My Commitment to Dota is Eating up my Schedule

Dota Tide Ultimate

My favorite thing about Dota is the investment. Dota’s large time commitment allows the stakes of each match to be huge. Your character, your team, your opponents, and even your role evolves as the match progresses. Match length allows for deep strategy to happen on a micro level that affects macro gameplay objectives; the largest one being how your character’s farm (how much experience and gold you bring in) effects battles and map control over your opponents. This investment is also easily the thing I hate most about Dota.

When I go to play a match, I have to make sure that nothing else can interfere. I have to strategically plan when I can play. Have to make an appointment in an hour? No way I can fit a match in. Meeting up with friends soon? Dota’s a no go. Get home from work and have to make dinner, go to gym, and get other chores done? Where the hell can I fit an hour match in? Dota requires you to make it priority number 1. It eats up entire evenings, afternoons, and mornings if you let it.

Dota 2 Sand King

Even if you do set aside just enough time to squeeze in a match or two (I rarely have time for more than one in a sitting) the physical investment is no joke. Matches require your full attention and leaves no opportunity for you to step away from your computer to do anything else. I usually run through a quick checklist before I start a match:

  • Am I hungry at all? Do I need to bring snacks over or make dinner before I start?
  • Do I have water nearby? Getting up to grab a drink could only maybe be an option 20-30 minutes from now.
  • Do I need to go to the bathroom? Will I need to go to the bathroom? Maybe I should just do a quick run to double, triple check

Besides the insane details listed above, the emotional investment is where Dota really becomes an exercise in masochism. The team nature of Dota requires all 5 players to actively play their roles well (or at least have one extremely good carry depending on MMR). You have to pay attention and have an understanding of the game that is frankly intimidating for new players. Knowing when and where to assist or take things for yourself is important for game objectives and team wellness. If even one player slips up, there goes an entire 45-60 minutes wasted. Defeats are agonizing (I’ve written about my experiences losing in Dota before) and are only offset by the extreme highs of victory. Having a run of defeats is demoralizing; I often have to stop playing Dota for months if I end up with a string of them. I also have to be energetic to play Dota; if I’m tired it shows. Lazy play on my end means a defeat for my team and a chat full of expletives aimed straight at me.

Dota 2 Earthshaker

So why play Dota? More importantly, why make time for Dota? That’s something every Dota and MOBA player is still figuring out. It’s those extreme highs really, the shot of adrenaline that comes with every strategy that succeeds, every play that comes out right. Now I just need to free up that schedule of mine to play it…

Advertisements

Ni No Kuni II: Variety is the Spice of Life (Part 1)

Ni No Kuni II Party Members

I was a little hesitant to pick up Ni No Kuni II. I was feeling burnt out on RPGs as I had dedicated a lot of time to them in 2017. I finished Persona 5 and Final Fantasy 6 (for the very first time!) and had sunk over 30 hours into Divinity Original Sin II. The thought of dedicating time to another long RPG seemed daunting at best. The mixed reviews from the first game didn’t help, especially since it supposedly turned into a late game grind. Good word of mouth of the sequel prevailed though and I ended up purchasing it based off those recommendations. And boy am I glad I took that advice.

I am currently about 10 hours in and loving it. I’ll save any discussion of story for another post as currently, as I am still early in the game and (in true RPG fashion) it has yet to really develop in a meaningful way. I’ll would much rather focus instead on the variety of mechanics the game has to offer. This variety has made the initial hours fly by as the game slowly introduces its surprisingly diverse systems (with still more coming my way).

