Different kind of post for today (or this year). This one is about my own personal game development.
You wouldn't know it due to the complete lack of publicity I give to it, but I do actually attempt my own game designs and developments. I write down ideas or sketch out possible game features. I prototype using GameMaker Studio 2 and have spent an ungodly amount of time browsing forums and search results for solutions to some of the most trivial bugs. All that is to say that making a game is quite hard.
The fact that we have games at the scope and scale that we have today, more often than not as an actual comprehensive whole, is almost miraculous. Most people don't know what goes into making a game, and making it fun. Making it pleasurable to the senses and making enough of it to warrant its price tag. Some people think they know what goes into making a game. They think that it's enough to have an idea, to assign the button layout and describe how many enemy types there will be and roughly what the art style is.
Until you actually try taking an idea from conception to delivery, you will never know how difficult it truly is. There is doubt every step of the way. You have a cool idea but the moment you put the idea into code, hack together some art and put it all on screen for the first time, you realise your idea is trash. Or slightly more optimistically, it's not trash, but there are now a dozen problems that immediately surface, and your idea will need to change. It now needs to accommodate several changes to deal with a dozen problems. This takes time. You work through the dozen problems, implement your several solutions, and eventually, you have your updated prototype.
This process may go on for hours, days, weeks, months, etc. An idea can potentially be worked on for a significant amount of time before the person or persons realises it's no longer worth pursuing. That no matter how many changes are added, the idea itself simply isn't fun, or possible to make fun. Worse yet, some people or companies discover this and keep going anyways. Whether due to cynical or financial motivation, they simply keep going, aiming for that finish line and shipping off a thing that they know they don't like, in an attempt to make some kind of profit to offset all their spent time and resource.
I have found myself struggling with prototyping for a while now. Even before Corona was a thing (although that didn't help matters much), I had struggled to get my ideas onto a screen, and iterate on them in meaningful ways. My most recent attempt was the following:
These are screenshots of the same section of level from various different stages and builds
This was the most recent prototype of Mark II, a metroivania-esque game that I originally thought of nine years ago for my final year university project. For ages I wanted to make it "properly", and spent literal years thinking about different aspects of the game. However, when it came time to actually put something on-screen, I realised all that time thinking about the game had been essentially meaningless.
Ideas about the number of weapons and abilities there would be and how they'd all be connected swiftly went out the window the moment I tried playing with them. It turns out trying to use two different weapons at once using the left and right mouse buttons isn't that fun or intuitive. Who would've guessed. Over the months I would come to realise that a lot of the ideas I had about how parts of this game would work simply wouldn't be fun or intuitive. A lot of it would need re-thinking.
And there was the question of the development of the game itself. I was starting linearly and chronologically. The first thing I was developing was the very start of the game, and that's because I knew exactly how I wanted that to look, how those first crucial minutes should play out. Another mistake. Focusing so much on little details in this opening section meant I was pouring large amounts of time into things that would very likely change as I progressed onto other areas of the game.
It also meant I wasn't spending any time developing and playing more core aspects of the game. Yes the opening became exactly what I wanted it to be, and played out in the way that I had envisioned, but then I started looking at general gameplay. I hadn't thought about what kind of puzzles the player would need to solve, or how they would solve them. How would the enemies interact with the player, and with each other? What pickups would the player acquire, and how would the player make upgrades to themselves?
All of these were things that had been given very little thought outside of surface level ideas. And as I continued adding things to the game, it became apparent it wasn't getting any more fun. I was adding complexity and systems, but nothing that actually engaged the player. Nothing that added to the original core vision of the game. Everything was getting so complex to the point I began hesitating working on the game as I knew it would mean diving into ageing code that was barely holding together.
This is all to say that prototyping is extremely difficult. I wrapped up the most recent version of Mark II and began anew with a more streamlined vision. And a promise to myself that I would work on the start of the game last. For now, I'm focusing on one test room with walls and static enemies, and figuring out the core gameplay. What will the player use, how will they use it, and what will the environment have to be like to accommodate this gameplay.
Making games is difficult, as in prototyping. So, prototype early, prototype often, cut away the things that don't fit, don't start at the beginning, and don't think too much about it.
This post is primarily going to be me whinging about Prey (2017)'s ending, so if you don't want it spoiled, please feel free to go back to whatever it is you do on a daily basis to fend off the night terrors.
