The Life and Death of Vita

Earlier this month, news broke that Sony was finally discontinuing production of the Vita.  This got me thinking a lot about the machine. Considering my enthusiasm for handheld gaming, I’ve always viewed the Vita a bit regretfully.  As a platform, it never really sparked much passion in me. It’s an amazing piece of hardware: a big colorful screen, a nice d-pad and buttons, very ergonomic compared to other handhelds, and, of course, it has two analog sticks, an addition that its predecessor sorely needed.  As a machine, it’s also just very slick looking from an aesthetic standpoint. In comparison, I’ve always thought the various versions of the 3DS looked very toy-like, especially considering the classy, minimalist shapes of the DS Lite and DSi. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I always feel a bit more self-conscious when other adults see me playing a 3DS than I do when I’m playing a Vita.

Severed was an incredibly unique dungeon crawler designed specifically for the Vita.

The problem that I’ve always had with the Vita is the games.  On the one hand, it’s unfair and inaccurate to say that the Vita doesn’t have a decently-sized library of games.  The problem is it doesn’t have a lot of games unique to the system. Sony put a lot of effort into supporting the PSP with great games.  They developed new series like LocoRoco and Patapon, and they had great entries of their other big series on the machine, like Killzone, Syphon Filter, Resistance, MotorStorm, and Little Big Planet.  The big video game publishers in Japan were also big supporters of the PSP, but that support didn’t materialize the same way for the Vita. Square-Enix, for instance, launched huge titles for the PSP like Final Fantasy Type-0, The Third Birthday, and Crisis Core, but the only major game for the Vita from them that I can think of was the FFX/FFX-2 collection.  

It seems like most of these publishers very early on decided that mobile and 3DS were simply better investments.  The worst loss for the Vita was when Capcom decided to move the Monster Hunter series from PSP to 3DS, instead of Vita.  Monster Hunter was a hugely successful series in Japan and was the driving force behind the PSP’s long-tail popularity over there.  Worst of all, Sony, themselves, gave up on making games for the Vita pretty quickly. Going by Wikipedia, the last major release from them seems to have come out and 2013.

Yomawari Night Alone was a surprisingly unusual horror game for Vita.

Regardless, the Vita still managed to cultivate a fair number of games for itself.  The Vita library was heavily filled out with indie games. I like indie games, and I play a ton of them, but I was never really drawn to play these games on the Vita.  This was mainly, I think, for two reasons. First, these games often released long after their original release on either Steam or PS4, and I had often already played them on these other platforms by the time they came to Vita.  There were a few times when I made a conscious effort to wait for the Vita release of a specific game, but this frequently ended in the Vita version being cancelled or the wait ending up being so long that I just lost interest. The second issue I had with these games was that they were often markedly inferior versions, either running poorly on the Vita or simply not being scaled correctly to the handheld’s screen size and resolution.  Stuff like uncomfortably tiny text or fuzzy image quality were recurring flaws in these ports.

Gravity Rush was an original title created for Vita. Unfortunately, the sequel was PS4-only.

I know that in addition to indie games, there was also a large contingent of Japanese visual novels released for the system.  And while I recognize there is a niche for these sorts of games, the genre doesn’t really appeal to me outside of a few of the higher profile games like Danganronpa or Steins;Gate.

I know that I’m not alone in feeling, simply but sadly, that the glory days of handheld gaming are long behind us.  The Vita didn’t really come close to living up to the PSP, and while the 3DS faired better, it’s library wasn’t quite as expansive and vibrant as the DS before it.  Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of great games for the 3DS, but they were mostly from Nintendo, while other game makers provided much less support. Almost certainly, a combination of mobile phone gaming and the extensive piracy on both the PSP and DS has lured support away from dedicated handhelds.  From that perspective, I think the Switch is probably a very smartly formulated device, as it keeps Nintendo’s handheld legacy alive, while also being a platform that attracts console game makers.

All of this said, I’m not really in a rush to bury my Vita in a drawer and forget about it.  The recent production news has really been a reminder to me that there’s still a handful of games that I want to go back and play.  Particularly, the higher profile visual novels, namely Danganronpa, Steins;Gate, and Virtue’s Last Reward. I also recently became interested in playing Death Mark, a more obscure title from last fall.  Perhaps it will be a Halloween game this year. Beyond that, I think the machine is still the best way of playing PS1 and PSP games. It’s too bad that most of my PSP collection is on UMD and not PSN, or else I could probably permanently retire my PSP.

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The Crash Comeback: Part 3

Over a year ago when I excitedly picked up the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, I had an immense amount of enthusiasm  to replay these games. I’ve been a huge fan of Crash Bandicoot for a long time, and the reviews for the remake were absolutely glowing.  With that in mind, I thought to myself, “How can I possibly end up disappointed?” Reality set in when I made it to The Road to Nowhere level in the first entry of the series.  I found it to be insanely difficult and frustrating. I never remembered Crash 1 ever being so hard, and it took me almost 2 hours to beat this particular level. I don’t think any other stage in the remainder of the game was quite that challenging, but I felt the game as a whole awkwardly oscillated between deflatingly easy and acutely demanding.  In the end, I’m still a fan of Crash 1, but my fondness has definitely been tempered quite a bit.

Regardless of my issues, I moved on to Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back with quite a bit of optimism.  I’ve found that many hail this sequel as the high point of the original trilogy of Crash Bandicoot games, much like its cinematic namesake. For me, while I personally owned and played Crash 1 and 3 to death, Crash 2 was only an occasional rental.  When I was younger, I tended to avoid buying (or requesting as gifts) games that were available at the local video store to rent, unless if it was just a game that was simply too big to not own. (Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, any Mario game are all good examples of what I mean by “too big to not own” games.)  As a consequence, I’ve never had any strong feelings toward Crash 2, for better or for worse.

Turns out, after all these years, I hate this game.

I’ve had to ponder for a bit on why I find the game to be such an unpleasant chore, and I feel that my reasons are twofold.  The main reason is that the game is often unnecessarily frustrating. I often enjoy difficult games, but there is a difference between a well-designed challenge and the tedium and nuisance of clumsy game design.  Take Bloodborne, for instance. There are many times when the player encounters a new boss that initially seems utterly insurmountable. But with persistence and practice, the player’s skills and understanding eventually become honed to the point that enemies and areas that originally seemed impossible become quite easy.  It’s an immensely satisfying feeling when I realize this happens. With games like Crash 2, on the other hand, the challenge doesn’t seem to arise from a deficit in skill or experience, rather it seems to come from the player bumping into aspects of the game that aren’t particularly well thought out or refined.

