Trading Exploration for Checkpoints: Open World Strategies in Horizon Zero Dawn

Horizon Zero Dawn Tall Necks Exploration Map
Horizon’s version of towers

I find it a bit strange that we classify a significant amount of games as “Open World Games.” This has come to mean that there is a large map which the player is free to roam and complete main and side quests in whatever order they choose. Many of these open world games have competing designs in how they approach their open worlds. Some choose to immerse the player in the in-game world through a clutter free UI and minimal direction while also making the towns you visit feel lived-in. Others choose a more guided approach, with more consistent direction toward quests and an open world built for quest completion efficiency. Horizon Zero Dawn is the epitome of the latter approach, a world that is beautiful to look at but feels much more like a series of obstacle courses for the player to complete.

Horizon Zero Dawn Overide Tallneck

 

That last statement may sound derisive but let me be clear about my time with Horizon; I am having a tremendous time with the game. After the opening few hours introduce you to the world and gameplay, you are let loose out of the opening zone to the wide-open world map. The gameplay feels great, incorporating hunting and trapping tactics against mechanized animals and dinosaurs provides a fun challenge. The story is engaging as well; Horizon provides many answers players have starting the game, but still leaves breadcrumbs along the way to keep it propulsive. There are dozens of beautiful locations to explore from more forested areas, Arizona-like deserts, to snowy mountain passes.

Horizon Zero Dawn Open World Forest
The world is really beautiful though, just avoid that map

The quest structure and player map is where the aforementioned guided open world design comes in. Active quests are constantly highlighted at the top of screen providing a google maps like guidance system. The ticker updates with how many meters away the player is from the quest and constantly shifts to guide players down the most optimum route. The map can also become extremely cluttered, very quickly at the start of the game. The first merchant you meet (and every other thereafter) offers map that reveal where all collectibles and important objects are on map. Every wooden deer, old world technology and mug are available to the player for a very low price. Both of these options can be avoided though; the guiding indicator can be turned off and the player does not have to buy the maps.

Horizon Zero Dawn Shadow Carja Cultists
Some real menacing foes

Even without the options turned on, the world never becomes engrossing. Areas of the map are largely devoted to enemy camps. The bigger cities on the map are mainly just hubs to pick up quests and trade items. The AI in those cities never offer anything new, just the same dialog from before. That’s not to say the lore behind the world isn’t engaging, but the world itself never fully justifies itself as something worth exploring. It’s mainly just trying to ferry you on to the next quest location; finish that quickly and move on the next. This design reminds me of Metal Gear Solid V, a game that chose a similarly vacant open world. The battlefields were places to encounter enemy camps and soldiers, but never something to truly reside in. Once you finish your quests there is no reason for you to stick around. This is very different than the design of something like Skyrim or the other Elder Scrolls games, where the towns and AI are ripe with varying stories and unique experiences.

Horizon’s open world design choices aren’t necessarily a negative though. The experience of constantly checking of quests sets off a tremendous amount dopamine receptors. The design demonstrates how open world game design is delineated. Both choices turn off different types of players, but that’s ok. In the end it’s still their choice, to either derive meaning from the world on their own and hop right in to the joy of the jungle gym.

“Souls-like” Games are the New Character Action RPG

The Souls series and its progeny are less its own genre and more of a change to action game trends

 During the 360 and PS3 era, third person character action games were everywhere. Games like Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden started a trend on the PS2 and Xbox for fast paced, third person character driven combat. New series took the core concepts, light RPG mechanics with various weapon choices, and copied them into a variety of settings. The character action genre reached its nadir through licensed games, such as Spiderman licensed games like Web of Shadows, and underwhelming sequels, such as Ninja Gaiden 2 and 3. This gave way to a sort of genre burnout as the number of character action games on the new consoles became limited. Besides Ninja Theory, it seems like the genre’s sole proprietor is Platinum Games who have served up some of the genres highest points (Bayonetta 2) and lowest (Ninja Turtles Mutants in Manhattan) for the new console era. During that time though, a new type of action game began to be immensely popular among enthusiasts. The Dark Souls games became a household name as people became engrossed in their rigid combat system and immense difficulty. Games that incorporate similar design choices (such as slow, deliberate combat) have become known as “Souls-likes” or simply being called Dark Souls clones. But both labels miss the point: these types of games simply indicate a new direction for the third person character action genre.

