The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human (2016)

While the metroidvania genre is one of my favorites, it is also one of the more saturated game genres, and there are just so many competing titles to choose from. The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human is one of those metroidvanias but with an interesting twist. Inferred by the title, you are the last human alive and you set off to explore the now submerged metropolitan areas of earth in a submarine. The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human has nearly no standard enemies, but instead the bulk of the game is pure exploration as well as clashes with legendary bosses. I quite like this take; the lonely and somber feel of the ocean starkly contrasts the intense boss battles. In a way, this format is very similar to the classic Shadow of the Colossus style.

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The single best feature of The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human is hands down it’s totally free exploration. Even compared to other metroidvanias it is far more free and open then many of its contemporaries. The player is free to explore wherever and however they want. For the most part, you tackle the bosses in any order you desire. Most of your time will spent just be gliding through the ocean finding different paths to explore. In classic metroidvania fashion, as you defeat bosses you unlock more upgrades, weapons, and tools to explore deeper into the submerged city. Using saws to cut through overgrowth, torpedoes to blast through rocks, and harpoons to trigger switches are regular methods of exploration in The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human. The one issue I have with the exploration in this game is its world map. Instead of a comprehensive layout of all the different paths, the map is just a bunch of connected squares. So, opening the map to find the best route to where you want to go is ineffective and confusing.

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It is unfortunate that The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human is certainly lacking in the gameplay department. There are a few obstacles in your way as you progress through the abyss, but no enemies other than bosses. It is unfortunate then that while those bosses are incredibly creative and visually interesting that the fights can be long, drawn out and frustrating experiences. This is simply due to the unpolished and frankly amateur game design decisions. The first being that there are nearly no invincibility frames when you get hit. Most games give the player a small frame of time after getting hit to get out of danger, but that is not the case here. This coupled with the insane knockback when the player gets hit leads to being frustratingly ping-ponged between enemies until you die. Moreover, there is an intense screen-shake when the player takes a hit, which combined with the knockback is incredibly disorientating. A single hit often leads to death, and it feels like you can do nothing about it. The next issue is that nearly boss has a 1-hit-kill move, some are intentional and some I believe were mistakes. The intentional ones are fine, for instance a giant laser that is obviously telegraphed and gives plenty of time to react. On the other hand, there are some instances which lead to instant death that feel unintentional. For example: a swarm of small sharks surrounds you and you get bumped around without any recourse. These instances often feel like cheap shots that instantly kill the player. Since there is such a minute amount of combat it should be far more polished. Often times The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human just feels unfair.

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While the two crutches of this game are its open exploration and boss battles, there are a few more factors to talk about. The art style in this game is heavy pixelated and is reminiscent of pixel-art, but it is odd that the pixels are not uniform in size. If you are just exploring and not focusing too hard, this art choice was fine. In boss battles, however, the screen can feel cluttered and there is a lack of visual clarity. I had to physical strain to see many of the projectiles and threats. Finally, the narrative is fairly bareboned. The vast majority of any story comes from hidden holotapes across the sea floor. There is no guarantee that you find them, and the ones you do find are out of order. I suppose it could be interesting to piece together a cryptic narrative, but the game beats you over the head with its environmentalist motif.

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In its entirety, The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human has a difficult time measuring up to other modern metroidvanias. In such a heavily saturated genre, this game fails to stand out in a meaningful way. I think that it certainly has the potential to be a great game if the gameplay had been polished further, but otherwise I cannot recommend it when there are so many other wonderful games in the genre. That being said, if you are a fan of the genre it is a relatively quick game that can sate the metroidvania hunger. For these reasons I give the Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human a 6/10. The juxtaposition of the calm and flourishing ocean compared to the intense boss battles is a compelling concept, but the amount of “cheap shots” that the game throws at the player grows tiresome fairly quickly.

 

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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.

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.

