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!

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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).

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.