Nov 092015

Status: Completed

Most Intriguing Idea: A Tales game where the hero isn’t a moron!

Best Design Decision: Sorey’s palette of elemental attacks.

Worst Design Decision: The water temple, which is just awful, continuing a proud tradition.


Look. Zestiria is still a Tales game, all right? Its themes are not exactly deep, its villain has stolen his motivation and possibly his jacket from Final Fantasy X’s Seymour, and the game can barely keep its lore straight. Zestiria’s main break comes in the tactical qualities of combat.

In almost every Tales game to date, it has been possible to win by just mashing the basic attack button over and over. Graces got away from this a little bit, but Zestiria really creates combat that isn’t just mashy but interesting. Attacking elemental weaknesses and avoiding resistances is more important in this game than ever, and the main character Sorey has many ways to do just that. His array of elemental attacks, and especially his ability to hot-swap element-associated partners into and out of combat and then combine with them to execute powerful combos, add layers of depth and flexibility to the system that go far beyond most other games in the series. Towards the end combat gets less interesting because enemies just have Too Many Hit Points regardless of how effectively their elemental affinities are attacked, but I thought this was the series’ most interesting combat overall.

Most of Zestiria’s other mechanical variations are duds, especially the fusion system that just doesn’t quite succeed in keeping old equipment relevant. However, I did enjoy having the ability to get some benefits from battle grade during my playthrough, rather than waiting for the second one.

I also liked this hero. Sorey is an unabashed archaeology nerd, a kind of character Tales games have mocked in the past (e.g. Raine). That’s not just something that pops up in a few skits, either. A surprising amount of Zestiria is built around the idea of exploring the world and uncovering the past. Having a hero with really defined interests beyond just punching evil has invigorated the design of Xillia and Zestiria and I hope Tales games continue in this vein going forward.

I’m also pretty well convinced that Sorey’s gay and that the game’s “official” couple is him and his bishounen friend Mikleo (an equally nerdy guy). I wish the game had leaned harder into this, but like most Tales games, Zestiria doesn’t develop its interesting ideas. In its world, for instance, the monsters the heroes are fighting are either literally invisible or look like ordinary creatures to most people. Most of Sorey’s allies are similarly invisible. Aside from a few moments here and there, though, nobody really mentions that Sorey talks to the air or seems to swing his sword at nothing. Still, just by having interesting ideas in its story Zestiria is about a mile ahead of most Tales games.

Aesthetically, the game is fine. Obviously, everyone looks like a refugee from Crunchyroll and the female characters are all dressed impractically. Zestiria also sort of maxes out the series’ creepy loli fetish and I hope every female character in the next game is over 25. Most regions feel kind of sparse, a clear result of the game’s origins on the PS3. The choice to have battles take place in the field rather than on a separate combat screen has literally no upside and plenty of downside, with the combat camera often getting stuck in a useless position even in wide-open spaces. While Sakuraba noticeably phones in a lot of the score, there are a few great pieces (my favorite being the game’s fire temple).

Despite the weakness of the game’s core plot I think there’s a lot to like in Zestiria and I would place it in the top three Tales games. Make of that what you will.

Verdict: Recommended

Nov 092015

Status: I got to this part in chapter 7 with a wheel and I just wasn’t interested in continuing.

Most Intriguing Idea: A totally new kind of puzzle-platformer.

Best Design Decision: The novel motion of the slime mold.

Worst Design Decision: The incredible slog of chapter 7.


I loved Mushroom 11. Then I liked it. Then I tolerated it. Then I hated it, and that’s pretty much where I stopped.

I loved it at the start because it has a fresh and original gameplay idea. Instead of controlling a little dude, as you generally do in platformers, you have control of a slime mold which you can control by erasing it using the mouse. Because the blob will grow to retain the same area as long as it is touching the ground or most other objects, this forms the basis of motion as well as a number of reaching and balancing puzzles. There’s a lot of joy in the motion of this blob, especially when it’s squirting through cracks or narrow tunnels in the ground.

Around the fifth chapter, though, Mushroom 11 starts to run into some problems. One of these is that the chapters start to get pretty long, and their pacing is not ideal. Basically the player has to go from frustrating puzzle to frustrating puzzle with very few sections of free movement to serve as a reminder why this game was fun at one point. A little editing, or a choice to make a lot of the puzzles optional, would have served the game better.

