in the tomb) seemed so cocky and malevolent, and Edelgard herself did little to explain her sudden and violent actions to me, so my decision to stick with Rhea and the monastery seemed like the “right” choice. From there, Edelgard seems (from your perspective as Rhea’s defender) to be a cold, calculating, stubborn leader, so I never much questioned if I had taken the right path.
But during my second playthrough, I chose Edelgard over Rhea, and doing so revealed a whole new side to Rhea. While Edelgard had no qualms about engaging in large-scale combat in my first playthrough, Rhea callously sacrificed innocent lives in her quest for revenge for your “betrayal.” I began seeing her earlier actions in a different way, driven by a desire for control and power, and not the benevolence that I once believed her to embody. And when it came to light that my character was essentially an experiment, create by Rhea for selfish reasons, I felt strongly that this second playthrough was the actual “right” one. But I never would have known that if I’d just played through the one storyline! The fact that these two stories can stand on their own yet also affect each other so significantly shows how great the writing for this game is on the macro level. On the micro level, too, I was impressed by how every single character had their own voice and linguistic profile. Also, the voice acting was excellent. I was so excited to hear so many Persona voice actors all throughout the game!
I have to say, I was surprised by how unimpressive the graphics were, though. Unimpressive might be putting it kindly. The characters are stylized, so I suppose I wouldn’t have expected them to be all that sharp and crisp. When I saw that many of the backgrounds were just blurry 2D renders, folded/stretched to give the appearance of a 3D space, however, combined with many of the corner-cutting steps they took (like just superimposing characters in front of existing fishing pole assets to make it look like they were actually fishing), I couldn’t help but wonder if this game was originally intended to be a 3DS game that they decided to upgrade to the Switch. I still loved the game, and the characters look great, but I can’t deny that I kept hoping that the next game looks better.
One thing I think they really nailed was the balance between the three major mechanics: battles, stat management (instruction), and social. I never felt like any of them went on for too long, so I always looked forward to every new event. I thought I was going to be overwhelmed by stat management but they really do a good job of making it simple enough that you can succeed with minimal forethought, but deep enough that you could be super effective if you spent more time planning and going through every character’s progression paths.
Okay, I should wrap this up. Still with me? No? FINE. Be that way. Anyway, I would love to go through every single character and share my thoughts (because boy do I have some), but ain’t nobody got time for that. Instead, I’ll just mention some of my favorites, plus, of course, my romance choices. In my first playthrough I didn’t fully understand how best to recruit people until it was too late, so I only ended up recruiting a few students from other houses. In my second run I got everyone, though my party almost always consisted of all ladies. In part because, well, aesthetics, but the women seemed to generally be my best warriors, too. Bernedetta could be annoying sometimes in conversation, but on the battlefield she was an incredibly effective bow knight for me. I really liked Dorothea’s personality, and she turned out to be a wildly powerful black mage (gremory) as well. Annette and Lysithea were similarly liked and equally as powerful. Having that trio in my second game was so useful against monsters and heavily armored units. They were really awesome. Flayn was funny and nice. I wished I could recruit Hilda. Claude seemed cool. I didn’t necessarily need Shamir, because Bernedetta more than sufficed as my mobile archer, but dang if Shamir isn’t a sexy badass. She ended up being a little too stoic and stony for my tastes, but I really love her design and capabilities.
Ingrid ended up being a big favorite of mine, especially after recruiting her and getting to know her better in my second run. Plus she was an absolute terror on the battlefield. On my first playthrough I wasn’t able to recruit her, and when I came face-to-face with her in battle she one-shot killed one of my characters. Once she was on my team, I quickly made her a falcon knight, and she brought her fierceness down upon anyone I needed demolished. I liked her backstory, too, and after seeing her fight and getting closer to her character, I eventually decided she would probably be my choice for a romantic partner if I ended up playing through a third time.
Speaking of romantic partners, let’s get to my two choices. It’s difficult to say if I would have ended up with Edelgard in my first run if I had chosen to side with her over Rhea, but I chose her in my second game, regardless. I mean, her character design is totally eye-catching. She has such sharp, bold features, and she looks great in her emperor or academy uniforms. So, yeah, she’s beautiful, but she was also magnetic and such a commanding presence, especially when I got to hear her reasoning and see her inner turmoil over the decisions she has to make to oppose Rhea and attempt to reunify Fódlan. She’s smart, cunning, and absolute in her determination to do what’s best for her empire. I was more than excited to enter a romantic partnership with her and rule by her side.
But… well… Petra. Petra came out of nowhere and stole my heart faster than you can say Phantom Thieves. When I first saw her, I was under Edelgard’s spell, so I thought “she’s cute” and moved on. But the more time I spent with her, learning about her backstory as a warrior princess with an entire kingdom’s future resting on her decisions in the coming battles, hearing stories about her homeland, listening to her adorable yet earnest attempts to master a new language, the more I realized I was falling for her. I seemed to gravitate toward strong warriors, and she was my right hand woman on the battlefield in both playthroughs. She was fast, agile, and deadly with a sword, but she eventually mastered some powerful black magic and was a total force to be reckoned with. She was also easily one of the kindest and most compassionate characters. In fact, I think she balanced ferocity and battle-prowess with empathy and humanity like no other character. This balance, along with her incredible skill, her sense of humor, her impressive history, and her unparalleled beauty, is what made her far and away my number one choice for romantic partner. I was so happy to be by her side at the end of my first game, and I even felt myself flush a little when pulling her screenshot for use in this blog. Laugh at me if you will, I can take it. I’ll probably end up repeating much of this when I post the inevitable crush blog about her, because Petra is definitely one of my all-time favorite video game romances. She’s the best.
Okay, phew. We made it. That was quite a trip. I hope to keep writing throughout my dissertation process, if I can, even if it means posting more academic stuff and less “fun” observations and thoughts. Then you’ll be bored by the length AND the content! But seriously, there are some very big games coming up, so I look forward to playing them and – hopefully – sharing my thoughts. Thanks for reading.