Dark Souls II (2014)

Following the unexpected timeless classic that was Dark Souls, FromSoftware had high expectations upon the release of Dark Souls II.  Strangely, the mastermind behind Dark Souls, Hidetaka Miyazaki, was assigned to develop another title instead of being in charge of Dark Souls II. I did not know that Miyazaki was not at the helm of this project until I sensed that something was very off about Dark Souls II, so I was inclined to look deeper into its development and saw that the inspiration behind the original game was gone. This is not to say Dark Souls II was a disaster, as many aspects of the game are still fantastic, but it felt like the spirit of Dark Souls was gone. It was almost like the developers of Dark Souls II did not understand what made Dark Souls so good. Or they misunderstood the point of Dark Souls and focused on the wrong aspects all together. As such, I am going to reference and analyze the original Dark Souls frequently in this piece to highlight these crucial differences.

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As a quick aside, after writing this piece I realize that this is almost more like a full analysis rather than a review. But I feel it was necessary as I have very strong opinions on Dark Souls II and I felt like I needed to justify why certain aspects bugged me. I didn’t think it was fair to say “X, Y, and Z are bad” without really digging down to explain why X, Y, and Z don’t work in the context of the series. Also, I reference the original Dark Souls a lot. Again, I feel like this was necessary to explain how Dark Souls II missed the mark in a few areas by comparing the systems implemented to the original game. Lastly, I played the Scholar of the First Sin edition of the game, which is slightly different than the first release of Dark Souls II. I think these two versions are similar enough that the overall factors that I will underline are the same.

The most obvious and critical misunderstanding was over the difficulty of Dark Souls. Miyazaki always emphasizes that the point of Dark Souls was not to be hard, but rather the difficulty is used as a tool to make the played feel different emotions. I was immediately worried during the starting cutscene of Dark Souls II in which the game explicitly tells you “You are going to die, over and over again” almost mocking the player, essentially focusing in on the difficulty. My fears were affirmed by the hub location in Dark Souls II, Majula. In Majula there is a pillar with a sign on it that lists global player deaths, almost as if the developers were bragging about how many times players had died playing their game. This focus on difficult is apparent throughout the game in most scenarios and encounters.

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For the sake of brevity in my Dark Souls piece, I did not delve too deep into the idea of encounter design. Encounter design is essentially looking at every single scenario and encounter with enemies or bosses in the game and breaking it down. For example: enemy placements, types of enemies, the number of enemies, the environment, etc. are all crucial elements to making a successful encounter. In the case of Dark Souls the mechanics of the game lends itself towards one on one scenarios, and this is reflected in the encounter design. Most of the time you would fight one enemy at a time, sometimes there would be a few enemies, but you could split them apart with some easy maneuvering. Very rarely would you have to fight a horde of enemies, and when you did, they were so weak that you could plow through them with ease. This is not so in Dark Souls II, and there seems to be a much higher focus on fighting larger groups of enemies.

The biggest issue with fighting large groups of enemies in the Soulsborne (Demon Souls, the Dark Souls trilogy, and Bloodborne) series is the player’s reliance on lock-on. Since The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, action-adventure games have relied on locking on to single enemies as a way of simulating a duel. This is not nearly as functional once you introduce more enemies. Your camera is locked on to one enemy, so if there is more than one you can easily be blindsided. You constantly need to change your lock-on target to the enemy nearest to you.  Lock-on is just not conducive to fighting multiple enemies at once, and Dark Souls II is notorious for spamming enemies at the player. You essentially have to teach yourself how to not rely on lock-on so much, but the thing is that lock-on was invented for a reason. Combat in a third-person action game is fairly unintuitive as the controls and camera are just not well suited for it. Lock-on was created out of necessity, and now players must unlearn this mechanic to effectively play Dark Souls II. Unfortunately, lock-on is not the only issue with fighting groups of enemies.

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There are a couple issues specific to Dark Souls II that make fighting hordes of enemies a pain other than just lock-on. First and foremost is stun-locking, which is when an enemy hits and staggers you, and then you get chained into more hits and you cannot escape the chain as each hit staggers you. This frequently leads to scenarios in which you drop from full health to zero health because you made a single mistake and got stun-locked to death. The next issue is overlapping attacks. In Dark Souls II, enemies can attack through each other to hit the player. Now this was also present in the first Dark Souls, but it was encountered far less frequently due to reduced enemy count. This is a necessary feature in my opinion, because if enemies’ attacks did not go through one another, then the game could easily be broken by keeping enemies in a straight line, bashing their attacks into each other. While it is necessary, it does not make it any less frustrating when an enemy you can barely see swings their weapon, passes through the enemy in front of you, and damages you. This also leads to a problem in which enemy’s attacks overlap in a certain way so that the player does not have a window to counterattack. Combat is straight forward, you wait for an enemy to swing at you, and then you dodge/avoid/block/counter the attack and then you have a window to counterattack. When the developers throw more into enemies into the mix that window becomes smaller, occasionally it becomes non-existent. The final issue with having so many enemies to fight is that damage is just unavoidable sometimes.

One of the defining features of the original Dark Souls was that every hit that the player took was avoidable in some way, and therefore was a mistake. This is not so in Dark Souls II, and the developers realized this and had to change the games mechanics as a result. I consider the Estus Flask, the healing item from Dark Souls, to be one of the most ingenious and important aspects of Dark Souls. While I could write an essay on the nuances of the Estus Flask, I’ll keep it short for this piece. Essentially, the Estus Flask is an item that stores 5 charges that heal the player, and these charges refill when you rest at a bonfire. The Estus Flask limited the player’s mistakes, if you made too many you would have to return to the last bonfire to refill it. As you got better at an area, you could avoid more damage, save more Estus Flask charges, and make it to the next bonfire or boss. This was a remarkable method of limiting the player’s exploration and progress. Essentially your ability to adventure was gated by your skill, and as you got better, you could press on further. This does not work in Dark Souls II because sometimes the player just cannot avoid getting hit, so the developers decided to supplement the Estus Flask with a new healing item called Lifegems. These Lifegems slowly restore health over time, as compared to the quick restoration provided by the Estus Flask. The issue with Lifegems is that they are essentially infinite, as the player can easily purchase them from a vendor at a very low price. This completely destroys the point of limiting the players healing in the first place, because even if you screw up and take some damage, you can easily heal it off with some Lifegems. There is no feeling of learning and mastering an area if you abuse Lifegems. On the flipside, the game is balanced around Lifegems, there is going to be plenty of instances where damage is near unavoidable, but Lifegems are meant to make up for this. So, if you entirely ignore Lifegems, you are in for a frustrating experience unless you are experienced with the game beforehand. So essentially the forces the player to set a Lifegem limit for themselves as to avoid infinitely abusing Lifegems to trivialize the game. If players have to impart their own rules to make the game fun, then maybe the game was poorly designed.

