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

Jun 072016

Status: Completed. Unlike Billy Joel, I lit the fire.

Most Intriguing Idea: Armor doesn’t really work anymore.

Best Design Decision: Really, just the main idea of the way souls still work

Worst Design Decision: Armor doesn’t really work anymore.


As I mentioned in the previous post, Bloodborne fosters an aggressive, hit-and-run combat style by a push-pull approach. The push is that there’s no real way to block attacks and almost any enemy can stunlock the player. The pull is that the player has considerable capacity to interrupt enemy attacks, can dodge at low stamina cost, and can regain lost health by aggressively attacking after sustaining injury. Dark Souls 3 tries to push its players into a similar style of combat but fails to pull, and feels much like a lesser game as a result.

The key here is the behavior of “Poise”, a stat that is built by wearing heavy armor. Heavier armor makes dodging (the keystone of Bloodborne‘s combat) considerably slower, and in past Souls games this was compensated by improved damage absorption and Poise, which prevented enemy attacks from interrupting player actions. This is essentially gone in DS3—the developers have argued that poise is now “contextual” but there is no context in which it stops even pathetically weak enemies from interrupting me. Even if Poise really does somehow prevent staggering during attacks, that’s still useless because >90% of what happens in boss fights (and 50% of other encounters) is just ordinary movement. If Poise doesn’t even partially protect the player from stagger while walking around, that significantly disadvantages heavy armor builds that can’t effectively dodge-roll out of danger.

That’s not great, because it sacrifices a lot of the flexibility of builds that makes tinkering around with Souls games fun, but it’s not a disaster. Adapting to the game’s preferences, however, makes it a bit too easy overall. I found several of the bosses to be a challenge in DS3, but I never felt any doubt as to whether I could eventually take down a boss or finish a level that was on the main path. I just grabbed my uchigatana (I cheesed an NPC and got this right at the start) and longbow and dodged or shot my way out of trouble.

I also couldn’t avoid the feeling that this series has worn itself out creatively. So many of the levels felt like callbacks to ones I’d played in Dark Souls / Demon’s Souls that the whole game felt familiar almost to the point of being comforting. None of the NPCs have a really interesting arc and most of them are nothing but vendors. The atmosphere still works and the carefully-written flavor text legitimately adds a lot to the experience but I never escaped the feeling I had seen it all before. Dark Souls 3 is a perfectly good game but it feels like the magic, and to a large degree the series’ admirable flexibility, is gone.

Verdict: Cautiously recommended

Jun 072016

Status: Finished DLC up to Maria, got tired of it, completed main game (Moon Presence ending)

Most Intriguing Idea: Guns don’t kill people, they stun them.

Best Design Decision: The health-regain mechanic

Worst Design Decision: Vast, overwhelming grayness


I bounced right off of Bloodborne‘s introductory segment—a textbook case of tedious bullshit passing as difficulty—the first time I tried it, but I returned to the game after Dark Souls 3 because the games seemed to be communicating on a mechanical level (seemingly to DS3‘s detriment). Bloodborne favors pairing conservative strategies of engagement with aggressive tactics of combat, and playing DS3 that way made it, if not a cakewalk, at least substantially less difficult.

In Bloodborne this approach is fostered by a group of advantages and vulnerabilities. The stamina cost of dodging is very low, and if a player fails to dodge e can regain health by attacking immediately. Poise barely exists, so both the player and enemies can interrupt each other, making it critical to get in the first strike. However, the player has essentially no long-range attack and no ability to block enemy blows. This pushes the player to close, attack, and withdraw as quickly as possible, while using range and terrain to manage enemy aggro and numbers. This is important because almost any three enemies, unless they are very low level, can stunlock the player character to death.

If you can grok this it makes Bloodborne almost easy at times: this is the first of From’s Souls-style games where I killed multiple bosses on the first try, usually a time when I’m just trying to figure out tells and attacks. That’s not to say the game is trivial: Logarius and Ebrietas, for example, both gave me fits. Also, certain parts of the game, notably the snake-filled portion of the Forbidden Woods and the bits of Yahar’gul with the chime maidens, gave me that old Souls sense of trepidation. That feeling of wondering whether I dared risk pressing forward or if I was even capable of advancing in a level was largely missing from DS3.

However, Bloodborne also has some of the most awkward examples of From’s efforts to manage that feeling, with its plethora of elevators and doors that only open from one side and make levels coil in on and around themselves. Now, in certain spots this tendency pays off; it makes Yharnam seem appropriately labyrinthine. However, an area like the Forbidden Woods that could (and arguably should) feel expansive instead comes across absurdly constricted, even though it’s a case where even the shortcuts leave a huge swath of the level to fight through or run past to get from savepoint to boss. Opening a shortcut always offers a sense of relief and safety, but it also turns the levels into a kind of structural anticlimax, where the real triumph is getting back to where you started.

Aesthetically I have to say I don’t much care for much of what went on here. The world tended to be a bit monochromatic, with a palette overwhelmed by blacks and grays with all other colors aggressively desaturated, and the enemies were often gray too. I can’t even count the number of times I saw a player echo running around and dove out of the way thinking it was one of the enemies I’d failed to account for. The DLC levels had a few spots that majorly improved on this, and as enemies got freakier late in the game it became more interesting to look at, but I never grew to love it, even though its Victorian gothic aesthetic in general appeals to me.

All that said, Bloodborne has some levels I’m glad I played and bosses I’m glad I fought, and anyone who’s a fan of demanding 3rd-person action games would get a lot out of it.

Verdict: Cautiously recommended