 

Dark Souls III (2016)

It is no surprise that while Dark Souls is heralded as one of the greatest games of all time, its successor, Dark Souls II, was a let down in numerous regards. Less focused combat, incoherent world building, and less interesting bosses were my biggest gripes with Dark Souls II. So, the big question when starting up Dark Souls III was if it would return to the series former glory, or follow in the footsteps of the disappointing sequel. Personally, I think that Dark Souls III does mostly return to the successful style of the original game, but there a few key differences between the games.

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Dark Souls III is more a direct sequel to the original than Dark Souls II was for a multitude of reasons. The first reason is that Dark Souls III is set in the same world as the original, granted that it is very far into the future. This highlights the cyclical nature of the Dark Souls lore, and watching how the world evolved and noticing the references to the past was something that I really enjoyed. That being said, I feel like there was almost too much reference to the past titles. A well placed and constructed reference is incredibly appreciated, but the game constantly saying “Hey remember this?” in essence can grow grating. In any case, Dark Souls III is the end of the series, and I felt like it did a phenomenal job ending this historic series. The final boss in the base game ties the games together brilliantly, and truly helped me understand the cycles of the Dark Souls universe. The DLC of Dark Souls III really finishes off the series by revealing what the “Dark Soul” even is and why it is important. Both of the final bosses (the base game and the DLC), are incredibly somber and profoundly sad, and are extraordinary ways to end this storied series.

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One of the most important aspects of Dark Souls was its atmosphere and world building. Dark Souls III also continues in this trend, by creating a quintessential dark fantasy world. Despite the fact that many of the areas of Dark Souls III are just future versions of areas from the original game, they are changed enough that you cannot entirely recognize them. Furthermore, there a plethora of completely new and visually interesting areas. However, there are a few complaints that I did have with the world of Dark Souls III. One minor complaint I have is that some of the areas were just kind of forgettable and uninteresting. The swamps and forests in particular are just kind of dull and we’ve seen enough of them in the series. This isn’t a huge deal because the majority of the game is made up of far more interesting areas. The major complaint I have is that the world just is not interconnected enough. The individual level design is great, as it bases itself off of the design of the original game. But there is not a sense of connection between these areas. There is no sense of verticality or a tight-woven world like the original game. Every area is just fine in and of itself, but there needs to be more connection between these areas. This may be due to the fact that teleportation between bonfires is available from the very start of the game. Similar to Dark Souls and Dark Souls II, once teleportation is available, the interconnectedness of the world is sacrificed. There is no need to carefully craft a world when a player can just teleport where ever they want.

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The final aspect of Dark Souls III is of course its gameplay. Combat Dark Souls III is decidedly faster than the original Dark Souls. It does not fall into the same traps of Dark Souls II (too many enemies and boring bosses), but it is very different than the original game. There are 3 reasons for this additional speed in combat: low poise, high stamina, and faster animations. Poise is the stat that controls when the player/enemy is hit, if they get briefly stunned. High poise means that you can eat an attack from an enemy and not have it stop you dead in your tracks. Both the enemies and the player in Dark Souls III have very low poise. When you hit an enemy, you can easily chain together hits until they are dead with no chance from recourse from the enemy because they are stunned. Of course, this means that the enemies can do the same to you, if you get hit once there is a good chance you are going to take a lot of damage. High stamina means that the player can spam rolls and attacks with little thought. In previous titles, if you rolled too much you wouldn’t have enough stamina to attack and vice versa. This is not something that the player has to worry too much about in Dark Souls III, which is a bit of shame considering that careful stamina usage was such a vital part of the combat in Dark Souls. This in essence reduces the risk and reward system that Dark Souls combat is centered around. Finally, the animations of all actions are reduced in Dark Souls III. The windups for attacks and rolls are shorter, and the delay at the end of these actions is also shorter. You are no longer locked into long animations, but on the flip side the enemies also move a lot faster.

