Monday, January 23, 2017

Impressions of The Last Guardian

I had the opportunity over the last week to play several hours of The Last Guardian, the third and latest game by Team Ico set in the same world as Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. I wasn't able to finish it, unfortunately -- I was out of town playing on a friend's PS4 -- but I made it a little more than halfway through, which I feel is sufficient to write a partial review of the game.

The Last Guardian feels a lot like Ico, with you playing a young boy trying to navigate his way through dilapidated fortresses while escorting an NPC-ally through the environments. Except, instead of escorting a helpless young girl around, you're working together with a giant beast named Trico who needs your help as much as you need his in order to progress. Working with Trico feels, at times, like playing Shadow of the Colossus, because of how you often have to climb and manipulate Trico in order to get around. As the third game of this quasi-series, The Last Guardian feels like a pretty good mixture of everything that came before it. And if the first two games were good, then The Last Guardian must also be good, right?

The answer to that question is, of course, a bit of "yes and no."

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Evil Within: Surprisingly Disappointing

The Evil Within (2014) is one of the most notable survival-horror games of the last decade for the simple fact that it was directed by Shinji Mikami, the man responsible for bringing us the original Resident Evil in 1996 and its beloved sequel Resident Evil 4 in 2005. With the man responsible for popularizing the concept of survival-horror games directing his first survival-horror game in almost a decade, there was a lot of hype surrounding The Evil Within, especially considering its strong similarities to Resident Evil 4. Promising a return to "pure survival-horror" that would become "the new face of horror," The Resident Evil Within certainly looked like the sequel Resident Evil 4 deserved, but ultimately never received.

The similarities are unmistakably present, from the slower-paced survival gameplay that has you exploring environments in search of hidden ammunition and healing supplies to the over-the-shoulder third-person combat system, but The Evil Within spices up that familiar formula by throwing in a stealth system, a more robust system for upgrading your weapons and abilities, and by generally emphasizing horror and tension more than action. It takes a little time for the game to get going and fully open itself up to you, but for a while during the early levels I was prepared to declare The Evil Within a worthy successor to Resident Evil 4 that was actually better in many ways. But as I got further into the game, my awe and optimism turned into detachment and frustration.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Dark Souls 3: Ashes of Ariandel - Review

Ashes of Ariandel is the first of two planned DLCs for Dark Souls III; it adds a new region to the game with a new boss, new enemies, new armor sets, new weapons and spells, and a PVP arena that can be accessed from the Firelink bonfire once you find and beat the second, hidden boss. For $15, it'll get you about four hours of content and at least one new toy for each type of build, which you can put to use in the arenas for 1vs1 duels (un-embered, no estus), free-for-all brawls (timed match with respawn, limited estus, player with most kills wins), or team-brawls (same as free-for-all, except 2vs2 or 3vs3). For the most part, it's all quality content with memorable encounters and fun new weapons, and the PVP arena will really help extend the game's life for those interested in PVP.

Despite its overall quality, Ashes of Ariandel wasn't that satisfying for me. Part of that has to do with its relatively short length; I was able to explore everywhere and do everything possible in a single afternoon, and the whole thing felt anticlimactic. In typical Souls fashion, the story is practically non-existent, with you entering the Painted World of Ariandel on an incredibly vague pretense, and then wandering around aimlessly until you trigger its ending, which leaves everything almost completely unresolved. In the end, this DLC felt more like it was a hidden, optional area that was cut from the base game instead of a proper DLC expansion. It's not a bad experience, mind you, but apart from the PVP arena I feel like I wouldn't have missed much if I'd just skipped it altogether.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Witcher 3: Blood & Wine - Review

Blood & Wine is the second expansion for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and the last bit of content that will ever be produced in The Witcher series. With no plans for any future games in the series, developer CD Projekt designed Blood & Wine to serve as a final farewell tour for Geralt, sending him on one last adventure in a new land before he puts up his swords and retires from his life as a monster-hunter-for-hire. For that reason alone, Blood & Wine is a special, magical experience that serves as a fine coda for one of the best open-world games -- and one of the best video games in general -- ever created, but there's a lot more to appreciate about Blood & Wine than its sentimental value.

Whereas Hearts of Stone felt like it was, essentially, just a new story set within the confines of TW3, Blood & Wine is a full-fledged expansion fully deserving of its $20 price tag. Blood & Wine offers upwards of 30 hours of extra content with an all-new main story in a brand new region, Toussaint, complete with dozens of new quests, tons of new weapons and armor, new enemies, a new system for improving Geralt's witcher abilities with skill points and mutagens, and a player home that you can upgrade to give you extra benefits as a base of operations. There's enough original content in Blood & Wine that it could have been sold as its own stand-alone game, and the majesty of its presentation is simply breath-taking.