As you might remember, my last post was me singing the unbridled praises of Prey (2017) and talking about how not even a really crap ending could dampen my spirits about the game being incredible. And whilst that statement is still true, it came very close to becoming false.
To cut straight to it, Prey has two endings - one at the end of the game, and one at the end of the credits. And they are both terrible, but for slightly different reasons. I will go into detail on why both are absolutely garbage, starting with the first one.
Prey is a game with a mind-bogglingly large number of decisions, choices, consequences and outcomes. It's one of the reasons why I love it so much - it truly feels like it gives you maximum agency whist still keeping the narrative intact and without breaking immersion. So it's understandable that trying to wrap up all of the potential variables into a cohesive conclusion wasn't going to be easy. As a result, there's a multitude of different endings depending on the choices the player made. These range from the usual super good and super evil endings, to an ending where you sod off in an escape pod two hours in, with all your support characters calling you a bell-end. This is cool. The fact that the game will take into account all of your choices, actions and intentions, is cool. What isn't cool, is how that ending is presented.
For context, I played a relatively "good" campaign, saved loads of people, and kept my exposure to alien modification to a minimum. My character would be able to escape the station, blow it up to stop the alien invasion, and save the vast majority of the survivors. This was incredible considering how the game starts off with zero hope whatsoever. But how is all of this shown to the player? How is this communicated in a satisfying and entertaining way?
One pre-rendered shot of the space station blowing up, as your shuttle heads to Earth, and your character saying "I had a dream..."
That's it. Fin. You're done. Go home. Play something else. Don't call this number again.
I was in shock. This massive epic of a game that I had poured dozens of hours into, and whose world I had fully immersed myself in, was concluded with a single sentence of dialogue and a shot that lasts less than five seconds. Then the credits roll, showing characters going about their days immediately preceding the games events. Again, this was cool in concept, and could have left the game on a somewhat bittersweet note, but the execution was so balls that it just looked cheap.
Then the credits end, and you're shown the "real" ending. You sit restrained in a chair, as characters from the game talk about you amongst themselves; going over your actions, your decisions, and ultimately trying to figure out where on the moral barometer you sit. At the end of the scene, you have to make a decision which ends in either an optimistic agreement, or everyone dying horribly.
It's in-game, it's the characters we know talking about the impact you've had, and it ends with one last bit of interactivity.
In theory this all sounds good, right? WRONG.
The execution is way better compared to the first ending, but the concept behind it renders the campaign almost completely pointless in my mind. And that's because the campaign is essentially a dream. A "recording" of the actions of the character you thought you were playing as. In reality, everything went to shit, and you're an alien that the survivors are trying to turn good to help fix everything.
Now there have been plenty of games that have toyed with fake realities, dream sequences and conflicting perceptions within a games story. Sometimes they're used to present a plot twist, or an important character moment, or to represent an underlying theme of a game.
But Prey's twist comes out of nowhere, is barely telegraphed during the story, and doesn't really change much to the actual end result of the game. Personally I felt it cheapened the experience. As the game put such an emphasis on choices, decisions and outcomes, that for it to then say "Oh well actually the whole thing was a dream and the planet was battered no matter what", feels so deflating. What is the point of berating the player for every choice they make, and making it clear to them that they need to think long and hard about their every action, if at the end of it you essentially go "Made it up lol everybody dead".
The shit first ending I can understand as potentially having been a result of limited time and resource to flesh out what seems to be something like a dozen different variants. But the second ending I just disagree with completely at a thematic level.
First ending - Good concept, balls execution
Second ending - Balls concept, good execution
Perhaps this was all intended to support some hypothetical "Prey 2: This Time Its Personal" sequel, and the plans were for it to always take place on a scorched Earth. If that's the case then fair enough. I'll be buying any sequel that Arkane develops on day one. I just wish that there had been some kind of definitive "good" ending to make me feel better about putting up with the seven thousand jump scares.
At the end of this particularly whingey day, Prey is still one of my all time favourite games, and I would implore literally everyone on the planet to play it. And two crap endings in a row won't change that.
Or I would just recommend playing the game up until the final mission and then making up your own ending via a dice roll and some paper cut outs.
*Gasp*, what's this? A new post? Some actual content? Activity for the first time in almost a year? Preposterous.
I'm not quite sure where my writing fell off. But it was likely somewhere between the insane mental load of my day job, the immense self pressure of trying to improve my own game dev skills at any given moment, and the abhorrent laziness that courses through my veins like water down the Yangtze. What's worse is that I didn't feel particularly guilty about not posting here. It felt like the lowest possible priority below, in no particular order:
So yeah, that's why I haven't posted in forever.
