Alan Wake (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hollow Knight (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NieR: Automata (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ABZÛ (2016)

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

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

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

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

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)

The long awaited and highly anticipated new Legend of Zelda game was released a month ago, and I have spent a lot of time playing it. Breath of the Wild is being heralded as a masterpiece, and I completely agree with that sentiment. This game is extremely unique, especially when compared to its predecessors. Breath of the Wild has a massive and completely open world to explore, and that is what makes it so special. There is a level of freedom that is unheard of in any other video games, you can do anything at anytime, that is in part why I love this game.

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Most open world games allow for varying degrees of exploration and discovery, but ultimately restrict the player in one way or another. The main story, powerful monsters that block the way, or some areas require certain items to access, these are all methods that other open world games use to reign in the player to have them follow an expected path. Breath of the Wild throws all of that out of the window, you can go wherever you want and do whatever you want. Even the main story allows the player to tackle it in numerous different ways, you can even ignore it altogether and head straight for the final boss. There are so many creative solutions to any encounter in Breath of the Wild. Puzzles can be solved in dozens of ways, and there are numerous paths to get to any destination. Even fighting monsters allows for some innovative tactics through the use of the magical Runes that you acquire early on in the game. Breath of the Wild also allows for some creative use of the environment to gain an edge in fights. The fact that you constantly need to switch out weapons as they degrade and break forces the player to think on their feet and choose their weapons according to the appropriate situation. I am constantly surprised by new tricks, even dozens of hours into the game. Overall there is a lot of room for individuality and creativity in Breath of the Wild, it is a blast to just experiment with all the different ways to approach a single task.

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The world of Breath of the Wild is massive, and its filled with things to find. There are plenty of sidequests, monster encampments, towns and stables to be found. Most importantly are the shrines and Korok seeds, which both act as a form of progression. Every four completed shrines allow the player to choose between an extra heart or some more stamina, and every couple of Korok seeds the player can increase their inventory space. With 120 shrines and 900 Korok seeds, there are plenty of these short and sweet puzzles to be solved. These exploration related objectives are a method for the player to keep up with the scaling difficulty as the game progresses. This is the most difficult 3D Legend of Zelda game that I have played by a long shot. Many enemies have the capability to kill the player in a single hit early on in the game. These enemies require to you be prepared, have precise timing, as well as creative thinking if you want a chance at defeating them. Certain enemies are extremely punishing if you misstep, which I think is a welcome change to the previously easy Legend of Zelda series. There is so much to do in the land of Hyrule, if you are worried about the world being “big but empty”, fret no more because there is no lack of things to do in this game.

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There were many risks taken in the development of Breath of the Wild. The game does away with many traditional Legend of Zelda elements. Instead of using the Master Sword the whole game, now you use a plethora of weapons. Link can now wear a variety of different sets of clothing, all with different effects, rather than the green get-up we all know him for. There is voice acting for dialogue, which there has never been in a Legend of Zelda game. Traditional dungeons are swapped out for shrines and divine beasts. Link can now jump if you hit a button. Instead of memorable themes and melodies, the game goes for a much more atmospheric and understated soundtrack. All of these changes were huge risks as The Legend of Zelda series has been following a specific formula for a long time, and Breath of the Wild breaks the conventions. It has been six years between the release of Skyward Sword and Breath of the Wild. This game was delayed multiple times to polish it, and I love Nintendo for making the decision to delay the release and perfect this game. Shigeru Miyamoto himself said a famous quote that I find applicable “A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad.” Many risks were made during the development of this game and Breath of the Wild is all the better for it.

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The beauty and awe-inspiring nature of Breath of the Wild is unparalleled. From rolling hills of lush grass, to dense and foggy forests, to the shifting sands of the desert, to snowy mountain tops, to rushing rivers,  there is just so much atmosphere that I just had to sit back and take in. The games magnificent environments are only complimented by its beautiful art style. I could spend hours just walking around Hyrule doing nothing but admiring all the scenery. Everything is well animated and pleasant to look at. The survival aspect of this game is also quite charming. You can no longer just chop grass to get hearts and arrows. Now you need to collect resources to cook meals that replenish your hearts as well as giving special benefits. For arrows you need to visit the small towns in stables to replenish your stock which encourages the player to interact with all the non-playable characters (NPCs) in the game. The NPCs are charming and have some depth to them, even if their quests are simple. Instead of a woman saying “get me 3 dragonflies”, they tell you that their little sister loves dragonflies but the woman is too scared to get them herself. Just a minor narrative change like that makes all the difference. Throughout the game there are many seemingly minor things that enhance the experience drastically.

