Retreading Familiar Ground in Animal Crossing: New Horizons

The first and only Animal Crossing game I’ve ever played longer than a day (I borrowed one in college but didn’t have the time to do more than make a character) was the original one on the GameCube. That isn’t a result of a lack of willingness on my part so much as a result of my disconnect from buying new games during college (I think the only new game I got while I was in college was Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword) and my lack of free time as a post-college adult. I’ve always had something come up that make a time-intensive and daily play game like Animal Crossing prohibitive.

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Fallout 76 is Challenging my Expectations

I bought this game the day before it came out so I could play with my roommates and friends. I played it the first night people could access the servers and not much since then, thanks to National Novel Writing Month. That being said, most of what I’ve learned about the game has been from my solo playing after the brief introduction with my friends and from watching my roommates play it. Well, plus reading about it online because it is currently the internet’s favorite thing to love to hate right now. While I don’t have as many hours as I’d normally like in the game before reviewing it, I really think that it needs to be talked about.

First of all, it plays like pretty much every other Fallout game. There are a bunch of minor variations, like V.A.T.S. (the auto-targeting system that lets you use character stats to shoot or hit things instead of your ability to aim) not pausing time and jumping costing Action Points, but those seem like fairly obvious concessions necessitated by the change from a single-player game to an online multi-player game. You can’t pause the world if someone on the map is using V.A.T.S. and it’s unreasonable to expect the developers to find a way to pause time for only your character. Other than those two things, it feels remarkably like Fallout 4. Maybe even disappointingly like Fallout 4, since I was really hoping for a change in color. You get bored with browns and washed out blues or greens. I was hoping for some orange and yellows, maybe, or some vibrant color variants. It is a solid entry in the same vein of most Fallout games, simply trading one contrived plot for another, one vault for another, and one location for another. Which isn’t a bad thing, mind you. I quite enjoy all the Fallout games even if I tend to get bored of the endless side missions and weird power curves before long.

The biggest downside to this being a standard entry in the Fallout line of games is the number of bugs. There have been tons of them and even the most forgiving players would characterize Fallout 76’s first month as a “rough start.” That being said, it’s still managed to pull off a multiplayer online game while avoiding all of the worst problems. Griefing people is difficult, since the Player versus Player combat rules require two consenting adults to shoot at each other before removing a huge set of damage reductions on either character. It is still possible, of course, but there’s no way to stop a determined player from griefing someone if they want to. The lack of a good, in-game reporting feature is concerning, but the fact that they can real-time track every player, who is doing what events, and how your individual actions might set up the environment for a player passing through later is monumental. We expect it because we’ve been spoiler by online multiplayer games that are good at faking it, but we actually get the whole thing here. There have been myriad issues with the gameplay itself, things like players getting trapped in their Power Armor or the one player whose character is unable to die. There are a lot more bugs attributed to the game acting weird than issues arising from it being an online game, which has so far shocked no one but the people who’d never played a Fallout game before this one.

The internet has been going on about this game a lot. Most people seem to absolutely hate it or love it, which seems to be a theme of internet culture these days. Everything is all of one thing or it’s all of the other. There’s no room for middle-ground or change over time, everything either sucks or is the greatest. To be fair to the haters, Bethesda kinda deserves it. There have been issues with pre-orders, people feel like they were misled about the game they were getting, some of the pre-order people received sub-standard items with their pre-orders, and people feel like the game is limiting them from actually enjoying their online experience because of the rough start to the game’s release. At the same time, not all of the criticism is as valid as the rest. Advertising a canvas bag in one of the top-tier pre-orders and sending a low-quality nylon bag instead is dumb. They either should have had the prototypes and pricing done before they advertised, or they should have sucked up the cost and given people what they were promised.  Being mislead about the game they were getting isn’t really valid. Sure, people expected a fully finished game on launch, but I think people’s expectations are wrong in this case, especially seeing how the video game industry has changed over the years.

Sure, there’s the basic change of development from risk-taking hobbyists to corporate profit-chasers that has resulted in micro-transactions and a “new” Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty game every year, but that’s about how the industry makes its money and what sort of staple games appear. What I’m talking about is the way games are delivered and what is handed to us when we download it. Back in the day, there wasn’t a way for games to get an update so they’d take a few years to create despite being relatively simple. No amount of computer tools makes a 3D model easier to create and animate than a sixteen-bit pixel model and every level in an old game was a two-dimensional surface with shading to give it a sense of depth. The games took longer and were as complete as possible when they reached our hands because they had to be. The games that weren’t that good have gone down in history as being enormous flops or cult classics. Sure, everyone probably remembers the Missingno trick from Pokemon Red and Blue, but not every realizes that doing it wrong or making a poor choice at any time could have really screwed up your game. I mean, I played Majora’s Mask for a week, trying to get to the first save point before my game froze on the N64 and I only ever saw it as a challenge I had to overcome. Our expectations were different back then. The only games that were “perfect” where the ones that were too simple to mess up, and even most of those had bugs or exploits for whoever went looking for them. At some point, we got it into our heads that games had to be perfect when they come out and it’s ruining our ability to enjoy perfectly playable if buggy games.