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As a whole, these three factors combine to make combat a lot faster than its predecessors. This is not inherently a bad thing, it is just a different playstyle. However, in the context of the series I would argue that this is a downgrade in combat. Combat in the original game was more deliberate and stylistically made more sense. Dark Souls III feels more reaction time based, while the original Dark Souls required more careful decision making in combat. I will say that this faster combat does allow for some very memorable and creative boss fights. The vast majority of the bosses of Dark Souls III are incredibly engaging. The combination of the wild combat and creative visuals make for some remarkable bosses.

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Another factor of note is the change in how the healing item, the Estus Flask, works. As I mentioned in my piece on Dark Souls, the Estus Flask may be the single most important factor in why Dark Souls works so well. It keeps combat and exploration forgiving enough to give you room for some errors, but at the same time rewards the player for mastering a boss fight or entire area. The Estus Flask in Dark Souls III functions very similarly, but with two key differences. The first being that you can discover Estus Shards and Undead Bone Shards across the world through exploration. These items will increase the total amount of Estus Flask charges and how much those charges heal respectively. I like this as it rewards exploration and adds an extra layer of character power and progression. The only issue is that I feel like you almost get too many Estus Shards, so by the end of the game you can have around 10-15 charges of Estus, compared to the base 5 from the original game. This is almost too forgiving, I wish these Estus Shards were harder to come by. The second change is adding a second Estus Flask for focus points, which is essentially your “magic” bar. You must delegate your total Estus Flask charges between the original health based Estus Flask and the new magic Ashen Estus Flask. This may be why there are so many Estus Shards, so that players who want to use magic can have enough for both healing and magic usage. But players who don’t use magic will have an overabundance of healing Estus. Again, I liked exploring and upgrading my character, but I wish they toned it down a bit.

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Is Dark Souls III as magical as Dark Souls? I don’t think so. However, Dark Souls III is far more consistent in its execution than the original. Less careful world design and less deliberate combat are the biggest issues I have with Dark Souls III, but it is still an excellent game. It was a perfect way to finish off the series with its gloomy themes and atmosphere. Intense and memorable boss fights combined with visually stunning areas make Dark Souls III a game worth playing. For these reasons I give Dark Souls III 9/10. Dark Souls III is an essential title for any fan of the Soulsborne series, or just fans of role-playing-games and fantasy worlds alike.

Mass Effect 2 (2010)

Following my playthrough of Mass Effect, I noted that while the game told an intriguing story, its gameplay was clunky and needed to be streamlined and smoothed out for a sequel. Luckily, Mass Effect 2 achieves exactly that. The gameplay of Mass Effect 2 greatly improves upon its predecessor by cutting out filler and creating a more fulfilling experience. That being said, there were still a few minor issues in Mass Effect 2, some gameplay related, others story related.

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By far and away the largest improvement in Mass Effect 2 was the improvement of the side missions. In the original Mass Effect, most side missions consisted of dropping down to a desolate planet, driving the frustrating-to-control Mako around for a while, and then clearing out a copy-and-pasted base of enemies that must have been reused a dozen times for these side missions.  Luckily in Mass Effect 2, the Mako has been removed completely and each side mission is individually crafted for a more unique and engaging experience. Some other gameplay improvements include weapon upgrades, squad power usage, better level design, smoothing out the movement, and the switch to an ammo system. All of these functions serve to make combat far more entertaining than the original game when it comes to combat.

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The weapon and upgrade system in the original Mass Effect was clunky and required a lot of time just navigating the hundreds of upgrades that the player would acquire. There were a ton of different guns and upgrades that the player had to sift through to find what they would want, and a limited inventory meant that you had to frequently throw out many of these items just to keep clear space for new upgrades. In Mass Effect 2, this process has been streamlined so you no longer have to navigate menus for long intervals to pick out upgrades for you and your squad. Another big change was the switch from guns having a heat system to guns having ammo. I mostly enjoyed this change, as the heat system further increased how long you had to sit behind cover for weapons to cooldown. Ammo on the other hand lets you stay shooting for longer, and a reload is quick than waiting for your gun to cooldown.