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Furthermore, some majorly disappointing aspects of Dark Souls II were the boss fights. Maybe I remember the first Dark Souls bosses better because it was my first Soulsborne game, but I genuinely think many of the bosses of Dark Souls II are entirely forgettable. Both visually and mechanically, many of the bosses of Dark Souls II are wholly uninteresting. Most bosses can be described as “dudes in armor” and have similar and predictable move sets.  They lack that same sense of grandeur and wonder that the original Dark Souls would invoke. In Dark Souls it felt like you were fighting immortal and unconquerable beings, in Dark Souls II it feels like your fighting some random guy in a suit of armor. Most bosses also have similar and repetitive move-sets, resulting in some same-y and forgettable boss fights. Some bosses make me wonder what they did to even earn the title of being a boss. The Royal Rat Vanguard and the Prowling Magus and Congregation are just basic enemies with a boss health-bar slapped on them for whatever reason. On top of that, very few bosses are even remotely difficult when compared to the challenge of the normal areas in the game. The lackluster bosses are particularly egregious because the Soulsborne series places a heavy emphasis on bosses, yet in Dark Souls II there is only a handful of interesting and memorable bosses.

The world design of Dark Souls II is not as masterfully crafted as the original Dark Souls. In Dark Souls the world was a carefully intertwined web that looped in on itself. In Dark Souls II, it instead is a system of roots that sprawls outward in many different directions. While this is obviously easier to design and less immersive and intriguing as the original design philosophy, it is not without its benefits. It allows the designers to take more liberties and make areas however they want without worrying about how they were going to connect them back into the fold. Fast travel is available to the player from the very beginning of the game as a result of this, so you very infrequently revisit and traverse areas multiple times. This is a shame because Dark Souls II has some phenomenal atmospheric and visually impressive areas. The dizzying heights of the Dragon Aerie, the calm flow of the Shrine of Amana, and the peaceful aura of Heide’s Tower of Flame are fantastic and are some of my favorite areas atmospherically. Unfortunately, you never get to really familiarize yourself with these areas enough as to burn them into your memory as a result of the branching world design. Also, the world of Dark Souls II is at times completely nonsensical. I would think that the freedom that comes with the branching world design that the designers could make for a believable world, but that is not the case. The most egregious example is how you climb a tower into the sky, reach the top of it, take an elevator upward, and then end up in a volcano. You can see the tip of this tower from the ground, and there is no elevator or hint of anything above this castle, let alone an entire keep inside of a lake of lava. It is incredibly jarring and detached me from the world as it did not even make an attempt to make any logical sense.

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The level design in Dark Souls II mirrors its world design in a sense. There is a lack of interconnectivity in individual levels. In Dark Souls, each level had numerous shortcuts to unlock as you progressed further into each level. In Dark Souls II, many levels opt to just put in more bonfires rather than looping the player back to a previous bonfire and having them use it again. It frankly just feels lazy, especially since there are an absolute load of locations where it would have been easy to just put in a ladder, or push down a tree to unlock a shortcut, but the developers opted to just add another bonfire instead. Also, like I mentioned earlier in the review, it feels like the developers also leaned heavily on just adding more enemies whenever they wanted to up the difficulty factor. There are some levels that take this concept to the point of absolute absurdity. The Iron Keep is probably my least favorite area in the game because of this. Another strange addition to this game was how roll speed is tied to the adaptability stat. Previously, roll speed was determined solely by your weight/carry ratio, but now adaptability plays a huge role in the effectiveness of your rolls. Before you get many points into adaptability rolls feel very off and clunky, so you either need to pump some points into adaptability early on or just deal with useless rolls. This isn’t a huge deal past the first few hours, but it definitely just feels wrong and I could see it turning off players who are used to fast rolls at the start of the game.

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After all that ranting about Dark Souls II, there are plenty of redeeming qualities that I probably should highlight, as I don’t think Dark Souls II is a horrible game, I just think it missed the mark. First and foremost, the user interface is a massive improvement from the original game. It is much more clean and intuitive to use. Another notable improvement is the online play. It flat out just works better from a technical stand-point, and on top of that it is far better balanced for player-vs-player combat. Like I mentioned earlier, Dark Souls II is remains phenomenal atmospherically and visually. Most importantly, while Dark Souls II may have been a little off in many regards, and I harped on it a lot, it still keeps the basic structure of the Soulsborne series, which is just flat out enjoyable. A brutal and inhospitable fantasy world in which you battle against the odds against lumbering creatures and undead beings for the sake of humanity. There is just something wondrous about the concept. The combat and gameplay are not inherently bad, I just think the developers went a little bit overboard with how many enemies they added. Nothing proves this more than the DLC (downloadable content) of Dark Souls II.

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I rarely talk about DLC as it usually just more of the same of the base game, but there is a strange dichotomy of the Dark Souls II DLC. It contains both the absolute best of the game, but it also brings out the utter worst in the game. There are 3 DLC packs, and each contains a new main area, a few bosses, and an optional side area. As far as I’m concerned, the main areas of the DLCs are the best parts of DLC beyond a shadow of a doubt. The areas are excellent visually, and they return to the looping level design of the original Dark Souls. You really get to know each area because there are far less bonfires, you have to master each area just progress. Each area also unique attributes that make them far more memorable rather than just “slaughter a couple dozen enemies and then take on a boss”. Speaking of bosses, the bosses in the DLC blow the bosses of the base game out of the water. Incredibly challenging, unique, and unforgettable. The Fume Knight in particular ranks up there with Knight Artorias as one of my favorite boss fights ever. All that being said, the optional side areas of the game feel like the developers just took every bad aspect from Dark Souls II and smooshed it together to make these awful areas. The Cave of the Dead, the Iron Passage, and the Frigid Outskirts are so terrible that I refused to believe that they were not intentionally designed to be dreadful. The contrast between the excellent main areas and the appalling side areas is so off-putting that its hard to believe that they were designed by the same people. Massive amounts of enemies, cheap tactics to kill the player, and copy-pasted bosses are just some of the frustrations that you will encounter here. As it turns out, these areas are meant to be played co-operatively, in other words you are not supposed to play them by yourself. This is pretty strange considering this is the only place in the series where the game explicitly encourages co-op. Luckily, these areas are optional and I really don’t recommend setting foot in them unless you are a masochist, a completionist, or you have someone else to play with.

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As a whole, its difficult for me to judge Dark Souls II. It misses a lot of what took the original Dark Souls from “good” to “legendary”, but that still leaves Dark Souls II firmly in the “good” category. The masterful level and world design is wholly absent, but the strong basics of Dark Souls are mostly intact. The bosses could have been better, the healing system lacks a punch, and the developers are overly reliant on spamming enemies. But for the most part, Dark Souls II is still a solid game. I don’t think it is even remotely close to the original in terms of quality, but that does not intrinsically make it a bad game, especially considering Dark Souls is a generational title that has had an enormous influence on the industry. For these reasons, I give Dark Souls II a 6/10. Outside of the main DLC, Dark Souls II just kind of misses the point of what made the original so iconic, but its still a decent game.

 

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Spec Ops: The Line (2011)

Can mediocre gameplay be forgiven if the narrative, story, and setting are all superb? This is a question that I’ve thought about a lot in the past, and it definitely applies to Spec Ops: The Line. While it is incontestable that the plot in Spec Ops: The Line is top-notch and may have sparked an enlightenment era for narrative driven games, I felt that the game was severely bogged down by the gameplay. This is unfortunate, as I do love it when a developer can effectively use video games as a medium to effectively tell a story. Spec Ops: The Line nails its setting, plot, and effectively uses narrative elements to make for some unforgettable moments, but even though I loved those features it is impossible to ignore the sluggish gameplay.