You can imagine then, that for me to be writing a new post, after so long, that I must really, really, really love Prey (2017). It's insane that I'm this addicted to a game (in a good way) after what feels like a century of having not really felt invested in any of the games I've played.
Full disclosure - I have played some pretty cool games over the past 11 months; Red Dead Redemption 2, SOMA, Hitman (Season 1), God Of War, as well as a metric butt load of Apex Legends. All of them were great for multiple reasons. God Of War in particular was fantastic, and was one of the few games I've (ever) played to actually have a lasting emotional impact on me. But there is a metric I use to determine if a game is great, or truly, deeply, madly incredible. And that metric is, quite simply, "Did I play it until 2AM and still lie to myself about playing for just five more minutes?"
That is something I hadn't done since playing The Last Of Us back in 2017. And it is something I have done now with Prey at least a couple of times. I haven't even finished it yet, and to be honest, even if the ending is super disappointing I don't care. The 15 or so hours I've been fully immersed in so far more than make up for any hypothetical garbage ending.
So, why do I love Prey? In summary:
All of the above are executed so well, that it gives a feeling of wonder and mystery as well as a real sense of adventure. The game encourages exploration, and challenges the player in unexpected ways with truly unique encounters and scenarios.
I think the truly key thing with Prey, and the reason why I have enjoyed it so much, is the way it opens up to the player. When you start (after the initial experiment/simulation fake out), you're in a horror-esque setting, armed with a wrench, having to fight off what is essentially a space headcrab. It feels fairly bog standard in terms of gameplay in that moment. Even inferior in some ways as the combat is one of the weaker areas of the game.
But then you're given the GLOO gun; a weapon that both glues up enemies, and creates makeshift pathways. It immediately opens up the option for you to create your own path to get to areas you normally couldn't get to.
And then you're introduced to recycling any junk you find to create resources that you can then use for crafting. You then get ability upgrades, allowing you to build your character as you want. Upgrade weapons, make choices, go on space walks, become a telekinetic super mutant, kill a rogue experiment subject pretending to be a chef. The possibilities are endless!
I know at this point I'm essentially describing Deus Ex in space, and I think that's why I love it so much. Deus Ex, in space, with better sound design, and a more interesting world and setting.
Just for the sake of balance I'm also going to quickly list the things that suck about this game:
But that's essentially it.
Prey is a game I love, and like most of the things I love, I'm going to over shower it with attention until it's over. Which I really hope is soon because I can't keep doing all these late nights.
If there is one thing I didn't expect at the start of the year, it was that Spider-Man For PS4 would be the game to have the biggest emotional impact on me. I saw the reviews, I saw the metacritic score and I saw how much everyone talked about the game, and it wasn't entirely surprising. Insomniac have proven themselves to be a pretty solid game developer, and their combination of game design married up with such an interesting IP was bound to turn some heads. I got Spider-Man For PS4 (and yes I will continue to add the "For PS4" part since it's such a ridiculous title) because I knew I had to take a look at it, and I wanted to complete it before Red Dead Redemption 2 came out since I had an inkling that game would also take up a lot of my time.
I went into Spider-Man For PS4 with high hopes after everything I had seen and heard about the game. And my hopes were met exceptionally well. The fast paced introduction to Peter Parker, his alter ego Spider-Man, and the version New York that they inhabit, is one of the funnest intro's to a video game I've played in years. It went a long way to help establish the atmosphere and feeling that would exude from the game for the rest of my time with it. Much like how Rocksteady captured what made Batman an interesting character to play as in the Arkham series, Insomniac managed to take the decades long history of Spider-Man, and boil it down to the basic elements so that casual fans, or even people with zero knowledge of the character, would still care about what was happening in the game.
My two biggest (and honestly, only) complaints about Spider-Man For PS4 are to do with the kitchen sink approach to the side quests/time killers, and the overall hand holding approach that the game has towards the player.
A lot has already been made of how much of the game doesn't actually involve Spider-Man himself. For parts of the play time you play as Peter Parker, his ex-girlfriend MJ Watson, another lad called Miles Morales, and you even do some basic pattern matching and circuitry connection mini-games. Whilst I did appreciate the inclusion of more elements to show off Peter Parker's more sciencey side (as far as I know that hasn't really been shown much in previous games) I do wish that they didn't take the form of the most basic concepts of puzzle design. It was almost comical when the puzzles first came up with flashy animations, and Parker explaining the extremely complex science behind what was essentially an inverse version of spot the difference.