Take for instance the camera, over which the player has no control over in these original Crash Bandicoot games.  I argued before when discussing Crash 1 that the inability to freely manipulate the camera often results in the player having difficulty understanding Crash’s position in three-dimensional space.  The screenshot below is a good example of this issue. In this image, consider that Crash is moving into the screen while the enemies hover mid-air, traveling in square pathways. It was essentially a guessing game for me to understand how close they were to Crash along the axis that runs into the screen.  This of course makes it quite difficult to avoid contact. This issue was bad in Crash 1, but is particularly a problem in Crash 2 where a lot of the later levels involve Crash flying through space with a rocket pack strapped to his back. With no ground beneath him for reference, it became really difficult for me to gauge how close Crash was to any of the enemies or hazards.  

Another problem I had with the game that ties into this complaint is that sometimes very basic obstacles require an uncomfortable amount of precision to overcome.  For instance, there are a fair few pits in the game that felt like I needed to wait for Crash to be upon the very edge before jumping across, or else he would fall just short of the landing on the opposite side.  Often, the game reminds me of the slew of mediocre NES games that I rented as a kid which demanded the player make pixel precise movements and, as a result, felt sloppily designed when compared to something like Mario or…….well, Mario.

Before I go further, I want to make a point of not over-exaggerating the difficulty of Crash 2.  While it was frequently frustrating, it was not nearly as hard as my recent playthrough of Crash 1, wherein there were a few levels in which I got bogged down in for hours.  But beyond the clumsy difficulty curve, I find Crash 2 simply didn’t resonate with me as much as Crash 1. The immediately obvious culprit for these feelings is that I have a sentimental attachment to Crash 1, but not to Crash 2.  While this may be the case, after a fair amount of reflection, I think there are a few truly rational justifications for why I was let down by this sequel, but still retain a modicum of fondness for its predecessor. The main issue I think is that this game tends to have a lot of levels built around tedious gimmicks.  The aforementioned rocket pack levels are an offender. It’s also worth mentioning the dark levels that involve Crash having to speed his way through before the light provided by an accompanying firefly fades out. There’s also a certain level that involves soft dirt that Crash can burrow beneath. The burrowing is supposed to help him hide from swarms of bees that periodically give chase, but since these bees can be killed with the spin attack, I never really understood why I would intentionally want to burrow into the dirt.

Then there’s the ice levels.  Oh the ice levels.  I’m not sure I’ve ever really liked slippery ice levels in any game.  At best, they are merely tolerable. Crash 2 has probably the most painfully laborious ice levels I’ve ever played.  The issue here is that it takes forever for Crash to gain traction and pick up speed in any direction while on ice.  Since the player needs to frequently stop to prevent Crash from sliding out of control in any direction, then has to wait for Crash to pick up even a modicum of momentum again, it’s a tiresome ordeal.

I recognize that complaining about gimmicks is an odd complaint to level against Crash 2, but not its predecessor, especially as some of the gimmickiest levels of Crash 1 have become its most iconic.  Afterall, the hog riding and boulder escape levels are some of the original game’s most recognizable stages. But these stages provided a fun and exciting diversion from the standard way the game is played.  The ideas they came up with for Crash 2 just felt like chores to me. They are challenge by constriction of the player (no light, no traction, etc.), and don’t really add an interesting new dimension of play.

Finally, there’s the ending, which I felt was utterly anti-climactic.  It’s a quick fight with Neo Cortex, and then the game is just sort of over after a quick cutscene showing Crash and Coco are okay.  It’s also a rocket pack stage, which I’ve mentioned I’m not fond toward. The reality is that there’s a secret ending, which I assume is significantly more elaborate.  As I understand, access to this ending requires the player to break every wooden crate in each level. That is a high-level feat that requires a fair bit of mastery and practice to pull off, and I simply didn’t enjoy the game enough to even attempt it.  I appreciate secret endings that encourage high-level play, but as I discussed in my Hollow Knight post, it’s far less than ideal if the normal ending that most players will see is neglected as a result.

I know that this post has really just been one big long rant.  I rarely rant in blog form or write too negatively about games, simply because if I dislike a game, I generally don’t take the time to finish it, much less find the energy to devote to writing about it.  But I committed myself to reexperiencing and writing about the Crash Bandicoot trilogy after the PS4 collection came out, and so here I am. Furthermore, I’ve come to the impression that Crash 2 is generally the most well-regarded of the original trilogy.  So, I’m fully aware that many reading this may disagree with me. That’s fine. This post merely represents my personal feelings and thoughts, and I certainly don’t harbor the delusion that I’m any sort of definitive arbiter of gaming quality.

With all of this behind me, I’m now facing the final game in the trilogy, Crash Bandicoot: Warped.  Of the three original entries in the series, this is the one I have the most sentimental attachment toward with probably the most hours of my youth sunk.  In a strange way, I feel suspense building inside me. Crash 1 ended up being less amazing than I remember, and my experience with Crash 2 was mediocre. I feel a dark thought nagging at the edge of my consciousness:  “Maybe the Crash Bandicoot series was never really all that great.” The moment of truth will soon be at hand, as it is now up to the Crash Bandicoot: Warped to dispel that notion.

QUBE 2!

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I love puzzle games, but that hasn’t always been the case.  When I was much younger, the term “puzzle game” was more synonymous with falling block games, that is to say games that relied on the old Tetris formula in which the player’s goal is to arrange pieces of junk falling from the sky according to some idiosyncratic rule that causes the mess to disappear.  I really liked Tetris, but I also got it for free with my Game Boy. It simply never crossed my mind to use the limited opportunities that a youngster has to get new video games on the numerous clones of Tetris that proliferated after its breakout success. Those types of games simply didn’t offer enough content in comparison to the action-adventure games that I usually picked up.

Somewhere along the line all that changed.  The “puzzle game” term was commandeered by a different game and its numerous clones.  That game, of course, was Portal, and it completely reinvigorated what had become an utterly sleepy genre.  The term suddenly was used less to describe games about the strategy and reflexes of arranging falling blocks, and more to describe games in which the player sets about solving puzzles built into the environment of the levels they are meant to explore.  And after Portal, there was a boom in indie groups taking advantage of new digital storefronts to release new games in the genre. One game that often stands out in my mind as emblematic of this boom time was QUBE, a game that could easily be described as a Portal clone, although a good game nonetheless, worth the time of anyone interested in such games.  QUBE sort of came and went, and it seemed like it didn’t quite make the same lasting impression as some of the other big name puzzle games of the time, which is why I was happy when a sequel, QUBE 2, was released earlier this year.

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QUBE 2, like the game before it, is set inside a massive structure made of white cubes, ominously implied to be of alien origin.  During the beginnings steps of the story, the player discovers and equips a strange, technologically-advanced glove that allows them to manipulate the properties of the cubic building blocks of the surroundings.  This is the primary means through which the player interacts with the environment. The glove can confer functionality to specific cubes with each functionality having a specific color coding. Red cubes expand outward, laterally from the surface in which they are embedded, to create steps or possibly obstructions.  Blue cubes act like “ejectors”, forcefully expelling the player or any other objects that touch their surfaces in the opposite direction. Finally, green cubes become detached from the structure, creating a moveable object that can be used, for instance, to weigh down switches or act as stepping stones.