The puzzles, too, have a variety of problems. The easy thing to say is: they’re too hard. I suspect that the developers played their own game too much while designing it, and this convinced them to increase the difficulty and length beyond what a relative novice would be interested in (the 7% completion rate for the game would seem to bear this out).  More specifically, I noticed two pervasive problems with the puzzles. The first is that they don’t really accommodate the lack of control the player has over the slime mold’s growth. This means the player gets into a lot of frustrating situations because the mold grew into just the wrong place, or especially that the wrong piece grows if it has been split.

The second problem is that every puzzle seems to go a step too far. The puzzle that made me really see that was one where the goal is to roll a round of hay across two gaps and onto a bunch of spikes where it can serve as a bridge. So, the slime mold must get the hay bale rolling (a balancing puzzle), sprint out to cover the first gap where the landscape made it quite likely that the hay bale would roll backwards or get stuck, squirt through an underground tunnel to make a ramp across the next gap, then extend across that gap, then over the hay bale to the next safe spot. I think any four of those would have been fine, but requiring success in all five steps dramatically increased the chances of failing the whole challenge. Without any way to recover from a midpoint, I had to tediously attempt the puzzle over and over.

This sort of thing happened with almost every puzzle in the late game. While some puzzles had more ordinary problems (wonky physics, nonsense solutions, etc.) the main thing that made me hate Mushroom 11 was that every puzzle went just a step too far, and knowing that even if I got past that, all that awaited me was an endless succession of more puzzles that all went a step too far. Still, I love the concept and the general aesthetic, and for those alone I think it’s worth giving this game a chance. Just don’t count on reaching the end.

Verdict: Cautiously recommended.

Sep 152015

As has become my habit, I visited the Boston Festival of Indie Games at MIT last weekend, an experience I highly recommend to anyone. It’s cheap, you get to see some interesting games, and both the content and the venue are a better fit for kids than PAX can sometimes be. As it happens, I was joined for a few hours this time by my friend Eric and his young son Linus, who loves games of both the video and physical variety but doesn’t get to play too much of the former because his family has no TV and puts healthy limits on his screen time.

As you might expect, Linus was mostly interested by the flashing lights of the video games, though his lack of aptitude with a controller almost drove the developer of Megaton Rainfall—a promising superhero simulator where you’ll knock over a city Man of Steel-style if you muck things up—to despair. When we did get down to the tabletop floor, he was drawn to Maze Racers, a 2-player game where each player uses a set of pieces to build a maze on a mag board. Once the mazes are made, the players race to see who can get their ball through first. Linus beat Eric, so it’s competitive for all ages. I saw kids that looked as young as 5 or so making simple little mazes, and a couple of twentysomethings intensely building intricate mazes as well. This looks like an all-ages winner and is available now.

The big hit of the videogame floor as far as Linus was concerned might have been Mile-Age, a driving game out now for Android and iOS. It lands somewhere between an infinite runner and a bullet-hell shooter, as the goal is to drive a car down a postapocalyptic highway picking up gas cans while dodging obstacles and a blizzard of bullets. Linus wasn’t especially good at it, but we eventually had to almost pry the phone from his hand so other people could get a shot.

The game I had to practically pry out of my own hand was Puzzledrome (out now for iOS and coming soon for Android), a deceptively simple little puzzle game about arranging objects into palindromic arrangements. It’s a clever idea for a puzzle game, and the minimal aesthetic really appealed to me. Also, the difficulty ramp was almost perfectly designed to keep drawing me along into the next puzzle. Considering it comes with an endless mode, it could certainly end up being pretty addictive.

However, what excited me most on the videogame floor (aside from the news that Albino Lullaby comes out this week) was the upcoming subterranean postapocalyptic slime-mold simulator Mushroom 11. It’s something like a puzzle-platformer, but instead of jumping the player controls how a giant lump of fungus grows. By changing shape and shifting center of mass the player moves past obstacles to explore the world and even fight bosses. It’s inventive and interesting, and due out later this fall, at which point you must play it.


Linus has apparently been playing Kingdom Rush quite a bit recently, so he took to World Zombination like a pro. This is a tower defense/swarm assault game that does, yes, feature (sigh) zombies, but I enjoyed it anyway. As the humans it’s essentially a tower defense game, where the player chooses units to hold strong points. Playing as the zombies, it becomes a swarm assault game as the player loosely influences an attacking horde. The game, already out for Android and iOS, has a campaign and also pvp, and appears to be F2P on a cooldown model.

