Weapon Shop de Omasse

Weapon Shop de Omasse is an interesting addition to the GUILD series because of who made it. While I’ve lauded the series as a way to give game creators space to make a small game with full creative control, Weapon Shop de Omasse gives that control to a Japanese comedian named Yoshiyuki Hirai. Hirai, who is one half of Japanese stand-up duo America Zarigani and also host of a youtube let’s play channel, is clearly a big fan of JRPGs, and his take on the genre is, while not entirely unique, something that you can see a comedian coming up with. It’s a light hearted look at the life of a weapon shop merchant in a semi self-aware JRPG. It’s a clever idea with some stand-out moments, but that the game was created by someone new to game development isn’t a surprise when you start playing for more than a few hours.

Weapon Shop de Omasse is a slightly difficult game to describe, because there isn’t one main activity, but a couple of smaller minigames to play while you man the storefront. The most notable is forging weapons. You have a number of available weapons to forge in a small rhythm minigame, the number increasing as the game continues. The minigame itself is reasonably involved. You hit the block of… iron (what are weapons made out of?) in time with a beat played to you beforehand, à la Parappa the Rapper. The temperature of the weapon slowly goes down as you play, so you need to manage it by occasionally heating up the weapon if it gets too cold before you’ve finished moulding it. As you forge, one of three stats will increase on the weapon, and you can also increase stats by adding various materials to the weapon before playing the minigame. It’s a really good premise and pretty damn fun for the first few tries – juggling heat and tapping to the beat is bolstered by some catchy tunes. The biggest flaw of the system, however, is that it fails to develop at all throughout the game – you’re always doing the same thing to similar looking weapons, and the music selection also remains pretty static; a pitfall I’ve touched on in this blog before. Perhaps its biggest failing comes in the fact that stat upgrades during forging are entirely random, so if you want to craft a katana with good slash power (something all good katanas need), you might have to craft that same katana multiple times, or use a valuable material, because there’s no way to manipulate the RNG.

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Weapons crafted can also be masterpieces, something I found out pretty randomly, after what I thought was me completely messing up one forge pretty late into the game. It turns out that, despite common sense, hitting every beat in the rhythm game probably isn’t the best idea, because slowing down the process allows you to get more stat gains overall, and makes the weapon better. If this review somehow convinces you the game is for you, I’d bear this in mind, because it makes some elements of the forging system make more sense, such as balancing heat, which becomes a non-issue if you manage to hit every beat in the game and craft the weapon before it can cool down too much. Sadly, the game never explains this key mechanic, and by the time I learned it, I was already worn out on forging in general.

Forging isn’t the only thing to do in the shop – you can also polish your weapons, which is an even shallower minigame than forging. It amounts to simply rubbing your weapons with the stylus until they look all shiny. What was a hidden feature in Pokémon Platinum is a core element of Weapon Shop de Omasse, and something that will take up much of your time if you want your weapons to improve, or if you want to actually do something in game that isn’t either wait for a customer or read the “Grindcast”.

I should probably explain where much of the game’s meat lies. You forge weapons to rent out to characters who swing by your shop, some of which follow actual questlines, others of which are just throw-away characters ‘humorously’ named NPC A or B or so on. These interactions are where the game’s various stories come in, pretty much none of which are memorable enough to talk about for long; there’s an axe wielding grandmother looking for her husband; a pair of sisters seeking revenge etc. You rent them suitable weapons you’ve forged, and wait for them to return, hopefully with the weapon you rented still in their possession. Choosing and forging suitable weapons for characters is a pretty fun idea, but the problem comes in how much waiting there is between the opportunities you get to do this.

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Characters will saunter into the shop and ask for a weapon, then leave to give you some time to forge and polish it. When they return you can rent them the weapon, then you can follow their quest in ‘real time’ on a social media app called the Grindcast that functions like Twitter but sounds like Grindr. On completion of the quest they’ll revisit the shop, return the weapon, and you wait for the next customer. What this boils down to in gameplay terms is you waiting for the customer to enter the shop, then waiting for them to come collect their weapon, then waiting for them to do their quest, then finally (wait for it) some more waiting for the next customer. While waiting, you can forge weapons or polish weapons, both of which wear out their welcome pretty quickly. Alternatively, you can just sit and read the Grindcast, which is remarkably unfunny for a game directed by a comedian, with lame half-baked JRPG style jokes that poke fun at the conventions of the genre like a dated webcomic. It’s pretty dire, but you’ll be forced to read it whatever happens, given that updates from the Grindcast appear on the top screen while you forge and polish weapons.

The game’s basic systems and gameplay are fine, but it would be easy to see how these could have been improved. You’d need to remove the RNG in forging and develop the system throughout the game, or make the game shorter. You’d need to make polishing a more involved skill. Most importantly, you’d cut out all of the waiting for customers. Perhaps have the customer enter, request a weapon, and then immediately forge that weapon for the customer. The waiting around in this game is egregious, and sucks the joy out of some properly good gameplay ideas.

This is just some rampant speculation on my part, but I do wonder if Hirai needed some more help on this project. There are ideas here that clearly come from someone who knows about games and what would work in creating a small game about manning a shop in an RPG. But it feels like some really bad ideas that might work in theory should have been shot down by someone with more experience. Creativity needs guidance, especially when you’ve never made a game before, which makes Weapon Shop de Omasse into an intriguing and sincere mess of a game. I can’t in good conscience recommend it, but like most of the GUILD series, it has some interesting ideas from an interesting creator.

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Attack of the Friday Monsters

In the 1950s, the prospering Japanese film industry reinvented the “monster movie.” The giant monsters of the era were “kaiju” that often symbolized the effects of pollution, such as radiation and hydrogen bomb experiments.
In the 1960s and 70s, the “hero show” was born. Brave heroes challenged the kaiju on prime time television, and the entire nation tuned in.
The heroes were just as big as the monstrous kaiju, but they were more like friends to the children of Japan, or even a father that would protect them, no matter the sacrifices he had to make…
      – This text appears each time you start up Attack of the Friday Monsters

I first heard about Level-5’s Guild series through Official Nintendo Magazine, an old UK-based Nintendo publication that I subscribed to before it sadly shut down in 2014. The Guild series consisted of two 3DS games published by Level-5 that were a collection of small games made by different famous game directors. Although sold in a bundle in Japan, in the West, these games were released without the “Guild” tagline on the eShop. At first, the only game of this collection I bought was Attack of the Friday Monsters: A Tokyo Tale. This is because of a certain phrase from the ONM review that stuck out to me; that the game made the reviewer ‘nostalgic for someone else’s childhood’. Although I’ve long since lost my copy of that magazine and the website has been shut down for some time, that phrase and this game have occupied a part of my mind for quite a while now. And while I talked about this game in my list of my favourite 3DS games, I’ve wanted to expand not only on why I consider Friday Monsters such a treasure, but on the Guild series as a whole, and why it was such a worthwhile experiment. 

Attack of the Friday Monsters centres around a young boy named Sohta, who has recently moved to Fuji no Hana, a fictional small suburb of Tokyo. Every Friday, giant monsters supposedly fight in the fields near the town, and as such, the children are warned from wandering too far afield. As Sohta, you investigate the truth behind the monster attacks, as well as find out more about the other inhabitants of Fuji no Hana.

Gameplay as a whole is pretty simple, and mainly consists of running from objective marker to objective marker talking to people. Occasionally (and I really do mean occasionally, it’s only necessary at two points in the story), you have to play a card game against your friends. The game is called “Monster Cards”, and it’s a clever take on the rock-paper-scissors game — serving as a decent distraction from the main plot, and something to keep you coming back once the story is over. The catch is that the way you collect cards for playing Monster Cards is by finding “glims” scattered on the ground around Fuji no Hana. Collect 5 of the same type of glim and you get a Monster Card. At the start of the game, you are asked to run around collecting at least 20 glims, assuming you never pick up more than 5 of the same type. This could be excused as a way to familiarise players with the map, but given its small size and detailed map on the touchscreen, it comes across as tedious padding.

When the game starts, a small musical cut scene plays that near perfectly encapsulates much of what I love about Attack of the Friday Monsters. I’ve linked the opening scene above for you to see, but there are a few things in it I really want to highlight.

The first is the fact that there’s an opening scene at all, sung from the perspective of Sohta. Sohta is obsessed with the hero shows of early 1970s Japan, and often sees his life as mirroring one. That a day in his life has an opening theme tune, or that each of the tasks you have to complete in the game are referred to as ‘episodes’ is just a lovely bit of theming.