These are the only glove functions that are introduced to the player.  With such a limited number of ways to manipulate individual blocks, I was initially worried that QUBE 2 might be too simplistic mechanically for a large variety of complex puzzles.  Ultimately, however, I found that the game had a good ramp in terms of difficulty and complexity. While the player may only have three “powers”, the game continually introduces new elements and features to the environment that keep the basic formula of the puzzles from stagnating.  And while I felt the game started off maybe too easy, the puzzles progress through a fair difficulty curve, and I think the puzzle design offered a very satisfying challenge without ever becoming unreasonably obtuse.

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The first QUBE was completely devoid of story, and that’s not an exaggeration.  As far as I can recall, the main character never spoke, was spoken too, or encountered other characters.  He/she/it simply moved through the cube structures solving puzzles to progress. I think the game may have been criticized a bit unfairly for this, as the closest point of comparison most people have for this game is Portal, and many people play Portal for the story first, puzzles second.  Eventually, a “director’s cut” version of the game was released that included new story elements, but I’ve never gone back to play this version, so I can provide no comment on it.

I can say, however, that QUBE 2 puts a fair bit of effort into its story from the get go.  The player takes control of Amelia Cross, a woman who awakens on a desolated planet that has been overtaken by the eponymous alien cubes which have self-assembled into enormous structures that dot the world’s surface.  Taking refuge in one of these structures, Amelia begins to explore its inner workings and sets about uncovering the true nature of the cubes and their potential as friend or foe to humankind. The story is metered out in the “radio play” style with all interactions between Amelia and the other characters being carried out over radio transmissions as the player goes about their business.  I thought the actual plot that unfolds was merely decent. It’s not bad by any means, but for people who have read or watched a lot of science fiction, it will probably be easy to figure out where the story is heading. But as predictable as it may be, the story doesn’t really get in the way of the overall adventure, and I felt it gave some coloring to the experience that increased immersion, meaning I don’t feel that it was a purely perfunctory element of the game.  But it’s important to understand that for the kind of person who plays Portal for the story and jokes and doesn’t really care about the challenge of puzzle solving, this game probably won’t be particularly engaging.

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Speaking of immersion, I thought QUBE 2 was visually stunning in its own humble way.  I feel like that’s kind of a weird thing to say about a game where the player spends their time exploring environments entirely made out of white cubes.  But the image quality is really sharp, and lighting is used well to create texture and dynamism in the world. Later on in the game, bits of nature and greenery begin to encroach on the otherwise sterile environments, adding a small bit of satisfying diversity.  There’s not a huge amount of variety to the setting, but I never felt bored or tired of the aesthetic, which is not something I can say of the first QUBE.

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QUBE 2 is interesting because its predecessor is so quaint in comparison.  QUBE was a simple $15 puzzle game released in the wake of Portal’s popularity.  It was a cool game, but I never really thought the core concept could carry more than one title in a series.  The team behind this game apparently had a completely different idea, however, and really doubled down on what they had.  With QUBE 2, they took their humble indie game and blew it up into a significantly more expansive and polished product. QUBE 2 has more extensive content, slicker visuals, and a significantly more substantial story.  I find it to be the often too rare kind of sequel that stands completely on its own, and in no way requires experience with the prior game in the series to fully enjoy. Personally, I often tend to be compulsively driven to play games sequentially in a series (i.e., I can’t play sequels until I play their predecessors).  But with QUBE 2, I have no hesitance about recommending newcomers start here, and only tackle the original game if they are left wanting more.

The Inpatient!

 

The Inpatient Flat.pngThe Inpatient is the latest PSVR spinoff from PS4’s excellent (non-VR) horror adventure game Until Dawn.  Unlike Until Dawn’s first spinoff, Rush of Blood, which was was an arcade action game more akin to The House of the Dead than the original Until Dawn, The Inpatient goes back to the series’ roots and focuses on story, dialogue, and exploration with scant action.  In The Inpatient, the player takes on the point of view of an unnamed amnesiac patient at Blackwood Sanatorium in the winter of 1952. I don’t want to spoil Until Dawn, so I’ll be speaking a bit vaguely here, but the events that transpire at the asylum during this time period play a major part in the lore of the series and are described in detail during the original game.  Thus, The Inpatient seeks to give a new perspective on the series’ backstory and serves as a sort of prequel.

I’m going to be blunt and upfront here: as a huge fan of Until Dawn (and also PSVR), The Inpatient was a big disappointment.  While Rush of Blood was an arcade shooting gallery that hugely deviated from the carefully-paced, story-focused trappings of its predecessor, I still think its a better continuation of Until Dawn than The Inpatient.  Rush of Blood had interesting and varied environments, a ton of cool monster designs, and despite a few irritating jump scares, was a more moody and frightful experience. The Inpatient, despite launching at double the price of Rush of Blood, feels like a low budget project, in contrast.  It’s an incredibly stripped down experience with few actual scares and a story that is dull and insubstantial.

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As a patient at Blackwood, the player spends roughly the first half of the game almost entirely confined to their room at the asylum.  Early on, a new roommate is introduced, and most of the time is spent having conversations with him. Unfortunately, he’s not a terribly interesting character, and I found all of these conversations rather unmemorable.  Eventually, alarms go off and chaos ensues offscreen, after which the main character and this roommate are left abandoned for days. Those who have played Until Dawn will probably immediately realize what has happened, but I can imagine those who are unfamiliar with the series will be completely confused.

During this segment, the player occasionally rests, only to enter a dream sequence where the player is left to wander the long dark hallways of the asylum as mildly spooky stuff happens along the way.  And when I say mildly spooky, I mean it. It feels like a really cheap haunted house. The worst scare of the game happens in the very first dream sequence when something randomly appears in front of the player, screams in their face, and then disappears.  Cheap jump scares like this are questionable design in normal games, but as I wrote about in my Rush of Blood review, they are extremely uncomfortable in VR.  This one was so bad that I actually reflexively ripped off the PSVR headset.  Strangely, this was the only jump scare I encountered during my entire playthrough, but the experience left me anxious (in a bad way) for the rest of the game.  I found every other attempt the game made to scare me to be rather tepid.

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After a long boring period stuck in the room with Mr. Personality, the main character escapes their cell by way of…..something.  As far as I could tell, the story doesn’t even really attempt to give a real explanation as to how the main character gets out of the locked room, but nonetheless the player eventually finds themselves freely roaming the halls after they escape in a surreal dream sequence.  After the slow and lackluster first half of the game, one might be hopeful that it was merely building up to a more exciting escape from the grounds of the asylum, itself. Not so, however, as I felt the back half of the game was even more unfulfilling than the first.