The missions where you play as MJ or Miles also weren't fantastic. Although I did like the way that the missions would be set up as flashbacks, or as running in parallel with what you had been doing as Spider-Man, they simply weren't fun. They were chores. As you were essentially doing what you would be doing as Spider-Man, but with severely fewer options. By that I mean, you were sneaking around, distracting guards, and getting to a checkpoint. There are missions where you do this as Spider-Man, but they're just way more fun and interesting because you have a dozen different ways to go about the challenge. As MJ, all you can do is throw stuff to distract guards, and as Miles, all you can do is hack machinery (with your smartphone, natch) to distract guards. I actually liked MJ and Miles as characters in cutscenes, and I was interested in what they got up to in between missions, but I would have much preferred it if they had stuck to just being in cutscenes.
When it comes to the hand holding aspect, I'm talking about how the game often doesn't give you the option to fail. Obviously in certain aspects this doesn't always apply - combat can be challenging and dealing with different goons using different tactics was satisfying and fun - and there were plenty of times I failed there. But in many other ways the game is incredibly forgiving. Web-swinging requires way less finesse than it originally seems, the quick time events have zero challenge, enemies in stealth sections are ludicrously blind and deaf, and all of the secrets, collectables and Easter Eggs are all hidden in plain sight.
Using the collectable backpacks as an example, I thought the whole point was that they would be hidden, so that you would actually have to go looking for them, and then your reward was a new token and some Spidey memorabilia. But they're all shown on the map the moment you activate a tower (slow down there on the innovation front Insomniac), and once you get close enough you just click the right analogue stick for it to show up highlighted and shiny for the whole world to see. And this happens with every kind of challenge in the game. Whether it's Black Cat's hidden plushies sparkling at you whilst also vibrating the controller just to make sure you didn't miss them, or hidden power boxes that you find by once again clicking the analogue stick and following the shiny, glowing trail and then being told for the sixth time that day how to take out said power box, the game is terrified of the pace dropping because the player took a moment to think about something.
Those two negatives aside for the moment, I do want to talk about the way Spider-Man For PS4 handled its story, its characters and fallout from what happens. Spending time with all of the characters was surprisingly enjoyable, and although I wasn't the biggest fan of the moments where you weren't playing as Spider-Man, it did mean that the additional cast of characters meant more to me. And as things escalated towards the end of the main story, I got genuinely invested in what would be the outcome for Peter Parker and his friends and family. It became clear that not everyone was going to make it to the end, and I kept playing just to see what the conclusion would be. The ending itself, was emotional and satisfying, even if the final scene itself was a bit abrupt when it slammed to credits.
As I said before, I went into Spider-Man For PS4 expecting a good game, potentially even a great game. I didn't expect to go in and find an emotionally engaging and satisfying game. But there it was. And I look forward to seeing where Insomniac takes the series next, as they obviously have big plans for Spider-Man - I just hope that they do the same for Peter Parker, as they did so well with him here.
The original Shadow Of The Colossus was released 13 years ago. Wow. That's a long time. That's longer than most careers of everyone I know. That's before modern smartphone's existed. That's before most people had decent internet. That makes SOTC a ridiculously old game. And I played it (or at least the remake for PS4) for the first time this past month.
Playing a game a decade after everyone has already proclaimed it as one of the greatest pieces of interactive entertainment ever created, is difficult. Trying to keep expectations in check is near impossible. Avoiding spoilers is near impossible, and not making certain assumptions about the game after hearing everyone else talk about it, is near impossible. Nevertheless I bought the PS4 remake, loaded it up and entered the mysterious world of Shadow Of The Colossus.
I'm not going to describe my second-by-second playthrough because enough clowns have already done that over the past decade. I'm just going to mention the things that stood out to me or surprised me. The most prominent of which was "You don't get to choose what order you fight the colossi in?!"
I don't know where I got this idea that you could take on the colossi in any order you wanted, but that was what I had assumed for years. It might have been because people used the words open world and sandbox interchangeably, mixing up the meanings. But I was disappointed to find out you had to take on each colossus in a linear order, which I felt took out some of the mystery of what I expected. I knew that you could only find colossi by following the light from your sword, but I had thought that this would just point to the nearest colossus, and that you could go in the exact opposite direction and find a different colossus if you chose to. It's not a super massive deal, but definitely wasn't what I was expecting.