Ni No Kuni II Thogg

The core of the game revolves around active time RPG battles. Rather than having a traditional turn based battle system, instead battles are more similar to a combination of Kingdom Hearts and Devil May Cry. You control one of 3 characters (you have the option to choose which character to control) that can participate in battles while the other 2 are controlled by AI. Each character has a light, heavy, and ranged attack and can also be equipped with 3 close-combat weapons. Each character also has a total of 4 magic abilities, which can range from casting fireballs to spinning sword attacks. You can cast your special skills at any time, but it is to your advantage to build up your different weapon meters. Weapons individually build percentages as you attack and when they reach 100% your special skills do extra damage. Ni No Kuni thus requires you to constantly cycle between your close range weapons to build percentages up to augment your special attacks. The game also has you recruiting (and eventually making) little spirit helpers called higgledies. These pint sized spirits assist in battle as well, providing damage or buffs to your party. They can also activate special abilities during battle, which include projecting a healing barrier or dropping a large dark orb on enemies.

Ni No Kuni II higgeldy

If this sounds a bit complicated, so far it really isn’t. The early parts of the game can feel a bit like training wheels as battles require little more than jamming on your light and heavy attacks. But the game has slowly increased the difficulty, requiring strategy in implementing dodging, blocking, and activating special abilities. Ni No Kuni also has what they call the “Tactics Tweaker” that allows you to invest points earned from battles that adjust your parties’ strengths and weaknesses. There are quite a few settings to tweak to advantages against certain enemy types, elemental affinities, and even higher drop rates for items. These settings are all tied to each other though. For example, if you choose to do more damage against blob-like enemies then you won’t do as much damage against fairy types. This system keeps your party from completely running over enemies as different areas will necessitate different affinities based on enemy and elemental types.

Ni No Kuni II Skirmish

Breaking up the RPG action battles are optional, more unit focused battles called skirmishes. Skirmishes take place on a wider map than the confined RPG battles do. They are much similar to Dynasty Warriors, where you maneuver across an open map. These battles have up to 4 squads of minions orbit around your main character and engage in fights with groups of enemies. These battles aren’t the same type of active as the regular battles; you won’t be pressing buttons to have your characters attack. Instead it’s all about placing your orbiting minions in line with enemies. Your minions then automatically attack the enemy troop until either you move them or one of the squads fall.

Skirmishes have a rock-paper-scissor style of troop combat. Troops are either one of 3 types: light (swords), heavy (shields or spears), and range (archers). Put a sword group against the ranged troops and they’ll easily win, but put them against a heavy troop and you’ll face casualties. Skirmishes are decided by reducing the opponents’ military might to 0. Taking down enemy troops results reduces the enemy’s military might so defeating all the troops is the only way to win. Player’s also has special abilities to activate during the match as well, but these cost military might so they have to be used sparingly.

Ni No Kuni II Kingdom Builder

The final piece of the gameplay puzzle is the Kingdom Builder. The main focus of the game’s story revolves around you creating a brand new kingdom, so Ni No Kuni II puts you in charge of it. You aren’t completely creating a city from scratch a la Sim City, but instead choosing what buildings, upgrades, and research to perform first. Your kingdom has specific areas where specific shops must be built so it is up to you to prioritize what shops to build and upgrade first. Shops all offer unique advantages; for example you can prioritize researching higgledies by upgrading the Higglery or bolster your military might in skirmishes through the Barracks.

These individual shops are also manned by NPCs that you place in each building. Each character has specific skills that allow for more complex projects and faster research. You’ll start out with a small number of NPCs to choose from, but you can collect more by completing side quests. This places a great incentive to complete side quests, something I have a hard time reconciling in other RPGs. The idea of not only receiving specific items as rewards but also having a new person join my kingdom makes me more motivated to put the main story on hold. Ni No Kuni II gives player’s like me who tend to stick to the main story quest path a reason to pick up side diversions.

Ni No Kuni II Sky Pirates

I was not expecting to write this much about Ni No Kuni II’s gameplay before purchasing. The cute fairy tale setting and Studio Ghibli animation houses a surprisingly complex RPG. The variety of systems at play keep things fresh and I can’t wait to see how all of these mechanics evolve throughout my time.