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I believe that no game is perfect, and Breath of the Wild is not an exception to that rule. It is extremely important to note the size of these issues, as most of them are nitpicks that I only discovered after dozens of hours of play. The first and most noticeable problem are the FPS drops. In graphically intense areas like villages or battles with many enemies, the FPS can and will drop. It happens often enough that it hurts the experience a little, but the vast majority of the time the game runs smoothly.  The first time in rained in Hyrule I thought it was atmospheric and beautiful. Then it kept raining, and raining, and raining. It feels like a third of the time in the game is spent in the rain. It is nice once in a while, but eventually it just gets dreary. The rain also stops you from climbing anything or using any fire related items, so that can slow the players progress by a significant amount. A little rain is fine, but I wish the developers had toned down the amount of rain in this game. There are a few small quality of life things that I would like to see, like faster cooking and faster animations of getting in and out of shrines. Issues like that are fairly minor but after many hours of playing the game I think I stopped caring about the shrine completion animation and I just wanted to skip it. Overall, I feel like while all of these are issues, they are fairly small and only noticeable after hours upon hours of play. In fact, all of these issues are fixable and I hope to see them resolved in future patches of the game.

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Breath of the Wild manages to capture a feeling of childlike wonder and amazement. I feel like this game will be talked about ten years from now and it will be a benchmark for phenomenal open world games. I loved every minute that I played of this game. It breaks conventions and takes The Legend of Zelda in a whole different direction, and I appreciate the risks that the developers took in making this game. The amount of delays, setbacks, and risks all paid off in a spectacular fashion in the experience that is Breath of the Wild. The amount of creativity, thoughtfulness, depth, and soul in this game is astounding. It has a few flaws that I would like to see fixed, but they are specks of dust on the masterpiece that is Breath of the Wild. I firmly believe that this will be remembered as one of the greatest games of all time. For these reasons I give The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a 10/10. I cannot recommend this game highly enough, and it is a must play for anybody and everybody.

Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (2000)

Majora’s Mask is the black sheep of the 3-D Legend of Zelda family. It was developed in a year after the massive success that was Ocarina of Time. Majora’s Mask uses the same engine and basic formula as its predecessor, but it takes a bizarre twist. There is no Zelda, no Triforce, and it does not take place in Hyrule. Instead, Majora’s Mask takes place in the doomed realm of Termina. The moon is set to crash into Termina and destroy everything in three days (about 54 minutes of real time). You are trapped in a Groundhog Day scenario, you must reset the three day cycle to prevent the moon from crashing into Termina until you gather the necessary items to save the world. Whether or not you like this game depends entirely on how much you enjoy this three day cycle mechanic. I personally thought it was a double-edged sword in many ways. I can appreciate the ambitious and unique aspects of Majora’s Mask, but I just could not get into it for a couple of reasons.

Majora’s Mask lives and dies on its three day cycle. Many people are scared away because of the 54 minute timer, but to be honest it was never a problem for me as I often used the Inverted Song of Time to triple the amount of time. Everything you do in Majora’s Mask is designed to be easily completed within those 162 minutes, so I had no issues with that aspect at all. That being said, there were many other issues I had with this system. First and foremost was the obnoxious saving system. The only way to permanently save the game was to reset the three day cycle, so I felt like I needed to play a solid two hours if I wanted to make any progress. Other games I can be satisfied by playing thirty minutes to an hour, but Majora’s Mask does not allow you that luxury and it forces you to play it in big chunks. Another problem I had was just the sheer repetitive nature of the game. When you reset the cycle, everything is reset except for your items which you keep. Due to this, there is just a lot of repetition and tedium in this game. My final issue with the three day cycle is more subjective but it was probably my biggest problem with this game. I felt like I was not making any progress. Resetting the cycle and watching all your work and time erased just felt demoralizing. There is no point of doing any of the side-quests or helping any of the characters when you know that your efforts are fruitless and ultimately amount to nothing. Of course you get a mask or some other reward, but I like to see how the world develops or how the characters change. Some argue this aspect was the entire point of Majora’s Mask, you are meant to feel helpless and like all your efforts are futile. While many may like this, I personally did not.

The other thing that makes Majora’s Mask standout in comparison to other Legend of Zelda titles is its lack of dungeons. It only had four main dungeons, while its predecessor had nine. To be fair, Majora’s Mask focus is not on the dungeons, but on its world and its side-quests. Still, dungeons have always been a core part of the Legend of Zelda experience and Majora’s Mask is lacking in that department. The first two dungeons were alright but nothing special. Great Bay Temple was conceptually interesting, but it was extremely frustrating to navigate. Stone Tower Temple was fantastic and one of the best dungeons in the entire series. All in all, if you enjoy Legend of Zelda games for the dungeons than Majora’s Mask is definitely not for you. The lack of dungeons is made up for with all the side-quests and the lengthy sections before each dungeon.