In addition to that, the product being delivered to us has changed.  Gone are the days when we expected a game to stay exactly the same as when we bought it. There are still some games like that out there, but most of our big games change overtime. Almost all of our online multiplayer games shift as time passes, introducing new events and story tidbits for us to enjoy. Look at Destiny 2. The game has an entire year of additional content planned. Most of it isn’t story content or anything that’s really going to change the game for us (we already got our big chunk of story content and changes to the game this year, so that’s all for us until the next expansion), but it’s still new activities and weapons and so on. Look at World of Warcraft and the way they spread the pieces of a new expansion out over the course of several months. Look at literally every multiplayer online game out there. We, as consumers, have grown to expect this, and yet the entire customer base loses their shit when a game isn’t perfect the minute it releases. For whatever reason, we love a story that unfolds over months but can’t stand a game that transforms from a basic, ambitious concept to a fully realized constantly developing world that ceaselessly incorporates community feedback in its decisions about what to do next? That’s ridiculous.

I think that we, as a whole, need to cool our jets and just enjoy the alright Fallout game we’ve got as the development teams continues to improve it. It is far from unplayable and the fixes they’re delivering are a sign that they’re listening to what the community wants, even if they’re slower about responding to it than we’d like. People should just play what they can and give the game a chance to live up to our expectations rather than trying to shut it down the moment it fails to conform to our desires. I think people will be presently surprised at how much the game has grown if they return to it in the spring.

Victories in Hallow Knight are Anything but Empty

As you know, I am a big fan of the Nintendo Switch. I like to find games I can play on it and, as it happens, most of the highly rated games on the Switch are platformers. As I’ve said before, I love platformers and metroidvanias in particular, which means I’ve had my eye on Hallow Knight since before it came out. I’ve had it on my Steam wishlist for well over a year and, when it looked like the internet was going to be out for a while, I downloaded it during the brief periods when the internet was working. That was the best decision I’ve made this month.

Hallow Knight is basically just another metroidvania. You start out in a basic world with a jump, an attack, and the ability to heal yourself. After that, you slowly unlock abilities that let you progress through the game until you reach an end determined by a couple of factors. You move about in a two-dimensional plane, avoid stage hazards, and fight off enemies using a combination of your basic attacks and unlocked abilities to get around the special qualities of the enemies. When it comes to gameplay, its nothing super special. It’s fun, but there are better examples of gameplay innovation and quality. While it is fairly standard in those terms, it makes it’s mark because every other quality of the game is extraordinary.

The plot is fairly simple, you’re a knight who was called to complete some kind of quest. You don’t really know what, but you find yourself drawn to the ancient, ruined city of Hallownest. There, you find a cadre of characters, all of whom adhere to the “bug” theme your character starts, who make their lives supporting the numerous people who feel called to explore the dungeon or call it their home. One of the first I met was a map-maker who quickly set the tone for there being something a little off about the world and the people in it. As you defeat enemies and rescue these little worm guys, you start to notice blobs coming out of some of the enemies you defeated and then encounter enemies who had giant sacks of the stuff which they fire at you like little orange bombs. While exploring, you meet a few more characters who subtly work in references to a wonderful world lost and the eventual corruption of everyone who stays in the city for too long or who goes too deep. There’s more to the plot, of course, all of which is revealed through little hints or statements by the more peaceful denizens of the dungeon. I don’t want to spoil it, since I was more interested in digging up little nuggets of the plot, themes, and history as I played than I’ve felt while playing any game since Celeste.

While you’re working through the world, you’re making your way through a world of black, white, and grey tones that manage to brightly portray a world of gloom in a way I’d never thought possible. Occasionally, a splash of color shows up as some enemies explode into orange blobs or shoot little orange spheres at you. Occasionally other color shows up in the environment, like when you find a giant blue crystal that, when shattered, gives you temporary hit points. Other times, it’s something like a mine with light purple crystals scattered throughout or the worm creatures you rescue. Each time you see color, your eyes and attention are instantly drawn to it as it shatters the beautiful gloom of the greyscale environment you get used to between blooms of color. Setting color aside, every visual in Hallow Knight is absolutely incredible. The characters feel so alive and even the background stands out in its incredible variety as you try to find your way through the various rooms. Even though everything is notable enough that you never really feel lost or like you’ve just walked through the same room twice, it still all blends together incredibly so you know that the mine and the courtyard with the small palace in it are definitely a part of the same place. The game also makes incredible use of the foreground, having your character walk behind a whole range of things as you move from one place to another, but never in a way that you lose sight of your character.