Dragon Ball Fighterz Makes me feel Like a Kid Again

Dragonball Fighterz FusionI haven’t been taken with a game quite the way I am with Dragonball Fighterz in a very long time. That doesn’t mean I haven’t liked or even loved quite a few games over the recent years, but this new obsession marks something deeper. I’m not playing the game everyday, only playing from time to time. I’m not even that great at it and am currently in a losing slump.  I can’t help but think about it constantly; I have been consistently coming back to it something I haven’t done since I picked up Dota over 7 years ago. I pick it back up in between all the other games I’ve been playing, hopping back in the lab to brush up on my technique. I’m even watching pro fighting tournaments again after I had become a fair weather Evo fan. Arc Systems has simply created something that is unabashedly up my alley.

It reminds me of the way I used to obsess over things when I was a kid. If something caught my attention, I was much more drawn into all the minutia about it. I would be dig deep into the details of the world, remembering places, times, or scenes where important events took place. I would latch onto characters not just because of personality, but their style and demeanor as well. I would run back scenes or events through my head remembering how cool or sad I thought something was. Dragon Ball Z was one of those obsessions. It’s the first show I remember having to watch as soon as it came on. I would draw the characters in a sketchbook. I wanted to be part of the world so badly that I would draw myself as one of the characters. I knew every storyline and every character and was very protective of my feelings over it.

Goku Black
Rose!

Obviously my nostalgia for DBZ plays a key part in my obsession with Fighterz. The art perfectly meshes Arc Systems’ 2.5D animation with the original series stylings. Character’s voices (and screams and trash talk) are all perfectly matched. Everything about Fighterz is lovingly recreated from original DBZ right down to the stunning dramatic finishes. I even feel a pang of guilt every time I fire up my team (Kid Buu, Goku Black, Gotenks) since canonically these characters would never fight together. DLC characters even have me excited to see what new team members will be pulled in from the shows’ deep bench of villains and heroes (hell I’m even excited about the new Bardock and Broly!)

I’m obviously not alone; the game leads this year’s EVO sign ups and with specific show lingo and canon from the tv show are an important part of the professional scene now. There’s something more to this game though something that years of Budoki and Zenoverse games never captured; an actual, honest to goodness, professional grade fighting game.

I have never felt so empowered playing a fight game like this since I first played Street Fighter IV (almost 10 years ago?!) which was the first fighting game that inspired me to buy a fighting stick. I watched tutorials online determined to get better at the game. I wanted to be the best dammit! (or at least very very good). Fighterz has filled that void that I almost forgot I had. Even when I lose a match, I don’t feel especially discouraged. The game’s mechanics even make onboarding a breeze; in hindsight I have no idea why I had misgivings about the auto combo system, which allows players to pull off long strings of hits by only pressing one button. That specific piece is an incredibly ingenious idea allowing players to perform cool moves without handing them a match. Everything command wise is a breeze to pull off (especially pulling off familial Kamehameha waves).

Dragonball Fighterz Gohan Super

I honestly just want to continue playing and obsessing over this game. The fighting game community’s embrace of it makes my interest seem rewarded. I want to keep fighting, training and getting better, and isn’t that what Dragonball Z is all about?

DBZ Goku Training

Dunking makes me feel good – my time with Pyre

Pyre Pass

Dunking is one of only few perfect things in this world. The art of the dunk, long sought after by many basketball players, is elusive yet o so rewarding. A perfect dunk has the rare accomplishment of being both artful and powerful. Players like Vince Carter epitomized the beauty of the dunk, how the balance of both jump height and rotation complexity can form a perfect union (the 2000 dunk contest is a thing of beauty). Vince Carter might not have been the first person on SuperGiant game’s minds, but the essence of dunking is flowing through their action/adventure game Pyre.