It’s also a bit of theming that ties into the main idea of the game; the confusing nature of childhood. In the lyrics of the opening song, Sohta mentions that “Both my Mom and Dad love me, I don’t really know why, what should I do?” This uncertainty of life as a child is present throughout the game. It’s not just in Sohta or any other characters’ relationships with their parents, it bleeds into everything, including the plot.

The main hook of the game is found in seeing whether or not the monsters really do come out on Friday. As a viewer, you see many clues telling you they don’t, such as a TV station that seems to be responsible for the evidence that might prove the existence of said monsters. But Sohta consistently fails to put two and two together. Even when he and his friends come close — such as realising the monster footprints have been dug by people, and finding that a sign believed to be in an alien language was just made by the father of one of Sohta’s friends — the kids still never doubt the existence of the monsters or aliens. It’s a lovely bit of childhood wonder, and by the end of the game the viewer is sucked into it as well, as events occur that seem unexplainable through ‘adult’ logic, and we are asked to simply accept them. Although the game starts by maintaining a relative distance between the player and the child characters by offering the the former rational explanations for what the children see as fantastical, by the end it has eased us into their perspective and asks us to suspend our disbelief as well. For me, it works perfectly.

This dramatic irony is also used in the child characters’ dialogue for the game’s lightly comedic moments. There’s nothing in this game that comes close to laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s meant to be gently amusing, and it mostly nails that feel. The dialogue for the children is pretty spot-on, although when the game attempts weightier dramatic moments, it occasionally veers too close to melodrama for comfort. Take, for example, the game’s bully character. He isn’t in the game for too long, but whenever he is, his storyline falls much too in-line with every bully stereotype, including Sohta literally asking him “You’re just lonely, aren’t you?” It’s a rare and disappointing step into stock tropes in a game that otherwise defies them in its strange storyline. The argument could be made that the childrens’ often stock personalities are calling back to the hero shows that the game is constantly referencing, but it manages to defy expectations in its adult characters and central plotline, so I don’t see why it can’t for the younger members of the cast.

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Returning quickly to the opening song, it also serves as an introduction to my favourite thing about this game; its unique and perfectly realised atmosphere. Here’s where the idea of ‘nostalgic for someone else’s childhood’ really comes into play; it’s not just that the game recreates what it’s like being a child that makes it impressive, it’s that the game recreates what it’s like being a child in 1970s suburban Tokyo.

The lot you have to explore is small and doesn’t change much or open up a lot during the game, but it’s quietly beautiful. All the backgrounds are hand-drawn, with the 3D character models placed on top of them; an effect that works surprisingly well, even if it’s a shame that the 3DS’ image quality sometimes stops this from looking as good as it could be. It also means that each screen on the game has a fixed camera angle à la Resident Evil, although it works better in this game given the slow moving nature of the gameplay.

Attack of the Friday Monsters makes use of its status as a videogame even outside of Monster Cards. Although much of what I’ve described of Friday Monsters’ strengths could come forth in a book or film, games as a whole are more immersive, and there’s something to be said for small atmospheric details — such as the radios playing in shops, or the train announcements that get quieter as you move away from the train station — that can only have the effect they have in a video game form. Additionally, even though the story is highly structured, the small moments of freedom that come from deciding in which order to complete optional episodes, or even which route to take to a point on the map all contribute to sucking you in to this act of tourism in someone else’s memories.

Attack of the Friday Monsters was created by Kaz Ayabe (born in 1965), who is best known otherwise for creating the Japan-only series Boku no Natusyasumi (lit. My Summer Holiday). These games have a similar gentle, holiday feel to them, but they are more open life-sims. Attack of the Friday Monsters is a much stranger game, and a much more personal game. For someone like me, this exemplifies the strengths of the Guild series. It gave creators a chance to make extremely personal projects with a big budget, not ever having to worry about anything except how to best bring to life their vision. Boku no Natusyasumi has 4 games in its series, whereas there will likely and hopefully never be an Attack of the Saturday Monsters. But therein lies its charm – Ayabe was allowed to make a game about the strange inconsistencies and confusing nature of childhood, all the while bringing the player into a slice of Japan that can no longer be experienced. It does indeed make me nostalgic for someone else’s childhood.

Top 5 Video Games of 2017

Because of their nature as more time consuming and expensive than films and tv shows, I didn’t get the chance to play too many games in 2017 (something further complicated by me moving somewhere without a TV in September). But the games I did manage to play were almost all at a higher standard than what I normally consume, further proving the strength of 2017 as a year for pop culture.

Honourable Mentions

I have three games I wanted to shout out this year, although I can only give one of them an unqualified recommendation. That one game is Gorogoa, a puzzle game that is unlike any other I’ve played in its central puzzle mechanic, which involves the manipulation of painstakingly drawn illustrations in order to guide the central character to his goal. With a subtle story playing out in the background, and amazingly detailed visuals populating the foreground, this game narrowly missed out on a spot on my list, because its short length meant that I was left a little unsatisfied.

I also want to shout out the two 90+ hour JPRGS I played this year, mainly so I don’t feel that my time was wasted on them. I completed Persona 5, and wrote an extensive review of it on this site, which I’d encourage you all to read if you feel it deserved a place on my list this year.

The other stupidly long JPRG Xenoblade Chronicles 2, I have yet to come close to finishing, but while it lacks the polish of P5, it makes up for it in sheer campy fun. I can’t recommend XB2 to anyone, but it comes the closest out of any game I’ve played to being “The Room” of video games; with its abysmal and stilted English voice acting, ludicrous semi-parodic JRPG plot and hilariously complex battle system, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 really manages to live up to the rare adage of ‘so bad it’s good’.

With that out of the way, let’s move on to talking about the games that are so good they’re good. (Hooray for another year of clunky segues).

5. Metroid: Samus Returns

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Yes, in truth much of the reason for this game’s spot on the list is that it’s been so long since the last Nintendo published Metroid game, and Metroid is a series near and dear to my heart. It’s also true that this game is not without major flaws as an adaptation, and both Mark Brown and ShayMay have made excellent videos as to how and why it falls slightly flat when remaking Metroid II.

However, I don’t really care. I had a lot of fun with Samus Returns. Samus feels absolutely fantastic to control; simultaneously light on her feet when leaping around SR388, and grounded when she plants her feet to allow for free range aiming. I was also extremely fond of the counter mechanic, despite the controversy. There’s an immense satisfaction to countering bosses and enemies, and while it slows the pace in the early game, by the late game your beam is powerful enough the it stops being a necessity.

The structure is perhaps a little odd for a Metroid game, bearing closer to the Fusion model of linearity than the classic “Metroidvania” model of games like Super Metroid. However, as a return to prominence for Samus, it strikes a perfect balance by introducing players new to the genre to the non linear paths of many Metroid games in bitesize areas, which connect to each other in a linear fashion.

Samus Returns is a welcome return to form for a long dormant series, and I can only hope we don’t have to wait another 15 years for the next 2D Metroid game.

4. Nier Automata

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Nier Automata‘s place on this list just proves how stupid the system of ranking is, and that I’m only doing it because I misguidedly think it’ll stir up some discussion and add to my view count. Anyway, full disclosure, I have yet to finish Nier Automata, and I have no doubt that when I’ve finished the Route I’m currently on (Route C), I will feel moved to bump this game up my list a couple of places.

That’s because Nier seems to direct itself towards my tastes; rich sense of atmosphere; hack-and-slash Platinum games gameplay; intriguing pseudo-philosophy and a great sense of humour. All these things combined made my first play through of Automata an absolute delight. It’s been a while since I’ve played a game like this that speaks so strongly to my sensibilities. I can’t say that Automata does any of those things the best, but that it combines them all into one discreet package was a wonder.

However, I do have a bit of a problem with games that don’t value my time, and making me play through the same campaign twice was an annoyance that seemed unnecessary to me. It was an indulgence that served to artificially elongate the play time for reasons that could have been dealt with a hundred more time effective ways.

It’s not just that Automata didn’t value my time, however, it’s also that on replaying a game the faults always become more glaring. Combat in Nier lacks some of the depth of other Platinum games, and the game will occasionally throw you in combat scenarios that its systems feel unprepared to deal with. Endings that come out of nowhere appear clever when first encountered, but can become an annoyance when triggered unintentionally. The atmosphere of areas such as the Amusement Park are fantastic, but these areas are criminally under-utilised, and going through the same motions in them twice is not a fix for this.