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All those improvements in mind, one design choice is particularly baffling. In Mass Effect 2, the player must pilot their ship through space to land on the different planets. What is strange is the decision that the player must constantly purchase fuel. Fuel is remarkably cheap in this game so I really don’t understand the purpose of including it. It doesn’t gate the player using money or anything, all it serves to do is waste your time by making you visit a refueling station once in a while. The other bizarre addition was the method for collecting resources. In order to upgrade your weapons, armor, and ship, you must collect a few different types of resources. There are minute amounts bit of these resources lying around for you to collect when you’re on a planet and exploring on foot, but the vast majority of these elements are found by probing planets. Essentially, you must buy probes, fly to a planet, slowly move your scanner across the surface, and launch a probe whenever it detects an abundance of resources. Similarly, to the fuel, the probes are incredibly inexpensive, so this system only serves to waste time. If you need any resources to upgrade your equipment you essentially have an infinite amount, you just have to painstakingly probe planets to get those resources.

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These minor complaints aside, Mass Effect 2 massively improved upon Mass Effect in every way. The only exception to that was that I personally enjoyed the original’s story better. The bulk of the main missions in Mass Effect 2 were recruiting your squad and doing their loyalty missions. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed recruiting all the different characters and then doing another mission to make them loyal. There were all interesting from both a gameplay and a narrative perspective. However, I have two main issues with this system. The first issue is that it felt completely disconnected from the main plot. In the original game, most companions were recruited organically through the main plot. You would be doing a mission and meet these characters naturally. In Mass Effect 2, the game outright tells you “Go here and recruit this character”. This feels far more artificial than original, and to make it worse, most of the characters are disconnected from the main plot entirely. In the original game, characters often felt more invested in the plot and just felt more connected. In Mass Effect 2, I felt like only two or three of the characters impacted the plot in a significant manner. The rest just felt glued on and just served to help the player in combat. The second issue with making so much of the game reliant on the squad missions is that the actual main plot of the game is ridiculously short. There are only five main story missions (six if you count the introduction). I think the developers counted each of the self-contained squad missions as main missions, leaving the central plot very short. That being said, all of the subplots and even the main plots itself were strong, I just wish there was more if it.

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My final issue with Mass Effect 2 is coincidentally with the final mission in the game. Without spoiling anything, you essentially assign your squad mates to different tasks throughout the mission. For example, you have to pick a technological expert to do a certain task. I thought this was an intelligent design decision, as it rewards players who learned their partner’s strengths and did the additional mission to make them loyal. If you pick incorrectly or your squad is not loyal, there is a chance that one of your squad members will die. Again, I quite enjoyed figuring out who is best for what role, but the final “selection” does not sit well with me. Mostly because it is not communicated to be a selection at all. Instead, you pick your standard two squad mates to go and fight the final boss, and the rest of the squad is left behind to watch your back. If you bring two of your best fighters to take on the boss, one of your other squad mates who you left behind to watch your back will perish. To me this felt incredibly cheap, if it were properly communicated that you should leave behind strong members, this would have been completely fine. Furthermore, the game kills off an important squadmate rather unceremoniously and when it happened to me I was confused as to what had just happened. Overall, this final selection was just poorly implemented and need to be better communicated to the player.

All in all, Mass Effect 2 is a strong entry to the series, and a definite improvement over the original game. While the episodic short stories that were told throughout the squad missions were engaging, the main plot felt a bit lacking. However, massive improvements made to the gameplay elevated Mass Effect 2 above the original. As a whole, Mass Effect 2 has solidified itself as a classic sci-fi RPG, worthy of the praise that it has received.