Pyre NightwingsLet’s take a quick step back; while Pyre has a lot of dunking that’s not really what the game is about. Pyre takes place in a fantasy setting where outcasts from the main society (known as the “Commonwealth”) compete in sports-like contests to achieve access back into society. These contests are known as “Rites” and are a spiritual ceremony and each team represents a different one of the eight mythical characters (“Scribes”) that saved their land from chaos. Your job as the player is to embody “the Reader,” one who has the ability to read what is known as “The Book of Rites” that provides you with strategy and background on how to win these rites.

If this all sounds a bit dense, it kind of is. Pyre is a game very heavy on story. The Book of Rites acts as a lore book for the universe. To the game’s credit, it slowly deals out these pieces as you progress throughout the various rites. The Book slowly fills up with passages on the locations in the world, opposing teams, backstory on the rites themselves, and much much more. There is a lot of information given in these passages but the games slow pace at which it doles the out makes it easier to digest.

Pyre Party

The gameplay in between the rites, which takes up the majority of the game, is similar to something like an adventure game. You will interact with characters in your party, choose what paths your party takes on the way to compete in rites, and eventually pick which rites to compete in. Luckily these passages are engaging as the story and writing are superb. All the characters, both friends and adversaries, have complex backstories about how they ended up outcast (or in the “Downside”) and motivations for gaining access back to the Commonwealth. Most enemies could not be classified as pure evil and even the most hardened competitors have sympathetic reasons for winning.

Pyre Dunk Gif
Dunk!

The rites themselves are really the best part though; this is where the dunking comes in. Each rite is a 3v3 match where your characters must take a ball (“Celestial Orb”) and move it into the opposing team’s “Pyre.” The player can only control one character at a time though, so positioning other characters is crucial. The characters each have auras, outlined fields around them that if an enemy comes in contact with will put them out of play for a duration of time (“Banishment”). These auras can also be shot at opposing players to banish them as well. Each character has different stats which effect speed, aura size, and point values for scoring. This means getting the orb into the pyre requires banishing opposing players or outmaneuvering them. Characters can also throw the orb from a distance, but it takes a charge up time, rewards you with less points, and can be intercepted. This leaves players to mostly rely on literally dunking characters into the pyre. I cannot stress enough how GREAT this feels. Outmaneuvering an opponent with a speedy character or wiping out an entire team with well-placed aura shots, leaves you with a great adrenaline rush. When you are able to dunk your character into the pyre, that’s icing on the cake. Matches (especially as the game progresses) become tense stalemates and one wrong move can leave you wide open. I cannot stress enough how good the rites feel and I never truly felt too powerful over other opponents. If you do though, you can always turn on extra modifiers that increase match difficulty and also give characters more experience.

Pyre Nightwing Score

Winning enough of these rites is the ultimate goal and eventually allows you to pick which characters to send back to the Commonwealth. This happy ending is only for that one character though, and once they are gone they are no longer available for your team. To make matters worse, only characters that have a certain amount of experience are allowed to ascend. This combined with Pyre’s strong writing make it an incredibly difficult choice. The reward is seeing these characters that you have grown close with achieve their freedom. It’s hard not to feel a bit twisted up sending a character back to their life on the other side of the world. After they ascend, other characters in your party also react to their absence making it sting even more.

It should come as no surprise that SuperGiant Games has knocked it out of the park again. Their writing is as strong as ever, as they showed in Bastion and Transistor, but this time they’ve been able to pair it with even better gameplay. And nothing (I mean nothing) feels and looks better than a dunk. Keep on dunking outcasts!

It’s Time to Rethink Star Fox

Star Fox 64Star Fox has had a rough go of it. The series hasn’t had a true hit since Star Fox 64, which is celebrating its 20th (!) anniversary. Currently, Star Fox stands as Nintendo’s sole blind spot as all its other flagship series continue to find success. Adhering to older game styles have proven to be successful with new games this year (see: Sonic Mania). Star Fox’s place as a top Nintendo series seemingly prevents a success like that; $60 is just too steep. With the series currently on hold with the most recent failing on the Wii U and Star Fox 2 finally being released as a pack in with the SNES classic, Star Fox’s path to success is by rethinking the series’ place as a AAA title.