Despite the fact they fit into the grey-scale, gloomy environment so well, none of the enemies are hard to spot or difficult to figure out. Occasionally a boss throws a new move into the mix as you chip their health down or their attacks start having secondary effects, but they mostly have pretty clear modes of attack and methods of movement that are nevertheless a challenge to work through without injury. Because of the way your character gets bounced back when it attacks an enemy, it can be difficult to avoid falling in the pit full of spikes and avoid running into the enemy as it is charging toward you. You have to push forward, toward the enemy, just enough that your bounce doesn’t send you off the ledge to your death but not so much that you run into them and get hurt. Throw in the variety of enemies and the way they mix them up, it gets to be a challenge to make sure you’re fighting each enemy the right way.

While you’re fighting them, the somber music in the background doesn’t change, though it somewhat fades to silence. When it comes in, it starts slowly, changing from simple environmental sounds accompanied by the wind to a rather simple but sad music that does an amazing job of representing the area you’re currently in. As time goes on, the music adds more, interjecting small sections of brighter notes to contrast with the quieter, more morose ones. It never changes abruptly and, even when I went to listen specifically to the music for this section, it was so subtly and perfect that I almost didn’t notice the change.

If you like metroidvanias and you haven’t played Hallow Knight, you’re missing out on incredible artistic masterpiece of a game. I recommend you pick it up and let yourself experience it at a comfortable pace. This game begs for a slow, methodical play-through and I recommend you play it in a dim room with little other noise so you can fully immerse yourself in the experience.

UnEpic Was the Opposite of Mundane

Do you like RPGs? Do you like the idea of having a fully customizable character you can turn into a super-specialist or a jack of all trades without having to sacrifice character effectiveness?  Do you like Fantasy that is aware of the typical tropes and has a delightful mixture of falling in line with said tropes and standing them on their heads, both in such a way that it makes even the most tired trope feel fun an exciting? Do you like all of those things and side-scroll action, too (AKA, a “Metroidvania” style game)? If you answered yes to all of these questions or found the potential combination of them intriguing, then I have a game for you to try out!

UnEpic is all of those things and more. It is a side-scrolling RPG starring Daniel (at least, that’s the name he gets in the promo materials, you get to name your character when you start the game but that’s mostly for save file reference), a typical video gamer who got transported into the game when he went to the bathroom during one of his first ever tabletop gaming sessions. He finds himself in a castle and, deciding someone must have slipped something into his drink or food, decides that he’s hallucinating so blithely wanderings further into the castle. After a few rooms, he happens upon an evil spirit (AKA Zera) that tries to possess him, but it fails to do anything more than get stuck in his body. As he moves deeper into the castle, slowly becoming convinced he’s not hallucinating, he eventually figures out what he needs to do in order to get home. As he does, there are a number of humorous scenes as he and the dark spirit sharing his body try to trick each other. Daniel wants help navigating the castle and the spirit wants to kill him so it can leave his body and inhabit another that it can actually control. Daniel usually comes out on top since, ultimately, it is up to the player to decide whether or not to follow the Spirit’s advice, and the spirit is initially only trying to get Daniel killed. As the game goes on, the Spirit starts mixing in actual help with the incorrect instructions, making it much more difficult to figure out what is good advice and what isn’t.

As he explores the castle and learns more about what it’s going to take to get him home (and it’s fairly early that he learns he has to defeat the lord of the castle), he find money, items or gear, and magic to help him on his way. A lot of it is fairly typical fantasy fare, stuff like swords, bows, heavy armor, and more specifically named stuff like “Tunic of the Ranger” that makes you better at using bows and even unique stuff like Excalibur and an axe you get for, uh, helping out Goblins during mating season. Did I mention this game requires you to enter your age when you navigate to its page in Steam? Definitely not a game for young children, what with the references to sex, alcohol, and drugs. Fun fact, it’s also on the Switch now and plays even better on the handheld, wide-screen glory that is the Switch than it did on the computer.

Anyway.  As Daniel explores the castle, he discovers he needs to defeat the lord of the castle and, in order to do so, must free 8 light spirits from their prisons. From there, it’s all finding keys, exploring secret rooms, trying not to get murdered by traps, and finding the right gear so you can kick as much ass as possible while trying to figure out how to make it through rooms that randomly drop rocks on your head and through dungeons where every door you find is locked by a key that isn’t the one you just picked up. For the most part, in terms of gameplay, it’s nothing special. It’s fun, light-hearted take on dungeon delving is what makes it stand out. There are games with smoother controls, more intuitive interfaces, better layouts, and better levels, but this one hits the “satirizing fantasy” niche better than most similar games I’ve ever played.