My second biggest takeaway was that the camera, at times, was utter garbage. It prioritised showing off the landscape rather than letting me see where I was actually going. It would get stuck on Colossus armpits as I was trying to climb their back hair, and the rest of the time it would just be plain unresponsive and lead to way more frustrating moments than was acceptable.
And that's basically it for my whinging. The game is extremely well made, good looking and atmospheric. I like the game because it's straightforward, minimalist, and doesn't really waste the players time. It stands in stark contrast to modern AAA games with their millions of mechanics, micro-transactions and menu-driven faffery. In SOTC it's just you, your magical sword, a horse that couldn't care less about your plans, and 16 straddling behemoths. Although it's obvious some were shown a bit more love than others, when one is a giant freaking dragon/bird thing that you have to jump on and do aerial battle with, and then another is just a perturbed, overgrown goat.
There's not much more to say on SOTC that hasn't already been said. I just wanted to make sure my opinion was noted down so that history could ignore it forever more.
It wasn't until I wrote down the title of this post that I realised how long the names of both these games were. Horizon: Zero Dawn and Shadow Of The Colossus (Remastered) are two games I started playing recently but haven't gotten anywhere near completing.
I started with Horizon first for a few hours and then got somewhat fatigued by the predictable nature of how things were proceeding. It's not a bad game - on the contrary it's extremely absorbing, cinematic and intuitive. My issue was with how it felt like the gameplay was going through the motions of every other sandbox adventure game that had come out in the past few years. Learn to move, learn to scavenge, craft upgrades for your weapons, assign skill points to gain new abilities, buy and sell all of the trinkets, etc etc. All elements that had been tried and tested several times before and had been proven to work, and engage the player and ensure a pleasurable experience.
The problem is that once you see the steps laid out before you, it sort of shatters the illusion. Knowing I would have to put in a certain number of hours, before I unlocked certain areas/missions, and saw more of the story, made me feel somewhat deflated. I realise this probably doesn't make a lot of sense, and I'm very likely doing a poor job of explaining all of this. But it's like the game was hollow - which probably isn't going to be a popular statement considering how loved this game is. It feels like the game includes all of this ancillary stuff because it's expected, not because it would be fun or unique or would add a new twist. As if it's just there to fill a quota.
So after having this minor existential crisis on behalf of the game, I decided to stop playing and loaded up another title - the remastered version of Shadow Of The Colossus (SOTC). I had never played the original but had seen the countless praises thrown its way over the years from even the most jaded games critics. And after the initial cinematic and story set up, I felt a refreshing wave of relief wash over me. The simplicity and minimalism was upfront and deliberate, and I realised I wouldn't have to jump through several sets of hoops to make progress.
Shadow Of The Colossus tasks the player with finding and destroying a several absolute units. Why? To bring your dead girlfriend back to life. How do you find them? Your sword points in the direction of the nearest colossus. How do you kill the colossi? With your sword (somehow). What happens after you kill a colossus? You move onto the next colossus via your horse. Simples.
Obviously this won't please everyone. For some people the set up and content might not have enough meat on it. Maybe they want more complexity or nuance in the "combat". Maybe they want more depth to the story, or want more lore from the world the game takes place in. People who want these things will not get them, and that may be a deal breaker. Fair enough.
But for me, it's exactly what I wanted. It is the polar opposite of the over stuffed, over burdened and over subscribed titles that dominate modern triple-A. It is a game I want to continue to work through, to see if the minimalist approach holds up over the entire run time.
I won't be able to do this any time soon however, as I have yet again moved to a new city, for a new job, and my poor PS4 has been left behind. But don't worry PS4, I'll be coming back for you soon.
I am genuinely curious to know what the numbers are of people who have only played DOOM (2016) on Switch, as opposed to people who played it after already playing it on PS4, Xbox One or PC. I'm pretty sure it's a relatively low number. One that I am a part of.
So I got hold of a copy of DOOM for Switch and felt like a man in a desert being handed an ice cold glass of water, since I've been without a new game on Switch for a while now and I still don't have access to my extensive PS4 games library. And not only was I going to be playing a new game, it was a new game that had already received significant amounts of praise on all of the other platforms it had already been released on. But then I had to take a step back as I remembered most of the reviews had focused on how tight the shooting gameplay was, and how the speed and pace were unrivalled in their intensity. And the most intense game I had played on the Switch so far was arguably Breath Of The Wild. An action heavy game, but not exactly lightning fast in its pacing.