Those problems aside, Nier Automata deserves to be celebrated for everything it does right, because there’s not only a lot of it, but the way it puts it together serves for something that may lack a bit of polish, but is wholly original and satisfies most of my personal desires for what I want in a video game.

3. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

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The game that’s topping most end of the year lists lands here on mine, but not for lack of trying. In fact, releasing the second DLC pack for the game at the end of the year really made me reconsider not putting this game at #1, because the world of Breath of the Wild really is something special.

I don’t think I’ve had a game impress me this much in its first couple of hours as Breath of the Wild; Hyrule is for sure the best open world I’ve ever played in a video game, and it’s almost enough to justify this game as my favourite of the year. The amount of things to do is immense, so much so that you’ll often find yourself distracted from the central Legend of Zelda quest in order to find things hidden away that would be main events in lesser games. Dragons are simply optional events hinted at by NPCs, waiting to be fought for their treasure. Important weapons, items and shops are stumbled across by accident or read about in rumour columns. And almost everything is left in the hands of the player; how you want to approach the deepest combat system in a Zelda game to date; how you want to tackle the bosses; how many of the oft-ingenious puzzle shrines you want to seek out. The best dungeon in the game, if not the entire series, Hyrule Castle, takes advantage of this freedom and condenses it into one compact space with a central end goal of the final boss.

However, play enough of the game and some of the novelty wears thin. While Hyrule Castle may be the best dungeon in the series, the Divine Beasts are some of the worst, and their challenge becomes laughable once you’re far enough into the game. Shrines and Korok seeds wear out their novelty as well, and since they become the only reward for exploration at a certain point in the game, so much emphasis is placed on the journey as opposed to the destination that even a fantastic open world like Hyrule can’t quite bear the burden of it.

It’s for this reason that I can’t wait for whatever the sequel that expands on this game to come out. Because Breath of the Wild comes very close to perfection, but falls apart when it has to be played for so long. However, the problems can be fixed, and Breath of the Wild will, I imagine, continue to be influential for not just the Zelda series, but for every open world game for years to come.

(If you want to read more of my thoughts on BotW, I wrote a full review of it here).

2. Night in the Woods

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It’s pretty rare that games make me cry. It’s not that I’m some sort of macho man who never cries at anything; films and tv manage it too often for me to be comfortable to admit it. But games don’t, and I think that’s for a variety of reasons; their subject matter often revolves around topics that don’t lend themselves to tugging many heartstrings and the writing often takes a backseat to gameplay.

In Night in the Woods, the opposite is true; gameplay here takes a backseat to the truly excellent writing. But to discount the game as a cartoon where you have to press buttons to move the story along really sells the game short, because a lot of Night in the Woods’ emotional engagement requires it to be a game. Choosing who to spend time with puts a lot of impact when they eventually reveal their problems to you, and the player involvement in certain mini-games and events does make a difference in getting you to care more easily about the characters.

But what struck me most about Night in the Woods; what earns it this high spot, is that the writing in the game is astoundingly good. It’s incredibly natural for a video game about talking animals finding dead bodies and investigating ghosts, although where it really shines is in the smaller character moments and anecdotes; it wasn’t the slightly overly dramatic ending that induced tears from me, it was talking to a friend after her emotional breakdown in a party. Those small moments are what fuel this game, and what propel it to such heights.

1. Super Mario Odyssey

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I talked in the last entry about games eliciting sadness, but I think that pure joy is underrated. Lots more emphasis is often placed on the creative endeavour of making people sad, downtrodden; you’re more likely to get my critical praise if you can make me cry or think about how shit the world is than if you can make me happy. And yet, I think it might be harder to make me joyfully happy. Like, giddy with happiness. And Super Mario Odyssey is the only game this year to make me feel that way.

Odyssey‘s campaign zips along in a breezy 9 hours, and pretty much every minute of that is a wonder. Bursting with creativity, Super Mario Odyssey never lets up, always providing you with something new to do; somewhere new to go and someone new to capture. I think quite a few games this year (Persona 5, BotW, Nier (to an extent)) suffer from going on for too long; where all the discovery of the game’s strengths are front-loaded into the first 15 hours, and then the game struggles to find ways to amuse the player. Odyssey‘s tightly controlled campaign never lets that happen to you. It introduces the central mechanic in the first stage, then goes on to building a 9 hour campaign where you get new chances to use that simple, satisfying mechanic of the hat throw every minute.

And when the game is finished, once the credits have rolled, the game continues to parcel out its surprises; each stage is given a whole bunch of new collectables, and new stages are added after you scour the inventively made miniature sandboxes for moons. I think those seeking to find all 900+ Moons might wear out the game beyond its breaking point, but I don’t think it was ever built to be played that way; the secret final level unlocks after only 500.

But even those who purposefully stretch the game have been rewarded; pulling off difficult secret techniques is recognised by hidden rewards from the developers, and those who are content to see only as much as they need will still be able to enjoy that joyful campaign. I seriously can’t think of any complaints to levy at this game; it’s that good, and a deserving recipient of my game of the year.

Just an FYI that today marks the two year anniversary of Toatali Reviews! Hope you’ve all enjoyed this year of content, and here’s to another year of annoyingly long reviews about pop culture! (PS. make sure to check my twitter for more of my ramblings about the past year and other shit).

The Best Games on the 3DS

I wasn’t expecting this to be the post for this month, but Persona 5 has ended up taking much longer than I expected to play through and gather my notes on, so this will have to serve to tide me over until then. Despite the success of Nintendo’s most recent portable console, the Switch, I find myself still being drawn to my 3DS. This might be because of the lack of games on the Switch now that I’ve finished saving Hyrule, but it’s also because of the remarkable staying power of the 3DS, which might be the greatest portable console ever made. So, to reflect on the 3DS’ remarkable lifespan, here is a short list of my favourite exclusive games for the console, in no particular order.

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Attack of the Friday Monsters

You might never have heard of this game, and that’s a damn shame, but probably completely reasonable. Released as part of a compilation of experimental games on the e-shop by Level 5, Attack of the Friday Monsters puts you in the shoes of the young boy Sohta, who lives in a small Japanese town. There, every Friday, giant monsters battle it out while the residents look on. Or do they? The game never deigns to answer this question, because it doesn’t matter. It provides a variety of interpretations to its titular question, but never wants to distract you too much from the meat of the game. This is a day in the life of Sohta, running errands throughout the Ghibli-esque town, meeting its residents and solving their various problems. It’s a game fuelled by Sohta’s childlike imagination, which makes him a somewhat unreliable narrator, but allowing yourself to get swept into his world creates the sort of nostalgic feelings for someone else’s childhood that only a few rare games and films manage to achieve. There’s also some vague tacked on gameplay in the form of a clever little card game, but it never outstays it’s welcome. The same cannot be said for the game itself, which could really do with a bit more meat on its bones. It humbly finishes up its story within a few hours, but it needn’t. The amount of times I’ve replayed this game speaks volumes to the amount of time that we could have spent in Sohta’s world.

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Shin Megami Tensei IV

The contrast between the tone of AotFM and SMTIV couldn’t be starker. AotFM plays out in a small, idyllic Japanese suburb. SMTIV spends half of its time in the feudal land of Mikado, controlled by a strange religious leader and populated by subjugated masses who long for their slim chance to join the upper classes. The other half takes place in the somehow even more depressing post-apocalyptic Tokyo, where most of the population has moved underground in order to escape a ravenous demon horde who are only partly controlled by a faction of the Yakuza. You play as a Samurai of Mikado, a warrior trained to battle demons, but your quest to find the mysterious ‘Black Samurai’, who is corrupting the minds of the Mikado peasants leads you to some unfortunate realisations about the world you live in. Like other games in the Shin Megami Tensei series, the story splits into three routes; Law, Chaos and Neutral, and none of them here have much of an uplifting ending. But SMTIV remains engaging despite this, although the plot is only half the fun.

I’ve seen some people criticise the ‘shallow’ characters of SMTIV, but I don’t think that gives them enough credit. I wasn’t ever blown away by the writing, but it has a certain subtlety to it (at least as subtle as SMT can get), and the plot itself, while slow paced, has enough intrigue in it to carry you through. What makes SMT games really stand out, however, is the turn based battle system. SMTIII pioneered the ‘press-turn’ system, which Persona players will be familiar with, which allows you to exploit enemy weaknesses for an extra turn in battle. Of course, enemies can exploit this as well, which can turn battles into either satisfying chains of attacks that don’t allow the enemy to get a move in edgeways, or frustratingly watching as you watch your team get decimated by a threatening boss. The enemies you fight in SMT are demons, who you can collect Pokemon style through an annoyingly obtuse and random negotiation system, and fuse together to make stronger demons. SMTIV offers the best fusing method of the series, giving you helpful recommendations while still allowing customization.