Nearby I found a quirky little route-choosing puzzler called A Tofu Tail (not a typo, there’s a whole thing about Inari going on here), about a man who finds himself transformed into a block of bean curd. The levels are composed of various tiles and the tofu-man can only travel over one type at a time, so hitting nodes that switch him to a new “flavor” in the correct order is the chief challenge. The core idea is a little slim, but the levels I saw were cleverly constructed and difficult enough to be intriguing. The game is still a little rough around the edges though.

Linus was drawn to the cute, Wes Anderson-esque visuals of Maquisard, a game about being a hotel bellhop and also a spy, available now at I liked the details of the character animations and the disarming tone of the writing. Alas, I didn’t get to see much of the gameplay (Linus was busy carrying enormous vases back and forth the whole time) but I’ll be looking into this further soon.


Nearby I checked out Luna: A Voyage to the Moon, a new platformer from Double Stallion. The title, black and white aesthetic, and certain elements of the visual design here seem to be drawn from Le Voyage dans le Lun, and the hook seems to come from an idea about cameras. Under normal circumstances the FOV moves as normal for a 2D platformer, but the player can choose to shift its focus, bringing background elements into the foreground where they can be jumped on or otherwise interacted with. Shifting the focus freezes the FOV in place, so the player has to choose a good camera position before doing this. It seemed pretty clever and I’m looking forward to seeing more about it.

A less highbrow space adventure appeared in the form of Loose Nozzles, a family affair of a physics game where the father did the coding and the son did the art and sound effects. The goal is to rescue people using a spaceship with two engine nozzles, and the only way to control the ship is to fire one nozzle and/or the other. Bumping into anything will cause pieces to fall off your rocket, making further rescues substantially more difficult. Linus liked this game a bit too, though I’m not sure he fully realized how much of it had been made by a kid not much older than himself. The Fosters are still working on it but plan to have the game out in early 2016.

I had more fun with Alpha One, a sort of Elite-meets-Asteroids 2D top-down space game. The game features randomized galaxies where the player jumps between systems where space stations are beleaguered by asteroids and/or aliens. The ship itself has rather tricky steering and the weapons are limited, but there’s a tree of tech upgrades to explore and a Diablo-ish “find your body” method of restoring things if you get blown up. It’s at an early phase but I liked it.

Last but not least I checked out Reflections, a first-person adventure game for PC currently available in Early Access on Steam. It’s a pretty low-key game, but I really liked its color-filling mechanic and at least the promise of tangible consequences for action. I had a listen while the developer was outlining his vision, and it sounded pretty ambitious (perhaps too much so). Still, I’m interested and will keep an eye on it.

That’s only some of the games I saw and played, but these were the ones that stood out to me this year. Once again I had loads of fun and will be returning next year.

Foundering in Skellige’s Seas

 Critique, Open World Action Games, Role Playing Games  Comments Off on Foundering in Skellige’s Seas
Aug 182015

With different degrees of success, Velen and Novigrad use their structure, their quests, and their storylines as an integrated whole to project Geralt’s inner life into the game world. In Velen The Wild Hunt airs Geralt’s worries that his “family” won’t fit back together after their long time apart. In Novigrad the game threatens the relationships that have already been working in The Witcher games. Once he reaches Skellige, the game turns its attention back to Yennefer and Ciri. In this region, however, the game loses coherence and as a result feels much more ordinary and even dull.

Skellige’s failure has many sources, but possibly the greatest one is that Geralt has very different concerns about Yennefer and Ciri. Geralt believes that Ciri could be in danger and need him to help her. With Yennefer it is decidedly not a question of whether she needs him but whether she wants him. Because the game needs to move forward it can’t deal with these topics on the level of vague unease anymore; it has to deal in specifics. Unfortunately, these specific ideas don’t have a lot to say to each other and so the coherence of the earlier areas is never going to show up here.

The Skellige Isles

The one advantage that the game has, at least on the initial pass through Skellige, is that Ciri is still absent and so it can still sublimate Geralt’s worries into external projections. This is one area where Skellige delivers, because the quests in this region have a sharp focus on tensions between the older and younger generation and the efforts of the old to save the young. In the region’s major sidequest chain, Crach an Craite recruits Geralt to help his children survive quests they’ve taken on in order to establish their worthiness to be king (or queen). Extensive as these quests are, Crach’s kids are just the start. Geralt finds himself drawn into quests to save lost children, to help sick children, and has to deal with a man whose children he killed. In Fayrlund he must choose sides between the village elders and the young upstarts. After finding himself in a tight spot, he has to help Madman Lugos’ son face his deepest fears. Again and again throughout the isles Geralt has to help the young, even if they don’t particularly desire his assistance.

