Jan 282016
 

Status: Gold in every Grand Prix through 150cc

Most Intriguing Idea: This far in, there’s not much intrigue left.

Best Design Decision: Changes to the blue shell

Worst Design Decision: Character select screen

Summary:

Mario Kart 8 isn’t a game I would be likely to buy, but it came with my WiiU so I played it anyway. And look, at this point Mario Kart is pretty much a known quantity. It’s a kart racer that’s built on two main principles:

A) People who are good at Mario Kart will do well.

B) People who are not good at Mario Kart will still do well, because the game will help them.

With these principles in mind one could pick out all sorts of flaws: some powerups aren’t very helpful (most notably the bob-omb, squid, and boomerang), stats are highly dependent on character selection but can’t be seen on the character select screen, vehicles steer terribly at low speeds so running into a wall is fatal, the coin system magnifies the negative effect of adverse events, etc. In general, despite the coins, 8 seems worse at pulling players forward from the back of the pack than previous entries I’ve played, but slightly less punishing for front-runners.

One thing I like (and it may have been introduced in 7, which I did not play) is a change to the blue shell. Previously the shell was a tool for attacking the race leader, and as such it was inconsistent with both of the above principles. It punished players who were doing well already (A), but because it only affected a single other racer (and could only be obtained while rather far back in the pack) it didn’t much help players who weren’t doing well (B). Now, it slides along the track and will spin out any other racer it strikes while it seeks out the leader. As long as it hits a fair few, it’s less punishing for the leader (as spinning out other drivers reduces the chance they’ll catch him), while offering a little more aid to the back-of-the-pack driver (since it makes more racers vulnerable).

Broadly I think this is a fairly weak entry for the series. It has too many different items, of which too few are really useful or interesting, and its manipulations of gravity and transitions between driving, flying, and underwater racing are mostly noise rather than compelling new experiences. I got the feeling flash was prioritized over fun, which is a depressing direction for Nintendo to be going.

Verdict: Cautiously Recommended

Jan 042016
 

A rumor is now circulating that Ubisoft will, after holding to an annual release schedule for several years now, not release a new flagship Assassin’s Creed game in 2016, giving its next game extra time to possibly rebuild the series from the ground up. If true, I can only commend the decision. The series has been coping with exhaustion for some time, as its most recent entry makes clear. Still, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is… not bad. Which, coming after the flaming fiasco of Unity, is a welcome turn for the better. Unfortunately, despite being fun most of the time, Syndicate is also not very good. Some of the reasons for that are bound to this particular game, and others are the result of broader failings in the series that need to be corrected.

Syndicate’s dual protagonist setup with Jacob and Evie Frye mostly feels superfluous, and really the only interesting thing about them is that they make the tension between “Assassin Lore” and “Other Stuff” that’s been a serious problem in the gameplay since AC: Revelations into part of the game’s narrative.

The story they’re involved in is scattershot. Side characters lurch into it without good cause and then fade out of it unmemorably. Although characters insist that the Templars have so great a hold on London that the Assassins fear to make any move against them, rolling up their empire doesn’t feel like much of a challenge at any point. The Big Bad, Crawford Starrick, lacks both historical heft and practical menace. He spends the game sitting uselessly behind his desk as his lieutenants, most of whom appear for only a mission or two, fall or turn against him. Aside from an intelligence-insulting reversal atop St. Paul’s, the Fryes never even suffer a notable setback in their quest to clear the city of Templars. Perhaps because of this, they don’t noticeably evolve as characters either. The whole thing stumbles to a close with a laughably silly plot by Starrick and an irritating boss battle, having never seriously grappled with the era’s contradictions (seriously, Queen Victoria should have been the game’s villain) or even outlining what the hell Starrick thought he was actually going to accomplish with his various machinations.

The present-day story continues to be a disaster. Here it is reduced to cutscenes in which the player occasionally watches characters, who either don’t have a personality or who got one six games ago and haven’t changed or even elaborated it much since, fail to accomplish much of anything. The player-character doesn’t even get a name. I suspect this is because of a desire to make the character “you”, which is the worst conceit yet in a series practically defined by narrative befuddlements. Speaking of which, what did the WWI episode have to do with anything?