I don’t think SMTIV is a perfect experience, but the benefits of it being on a handheld, combined with an engaging story and refined battle system make it my favourite SMT game that I’ve played (although Persona 5 is certainly edging closer), and I thoroughly recommend it as a starting point for the series.

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Spirit of Justice/DGS

I’m a huge fan of the Ace Attorney franchise, and while I would love to put the amazing Ace Attorney Trilogy on this list (which is better than both of these games), it’s not a 3DS exclusive, and I have standards while making these lists (I can only assume). I’ve written full reviews of both Spirit of Justice and Dai Gyakuten Saiban, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but I will provide a brief spoiler free rundown of what to expect. Ace Attorney is a series about crime solving lawyers, and Spirit of Justice is simply the sixth game in the series, this one involving the spikey haired protagonist Phoenix Wright travelling to the mysterious land of Khura’in for more crime solving adventures. I would recommend playing the previous 5 games in the series before this one, and I’m sure you’ll not regret playing four of them.

Dai Gyakuten Saiban has much less baggage to it, but at the moment is sadly only available in Japanese. This spin-off title takes place in Victorian London, and is notably written by the author of the original trilogy. Most people will have to wait for the upcoming fan translation to get a taste of this one, but for those who speak Japanese, or don’t mind watching a subtitled play through on Youtube, those options are also available.

Basically this entry was a cheat to tell you to play the Ace Attorney Trilogy on 3DS/DS, but my over-reliance on arbitrary rules that I imposed on myself prevents me from doing that.

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A Link Between Worlds

This and the next entry are the only two non-eshop exclusive titles on this list, although what this says about my taste in games you’ll have to work out for myself. Link Between Worlds is one of the best Zelda games out there, and certainly the best top down Zelda there is. Purists might argue in favour of the original Link to the Past, but those that do are clearly stuck in said past. A Link Between Worlds revisits the Hyrule of A Link to the Past, but adds an extremely clever new puzzle solving mechanic in wall merging. The way this changes up the game is staggering – it allows for so much free form exploration and puzzle solving that it’s almost comparable to the introduction of climbing in Breath of the Wild.

The other way in which this game influenced Breath of the Wild is in its non-linearity. Where A Link to the Past gave you numbered checklists of dungeons to visit, Link Between Worlds lets you rent out items to access specific dungeons and tackle them in whatever order you want, while still being able to stagger the difficulty through splitting up the dungeons into sets. It’s also a lot faster paced than any 3D Zelda, and perhaps any 2D Zelda, with item swapping on the fly thanks to the 3DS touchscreen, combat and exploration are all seamless and feels natural. Think of this as the proto-Breath of the Wild for those who want a top-down Zelda experience.

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Kid Icarus Uprising

 Remember how maligned the controls in this game were when it first released? Sakurai himself clearly had so little faith in them that he had to include a stand with boxed copies of the game. I really hope that didn’t put anyone off Kid Icarus Uprising, because it’s such a joy to play that it’d be a real shame to miss. Freed from the shackles of Smash Bros, game director Sakurai was able to create a game that’s half incredibly entertaining on-rails shooter and half slightly less entertaining but still fun 3rd Person Action Adventure game. What bolsters the game past simply entertaining is a quality story with great voice acting and writing, and a fuck ton of content.

The writing present in KI:U is surprisingly good. It has the annoying traits of being self-aware, but never reaches the actual point of annoyance by carefully treading the line. Some characters are obvious stand-outs, such as Hades, but the core cast is an enjoyable group of people to have whisper sweet one-liners into your ear while you play. Much like Smash Bros, Sakurai has stuffed the game to the brim with optional extra modes, some of which are pointless, yet amusing (such as a mode where you pay money to have a character walk slowly towards you), and some are extremely complex, such as the weapon fusing system. The game also employs one of the cleverest approaches to difficulty I’ve ever seen; asking you to gamble more currency on higher difficulties for the chance of greater rewards and treasure. One of the stand outs of the 3DS’ early library that continues to stand tall.

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Box Boy

I don’t really have much to say about BoxBoy, the small title from Hal Laboratory, creators of Kirby. It’s extremely simple; you are a Box, who can produce more boxes from his body. You then have to use those boxes to solve simple puzzles. It’s sort of like if you crossed a standard 2D platformer with Tetris, and it’s absolutely genius. It’s one of those rare games that I feel will be used to teach the basics of good game design for years to come. An extremely simple mechanic pushed to its limits during the course of the campaign, and then pushed even further in bonus levels, some of which become properly difficult to solve. Two sequels would add on a few extra boxes and mechanics, but the original remains a brilliant example of pure game design at its best.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

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Medium story spoilers follow. I’d advise playing the game before reading this review, but I try to avoid spoiling anything major. 

I feel like I’ve come to Breath of the Wild a bit too late to add anything meaningful to the discussion, but this does at least mean that the inevitable backlash has already started. That doesn’t mean people are starting to think the game isn’t very good, because that would be silly, but people have at least started to reconsider what may and may not work about the gameplay. I myself (as always) will try and justify some sort of complex middle ground; my firm belief is that this game is a masterpiece, but elements of the gameplay remain very deeply flawed and need to be discussed in order to fully understand why the game has become a little bit more divisive. I think it’s also worth giving a bit of my background with Zelda; I’ve played all of the 3D titles, and my personal favourite is Majora’s Mask, something which remains true even after playing Breath of the Wild. I think that’s more because Majora’s Mask fits more nicely with what I love about Zelda games, as opposed to me thinking that it’s a better made game than Breath of the Wild.

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I think that this review should probably start with looking at the game’s starting area; the Great Plateau, and then expand outwards. The Plateau is one of the best starting areas in a video game, because it functions so perfectly as a tutorial without the player really realising it. It’s a locked off area, with set tasks to check off that give you your basic abilities you’ll use throughout, but the freedom it provides is enough that it never starts to feel like this is some chore you have to get through in order to start the game proper. Just leaving the Shrine of Resurrection teaches the player a lot. You wake up in a sci-fi looking room, and collect the Sheikah Slate. It’s the first thing the player is handed, which instantly signifies its importance. The room you’re in makes use of the Blue and Orange colour scheme that you use in the rest of the game to inform you when something has been activated. In the second room the game hands you some clothes in a chest, and by not equipping them instantly the game teaches you about inventory management, something that’ll become extremely necessary to know about throughout the adventure. When you get outside (while first having to learn how to run, jump and climb to be able to leave), the game wrests control out of your hands in order to show you a few things. The first is the sheer scope of the game world, the second an old man in the near vicinity, and the third a broken down church. Here we see three of the game’s main tenants; spectacle and freedom (which I’ll group together under the vague heading of ‘Hyrule’), story, and something we’ll call ‘atmosphere’. Two of those three things are what make the game into what I consider a ‘masterpiece’, so make a mental note of those, because we’ll be returning to them in a bit. I’ll quickly say a few more things about the Plateau before I continue, because I think it’s an extremely clever opening area. The game introduces you to so much in this small area; Shrines, Towers, enemy encampments, the four abilities, temperature variations, guardians, optional mini-bosses. The entire Mt. Hylia segment shows just how the game lets you approach challenges in a variety of different ways. I sprinted up the mountain after cooking some spicy food, unaware that a torch would heat you up, or even that you could get some warm clothing from the old man to make the challenge much easier. The Great Plateau has so much of my respect, I initially thought I could frame the entire review around this one area, and leave out talking about the others. However, that would do the main game a disservice, because there’s so much more to talk about that I’ve ended up feeling extremely overwhelmed.