After a bit of aimless wandering, the player meets up with a group of survivors who promise to take him/her back to a safe haven.  At this point in the story, the asylum should be overrun with bloodthirsty creatures, but the player only has one brief encounter with a monster.  The player basically spends the rest of the story following the other survivors through empty hallways and corridors while little else happens.

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Toward the end, some (human) violence breaks out, and I could only assume this was an attempt to try to create some excitement for the climax, but I felt it completely fell flat at creating any tension or raising my interest in the story.  The ending, itself, felt extremely anticlimactic. The Inpatient has multiple endings which are the outcomes of various dialogue choices the player can make, but I don’t feel the game grabbed me enough for me to give it another playthrough.

Even for superfans of the original Until Dawn, I don’t think The Inpatient is a necessary experience.  It’s story simply doesn’t stand on its own, and it doesn’t really meaningfully advance the Until Dawn lore.  The outbreak at Blackwood could have been a terrifying event to witness, but everything exciting happens off-screen, far away from the player’s view.  This is presumably the end of Until Dawn as a series, and it’s really too bad that it ends on such a whimper.

Stories Untold!

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Stories Untold is a series of four vignettes tinged with horror and modelled after classic sci-fi anthology series such as The Outer Limits and Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories.  Each vignette is superficially a standalone experience with the commonality that they each feature stories in which the player interacts with an array of (by today’s standards) vintage electronics such as classic microcomputers, microfiche archives, radios, televisions, etc.  The exception is the final episode which manages to tie together the seemingly unrelated events of the preceding chapters into a surprisingly cohesive whole.

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Of the four episodes, I felt the first was easily the strongest.  It’s also the only episode that I felt leant deeply into the horror genre.  In this chapter, the player is rooted at a home desk with a “Futuro” microcomputer, which is essentially a fictionalized analogue of machines like the Amiga and Commodore 64.  Loaded up onto the system is The House Abandon, a text adventure that is essentially a game within a game. The entire episode is spent at this desk playing this one text adventure game.  The House Abandon begins as a seemingly warm and fuzzy story about returning to a childhood home, but eventually reveals itself to have a more sinister side. All of a sudden, the game turns a dark corner and begins distorting the in-game reality surrounding the microcomputer.  While this might sound gimmicky and a little cheesy, I found it to be executed surprisingly well. The metafictional interplay between the reality of the humble desk and Futuro computer setup and the dark residential setting of The House Abandon is one of the most creative mechanisms of producing tension and foreboding that I’ve seen in a game, and the creepiness of the experience left a distinct impression on me.

The subsequent episodes, however, were not quite as effective in creating the atmosphere and mood befitting a horror game.  The second and third episodes are more sci-fi oriented. Instead of a cursed computer game, the second episode involves the player operating lab equipment in a government research facility, and the third episode takes place in a radio outpost for an expedition above the Arctic Circle.  Horror is subjective, of course, and while I could see how someone might consider these chapters to be eerie, I simply did not come away with that impression.

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The fourth episode diverges significantly from the rest and serves as a capstone for the disparate stories that came before it.  A more grounded tale, eschewing supernatural and sci-fi elements, the final chapter is, in a certain way, the most chilling episode and deals with tragedy and deeply personal torment.  Not scary in the traditional sense of the oft-surreal horror genre, Stories Untold concludes with an upsetting story of loss and regret, real world horror if you will.  Beyond that, the fourth episode manages to color the entire experience with an interesting perspective that attempts to elevate the game above the sum of its parts.  The blurring of boundaries between layers of metafictional reality is a theme that permeates throughout, and this peculiar aspect of the individual vignettes serves as an important hook for the conclusion.

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Surprisingly, the text adventure aspect manages to find its way into the story beyond the initial episodes.  Of the actual interactive parts of the game, I found these segments to be the most enjoyable and interesting.  Text adventures have a bad reputation of obtuseness due to how frustrating it can sometimes be to figure out the right wording of commands to enter into the text parser, but I didn’t find Stories Untold to be too much of a hassle in this regard.  The other various tasks the player is given, on the other hand, can sometimes feel like busy work to fill in time between story beats. One part of the game has the player manipulating the various buttons, knobs, and levers of a microfiche display, and this activity was especially tedious.

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Ultimately, I have no strong feelings toward Stories Untold.  I can easily see that it’s competently designed with a well crafted story, but I simply did not resonate sharply with this game.  I chose this as a Halloween game after seeing it on a number of horror game recommendation lists, but, honestly, I personally have a hard time characterizing it as such.  The first episode featuring the cursed computer game was a great experience, but the remainder of the game felt like a different direction tonally. To me, the hook of the game is more for those interested in ‘80s nostalgia than it is for enthusiasts of the horror genre.  (Which is ironic, because I felt that one of the main themes of the game was that nostalgia is a coping mechanism that deters us from facing reality.) As a ‘90s kid, I have little attachment to this subject matter, which is probably why the game didn’t leave as strong of an impression on me.

The Evil Within!

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The Evil Within did not make a good first impression on me.  I started the game on PS4 near the time of its release, played maybe three or four hours, decided I wasn’t having fun with the gruelling experience, and I sold it off.  Years later, The Evil Within II came out to generally favorable impressions, and I thought I might give the series another try. But, I often get OCD around playing a series in order, and the first game was really cheap on Steam.  What ultimately pushed me over into giving The Evil Within another shot was some encouraging words here on the WordPress community and elsewhere that gave favorable, if not reasonably measured, praise to the game. And I’m glad I gave the game another chance, as I found I enjoyed TEW after getting past the hump that I got stuck on earlier, and I feel good having seen it  to the end. The game is a giant mess, of course, but it’s a mess that leaves a strange and surprising impression.

The Evil Within begins with Krimson City detectives Sebastian Castellanos (the protagonist), Joseph Oda, and Juli Kidman responding to an emergency at Beacon Mental Hospital.  The lobby of the hospital has been the site of a massacre, and Sebastian is subdued by a strange assailant in a white robe. He wakes up chained deep in the bowels of the facility, the captive of a large blood-soaked man who has other corpses strung from the ceiling and looks to be cannibalizing his victims.  Defenseless, Sebastian manages to evade and escape from his captor, but not before the hospital reveals itself to be filled with gruesome mechanisms designed to slaughter those attempting to flee. In the courtyard, he meets up with Oda and Kidman, and the group finds an ambulance to make their exit. As they race through the city, an immense earthquake strikes.  Massive fissures open up in the ground, and buildings begin to tumble down. They narrowly avoid being consumed by the cataclysm that destroys the city, only to fly off the edge of a cliff when their driver loses control of the vehicle. After the crash, Sebastian wakes up alone in the dark countryside. With his colleagues having abandoned him and the overturned ambulance, he begins his long journey to survive the complete breakdown of reality itself.