First thoughts on starting DOOM were "Wow, this is taking a long-ass time to load". Might as well get that out of the way. The loading times are extensive. Like, noticeably extensive. I thought it wasn't a big deal, hoping that it would just be an initial loading requirement, and that afterwards things would be zippier. Nope. Every death led to an equally long load time leading to my millennial mind wandering off and checking Twitter, somewhat breaking my engagement with the game.
Second thoughts (after the game finally loaded) were "Wow, those textures are garbage". I don't know if this was just exaggerated because I was only playing the game in handheld mode, but the textures were notably, brutally blurry up close. I knew that some concessions had been made to get the game to run on the Switch, but this was painful to look at at times. And I had not even played the game on another platform previously. So although I had seen footage of the game running on PS4, it's not like I knew exactly what the game was meant to look like precisely.
Loading and texture issues aside, once I started playing, I could see why the game had received such high praise. When a game has clear direction, it comes across in the gameplay. It's clear that the vision for DOOM was intensity, brevity and a visceral presentation. This permeates throughout everything in the game. From the start you are punching and shooting demons immediately. Explanations for controls are brief, you run at an almost comical speed, and there is no reload button. Exposition is light, and your character actively ends exposition pieces with his fists. It's appealingly refreshing for a game not to go through the same motions that many of its contemporaries seem resigned to.
I will say, however, that the Switch version of DOOM is easily the weakest, and that is without even playing it on any of the other platforms. This isn't just because of the presentation being murkier, but because of the Switch controls not being precise enough for the speed of the action. More than once I died knowing that if I was using a different controller, I would have survived. And this isn't a case of sensitivity, it's a case of feeling. The Joy Con analogue sticks don't have the precision of other controllers, or a mouse and keyboard. Maybe the Switch Pro controller does, I wouldn't know. Whether playing with the Joy Con's attached to the console, or in the Joy Con Grip, the controls still felt sluggish and I never felt like I had the precision I was meant to have.
The final disappointment however, although minor compared to the presentation and control issues, was with the ending. It's not that the ending is terrible, it's just that it is so boring, and such an anti-climax for a game all about not following the conventions of its contemporaries. The ending has you going back to hell one last time, defeating the giant, horrific spider, alien, Olivia robot thingy, shutting off the gate to hell, and returning to Mars. And then what happens?
That stupid robot, Sam whatever, delivers a boring monologue, and then just swats you away to some unknown location, with a vague promise that you'll meet again. In a way it sort of mirrors the endings of the first two Half Life games. But whilst this kind of acceptance works fine for a blank slate like Gordon Freeman, for the Doom Marine it is bollocks! He should have stopped the Hayden-bot halfway through his speech, destroyed him with a tin-opener and then crowned himself king of Mars. Or something else equally audacious. Something that matched up with the rest of the games outrageous attitude.
I get they were probably setting up for a sequel, but with the attitude that this title had, I would have been more pleasantly surprised if the game simply set itself on fire the moment the campaign was completed.
Super Mario Odyssey was the first Mario game I actually bought, played for any significant amount of time, and completed. Well, I got to the end of the story - I have not, and will not, try to get all of the remaining Power Moons. I'll leave that to the lunatics.
The Super Mario series is just one of those things that passed me by - like many other Nintendo first party games. So it was with great curiousity that I bought Odyssey, especially considering how a lot of online reviewers were calling it the greatest game of all time, ever, in all realities. Ever. I had a feeling this was most likely a nostalgia thing considering a lot of reviews dropped the holy words "Super Mario 64" about a million times.
Super Mario Odyssey is good. But it isn't great, isn't the greatest game of all time, and isn't even my favourite game on the Switch. That said, I was pleasantly surprised at the level of polish that had gone into it. The opening cinematic, the crisp sound design and brevity of the set up all gave a great first impression. The central mechanic of being able to possess many of the inhabitants is neat and gets used extremely well. It helps add variety to a game where Mario's traditional core abilities are nowhere to be seen.
I don't want to go on about all of the positive aspects of Odyssey, since hundreds, if not thousands of others have already recorded those aspects down for future historians to ignore. I want to focus on two negatives. Two negatives that were such massive issues for me that for at least several minutes during my play-through, I thought everyone else on the planet was a moron.