Let’s use gameplay as a jumping off point for this review, because from there we can segue nicely into some of the main gameplay problems I have with Breath of the Wild (insert jumping off from the Great Plateau related joke here). I think what a lot of complaints have focused on is combat, but I think that’s the wrong area to direct complaints at. Yes, weapons break; but I feel that any focus on the negatives of that system remove an appreciation for it that I’ve gained from extensive play. You see, combat in other Zelda games was almost all sword play; the bow and arrow got some use, but it was mainly swinging around a sword. I think Skyward Sword was probably the best and most varied sword combat is going to get (even though that had its problems). Twilight Princess attempted to make sword combat more complex without motion controls, but there no enemies fully took advantage of the optional extra moves. Breath of the Wild manages to fix the staleness of combat in a few ways. Firstly; swords aren’t always the optimal way to go. Other weapon types may be more useful in a given combat scenario, from bows to shield parries to magic rods. You can also opt to not use weapons at all; upgrading the ‘stasis’ ability allows you to freeze enemies in place, while a well-timed bomb attached to an octo balloon and floated towards an enemy camp may mean you never have to get too close to the action. And I’m sure you’ve all seen the video of a Cuckoo used as a weapon. Breath of the Wild aims to emphasise freedom in all ways, and combat is no exception. When you do choose to use weapons, the game still finds a way to make combat interesting. Weapons breaking changes the flow and feel of combat; unlike in TP where no enemies took advantage of the complex moves; here all enemies take advantage of weapons breaking. They can break your weapon; you can steal theirs. The complexity and variety here comes from a frantic system of weapon exchanging. You also have to be aware of your environment. Because most of the fights in BotW take place outside, on craggy cliffs and near huge lakes, you have to be careful of falling off. Or, you could freeze your foe and blow them off the cliff with a gust of wind from a Korok leaf. Enemies are equipped with an astonishing AI that allows them to react to these different scenarios, and their designs are all filled with personality. It’s a shame that the variety of enemy is extremely lacking, and towards the end game, only a handful of enemy types pose any threat (namely, the Lynel, Stone Talus, Hinox and Silver variations of the standard enemy types.) The threat is even more reduced by the ability to duck into a menu and eat away at various healing items. I do wish the short eating animation was played during combat rather than in-menu. This would reduce time spent in menus and give eating an element of strategy. The complaints I mainly hear about combat are that good weapons break too easily and thus use of them is discouraged, limiting your freedom to use those weapons. I respectfully disagree with this notion, although I suppose if you play that way that cannot be helped. Personally I found myself never at a shortage for good weapons – and late-game combat so requires them that I was unable to ‘save my best stuff and never use it’. I would like to give a quick shout out to the problems of the Blood Moon. Cool idea – did it need an unskippable cutscene?

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I’m going to devote a separate paragraph to the Guardians, who are, in my mind, so effectively terrifying as a piece of enemy design. It isn’t a unique idea in open world games; an enemy that is extremely powerful at the beginning, but can be defeated with relative ease with the right tools, but BotW does it very well. Guardians are very creepy spider like creatures (apparently influenced by the design of the Octoroks from the first Zelda game), that can be seen from a huge distance, and target you with a deadly laser as you desperately try and run away. They’re this semi relentless force that pursues you until either you’re dead or have hidden well enough that it loses sight of you. Given that they mainly appear out in the world, the change in music they bring calls to mind the Silent Realms of Skyward Sword (which incidentally also had robots from the past named Guardians). It’s no wonder they’ve become a mascot for the game. I think, though, the Guardians are a perfect example of the problem of combat scaling in this game. The difficulty curve in this game seems to go strange ways. The game is perhaps toughest nearer the beginning. While defeating Guardians with a single arrow is satisfying as all hell, it makes other enemies (with the exception perhaps, of White Lynels), less threatening as a result. So the further you play, the more pointless combat becomes – which is a problem for progression. Luckily, before this becomes a real issue you’re in a position to face Ganon, and the weapon durability system does still add some needed excitement to post-game fights. But towards the end of the experience, it became more and more noticeable. That, I think, is why so many people love Eventide, because it strips back the player to the basics to make combat difficult again, even for those some way into the game. But I still don’t think it’s quite enough. I think this sort of weariness with the game structure is quite important, so it’s a theme I’ll revisit.

So with combat out of the way, let’s talk a bit about some of the other stuff you’ll be doing when exploring Hyrule. One thing that I noticed was a huge amount of ‘Nintendo polish’ when it came to animations. Link and other NPCs had a variety of animations for things that I wouldn’t initially think merited a separate animation (look at the number of ways you can mount your horse, or fall off a cliff etc). The world is clearly huge, and so a lot of thought has been put into how you move around it. There is, of course, quick travel for traversing large distances, but I found myself mainly shying away from that. There is more to be found by adventuring than simply warping from tower to shrine, desert to forest. Running throughout the map would be torture, however, and so there is an extremely well made system of animal transport. Horses are the main beast you will be riding, and as such it is with them you will spend most of your time. My first horse, named Aziz, (guess which stand-up comedian’s show I was watching at the time) lasted the entire journey and was an invaluable companion. The initial taming process is frustrating for a strong horse like Aziz, and they will often do their best to disobey you and run straight into the beam of a passing Guardian. However, past that initial hurdle the riding process becomes much smoother and more enjoyable. I’m not sure, however, if it’s worth the hassle of having to fully tame a horse and ‘max out your bond’ in order to ride properly. It doesn’t gain much extra realism, nor does it enamour me to my horse. I would have liked Aziz whether I had to go through his teenage phase or not. Other animals can also be ridden, just not registered; I rode deer, bears and skeletons during my time in Hyrule, and this variety was a novelty that didn’t wear off. One secret horse I found after waiting at the top of a mountain for 15 minutes on a hunch is one of many of the game’s best hidden surprises. Another movement issue I want to address is the stamina meter. This is laughably small at the start of the game, and the upgrades are simply not lucrative enough to be acceptable. Skyward Sword had a stamina meter of roughly the same size, but its world was littered with stamina fruit; its areas were much smaller in scale, and it had upgrades that could make it temporarily infinite. When climbing (a process that could have been boring, but instead becomes an oddly satisfying and relaxing endeavour), the stamina meter is a nagging concern when it shouldn’t be. Many people have also bought up the issue of rain, which is a real problem in certain areas, halting progress when it shouldn’t. It’s a shame, in a game so built around exploration, that movement is halted and frustrated by a core mechanic of the game, and something that could be so easily fixed.

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I think when we’re discussing problems, we need to talk about player motivation. I think that Super Bunnyhop’s video on this game explains a lot of this better than I can, but please, bear with me. Aside from the main objectives (that is, destroy Ganon and free the Divine Beasts), the game motivates you to travel around its map in a variety of different ways. The first of these I really like; the promise of something new and weird. Sometimes you stumble upon something that you’ve just never even heard of before; a scenic spot; a weird NPC with a story to tell; a massive dragon; a secret shop, or even a hidden mechanic (there’s a statue in Hateno village that allows you to swap stat increases, but the game just never tells you about it). This stuff is great because it all feels unique and exciting and natural. Even if the dragon will eventually become just a way to farm materials, for someone like me uninterested in that, it’s just an amazing spectacle that the game will never tell you about except in rumour. The problem is when we get to shrines, Korok seeds (and, to a certain extent, Divine Beasts.) I’m going to tackle Korok seeds first, because as you can imagine, there’s a lot more to say about shrines. There are 900 Korok seeds, all hidden around the world in small puzzles. When you see a suspicious area, there will always at least be a small Korok seed puzzle hidden there. But the rewards for this are diminishing once you reach a certain point and your inventory is big enough to be manageable. For bows and shields, I only really had to upgrade about 3 times before I was happy with my inventory size. At this point, the reward of a Korok seed becomes null. Shrines are a bit more complex, because a new shirine means an extremely clever new puzzle to discover. But there is something still a bit dull about finding a shrine past a certain point. Yes; the puzzle will be sure to be clever, and the reward inside useful. But the aesthetic of a shrine is always the same; and the same goes for the Divine Beasts, although at least they normally have some clever aesthetic gimmick (such as flying over an area, which appears to move around, or starting off shrouded in darkness). So doing a shrine quest to find a shrine may be fun, may be clever, may even be ingenious. But if a shrine is your only reward, then the focus is placed more on the discovery of the reward than the reward itself. Which, in a way, is fine. In fact, I think an emphasis on the puzzle, or the journey, rather than what’s at the end is a better solution than a dull or easy puzzle with some grand reward. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for both. It might be much easier to create 120 identical looking Shrines, but for the player it makes the discovery stagnant. With the Divine Beasts, once again, making a smaller puzzle room rather than a sprawling dungeon may be easier, but it diminishes the excitement for the player, especially by their fourth beast. I think, then the big problem with Breath of the Wild is that there’s too much in it. Which is an odd complaint to level at an open-world game. Normally the complaint is the opposite. But here, one can’t help but feel that were the number of shrines and Korok seeds and side-quests[1] scaled down, but more focus put on making each one feel special and unique, the game wouldn’t start to stagnate as much as it does. Incredibly, the journey of travelling around to find things does remain interesting throughout, and it’s that I’ll get too next. But sadly, the feeling of discovery wears out its welcome far sooner than the game wants it to. And therein lies the fault at the heart of Breath of the Wild.