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The setting and atmosphere established by Spec Ops: The Line is incredible. The player and his squad must descend into the depths of the buried city of Dubai. Constant sandstorms have covered the once prosperous city in a mountain of sand, leaving only small portions of the city exposed to sunlight, the rest is embedded in a sandy tomb. The player starts at what is essentially the top of the city, and slowly descends deeper into the depths of the derelict Dubai. As you make your way down through skyscrapers and across rooftop, it atmosphere changes drastically. The once sunny city dims as you dive deeper, bodies of the dead pile up, and chaos erupts at all corners. This effect of verticality is incredibly similar to the feelings invoked by games such as Dark Souls and Hollow Knight. You descend further and further down, the game gets darker and more foreboding. You reach a point in which you feel like you cannot possibly dig any deeper, but you just keep going. The use of verticality, ascending and descending, is a tactic that can be incredibly effective at invoking emotions into a player. Going up always feels rewarding, like you are climbing a ladder to victory. But going down, that is a prospect that is meant to instill terror into the player. The atmosphere achieved by Spec Ops: The Linethrough its use of vertical levels is meant to instill stress, panic, and unease in the player as you cascade further and further into hell. The setting of Spec Ops: The Line is phenomenal, and it truly makes for an unforgettable journey.

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While the atmosphere established in Spec Ops: The Line is incredible, the game is mostly known for its story. The main character sets out with his 2 squad mates to investigate a distress signal sent from Dubai. The game’s story matches its setting sense of verticality, the main character is at his highest point when they game starts, at the top of Dubai. As you descend, the protagonist witnesses atrocities and horrible scenes of death and destruction. The main character’s mental state deteriorates and the entire squad begins to squabble with each other as time progresses. Spec Ops: The Line borders on being a psychological thriller as you unravel the happenings in Dubai, and you trust the main characters perspective less and less as time progresses. All of this time you are lead to a spectacular and mind-warping ending that just made me ask “What just happened?” What is really interesting to me is how effectively the developers used video games as a medium to tell a story. Many games tell a good story, but they leave you with the feeling that the story would have been better told in a movie. In Spec Ops: The Line however, it places you in the role of the protagonist, you are not just a bystander to the events that unfold. I felt sick to my stomach in many of the gruesome climactic scenes. There are a few different ways of effectively using video games as a story telling medium, and Spec Ops: The Line utilizes the personal nature of video games to tell an unforgettable story.

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Unfortunately for Spec Ops: The Line, a key component for any game is its gameplay. Story, setting, and atmosphere all are incredibly important, but at the end of the day you still have to actually play the game to experience those attributes. It is a shame that the gameplay of Spec Ops: The Line is so disappointing, because otherwise I would consider it to be a must-play title. It brands itself as a tactical third-person-shooter, as you must tactically command your squad as you shoot your way through Dubai. This starts off okay as your squad mates are relatively useful early on, but as the game progresses a critical flaw is unearthed. As you progress, enemies get stronger, get better weapons, and number of enemies increase, but your squad mates are the same strength that they were at the very start of the game. So as the game gets harder, your teammates become increasingly useless, and by the end of the game they mainly serve as a distraction for enemies to shoot at. On top of that, the controls are just plain clunky. I’ve never been a huge fan of cover-based shooters. It always feels awkward to press a button and get “stuck” to cover, then press another button to “detach” from that piece of cover. It just feels sticky and restrictive; getting behind cover, peeking and shooting, and then detaching from the cover feels unnatural. I much prefer the fluid and open movement of games like Wolfenstein, DOOM, Call of Duty, or Battlefield. I started to get seriously frustrated once enemies began regularly tossing grenades at me because I would get stuck on the cover and couldn’t detach and get to safety quick enough. I can only describe the controls of Spec Ops: The Line as sticky, and it takes too much effort to get the character do to what you want.

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The issues with the gameplay don’t end with the useless teammates and clunky cover-based mechanics. Spec Ops: The Line falls into the same traps that many other modern shooters, in which they blend into each other and feel stale. So many shooters fall into a pattern where the player gets behind cover, kills some enemies from relative safety, and then moves to the next piece of cover, and you repeat ad infinitum. There is a not a whole lot of excitement in this format, and I often feel like I’m playing whack-a-mole as enemies pop up from their cover and I pick them off one by one. Towards the end of the game bullet-sponges make their appearance and you have to pump loads of bullets into these enemies before they go down. This is doubly frustrating because not only is it boring to deal with enemies, but bullets are relatively scarce in this game, so unloading all of your resources to kill one enemy is a pain. Moreover, Spec Ops: The Line suffers from an overabundance over enemies in the latter parts of the game. Maybe the developers intended for your squad mates to dispose of a significant portion of these enemies, but as I mentioned before, your squad mates are functionally useless late in the game. What ends up happening is that you just have to sit behind cover and slowly pick off what feels like hundreds of enemies per encounter; it’s tedious, draining, and grows tiresome quite rapidly.

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As an entire package, I think Spec Ops: The Line is decent. The story and environment is phenomenal, but this is a video game and the importance of gameplay cannot be understated. While the story had me hooked, actually playing the game was a frustrating slog towards the end. I’m not sure if I can recommend Spec Ops: The Line even though I thoroughly enjoyed its atmosphere and plot. All I can say is if you believe that “gameplay is king”, stay away from Spec Ops: The Line, otherwise definitely give it a shot.

Dark Souls (2011)

In a time in which numerous video games hold the players hand and are generally easy, one game challenged the idea that difficult games were too frustrating and that mainstream games should stray away from challenging the player. That game was Dark Souls. This action-RPG was an industry-changing title, other developers realized that there was a market for games that did not coddle the player. The difficulty is far from the only factor that makes Dark Souls what it is, although its reputation of being hard is what everyone knows about Dark Souls, even if they have never played it. Dark Souls is also a bastion of success in level design, atmosphere, and world building, and I have yet to come across a game as impressive as Dark Souls in those departments. I consider Dark Souls to be one of the greatest and most important games of all time, rivaling titles like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Metal Gear Solid, and Super Mario 64. It has had a profound effect on the industry and will shape video games for years to come. That being said, I consider Dark Souls to be a flawed masterpiece. It is no secret that the second half of the game was rushed to reach a deadline. It also dangerously teeters on the line of “difficult but fair” and “frustrating”. While I consider the game to be “difficult but fair” a majority of the time, there are still a few moments that cross the line and enter “frustrating” territory. Despite these shortcomings, Dark Souls has quickly become one of my favorite games and its importance cannot be denied.