First up, the checkpoint system. It sucks. There simply aren't enough checkpoints in the game to play without frustration. The number of times I would get past what felt like a dozen different challenges, just to die because of a single, well placed Goomba, and be sent all the way back to the beginning, was too damned high. On more than one occasion I put down my Switch because the thought of going through all of those areas again was too much for me to handle. However, this issue wouldn't have been such a big deal to me, if it weren't for-
The mother fucking camera. How no one had any issue with this garbage piece of garbage is beyond me. The number of times Mario would go flying into a bottomless abyss because the camera refused to look where I wanted it to is more than I care to remember. It was unbearable. I would jump from platform to platform, just to see Mario's stumpy little body go tumbling into nothing and fall to a platform seven levels down, and I'd have to do everything again. A game series lauded for its 3D camera placement for the past 20 years has no excuse having these kinds of problems. I honestly believed that the entire planet was smoking crystal when they talked about this game being perfect when I was having trouble getting Mario to walk in the direction I wanted him to.
Those two glaring issues aside, I did enjoy my time with Odyssey, and I was glad that there was actually a post credits game to continue to play through, unlike in Breath Of The Wild. But that would be the only thing I would put in Odysseys favour, when comparing these two games. I think its a pretty interesting dichotomy between the two, and a great example of good nostalgia and bad nostalgia. A game being considered great because it reminds people of a childhood favourite, versus a game that has its roots set in tradition, but which embraces modern expectations.
Or maybe they're both great games and I just hate really poorly implemented camera systems.
I was planning on writing a post about a month ago. I was also planning on writing said post on Fortnite Battle Royale, not Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. But I've played more of Mankind Divided lately than I have of Fortnite, and I also have way more feelings to express about Mankind Divided than I do Fortnite.
Although I played the original Deus Ex, I wouldn't say I was one of those ravenous fans who constantly go on about what a flawless masterpiece it was. I played it, I immensely enjoyed it, but I never finished it. A mix of both the game engine being shoddily optimised and me getting stuck at a certain point led to me losing interest after a while. But then I played Deus Ex: Human Revolution and I finished that within a week. Although it wasn't as deep as the original game, it definitely captured it's spirit and design (aside from the infamous bosses that you HAD to kill). And on top of that it had a unique look and sound to it that still makes it one of my favourite games from the past generation.
Now we get to Mankind Divided, which I have yet to finish, but have a fully formed opinion of. And unless the ending is going to blow my balls into space with how amazing it is, I'd say Mankind Divided is a massive disappointment. There is something about the opening mission which brought this across in record time. The way the tutorial level played out, the way mechanics were introduced and the way the game controlled - everything felt slightly off. The way your allies spoke to you felt unnecessarily aggressive, and the voice work felt awkward and stiff. Suddenly being thrown into a firefight in the middle of a sand storm whilst on a time limit was also a bit of a dick move on the games part.
As the game and the story progressed, this ill feeling didn't disappear. Even basic things like character animations during conversations started to get on my wick. It's not that they were terrible or anything, they just looked off. And on the gameplay side of things, everything felt half-assed and poorly explained. There was the option to start unlocking new augments but it already felt like I had everything I needed to take on the missions. And the addition of the experimental augmentations ironically add nothing to the game. I have trouble putting this into words, because technically speaking, there isn't really anything wrong with the game. It looks better than its predecessor, and is visually more consistent when switching from gameplay, to cutscene, to cinematic, and the decision to set the game in Prague was a great choice to give it some more personality.
But when it came to carrying out the missions, I always felt like the controls were less refined than before, that the level design wasn't as intuitive as it should have been, and the conversations not as engaging or significant as they previously were. Everything in the game felt like it had been streamlined in the wrong way, with depth taken away from areas where it wasn't needed, and fat left over from the previous game where it could have been cut down. And some things were simply not explained correctly, or not explained at all. I must have been deep into hour six before the game finally started talking to me about multi-tools and their various uses. Conversely I sure am glad the game took time out to explain the collectible QR codes you can find throughout the campaign that you can scan with your phone. That didn't destroy my immersion whatsoever.
On a final, petty, personal note, the music is nowhere near as incredible as it was in Human Revolution. I still have that games soundtrack saved on Spotify. And whilst Mankind Divided has some of that same ambience and atmosphere about it, it doesn't come close to bringing out the feelings Human Revolution made me feel. To me, the soundtrack is a microcosm of the entire game; hitting the same beats as the original, but with nowhere near the amount of creativity or energy.
