Hotline Miami (2012)

While playing through the calm and slow-going Stardew Valley, I felt like I needed to quench my thirst for action. And there is no better way to fulfill that desire than Hotline Miami. What makes Hotline Miami stand out from many other indie action titles is how intensely satisfying it is in every regard. Every factor of this top-down shooter feels tailored to making beating the hell out of enemies feel just right.

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In an age where violence in video games in being condemned by the media, Hotline Miami revels in its violent nature. It is not afraid to go all out, and that is partly makes the game so gratifying, as sometimes you just need to play something intense. Another one of the factors that makes Hotline Miami so satisfying is how brutally brisk and quick it is. One shot is one kill. Many other action games suffer from bullet sponges and enemies that take entirely too long to take down. In this game, however, if you hit an enemy with a weapon, they are immediately dead. Of course, this works in the reverse as well. All it takes is one hit to take down the player. The unforgiving nature of this system is what keeps the game so fast-paced. Just a careless step by the player leads to death. Being able to blast through enemies with just a single hit from a bat or one bullet makes every action much more meaningful and satisfying. There is a real sense of “oomph” when you bash someone with the bat or blow them across the screen with the shotgun.

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A game with such a small margin of error requires great level design in order to keep it from being aggravating. When a single stray bullet can lead to your demise, the levels need to be specifically designed to avoid cheap and unsatisfying deaths. That being said, you are going to die in Hotline Miami, a lot. Luckily, just a quick button press and you are back at the start of the floor, there is not even a break in the music. Since a game like this is reliant on its level design, it is a good thing that Hotline Miami is phenomenal in that regard. Small sectioned-off rooms make sure you do not have to tackle too many enemies at once. Every floor is designed in such a way that it is advantageous to go fast, and slowing down could be a death sentence. It is critical for you to get the first shot off in every encounter, which is a result of the “one shot, one kill” style gameplay. Every obstacle and enemy is clearly displayed to the player. Enemies are not hidden off-screen or sniping you from across the map. There is maybe two points in the game that I was shot by an off-screen enemy, which was definitely frustrating, but those moments are few and far between.

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Every level in Hotline Miami feels like an intense and violent puzzle. Which mask and ability would work best, which rooms should I hit first, should I attempt to be stealthy or go in guns blazing; these are all questions I asked myself at the start of every level. Of course, any strategy that you might have quickly gets overridden by your desire to just run in and kill some Russian mobsters, and the game rewards you with bonus points for doing so. Enemies mostly have set patterns, but often deviate just a little bit so repeating the same exact actions over and over may yield different results. Most of the time in Hotline Miami, you just have to rely and your killer instincts in the heat of the moment.

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Now that it is established that Hotline Miami is fantastically brutal, fast, and bloody from a gameplay perspective, we need to talk about its other aspects. The psychedelic and neon-soaked visuals of Hotline Miami perfectly depict the drug fueled city of Miami in 1989. You are dropped into the bizarre life of Jacket, who constantly has surreal visions and begins to receive phone calls that instruct him to perform massacres on the local Russian mafia. As the game progresses, reality and Jacket’s identity become warped and distorted. In some in-game sequences it becomes difficult to tell what is real and what is Jacket’s mind imagining violent scenes and imagery. Jacket’s identity is also perverted as time passes, he always wears a mask during the killings, but certain dreamlike sequences reveal that he is conflicted and confused. The player shares these emotions with Jacket, as unraveling the mystery of Hotline Miami is quite the task. Many questions are asked, and it starts to make sense as you reach the end of the game. Unfortunately, I felt like the ending was a little bit lackluster, but ultimately for a game that I was just playing for some violent fun I was pretty impressed by the narrative elements.

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You cannot talk about Hotline Miami without mentioning its soundtrack. Thumping synth filled songs, like M.O.O.N. – Paris, are blasting when you slaughter floors upon floors of Russians. Deep and distorted guitars, from Coconuts – Silver Lights, play in the surreal sections of the game. And no song is better matches Jacket waking up from a drug induced slumber like Sun Araw – Deep Cover. Hotline Miami is full of great tracks for all different situations, and some of the songs are downright addictive.

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One last thing I want to touch on is the ability of the developers to show restraint. Many of great games are brought down by the fact that they just drag on too long and become repetitive, to the point of being exhausted with the game. This is certainly not the case in Hotline Miami. The game is relatively quick, it only took me about 5 hours to complete it. I rarely revisit a game immediately after I beat it, but with this one I went right back in and replayed some of my favorite levels. The gameplay of Hotline Miami is definitely addicting and fun, but I feel like if it went on too long and overstayed its welcome, it could have quickly gotten grating. Luckily, Hotline Miami knows its limits and does not overdo it.

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As a whole, Hotline Miami knows what it is and plays to its strengths. Quick, violent action with distorted storytelling and arcade-esque visuals. Hotline Miami has mastered the art of making everything intensely satisfying. This game is certainly not for everyone, and if you are not interested in violent games or games that require quick reaction time I would stay away from this title. But if you are looking for a blood-soaked, fast-paced action game, look no further than Hotline Miami.

Metal Slug 3 (2000)

Metal Slug 3 is often considered the pinnacle of the series, and it is clear that the developers really poured their hearts into this game. This was the last Metal Slug game that was developed by the original Nazca and SNK team before they went bankrupt, were bought by another company, and disbanded. This installment is longer and has substantially more content than its predecessors, and it is evident that this was the developer’s last hurrah before having to split up.