Ninja Gaiden 2 Xbox 360
Ninja Gaiden 2

Something that gets lost when looking back at the third person action game genre was just how hard those original games were. Ninja Gaiden required split second timing and precise controls as even regular enemies could take you down within seconds. Devil May Cry (especially the original version of 3) required rigid skill to make it through the combat arenas and platforming puzzles. These games were known for being only for masochists, a torch that has since been passed on to the Soul’s series. The most important aspect of this difficulty though is that it is rewarding for the player and not just randomly punishing. Both those original games and the Souls games are extremely rewarding for players when they can conquer their systems. What is telling though is that Ninja Gaiden and the aforementioned Devil May Cry 3 released versions of the games that lessened the original games difficulty. Ninja Gaiden Sigma for the PS3 was seen as a step back for genre purists while also inviting (slightly) more casual players to try the game. This intense difficulty of the genre was watered down as it passed off to different developers and series. The same direction could be headed for the Soul’s series as well. Nioh, while still containing difficulty, has been said to be more forgiving with its twists on the combat system and a better entry point for players looking to jump into the genre.

Devil May Cry 3 Dante Fight
Devil May Cry 3

While the Souls games carry the difficulty found in the best of the past generations character action games, they vary considerably when it comes to combat systems. Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry both require twitch reflexes to make it through their fast paced combat interactions. The Souls games however are on the complete opposite side of the spectrum with very slow and deliberate combat. Both do require precise dodging and striking enemies during attack openings, but a very different speeds. Missing enemies is a detriment in Dark Souls not because of their quick movement and attacks but because your character’s slow attack speed leaves you vulnerable. Soul’s characters are limited by a stamina meter, preventing continuous attacks that could be performed in Ninja Gaiden. Stamina also limits dodging as a depleted meter takes away the players escape.

Dark Souls Bonfire
Dark Souls

While these limiting systems define a Souls-like game, I would argue that they more reflect a change in taste when it comes to character action games. The overabundance of fast paced action games wore out audiences with their similarities in playstyle. The Dark Souls games inadvertently satisfied a need for a change among the genre. The Dark Souls game design does not exclude the more traditional design of the character action game but rather adds variety to a fairly derivative genre. As more Souls-like games continue to be released, I believe it is time to end that specific terminology and view them as a new, integral part of the character action game genre.

Kingdom Hearts: Remixing Disney into Anime

The Kingdom Hearts series doesn’t make any sense on paper. Disney meets Final Fantasy. Donald Duck and Goofy working side by side with Aerith and Squall. Keys are giant swords. Mickey Mouse is the ultimate samurai warrior. Disney movies as planets. Hearts leaving bodies and memories being wiped. All of these elements combined sound like a story being tossed around on a fan fiction forum. But in 2002, Square Enix put these ideas into a video game and made Disney anime. The first Kingdom Hearts proved that this unlikely alliance between the world’s largest movie universe and arguably the most revered game series could make for an engaging crossover. Over the course of 15 years, 7 games (with only 2 numbered sequels) and 4 collections, Square has created a fleshed out if overly convoluted mythology. Now with the announcement of the Marvel cinematic universe being taken over by Square subsidiary Eidos Montreal and a new Kingdom Hearts collection dropping this month, it is the perfect time to look back and understand why this series is such a phenomenon.

Kingdom Hearts, 2.8 Final Prologue, Terra, Aqua, Ventus, Square Enix
I haven’t played the 2.8 prologue, but this does look beautiful

Kingdom Hearts takes the entirety of the Disney movie universe and places them in a Final Fantasy game. Besides the core Disney animated characters (the staples Mickey, Donald and Goofy) the other movies are separated into cordoned off worlds that the main characters visit. This allows the player to visit famous hallmarks of Disney movies such as Neverland and Halloweentown, but remain a detached visitor. The main core of the game revolves around Sora defeating a heartless infestation and locking the world with his keyblade. Each world involves missions that revolve around the movies’ plot points. It is important to note that this world hopping campaign has remained unchanged across all of the 7 games. This has proved to be the series main attraction while also being its greatest weakness. Many Disney films are only comprised of one film meaning that you are often replaying the same movie plot points across multiple games.