 

Super Mario Odyssey (2017)

It was a big claim when Nintendo placed Super Mario Odyssey on the same plane as Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine. Super Mario 64 arguably being the most influential game of all time, and Super Mario Sunshine is no pushover either. Sure, the Super Mario Galaxy games are phenomenal, but we haven’t had a Mario game in the style of Super Mario 64 or Super Mario Sunshine in 16 years, so a ton of hype was built around the release of Odyssey. Upon release, Odyssey has received a massive amount of praise, but surprisingly a fair amount of criticism as well. So, did Super Mario Odyssey live up to its hype for me? Yes. Easily.

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The Super Mario series is probably my favorite series of all time, especially the 3D entries. Naturally, Super Mario Odyssey was my most anticipated game of the year for me, even more so than Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Thankfully, I was not disappointed by Super Mario Odyssey. The Super Mario series is defined by the tightness of the controls and just how satisfying it is to move around as Mario. Super Mario Odyssey sports the greatest controls of any of the 3D entries. In addition to the classic moveset of jump, backflip, walljump, triple jump, and dive Mario has a few more tricks up his sleeve due to the addition of Cappy. Cappy, a sentient hat, is Mario’s new friend and provides a large variety of new moves to traverse the world. On top of the variety of new tricks that Cappy allows, the big addition is that Cappy can possess enemies. This lets the player use the movesets of enemies to progress through levels. It is enormously fun to chain these possessed enemies together with Mario’s standard moveset to allow for some crazy combinations to achieve a ton of distance. It is an absolute joy to just jump around the levels as Mario is known for.

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Super Mario Odyssey is centered around the open-world exploration of 17 different kingdoms. Each of these kingdoms starts off with a scripted sequence that throws back to Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine. The camera zooms in on your objective, and off you go. After you complete these scripted story missions, the entire kingdom opens up for you to discover. First and foremost, Super Mario Odyssey is a collectathon. There are almost 900 objectives, known as moons, spread across the 17 kingdoms. The biggest task in collecting them is just finding them, so if you are looking for a pure platforming experience you are not going to find it here. This is just a pure treasure hunt, finding something new every few minutes, supplemented by just how fun it is to control Mario.

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While many have praised Super Mario Odyssey, there has been a lot of negativity surrounding it as well. There are two key criticisms: it is too easy, and it is repetitive. I can understand where these criticisms come from, but I do not think they are valid considering what this game sets out to achieve. First of all, this is a Mario game, it is meant to be accessible for casual players, children, anybody can play Mario. So, it being “too easy” feels like a misdirected jab. Would I have liked challenging levels that fully use the expansive moveset that is offered? Yes. But again, this is not meant to be a challenging game. Most of the challenge is hunting down the numerous moons that a crammed into every nook and cranny of the levels. The second criticism is that while there is a ton of moons to collect, most of them are repetitive tasks or are deemed as “garbage” moons where no effort is required. This holds some weight, as many of the moon tasks are reused frequently, but I would argue that you are not meant to collect every moon. You only need 120 to beat the game, and since you open up the final kingdom at 500 moons, it seems that there are 400 extra moons tagged on. Some would argue that these are tacked on content meant to pad the game’s length, but I think otherwise. All these extra moons make it so that every player can achieve the 500-moon benchmark without straining themselves searching for every last moon. All those extra moons are just there as a buffer so everyone can find moons at an extraordinary rate, and as some extra content if you really enjoyed the game and want to hunt down some extra moons.

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Super Mario Odyssey may not be the most innovative game of the year, but is some of the most pure, unadulterated fun that I’ve had in a while. Sure, it’s not the hardest game, and it is a collectathon at heart. But somehow, Super Mario Odyssey elicits a feeling of childhood joy that is rarely found in modern day games. It’s a colorful potpourri of platforming, and just pure fun. For these reasons I give Super Mario Odyssey 10/10. I may just be nostalgic, but I genuinely believe Super Mario Odyssey can make anyone feel like a kid again.

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.

 

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.

5

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.