Unfortunately, nothing in Blood & Wine is much of a game-changer, with the exception of the new mutations and possibly the player home -- otherwise, it's all basically just more of the same from a game that was already a little too long and bloated to begin with, and at least in my opinion, nothing in Blood & Wine really outshines anything that's been done previously in either the base game or Hearts of Stone. That's not much of a criticism, mind you; CD Projekt set the bar so high with its previous efforts that coming up a little short still puts Blood & Wine well beyond other game experiences from other developers. But if you're someone like me who's feeling a little burned out from playing the same game for so long, then Blood & Wine will only give you so much of a spark before it settles back into routine.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone - Review

Hearts of Stone -- the first DLC pack for The Witcher 3 -- adds about 15-20 hours of new content to the game, extending the northeastern region of the map, near Oxenfurt, with new points of interest, side-quests, and treasure hunts, in addition to other expansion essentials like all-new enemies, new equipment sets, a new system for crafting and buying unique runes and glyphs, and a main storyline that goes toe-to-toe with and even exceeds the best quests in the base game. Hearts of Stone is, at its heart, a fairly typical DLC expansion that simply takes the familiar formula of the base game and adds more content to it, but it improves upon the experience by directly addressing some of the core issues of the base game, such as combat, economy, and pacing. The mechanical improvements are reason enough to give Hearts of Stone a solid recommendation, but the main quest-line and all of its great characters, stories, and gameplay sequences push it well above the base game and make it one of the best $10 DLC packs I've ever played.

Friday, September 30, 2016

The Witcher 3: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I've had nothing but tremendous respect for Polish developer CD Projekt RED ever since I played their 2007 debut, The Witcher. That game quickly vaulted its way into my short list of all-time favorite RPGs. Their 2011 followup, The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings, was really solid as well, and I especially admired how the middle portion of the game branched in completely separate directions depending on your choices. What they and their parent company have been doing with, meanwhile -- picking up licenses for older games, updating them to work on modern platforms, and selling them completely DRM-free at reasonable prices -- combined with their continued support for TW1 and TW2 -- putting a ton of effort into the Enhanced Edition of both games and releasing the updates completely free -- has made them a shining example of a game company doing good within the industry and treating their customers right.

The 2013 and 2014 E3 previews for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt generated a ton of hype, leading some publications to declare it their most anticipated game of 2015. Understandably so -- how could you not be excited over the prospect of CD Projekt's masterful storytelling and quest design applied to a vast open world? I was skeptical when it was first announced that the game would be open-world, but I held out hope that CD Projekt could pull it off, given their track record of success and how much they seem to understand game design. The Witcher 3 was subsequently released in May of 2015 to universal acclaim, and shattered records for the most "Game of the Year" awards ever bestowed upon one game. I figured, at that point, that CD Projekt had defied my expectations and managed to craft a huge open-world RPG that captured all the best elements of open-world games while still retaining the unique soul and elements that made The Witcher series so great in the previous two installments. And then I actually played it.

It turns out that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is not the perfect masterpiece everyone claims it to be. It's really, really good, mind you, and I'd say it's easily one of the best open-world RPGs ever created. But that praise and distinction doesn't shield it from criticism, and the fact remains that there are a lot of critical areas in which TW3 comes up short, outright disappoints, or else simply isn't as good as it could've been. There's a lot of stuff to talk about with a game this size, so I won't even try to craft this review into a paragraph-by-paragraph flowing essay; instead, I'll break it down into specific topics and categorize them based on three of Clint Eastwood's timeless criteria: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Board Game Review: King of Tokyo

King of Tokyo is a dice-chucking game designed by Richard Garfield (creator of Magic: The Gathering), originally published by IELLO Games in 2011, in which players take the role of epic Godzilla-sized monsters battling for supremacy over Tokyo. Players roll a handful of dice each turn, picking which results to keep and re-rolling any unwanted dice two more times, Yahtzee-style, for a total of three rolls. The dice results determine your actions for that turn: each claw rolled deals a point of damage to other monsters, each heart heals you by one point, each lightning bolt gives you energy to spend on upgrade cards (which can grant you permanent bonuses or one-time benefits), and rolling three or more of the same number grants you that many star points.

At the heart of the game is Tokyo city, where monsters vie for control via a king of the hill type of mechanism -- only one monster can be in Tokyo at a time (two if playing with five or six players), and you get star points for going into and staying in Tokyo. While in Tokyo, your attacks hit every monster outside of Tokyo, but you can't heal unless you cede the city and flee to the outskirts, allowing someone else to swoop in and lay claim to Tokyo. Meanwhile, every monster outside of Tokyo attacks inwards, hitting whomever's in Tokyo. You win the game by being the first to reach 20 star points, or by being the last monster standing.

The relatively light rules, short playtime (30 minutes, according to the box), and whimsical nature of the game, what with its cartoon monsters punching each other and evolving over the course of the game to gain jet packs and fire breathing abilities, among countless other possibilities, all combine to make King of Tokyo a consensus "gateway" or "family" game. This is the type of game you buy when you're first getting into the hobby, or when you want a game to play with people who aren't interested in heavy strategy games with lots of rules and complexities. Its esteemed reputation among board game enthusiasts on BoardGameGeek and r/boardgames gave me enough confidence to buy King of Tokyo two years ago, when I was first starting my board game collection, and indeed, it was a lot of fun early on. But now, two years later, I just don't enjoy it very much.