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That long and ridiculous last paragraph perfectly encapsulates the experience of The Evil Within.  I feel exhausted just having written it. The game simply never settles down. I don’t think there is ever a moment when I thought to myself “I understand where this is going.”  Settings are constantly being shifted, enemies are constantly changing, the story picks up in one direction only to abruptly change course. There’s never any moment of comfort to be found.  There is never any expectation that will not be subverted.

There are many types of horror games that are distinguished both by theme and mechanics, and what makes The Evil Within incredible is that it basically tries to do everything a horror game can do.  It manages to find a way to merge psychological horror (e.g., Silent Hill), supernatural elements (e.g., Fatal Frame), and science fiction elements (e.g., Resident Evil). Superficially, it is a game that focuses on action and shooting (like Resident Evil 4 or Dead Space), but it also attempts to prominently include stealth (like The Last of Us), run-and-hide sequences (like Amnesia), and survival and resource management mechanics (like the original Resident Evil).  By trying to fuse together all of these different approaches to making a horror game, The Evil Within is at its best highly admirably for ambition, but also many times manages to go over the edge and collapse into a clumsy or confusing mess.

In his quest to figure out just what the hell is really going on, Sebastian Castellanos treks across a post-apocalyptic cityscape, an evil mansion, a depraved hospital, an infested sewer, dreamcapes carved out of nightmare, and essentially almost every other popular staple of the horror genre.  Each of the different environments absolutely nails the aesthetics of its chosen subject and feature expertly designed atmosphere, mood, tension, and foreboding. The Evil Within never lets the player forget they are in a horror story. And despite each setting being radically different, they all feel as if they are a part of the same gruesome world.  There is a distinctive aesthetic style to The Evil Within that it manages to maintain across the entirety of its expansive journey.

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Principally, The Evil Within is the successor to Resident Evil 4, the prime connection between the two being legendary director Shinji Mikami.  As such, the action focused parts of the game tend to dominate over everything else, which is to say that the player spends a lot of time shooting at pseudo-zombies and other warped creatures.  Another important feature of the game are the stealth kills, whereby the player can sneak up directly behind an enemy and execute a sneak attack that results in an instant kill. I found this to be a fairly important element of the game considering that ammo is relatively scarce, and I also just personally enjoy games that let me sneak up on enemies like this.

But aside from these key components, the game introduces a ton of other mechanics.  Some of them work really well. For instance, levels are wired with inconspicuous booby traps that can do a lot of damage to Sebastian if triggered.  However, if the player is cautious enough and manages to dismantle these traps, they turn into spare parts which can be used to craft bolts for Sebastian’s crossbow.  There are a handful of different types of bolts that deal different types of damage (for instance, proximity explosives, freeze bolts, etc.), so the player is offered the choice of determining the best way to spend the spare parts.  My favorite aspect of the game, which I’ve never seen any other horror game do, are the matchbooks that Sebastian uses to set enemies on the ground on fire. So, for instance, if Sebastian knocks an enemy to the ground, he can light them on fire with one of the matches for an instant kill.  If there are other enemies standing in close proximity to the burning hostile, they will also catch on fire and suffer the insta-kill. This also applies to corpses on the ground, which creates a fun strategy where Sebastian can lure enemies over to a defeated corpse which can then be set ablaze to chain together several standing enemies with the ensuing flames.

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However for every good idea The Evil Within puts together, there seems to be at least one bad one.  I thought one of the dumbest mechanics of the game were the hiding spots which presumably were meant to conceal Sebastian from enemies.  Sebastian can hide under beds, under cars, in closets, etc., but enemies always seem to be able to find him in these spots. There is this one unkillable enemy that chases Sebastian through a mansion, and when I encountered him, I put some distance between him and I, rounded a few corners, and then went into a room and hid in a closet.  About fifteen seconds later, the thing chasing me walked in, went directly to the closet, opened it, and insta-killed Sebastian. I looked up the best way to escape from this enemy, and most of the recommendations I saw told me to just circle strafe around him until he disappears. What even is the point of the hiding spots then? And this wasn’t an isolated incident.  Each time I tried to make use of the hiding spots, the results were more or less the same: they do nothing to keep Sebastian out of sight.

One of the real highlights of The Evil Within were the boss monsters that the game is really good at building up.  The bosses are all really well designed and creatively distinct from an aesthetic standpoint. The boss fights themselves tend to be more creative than simply requiring Sebastian to unload ammo into the creatures.  Usually, they require the player to make use of aspects of the environment, almost like a puzzle. This tends to lead to a trial-and-error cycle, which can be frustrating at first, but I also felt was very rewarding once I was finally able to nail it.  While there are a few boss encounters that just felt clumsy and confusing, on the whole, I thought these enemies were one of the high points of the game.

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Sebastian’s journey took me approximately 16 hours to complete which seems to be typical going by howlongtobeat.com.  That’s a huge amount of time for a linear action game like The Evil Within, and the entire quest definitely felt epic as a result.  This is in spite of the story being largely meandering and insubstantial for the first three quarters or so of the game. Sebastian’s warped reality is constantly shifting, and at any given moment he can be teleported to a completely different setting with seemingly no rhyme or reason behind it.  This results in plot threads being constantly interrupted with no resolution until the very end. In one moment, Sebastian will be trying to help a doctor and his patient survive a haunted village, and then abruptly the world will change around him, and he’ll be trying to survive an onslaught of monsters in the basement of a hospital, all with no thought given to the doctor and patient that were just left in danger in the countryside.

In this way, The Evil Within feels like a nightmare.  A real nightmare.  When I wake from dark dreams, for the fleeting moments I can remember them, I usually realize that they don’t have any form of sense.  Nightmares and dreams are largely illogical, unstable, internally inconsistent experiences. The only reason they can feel the way they do is because the mind exists within them in a semi-conscious, semi-functioning state.  When thought and reason are applied, they fall apart. Of course, I don’t necessarily think a desire to replicate the qualities of dreams was the intent behind the sloppy story of The Evil Within. I think they just had a lot of ideas they wanted to include in their game and gave no real thought toward creating more substantial connective tissue between them all.

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Nonetheless, The Evil Within is best appreciated when simply opening oneself up to raw, uncritical, moment-to-moment experience is prioritized over the need for overarching narrative to create a coherent world.  The Evil Within, as a story, is utterly unsatisfying otherwise. The last stretch of the game does begin to try to satiate the player’s need to understand the events of the game, and for the most part, I understood the broad strokes of the plot.  But there’s still so many things I don’t understand, and I don’t know if they’re just the result of plot holes, or if there are things that just went over my head. The game has three DLC chapters that perhaps shed more light (I have yet to play them), but I find it unfortunate that the main game really left me with more questions than answers.

