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.
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.
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.
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.