Star Fox 2

Star Fox’s best games are enjoyable because of their single-minded gameplay approach.  The third person aerial combat provides Nintendo’s trademark accessibility through its simplicity; one button to shoot and one button for bombs. The game also had Fox and team never leave the cockpit of their respective arwings, landmaster, and blue-marine in both the Super Nintendo and N64 games. Further iterations attempted to have the animal heroes fight on foot with negative results.

This places the series in a tricky position. Fans want new games to adhere to the N64 formula while also expanding on it. This formula has not aged especially well though; while the gameplay is still engaging, the game is thin on content. One run through the star map (~7 levels) takes under an hour. Anyone familiar with how to navigate the star map can take the multiple run throughs necessary to see all the levels within a few short hours. This makes charging $60 for a new game a tough proposition. But this is where that change in mindset could benefit both Nintendo and fans; by moving Star Fox from console headliner to a more budget friendly downloadable game fans can get the Star Fox gameplay they want without having to tack on unnecessary modes or gameplay tweaks.

Star Fox Adventures
Remember this???

It would help to think of Star Fox as another modern-day game type; rogue-like. Indie games like Galax Z, Spelunky, and Dead Cells are a perfect way to reinvigorate the Star Fox series. While their gameplay is very different, these games offer tight focused single player campaigns that satisfies players much in the same way the original Star Fox games do. Their campaigns are segmented into discrete levels with each subsequent mission increasing the gameplay difficulty with a final challenge building on everything that came before it. These games are also meant to be repeated. Also like Star Fox, when you run out of lives you restart at the beginning. Rogue-like game feel complete with just this campaign as players receive a full experience by the time the credits roll. There is no need for a multiplayer component or larger variations on the core gameplay.

Star Fox Train Fight

Players also don’t feel cheated out at their smaller price point. This is the perfect area for Star Fox and a way for Nintendo to focus on a smaller number of levels to fill the campaign star map. No need for weird platforming sequences or on foot combat, keep the players and the animals in vehicles at all times. Include a multiplayer component if you must, but just don’t make it the focus of the game. There is also no reason for any shifts in control schemes either, just keep it to the two buttons and the joysticks. Star Fox fans would agree, we’re all happier when we’re fighting giant robotic ships in arwings. By moving away from thinking of Star Fox as a headlining act, Nintendo can effectively please everyone who wants a taste of that old nostalgia.

Missing Stuns and Feeding: Losing in Dota 2

Dota 2 MeeposThere is no feeling worse than losing a match in Dota. Correction: there is no feeling worse than knowing you’re the reason your team lost in Dota. You’ve been missing stuns all game, your gold count is always too low for your next item, and you just can’t help but be caught by enemy players. Everything just feels OFF. Obviously, I would know from experience.

Dota first of all is a giant time sink. You won’t complete a match in less than 30 minutes. The game is also extremely dependent on all 5 members of your team playing properly, not mention coordinating together. Dota also requires you to know the character you’re playing. Not only what their abilities do, but their strengths and weaknesses versus other heroes, what items to buy, and what role they play on a team.  No one character or player can truly dominate an entire match (depending on your MMR or player rank) so when you have a weak link on your team, you really know. One person not filling a role can spell doom on an entire match. All these factors provide you with immediate feedback on how well you’re playing. You can sense when other players in your lane are starting to out match you. When these players take over a lane, it makes it even harder to bounce back.

Dota 2 Hero Chart

I’ve never played another game where I feel so horrible for playing badly. I can just feel it in my body like a sore muscle; it hurts and there’s nothing I can do to change it. Even without the notorious (read: toxic) player community to provide feedback, I can tell how far behind I am in a game. Bad games resemble a slow-motion train wreck as the time slow inches forward until the other team is capable of pushing on your ancient. There are ways to try and gain back ground; sometimes big team fights where you kill other high level players can help swing the match in your favor. But for the most part if you aren’t playing a support character and you have a bad start, you have doomed your team. The rest is just waiting 45 minutes while the other team gains power.