Kingdom Hearts, Disney, Goofey, Mickey, Donald, Square Enix, Sora
Assssssssssemble!!!

The Kingdom Hearts series would be nothing without its Disney backbone though. The nostalgic excitement of moving from Agrabah to Tarzan is wholly unique to Disney. These various worlds also offer the chance to team up with famous Disney heroes and square off against infamous villains. Square smartly keeps the hero team ups to their respective worlds while villains are given a chance to take on a more plot central role. Pete and Maleficent often make up part of the main antagonist team and are usually the main drivers of the heartless invasions. The Disney villains are not given the same importance as the newly created antagonists of the series, but their hierarchy in the enemy legion allows for plenty of face time and confrontation with Sora and the team.

While Disney forms the main backbone of the series’ campaigns, the core of the plot revolves around the new and original characters in the series. The plot of Kingdom Hearts takes the family friendly American values of Disney and animes the fuck out of them. A deathly serious tone revolving around the fate of the universe? Check. Amnesiac protagonists and memories being erased? Check. Existential themes revolving around souls and consciousness? A very big check. The Kingdom Hearts games take what could be considered a crossover event very seriously. Light and Darkness are very real and tangible items in the universe as represented by characters with or without hearts (or bodies without hearts). The enemies of the series are much more multidimensional in comparison to their Disney counterparts. Ansem and Organization XIII are looking for spiritual fulfillment through the series McGuffin Kingdom Hearts. The series also toys with its own protagonists’ souls as well, with characters often having to undergo ego death (or rejecting it at their own expense) to become whole like in the case of Roxas and Tera.

Kingdom Hearts, Square Enix, Sora, Axel, Nobodies
This was 12 years ago….

The plot would be nothing without the series’ engaging cast of characters. Fans immediately latched onto the pretty trio of protagonists Sora, Riku, and Kairi with each representing certain anime character tropes: the earnest good-hearted hero, the troubled but well intentioned friend, and the wise beyond her years love interest. The basis for these characters may not be original, but they have proven to be unique in their struggle to defeat the darkness invading their worlds and within themselves. The enemies also prove to be engaging through their aforementioned multidimensionality. Their tragic backstories, usually a result of their formers selves losing their hearts, add the backstory to their single-minded and emotionless pursuit to be whole again. They have no regard for others because they are incapable of being empathetic and their goal is to one day be whole again. Their main goal is to have their hearts and bodies reunited making them similar to our heroes.

If all that sounds extremely complicated, it is. Square Enix have done themselves no favors in creating games that provide more incremental detail and more mystery to their universe in between making a fully-fledged numbered sequel (with still no date as of yet announce). This overly complex mythology though is exactly what keeps fans clamoring for each successive game in the series. It may be unfair to say that Square may not have a great idea how to wrap up all of these disparate plot points with their next mainline game, but they certainly do seem hesitant to move the plot forward in a meaningful way. Even with that in mind, the Kingdom Hearts series has more than earned its fanatical following.

Feeling Good with Good Games: Nuclear Throne

A Good Bundle was a package of indie created games that donated the proceeds to two great advocacy groups: Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. With content from 128 creators, I want to go through each game and write a few words about them.

Nuclear Throne Cave Area A Good Bundle

Nuclear Throne doesn’t want you to overthink things. From the first time you spawn, the game never gives you a chance to catch your breath. With even the slightest hesitation you risk getting stuck in a volley of enemy bullets. Once you’re dead, it’s all the way back to square one.

Nuclear Throne Frog CharacterThe game’s premise is simple: kill all the enemies and advance to the next stage. This proves to be much more challenging than it initially seems: enemy bullets often take a huge chunk of your limited health. Nuclear Throne contains a colorful cast of character options to choose from, each with different powers and starting stats. The character designs are great and match the crazy atheistic well from the starting frog with a banjo to a particularly vicious looking flower.