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Metal Slug had realistic environments and enemies, and Metal Slug 2 ventures into the land of the outlandish, Metal Slug 3 cranks up the level of absurdity. For the vast majority of the game you are fighting fictional creatures instead of standard enemy soldiers. Each level’s theme, environment, and monstrous boss battle make them extremely memorable. The other big addition to Metal Slug 3 is the variance in the vehicles. Seven new playable vehicles were added for the player to use and enjoy. Another new feature is that most levels have multiple paths to complete the level. This adds a factor of replayability as well as exploration. Metal Slug 3 is often touted as the best in the series and even the paramount run-and-gun game. While I can see how this is definitely a logical and sensible opinion, I have one issue with this game that holds it back.

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My personal issue with Metal Slug 3 is its final mission. While the first two Metal Slug games are about an hour each, the final mission of Metal Slug is 35 minutes long just by itself. That is an absurdly long time for a single arcade game level. To be fair, there are distinct portions of this level that completely change the environments and enemy types, but I feel like those distinct parts should have been split up into a few different missions. When I saw that I had gotten to the final mission, I thought that I was almost done. It was really jarring to think that I had almost beaten the game, but then the final level just kept going, and going and going. This was compounded by the fact that Metal Slug games are very tiring for your fingers as you have to mash the shoot button for nearly the entire game. The other irritating factor of this final mission was the difficulty spike that occurred. The beginning levels of Metal Slug 3 had difficulty levels comparable to the first two games in the series, but the final mission can get ridiculous at times. I accrued far more deaths in this final mission than in every other level of this game combined.

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If it were not for the final mission, I could easily say Metal Slug 3 was my favorite in the series. Do not get me wrong, it is still a fantastic game with great action and artwork, but I cannot help but feel like it the last level dragged on for ludicrous amount of time. Combine the length with tired fingers and a sharp difficulty spike and it is a recipe for an exhausting mission. That being said, Metal Slug 3 is definitely a fantastic run-and-gun game that I thoroughly enjoyed. The pure variety of weapons, vehicles, enemies, environments, and maps make Metal Slug 3 a game that is worth of being remembered as one of the premier run-and-gun games.

Mass Effect (2007)

While some believe Mass Effect to be outdated and clunky, it is the necessary starting point for a legendary series. While the original Mass Effect definitely has not aged well, I believe it would be an injustice to the series and yourself to skip over it to play the more refined sequels. Mass Effect is a space action-RPG (role-playing game), and while the “action” and gameplay is dated, the RPG aspects are still top-notch and make Mass Effect a game worth playing. Deep lore, emotional decisions, strong story-telling, and an intriguing plot are the factors that make Mass Effect successful.

One of the major elements of Mass Effect is the depth of its lore and its expansive universe. Codex and journal entries are available to the player if they ever want to learn more about the missions they are doing or the lore behind the universe. Various entries on the different alien species, including their physiology, galactic presence, and their history. Everything in this game has an explanation and background info if you are interested to learn more about something in particular. Knowing the backgrounds and the relationships between all the alien species definitely adds depth and a factor of validity to this game.

The characters and the story are the defining factors of Mass Effect for me. You play as Commander Shepard and are in charge of the space vessel Normandy and her crew. Most of the time you will be interacting with your “squad” as they are the ones that you can bring along with you to combat. It is definitely a rewarding and almost cozy feeling as you build up your squad and add new members to it at the beginning of the game. Throughout the course of the game you talk with them, get their input on certain situations, build friendship, help them complete certain personal quests, or even romance them. What sets Mass Effect apart from other shooters is the reliance on this squad both on and off of the battlefield. Other games suffer from the protagonist doing everything while other characters just sit around, but in Mass Effect your squad is a massive part of the game. It adds a sense of legitimacy and realness to the game. This is why certain decisions and choices that must be made are so emotional. You build up this squad, fight with them, train them, and interact with them, so when a squad mate gets killed off in the story, it is a devastating blow.

The story of Mass Effect is full of mystery, intrigue, and emotion. The basic premise is that you must figure out what happened to an advanced alien species that died off 50,000 years ago, and you must prevent the same fate from happening to humans and their allies. The game feeds you piecemeal clues as you progress through the story. Seemingly unconnected events and plot-lines all come together by the end to form a cohesive and alluring plot. The story was paced well, there is never any downtime and I was always wanting to see what happened next. There are plenty of individual decisions and choices that you must make in this game. Some choices are minor, while others play a huge role in whats to come. You get to decide the fate of many lives and species. My only issue with this was that it was a little too rewarding to be the “nice guy”. There is rarely any downside going with the games heroic “paragon” options. I wish there was more incentive to be neutral or even go with the “renegade” option. There were a few points in the game that did this right, but for the most part the paragon route is the most rewarding option by a long shot.

While the RPG aspects of Mass Effect are clearly masterclass, the gameplay is definitely clunky and unsatisfying. Enemies often times have tons of health and shields, and some take minutes to take down a single basic enemy. This is compounded by the fact that the guns that you are using do a pittance of damage and overheat frequently, so you are forced to stop shooting for long stretches of time. There is no jumping or hurdling objects, so you have to slowly navigate even the smallest of obstacles. Constantly re-equipping your squad of 7 members with 4 types of weapons, upgrades for those weapons, and armor just gets tedious. Your squad mate’s special abilities often feel underwhelming as there is no big audio or visual cue when they are being used. For some reason, you can only sprint in combat, but not out of combat, which is when you really want to be sprinting so you can get around faster. There is an excessive amount of loading screens and elevators, which just waste a ton of time. Travelling from planet to planet is also tedious. Realistically, getting around anywhere in this game is just slow and draining. Driving the Mako vehicle is easily one of the worst driving experiences in any game that I have played. It goes extremely slow, defies physics, is tough to handle, and it does not even shoot where you aim it. This is made even more frustrating by the fact that you often have to scale cliffs with this abomination of a vehicles. Some of the biggest gameplay problems stem from the sidequests. They often drop you off in barren worlds, leaving you to drive the Mako across a vast nothingness for a few minutes. Then when you finally reach the building where the quest is located, you realize that it is the same exact layout as every other sidequest in the game, so you essentially repeat the same firefight that you have done many times before.