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But hang on – I introduced this review by claiming the game was still a masterpiece. So let’s turn our attention to what it gets right first. And given that we ended the negative section on shrines, let’s turn our attention to why Shrines are actually a good thing for the Zelda series. There are 120 puzzle rooms, and much like Mario levels, they often teach you a small way to solve a puzzle, then expand on that in multiple ways while increasing the challenge. The way the puzzles rely solely on your base toolkit learned in the Great Plateau means that the designers can have fun and play around with that toolkit in each shrine. What’s more, the puzzles can be solved in multiple ways. There’s often a “correct” or “intended” way, but that isn’t the way you have to complete it. Because of the way the shrines give you a situation and a goal, and aim for you to complete it in a variety of ways, they still fit within the game’s basic ethos, despite taking place in a mini basement room. The Divine Beasts are, in a way, more like giant shrines than proper dungeons, and while I complained about this earlier, I will say that they do what they aim to do incredibly well. Puzzles that allow you to manipulate the environment tend to mess with my head in the good way, and these often have very clever solutions. The structure of all of them is annoyingly similar, but I’ll take most chagrin with the bosses. Past Zelda bosses have been a mixed bag, ranging from the incredible (Koloktos) to the dull (Tentalus)[2], but the Breath of the Wild bosses tend towards the middle in terms of strategy, and towards the dull in terms of design. Their red-haired clusterfuck of a design is shared with the boss Calamity Ganon, but at least that is made up for with Dark Beast Ganon, which is a fantastic final boss. I will at least commend the Bosses for making use of the environment of the Divine Beasts, which you were forced to learn during the puzzle section.

I still haven’t quite nailed down what makes this game so good yet, however. In order to do so, we’ll have to turn to the big topic (literally) – Hyrule itself. Hyrule is huge, and yet it does maintain that balance of large open spaces and having tons of stuff to find. In the social media age, Hyrule had to be massive. The game developers knew that secrets would be easily shared across the internet, yet despite seeing some cool new Zelda detail on my Twitter feed every morning, I would find three more by myself while playing the game in the afternoon. Many people have filled their reviews with anecdotes, but I feel like that might take up a bit too much time, and really, isn’t as interesting to you as it is to me. But despite my talk of diminishing returns during end-game exploration, for those first few days (if not weeks, depending on your play-style), the magical feel of exploration is something unlike anything else in modern gaming. Exploration is aided by climbing, which transforms what would be an impassable boundary in other games, to just another route, or a shortcut, or the only path up a mountain, on the top of which lies a mini-boss that could have been left undisturbed even after months of play-time. Climbing also allows you to glide, which means that a certain amount of the flow is going up in order to move across. Forcing you up again means giving you more stuff to see and explore, and so the emphasis on vertical spaces actually expands the amount you see and find. The amount I was sidetracked because of this is laughable, even though the game almost weirdly discourages you from this with constant reminders that ‘Zelda’s power is diminishing.’, something I imagine most players will ignore.

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The open-endedness does actually contain a “proper” Zelda game within it, in the vein of modern 3D Zeldas à la Ocarina of Time. You see this during the passages to Zora’s Domain or the Goron village, where you’re slightly more boxed in that usually. Of course, there are still ways to circumvent the challenges faced along the way, but you can tell the game is more reluctant about you doing this at this point. I think I might divert a bit here to mention the story, something I was deeply unimpressed by. The characters are dull and uninteresting, the voice acting mainly awful, and during the main quest it all got a bit too repetitive. I liked the emphasis on the past, which ties in nicely with something I’m about to say, and the memory system made a good use of the player’s memories of areas to tell a story, but ultimately I felt rather unengaged. But the focus is so rarely confined to the story that for the most part it didn’t matter too much.

So what makes Hyrule in Breath of the Wild special? I don’t actually think it is that it is both large and full of stuff to do. No, I think what makes Hyrule, and to a large extent all of Breath of the Wild fantastic, is its emphasis on Romanticism. Remember at the beginning when I talked about the Great Plateau and asked for you to make a mental note of the three things that the game showed to you? Well, I think we’ve discussed two of them now; “Hyrule” and “Story”, with lots of diversions in between (see what I did there?) So that just leaves the third. In the introduction I called it vaguely ‘atmosphere’ and presented the Temple of Time as the game’s example of it. What I think it actually is, is Romanticism. Romanticism is an artistic movement from the 1800s, and a quick glance at the Wikipedia page for the topic shows a familiar image; Casper David Freidrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. The Romantic movement emphasised solitude among nature, and Freidrich’s image is a direct parallel to Link, back facing the camera, looking out towards Hyrule on top of a cliff, alone. The ruined Temple of Time is also Romantic imagery – calling to mind Turner’s Tintern Abbey or Wordsworth’s poetry tackling similar imagery. Nature is emphasised by the Ghibli-esque art style as well, with echoes of Princess Mononoke’s lush expansive fields (you can even ride a deer, and Impa looks plucked straight out of Spirited Away). Much of Breath of the Wild’s content stems from these two Romantic ideas. The player is often alone; there is no fairy or boat companion to guide you. Towns are spread far apart, and many of the main NPCs you meet are dead and forever confined to solitude. The past is clearly a huge influencer for the game; most of its important story takes place 100 years before the events of Breath of the Wild. Huge sublime man-made structures destroyed by time are scattered across Hyrule, many of them almost irrelevant to the story, but that help in creating a Romantic atmosphere. Even the technologic looking Sheikah towers; robots; shrines are actually inspired by Japanese Jōmon period designs, from around 300BCE. The idea of the past even resonates through the beautiful soundtrack, which feature broken up versions of familiar Zelda tunes.

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Note that this isn’t a concept unique to Breath of the Wild; other Zelda games have dealt with a similar theme; in fact, the Zelda series may be built around it. Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask are two 3D Zelda games that stand out for not taking place in a completely destroyed Hyrule, and Ocarina changes that half way through while Majora takes place on the verge of one. Wind Waker features a submerged Hyrule; in Twilight Princess, Zant has taken control, and in Skyward Sword much of the land (that which will eventually become Hyrule) is taken over by monsters. Even the first Zelda is all about a lone wanderer in a destroyed looking world. Most of the people in that game hide in caves, forcing you to find them. So Zelda has always been a series obsessed with the past, but I think Breath of the Wild takes it to a new level. If I had to overstretch my welcome, I would say that it almost gels with Romantic preoccupation with the perceived threat of the industrial revolution; in that the Guardians are technological threats that become a threat to humanity and nature (perhaps this can be seen in the first great victim of Ocarina of Time; the Deku Tree). But even without pushing that idea to its limits, the Romantic influence on Breath of the Wild is the clearest it has ever been in Zelda, and it’s that which makes this game, for me at least, really special. Because the nostalgic fantasy Romantic adventure is an extremely appealing idea that has persisted for a long time, and this game feels like the natural embodiment and apex of that idea.

I do worry that in trying to explain the success of Breath of the Wild’s atmosphere I’ve veered too much into pointless theoretical discussion, but the idea of a game’s ‘atmosphere’ is both extremely important and extremely nebulous, so I hope I’ve at least made you look at the game slightly differently. There’s so much more to talk about here that I haven’t even scratched the surface with this review. But that’s partly the beauty and partly the curse of Breath of the Wild. And yes, I do think it’s too big and, towards the end, too familiar. But I also feel that to diminish its importance because of that is foolish. Yes – we need to examine a game’s faults, but focusing too much on them negates the underlying achievement made by Breath of the Wild. I hope then, that I have managed to, through this review, justify my position; that The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild is a flawed game, at times deeply so, but that it is also one of the best games that I have ever got to play.


[1] Again, Bunnyhop talks about these best, and I don’t want to get too much into them, but they are mostly very fetch-questy – i.e. go find x number of items for me.

[2] Both, interestingly, from Skyward Sword. That’s a game I’d quite like to talk about some day.