Nuclear Throne most closely resembles bullet hell shooters but also contains roguelike elements. Each game run the player starts with the weak but effective starting pistol with random weapon drops located around the levels. The weapons in Nuclear Throne provide the game variety with multiple weapon types including explosives, machine guns, energy pistols, and melee weapons. The game also has some light leveling mechanics. Leveling requires you to acquire bright green Rad that comes from killing enemies or random item chests on levels. Rad only stays dropped for a limited time though: let them lie on the ground too long and they will disappear. Leveling comes at the end of each level and range from increased health to weaker/slower enemies. Upgrades only provide incremental benefits to help the player survive as the challenge increases. Both upgrades and the weapons are randomized for each run and disappear once the player dies. While it’s exciting to randomly get some new powerful weapon on the first level of a run, players can also get stuck with subpar drops for multiple levels. These run tradeoffs are part and parcel with roguelike games though.

The game is made up of individual levels which are nestled inside larger areas. The larger areas inform what enemies you’ll be fighting against. Areas are usually made up of around 3 levels with a larger boss character located at the end. The enemies and boss characters’ designs provide a large amount of personality to the game. From the main desert bad guys to the cave crystalline spiders, the design of the characters provides a great indication of their abilities and how the player should approach them. Bosses are also creatively designed, with my personal favorite being a dog/machine/ship hybrid that unleashes a barrage of missiles.

Nuclear Throne Dog Boss A Good Bundle
I mean right?!!!

Nuclear Throne would be nothing without great gameplay. The action is fast and frenetic constantly keeping the players on their toes as they swerve to avoid incoming enemy fire. Levels range from larger arenas to tight corridors so strategy is key in how you tackle your opposition. There are also environmental hazards to consider (classic exploding barrels) that cause not only harm to enemies, but can instant kill players as well.

The best part of each run is its brevity. Nuclear Throne is a great way to waste a half hour (and another, and the another). The speed of the game usually means runs are over in the blink of an eye. Add in weapon and character variety and you have a game that encourages players to continue coming back for more.

Final Fantasy XV: or How I Learned to Ignore the Flaws and Love the Mess

Final Fantasy XV VR Prompto
Taken from IGN.com

I decided to set up camp at the uppermost corner of the map as night had set and there wasn’t enough time for me to finish my quest. Before I could finish the day, Gladiolus stopped me to ask if I wanted to go fishing in the early morning and try to catch a rare fish. These one on one character opportunities (called “Tours”) don’t come up very often and offer good in-game bonuses, so I decided I would join him even though I’m not particularly fond of the fishing mini game. We ran down to the river in the early morning and the game announced that if I did not catch the fish in question that I would fail the tour and be sent back to camp. I spent almost an hour of game time fishing attempting to catch this mystical fish. I literally drained the entire lake of fish (something that wildlife conservationist would not be too pleased with) without catching the goal of this mission. After slowly realizing that the game had set me with a mission with no way to successfully complete it, I quit fishing and was given a failed screen.

This bug with the fishing tour is a good summation of my time so far with Final Fantasy XV: I have encountered a number of things that feel unfinished or unpolished that can be downright infuriating but yet I continue to find immense enjoyment in it. I seem to swivel on my position on the game every other day from being enamored to attempting to write it completely off. I decided on Thursday that it would be ok if I didn’t finish the game and give up, on Friday I sunk three hours in it and left hungry for more. As I pass the 20-hour mark of time played, I find the game hard to recommend but a joy to play.

Final Fntasy XV Cindy Feminism Sexist
Taken from usgamer.net

My problems with the game started at the very beginning of the game with the first female character, Cid’s (in case you were wondering if this is a Final Fantasy game) Cindy. This plucky female repairwoman has a positive attitude and is more than capable of earning her keep in the garage. She also wears very little (read: tiny scraps of) clothing. She wears a tiny button up (for maximum cleavage) and Daisy Duke style jean shorts that look like they shrunk in the wash. Apart from her character design, the game seems intent on making her an object. Every time you fill up your car at her gas station, she gives your car a full strip tease car wash (for every other gas station, Noctus is just shown leaning against the car). The characters in game all talk about her looks further cementing her role. This is made all the more irksome by the surprisingly large role she plays in the game, so her questionable character design is thrown at the player often.

