The Witcher (2007)

One of the most popular series of the past few years is The Witcher. With the release of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, this adaptation of a Polish novel series has skyrocketed in popularity. While it is possible to play the games non-sequentially, I decided to start from the beginning with The Witcher. It is evident that this was CD Projekt Red’s first title, as The Witcher is incredibly rough around the edges. Mechanically, The Witcher is clunky and lacks a level of polish. Narratively, The Witcher is fairly interesting, but it starts slow and seems to be setting up a story for the future.

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The Witcher is a medieval fantasy game in which you play a Geralt of Rivia, a professional monster hunter who suffers from amnesia and cannot recall any of his past experiences. The story told is based off of “The Witcher” novel series by Andrzej Sapkowski, a Polish author. It is one of mythical monsters, political intrigue, and general mystery. The game simply begins with a criminal organization stealing powerful potions from the witchers, and you must track them down. During this hunt, you unravel a web of secrets and learn the true motivations of the criminals that you have been pursuing. The adventure is filled with morally ambiguous choices, it often feels like you must choose between the lesser of two evils. I quite like the more gritty and difficult story choices that the game forces you into. In other RPGs like the Mass Effect series your options are plainly labeled as good and evil, but I prefer pondering about my actions and their consequences. The tale it tells is grim and gritty, it is filled with death, war, sex, politics, and monsters. As a whole, I felt as if The Witcher was more setting up a world and narrative layout for future titles. It starts off slow and lets the player absorb information about the world and it progressively gets more intriguing. Even the ending obviously is setting up the next title in the series. As a standalone story The Witcher is solid, but it evidently is more concerned for preparing to tell a much larger story.

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The major issue with The Witcher lie within its gameplay, and most notably, its combat. The Witcher feels antiquated even for a game that was released in 2007. The controls are slow and unwieldy and the interfaces are unintuitive. As an open world RPG, it felt like the developers wanted the player to take no shortcuts. There is very limited fast travel, walking from area to area is a slog, and you must grind through hordes of monsters that respawn every time you load into the area. The Witcher puts a lot of emphasis on preparation and the role-playing aspect of the game rather than the combat. You must collect herbs and create potions to give you an edge in combat, because your skill alone will not get you through any encounters. One of the biggest oversights is how you go about creating potions, leveling up, or just waiting. In order to perform these tasks, you must find a campfire to meditate at, which sounds fine on the surface but in reality, there are so few of these campfires scattered throughout the game. This is especially aggravating as many quests require the player to talk to another character at a specific time of day. Often, I found myself talking to a character, realize that I can’t talk to them at night, run to a campfire, rest until day, run back, talk to the character again who gives me a quest that can only be completed at nighttime, run to a campfire, rest until night, and then finally start the quest. All of those steps could have been avoided if you could just rest or wait in place rather than at a campfire. The Witcher is filled with irritants that just blatantly waste the players time, but nothing can compare to its abhorrent combat.

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Every game has its flaws, and I certainly commend CD Projekt Red for being so ambitious with its first title (which I’m sure they learned many lessons from to become the revered studio they are today), but the combat in The Witcher may be one of the single worst experiences I’ve had in a video game. Essentially, you must pick a combat “style” (fast, strong, or group), click on an enemy, and hope for the best. As Geralt goes through the animations, you can click again at a specific timing to increase your damage. It is remarkably simple, and honestly it could have worked in a game like this that focuses on preparation like your skills, potions, and selecting the right combat style. The issue is that there are a ridiculous number of instances where the combat just falls apart. The first issue is with large groups of enemies, you just pop some potions, select group style, and pray that you kill the enemies before they completely surround and annihilate you. The next issue is with enemies with any sort of immobilizing effects like blinds, stuns, or knockdowns. You are immobilized for a ridiculous amount of time, and enemies can even chain these effects together to keep the player permanently immobilized until they die. Moreover, some singular enemies that are just too strong, you can’t use skill to beat them, and I often used cheesy tactics like kiting them around the arena while my health regenerated before going in for a singular hit. On top of all that, the controls are just unwieldy, the game doesn’t always register your commands correctly as you are in the middle of a “combo”. Often, I would try to back off from enemies to regain some health, but Geralt just wouldn’t budge. Furthermore, there is just so much randomness in the combat with dodges, parries, stuns, and inconsistencies with the enemy AI. Some encounters took me 4-5 tries, but there is really no alternative tactics you can use other than to prepare better, so I felt like I was bashing my head against a wall at times. Like I said earlier, this simple, preparation based, point-and-click combat could work, but there were just so many frustrating instances. The developers should have known that their combat mechanics were weak and should have toned down the amount of action that was in the game and how grandiose the battles were. At times it felt like The Witcher was trying to be a hack-and-slash, but as a point-and-click RPG it was just painful.