I might end up doing a second write up once I finish Mankind Divided, although that will take a while since I am without a TV for at least the next several weeks, maybe months. And once I do get a TV to hook my PS4 into, there's a good chance I'll just end up playing Fortnite: Battle Royale again instead.
Ninja Theory is a company I have a great amount of respect for. And that isn't just because I tried interviewing with them four years ago and got down to like the last two. I have followed their work for a numbers of years, and whilst they haven't always sticked the landing with the execution of their games, it is clear that they are at least a creative and ambitious bunch. They always seem to be trying to do something different or that is at least noteworthy.
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is somewhat of a testament to that. It's different, creative and ambitious in what it sets out to do, but it doesn't hit all the notes it needs to.
The game has been on a lot of peoples radars for a number of years due to Ninja Theory being very public about their goal to create a title that lived up to AAA standards, but one that was made on a fraction of the budget and resources normally required. They also spoke a lot about one of the core themes of the game being centered on mental health and dealing with psychosis in a way that video games hadn't managed before. That's a lot to take on, so at least they got the ambition part right.
Thinking back at my time with the game, I didn't have an issue with the length of the playthrough, or the presentation of the environments, or the competency of the gameplay. All of those things were realised quite well and didn't provide any problems. My biggest issue with Hellbade was the fact that at times, quite tragically, it still felt cheap. The emptiness of the levels, the usage of post-processed video footage to show characters, the constant droning narration from just one voice actor and the repetition of the enemies, emphasised just how many corners had been cut to make the game on a (relatively) low budget.
It's a shame because at other times, the game can be quite mesmerising. It's use of binaural sound design, the voices making you question your decisions, the impressively detailed and animated title character Senua and use of subtle transitions to cut scenes make the game feel more cinematic than many others. These high points in the games presentation, and the presentation of its story, make the low points all the more sore to see. And although the story is at times well presented, the story itself doesn't feel fully realised.
The long and short of the story is that you are Senua; a Nordic warrior on a quest to save the soul of your dead lover. Senua has to deal with voices in her head, visions of the past, and terrifying monsters that may or may not be real. As the game takes place from Senua's point of view, we have no idea if anything that happens in the game is actually real, or entirely a figment of her psychosis. There is also a sort of sub-plot told entirely through the Norse mythology equivalent of audio logs detailing cataclysmic past events. The problem with the sub plot is that it is easily one of the most boring things I've had to listen to since I stopped going to Sunday school. I couldn't decide if it was the voice actor's delivery or the content of the script, but something about these stories was so apocalyptically dry that I stopped seeking them out after the first hour or so.
The main story itself, whilst at times engaging, didn't draw me in because it was simply too muddled for me to follow. Maybe that makes me an idiot and I should get a dunce cap stiched into my hairline, but I don't care; I didnt find the story to be captivating. When you pass out in one environment, then wake up in another with no notion of relative time and space, you have no context. Did we die? Are we already dead and just going through the different stages of the afterlife? How did we get here or are we just imagining ourselves here because we need to? If we are alive then does magic and mysticism exist in this world or is this all meant to be metaphorical? It is fine for a fictional world to not follow the rules and conventions of the real world, but it must have at least some of its own internal rules and conventions to provide the player with an idea of what can happen. There is so little context given to the player that it can be difficult to find something relatable to grasp onto in the story.
Getting to the gameplay side of things, Hellbade is a mish mash of walking simulator, mandatory combat and puzzle solving. Each is executed competently; the quiet walking parts at least take place in nice looking/interesting locales, the combat has a nice visceral feeling and the puzzles are unique and creative in their execution. However none of these elements ever really evolves or gets used in any new or interesting ways as the game progresses. The puzzles themselves are an interesting idea; lining up elements of the environment to match a required symbol. But looking for the last symbol of the game basically requires the same amount of skill as looking for the first symbol in the game. And towards the end of the story I was getting less and less patient with each puzzle section, which is never a good sign.
I don't know how to review games properly or analytically, all I can do is talk about what I feel after having finished a game. And thinking about it now, I had more interest and praise for the development of Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice than I did for the game itself. I want Ninja Theory to try out this development strategy again, and I want other studios to try it out too and see what they can create knowing they have a bit more creative flex with a smaller budget.
So if nothing else, I think Hellbalde is a step in the right direction for game development. Even if the game itself is nothing more than a series of multiple mis-steps. (Ouch).