Dota 2 Lane Fight

The negative feelings that come from playing a bad game of Dota ranks at the top of worst reactions from a game. It can eat away at your demeanor (why do you think the community is so toxic?). It’s the type of feeling that really makes you question your involvement with the game. But somehow it manages to pull you back in for now, making you eager to prove yourself in the next match.

Sonic Mania Proves I’m Not Crazy (for liking Sonic at least)

Sonic Mania Anime Intro Sonic Knuckles TailsI wasn’t able to play video games as a kid. Up until about age 8, my parents forbade me from owning a console. They eventually acquiesced when a family friend asked if I would like to borrow their Sega Genesis for a while as they barely played it anymore. I was so excited to finally play video games and I played the one game he owned over and over; Sonic the Hedgehog. I absolutely loved Sonic and quickly jumped on board the band wagon. Soon I was watching the cartoon and wanting to buy all the toys and accessories. As I grew up, so did Sonic and I gladly played through his original jumps to 3D in Sonic Adventure 1&2. I 100% drank the cool aid.

Fast forward to 2017 and 9 console titles later (not to mention handheld), the Sonic series has hit an all-time low. 3D games became the primary titles on consoles leaving behind Sonic’s primary speed for slow, cumbersome platformers. Sega turned him into a werewolf and even had him date a human (the less said about that the better). They even tried to return him to 2D with lackluster results. Sega dug the Sonic series in a serious hole, at least critically. I’ve questioned my own interest in the series; was I crazy for thinking Sonic was ever actually good?

Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 Playstation 3 Xbox 360
Like I said, yikes

Thankfully Sonic Mania has disproved that theory. This new game made by PagodaWest Games and Headcannon has shown that a modern Sonic can in fact be very, very good. Not only does it feel like that old classic Sonic, it feels fresh. It takes those familiar tropes that fans remember about the original games and runs with them. I blasted through Green Hill zone and was surprised to find that this wasn’t the Sonic of my childhood, but a marked improvement over it. I was right back to the excitement of my 8-year-old self.

Sonic Mania Studiopolis Zone Sonic the Hedgehog

Sonic Mania is nostalgia done right. The game sets you up to expect a run through of Sonic’s greatest hits, but adds new elements to the basics. Levels are more expansive with even more branching paths and hidden elements to find. One minute I was zip lining down, the next I was being blown into the air by a giant popcorn popper. I noticed a lot of similarities between the levels at first, but the game quickly messed with my expectations. While the zones start out as templates of those original Genesis game zones (Green Hill for example) they quickly branch out from there (Sonic on an airship is a highlight).

Sonic Mania Boss Fight Dr Robotnik Mean Bean Machine

Sonic Mania really differentiates itself though in the boss fights (as in they are actually fun!) While you’ll still be mostly trying to jump into the weak point of a Robotnik (sorry Eggman) machine, the arenas are more dynamic. Arenas will shift and change or will often have movement incorporated into the fight. One highlight comes early; as you finish the level you are dropped into a versus battle of Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine.

These changes don’t mean that Sonic Mania is more complex. You’ll still be trying to gain as much momentum as you can by pressing right and the only button you’ll have to remember is the jump button. This doesn’t mean Sonic Mania isn’t difficult. The levels are setup to punish players that just want to hold right, a lesson I learned repeatedly. The aforementioned boss fights also took me more than a couple tries to pin down. Above all, I found Sonic Mania to be plain fun. I would have never thought that I could be raving about a Sonic game in 2017. PagodaWest Games and Headcannon are known for their work in the Sonic fangame community and they have created what might possibly be the best Sonic game. Maybe Sonic can in fact be a top tier series again, if its creation stays out of Sega’s hands (stay tuned for Sonic Forces this fall).