Aug 152016

Status: Complete

Most Intriguing Idea: Contrasting Geralt’s ideals directly with chivalry

Best Design Decision: Colors! Colors everywhere!

Worst Design Decision: Grandmaster gear


If you notice nothing else about Blood and Wine, the final expansion for The Witcher 3, you will likely notice the colors. I had replayed the bulk of the main game before heading there and that experience really emphasized how washed-out the base game looks. Everything in the North seems ever so slightly gray, but nothing like that is happening in Toussaint. Beauclair is also the game’s best town, capturing to the fullest that Old World feeling of going around a corner and finding a delightful little square nobody but the locals seems to know about. This is definitely the most pleasant region of the game, and it suffers only a little from the game’s characteristic affliction of its regions being too large.

It’s a shame, then, that a lot of what happens here is pretty miserable. One of the biggest blunders is the “Grandmaster” Witcher gear upgrades that Geralt can find designs for. Unfortunately many of these require a major effort to find and a tremendous quantity of very expensive resources to craft. By the time one has gathered everything required, that gear will be too low-level (40, which is well beneath even the minimum level to finish the area’s main quest) to be relevant. I eventually made one set as a curiosity but it was not “worth it” in any sense, not even for the nigh-useless bonus applied for wearing multiple pieces. The alchemy system’s expansions are similarly pointless. None of the new monsters have any associated decoctions and the mutagen transmutation and dye-making allowed by the new formulae have no use. The additional “mutagens” added to the character page don’t do much to rescue the game’s worst system.

The quests, too, leave a lot to be desired. To its credit, Blood and Wine shows some dedication to giving the game’s isolated question marks more of a local story. From the “vintner contracts” for clearing would-be cellars, to the more detailed investigations that go with the “Big Feet to Fill” locations, to the epic fights at the Hanse bases and their associated peripheral sites, a significant proportion of these places now feel like a spot where something interesting is happening, not just a chest that fell out of the sky and a grave hag decided to guard. It is still not a good idea to try to frankenstein 13 or so of these story-lite encounters into a sidequest; I found that equally irritating here as when I encountered it in Saints Row IV.

The main questline in the region didn’t hold my attention at all. Its focus on vampires didn’t play into any of its potentially interesting ethical contrasts; the main game’s vampire-associated quest in Novigrad was more thematically interesting. The characters, with the exception of Regis, felt thinly conceived, and all were irritating gits though at least they were not as loathsome as the key players in Hearts of Stone. The quests also exerted a lot of control they didn’t do anything story-wise to deserve, especially in the back half where Geralt is whipped from one quest to another to another with no place for the player to opt out. A fun trip to a land of off-kilter recreations of fables aside, I didn’t find much to enjoy in these quests, and particularly disliked the final boss battle and its incredibly terrible checkpoint.

Still, I had a good bit of fun gallivanting about the region and beating knights at their own games. Anyone hungry to experience more of the life of a witcher will certainly not regret exploring Toussaint, but don’t get it expecting a miraculous reversal of the base game’s troubles.

Verdict: Cautiously recommended

Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE

 Role Playing Games, Short Take  Comments Off on Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE
Jul 182016

Status: Completed, true ending

Most Intriguing Idea: All the world’s a stage

Best Design Decision: Sessions

Worst Design Decision: Sessions


The first read on the concept for Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE sounds simultaneously intriguing and absurd. The notoriously difficult Shin Megami Tensei approach to turn-based RPGs will combine with Fire Emblem, a classically tough strategy game with permadeath that has also recently become the newest iteration of making dolls kiss, as a turn-based RPG about #teens becoming pop idols in the Tokyo showbiz scene. One suspects that the whole thing was created on a napkin during the consumption of a hundred liters of sake, yet it turns out surprisingly well.

That’s not to say that I loved the story. The protagonist is overwhelmingly bland to the point that the other characters’ insistence that he’s important to their success feels like mockery. Localization aged up the characters, thankfully, but it also excised a plot point concerning gravure photography in a way that made a core character seem extremely stupid. The increased character ages were inadequate to disguise the fact that the sole white character is a fat jackass pedophile, but I can’t complain too much about this because I can find a positive white male character almost anywhere else I look. Even the coolest characters in this game are consistently dumb (the coolest, most standoffish character doesn’t know to eat, he faints because he forgets to eat, I can’t even). The story built around these characters mostly resonates, however, and if they seem to take the performing arts way too seriously, at least this makes sense in the context of the game.

The Fire Emblem contribution to the game mostly comes in terms of characters and lore: “mirages” that give the main characters their battle powers are characters drawn from the series and the backstory involves even more of the series’ history. The MegaTen influence is obvious in the names of most spells and yet another take on the Press Turn concept, the Session. Attacking an enemy’s elemental or weapon vulnerability allows other characters to jump in and add a free attack. Each character has certain kinds of attacks they can link to, and while this initially maxes out at two or three hits in a series, as the game goes on special attacks and the ability of the backup roster to join in mean that strings of 12 total hits or more are quite possible.