Everyone loves to talk about the complexity and interesting world of Majora’s Mask. The three day cycle allows for some complex interactions. Every character has a schedule that they follow and talking to them at different times during their cycles will yield different results. For example, if you talk to the old woman at the bomb shop on day two or three she will tell you how she was robbed on the night of the first day. Logically, you reset the cycle and save her from getting robbed and she gives you a reward. The quests are all interconnected as well. Following the previously mentioned side-quest, if you help the old woman then you will not be able to do a quest involving the thief later on in the cycle. Many of the of the side-quests utilize the three day cycle to help you figure out the solution and it is interesting to see how all the characters plots are interwoven with each other. Unfortunately, a couple other side-quests were not as well crafted as the others. Many of them boiled down to just talking to the character at the right time, or talking to the character and wearing the correct mask. I felt like some of the side-quests just wasted my time. The famed Anju and Kafei quest is about 45 minutes long and you need to complete it twice if you want both rewards. The quest involves a lot of just sitting around as you wait for the characters to get to the correct part of their schedule for you to interact with them. Overall, some of the quests correctly utilized the three day cycle, and others I felt like just wasted my time.

I feel like Majora’s Mask is a game that many people love, but others find it exhausting. I fall into the latter camp, it is my least favorite Legend of Zelda title that I have played so far. I can appreciate the creativity and the uniqueness of what Majora’s Mask achieved, but I just did not like it. I feel like you need an exceptional amount of patience to put up with all the tedium and repetitiveness that is in this game. If you are interested by the prospect of the three day cycle, impending doom, and themes of hopelessness and regret, then you will probably love Majora’s Mask. If you are more of a gameplay and action oriented person, I would recommend steering clear of this game. Overall, I understand what it was going for, but Majora’s Mask just did not click for me.

Inside (2016)

Six years have passed since Playdead released their first game, Limbo, which I talked about here. Playdead’s new game, Inside, follows the same formula as Limbo. They are both very moody, dark, and disturbing puzzle-platformers. I was a little hesitant going into Inside even though it received fantastic reviews because in my opinion Limbo fell a little flat. After playing Inside, I can safely say it greatly improved upon the preexisting formula from Limbo. Overall, the strengths and weaknesses of Inside seem to mirror Limbo with some improvements. However, most importantly Inside has introduced a stunning narrative element. I am going to keep this review spoiler-free, as Inside has a lot of mystery and intrigue that I do not want to ruin for anybody.

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The most memorable and impressive element in Inside was its ability to tell a gripping story without any dialogue. You are dropped into a surreal and dystopian world with no idea what is happening or what your goal is. You quickly progress from area to area, watching what is happening in the background, until you start to piece together the plot. I loved the fact that you have to draw clues and hints from the environment instead of a story just being read to you through dialogue. Even if you pay close attention to everything that is occurring around you, a lot is open to interpretation. The game is purposefully ambiguous and leaves plenty to your imagination to piece together and figure out. The dimly-lit world and art style of Inside serves to compliment its central themes. The underlying motif of the game is all about control and conformity but how it is interpreted is all up to the player, and that is the beauty of Inside.

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While Inside did a great job with its environment and story, it suffered similar issues to its predecessor, Limbo. Both of these games suffer in the gameplay department. Inside still has a few of those trial-and-error puzzles that plagued Limbo, but thankfully they have been significantly reduced. The bigger issue for Inside was its lack of difficulty. There were many different puzzle elements and concepts which kept the game interesting through the means of variety, thankfully. The game would introduce these creative new elements and spend awhile doing simple puzzles to let the player get a hang of the new element. Then they would drop the element and move onto something else entirely. Nothing seemed to move past the basics, and the game infrequently combines elements to make for more complex puzzles. I never felt like the game was getting progressively more difficult and complex, as a puzzle game should. The gameplay was not bad, it just got a little dull and slow after awhile.

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Ultimately, Inside was a great little game. It only takes three to four hours to complete, but it is an extremely memorable experience. The depressing and cryptic world of Inside is unforgettable. It is beautifully crafted and animated, and its commentary on control and conformity is phenomenal. I would definitely check out this game if you are into moody, mysterious, and ambiguous stories. If you are into more fast-paced action or gameplay oriented games, Inside is probably not for you. For these reasons, I am going to give Inside an 8/10. It was a strange little game, and I really enjoyed it.

Limbo (2010)

Limbo is a puzzle-platformer from the Danish independent developers: Playdead. The game is dark, mysterious, and horrifying. A young boy is tossed into a hostile world, and the player must navigate deadly puzzles and environments to escape. I thought the gameplay was alright, but it did have quite a few issues in that department. However, Limbo really shined in its atmosphere and its visuals.