I have basically done a complete turn around on The Evil Within, and I’m glad that I gave it a second chance.  It oozes style. It’s boss monsters are well designed terrors. It has a satisfying loop of stealth and action.  It’s almost an encyclopedia of horror. However, everyone I’ve known who likes this game will immediately admit that it has numerous flaws and sharp corners.  It’s incredibly ambitious, a creation that wasn’t designed to be restrained. This is precisely what makes the game special, as it wouldn’t have nearly the gravity if it wasn’t as expansive as it is.  But at the same time, the game struggles under the weight of it all. It has a ton of weaknesses, and patience and perseverance is required to enjoy the totality of the experience. I’m glad I was able to finally get past all of these faults, but I don’t necessarily begrudge anyone who can’t.

 

Little Nightmares!

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Each year for the Halloween season, I try to dedicate my playtime and writing to a selection of spooky games that I’ve always wanted to try.  This time I’ve been really excited for these Halloween posts all year, and I feel like I’ve actually gotten a bit ahead on my plans for once, so I’m optimistic that this might be the best Halloween on the blog yet.  Previous Halloween posts are all collected on this tab. This year, I’m starting off with Little Nightmares, a creepy adventure game that released fairly recently on basically every modern gaming platform.

A small child shrouded in a yellow raincoat awakens at sea on a mysterious ship filled with danger and foreboding.  As she begins to explore her surroundings, she finds other children in cages and begins getting glimpses of the grotesque giants that crew the dreary vessel.  The quest that follows pits the defenseless protagonist against the strange appetites of the pitiless but hapless denizens of this otherworldly domain.

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Little Nightmares immediately draws comparison to Limbo and its pseudo-sequel Inside.  It’s easy to feel like the former was inspired by the latter. All three are puzzle platformer games about a defenseless youth trying to survive in a strange and creepy world.  Little Nightmares does, however, manage to differentiate itself from the other two with a few key new ideas. Most importantly, while Limbo and Inside are essentially sidescrollers that confine movement to a 2D plane, Little Nightmares offers movement in fully 3D environments.

Furthermore, while the game starts off mostly about solving environmental puzzles to progress in a similar fashion to Inside and Limbo, later portions of the game become heavily focused on stealth and evasion.  The protagonist of Little Nightmares is a small creature in a world of giants. Everything in the world she is travelling through is oversized, both objects and people, very much like Jack and the Beanstalk. Thus as the game progresses, gameplay becomes less about Limbo-style puzzles and more about sneaking through this jumbo-sized world while evading, hiding, and sometimes needing to outrun the ponderous creatures that view the child as nothing more than a pest to be squashed.

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Little Nightmares is scary like a fairy tale, not necessarily suspenseful in a traditional sense, but creepy and unsettling in how it contrasts innocence with monstrosity.  The monsters the player faces are grotesque and unpleasant to look at, and their designs emphasize themes of decadence and depraved overindulgence. These giant beings don’t feel like highly threatening apex predators, as they’re rather hapless and clumsy at times.  But the moments where the girl is discovered and pursued by these beings are tense thrills as she scrambles to find a safe hiding spot. I don’t really feel any reservations in calling this a horror game, even if it is an offbeat amongst the genre.

And while the game is not particularly scary in the same sense as most horror games, the final monster encounter was a surprising exception.  While I tend to find that most horror games become less scary as the story progresses and I become more comfortable in the setting, Little Nightmares managed to end on a high note.  The final section has an amazing sense of atmosphere and dread, but it was also regrettably the shortest part of the game. After seeing how capable the designers of this game were at creating such an unnerving experience, I kind of wish they had imbued earlier parts of the game with this kind of atmosphere.

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However, my principle issue with Little Nightmares is the brevity of content.  The game is roughly three hours long. I don’t necessarily think a game is bad if it’s short, but I do consider it a negative when a game feels short, and Little Nightmares definitely felt short to me.  I thought the game really only scratched the surface of the concept and world it introduced.  The ending felt like it came on way too abruptly. The final area of the game should have been a bit longer, and the game could have really used one more major monster to encounter.  Frustrating the issue is that there is a $10 DLC pack that offers three additional chapters to the game’s original five and features a different character from the original story. (I do not own the DLC, so I can’t comment on its quality.)

I like Little Nightmares.  I thought it was a cool game.  But for the reasons above, I think it’s a little hard to give the game an unqualified recommendation.  I find it hard to provide justification for purchasing the game at full price, and I would also recommend playing Inside, a similar game, first, as I thought it was a considerably better game, although it doesn’t lean as much into the horror genre.  Little Nightmares is a good Steam (or PSN, eshop, etc.) sale game, interesting and fun and worth playing, but not necessarily worth paying full price, especially when the DLC is factored in.

Into the Breach!

From the makers of FTL: Faster than Light comes Into the Breach, a peculiar kind of strategy game that is completely unlike anything I’ve ever played before.  In the far flung future, global flooding has left only four small islands as the last habitable land mass on Earth. Civilization continues on until a race of giant subterranean insects known as the Vek begin attacking the citizens of these new nations.  After a long war, the remnants of humanity are driven to extinction with the exception of the last squadron of mech pilots who open a breach in the timeline to travel to the beginning of the Vek incursion and relive the war as many times as it takes to secure the safety of mankind.

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Each mission takes place on small, randomly generated maps that fill up an 8×8 grid of tiles.  The player is in command of a squad of three mechs that drop down onto each map and must defend cities from the onslaught of Vek emerging from underground.  Each mission requires the player to hold out and survive for roughly 4 or 5 rounds before the Vek retreat. As such, Into the Breach is really a strategy game that is more about defense than offense.  Whereas strategy games such as Fire Emblem and Advance Wars are mostly about eliminating all enemies in a given mission or capturing an objective defended by said enemies, there is no requirement to annihilate the Vek in Into the Breach.  Missions are failed only when a certain number of cities are destroyed.

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The acute scope and defensive nature of the game result in something that is a hybrid of puzzle and turn-based strategy elements. The puzzle-like nature of the game is strongly reinforced by the idiosyncratic way in which turns play out.  In most strategy games, the player and opponent alternate moving and committing actions with their units.  Not so in Into the Breach. Each round begins with the Vek moving into position and then indicating which tiles they plan to attack.  After this phase, the player is allowed to move and take actions with their mechs.  Following the player’s go, the round concludes with the enemies attacking the tiles they are targeting.  