While the gameplay of Mass Effect could be categorized as clunky, repetitive, and tedious, it is still a worthwhile game. Not only to set up the legendary sequels, but also because the characters and story can keep you playing despite the tedium. The biggest improvement that should be made from Mass Effect for its follow-up titles is that it definitely needs to be streamlined in places. Trim off the banal tasks and clean up the controls and overall movement to make the game less monotonous and burdensome at times. All in all, it is worth sticking through the mediocre gameplay just for the RPG elements. And if you avoid doing sidequests you will skip over a lot of problematic sections altogether. Mass Effect might not be perfect, but it is still worth a play through. I am very excited to see what Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 have in store for me, and if they could solve the issues of Mass Effect.

Metal Slug 2 (1998)

A proper sequel or follow-up game should improve upon the original, but at the same time maintain the aspects which made the original successful. Metal Slug 2 does a great job at keeping all of the great aspects of Metal Slug, but adding a few things here and there to improve the experience. Metal Slug 2 plays exactly the same as the original, fast-paced run-and-gun action. There is a new weapon, some new enemy types, new vehicles, and more varied and environments, all of which make this sequel distinct from the original.

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The other distinction from the original is the humor and absurdity that was added. Outlandish enemies like aliens and mummies certainly add a unique feeling to Metal Slug 2. The original was a much more traditional war title, but I appreciate the goofiness of Metal Slug 2. Humorous moments like a killer whale leaping out of the water and swallowing enemies whole make Metal Slug 2 more memorable than the first.

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Overall, Metal Slug 2 is more varied and unique than the original, but at the same time the game plays the same. It is still tough to minimize your deaths, but deaths are not punished so you can limp your way through the game even if you are struggling. I am not a huge fan of the forgiving nature of the game, but if you really want a challenge you can still just play the game and try to die as few times as possible. I quite like the absurdity of Metal Slug 2, and I think that it was an improvement on the original game’s ordinary war scenario.  All in all, Metal Slug 2 is a quick and fun game to play that keeps in the chaotic spirit of the original. If you have an hour to kill and you want some old-school run-and-gun action, definitely check out Metal Slug 2.

Metal Slug (1996)

If you are a fan of run-and-guns, arcade games, or just looking for some quick fun, Metal Slug should be a top priority on your play list. This Rambo-esque arcade game is constant, fast-paced, hectic, action and intensity. Beautifully hand-drawn sprites and backgrounds only add to the charm of this game. Rapidly sprinting through the 2D environments, dodging enemy fire, and blasting through enemies with the various weapons at your disposal is just a ton of fun. Metal Slug is very challenging, but also extremely forgiving. It is challenging in the sense that getting through every level while dying as little as possible is can be a daunting task as bullets, missiles, and grenades fly at you from every direction. But at the same time anytime you die or run out of lives, you just get put back exactly where you were, so there is no punishment for screwing up.

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My only real issue with the game was the fact that you respawn exactly where you die. I would have liked to see frequent checkpoints, and if you die a few times and run out of credits, you get sent back to that checkpoint. That way, the player would be challenged to make it through small sections without dying an excessive amount of times.

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Since Metal Slug is only 45-60 minutes long, there can be a real addictive quality to going back and beating the levels again, but trying to die less and get a higher score. Metal Slug also supports multiplayer, so you can have fun with a friend as you shoot your way through this game. As one of the legendary run-and-gun titles, Metal Slug is definitely worth a play through.

Alan Wake (2010)

Alan Wake is a story-driven action game developed by Remedy Games. It is a psychological thriller and many have likened it to “Twin Peaks meets Stephen King”. It is clearly inspired by Stephen King and plays out similarly to his works, it even mentions him a few times. I generally like psychological thrillers, and Alan Wake has received generally favorable reviews, so I was excited to play this title. Unfortunately, I was sorely disappointed as I felt Alan Wake achieved nothing higher than mediocrity. The only thing that I really liked about this game was its atmosphere, everything else was just average at best. Both the story and the gameplay felt like they had potential to be interesting and unique, but both went nowhere interesting.

In a story-driven game the story better be memorable. Sadly, for Alan Wake that is not the case. At times, I was certainly drawn in and intrigued by the story, but those moments are fleeting in Alan Wake. The story revolves around a writer who is struggling to write his next story. The novel that the main character does write ends up coming true, and now you are living in it. You constantly are dropped into dreamlike sequences where you fight a dark presence that infects and controls people. At the start of the game, you are meant to be confused and disoriented by the surreal experiences that make up the majority of the game. This is similar to some other psychological thrillers like Memento, The Game, and Shutter Island in the sense that you are meant to be confused. Unlike those movies however, Alan Wake never has a big payoff or moment that makes you say “I get it now.” As I was playing I understood where the story was going pretty quickly as the clues and hints that the game gives you lack any subtlety. While a perceptive viewer could piece together the plots of the movies I mentioned through subtle clues, in Alan Wake the solution is completely obvious and in your face. The dialogue and characters are solid for the most part, but the facial animations and lip-syncing are a little off putting. While the characters are certainly interesting they cannot carry the story. The story interesting enough to grab my attention for a little while, but it just lacked a big payoff to really bring it all together. Any surprise that the game did have in store for the player was completely ruined by the goofy collectible system.