The protagonist’s video gamer roots show in the way he tries to address his problems and the game’s mechanics catch him and any similar players off guard when it starts to introduce a lot of rules more commonly associated with tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons. For instance, skeletons take (slightly) reduced damage from swords and spears, but extra damage from blunter weapons like maces or clubs. Bows require targeting for enemies that aren’t straight in front of you, which can be a little frustrating because you might have to cycle through available targets before getting to the one you want, but the fact that you can miss a slug crawling across the ground when firing straight ahead is the first real evidence you get of the game’s excellent hit-box management. Never will you take a hit you feel you shouldn’t have taken and never will you hit something unless you see your weapon enter into the enemy’s model. It can be incredibly risky to use a close-range melee weapon since that requires getting within striking distance of most of the enemies in the game, but they usually do more damage and have better bonuses or stats than spears and bows.

It’s a fun game with relatively simple mechanics that don’t take long to pick up and really start to flow smoothly once you get used to swapping between items in your shortcut menus and rapidly targeting enemies with ranged attacks while avoiding the enemies closing in on you in melee. It even has a ton of fun little references to other games and media liberally sprinkled throughout. Some of them have been a little obfuscated in the Steam and Switch versions (the only versions I’ve played, but I read a few articles about it while trying to figure out if the spirit’s original name was a reference to something) for copyright reasons, but most of them are still there. There’s even one a few minutes into the game, when you fight your first enemy. I won’t spoil it, but it really sets the tone of the game.

If you’ve got ten bucks (or less, if you get it during a Steam sale event) burning a hole in your pocket and want several hours of relaxing dungeon exploration, I recommend checking out UnEpic. It’s not going to blow your mind, reveal the secrets of the cosmos as they relate to your inner-most heart, or make you acknowledge the secrets hidden deep inside that you won’t even admit you’re hiding to yourself (we’ll leave that to Celeste), but you’ll have a good time as long as you don’t mind a bit of a bratty protagonist who keeps getting shown up by the evil spirit possessing him.

This Mario Game Was Super. What an Odyssey.

I have a bit of a strange history with Super Mario Odyssey. I got it the day it came out, left work early to play it, and spent my entire afternoon and evening playing it, exploring the mechanics and getting invested in the story. Then I set it down for the night and didn’t pick it up again until last month, at which point I played it for an entire weekend before setting it down and not picking it up again until this past weekend. Which I only did because my roommate started playing it and I wanted to grab a few more power moons since I had fifteen minutes to kill.

This game is simultaneously a ton of fun to play but difficult to pick up. Odyssey takes me back to one of my first major gaming memories, when I tried to get all one hundred twenty power stars in Super Mario 64 on my own, but it feels even more rewarding now since there is no real interruption when going from one power moon to the next. In 64, you got brought out of the level after every power star (except for the 100 coin stars), but Odyssey lets you flow from one power moon to the next with only a small “got moon” cut-scene. The only exception is when you’re altering the map as a result of pursuing one of the ongoing plot points (such as causing an upside-down pyramid to rise into the sky, exposing a sinkhole or beating a mini-boss and returning to the level following the storm that was the backdrop for your battle. The fluidity of the gameplay is important because there are power moons EVERYWHERE, with a wide-range of difficulties associated with them. Some or simply sitting on the top of a tower you need to climb, while others are buried behind quizzes and mini-games or secret doors that are only revealed if you notice every tiny little detail or spend your time attacking literally everything. If there was even the relatively short “get sun” cutscene from collecting a Shine Sprite in Super Mario Sunshine after getting each power moon, it’d be a real drag to collect them since your gameplay would constantly be interrupted.

Mario’s moveset has grown again, which is part of what has made this huge variety of difficulties possible. In addition to his classic air-dives, long jumps, spins, wall-jumping, this game introduces a companion, Cappy, a hat-spirit that replaces Mario’s destroyed hat and gives him all kinds of new abilities a whole range of attacks based around throwing Cappy, like a mid-air jump (by throwing Cappy out and then landing on him), and the ability to take over the bodies of various enemies. This lets you do thinks like turn into a T-Rex, a tank, a Hammer Bro, or do crazy things like create a tower of Goombas that stretches into the sky (my current max stack is 20), all of which is often a requirement to find hidden power moons or progress through the level. In addition to these powers, Mario can also roll around (for the first time in a 3D game) if you hold the crouch button while running, which so far seems like a great way to pick up a little extra speed when going down a hill. It’s a bit silly at times, but it can be super convenient despite the difficulty of steering Mario when he’s on a roll.

These abilities, combined with levels designed as somewhat “open-world,” means that it is entirely possibly to string together move-combos that entirely by-pass the mini-games that allow you to access secret areas or let you avoid lots of obstacles by moving over open-air that you probably shouldn’t be able to cross. If you spend any amount of time looking, you can find tons of creative solutions to the puzzles in the games that bypass using the intended mechanics for something either much faster or something incredibly and ridiculously over-complicated. The inventiveness required to get some of the power moons in the earlier levels does an excellent job challenging the player to think outside of the box when it comes to the usual linear approach to collecting power whatevers in a Mario game. It leads the player to consider the wide variety of options available when it comes to moving through space and then, after the second or third level, just starts dropping power moons everywhere and letting you figure out how you want to get them. The range of difficulties in the puzzles also means that less experienced players can find enough power moons to move the story along while still providing challenges to the more experienced players. It also cleverly helps newer or less exacting players find the more difficult moons by incorporating a hint system and a coin-based system to help you figure out the puzzles. With enough time, any player can find all the power moons.