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After slogging my way through The Witcher, I am excited to play the next game in the series. Partially because it is a universally lauded title, partially to see what this story has been building up to, and partially to see how much CD Projekt Red improved. The story was definitely interesting so I would like to see more, but the gameplay needs drastic improvements. Combat needs an overhaul and the rest of the game just needs a lot of polish. The foundations for a great series are certainly there, the developers just have to refine it. Unless you are a fan of The Witcher series or if you want to start from the beginning, I do not recommend The Witcher, it is just too janky and clunky, I recommend starting with a future title in the series and just reading a summary of the first game.

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Guacamelee! (2013)

Metroidvanias are perhaps my favorite genre as a whole. Furthermore, indie developers have made some of the greatest games in this genre as Ori and the Blind Forest as well as Hollow Knight. In fact, it was after completing Hollow Knight that I was inspired to delve deeper into the genre, and that is how I happened upon Guacamelee (Super Turbo Championship Edition). Guacamelee is an indie metroidvania heavily inspired by Mexican culture. It draws its inspirations from luchadores and the day of the day.

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I quite enjoyed this Mexican themed adventure and all its uniqueness. You play as Juan, an agave farmer turned luchador who aims to rescue his love from evil. The antagonist aims to usher in a permanent day of the dead in which everybody is turned into spirits. You frequently swap between the real world and the spirit world to find new paths and progress along in this journey. Visually, Guacamelee is incredibly colorful and vibrant, filled with bright lights and flashing decorations. Additionally, Guacamelee not only draws inspiration from Mexican culture, but also from video-game culture. Constant references to Metroid, Super Mario Brothers, and other classic titles are scattered throughout Guacamelee. Furthermore, Guacamelee is a light-hearted and humorous adventure. The player is bombarded with jokes and merry dialogue. This is a well appreciated change of pace as opposed to the doom and gloom of games in the same genre.

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At the heart of Guacamelee is its combat. The player is handed an arsenal of tools to string together combos. The addition of a combo counter does wonders at keeping the player engaged in combat. Dodging enemies and keeping that combo going keeps combat invigorating. The issue I have is that most of the player’s combat tools are locked away from the player at the start of the game. Many metroidvanias follow this philosophy, you start bare-boned and unlock combat and exploration abilities throughout the course of the game. The issue in Guacamelee is that the combat and exploration abilities are one in the same, you use your new combat moves to unlock new areas. Most game quickly give the player new tools in combat early on to keep it exciting and fresh but Guacamelee can’t do that. If they give you all the combat powers that means they’ve given you everything you need to explore the whole map, so they have to do it piecemeal. The developers cannot give the player all the combat tools until the very end of the game. The player does not get to experience the full grace of the Guacamelee’s combat until the final area in the game. It is a shame because there is a huge focus on combos and beating down enemies, but that system is neutered at the beginning and only slowly progresses and becomes interesting.

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Since Guacamelee is a metroidvania it is expected to have a heavy emphasis on exploration. I like to think of metroidvanias as labyrinths that you must navigate and subconsciously memorize its layout as you become acquainted with the maze. When you acquire a new ability, you remember where it would come in handy in the web of hallways. Guacamelee does not really fit that description very well. It is extraordinarily more linear than games in the same genre. Most areas are very straightforward, it does not invoke the feeling of being in a labyrinth. This is exacerbated further because there is fast-travel in Guacamelee. You can teleport between areas, meaning you rarely backtrack or revisit areas, which is a pillar of the metroidvania design philosophy. Fast-travel can work in the genre and is certainly welcome if used scarcely and if the world map is incredibly large. A perfect example of this is Hollow Knight. The map in Hollow Knight is humongous and only has a few fast-travel locations, so the player still has to intelligently navigate the map and its diverse areas. Guacamelee on the other hand is short and as such has a small map. Combine this with the numerous fast-travel points and it felt like I was never revisiting or exploring previous areas.

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As a whole Guacamelee feels like a metroidvania who are not familiar with the genre. It has a gratifying combat system that does not get to shine until the end of the game. The vibrant atmosphere and Mexican themes certainly make Guacamelee a unique experience. If you are looking for a short and light-hearted game, Guacamelee might just be what you are looking for. It is not a traditional metroidvania and it certainly has some flaws, but it is still a fun and quirky little game.

Furi (2016)

Many games try to do too many different things and end up being a hodgepodge of unsatisfying and unfinished elements. Furi is the opposite of that. Furi is an action game with only difficult boss fights, no exploration, no puzzles, no platforming, only straight up duels between you and a boss. As such, these fights must be spectacular because it is the only element of the game, and it stands out for all to see. Luckily, Furi lives up to that expectation and its combat system is possibly my favorite in any game ever.