In Alan Wake the main collectibles are manuscript pages. These give further detail to the story and help the player understand what is happening in the story. They are generally pretty easy to find as they are lit up and lay out in the open. Many of the manuscript pages that you find end up detailing events that are yet to come. There is no feeling of suspense when you are told exactly what is going to happen before it happens. Any element of shock that this game could have had is completely stripped away by the manuscript pages.

Despite the issues with the story, it was engrossing enough to keep me interested for a little while. The biggest issue with Alan Wake was the gameplay. The gameplay is a mix of third-person shooter, action-adventure, and thriller. In Alan Wake before you shoot enemies, you must first shine a light on them until they become weakened. This was great idea thematically, but it needed some changes for me to like it from a gameplay perspective. The flashlight that you use to weaken enemies runs out of juice so fast, you can weaken maybe one enemy with a fully charged battery. So, you either have to put in a new battery, which you have to collect like ammo, or you can just wait for the flashlight to slowly regain its energy. You mostly want to save the batteries for intense fights where you need quick bursts of energy, so most of the time you are left waiting for the flashlight to recharge, which is unbearably slow. In most of the fights I found myself kiting big groups of enemies around and waiting for my flashlight to recharge. A lot of the time I just ran past enemies and to the next safe zone to conserve ammo and time. The other big issue was just how repetitive the gameplay became. After the first hour or two of playing the game I was just tired of how similarly every single encounter played out. There was one sequence of gameplay that I actually really enjoyed that I felt really upped the intensity, speed, and pressure. In this particular sequence, you are fighting on a stage that produces its own light, so you do not have to worry about slowly weakening the enemies with the flashlight, it is just pure, intense, gameplay for a few minutes.

My biggest personal gripe with the gameplay was just how clunky it was. Alan is a little tough to control, but more frustrating than that was that he was incredibly slow. You can sprint for maybe three seconds at a decent pace before you run out of stamina, and once that happens Alan is the slowest character in the history of video games. This is extremely distracting and off-putting, as I am trying to run from evil beings that are trying to kill me, or a possessed train that is going to crush me, Alan cannot muster enough energy to move faster than an anemic tortoise. Another irritating feature was the cinematic zooms during combat. As an enemy sneaks up on you, sometimes the game will zoom in on them and go into slow motion. This not only ruined any surprise or thrills that the game could have had, but it was also extremely disorientating. As the game snaps back to your perspective after one of these sequences it takes a second to readjust to your surroundings. On top of that, the game is still going on in the background as these cinematics play. You can still control your character, even though you cannot see him, and enemies can still approach and attack you. There was one particular instance that the game zoomed in on an enemy 10 meters from me as I was running from two other enemies. As the game went back to my perspective the enemies that I was closer to had closed the gap and begun attacking me before I could even do anything about it. These slow-mo sequences were frustrating, disorientating, action-breaking, and unnecessary.

With everything that let me down in Alan Wake, the one redeeming feature was its impeccable atmosphere. Set in rural Washington state, Alan Wake is a mix of serene forests, lakes, and mountains. At night, these typically calming and relaxing features turn into nightmarish environments for the player to traverse. Nowhere is safe in the dark, enemies can creep up on the player at any time and this instills a sense of fear and dread at all times. Alan Wake is not a horror game, it is not particularly scary or disturbing, but it is great at unnerving the player with the motif of light and dark. The darkness surrounds the player and gives you the feeling that nowhere is safe and that something is watching you. Seeing a beacon of light in the distance is a very reassuring feeling. Areas like the gas station or radio station in and of themselves are not particularly comforting, but the feeling of safety imbued by their light makes them such a huge relief once you reach them.

All in all, Alan Wake was disappointing for me. A story that starts off as compelling and intriguing, but goes nowhere. A collectible system that ruins any suspense. Unique gameplay that grows repetitive after an hour. Everything feels like it is almost good, but just falls a little short. The only stand out feature from this game was its atmosphere. The theme of dark and light conveys feelings of danger and safety so incredibly well. Overall the entire experience was just mediocre in almost all aspects. I would not say Alan Wake was bad, but it was not particularly good either. Alan Wake is just decent.

Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia

Remakes of older games often struggle with finding a balance between fixing the games shortcomings, but at the same time remaining faithful to the core design. Done correctly, remakes can be the definitive version of a video game. If the developers change too much, then the game may hardly be recognizable. If they change too little, then the same problems from the originals are just as persistent and frustrating. Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is a remake of the second game in the series, Fire Emblem Gaiden, which was released back in 1992. Gaiden is without a doubt the black sheep of the Fire Emblem franchise. Most people who have played it can attest to its frustrating designs and its sluggish gameplay. Shadows of Valentia has a tall order to fill: keeping true to the original but fixing the glaring problems that plagued it.

Shadows of Valentia did a lot of things right, but my absolute favorite feature was that the game was fully voice acted. This is new for the Fire Emblem series, but it is a massive step forward. Having all the characters voiced definitely brings them to life and puts a lot more impact to the dialogues that they have. Speaking of characters, Shadows of Valentia is a big step-up from previous entries Awakening and Fates in the characters department. The latter games characters were one-dimensional and a single personality trait defined their entire character. In Shadows of Valentia the cast is a lot more interesting and fleshed-out, they feel like they could be real people, not just a wacky cast from a video game.