The biggest downside to me, and the sole reason this game isn’t easy for me to pick up and play is that it almost requires you to play with the Switch on the TV and the two JoyCon in your hands. Because of the huge variety of moves available to Mario, there aren’t enough buttons or button combinations to let the player control Mario with button inputs alone. Some of the moves require specific motions to be made with one or both of the JoyCon. These moves can be reproduced using only inputs, but they are almost always incredibly complicated strings of inputs that combine other moves together to produce a move that can be done by simply shaking the JoyCon. They can also be done using the Pro Controller or the Switch in Handheld mode, but they become incredibly clunky (and create a significant risk of accidentally dropping the controller or system) because the JoyCon are meant to move independently. As someone who primarily uses the Switch as a handheld device, I’m super afraid of trying to perform one of the “controller twist” moves and accidentally flinging the Switch at the wall or the ground, so I only play this game when I’m feeling like lounging on my couch, in front of the TV.

That’s pretty much the only fault of the game, though, and is more on Nintendo for, once again, pushing a frustrating gimmick (I mean, most new games for the 3DS don’t even pretend to have a “3D mode” anymore…). I’d definitely recommend this game to everyone if it was easier to play without the JoyCon separated from the Switch, but I’m only going to recommend it to the TV players. The game is fun, but it’s not so fun that I’m willing to play it with a super frustrating control mechanic.

Climbing the Mountain of my Heart

First and foremost, I want to thank one of my readers who contacted me, Ryan, for recommending Celeste. I would not have played it without your suggestion because it wasn’t even on my radar before that. I enjoy platformers, but I’m not very good at staying up-to-date on video game news. Trying to follow everything that’s happening is super stressful. Normally, I rely on my friends for that kind of information, but none of them are really into platformers, so thank you so much for recommending a game I have immensely enjoyed.

Like most indie platformers, the game is fairly simple in concept. The game follows a young woman, Madeline, as she attempts to climb Celeste mountain. The controls are basic, based around jumping, an air-dash, and climbing. The levels are often only as big as your screen and the simple move set means it is fairly easy to figure out how to move through them, but the game is still very challenging because the maneuvers require precise timing and execution. Timing your jumps, dashes, and climbs so you wind up being able to combine them all in a quick string that lets you finish by dashing to the final platform at the right moment, to avoid the floating spikes that are moving back and forth, becomes a real challenge. Dying only set you back to the start of the screen or the last mini checkpoint, but it can become the right kind of frustrating when you’ve died a couple dozen times on the one screen.

In addition to the air-dash, there are a number of level-unique gimmicks and a few game-wide ones that get introduced to add variety and further complication to your play. Platforms that fall or crumble a second after you land on them, bouncy clouds, little bubbles that throw you a certain distance in whatever direction you’re pushing, and even little feathers that turn you into a little orb of light dashing through the sky. Moving spikes, weird black round shapes with eyes, and moving platforms that catapult you in the direction they’re moving if you time your jumps well. All of it comes together to create a wonderful and challenging platformer that offers you a ton of variety.

To up the ante, there are various collectibles spread throughout the levels. Strawberries scattered throughout the level, little mini-game screens with “B-side” tapes on them, and crystal hearts in hidden rooms that will encourage you to leave no room or direction unexplored. The strawberries are just collectibles to incentivize exploration, but the B-sides and the crystal hearts add things to your game. Each level has a second, harder version you can unlock by finding the tapes while the last level, Level 8, is stuck behind a wall you can only unlock with four crystal hearts. Like most good collectibles in these kinds of games, you can enjoy the game without needing to gather them, but they add to the game if you take the time to find them all.

Thematically, this game is far more complex. Madeline is climbing the mountain because she feels like she needs to make a change in her life. As you learn throughout the game, Madeline suffers from some pretty bad depression and anxiety, resulting from something bad that happened to her (it is never specified, but the game hints that it may have to do with a past relationship). She has to learn how to deal with the problems that come up as a result of her mental health issues all while trying to cope with the mountain itself, which seems to be doing everything it can to make her journey more difficult. You can even see her slow growth throughout the game in the ways she interacts with and talks about the other people she encounters.

My favorite part, which hit super close to home, is an exchange between Madeline and Theo, a hiker she encounters throughout her climb who she just rescued from the materialization of her inner demons. They’re sitting around a campfire, talking about what happened and why it is happening. Eventually, Theo asks her a question (I’ve trimmed out non-relevant or spoiler-y bits of dialogue):

T: Why not take a vacation instead?
M: I guess I feel like I need to accomplish something.
T: It sounds like you have enough on your plate already.
M: I guess it is kind of extreme. But that’s how I am. I need something to challenge me. And I can’t just do something a little bit. It’s all of me, or nothing.