Cindy also is one of only five female characters that I have met so far on my journey.  Gender diversity is lacking with only one really strong female character having been introduced. I am also not completely convinced that one of the main four characters couldn’t have been a woman. The game has made no case for why the main cast had to be all be male. They don’t all even begin the story as really close friends, with only Prompto being Noctus’ buddy before their trip (Ignis serves as council and Gladiolus as guardian). Final Fantasy has a tradition of strong female characters so this aspect seems especially overlooked.

Final Fantasy XV Characters Nerdist
Taken from nerdist.com

Final Fantasy XV also struggles with larger scale game design issues. After the introductory chapter, the player is set loose in an open world that is full of optional side quests to complete. A lot of this side content ends up being incredibly dull. Most quests have you running to fetch certain items for NPCs only for you to return these to them and be given another identical mission with a different location on the map. Very few end up with tangible rewards that make your time spent feel worth it. Hunts, side missions where you are tasked with defeating tougher monsters, are much more exciting in comparison and lets you delve into the surprisingly engaging active battle system. The game here too creates another irksome issue by only allowing you to take on one hunt. So you’ll have to keep going back to restaurant owners once you have completed one hunt to receive your next one.

The main quest’s in comparison vary wildly. While they are usually the most engaging missions (and the most traditional in terms of Final Fantasy design), they also serve to show Final Fantasy’s general lack of polish and cohesive game design. Main quests have you doing everything from completing dungeons to infiltrating bases. The variations in gameplay can be refreshing, but they don’t always work out. Dungeon crawling is much more in Final Fantasy’s wheelhouse and the sneak mechanics feel janky and cumbersome in comparison. Especially in a year where games have played with gameplay variations to great effect (Titanfall 2’s campaign), these tweaks fall especially flat. The main story is equally flawed as well. Your campaign to free your home from invading forces changes greatly over the course of the game’s chapters. Story’s points that were the main mission of chapter 2 are moved to the side quests by chapter 7 as new goals are set often with little in game explanation. Usually the loading screen in between chapters is used to explain the new goals rather than having the characters organically move the plot along. Major points in the plot often feel irrelevant by the next chapter. One point in particular has the empire cutting down on the open world only to have the next chapter lift this completely with little explanation. Cut scenes, where previous modern Final Fantasies showed impressively rendered story points, are used as flavor text and are usually kept to small snippets. They are also jarring as they seem much more like cuts removed from the Kingsglaive movie rather than actual scenes designed for the game.

Final Fantasy XV Combat Screen
Taken from usgamer.net

I could continue on for several more paragraphs documenting continued faults (some quick hits: the camera enjoys shooting bushes in combat rather the characters, the main quartet of characters are not incredibly interesting, and a special shout out to Dino for his atrocious Boston accent) but yet I am still incredibly drawn to the game. Riding around the open world on chocobos makes for a great compliment to traversing and questing in the game to the more static (but faster) travel in the car. The day/night cycle keeps things fast paced as you race to finish your quests before camping by nightfall. The combat is fast paced and is a genuine joy to play especially when you’re facing tougher and larger enemies. It is a testament to how incredibly positive these aspects of Final Fantasy are that they can outweigh the many weak points of this product.

Having waited 10 years (!) for this game to finish production, I could still be running on my long awaited anticipation to play the game. It seems mind boggling that this game feels very rough and unfinished for such a long production time. These rough edges lend it a certain charm however, as you often don’t see this level of design variation and lack of polish on big AAA releases. I couldn’t give this game a complete recommendation (especially as I approach what I hear is the more linear part of the game) but I am nonetheless having an incredibly good time playing Final Fantasy XV.

Lazy Sunday: Finding Enjoyment in Early Morning Gaming

Firewatch; Early Morning; Video Game

Games, for the most part, are thought of as a night time activity. A time where the only lights in the room are colorful LEDs. Everyone else has gone to bed, leaving the player with zero distractions. While there is something to be said for the late night gaming session, I receive much more enjoyment by moving my game time from the dead of night to early morning.