The story of Shadows of Valentia is simple but satisfying. It is not a mind-bending experience, but the plot is extremely gratifying and gripping as you fight your way through the continent of Valentia. Alm and Celica are two childhood friends that split paths and each attempt to save the dying continent of Valentia. Alm’s path focuses on militaristic battles and war, while Celica’s path is a much more religious journey. Alm attempts to reclaim his homeland and fight off invaders, while Celica must visit the temple of a goddess to learn why the farms have gone barren. While the story can be cliché and predictable at times, it was still intriguing and engaging enough to keep me playing. What really stood out to me in this game was the world building. Being able to explore the world map for yourself is something that I love in Fire Emblem games. This was a huge step up from Fates, in which the continent that you play on is not even named. Being able to visit villages and talk to the locals gives the player a much better understanding of what is going on in Valentia rather than “This guy is evil, go fight him.” Even the allies that you recruit constantly comment on the happenings in the game and give their perspectives.

There are some new gameplay features in Shadows of Valentia. The biggest addition to gameplay was probably the dungeons. Fire Emblem is traditionally a top-down, turn-based strategy game, but in dungeons you explore in 3rd person view. When you run into enemies, the game starts a classic top-down battle. To be completely honest I am not a big fan of this feature. For the most part, these dungeons felt like filler and I do not think that they added a whole lot to the game. All of the battles that were had in these dungeons were incredibly repetitive and boring. Every single battle fought in the same dungeon uses the same map, only occasionally the enemies are rearranged in a slightly different fashion. All of these battles blend together and are all together bland, dungeons just felt like filler to pad out the game length. Dungeons were definitely a unique new addition to Fire Emblem, but they are going to need to see some tune-ups before I am sold on them.

Some other noteworthy gameplay changes include abandoning mechanics from newer Fire Emblem games and returning to the classic style of gameplay. The pair-up feature from Awakening and Fates has been left behind, and I think this is a good thing. The pair-up feature led to many balance issues and just encouraged the player use characters as stat boosters for other, more powerful characters. Another feature that was left behind was skills. Personally, I thought skills added extra dimensions to characters and their utility, but they definitely were difficult to balance and often relied on random chance to activate in battle. The skills have been replaced with combat arts, which are activatable abilities that units can learn by using certain weapons. Some combat arts are simply more powerful attacks, while others have special properties like dealing extra damage to armored units, or dashing through the enemy unit on the battlefield. All of these combat arts come at the cost of health and I felt like they certainly added some extra tactics to each encounter.

An entirely new feature was the useable item called Mila’s Turnwheel. This item allowed the player to go back in time and revise moves that they previously made. If you make a bonehead error, or you misclick, even if you get unlucky and a unit dies to a 1% critical hit chance, you can use the Turnwheel to give it another shot. This is a welcome feature as it mitigates frustration from bad luck or just a lapse in judgement. You no longer have to reset and redo the entire chapter if a unit dies to a roll of the dice thanks to Mila’s Turnwheel. Of course, you only have a limited number of uses so you cannot just use it all the time. I actually avoided using this feature outside of just testing it out because I felt like Shadows of Valentia was already relatively easy, even on the hardest difficulty. Mila’s Turnwheel definitely makes the game easier, so avoid it if you want a more difficult experience. That being said, it is a great tool if you are not looking for a tougher time. It also has some interesting narrative uses, as it allows the player to see “memory prisms.” These are flashbacks to years before the happenings of this game. These set up the story a lot better when you can see the events leading up to the present rather than just reading about it through some text. There are some other unique gameplay aspects of Shadows of Valentia. Archers, mages, and clerics are all drastically different from previous iterations. They are a lot more utility focused and I think these were solid changes.

The original Gaiden was known for being tedious and frustrating, and this is mostly due to the games maps. This is the most common complaint about the original, so I thought for sure that the maps would be fine-tuned and improved for this game. I was wrong. Many of the maps are 1-to-1 remakes of the original. This is mind boggling to me. The developers had to know that the maps of the original are criticized heavily, so why move forward with the exact same designs? I understand wanting to be faithful to the original, but if something is obviously bad I expect the developers to at least attempt to make it better. What makes these maps so bad you ask? Well, they range from tedious and boring, to obnoxious and infuriating. Many of the earlier maps are just boring, repetitive slogs. Giant, open, grassy fields dotted with some forest tiles here and there. No chokepoints or interesting features, just flat nothingness. There are not even side objectives to spice things up. These types of maps are bad and completely forgettable, but they are nowhere near as bad as what is to come later in the game. Many of the frustrating maps have deserts, which inhibit movement, or swamps than inhibit movement and deal damage to you. Giant clusters of enemies with no tactical way of approaching them. Some maps were even reused multiple times throughout the course of the game. But the biggest issues with the maps were witches and cantors.

Witches are one of the single most frustrating designs in any video game ever. I am confident of that. Essentially, they are mages with the ability to teleport wherever on the map that they want, move, and attack, all in the same turn. If their AI was any good at all, they could simply just teleport to your lowest resistance unit and gang up on that unit and kill it, and there is no possible way for you to stop this. The only thing making these witches even bearable is that their AI is complete garbage, and I think that it is this way on purpose. They just randomly teleport around instead of focusing on your weaker units. Sometimes they do not teleport at all. In the entire course of the game I think I only had to reset because of a witch maybe two times. Still, the fact that they are so incredibly inconsistent is nerve racking. At any given moment while you are playing, a witch could just make the right move and force you to reset with no plausible way of stopping it. You just have to hope that they keep making dumb moves. Cantors are another story. They are summoners that spawn weaker units every few turns. On paper this actually sounds like a good idea, it is a way of speeding up the player. Saying “if you do not kill this cantor quick than you are going to have to deal with hordes of enemy units.” Unfortunately, it does not work out that way. Instead cantors are often surrounded by powerful enemy units, forcing you to take your time dealing with the tough guys first. Many maps with cantors become slogs of killing massive amounts of weak summoned units as you slowly pick off the more powerful enemies. Towards the end of the game, there are cantors that spawn witches. I think that speaks for itself. The thing that really bugged me was that plenty of the maps would have actually been good maps had it not been for the witches or cantors. Just take them out and there are some actually decent maps in this game.