As someone whose main coping mechanism is “find projects to do” and who has often said that I find it much easier to commit 100% that hold back, I felt a little called-out by the game. Madeline even uses similar language to describe her depression.

I’m currently climbing my own mountain. Trying to update this blog every day for what’ll wind up being at least thirteen months, trying to work enough to pay of my loans quickly, trying to work out regularly, trying to work on my novel five days a week, and trying to maintain my relationships (romantic and platonic) by staying socially active. So far, I rarely ever accomplish all of those things, but I try every day and don’t give myself a hard time if I can only do one or two of those on any given day. I remember learning the lessons that Madeline learns in this game and this was an excellent reminder that I need to be careful or I’m only going to wind up making my life more difficult for myself.

I have to say, this game came at exactly the right time for me. I suggest you pick it up for its super fun platforming and then appreciate it for the wonderful story it tells in a form that doesn’t typically lend itself well to storytelling.



This Game Has A Destiny Too Complex To See

One of the games I’ve been playing a lot recently is Destiny 2 on the PC. It isn’t Borderlands, but it is still a shooter with super interesting guns and special powers you can swap around. That’s close enough for me to enjoy, especially since I can easily get all of my friends to show up on an evening to play some Destiny 2 with me and I’ve yet to actually finish the story of a Borderlands game with anyone but my librarian friend. It may not have the same sense of humor, cell-shaded glory, intriguing characters, smooth control scheme, super supportive community, excellent campaign mode…. Okay, maybe the comparison isn’t as great as I’d originally thought.

That isn’t to say Destiny 2 is bad or that I’m not enjoying it. I actually really enjoy Destiny 2, even the online PvP (Player versus Player) modes. I play it all the time by my own choice, even if I never really play it by myself. The campaign doesn’t have as much replayability, but it is also super easy to just power through if you’re interesting in earning the XP for your clan (a loose association of players that can bring you some minor benefits and is basically just a list of people who’ll do the three-player missions with you) or trying to increase your chances of getting a rare gun. It was a lot of fun to play through the first time, even if it wasn’t super compelling. You can definitely tell that the main focus of the game is supposed to be on what happens AFTER you complete the campaign.

There’s already a lot to do after the campaign ends, and there will only ever be more as new content is created and released. There are Strikes, which are three-player missions that have a good chance of dropping good gear, which come in a couple different flavors. Vanilla (normal) strikes are relatively easy and vary widely, but don’t drop very good gear that often. Heroic strikes are more difficult and drop better gear along with having a chance to drop the best gear. Nightfall strikes are even more difficult and have special rules, but also drop better gear in addition to having the best chance of dropping the rarest gear. There’s the Crucible, which is the main PvP mode, and the Trials of the Nine, which is a special format of the PvP mode that gives you really great gear if you manage to win 7 out of 9 matches. There’s also the Leviathan Raid, which is the highest-tier of end-game content, requires six people, and is the best way to get gear. There’s also a number of things that happen on each world, such as public events that anyone can join, small adventures for alright look, and the constant grind of earning tokens you can trade in to each world’s representative for random loot around (but usually below) your level.

All of this content is geared toward players who enjoy making multiple character, doing weekly or daily grind sessions to get the best possible weapons, gear, cosmetic items, and emotes. There’s some room for more casual players since the best way to get gear to do the weekly milestones, which basically just requires that you just play a little of every game mode every week. You can do it in a couple of hours one night a week if you’ve got a decent group of people to play with, though doing the Raid can easily double that. You can just keep playing with the same character the entire time or switch between a few characters to get the weekly rewards all over again as you help the more casual members of your clan earn their weeklies. Personally, I like to play it whenever there’s someone online to play with but I usually stick to one character because I’m not super motivated by the rare weapons. I just like to “Captain America” things as a Titan (you get a shield you can bash people with, block attacks with, or throw at distance enemies to damage and blind them. It’s so much fun to just run around punching the crap out of enemies in a shooter. And, if you get the right gear, it’s a totally viable strategy.

The sheer variety of play style available to the players is where Destiny 2 shines. There are three very different classes with different styles of play and each of those classes can be played in a number of very different ways based on the special properties of your armor. I have arm armor for my Titan that includes the lunge distance of my melee attacks and the damage the attacks do, which stacks with a class ability that does the same thing. If you set it up right and time everything well, you can fly around a battlefield like superman, punch everything to death. Warlocks do incredible amounts of damage in general but are probably also the biggest utility class since you can modify them to increase damage, heal, use more grenades, be super mobile, and so on. Hunters are the high-damage, very mobile sort of class that have the best mobility and the most options when it comes to attacking (In terms of strategy rather than in terms of abilities). Each of these has sub-classes that change their abilities and grenades, and writing about them all would be at least a full post per class.