What makes the difficulty of Dark Souls so compelling? Part of its success is that Dark Souls is tough, but it rarely ever feels cheap or gives you an unwarranted death. Every time you die, it’s your fault. Every time I died, I learned something valuable and I could avoid dying the same way in the future. It is evident that nothing is too difficult to execute because on my second play-through I died extremely infrequently due to my prior knowledge on how to defeat all the enemies. There is a certain beauty to the challenge of Dark Souls.  Many challenges seem insurmountable at first, but you keep trying and trying until eventually you figure it out. When you do finally overcome a tough area or boss, there is an overwhelming feeling of elation and pride at what you have just accomplished. There is something to be said in that Dark Souls mimics life in this regard. Dark Souls is not difficult for the sake of being difficult, rather it uses difficulty as a tool to make the player feel different emotions. The sense of accomplishment when you defeat a boss, the anxiety of not knowing what is on the other side of a fog door, the fear and tension of fighting a tough enemy, or the immense relief when you discover a new bonfire; these emotions are possible only because of the challenge provided by Dark Souls. Furthermore, I really appreciate when games are actually challenging, it is far more engaging and addicting.  That feeling of wanting to conquer a genuine challenge makes me want to keep playing, and when I did finally defeat whatever was in my way I really felt like I had made significant progress.

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While the difficulty is probably the most well-known feature of Dark Souls, there are many other categories which make Dark Souls master class. The most impressive feature to me was the brilliant level design. Each area in Dark Souls often loops in on itself and reveals a shortcut from the nearest checkpoint. This is genius for a couple of reasons. First, it lets areas evolve in a sense, and as you progress through the game an area is going to have more paths and shortcuts available to access. Since many paths are closed to the player initially, it allows the player to become familiarized with the level’s layout before further complicating it. This sort of circular level design also surprises the player, and makes you stop and think how you ended up back where you started. From a player progression standpoint, the looping level design is massively important. As you return to areas you have been previously, you can test how strong you have become. As gear, level, and player skill increase you feel much more powerful visiting areas that you were in just a short time ago. Lastly, this type of design also reduces tedium by a massive amount. The player will only have to get through a particular chunk once and can skip that chunk once a shortcut has been opened. So, there is very little tedium when running from a checkpoint to where you died.

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The atmosphere, setting, and world of Dark Souls is also hauntingly beautiful. Every area is completely unique and memorable. Often, I just stopped adventuring and had to take in my surroundings. The world of Dark Souls mirrors the level design in the sense that it utilizes vertical layers to have areas loop in on themselves to create a compact and believable world. There are many instances of Déjà vu as you open a door or descend an elevator as you realize that you have been here before. Atmospherically, Dark Souls is in a tier of its own. The world is littered with viewing points from high places where you can gaze upon the areas that you have just conquered, or even look ahead to see your next trial. I often felt insignificant when gazing upon the wondrous land or Lordran, and fighting enemies that were magnitudes larger than me reinforced that feeling. Despite this, as I traversed the world and surmounted these creatures, I felt powerful. The world of Dark Souls is vast but compact, it is interconnected, and it is breathtaking.

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Another aspect of world-building is the lore and the story. While the story of Dark Souls is fairly simple, it becomes incredible as you learn the backstory to the world. I don’t want to delve too deep into the lore, as I feel like people should attempt to discover it on their own. There is a real feeling of living in a dying world, and you are putting this worlds creators and gods to rest in order to preserve life for a little while longer. Fighting many of the bosses of Dark Souls becomes far more emotional once you learn their backstory, and often times it is profoundly sad as you put these old gods to rest. Speaking to all of the characters in the game gives you a sense that they are on their own journeys through this world, and don’t solely exist for the benefit of the player. The other interesting thing about the lore is that it is never explicitly laid out for the player. You must discover it for yourself through contextual clues, item descriptions, and character dialogue. This gave me the feeling of piecing together a puzzle, and even if some of the pieces were missing, I could still make out the overall picture. I really felt like an adventurer in a fantasy setting, discovering the world for myself.

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One of the most important features of an action-RPG is obviously the combat. At first glance, the combat of Dark Souls seems pretty rudimentary and slow, but looking deeper into the game one can see that this is not the case. Every action that the player takes has a significant wind-up at the beginning and some down-time at the end, this is to encourage the player to only make an action when it is safe to do so, otherwise you will get hit. Enemies hit hard in Dark Souls, even the weaker enemies in most areas can kill the player in a few hits, so you better be sure that you have a big enough window to attack, or you will pay heavily for it. The combat is actually surprisingly deep in a sense, as the player learns the ins and outs of all the combat systems. Learning how to use stamina, poise, staggering, shields, rolling, light attacks, heavy attacks, shield breaks, back stabs, parries, and efficient use of the estus flask are all essential as you get further into the game. The combat is heavily focused around risk and reward, for example: you can shield an incoming attack to guarantee your safety, but you’ll lose stamina, or you can parry the attack and riposte for massive damage, but if you mess it up you will get hit hard. That is just one example, and the player is encouraged to test out all of the combat options available to them. The other interesting thing is that all the enemies abide by the same rules that the player follows. Enemies also have stamina, poise, wind-up animations, and down-time after their attacks, and they also die from a few swings of your weapons. You can always expect the enemies to behave in a similar way to the player, which is immensely important. If enemies did not have to follow these rules, they would feel cheap and unfair. There is a feeling of weight and permanence in the combat of Dark Souls, every decision must be carefully calculated because the stakes of getting hit are so high.

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Do you remember being a kid and huddling around the playground with you friends and telling each other about all the cool secrets you found in a game? Most of what was said in these discussions ended up being wrong, but it was still neat to imagine all of the hidden features in a game. Dark Souls does a great job of recreating this feeling. Players can leave messages for each other, telling of illusory walls or how a great item is waiting for you if you jump off this cliff! This harkens back to the playground discussions, as these messages are mostly jokes. But occasionally you will find a tip about a hidden item, or a how a trap is waiting for you up ahead. These messages can also be likened to adventurers swapping tips and stories around a bonfire. There are also bloodstains scattered across the world and you can view exactly how other players died in that spot, which can be pretty humorous. Not only can you communicate with other players, but you can also summon players to play alongside you and engage in jolly cooperation. Be careful though, some of the crueler players can invade your world and fight you one on one. I don’t consider the multiplayer aspect of Dark Souls to be one of the main features of the game, but I definitely did get a few chuckles out of the goofy messages and bloodstains.

It is clear that I adore Dark Souls, so why did I call it a “flawed masterpiece”, what is wrong with the game? One of the issues is that there are definitely some moments that are more frustrating than they are difficult. Luckily, these moments are not too common, but they still sour the experience a little. This was a risk the developers took when creating a challenging game, every encounter must be extensively tested to make sure that it is tough, but not so hard that it makes you want to smash your controller. While it is a shame that some of these types of moments made it into the full game, I think it is remarkable that these frustrating moments are so few and far between and it shows how much care what put into this game. Also, the game can often be a little too cryptic for its own good. While the DLC areas and bosses are some of the best in the game, accessing the DLC is so confusing that I doubt most people figured it out without looking it up. Unfortunately, these are not the sole issues of Dark Souls, the most important issue is that the game is just not finished. In order to meet a deadline, the final areas in the game were rushed and are nowhere near the quality previously demonstrated. The level design falls apart as it no longer loops in on itself, and the same can be said for the world design. There are a few separate paths that lead to dead ends, there are no grand revelations of “I know exactly where I am”. Furthermore, many of the enemies, bosses, and the areas themselves are clearly rushed. I think the other big issues with the final 4 areas in the game is that the developers attempted to let the player tackle them in any order they wanted.