Since the player can see where the Vek are going to attack, they can effectively prioritize which enemy to focus damage on.  Essentially, the player has the opportunity to sabotage the Vek before they can do anything. The Vek that are targeting cities are generally top priority in most sound strategies.  The best thing about Into the Breach, however, is that the player is allowed to operate creatively in how they handle the situation. As an example, perhaps there is a Vek that is preparing to attack a city, and the player isn’t able to deliver enough damage to it to take it out this turn.  However, most mechs have weapons that have some sort of knockback effect, so you can use that to knock the Vek away from the target. That seems simple enough, but it gets even more elaborate. Perhaps there is already an enemy on the tile you’ve knocked the first Vek into. The collision will do damage to both Vek, possibly destroying both.  Or perhaps something even more interesting can happen, if there isn’t a second Vek already there. The first Vek is already committed to attacking the same tile relative to its new position. What this means is that if you knock the enemy 1 tile to the east, then the tile it’s targeting will shift 1 tile to the east. If there is an enemy on that tile, the Vek you moved will deal damage to this bystander.  

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The complex ways in which you can manipulate enemies makes Into the Breach feel like a puzzle game at times.  Beyond the knockback effect I mentioned above, there are a large number of unlockable mechs that have special abilities that lead to even more strategically interesting effects.  One of my personal favorites is a mech that can kick up dust storms on the tiles it attacks. These dust storms blind any enemy standing in them and render them unable to attack. This can be paired with another mech that confers electrical charge to all of the dust storms on the map, so anything standing in those storms takes damage each turn.

This is what really hooked me on Into the Breach.  Experimenting with the various mechs and their abilities and discovering the ways in which their abilities can augment each other keeps the game from ever feeling stale.  It is absolutely like a puzzle game.  There are times when I would be in a difficult situation, on the verge of hitting game over, and I would spend several minutes going through the various possible moves in my head until finally I would have an epiphany and realize a way I could save myself from the situation.  Of course, it’s immensely satisfying when this happens.

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Like its predecessor, FTL, Into the Breach can be considered a roguelike game.  That’s a bit of a nebulous term these days, but in this case it means that if the player gets a game over screen then all their progress is lost, and they must begin the game from the beginning.  In the game’s story, this plays out as the mechs opening another temporal breach and time travelling back to the start of the war. I had mixed feelings about this when I started Into the Breach. In the past, I’ve really enjoyed games like this, including Spelunky and Rogue Legacy, but lately I’ve started to feel that this formula just isn’t for me anymore.  The issue is really that I don’t have as much free time as I once did, and as roguelikes make you replay a lot of the early content in the game many times over, I worry that these games really aren’t the best use of my limited free time.

Fortunately, I feel like Into the Breach managed to narrowly sidestep this concern.  There are a few reasons to which I attribute this. First, you reach a point where you can start on any of the game’s four islands.  Initially, only the first island is available to play, but once you beat that island, the second island will be unlocked in all future instances that you start the game over.  The same goes for the third and fourth island. Ultimately, you can play the islands in any order you please, and the final mission becomes available once you clear two islands in a given run (although there is a reason not to go the the final mission until three or four islands are cleared).  Each island has sufficiently unique mechanics that choosing a different island to start on each time keeps the game from feeling stale.

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It also helps that there is a wide variety of unlockable mechs that promote experimentation each time the game is started from the beginning.  New squads of mechs are unlocked by completing special achievements in the game (similar to how starships were unlocked in FTL). Each squad comes with its own unique gimmick.  The squad that is initially available at the start of the game are the Rift Walkers and are fairly straightforward, focused almost purely on direct damage dealing and some knockback effects.  But then, for instance, there is another squad, the Flame Behemoths, that focuses on turning tiles into hazards by setting them on fire. My two favorite squads are the aforementioned Rusting Hulks, which are built around taking advantage of dust storms and electrical electrical damage, and the Zenith Guard, which make use of energy weapons that do chain damage to groups of adjacent enemies.  There is a good variety of strategy represented by the different squads, and I feel like everyone tends to find their own favorite. It’s also just fun to experiment.

Into the Breach has a unique approach toward difficulty and victory.  At the beginning of a run, a player chooses to start on any island they’ve completed so far.  Each time an island is cleared out, the difficulty is increased for the next island the player chooses.  After completing only two islands, the final mission appears on the map. The player can then proceed to this last mission or complete one or both of the remaining islands.  Thus the game can be won in a two, three, or four island victory. Since difficulty increases based on the number of islands cleared, the two island victory is the easiest to achieve, while the four island victory is hardest.

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I’ve honestly never managed to beat this game’s predecessor, FTL.  I’ve made it to the final mission twice in FTL, and after the second time I realized that I would probably never be able to beat the game, simply because the final battle was so incredibly difficult.  Into the Breach has a far more attainable ending, and the final mission is not nearly as insurmountable. In a way, this was a relief, because it meant I could obtain some closure on the game, but I can’t deny that it also felt a bit anticlimactic compared to the awe-inspiring final boss of FTL.

I actually managed to beat the final mission on my first try at it while going for a two island victory, but it was still a fair challenge.  At one point, I was only a few turns away from victory, when I suddenly hit a wall. As I sat there strategizing, it suddenly dawned on me that every move I could think of would result in my team of mechs getting wiped out.  Since I couldn’t see a way out, I was almost ready to resign myself to defeat, when I had a better idea. It was really late that night, and I settled on simply saving the game so I could come back with a fresh mind in the morning.  (You can save at any point in the game and pick back up where you left off.) I came back the next morning, stared at the game for about 10 minutes, and then like a bolt of lightning, I was suddenly struck by a set of moves that would let me survive.  With my persistence rewarded, I only had to survive a few more relatively easy turns before I attained victory.

Since then, I’ve also managed to achieve a three island victory.  Someday maybe I’ll come back to try at a four island victory, but for now, I’ve set Into the Breach aside to move on to other games on my stack.  In my post about Hollow Knight, I discussed how exciting and rare it is to find a game that isn’t merely just good, but is something that I truly love and hold in high regard as one of the reasons I enjoy gaming so much.  Amazingly, I’ve played two games back-to-back this year, Hollow Knight and Into the Breach, that met this lofty standard. Years from now when I reflect on why I love gaming, Into the Breach will be one of the reasons. I think it’s that good.

 

WarioWare Gold!

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Despite holding a long time devotion to Nintendo’s handheld gaming machines, I’ve never played a WarioWare game.  Those games always seemed to disappear from stores really fast, and most of them are for systems that essentially predate digital storefronts.  If you didn’t buy them at release, it was hard to find them later on. I guess Nintendo considers them niche and don’t ship a lot of copies. I like the Wario Land games a lot, so I’ve always wanted to try the other big series to carry Wario’s name.  Thus, I jumped on the newly released WarioWare Gold for 3DS.

WarioWare Gold, like the rest of the series, is a collection of hundreds of minigames that are designed to be densely simplistic and only last a few seconds.  Nintendo has dubbed these microgames, since they’re so short.  In almost all modes of WarioWare Gold, the microgames are played as a random, rapid-fire sequence.  As the player progresses through the sequence, the microgames speed up and also get harder and more intricate.