The biggest problems the game has come in the form of the continued support from the studio, Bungie. There have been a number of uproars in the player community already in regards to some the questionable decisions Bungie has been making, all of which is compounded by the fact that Bungie isn’t very good at communicating with its fan base. There was the XP debacle (XP was being weighed so that super grind-y players didn’t get too many of the loot boxes you get by leveling up or by purchasing from Bungie), the only recently resolved issue involve the DLC (players without the DLC got locked out of almost every post-game activity that was a part of the weekly reward system), and the tumultuous Prometheus Lens arrival and subsequent nerf (PvP used nothing but this gun because it could nearly insta-kill other players and a large segment of people wanted to keep it around. Personally, I hated it since it made every PvP match the same boring grind of who pulls the trigger first). In the last couple weeks, Bungie has really started communicating more clearly and openly about what’s going on, but a lot of players are still left wondering just how all of this stuff made it through testing or why Bungie made some of their clearly dumb decisions they’ve subsequently backtracked on.

I can’t really hold the game accountable for the mistakes of the company that made it, though, so I would definitely recommend getting Destiny 2 (and its DLC because the extra missions they’ve added in Curse of Osiris were a lot of fun).  I’d recommend playing casually or settling yourself in for the cycle of frustration and excitement my roommate seems to go through every week or two, but that’s really up to you. If you’ve got an open evening every week that you’d like to fill and a group of friends you like to game with, I strongly suggest filling it with Destiny 2. You’ll have a lot of fun, if nothing else.

A Breath of Joy and Light in the Dark

In two days from today, on Friday the 30th of June, Nintendo is releasing the first segment of the DLC for their latest smash-hit Legend of Zelda game: Breath of the Wild. This bit of post-release content is going to add quite a few wonderful features to this already amazing game. The one I’m looking forward to the most is the map tracker. Finally, there will be a way to tell which parts of the map I’ve never actually been too. It, and the Korok Mask (that rattles when you near an undiscovered Korok), are what are finally going to let me find the other 100 or so Koroks I need to finish upgrading my inventory.

At a very close second comes Hard Mode. Basically, it’s going to let me replay the entire game with tougher enemies (every enemy has been replaced with a one-tier tougher copy and the maximum tier has been raised) and a few twists. The only twist they really detail is that now there will be little floating platforms with enemies and chests on them. I really can’t wait to see how it all plays out.

Other than those two things, there are some outfits and a challenge mode they call “Trial of the Sword” that will get you a stronger Master Sword. Nintendo has done a pretty good job of outlining the DLC and driving hype for it. I know I can’t wait.

A project I mentioned in a blog post a few months ago, after I finished my initial play-through of the game, will be starting sometime this weekend. I’ve taken to calling it a “Naked and Afraid” run-through. The rules I’ve set include no armor other than hats, a new fire must be lit every 5 minutes or so, as long as there is flammable material around, and I must provide a running monologue of poor Link’s thoughts as he runs from everything, dies ignobly, and does his best to ward off foes in nothing but a hat and his shorts. I intend to stream it via my Twitch channel this weekend. Maybe on Monday, the 3rd, since I have the day off.

I am admittedly very fond of this idea because it juxtaposes quite nicely with the themes of the game. In the game, you are a warrior awakening 100 years after you nearly died, your land in ruins, your people scattered, and the woman you swore to protect the only remaining barrier between the evil scourge you must someday face and the final destruction of the world. So you run around screaming like a small, excited child wearing nothing but a hat and your boxers.

When I first played the game, it was rather depressing. You wander through a world destroyed long ago with a quiet, melancholy sound track fading in and out of the background to selectively emphasize the horror and sadness around you. One of the first places you find is a room that matches the iconic meeting between Link and Zelda in Ocarina of Time. In this game, it lies in ruins. Windows shattered, walls toppled, and serenity destroyed. All that remains of that memory is a quiet thread woven into the game’s theme, a slight change in the melody that plays Zelda’s Lullaby throughout the time you’re in or near it.

I won’t spoil what you find there, but Makar Island was the biggest blow to me. I remember playing Wind Waker and always enjoyed the little Korok named Makar, that you save from evil in your second dungeon and that you assist in bringing back the Master Sword’s power. Makar’s Island lies to the west of Hyrule Castle. I suggest checking it out.

The whole game is full of these moments. Sad little references to past games and people you’ve met throughout the years of playing Legend of Zelda games. All of it placed through this game to drive home that point that, yes, Good will eventually triumph over Evil, but you failed to keep it at bay and now it is impossible to return to the life you knew before. Nothing can ever be the same again.

I know they were working on the game for years, long before the current political climate in the US and most European countries reared its ugly head, but it really feels like the game was meant to come out now, to serve as another reminder that we need to keep fighting so we can salvage whatever we have left, even if we’ve already lost a lot.