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While some fans claim that one of the biggest strengths of Dark Souls it its open format, I have to disagree. Sure, you can go to a variety of different areas at the start of the game, but you are clearly pushed into one path. To me, that is the beauty of the pseudo-open world of Dark Souls. The developers trust that the player is intelligent enough to avoid tougher areas early on and instead come back when they are better prepared. At the end of the game, there are 4 paths all laid out for the player to go in any order they want. The issue with this is that as the player progresses through these paths, they will become more powerful, so it is immensely difficult to balance these 4 paths. They all must be about roughly equal in difficulty so that the player can choose to go to whichever one they want first. What ends up happening is that the first area you go to is going to be the hardest, and then each area you visit gets progressively easier as you level up and get better equipment. I think the developers realized this issue, and since difficulty is such an important factor in the game they attempted to combat the problem that subsequent areas get easier and easier. In order to fix this, the developers made each area difficult by adding a gimmick. These gimmicks remain relevant regardless of the players level. The pitch blackness of the Tomb of the Giants, the lava of Lost Izalith, the invisible platforms of the Crystal Caves, and the ghost enemies in New Londo are all gimmicks. They are cheap tricks meant to make the game more difficult and I feel like they damage what could otherwise be decent areas. These gimmicks could actually be pretty interesting twists to these levels if they were implemented better, but as they stand now they are just annoying to deal with. Despite this, I still think that most of these areas are decent, they just don’t adhere to the brilliance that was the first half of Dark Souls.

Even though it is undeniable that Dark Souls is flawed, it is still an immensely important game. It has redefined level design, world building, and atmosphere in games. I have struggled for a while to write this piece. It is not easy for me to put into words my opinion about Dark Souls, and as such I believe that it is a game that everyone needs to at least try. Do not be intimidated by others boasting about how hard the game is, as I think it is entirely accessible to anybody decently experienced at video games. Dark Souls is a truly wonderous and unforgettable experience, and while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I highly recommend that everyone should at least give it a chance.

Civilization VI (2016)

It is no surprise that a Civilization game is underwhelming at launch. Civilization IV and Civilization V for example were extremely bare-bones at the time of their release, but they were significantly expanded on with patches, downloadable content (DLC), and expansion packs. In Civilization VI, all of those bonus features that were added onto its predecessors were present at launch. Unfortunately, most of these features are so fundamentally broken that I would much rather them be absent from the game. I figured I would give the developers some time to fix the major issues or at least acknowledge that these issues exist. It has been nearly a year now, and Firaxis has not done anything besides patching some glitches and adding new, paid DLC civilizations to play as. At this point, I am worried that the developers have no idea what is wrong with their game, let alone how to fix it. For me, there are 3 clear game-breaking issues that must be addressed. These 3 issues are the artificial intelligence (AI), user interface (UI), and the various tedium that plague Civilization VI.

Full disclosure, I feel like I have to mention that I am veteran of the Civilization series. I started with Civilization III when I was young, played a good amount of Civilization IV, and I have near 1000 hours of Civilization V and play on the highest difficulty setting. Many of my criticisms of Civilization VI may not be apparent to newer players, but I assure you if you play enough Civilization VI you will understand what I am talking about. That being said, I realize that I may be harsh on this game because of my experience, so a more casual player may not care about a lot of what I am going to mention.

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By far the most apparent issue with Civilization VI is its artificial intelligence (AI). The Civilization series is definitely not known for its brilliant AI, but there has always been a basic level of competency that could make the AI competitive. Not only is that competency is absent from Civilization VI, but the AI is completely unpredictable and illogical. It is clear that the developers knew that the AI was awful, as they gave the AI massive bonuses on the highest difficulties that are unprecedented in the series. For example, only on the highest difficulty of previous Civilization games the AI receives a bonus settler. But in Civilization VI, the AI starts receiving that bonus settler on the third highest difficulty, and now it receives 2 settlers on the highest difficulty. The AI is also extremely aggressive in Civilization VI, as the only way they can hope to defeat the player is by sabotaging the player so much that they cannot catch up to the AI’s massive early game advantages. I say sabotage because the AI is also completely incapable of actually wiping out the player or at effectively sieging your cities.

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One of my favorite things about playing Civilization V was studying the AI’s behavior and learning how each leader acted. I could then use this knowledge in future matches to predict what a certain leader was going to do and guess how the game was going to play out. This was essentially eliminated from Civilization VI because the AI is so unpredictable and varies heavily from game to game. The only consistent thing about the AI’s behavior is that their default state seems to be hatred. They hate the player and they hate each other, often leading to lackluster diplomacy as no matter what you do everybody is just going to denounce each other.

Another factor of the Civilization series that I also really enjoyed was the sort of role-playing aspect and watching as empires expanded and clashed over territory. Every time I generated a new game I felt as if I was witnessing an alternative history, and it is a factor that I considered insanely addictive.  Unfortunately, since the AI are so wholly incompetent this role-playing aspect is also destroyed. By the modern era half the world is unsettled because the AI unwilling to expand past a few cities. There are tiny, disjointed empires instead of sprawling empires where the civilizations border each other and make for a believable world. Also, since the AI is so horrible at waging offensive wars, they will almost never conquer their neighbors or take a capital city. In Civilization V, you could expect at least 1 or 2 of the AI to be wiped out by their neighbors, making for an evolving and interesting game world. But in Civilization VI, the AI are incapable of conquering each other, they may take a single city or destroy a city-state, but they almost never take capitals. This makes for a rather boring and uninteresting world to observe. The AI in Civilization VI is what I would consider a game-breaking issue, and I doubt that I will return to this game unless the AI is amended.

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Other than the AI, there are a few other major flaws that Civilization VI has that also hamper the game’s entertainment value. The next thing I want to touch on is its confusing and overcomplicated user interface (UI). In a strategy game like Civilization VI all of the vital information should be readily available to the player and there should be no clutter of superfluous information. In Civilization VI it is the other way around. The game has no problem clogging up your screen with random stuff like “England has built a granary in London!” Who cares? But you have to dig deep in order to understand key game mechanics like amenities. On top of that, most of the menus and just general layout of information is rather clunky and cumbersome to navigate. Also, the mini-map is a complete disaster. It now shows water tiles as owned land by other civilizations, the colors of the fog of war and undiscovered territory are the same, and it just feels very boxy and unpolished. They have done a little bit to improve the UI since launch, but it is still abysmal. If you want an example of a good UI in a strategy game, Fire Emblem: Fates is phenomenal in that department. There is a ton of information on the screen, it is laid out in a sensible manner, and if you want any more information on anything, you just tap on it.