The weakness here is that the game doesn’t do anything particularly effective with this feeling in its portion of the main quest. Those missions are instead tied up, as a practical matter, with Geralt’s long-time love Yennefer. Unfortunately, The Wild Hunt doesn’t do a great job of dealing with this relationship, in large part because it doesn’t take enough time with anything. One sign of this is that Geralt and Yen go from strained greetings in the port of Kaer Trolde to awkward sex on a stuffed unicorn in about fifteen minutes. That kind of sudden surge of passion is not out of character for their relationship historically, but in a medium and series where the sex scene has for a very long time been viewed as the successful endpoint of a relationship it obscures the amount of work that the pair have yet to put in on their relationship.

The Wild Hunt also doesn’t take enough time to establish exactly why Geralt goes gaga for Yennefer. Her beauty, intelligence, and strength of will are all important characteristics, but also they are shared by many other characters Geralt has had carnal relations with previously and indeed can in this very same game. In Skellige Yen doesn’t seem to work particularly well with Geralt, and she doesn’t come across as a particularly pleasant character in her own right.

Indeed, Yennefer frequently crosses the line into outright evil. She steals and effectively destroys a precious magic artifact, simultaneously provoking a cataclysmic weather event. Yen goes on to drain all the magic out of a spot that has been revered by generations of islanders in order to animate and interrogate a corpse, which she subsequently insults. Later, she enlists Geralt’s aid to capture a djinn, and rather than use its vast power to restore any of the precious things she has ruined, she selfishly uses it to test her relationship with Geralt. As an isolated incident, this wouldn’t be so easy to criticize, as it undoes an extremely selfish act Geralt performs in the Witcher tales. In the context of her destructive activities in Skellige, however, Yen’s choice here just makes her look self-absorbed or even cruel.

As a result of all this Skellige comes across as a strong argument against any kind of relationship with Yen. This doesn’t seem like something that comes from within Geralt. Arguably it’s a line of thought that could come from Dandelion, who at some points in the written stories seems to dislike Yen and the effect she has on Geralt. However, having the area reflect Dandelion’s thoughts on Geralt’s relationship with Yen, while not a completely unjustified reading since he’s the game’s narrator, seems out of step with the rest of the experience. Instead I feel this has to be looked at as a failed attempt to make Yennefer look strong and cool, which tilts over into the realm of making her look brutal and callous.

The landscape of Skellige itself doesn’t seem to be in dialogue with either the plot or Geralt’s internal life in this segment of the game, and has little to recommend it in any case. On the whole Skellige seems colder than the rest of the game, unaccountably so as it lies south of the other zones, but it actually seems to have more geographic diversity overall than Velen or Novigrad. However, its geography and sociology make it seem like an echo of Skyrim. Skellige’s mountains and vast bodies of water also have negative effects on play. The region’s cliffs and peaks confound movement, tending to make the area seem larger than it is. That’s a good trick in a small place, but in a vast one like Skellige it just makes travel annoying.

As for the oceans, they are a terrible bore, and it’s telling that in this area only The Wild Hunt gives the player the ability to fast-travel to a place without having visited it first. The seas take a long time to cross using a boring mode of conveyance, and have nothing interesting to do on the way. Instead of the variety of sites that can be visited on land, the ocean, as you can see above, has only smuggler’s caches, the vast number of which hardly seem necessary in islands primarily inhabited by pirates. The only question a player can realistically have on approaching a question mark in these waters is whether the trio of floating treasure chests will be guarded by sirens or drowners. Either way, an extended episode of the game’s dull underwater combat is sure to follow. Because of their vast number, however, looting those chests at least offers the player the pleasure of breaking the game’s economy, as selling the loot will quickly exhaust the cash reserves of the region’s merchants despite the best efforts of real-time algorithmic modeling.

Although it deals in more critical moments of the plot, Skellige never matches the power of The Wild Hunt’s earlier regions. Geralt has two very different topics on his mind, preventing the area from establishing a single tone. While the sidequests effectively externalize his thoughts about Ciri, the main quest seems out of tune with his feelings towards Yen. As a consequence, Skellige feels like just a place where stuff happens. That’s normal for an open-world RPG, but it’s certainly less effective than either Novigrad or Velen, places that held a dialogue with the internal life of the main character. To complain that an area of a game, in terms of its quests and landscape, seems a bit too much like Skyrim may seem like praising by faint damnation. Skellige, however, loses the bridge between character and world that gave The Wild Hunt‘s earlier areas their unique energy, and so ends up being the game’s weakest setting.