My last gripe with the game are the random encounters. As you travel the world map enemies will crop up from strongholds and chase you around the map. These small skirmishes are fairly boring and they are unavoidable. Sometimes I just want to get on with the main story, but no, first I have to slog through some small battle on a map that I have already seen and played. I feel like this really punishes the player for exploring the world map, visiting towns, doing quests, even going to shrines to promote your units. Doing any of this will lead to the random encounters cropping up and forcing you to play them despite their dullness.

Fire Emblem definitely has a divisive fanbase. The series varies wildly, and people enjoy the different games for different reasons. I consider myself to be fairly central and I appreciate a well-rounded game. Fire Emblem traditionally mixes strategy elements with story and RPG elements, and I do not think that Shadows of Valentia struck a good balance. Shadows of Valentia definitely has positive story and RPG elements, and it is a huge improvement over Fates which was a disaster in that department. Unfortunately, the gameplay is bogged down by dreadful map design. Most of the maps are just bland and repetitive, but towards the end they just get frustrating. For the most part I enjoyed Shadows of Valentia, the story and characters were certainly enough to keep me playing despite the maps. For these reasons, I give Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia a 7/10. Before you pick up this game, ask yourself why you like the Fire Emblem series. If you are into it for the tactics, strategy, and map design, I would probably avoid this title. If you enjoy the series for its characters, world building, grand fantasy, plot, music, or any other of its RPG elements, definitely check out Shadows of Valentia.

Hollow Knight (2017)

This year has been great for video game lovers. There have been many large releases that saw massive success and critical acclaim. Only 5 months in and we already have: Resident Evil 7, Yakuza 0, Horizon Zero Dawn, Nioh, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, NieR: Automata, Prey, and Persona 5. Alongside all these huge titles it may seem strange, but the biggest surprise of this year was the indie game Hollow Knight. This is the first game by the Australian independent studio Team Cherry, but it feels like these guys have been making games for years. Hollow Knight is a metroidvania style game that takes place in the ruined bug kingdom of Hallownest.

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The setting and atmosphere of Hollow Knight is the dark and dingy underground kingdom of Hallownest. The game is very cryptic and it is pretty much left up to the player to interpret the plot through subtle clues scattered through the environment. There are plenty of different environments for the player to discover and explore, each with a completely unique setting. These gloomy areas are accompanied by a matching moody soundtrack. While the game definitely has a drab vibe to it, there are plenty of charming moments. For example, there are these cute little Grubs scattered throughout the world that have been trapped in jars. As you find them and set them free you can visit them back in their home and the Grubfather will give you a present for each one that you have rescued. Accompany moments like that with the beautifully hand-drawn art style of Hollow Knight and you have a game that is simultaneously dreary and endearing.

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Do not let the cutesy bits of Hollow Knight fool you, this game can be brutally difficult at times. It starts off slow, as most metroidvanias do, but quickly ramps up as you acquire new abilities. There are many difficult boss fights and platforming sections that took me numerous tries to master. Despite this, I never felt like the game was unfair, it achieved a perfect balance of difficulty. It was challenging enough to be entertaining and engaging, but it was never frustrating. While another recent metroidvania in Ori and the Blind Forrest focused mostly on platforming, Hollow Knight is much more combat focused with platforming sections scattered throughout. There are dozens of unique boss fights to perfect and complete. When you are fighting bosses, you are exploring the masterfully crafted world of Hollow Knight.

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As a metroidvania, Hollow Knight has a big, interconnected, sprawling world. As you acquire new abilities and items you can access new places that were previously unavailable to you. This world was particularly well thought out. It is incredibly easy to get from area to area, as they are connected in such a way that makes them simple to navigate. There is so much to be found in the world of Hollow Knight. Grubs, health upgrades, magic upgrades, new abilities, upgrades to abilities, and new items are all around the player. There is so much to discover and be found that I was constantly enthralled with the exploration aspect of this game. One pretty unique thing about Hollow Knight is that it really never tells you where to go. It is up to the player to explore and stumble upon the correct path. Many of the paths that you will take will lead to boss fights, new abilities, and secrets, but a lot of these things are completely optional to complete the game. I really loved the fact that the game does not tell you where to go. There is less pressure to move forward, and it opens up a much bigger window for exploration. This game lets you play and discover at your own pace. Instead of saying “Well let me go here and move forward in the game”, I was saying “Let me explore and I will see what I stumble unto”. The latter is much more compelling, especially in an exploration based genre like metroidvanias.

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One of the most common complaints that I have heard about Hollow Knight was its map system. When you discover a new area, you have to first find the cartographer to sell you the base map. From there you have to explore on your own to record the full map. Some people do not like this because they claim it makes navigating new areas a chore and a hassle. I do not agree with the sentiment in the slightest. I quite enjoyed that feeling of mapping out areas for myself. When you can see the whole map from the start, a lot of the excitement of finding different paths is lost. The only criticisms for Hollow Knight that I have is that I would have liked to see the base town of Dirtmouth to be built up throughout the course of the game. Maybe some new vendors to sell the player some items that would help locate secrets at the end of the game. In games like this, I can reach about 90% full completion pretty easily, but finding those last few secrets and items can be like searching for a needle in a haystack. So, towards the end of the game I would have liked to see some way to find those secrets that I missed. Other than that, the only real issue with Hollow Knight is that is really nothing “new”. It does not introduce any spectacularly new mechanics or revolutionize the genre. That being said, it does a fantastic job of taking all the greatest aspects from other games and combining them into the best metroidvania that I have ever played. While I value innovation pretty highly, I also greatly value the ability for a developer to perfect a genre and Hollow Knight does exactly that.