This is really cool but it also makes battles tend towards the boring. Most of the time, the player has nothing to do during a Session, and increasingly elaborate animations for these attacks can give late-game sessions a real “go make yourself a sandwich” feeling. Each character has a single weapon style, but up to three elemental attacks, and TMS allows the backups to swap into the on-field team cost free like in Final Fantasy X. This means that unless an enemy has no vulnerabilities or ones that are very hard to figure out, a Session is imminent on every turn. This leads to a lot of butt-kicking but very little tactical challenge. I got a game over exactly twice, once against the game’s only really tricky boss and once against a pack of “savage enemies” that were 10 levels above most of my party. This is pretty low for MegaTen. Slow battles that didn’t pose any risk turned combat into an irritant obstructing progress through the game’s tricksy dungeons, and it forced bosses towards “huge life bars and adds” rather than “strategically interesting”.

That said, I mostly enjoyed my time with this game and if you’ve got a WiiU you’re not going to see anything better this year.

Verdict: Recommended


 Puzzle Games, Short Take  Comments Off on Inside
Jul 112016

Status: Completed, including secret ending

Most Intriguing Idea: Controlling characters is creepy

Best Design Decision: The workers throwing the boy.

Worst Design Decision: A main character without any clear desires or internality.


Inside is, I think, a lesser work than Playdead’s first game Limbo. Both games feature a child protagonist with limited powers who has to traverse a hostile world rendered as a two-dimensional space, and both do a very good job of cultivating a particular atmosphere. Limbo creates a world of constant, unexpected threat. Inside, for the most part, makes its dangers more obvious, instead developing a sense of foreboding by confronting its child character with organizations and structures of control that can be grasped at their edges but have fundamentally inexplicable intentions and mechanisms. If Limbo reflects the world as seen by a very young child who understands almost nothing, Inside may reflect the world as seen by a child who is old enough to recognize social architecture but too young to comprehend its purposes.

Accordingly, I think Inside is generally at its weakest when it’s openly game-like and declarative. The worst offender here is the “20 person” puzzle, because it’s very expansive and elaborate while simultaneously being obvious and gamey. Surprise, surprise, 20 people are needed to open a gate and precisely 20 are available! Some of the later bits featuring the blob also suffer from this sense of game-ness and a failure to decide or communicate whether the surrounding humans want the blob to succeed or to fail. In contrast, the segment where the boy has to copy the workers’ actions is openly gamey, but the purpose behind the demonstration and the reason the ruse fails remain mysterious enough that the sequence succeeds.


Like Limbo, Inside fails to come to a really satisfactory conclusion, even accepting that both of the possible endings are downers. The main ending comes very abruptly and feels more like a game running out of ideas than a proper denouement. Perhaps if I had any idea at all what the child wanted I would feel differently, but Inside gives its main character even less motivation than the ambiguous desires of Limbo’s protagonist. The secret ending has two problems. The first is that in this, the year of our Levine two thousand and sixteen it is not even slightly interesting for a game to crawl up its own navel about the philosophical implications of being a game protagonist. The second is that the game made this same point, in a much more succinct and creepy way, moments after the scene shown above, so the secret ending feels superfluous.

Inside is very tightly made, but it’s too often obvious where it should be mysterious and vice versa. Its endings make it simultaneously weightless and depressing. In a technical sense it is a stronger work than Limbo; but as an expressive work I feel it’s inferior.

Verdict: Cautiously recommended

Jun 302016

Status: Platinum trophy

Most Intriguing Idea: You are what you eat

Best Design Decision: Maury’s touring restaurant

Worst Design Decision: New game+ mode


I loved many things about the original Odin Sphere, and also disliked a few things about it. The remake, Odin Sphere Leifthrasir, largely preserves the things I liked and gets rid of the things I didn’t (primarily framerate crashes and absurdly long loads), and on that basis I can certainly recommend it. This is one of the greatest 2D JRPGs ever made, its story is strong, and its art and music are incredible. Everything about it holds up 8 years later.

Of the many new accommodations, the best is Maury’s restaurant, a way to avoid having to visit the Pooka Village to eat advanced dishes. The simpler inventory management runs a close second. I also felt it was a lot easier to cancel out of combos and special attacks in the update, which I certainly appreciated. The wizard enemies are also less annoying in this iteration than I remember in the original, where I often had to run through levels repeatedly to hunt them down. The choice to allow a player to make alchemy mixes before the recipes have been found is also a great change.

I don’t love everything that was changed. The addition of rectangular zones to the game’s levels doesn’t, I think, add any particular cohesiveness to the level architecture. All things being equal, I preferred the symbolism of a world made of rings even if the level arrangements were slightly awkward as a result. I also don’t care for the New Game + option here (I can’t remember if it existed in the original game), if only because it doesn’t quite adjust to the need for better ingredients in order to allow any kind of realistic leveling in early chapters. It’s kind of neat to get a chance to max out skills, but otherwise the NG+ doesn’t add enough to really justify itself.

However, the fact remains that Odin Sphere is one of the best, most beautiful action RPGs ever made, and the reissue is almost entirely an improvement on the original.

Verdict: Strongly Recommended