Syndicate’s complement to the battle between Templars and Assassins is a gang-takeover mechanic in which the Fryes complete missions like assassinating a particular Templar or freeing all the children in a sweatshop so that their gang of people dressed in green can take over part of London from a gang of identical people dressed in red. Very Christmas-y. It all comes off like a riff on Saints Row, without any of the personality, humor, or zaniness that animates those games and the gangs within them. I actually found this set of missions to be the most entertaining (and in some cases, the most challenging) part of the game, but it peaks far below its influences. And, of course, this side of the game doesn’t seem to speak to the narrative at all (though it occasionally gates it).

Syndicate, of course, conforms to Ubisoft’s current doctrine of producing an array of side activities ranging in their design quality from awful to mediocre, then filling a beautiful virtual world with so many of them that their sheer volume brute-forces the game to a Metascore of 80. So we have a dumptruck’s worth of collectibles strewn randomly around the world: flowers and glitches and posters and bad beers and chests containing pointless resources to fund an execrable upgrade system.

The game offers more involved diversions as well. There are repetitive brawling sequences, light stealth/theft sequences, and surprisingly little in the way of assassination. Then there are the carriage races, which have such awful AI and loathsomely unsubtle rubber-banding they should be taught in school. In one race all my competitors took a wrong turn and fell so far behind they were completely off my minimap. I lost that race when they all reappeared behind me, one nosed me into an obstacle to pass, then continued to ride so fast I couldn’t catch up to him or even seemingly keep pace.

Of course, that’s what one must expect when the game’s integral chases are scripted every bit as ruthlessly. That assassins have superhuman conditioning and reflexes up until the very moment they must chase or fight someone has long been an irritation of the series, but being forced to run along after some top-hatted doofus while dodging both scripted and emergent bullshit really rubbed in how much this has begun to grate.

Certain things about the core gameplay have gotten better—this is the first game in the series where I never once ran up a wall while trying to go around a corner—but characters continue to stop moving inexplicably while climbing or free-running. Some of this is cured by the zipline, which was a necessary tool to compensate for the broad avenues the game needed to accommodate carriages. However, that tool badly oversimplified stealth despite its awful aiming system. The combat has gotten worse in every game since Ezio bowed out, and that doesn’t change here. The Fryes have KEWL FINISHERS that go on for hours but the actual process of fighting is so dull I actually fell asleep once while doing the brawling activity.

I could continue in this vein for a while. Assassin’s Creed has a near-infinite series of nits to pick, from the details of its platforming to its apparent inability to conceive of anything important happening outside of Europe’s sphere of influence. But I think one can boil things down to two key problems.

The first is a lack of substance. Assassin’s Creed has always had plenty of flash, but it also once sent its protagonists on journeys of self-discovery and embarked on serious contemplations about whether their actions and philosophies were actually right. Even Desmond, whom nobody maligned more than me, went from a useless whiner to a character I could at least respect, if never really like. Now, whether in the present or the past, none of what’s going on seems to mean anything, least of all to the characters involved. Historical figures, previously integral characters important to the story, have mostly been reduced to “I’ve heard of that guy” cameos. What once all hung together and meant something is now scattershot and disconnected, just as the games’ activities, once almost entirely focused on the core narrative, have devolved into an deluge of extraneous crap.

The second problem is rigidity, and this is something the games have never yet gotten right. In my review of Assassin’s Creed III I described this as designing like a Templar. Assassin’s Creed is at its best when it hands the player a set of tools and asks him to solve a problem, and at its worst when it seizes the reigns and says “do this this way, and no other”. I didn’t like the gang-takeover activities in Syndicate more because they were particularly well-made; I liked them because the designers got out of the way and let me complete the objectives however I liked. And, the problem with Assassin’s Creed’s free-running hasn’t been as much that it’s loose and approximate as that the mission designs consistently require specificity that its parkour can’t deliver. The series awaits a design that expresses the freedom that lies at the heart of its titular creed.

To fix these problems would require a radical revamp of both narrative and design philosophy, a dramatic paring-back of fluff and possibly a reconceptualization of the series’ core concepts. So I have no hope that it will happen. Ubisoft’s open-world design has left the intentional spareness of Far Cry 2 in the past and is so firmly committed to enormous deluges of extraneous crap that this quality has come to define “Ubisoft-ness”. In the context of that corporate culture, creating a focused, substantial game seems practically impossible. We’ll always have the memories, but Assassin’s Creed has been driven so far into the ground I’m not sure it can be dug up again.

Tales of Zestiria

 Role Playing Games, Short Take  Comments Off on Tales of Zestiria
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.

Summary:

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

Mushroom 11

 Puzzle Games, Short Take  Comments Off on Mushroom 11
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.

Summary:

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.