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I rarely talk about prices of video games, but I think something has to be said in the case of Hollow Knight. This game is only $15 for a ton of entertainment, just to complete the game it will take about 20 hours. To get the true ending or 100% the game it takes more in the realm of 30-40 hours. Compare this to other fantastic indie games like Owlboy, Ori and the Blind Forrest, and Shovel Knight. Those games are about $20-$25 and will last the player maybe 10-15 hours. Not only is Hollow Knight a phenomenal game, but it gives you a pretty big bang for your buck.

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All in all, Hollow Knight is one of the best games that came out this year, and that says a lot. I cannot sing enough praises for this game. If you like metroidvanias, 2D platformers, or 2D action games, definitely check this one out. It is expertly crafted and is quite possibly the best metroidvania ever made. For these reasons, I give Hollow Knight a 10/10. It may not introduce anything entirely new, but it does a damn good job of perfecting the formula.

NieR: Automata (2017)

NieR: Automata is a lesson in not judging a book by its cover. You may think that it is just a niche Japanese game at first glance, but I encourage you to give it a chance. Yoko Taro, the mastermind behind the cult classic Drakengard series, teams up with Platinum Games, who developed critically acclaimed action games Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, to make a truly memorable experience. It is a truly unique, fun, and mind-bending experience provided by NieR: Automata which makes it an unforgettable game. This review will be spoiler free, but I will talk about the unique way that this game is structured.

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NieR: Automata is the story of a war, not between humans, but between androids and machines. Androids were created by humans, while the machines were created by alien invaders to wipe out mankind. Androids were made to imitate humans, in both physical appearance and in how they act. The machines look more like robots and seemingly are not capable of individual thoughts or emotions. You play as the android 2B who is assigned to fighting the machine forces alongside her partner 9S. 2B and 9S quickly realize that the machines have begun to imitate human behaviors and seemingly developed a consciousness. Throughout the game 2B, 9S, and the machines struggle with existentialist concepts.

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The world of NieR: Automata is filled with philosophical questions and concepts. The androids and machines frequently question their own purpose and why they exist in the first place. Both in the main story and in side quests the machines and androids have troubles coming to terms with their existence. Interestingly enough, many of the side quests drop hints and introduce you to the concepts before the main storyline runs with these ideas. When the machines develop their own thoughts and freewill, many lose their purpose. The machines find human records and start imitating the info that they have found. Some develop a hobby and take it to an extreme, some form cults and kingdoms, others form villages and settlements. The biggest question asked is are these machines and androids really alive, and is their consciousness real, or just a program? Other questions are posed, for example if we lose our memories, are we still the same person? These are just a few of the questions posed, many more are touched on but you really should experience them for yourself.

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The gameplay of NieR: Automata is fast paced action. It takes a little while to get a hang of the controls, but it is extremely satisfying and fluid once you get used to it. 2B can select two weapons to fight with and string combos together with. You also have access to pods, which are floating robots that you can use to fire a steady stream of bullets at the enemy. Pods also have special abilities like lasers, bombs, the ability to slow time, etc. that the player can use to their advantage. On top of that, you can customize your plug-in chips to give you stats like more damage, healing, speed, among other things. You can even take out elements of your heads up display (HUD) to make room for more combat oriented plug-in chips. All of these elements made for a completely customizable experience with infinite options. You can play with all sorts of different combo options to really step up your game. Unfortunately, for the most part you did not need to learn many combos, I only needed a few basic combos to beat the game. That being said, there is a lot of room for just playing around and testing out all sorts of different moves. Most of the basic enemies in the game were just fodder and easy to defeat, but the boss fights were truly epic and intense, especially as you learn the backstory for the bosses that you are fighting.

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The environment of NieR: Automata is that of a post-apocalyptic planet earth. Most areas reflect this and are bleak, like the city ruins, the desert, and the factory. On the other hand, some sections of the world are beautiful and thriving. The forest and the amusement park are quite elegant. Another interesting aspect of NieR: Automata is the lore. It is technically the next installment of the Drakengard series and it is the sequel to the original NieR. Trust me, you do not need to play those games before playing NieR: Automata. This game is set so far in the future that all that remains of those games are occasional references. That being said, there is a ton of extra lore in the Drakengard and NieR universe. Both in the game and out, there is lots of extra tidbits that you can find. In game, you can find intel which references the past, and out of game there are concerts, books, and stage plays that expand upon this world. This game strikes a nice balance; it is both accessible for newer players, and it allows for more dedicated players to get more info. Something that needs to be mentioned when talking about NieR: Automata is the original soundtrack. It is without a doubt one of the best soundtracks ever created for a video game. It is mostly classical music, but it has a mechanical theme that is evident. The melancholy tone of most of the songs fits the game perfectly. The songs are incredibly memorable and instantly recognizable once you have played the game. What is really cool about the soundtrack is multiple versions of every song were recorded and used so that they blend together seamlessly according to the environment and situation. If you want a taste of the soundtrack, take a listen to this: “A Beautiful Song.” I rarely listen to video game songs outside of the games, but I now often find myself listening to many of the songs from NieR: Automata.

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The structure of NieR: Automata is incredibly unique. Many modern games have an option to start a New Game+ mode after beating the game. This usually entails a few harder enemies and some new content, but it is mostly the same game. NieR: Automata takes the concept to the next level. There are five main routes in this game, labeled A-E. When you first finish route A, the game prompts you to continue playing as there is more content in the game. This is not a traditional New Game+, route A is only a small portion of what NieR: Automata has to offer, and it would be a shame if anybody stopped playing after beating it. Each route is more like an act of a play or book rather than a full game. You play as different characters to gain different perspectives and different combat options. Routes A and B feel like just a prologue to the story told in routes C, D, and E. Routes C, D, and E are all the same route, just different endings. Once you beat C, you get to play the final sequence again and that is route D, and once you beat D you get to play the final ending, which is route E.