Really, WarioWare is a test of mental reflexes.  Since the microgames only last a few seconds each, the trick to success is generally being able to quickly recognize and mentally orient oneself to each game as it pops up.  Even though they’re simple games, you have to think fast to be able to complete them before the timer runs out.

For the most part, the microgames aren’t terribly hard themselves, but they do get more elaborate on the higher difficulty levels.  So for instance, there is one microgame that features two breakdancing cats. The first cat displays a sequence of buttons on screen that the player must remember and input to get the second cat to copy the other’s dance moves.  At high difficulty levels, more buttons are added to the sequence and the game speeds up. The microgames come in 3 flavors: mash, which utilize the d-pad and a-button, twist, which use the gyroscope in the 3DS and require rotation, and touch, which use the stylus.  Less commonly there are also games that require the player to blow into the microphone. The game does a good job of using the myriad capabilities of the 3DS in ways that are gimmicky, but a fun kind of gimmicky that works considering the frivolous nature of WarioWare.  

The story of WarioWare Gold is about as flippant and unserious as you might expect from a game about 5 second challenges.  Wario is home one evening and realizes he’s too broke to order pizza for dinner. He brainstorms ideas to earn quick cash and settles on the biggest scam of them all: video games.  Deciding to hold an esports competition, he enlists the help of his surprisingly large social circle to program games for the event. The result is a tournament featuring hundreds of simple micogrames, because Wario is definitely a quantity over quality kind of guy.  

The story mode contains 18 chapters (called leagues to keep with the tournament theme) that each feature one of Wario’s friends.  The chapter starts with a short video that tells a vignette about the character and then features a sequence of a few dozen microgames themed around the character’s particular interest and personality.  Completing the sequence unlocks a second video that concludes the vignette. What’s surprising is how much thought and creativity is put into each of the game’s many characters. These characters have been featured in past WarioWare games where I assumed they were given more introduction, but even having no prior knowledge of this cast, I still found them pretty interesting and likeable.

The personality and goofball humor of this game is really what makes it stand out.  The microgame concept is a lot of fun, but Nintendo manages to really elevate the formula by putting so much effort into the presentation.  It would have been easy for them to treat the microgames as simple, throwaway experiences that don’t require much attention to detail. But each microgame has little touches to the art and overall presentation that are good at leaving a distinct impression on the player.  There’s also a lot of playful humor baked into the games themselves, as a fair few of the games are rather absurd in nature and then other games have hidden jokes and goofs.

I completed the story mode in a little over an hour.  It’s doesn’t really take long to beat the game. After the story mode is finished, a number of challenge modes open up.  Most of these function kind of like an arcade trial where your goal is to keep going until you finally fail, each time trying to beat the high score you set before.  On top of these challenge modes, there are “missions” that add objectives to playing the other modes (e.g., get a high score of X in mode Y), and the coins you earn from completing the missions and story mode can be used to unlock a variety of collectible knick knacks and virtual toys.  There’s a ton of replay value here, and I will probably be returning to this game on and off for months to come to try to unlock everything. However, I wish the story mode had been a little bit longer, if for no other reason than I enjoyed the characters and their misadventures and would like to see more of them.

All-in-all, I really wish I hadn’t slept on the WarioWare series for so long.  Hopefully, WarioWare Gold does well enough that a Switch entry won’t be a long ways away.

 

Bloodborne

 

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I’ve finally gotten into Bloodborne.  To my deep embarrassment, I actually bought the game back when it came out a few years ago, but, try as I might, I could never beat the first boss, the Cleric Beast.  I eventually gave up and didn’t touch the game again until a month or so ago. I’m a huge fan of Dark Souls, and I understand these games require a high level of persistence, but this game just broke me for some reason.  For a while, I’ve been meaning to give it another shot, and the final catalyst was its appearance as one of the titles given out to Playstation Plus subscribers.

The first time I dug into Bloodborne, it wasn’t just the Cleric Beast that gave me trouble, I had a rough time just getting up to this boss.  I think I put in ~4-5 hours just slowly crawling through the streets of Yharnam. This time around, I remembered quite a bit from my original excursion and was able to reach the Cleric Beast’s bridge with surprising ease.  I honestly was really nervous that I was going to get stuck at this fight again, so when the boss first climbed into view, I felt a huge amount of dread welling up inside. I threw myself into the battle and gave it my all and………slaughtered the monster on my first try……..

After the boss battle had ended, I wasn’t entirely sure where to go.  Past the area where we fought was a dead end. And then I discovered…….  the Cleric Beast is actually an optional boss……

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I’m not actually sure why I had such an easy time with this boss, while years ago I struggled to the point of quitting.  I started a new character this time, so perhaps I just chose better specs for him. But it’s not just the Cleric Beast that I had an easier time with.  All the enemies leading up to that point had given me trouble before, but this time I swam through them with ease. I think the real difference is that this time I understand the technique and rhythm of Bloodborne a little bit better.  I’m the type of Dark Souls player who spends a lot of time hiding behind a shield, and Bloodborne simply isn’t a game that can be played so defensively. There’s only one shield to find in the game, and its item description explicitly states that it isn’t very effectual.

Instead of a shield, Bloodborne gives the player a gun to supplement their standard weapon.  The sidearms do a nearly trivial amount of damage when compared to the melee weapons, but they have the advantage of being able to stun enemies if you can time your shots to coincide with the enemy winding back to do an attack. After an enemy is stunned, the player can run up and do a melee attack for a massive amount of damage.  Being able to effectively execute these types of counterattacks goes a long way in Bloodborne. I feel like in my first go round I had a lot of trouble getting the timing down on these stun attacks, while now it’s finally clicked with me.

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Really, I’m left deeply embarrassed by the whole situation.  I spent $60 on Bloodborne when it came out, didn’t get very far into it, quit, and then I only came back to it after it was made free to me through the PS Plus subscription.  To further add insult to injury, I now know that the boss fight that stopped me from playing it was entirely optional. Sincerely, I kind of feel like a wasteful idiot.

On the plus side, I’m enjoying Bloodborne a ton.  Right now, I’ve made it through the Forbidden Woods, and I’m currently working on the boss at Byrgenwerth College.  The Forbidden Woods has probably been my favorite area so far. Up until that point, the game had mostly been focused on werewolf-themed enemies (with the exception of some oddities in the Cathedral Ward), and I was starting to get a little tired of them. The enemies in the second half of the Forbidden Woods break away from the werewolf stuff and go in a really creepy direction.  And now at Byrgenwerth, the enemies are even more disturbing and bizarre. So much so, that I’m actually starting to consider that Bloodborne may have the best monster designs of any of the dark fantasy games by FROM Software.

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