I’ve heard people say that Civilization VI is a good base for a game to build upon in future expansion packs, even if it needs significant work before it can compare to its predecessors. I don’t fully agree with that sentiment, as the AI and UI are possible to fix and would significantly improve the game, but many of the core game mechanics are fundamentally broken and need a massive overhaul. This is why I am not optimistic for Civilization VI, sure the developers could fix the AI and UI, but I doubt they will scrap so many of these new features that they added into the game. Many of these new features are meant to give the game strategic depth and add more choices into the game, but they end up just becoming tedious, frustrating, and tiresome. These mechanics are: Religion, agendas, housing, the civic tree, eurekas and inspirations, governments, the new movement system, city management, diplomacy, builders, espionage, barbarians, and spies. I am not going to delve deep into why I think these mechanics are busted, as I want to keep this review at least a somewhat reasonable length. I may later do a full analysis of Civilization VI where I go deeper into these mechanics, what is wrong with them, and how to fix them. All of these issues highlight the biggest flaw of the Civilization series as a whole, which is that the game becomes boring and tedious once you have essentially won.

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There comes a point in every Civilization match when you realize that you are so far ahead that there is no feasible way for the opponents to make a comeback and defeat you. Some people quit when they reach this point, but many like to play the game out to its conclusion. You kind of turn on auto-pilot and hit the “next turn” button until you reach victory. Civilization VI exasperates this issue because you can no longer turn on auto-pilot, you still have to micromanage all of these features that I highlighted earlier. All of these features are unnecessarily tedious, and it feels like the developers just added more decisions and micromanagement just for the sake of having more decisions. All this does is reduce the weight from any decisions, and makes playing the game a chore because I now have to make a dozen meaningless decisions every turn. The importance of these decisions is drastically reduced because of the sheer number of them. Why should I care what government policy I choose when I can change it in 3 turns anyway? The lack of meaningful decisions and plethora of worthless decisions makes for a game that feels like a chore.

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There are a few worthwhile things in Civilization VI. The most obvious is the district system. Instead of everything in a city being built in that 1-tile area, now you have to establish districts on other tiles. For example: you need a campus district to build libraries, universities, and other science related buildings. From a world-building perspective it makes for a much more believable empire than in past iterations. It also has some interesting strategic properties as districts receive bonuses depending on where you place them, so you can plan out cities and what their districts will be for maximum efficiency. Another positive factor of Civilization VI is just the visuals. I think the art-style borders on being a little too cartoony at times, but sometimes you have to just sit back and admire the landscapes populated by your cities, districts, and wonders.

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It’s a shame really. It seems like Firaxis genuinely attempted to make this a complete game upon launch. But in their attempts to fill up the game with content, they neglected to check if all of that content was actually any good. As it stands you are much better off buying Civilization V and all its expansions and DLC, which as an entire package often goes on sale for less than $15. It is just a way more polished and complete game, and for a quarter of the price of Civilization VI. I am not sure if Civilization VI will ever be a good game, but the future looks grim for this title. For these reasons I give Civilization VI a 3/10. Maybe it will be good after some expansion packs, but right now the game is just a mess. If you ever feel an itch to play a grand strategy game, just play Civilization V instead.

Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker (2014)

One of my favorite features from Super Mario 3D World was the inclusion of Captain Toad and his mini-games. Clearly, many others also adored those mini-games as Nintendo developed a full game using the base concept from Super Mario 3D World. Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker is a puzzle-platformer adventure game. The main objective is to progress through small stages and collect stars and gems along the way.

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Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker is a great game to just chill out for some relaxing fun. This is largely due to its simple level design. Levels are small arenas that the player can rotate to get a better view from all sorts of different angles. Captain Toad cannot jump or attack, so most levels consist of navigating these small maze-like courses, avoiding enemies and dangerous obstacles, and finding your way to the star, which acts as a goal in every level. Along the way, the player must also collect the 3 gems that are hidden in every level, as some stages later in the game require a certain number of these gems to unlock. These gems are often hidden in plain sight, or at least are fairly easy to guess where they might be hidden. Stages are very compact and quick to navigate through, so even if you are having trouble finding a hidden item it takes no more than a minute or two to play through the entire stage again to get another look. For the most part, the gems are out in the open and you just have to figure out how to get to them. Usually it involves a bit of puzzling or thinking of a not-so-obvious way of navigating these tiny courses. This is in stark contrast to a game like Yoshi’s Woolly World, where the collectibles were obtuse to find and required scouring every inch of a level to unearth them. In Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker, there is no obnoxious combing of entire levels to find secrets, they are in plain sight and you just have to figure out how to get to them, which is how collectibles should be handled.

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While I find the level design itself to be both simple and gratifying, I think the visuals of each level are also top-notch. The idea of making most levels a small cube that just floats in the sky is actually pretty cool. Every stage is kind of like a 3D diorama that you can rotate in your hands. This is a unique way of exploring all sorts of different environments, which is a key element of any adventure game, but it takes out all the long treks and expanses of nothingness between each important zone. It also allows the developers to space out any theme they want, rather than playing them in big chunks. In traditional adventure games, if you enter a snowy area for example, you know that you are going to be exploring that snow-covered area and that area alone for the next few hours, and after a while seeing the same environment over and over can just get dull. I enjoy the fact that the themes can be spread out across the game instead of having to play them all at once. You can always expect some fun places to explore in a Nintendo game, and Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker is no exception. There are plenty of visually appealing environments and atmospheric areas to discover.

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While I did enjoy Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker, I feel like there was a lot of missed potential here. Nintendo does not have a puzzle game franchise, and I feel like there was perfect opportunity to make Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker into a puzzle game series. Instead, we got a platforming-adventure-puzzle hybrid, which is fine, but the puzzle elements are fairly lacking. Most puzzles in this game are just involve hitting a switch which changes the stage and opens up a new path to the goal. There are no truly head scratching moments or things that make you really think about how to proceed. There are a couple of optional challenges that the game provides that are interesting, like limiting how many times you can hit a switch during a particular stage. These are fairly uncommon though and are entirely optional. Some levels show a good deal of potential and made me think that I was going to keep track of all the different forms the stage takes from hitting a button, and then hit the buttons in the correct order to progress forward. In reality, you just kind of progress forward and hit the buttons along the way, there is not much thinking involved. I was never really thoroughly impressed by any of the levels, and as a whole the game lacks a “wow” factor.

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Not every game has to be an industry-changing, genre-defining game. Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker is just fine for what it is: a short, clever, charming, and relaxing adventure. If you are looking for a cute adventure game with a few platforming and puzzle elements, then this game is perfect for you. This is not an ambitious title that will shape the industry for years to come, but it does not pretend to be. It’s just a simple little adventure game that you can meander your way through. For these reasons I give Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker a 7/10. I enjoyed the calming pace and nature of this game, but there is definitely some untapped potential here.

Yoshi’s Woolly World (2015)

Mario’s beloved dinosaur companion returns in this fuzzy platforming adventure. Nintendo has a large number of platforming IPs, each main character having a unique array of abilities to set the games apart. To go along with that, they all have drastically different difficulty levels. Starting with the slow and forgiving Kirby, Yoshi is the next step in difficulty, followed by Mario, and finally Donkey Kong. Kirby games tend to be introductory platformers and tend to bore more experienced players, so I was hoping to find the sweet spot of relaxing and difficult with Yoshi’s Woolly World. While the base levels of Yoshi’s Woolly World are fairly simple, there is a high variance in the difficulty of the game depending on many of the collectibles you try to obtain.