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While Furi does not have many individual components, its combat itself has a ton of different elements tied to it. First is the bullet-hell aspect, in which bosses shoot waves of projectiles at the player and you must dodge and shoot back. Of course, these projectiles come in many different varieties, standard bullets, tracking bullets, lasers, bullets that cannot be destroyed, shockwaves, etc. The next element in melee combat, in which the boss strikes in a variety of patterns in which the player must either dodge or parry the attacks. Each boss has a set number of “phases”, and in each phase the bosses have two forms. The first form is “zoomed-out” mostly comprised of bullet hell patterns with the occasional melee strikes, and once you complete that you move onto the next form. The second form zooms in and becomes a melee duel between you and the boss. The real brilliance of the combat lies in the lives system.

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You get 3 lives when starting a boss. If you lose a life at any point in a phase, the phase entirely resets. If you lose all 3 lives, you start the boss all over again. It would be pretty daunting to go through five or six phases per boss with only three lives, but the developers had a great solution to this. Every time you defeat a phase, you get a life back. This gives the player an ample amount of opportunities to attempt each phase. This is great because Furi can be a little trial-and-error as you attempt a new phase. You have to learn each attack pattern and how to respond to it. The combat is a mix between pattern recognition and performing the actions necessary to dodge and deal damage. As you learn these patterns and the correct response, it is inevitable that you are going to take some damage. The fact that the player has a decently sized health-bar to take a lot of hits combined with the lives system makes sure that you get plenty of time to learn all the patterns. The feeling of absolute pride and accomplishment when I finally conquered a tough boss was immeasurable, and I love games that can evoke that feeling.

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Although I said Furi is solely based around its combat, there are a few other underlying elements to elevate the experience. The visuals and music are absolutely stunning. The electronic tracks produced by a few different artists is reminiscent of the Hotline Miami soundtrack, pure intensity and gravitas. Each track was composed specifically for this game, so they match stunningly well with each boss encounter. I still listen to a few of the tracks from this game (I really enjoy the songs made by Toxic Avenger and Carpenter Brut). The bright visuals and neon-soaked and cell-shaded atmosphere of Furi are immensely visually appealing, and they make it easy to tell exactly what is going on in combat. The characters themselves are anime-esque, which makes sense considering they were designed by Takashi Okazaki, the creator of the acclaimed manga and anime Afro Samurai. Every boss is extremely memorable not only through gameplay, by visually as well. Finally, the story of Furi is actually pretty solid. You are imprisoned and your only goal is to escape by defeating the nine guardians. The reason why you were imprisoned is not clear until the end, and then everything starts to click. The game is pretty light on plot until the very end.

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No game is perfect, and Furi is no exception. The first of its issues is that it is short. Your first playthrough will probably take around four hours, and subsequent playthroughs will be shorter because you know how to handle the different bosses. That being said I consider Furi a game that is meant to played at least a few times. I say this because Furi is unique when it comes to its hard difficulty, “Furier”. This difficulty does not just increase the health and damage of the bosses, but it gives them entirely new attack patterns. Each boss in hard mode is essentially a new boss from a gameplay perspective. Their attacks are similar, but they are changes enough that you have to learn them all over again, and they are tougher this time around. I don’t usually play through games multiple times, but Furi was an exception to that because hard mode was so enjoyable. Furthermore, because Furi is just action and nothing else, I can easily see myself revisiting it just for a quick boss rush in the near future. If I ever want some tense and fast-paced battles, Furi is my new go-to game.

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All that being said, there is an issue with Furi being meant to be replayable. It’s the short sections in between the bosses. These sections are basically cutscenes, your character walks along while another character spews narrative at you. This serves three purposes: First as a cool-down period between the high-octane fights, second as a means to get some narrative and storytelling, and third it is meant to build up the next boss. This was fine my first time around, but on subsequent playthroughs this becomes unnecessary. You should be able to skip these sections because players who already beat the game don’t need to hear the story or about the bosses again, they just want some action. Of course, you could watch them if you want to again, but they should be skippable. Especially because there is about an hour of these sections in the game, and the game is only a few hours long. A large chunk of play time is devoted to these walking sections.

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Furi is a very niche game. It is intense, it is challenging, and it is not meant for everybody. This is not strictly a bad thing as I would prefer a tightly-knit game like Furi to a messy and unfocused game. But Furi is strictly action, and that action is very fast-paced. So, if that doesn’t sound appealing to you then stay away from Furi. If what I’ve said sounds fun to you, then you absolutely have to play Furi. For these reasons I give Furi an 9/10. It is an absolutely phenomenal action game with an innovative combat system. However, if you don’t like rapid combat and challenging bosses, then don’t bother.