The Pokemon Sun and Moon Conundrum

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It usually takes me around a few weeks before I’ve moved on to my second playthrough of a Pokemon game. It took me until the start of January before I’d even finished Pokemon Sun and Moon, and this has nothing to do with the length of the game. Instead, it was constant stopping and starting: a loss of the interest that has pulled me through Pokemon games I consider much less accomplished than this one. In this review, I want to see if I can work out why Sun and Moon have caused such a roadblock for me. So, it might be better to think of this less as a standard review, and more of a personal process for my own interest. Have I just fallen out with the Pokemon formula, or is it something that Sun and Moon have done specifically?

I think it’s important then, to start at the core of Sun and Moon and see what, if anything, has changed there. As I see it, the three main aspects of every Pokemon game are battling, exploring and to a lesser extent, the Pokemon themselves. Yes, trading and social aspects are important to the experience, but I don’t see them as core per se. Let’s start with battling, because for the casual observer this has remained pretty static throughout the series. Pokemon Sun and Moon makes a lot of quality of life adjustments to the battling system that I really liked. The effectiveness system streamlines the process for those who have yet to memorise type-effectiveness charts, and the stat chart is just helpful for those not wanting to keep track of those things in their head. It’s nice to see Pokemon embrace what was standard in Pokemon Showdown for years. The biggest and most heavily advertised change to the battling system is the Z-Moves, and these sit less easily with me. In theory, they improve significantly on Generation 6’s ‘Mega Evolution’ concept, while still keeping much of the idea behind that. A held item that makes your Pokemon stronger is a good idea, because it forces the player to sacrifice the longer term benefit of a held item like a Rocky Helmet or a berry for a shorter term large advantage of a Z Move. Unfortunately, the Z Moves themselves are let down by a few crucial things. The most glaringly obvious is their complete disruption of pacing caused by long animations. These things are 32 seconds long on average, which is much too long to go without player input, and when you’ve seen the animation happen multiple times before. What makes this doubly frustrating is that X/Y already came up with a solution to this problem; when the game first starts up you see the full transformation animation, but subsequent mega evolutions skip that animation in favour of a much shorter one. Sun/Moon could have easily employed a system like this but fails to do so, and thus discourages the player from using a significant mechanic. I was also slightly annoyed that Z Moves weren’t that powerful. One hit KO moves would be silly and overpowered, but having to sit through that animation for a move that is ultimately not that powerful is more frustrating than anticipated. Of course, this is one of the more minor quibbles with the mechanic, which I regard as a step-up from Mega Evolution. I’ve seen Z-Moves get some negative press, and besides the animation problem, I don’t see them as anything but a good idea; just inventive enough to seem like a revitalisation, just not powerful enough to seem like overkill.

The battle system, then, isn’t that much of a problem. Trainer battles, however, are. It’s worrying when I can count on one hand the number of trainers I remember having a full team of 6 Pokemon during the campaign. Even in OmegaRuby/AlphaSapphire, some of the easiest games in the franchise, there was a trainer class (the breeder) which specialised in having full teams. That isn’t to say the game is too easy – some boss battles pose a challenge, especially the Totem Pokemon battles that you face at the end of every trial. Still, what this does represent is that the standard trainer battles are quicker and less involved, as well as simply easier. When travelling the region, they become less like fun challenges and more annoying roadblocks – a decrease in difficulty means that battling loses a lot of its draw. When battling trainers becomes an annoyance, there’s something that’s gone wrong. I did like the inclusion of trainer quotas on routes as a quick fix solution to this problem. The idea of this is that defeating every trainer on a route allows you to battle a stronger trainer, often with a reward at the end. This is a basic solution – and from a theoretical design perspective it works, but practically this does nothing to stop the core problem that battling becomes rote without a challenge. Yes, this game’s difficult bosses represent a step-up in difficulty from previous games in the series, and I respect that. However, in a game that fixes many of its predecessor’s problems, this is one that annoys me when not addressed in a meaningful way. Still, I got through those games so I doubt that this is my main problem with Sun and Moon. I think to address that we should move onto exploration.

There’s a lot to unpack in this one, so this might take a while. Alola itself is the new region that Sun/Moon take place in, and for all extents and purposes, it’s one of the best region designs for quite a while. The multiple islands lead nicely into a non-standard, less linear route path, and it helps that the islands themselves have routes that are twisty and curve around landmarks and cities to create fun paths that allow for different terrain and environment to naturally flow into one another one a single pathway to your destination. It also allows for route design with branching pathways and hidden secrets. It still relies perhaps too heavily on the old trick of a choice between grass or trainer battle, but the idea I talked about earlier of the ‘route boss’, means that some trainers are almost hidden out of the way. Some routes even incorporate small gimmicks, such as finding a number of hidden Snufful in the grass. It’s also worth mentioning how lovely Alola looks – the series finally returns to what feels like truly dynamic light patterns in the sky, so that the changes in time are really marked (I played Moon version, for reference). No, the route design still doesn’t match up to the lofty heights of Sinnoh, but perhaps what I was most impressed by was how natural the routes felt to traverse. In X/Y, the designers seemed to have made routes using the grid based philosophy that worked for the top down games on the DS, where routes felt boxed in by trees, but that was a necessary limitation of the system’s hardware. On 3DS, when those routes were transplanted into a 3D landscape it felt odd and boxy. Meanwhile, Sun/Moon’s routes actually manage to feel properly free from this – maybe due to the removal of the grid from the map. So not only do islands and routes feel more natural, you can explore them more naturally as well. So far, so good.

It’s a shame, then, that the game seems determined to hamper your enjoyment of its beautifully designed region with some of the most egregious progression blocks and markers I’ve seen in a Pokemon game. Literal road blocks prevent you from moving to certain areas (getting rid of any of the creative semi-excuses from previous games.) However, these road blocks have existed for a while in previous games, if less commonly. What I was more annoyed by were the flag checkpoints on the map, which have much to do with the game’s new found emphasis on telling a compelling story. Other Pokemon games have always given you markers as to where to go next; usually in the forms of the gym battles. Literal markers, then, much like literal walls, aren’t necessarily something new, as much as they are making a pre-existing feature less subtle. Nevertheless, the flag checkpoints are symptomatic of a creeping problem that I’ve been mentioning throughout the review series that I made; the sacrificial trade off Pokemon has been making by giving preference to story over exploration. This was at its most egregious in X/Y, where the story had nothing to offer, but here the story has really taken over – it’s the subject of each and every flag, and if it’s not a boring story battle against a number of Skull/Aether grunts, then it’s a boring story cutscene that aims to provide some semblance of character development to Sun/Moon’s expansive cast of characters.

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The story of Sun/Moon has received a lot of praise from critics, but I fail to see exactly why, except in terms compared too other Pokemon games. Yes, the story in Sun/Moon is miles ahead of any other Pokemon game. However, in my opinion it doesn’t reach the heights required to affect the gameplay in the way it does. Yes, Lillie’s arc is strong, but other aspects of the story don’t quite stack up. Lusamine’s story is fun, but rob her of enough agency that it robs some of the impact from her as a villain. In that respect, Guzma and Team Skull feel like the stronger villains – their slapstick routine isn’t as threatening, but it works just enough; when they were on screen I wanted to spend time in their company, whereas the Aether Foundation were nothing more than an obvious twist. The crux of the story, then, revolves around Lillie, who’s undoubtedly a likeable protagonist, but her plot also annoys me in its follow up effects. You see, we don’t play as Lillie, we play as bland smiley boy/girl who runs around chasing Lillie, and yet still somehow fights all her fights. The game, then, struggles to maintain a weird balance between gameplay and story, trying desperately to have two cakes and eat them both. Focusing fully on Lillie’s story might have meant a named playable protagonist, or at least a situation where Lillie could solve her problems without fighting. Instead you do the grunt work for Lillie while she picks up the emotional development, which feels less earned – a compromise. I think this compromise comes as a result of Pokemon being unable to leave the core of the past behind, while being content to change the edges. What I mean by this is that Pokemon will never stop being about a nameless protagonist wandering around a region, catching and fighting wild beasts, but that doesn’t stop the directors from attempting to enforce change that runs contrary to that core idea, the best example being the one of a story focus.