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I quite liked the unique art direction in Limbo. The entire game is made up of black and white silhouettes and it solidifies the dark and dingy atmosphere. The world’s hostility is apparent from the start: everything is trying to kill you. Giant spiders, terrifying machinery, mind-controlling parasites, and other children are all trying to hunt you down. There is no music, only ambient sounds that could send a chill down your spine. Watching your character get impaled by a giant spider and flung across the sky just about sums up what this game has in store for the player. The atmosphere and visuals melded into one creepy and disturbing experience.

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The gameplay of Limbo fell a little flat in my opinion. It was a puzzle-platformer, but neither the puzzles nor the platforming were really anything special. The platforming required quite a bit of precision, which is fine, but the character himself is quite awkward so it can be difficult to judge what jumps are possible and what jumps are not. The puzzles had a decent amount of variety which I enjoyed and there were quite a few great puzzles.  Unfortunately, most of the puzzles just ended up being trial-and-error. Often times the puzzle boils down to: “What does this switch do? Oh, it kills you unless you move that box to a specific location beforehand”. There was really no way of knowing how to solve many of the puzzles without dying first. This was really unfortunate as the whole atmosphere of the game was supposed to be disturbing and horrifying, which it was until I figured out that I just needed to run head first into everything and die to make any progress. Things tend to be a lot less scary when they go from “Oh god how do I stop this from killing me?” to “Well I have to let it kill me before I can see the solution”. Luckily, there were plenty of well-placed checkpoints that kept deaths from heavily impeding on progress. The other issue I had with the gameplay was it was just… slow. The main character walked slowly, death scenes (as plentiful as they were) were drawn out, and a large chunk of the game was just pushing around boxes and climbing ropes.

Overall, I think Limbo was alright. For a quick three to four hour game, it does a great job of setting the mood and being memorable. Thanks to its art direction and its atmosphere, Limbo was certainly unique. There is also a sort of beauty in the game’s overall simplicity. I just wish the gameplay held up a little bit better. If you are into moody and dark games, then I would definitely recommend Limbo. If you are looking for great puzzles or platforming, I would look elsewhere.

Firewatch (2016)

Firewatch is an indie title developed by Campo Santo. It is set in the Wyoming wilderness and the main character, Henry, becomes a fire lookout. The game revolves around its beautiful scenery and compelling narrative instead of gameplay and action. I was nervous about how good the game could be when the only real gameplay is just walking around in the wilderness, but I believe it worked out alright. I am going to try to avoid spoilers in this review, as the story is all that this game has and it would be a shame if I were to ruin it for somebody.

The game is about the main character, Henry, and how he isolated himself after his wife develops dementia. He becomes a fire lookout in the middle of a national park, and his only form of human contact is talking with his supervisor, Delilah, over the radio. As the player walks around the park doing mundane tasks you are constantly in conversation with Delilah. The dialogue is witty, humorous, sometimes somber, and most importantly it all feels real. Many games struggle in this regard, conversations often feel robotic, but not in Firewatch. The conversations that the player has could actually happen in real life, and this aspect is further strengthened by the excellent voice acting. As time passes in the game Henry and Delilah stumble upon a mystery and they take it upon themselves to unravel it. Overall this was very compelling and kept me hooked the entire time. The mix of exploring the wilderness, conversing with Delilah, and pondering the mystery kept my brain busy.

Though the narrative and story-telling is where Firewatch shone through, there were also a fair amount of issues with the game. The controls were a bit clunky and tough to get used to, and the game was inconsistent when it comes to what you can traverse and what you cannot. Sometimes you can climb up giant rock faces, other times you cannot even step over a pebble, this occasionally got frustrating as I explored the park. While these issues were minor, there were much bigger problems. Although I really liked the narrative, I wish it was tacked onto more actual gameplay. Firewatch plays itself: you cannot do anything wrong, all you do is walk around, and none of your choices matter. I just want a little more sustenance, because it felt like I was watching a TV show or movie instead of being an active player in the game. My other big issue with the game was the ending. I was extremely disappointed in the way the game ended. I know the old cliché “It is about the journey, not the destination”, but in this case I felt the destination completely invalidated the journey. It felt like the entirety of the game was building up many different plot lines, but most of them just went nowhere. The ending just left a bitter taste in my mouth, after completing the game I was left thinking “That’s it?”

If you are intrigued by the aspect of just enjoying the scenery and narrative of a game, then Firewatch is a great game for you. Unfortunately, if you want anything more than just walking around you are going to be disappointed. Also, if you are planning on playing this game, just prepare your self to be let down by the ending. All in all, I did enjoy Firewatch despite its shortcomings and I thought it was a neat little game. I am going to give Firewatch a 6/10. Its narrative and story-telling are top-notch and other developers should attempt to model it. I just wish there was a little more to this game.