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Route A introduces you to the world of NieR: Automata and lets you get comfortable in it. It asks you basic philosophical questions and sets up what is to come next. The biggest development in route A is the characters.  Aside from the main characters of 2B and 9S, there is a large cast of side characters, android and machine alike. Many of the machines are quite charming and funny as you get to interact with them. Watching the machines imitate humans by forming families, raising children, and making their own society was very cute. The story of route A is decent, but is obvious that you are missing some pieces to the puzzle. Route B tells the same story as route A, but from the perspective of a different character. This different perspective shows you the story in a separate light, and more facts slowly trickle in as you piece the story together. Routes A and B were certainly great, but the real story is told in routes C, D, and E. These routes are a continuation of the story from A and B, and the game fills in all the holes and answers the questions from the previous routes. The game constantly challenged my pre-conceived notions and changed what I thought. There is so much going on at such a fast pace, just as you are trying to process one big reveal of information, the game hits you with another. Routes C, D, and E have some of the most emotional and impactful moments that I have ever received from a video game. I would wager that these three routes are some of best experiences in any video game, ever. It is truly a thought-provoking adventure, and it is something that you really should play for yourself.

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While I love NieR: Automata, it does have some issues. The combat is fluid, but after a while it can get a little repetitive. While many of the side quests are interesting from a story perspective, they often boil down “go over there and fetch me this item.” They can be tedious chores, but they are mostly worth it to learn more about the characters. The hacking mini-game is pretty fun once in a while, but I feel like it is overused and can get boring and repetitive. The PC port of the game is poorly optimized and needs work, I recommend getting this game on PS4 instead of PC. My biggest issue with NieR: Automata is routes A and B. Route A would be alright as a standalone game, but it would not be anything special. Route B can get pretty repetitive as it is essentially the same as route A, the new information delivered in this route is too few and far between to make it distinct and different enough from route A in my opinion. While I know that they are just the prologue for routes C, D, and E, I feel like many players missed the memo. I think labeling them “acts” instead of “routes” may provide a big enough distinction to show players that the game has just begun. Along with that, I feel like if routes A and B were somehow combined they would be much more enjoyable and comprehensive experience. They are fine on their own, but are pretty slow paced when compared to route C, D, and E. If you combined them I feel like route A would be a more complete experience with the extra info from route B added, and you would not have to play same story twice just to get a little more info. Looking back on it, I am fine with the way that the game is structured and I understand the purpose of routes A and B, but as I was playing the game I had a different perspective. I enjoyed the game, but I did not understand what made it so special until I made it to routes C, D, and E.

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I have to say, NieR: Automata has become one of my all-time favorite games. I think it will become a classic title, especially in nerd and gamer culture. The fluid combat, the memorable characters, the desolate environments, the music, the philosophical nature, the melancholy tone, and the unforgettable story truly make this a game worth playing. If any of this sounds appealing to you, definitely pick up this game. I think that is unfortunate that many players stopped part way through routes A and B, as they did not get to really see what made this game so stellar. If routes A and B were combined, I would have no problem calling this game a masterpiece. For these reasons, I give NieR: Automata a 9.5/10. Routes A and B are not quite strong enough, and many players did not see the game all the way through to the end because of it. NieR: Automata is a truly phenomenal game, and it will be remembered as a truly special game.

ABZÛ (2016)

Abzu is the type of game that you will want to sit down with after a long day, turn the lights off, and just relax while playing it. Abzu is an underwater experience made by the developer Giant Squid, who’s founder was the art director for the critically acclaimed games Journey and Flower. While deep sea environments can be dark, disturbing, and unsettling, Abzu manages to achieve the exact opposite. It is a zen-like experience to explore the world Abzu.

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The majority of the gameplay in Abzu is just swimming and exploring the ocean. There are a few puzzles, but they are remarkably simple. Abzu is all about exploring the beautiful unknown, and restoring life and vigor to dying sections of the ocean. Many games with underwater sections often struggle with the controls, but the controls in Abzu are very smooth and easy to get a hang of. There is a vague story told through the environment, but that takes a back seat to the meditative nature of Abzu. Just sit back and chill while hanging out with sea turtles, whales, sharks, and various species of fish. This game is absolutely visually stunning and it creates remarkable atmospheres to be appreciated. The orchestral music in the game enhances the feeling of wonder and discovery as you swim through the underwater landscapes. Abzu is more of an artistic experience than a traditional video game.

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While Abzu is gorgeous and easy to relax while playing the gameplay is lacking at times. There are eight chapters in Abzu, I was okay with the fact that the first two chapters served as just pure relaxation and discovery, but chapters three and four were just more of the same. The game is only about an hour and a half to two hours, and the first 45 minutes were all very similar and repetitive. Luckily the game picks up a bit in the last half and ends strong. The middle section of the game was just slow, after 45 minutes of swimming around and appreciating the environment, I was ready to move on to something more interesting. That portion of the game just overstayed its welcome a tad too long in my opinion.

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Abzu is not meant to be a traditional video game, it is more a visual presentation of the beauty of the ocean. If you are looking for action, deep gameplay, or story, you will not find much of it in Abzu. If you just want to sit back and relax for an hour or two, Abzu is the game for you. For what it was, Abzu was a pleasant and memorable experience. I am going to give Abzu a 7/10. It is not groundbreaking or revolutionary, but it was definitely a worthwhile experience.