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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.