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Like most other Nintendo platformers, trying to collect the collectibles scattered throughout each level is a way of stepping up the difficulty for players who are looking for an additional challenge. Yoshi’s Woolly World takes this concept to the next level. Each level has 4 main collectibles for the player to find, and each has an individual purpose. There are yarns, flowers, stamps, and hearts, the two most important are the yarns and flowers. The plot of Yoshi’s Woolly World is that evil wizard Kamek unravels all of the Yoshis, who are made of yarn and scatters them across the land. Collecting all the yarns in a specific level essentially rescues one of those Yoshis and lets you play using their unique color scheme. If you collect every flower in all 8 levels of a specific world, you unlock a hidden bonus level, which is a shame because these bonus levels were generally my favorite and it is unfortunate that they are hidden behind collectibles. Stamps and hearts do not provide much for the player, but if you go through the trouble of getting all the yarns and flowers, you might as well go for 100% and get a golden star for finding everything. Personally, I generally like collectibles in games, but I feel like Yoshi’s Woolly World went about them the wrong way.

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Gathering collectibles in games is an optional task, and is best left that way because not all players love collecting. In Yoshi’s Woolly World, the player is heavily incentivized to collect things to save their Yoshi companions and to unlock hidden levels. Unfortunately, I do think that the collectibles were handled properly.  In a platformer, collectibles should be gated behind a platforming challenge, maybe a set of tough, consecutive jumps. Or in the case of Yoshi, whose special ability is that he can throw eggs, maybe have collectibles be an aiming challenge. Occasionally, there could be hidden areas that the player can spot if they are perceptive which hide collectibles. In Yoshi’s Woolly World, the vast majority of the collectibles are hidden in those secret types of areas. It even goes further than that, many collectibles are hidden inside invisible clouds or walls that the player cannot spot unless they physically touch it. So, if you are looking for collectibles you essentially have to constantly jump around and bump into every wall, ceiling, and touch every inch of the screen if you want to find these invisible objects. This is not ok, it slows down the pace of the game tremendously and makes progressing through levels tedious rather than entertaining. And if you miss something you have to go through the whole level again doing the same thing just to find one missing item. Most of the time I had to replay levels 2 or 3 times before I found the invisible final item nonsensically floating in the middle of the sky somewhere. It turns the game from a platformer into some sort of treasure hunt, where the treasures are hidden illogically and with the sole intention of wasting your time.

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Perhaps I hurt the experience for myself by going for the 100% completion, but I am not sure if I would have been engaged without searching for the collectibles. My suggestion for newer players is to hunt for whatever collectibles are on screen, but do not obsess over them as they are a giant time sink. It is a shame because then you won’t get to save Yoshis friends and you won’t get to play the great bonus levels, but they are not worth the time required to unlock them. If you complete the game regularly and want more, then definitely go back and try to 100% every level, but don’t ruin the game for yourself by going for all the collectibles right off the bat.

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The levels of Yoshi’s Woolly World are fairly easy, as I would expect from a Yoshi game, which is why I was going for the collectibles in the first place. What I liked about the level design was that every single level was unique. Every level had a sort of gimmick in place that was the central theme of the level. Ropes that you grab and swing on, bubbles that you bounce on, creating your own platforms by tossing eggs,  these are just a few examples but every single level has some sort of twist to it. I liked this as the game constantly felt fresh and there were no “throw away” levels that are there just to pad the content. My big issue was that everything just felt kind of slow. Outside of the secret levels, all but a few of the levels you just kind of waddle along at your own pace without immediate threats or danger. I guess I should have expected this out of easier platforming game, but I feel like this is how collectibles could have been used to improve the experience. Maybe collectibles could disappear after some time has passed as a way of speeding up the player, or have a series of optional jumps that increase difficulty for experienced players. I felt stuck in a sort of limbo, the game was too easy and not engaging when just played normally, but was a tedious scavenger hunt when I went for the collectibles.

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Outside of the uniquely and memorable gimmicks in every level, there are a few other features to this game that make it appealing. First, and most obviously, is the phenomenal art direction. Taken straight out of Kirby’s Epic Yarn, I absolutely love the visuals of this game. Everything is made of woven yarn and wool, and there is a ton of attention to detail to keep it all looking like it was handcrafted. These knitted characters and worlds are adorable, whimsical, and charming, it is probably my favorite feature of the game. It is especially cute whenever you get to play alongside Yoshi’s new canine pal Poochy, I mean who doesn’t love a good dog?  There is also a co-op mode so you can play with a friend, or maybe your kid as this a good platformer for beginners. Another cool feature is the ability to buy power-ups through gems that you collect in the levels. You will have an overabundance of these gems and it could be pretty fun to spend them to give Yoshi powerful abilities. Lastly, I think this game is probably an appropriate difficulty level for young kids. It is definitely a little tougher than Kirby games, but not as hard as Mario or Donkey Kong. I just think that there should have been a good way of stepping up the difficulty for more experienced players. I absolutely loved the hidden levels of this game, they were fast, fun, and had some challenging platforming. If the whole game had similar level design this would have been a must play game in my opinion, but there are so few of these levels and they are hidden behind an irritating collectible system.

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Overall, I think Yoshi’s Woolly World is a decent game. While I spent a lot of time ranting over its obnoxious collectible system, I don’t think most players will even attempt to collect most of them. And while for someone who is more familiar with platformers the game is slow and easy, it is the perfect difficulty for its intended audience. As someone who grew up playing the original Yoshi’s Island, maybe I expected too much out of this game, but I felt seriously stuck between the game being too easy when played normally, and flat out annoying when playing for collectibles. Still, the whimsical charm and creativity of Yoshi’s Woolly World is sure to impress. For these reasons, I give Yoshi’s Woolly World a 6.5/10. It is great as an introductory platformer, but I feel that it offers little outside of that.

Should games journalists be good at games?

The controversial question that many gamers have been recently asking is this: do reviewers have to be good at the games that they review?  This all started from the DOOM Polygon disaster last year, in which a Polygon reviewer was sent to preview the new DOOM game and record some footage. Here is that footage. Whoever Polygon chose to send to this event and preview DOOM for the world to see clearly has never played an FPS before and it showed in their anemic gameplay. This sparked a bit of a controversy and led to this question at hand. This question has recently shown its face again, similarly it is from a 30-minute preview of an upcoming game, this time the game is Cuphead. WARNING, this video is painful to watch for anyone who as ever played a video game. In the 30-minute-long video, the games journalist fails to even complete the first level of Cuphead and does not seem to grasp the basics. Hell, he spends 2 minutes trying to complete a single jump in the tutorial. This shameful display has resurfaced and reignited the debate if game journalists should be good at the games that they play.

To me, the answer to the question is fairly obvious. People who review games for a living absolutely need to be good at them. In the two previously mentioned examples, it would be very unfair for those 2 journalists to give their opinion on games that they clearly have no business playing. The games would be horribly misrepresented, as the reviewers would give their perspective from somebody who does not even know how to play the game. Now to be fair, people may be more experienced with certain genres of games, but if that is the case, do not review a game from a genre that you are clearly bad at. I think most people would tend to agree that reviewers have to have a decent level of competency to review a game.