Those features, then, make up the core of Pokemon Sun/Moon, but the game is pleasingly stuffed full of content. Sadly, I’m not the sort of game reviewer to pore through every little feature, but I will give a cursory glance over some of the features that stuck out to me. The new Pokemon introduced seem exceptionally well designed – they all have a simple aesthetic and a priority on the animation of the 3D models to give them character, which works surprisingly well in game. Some of the Alola forms are a little questionable and I think they could have pushed the idea much further, but some work nicely as a proof of concept. The removal of gyms was touted as a ‘major shake-up’ for the series, but I’m not sure that it is. Instead, gyms are replaced by often annoying, mostly mercifully short mini-games which end in fun boss battles against super-powered Pokemon. Totem Pokemon are a welcome addition, but I’m not sure if the removal of gyms was necessary, other than to give a refreshing face-lift to the franchise. The best change is clearly the removal of HM moves, which is the sort of common sense move that should have been done ages ago, but inexplicably wasn’t. I think the only thing left to talk about is the Rotom Pokedex, which is a forgettable kind of annoying – a clear send up of the once more popular Yokai Watch.

So then, what’s the conclusion? Why couldn’t I finish Sun/Moon quickly? Let me be clear with one thing here – these are good games. In fact, I like these games. Probably a lot, when I think about it. I’ve spent about 2000 words mostly complaining, but the core Pokemon formula topped off with a multitude of clever quality of life upgrades and a few cosmetic changes that allow that core some room to breathe will always make for an enjoyable experience. No, they aren’t perfect Pokemon games (HeartGold/SoulSilver already did that) but they are good, a marked step up from X/Y.

Annoyingly, this still fails to get to the root of my problem with the game. If you’ll excuse me from getting a bit meta, I had to rewrite this review multiple times in the vague hope that I’d reach some sort of personal conclusion as to why I wasn’t the greatest fan of the game. Each individual aspect I could work out my feeling towards, but as a sum of its parts, I was left slightly clueless. It could be, and this is something I’ve seriously considered, a result of a fatigue on my behalf towards Pokemon. Whether that’s caused by a year of replaying Pokemon games for review, or a lifetime of playing Pokemon games for fun, seeing a game like this that makes mild but insubstantial steps to improving on a well-trod path isn’t maybe enough to pull me through. Which might be unfair on the game. I do sometimes think that perhaps the way I reviewed this is completely unfair; I focused a lot on the negatives, and framed this review in a negative light. Not that anyone looks to me for a critical consensus, but that I care some about how I present my views. Clearly all reviews of this nature will be subjective, that’s in the nature of a review, but that doesn’t mean a reviewer shouldn’t strive for balance when framing his argument. This review has caused me a lot of existential grief; in case you couldn’t tell. At least it came in a lot shorter than I originally had it…

Yeah, that was… a post. I guess. I think I rambled a bit towards the end there because I was so fed up with the whole process (I think I rewrote this review maybe 3 times in total?) Anyway, my review of The Good Place should be up within a few days, so look forward to that (Spoilers – it’s good)

Pokemon 20th Reviews: The State of the Franchise

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No, I hadn’t forgotten about this series, although someone with little faith in me (like myself) might reasonably think that I might have forgotten about it until recently… Anyway, with Sun and Moon launching this month I think at least a cursory glance should be given to the trends of the Pokémon series in its most recent installments.

I think the obvious place to start is the Pokemon themselves; there are over 700 now, and after an attempt to ‘reboot’ in the main story of Black and White, the array of catchable critters had to be expanded for Black 2 and White 2. It’s a good thing they did because the Unova Pokemon have some of the worst designs in the series to date; weird ugly re-treads of familiar ideas with much of the colour stripped out of them. Unova itself is quite ugly to look at, aside from the occasional area of nice visual design that sticks in one’s mind (see Skyarrow Bridge), much of it is brown, grey and dark green; a colour palette that may replicate the country it’s aiming for but isn’t where I would want to go on an adventure. Both Black and White 2 and X and Y learned from these mistakes, but they took it in two different directions. Black 2 and White 2 revamped Unova and added in old Pokemon, which is a simpler solution, but one that works. The new areas are brighter and more distinct, such as Humilau City, and the addition of old Pokemon doesn’t add to the already bulky roster, but gives you more choice in the campaign, and means you can avoid the questionably designed Unova Pokemon. In X and Y, the roster of Pokemon is expanded, but minimally, meaning that the quality is high, but the quantity is low, a change I’m quite a fan of; especially seeing as Mega Evolutions add some new looks and functions to old Pokemon. Perhaps, though, X and Y lean too heavily on borrowed nostalgia, especially from the first generation; Professor Sycamore even gives you a Kanto starter when you meet him, meaning that you’re pushed into accepting an old Pokemon if you want to make full use of Mega Evolution. In the end, then, the new starters (save Greninja), feel a bit shafted, as do some of the newly introduced Pokemon. The region initially feels a marked improvement from Unova, but again this comes with caveats. All of the Pokemon games have felt boxed in, but the spite based aesthetic has somehow meant this felt more natural. With the 3D look of X and Y, the routes look awkward and cartoony in the way they just stop – and the fact that the game still runs on a grid based system only exacerbates the issue. Luckily, Sun and Moon already look to be improving this, although we’ll have to wait and see the full effect.

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In Black and White, one of the big innovations was the story, and in the past I’ve complained that the story in Pokemon is too weak to be interesting but present enough to disrupt the open-ended structure that was present in the first two generations. Black and White opts to improve on the first criticism, and while you’re shepherded around cities in what is probably one of the most linear regions yet both in route and map design (although shout out to the lovely Route Four),  the story is actually alright. Finally tackling the ‘isn’t Pokemon really cruel’ criticism was a bold move, and while they ducked out at the end by revealing Ghetsis didn’t care and was just your average baddie, it was nice to see them give it a shot and try something different. They also mess with the end game structure, creating an epic final showdown while also decreasing all impact Alder has as Champion. In Black 2 and White 2 the story suffers from being too complex and dull while still overbearing. I was never engaged by the plight of the two Plasmas, and everything seemed to take itself too seriously for its own good. Luckily, the ambitiously large post-game means that those wanting more freedom need only hold out until the end of the story, at which point the world opens up and reveals a multitude of post-game delights.

The story and structure of X and Y, meanwhile, are those game’s biggest weaknesses. Team Flare are pathetic villains; I’m still not 100% as to what their game plan was. Were they obsessed with beauty? Did they want to destroy the world, and if so, why? Who was Lysandre? I realise I’m exaggerating my ignorance for comic effect, but still; X and Y’s story was awful, and the addition of AZ only served to confuse it more. Kalos is twistier than Unova, all revolving around a central city and branches going off of that. However, those branches are as linear as they get –to an annoying degree. Gone are the long winding routes of Sinnoh, whose weather changed dynamically as you marched through them, replaced by bland looking single line Point A to Point B routes that add little to make you feel adventurous besides a few swoopinng camera angles. Maybe the worst offense is that when it’s over, it’s all over. In accordance with then series director Junichi Masuda’s new idea to make the series simpler for the ‘smartphone generation’, X and Y have almost no post game. For a series known for enduring gameplay, this is a disappointing change, one only partially rectified in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire.

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Finally, let’s talk about gameplay mechanics because this isn’t something I normally talk about. I don’t subscribe to the idea that the Pokemon battle system never changes because I have dabbled in competitive battling and know that each new Pokemon introduced is in itself a mechanic, and the smallest changes can have a big impact in that scene. However, the competitive scene is so intricate that it’s a job for people who know their stuff to properly talk about. Instead, I like to look at the bigger changes that even the casual players will notice. For that reason, I may have to not talk about Triple and Rotation battling, which are literally hidden in an alley by the game. If Pokemon itself doesn’t care, why should they expect me to? Pokemon would, however, love me to care about Mega Evolution, the big new change to the franchise that everyone including Game Freak seems to have very clearly realised was a mistake. Mega Evolution is a gimmicky little function that looks flashy but was clearly not thought out well. What could have made battles against Mega equipped trainers harder simply made the whole game easier while also breaking the meta-game. Not to mention most of them looked ugly as sin. More of an improvement were the Gen VI online features, made easier than ever, and much less confusing than the Dream World. The PSS was simple to use, and Wonder Trade was an inspired way to get people excited about trading Pidgeys. It’s a shame, perhaps, that the DexNav will stay exclusive to the Gen Three remakes, but not surprising given Game Freak’s track record. (Also for the record; customisation is cool. kthanksbye.)

While I tried to set this up as a comparison, it was really just mini reviews of the latest three Pokemon games, so I’m not sure if I’ve gained anything from it. I guess I’ve noticed that the Pokemon series hasn’t been going on a downward trend? Maybe the only trend I can see is the simplification of the region and route design, but that’s been happening since Gen Three. Overall, I think the only conclusion I’m happy reaching is; Pokemon is good, but some games are better than others. Insightful.