Master Chief; Halo; Early Morning GamingI used to be a morning person. Before I went to college and had the option of starting my day with 11 o’clock classes, I enjoyed waking up with the sun. I can understand if your schedule mostly revolves around staying up late and sleeping in, how you might find this early morning idea to be silly. Now that I have entered the work force however, I find myself waking up earlier and earlier and rediscovering what I loved so much about that time of day. Everything is quiet and the morning light so soft that having the time to slowly wake up to a favorite activity has become quite a great pleasure of mine. I also don’t have to interact with any roommates while my mind is still groggy. It provides me with some perfect alone time to start my day, which as an introvert I desperately need. This has become my preferred way to play any single player game and I love wrapping myself up in a story with the perfect cup of coffee.

Coffee Shop; Early Morning; GamingEarly mornings are the perfect time for gaming. Often thought of as a time for runners and the unnaturally fit, early morning game time provides the perfect way to start your day. Picture this: you roll out of bed still slightly groggy. You brew some coffee and move with your piping hot cup over to the couch and turn on the TV. As you pick up your controller and press the home button, the console’s power up music slowly soothes and helps wake you up. As you sip your coffee and the caffeine shakes the sleep off your brain, you decide what game to play. Maybe you can try beginning your day with an easy to pick up game like Peggle. Maybe you want to sit back and work your way through a more story driven game with slightly more relaxed gaming mechanics like Firewatch. Or maybe you want to jolt yourself awake with some adrenaline and immediately jump into an Overwatch match. Or you can even pick a fourth option, and play a little of all three. The best part is, this is before anyone else is awake.

Competitive games of course don’t quite work for this scenario. Friends are usually not up at that early hour and your brain and reflexes are not quite warmed up yet to take on opponents. But if you have a great single player game to play and a nice weekend in which to do it, I highly encourage you to take the early morning route.

Returning to Virtual Communities

stardew-valley-governer
Stardew Valley

I left behind the village of Stardew Valley about 6 months ago. When I first downloaded the game, I was immediately taken with its Harvest Moon-like structure (I grew up playing the n64 version). It was refreshing to see that this style of game, one that tasks the player with not only running a farm but improving the town and creating social relationships with the neighboring villagers, still made for an exciting experience. After I played through about 2 and half years in game, I stepped away from farming and instead moved to interstellar demon slaying (someone had to get them off Mars!).

stardewvalley-farm
Stardew Valley

I did not return to Stardew Valley until only recently, excited to revisit my farm. Something felt off though; in the 6 months I spent away from the game I had unintentionally removed myself from the NPC community. It felt strange to step back into the town that at one point I was emotionally invested in. I didn’t feel the same pull to help Clint the blacksmith break out of his shell and pursue his crush on Emily. There wasn’t the same gratification in gifting Linus, the misunderstood hermit, some cheese (which I had to look up on wiki to remember if he liked it). Worst of all, I was no longer as emotionally invested in pursuing my romantic relationship with Leah. The cooling off period I had from the game created a separation between me and the various characters similar to the feeling of distance between old friends whom I no longer keep up with. Interactions aren’t as exciting as they used to be and the environment that once felt like home feels alien. It was exactly like visiting my home town after years of absence; new social relationships and communities have taken priority so old relationships are no longer as important as they used to be. Games like Stardew Valley require players to become emotionally invested in the towns that they are placed in, in order to add meaning to the gameplay. If players don’t enjoy their interactions with the villagers, then why even attempt to help them?

animal-crossing-missing
Animal Crossing: New Leaf

There aren’t many games that engender this type of social attachment, but I have had similar experiences when returning to Animal Crossing. Animal Crossing, like Stardew Valley, is all about interactions within its community, only that the villagers’ movements and continue even when you are not in game. Animal Crossing’s NPCs will move away or even forget the in-game character. It makes returning to the game even more jarring than Stardew Valley. Favorite friends could be gone, replaced by new characters that can serve as poor replacements for the previous tenant. The neighborhood makeup can be completely overhauled, making this virtual town feel completely foreign.

These types of social-driven games face this unique issue. Other game types, like RPGs, may be hard to return to because people forget mechanics integral to moving forward in the game. Games like Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing however face a much harder challenge; trying to remind players that they are vital and important part of this community, even when it doesn’t feel like home anymore.