The real question for me is, can reviewers be just average at games, or do they actually have to be fairly good? My mentality at first was “just don’t suck”, but my opinion has changed let me explain why. Originally, I figured that as long as journalist had a basic level of skill and were average at the game, they could give an accurate review of a game. I mean, most people are average, so a reviewer who is also average would have opinions that tend to align with the majority, right? Probably, but that does not qualify them to explain what makes the games they are discussing good or bad. Sure, they could talk about some surface level stuff, but a lot of games are great because of the small details, because of the things an average player would not notice, but they are still there.

Just like in movies, an average viewer like myself could tell you if a movie was good or bad. But if you ask me about narratives, cinematography, lighting, audio design, CGI, editing, the director, etc., I would be completely lost. I can view it as the whole, but I cannot break it down and explain what makes it successful. The same applies to video games. A casual player cannot pick apart a game and explain the minutiae that all come together to make one cohesive experience. Dark Souls for instance may seem to be just an average fantasy RPG at first glance, but most people who play it agree that it is one of the best and most influential games ever made. The leveling system, lore, enemy design, visuals, world building, level design, unforgiving attitude, and the online aspects make for an extraordinary experience. I will not go into details as that is for my upcoming Dark Souls review, but many reviewers and average players just glance over these details and what makes them work so effectively.

As a sort of aside note, I wish everyone would stop referring to hard games as “Dark Souls of X-genre”. Yes, Dark Souls is notorious for its difficulty, but that isn’t the only factor about the game. When I see games like Cuphead, which has no similarities to Dark Souls other than its difficulty, being referred to as the “Dark Souls of run-and-guns” my soul hurts a little bit. Game comparisons can be valid, but they actually have to make sense and be more related than just the difficulty level of the game. For example, Hollow Knight is Dark Souls-esque because of its looping level design, checkpoint system, visuals, ambiguous lore, intense boss fights, death and soul system, unforgiving and hostile world, and its difficulty. So please stop calling everything “similar to Dark Souls” just because it is hard.

I think games journalists these days are mainly hired for their writing skills or their personalities, rather than their expertise of video games. This is becoming abundantly clear. Harder games often get flak for being too hard, and game reviews do not explain the in-depth mechanics of games and what makes them work. I do not consider myself to be one of the best video game players or an expert, but I do feel like I am good enough to give a valid opinion on the games that I play. People who are paid to professionally play and review games should be experienced enough to understand the inner workings of a game and dissect it, rather than viewing it as a whole. Just like what a professional film critic might do. At the very least, websites like Polygon need stop using people who are wholly incompetent and unable to play games, let alone review them.

Stardew Valley (2016)

There is nothing more relaxing than chilling out and maintaining your farm in the calming Stardew Valley. This Harvest Moon inspired game is the brainchild of a single developer, ConcernedApe. Can this farming simulator overcome the pitfalls of the other games in its genre? In some ways yes, but I feel like the same problems that plague this genre also drag down Stardew Valley. Regardless of this, Stardew Valley is the perfect comfy game to just sit down and relax and play for a while.

From start to finish, Stardew Valley is undeniably charming. The great pixel art and sprite work, bright visuals, and upbeat music keep this game cheerful. The main character inherits a farm from their grandfather, and uses it as an escape from a soulless corporate world. It is your job to restore this run-down farm and maintain it for years to come. There is so much that needs to be done, and that is what makes Stardew Valley so addictive at the start.

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Through the clever use of quests, Stardew Valley subtly directs the player into the many different tasks that must be completed. Open-ended games like this can often lack a feeling of direction and the player can either become overwhelmed or they feel like there is no point to doing anything. This is not the case in Stardew Valley, helping out the villagers of Pelican Town is certainly rewarding and gratifying. But the real goal I found myself working towards was restoring the community center. Early in the game, you learn of the dilapidated community center, and you discover the secret that magical creatures known as Junimos are living there. They will help you restore the community center if you bring them all sorts of different materials.

All of the different crops, ores, fish, foraged goods, and other special materials that you collect will  be needed to fully restore the community center. There are dozens of bundles that require specific materials to complete, and you get a small reward for each bundle, as well as a big reward for completing all of the bundles in one of the rooms. These big rewards were very satisfying as they often opened up new areas and I could not wait to see what the next big reward would be. The use of the community center as a central goal was very clever, as it does not force the player into doing anything, but it serves as a sort of guideline as to what can be done. Whenever I felt like I had run out of things to do in this game, I took a look at what was needed in the community center and realized there was plenty that I had not explored or played around with. This sort of direction is desperately needed in an open-ended game like this. Unfortunately, once I had finished the community center, I felt like this game just lost its purpose.

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Games like this can often get repetitive, and Stardew Valley certainly does not avoid this later on in the game. Once you get your farm up and running, you have to spend good portion of your limited daily time and energy to just water the crops, take care of the animals, make artisan goods, and whatever else needed to be done that day. Eventually you just get into a cycle that you cannot break, and it started to get repetitive and draining for me. I know many people may find it relaxing to do the same tasks over and over, but once I got into this late game cycle I found it to be very boring. I had bought everything and was gaining money hand over fist, so I did not even feel like there was a point to this tedium. This combined with the lack of direction that the game had once I completed the community center made for a very monotonous late game.

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There were a few other issues I had with Stardew Valley. One of them being that while I mainly looked to this game as a source of relaxation, I felt like some of the main tasks in this game could get pretty frustrating. In particular, the fishing mini-game was aggravating and so much of time spent fishing just sitting around waiting for a fish to bite. Also, combat in this game is reminiscent of NES-era games like the original Legend of Zelda. This is not a good thing. While combat is a minor part of Stardew Valley, I feel like it often gets in the way while am trying to mine for resources. My last issue with Stardew Valley is that while it does a great job with its delayed gratification, I feel like it sometimes it goes overboard with using time from keeping the player from progressing. Certain tasks can only be completed in specific seasons, so if you want to do that thing, you are going to have to wait a while. As I was almost done with the community center, there were long stretches of days I just had to wait around before I could do anything of significance to further myself to completing my goal.

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As I said, Stardew Valley is usually pretty great when it comes to delaying gratification, but keeping you hooked while you wait. Most things in Stardew Valley take a while before you can start reaping their benefits. Planting crops, upgrading tools, adding new buildings, renovating your house, raising animals, making artisan goods, all of these things require a few days before they become profitable. But as you are waiting for that big payoff, there is still plenty to be done. Fishing, mining, foraging, or just cleaning up your farm were enough to suffice and keep me entertained while I waited.

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As a whole, I did thoroughly enjoy Stardew Valley. For the first 3 seasons, I was addicted and could not stop playing it. For the next couple of seasons, I still enjoyed it, but I could feel the tedium and repetitive nature of the game arise. In the final seasons that I played, I just kept going so I could have that one final payoff of finishing the community center. I just wish there was some more engaging tasks to be done while waiting for those final items to be attainable. Maybe Stardew Valley is not my type of game, as this is not a genre that I play very often, but the repetitiveness definitely wore me out after some time. That being said, even though this is not a genre that I typically play, I still really loved the first few seasons of this game. I would highly recommend it to anybody who likes these types of games. Overall, I have to give Stardew Valley an 8/10. It does run into the same issues as its predecessors, but is fantastic otherwise. If you are looking for a relaxing game to play, look no further than Stardew Valley.

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.