That’s a lot of heavy themes for a game. I guess that’s why I want to do my silly play-through. Not to mock the severity and solemnity of the game, but to stick truthfully to my ideal that laughter and joy are our best defenses against this kind of evil and darkness. The DLC hits the internet Friday and my stream will hit it sometime shortly thereafter, so come laugh as I make an idiot of myself and one of my favorite protagonists so we can have some fun and fight off the gloom that threatens to swallow us whole.

Escaping Through Video Games: No Man’s Survival Craft

I don’t know about you, but one of my favorite things about video games is their ability to take the player away from their present situation. Whether the player is avoiding eye contact on the bus via phone Tetris or Sudoku (my personal preferences) or trying to get away from a bad day by delving as deeply as possible into their favorite RPG (Skyrim), these games provide a quick escape from the primary world. For a lot of people, that’s all they really need: a break from the pressures of their life and the opportunity to put it all away for a little while.

I enjoy that kind of escape immensely, almost as much as I enjoy reading. However, when I’m at my most stressed, at my most worn, when my OCD and anxiety are at their worst, this level of escape either isn’t possible or only puts my problems off until I stop playing (and I can’t tell you the number of nights I’m played games or read books until I’m falling asleep in order to put off that moment when they all come rushing back). I always need something that takes it a step further, that provides something beyond just the escape of a different world.

For a long time, that something was Minecraft. I’ve been playing it since my sophomore year of college and I’ve probably logged more hours to it than every other game I’ve played since. It was a world that was constantly changing and improving, a world where I was in complete control of the world provided I placed enough torches out to prevent Creepers from spawning. I could imagine whatever I liked and, with enough work, the game would come to reflect it. I leveled mountains, built lakes, and created entire mine cart pathways that took more than 10 minutes to go from the central hub at any of the ends.

Unfortunately for me, the game has lost a lot of its appeal as it has added a lot of features and items to create an adventure mode. The more features they added to make it an adventure game (The End, XP, potions), the less interesting and fulfilling it became for me. Even the exploring and building aspects that I loved started to become boring and monotonous, good only for a couple of hours at a time before I lost interest.

Then along came ARK: Survival Evolved. This seemed like exactly what I had been looking for: a game focused on taming the environment and surviving the harsh realities of life on an island inhabited by dinosaurs. I can’t tell you how much fun it was for me to make a character with maximum movement speed whose whole purpose was to give me the ability to run up to a T-Rex, punch it in the butt, and run away before it could hit me. All while cackling like a madman, of course. Unfortunately, that quickly went the way of Minecraft as well. As soon as survival stopped being an issue, I lost interest. Leveling up became a necessary chore and finding enough resources to feed myself and my pets was simple. I tried to challenge myself with made up games and the idea of making a base my character could carry to the middle of the island and deploy, throwing myself into the most dangerous area in the game. Even that started to bore me when nothing even tried to attack my new base.

For a long time, I listlessly cycled through these two games, trying to recapture my earlier feeling of tranquility and happiness. Almost nine months passed before I found a glimmer of hope. One of my friends had called for all to board the hype train for a game that was set to come out the next week: No Man’s Sky.

Now, as anyone can tell you, the hype train and marketing team killed any chance No Man’s Sky had of being a success. They promised more than any game could hope to deliver and left an enormous and outraged fan-base with a game they hated. I, however, managed to avoid the hype train until the week before the game came out. Everything I read pointed toward simple resource gathering, space exploration, and the quiet wonder of finding something new on every planet.

Judged based on those scales, the game is amazing. I get to fly from world to world, collecting resources I can sell to purchase more hyperdrive fuel or to outright buy a better spaceship. I can spend time getting to know the language of the locals through exploring their planets and interacting with them, my status in their society changing based on how I interacted with the few people I ran into during my travels. Sure, a lot of the actual exploration parts can get a little monotonous, but there’s always a new cave to find, a new word to learn, or a new pillar of gold to mine. I’ve named a half a dozen star systems and about four times as many planets. I’ve left my mark on the universe of the game and have yet to find another player.

I am alone in the universe and, for the first time ever, that idea is uplifting. I have no demands but those of fueling my exosuit and my spaceship. I can go wherever I like, do whatever I like, and just enjoy the scenery. I am alone in the universe and I am fine with that.

I know a lot of people hate the game and I know a lot of people want them to add a story or features to make it more action oriented. I don’t. Sure, it’d be nice if the flying controls were better or if it was easier to fight off space pirates, but I’m fine with things the way they are right now. It is refreshing to play a game that is just so calm and relaxing. Even the soundtrack is relaxing.

If you like action games, if you want to go on a bad-ass adventure to save the universe, don’t buy No Man’s Sky. If you want to just wander around the universe just to see what’s going on someplace else, buy this game and let it take you to places you never expected. Let it take you away from everything you want to leave behind and escape into this nigh-limitless universe.