RAD Closed Beta Review

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in the closed beta for RAD by Double Fine Productions. The first time I heard about this game was when it was teased for the Nintendo Switch in the Nindies Showcase back in March. But this closed beta was actually for PC. I wanted to give my thoughts on this current build of the game for those thinking about buying it.

The first thing I’ll say about RAD is that if I was going to buy it I would certainly choose the Nintendo Switch version, assuming they don’t add an online multiplayer component, which I actually really think they should for this particular game. The game is much more suited to a controller and mobile play than desktop gaming. It’s a roguelike dungeon crawler with perma-death mechanics. It actually reminded me a lot of Let it Die. I tried it with both a Dualshock 4 and a Wii U Pro controller. I have to say that I liked the Wii U Pro a lot better than the Dualshock 4 for this game, but a big part of that was because I couldn’t remap the buttons. The game says you can remap the buttons but the feature wouldn’t work for me with either of the two controllers I tried. While this didn’t make the game unplayable, it certainly was inconvenient. The default button map isn’t necessarily bad. It’s just not ideal for me. Being able to remap the buttons on my controller would improve my gameplay performance considerably, in my opinion. To clarify, I was able to remap my primary mutations between three specified buttons in game, but not remap the entire control scheme like I wanted to.

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The main selling point of RAD’s gameplay is the mutation, or “RAD”, system.  Each time you play the game you start as a normal kid with limited abilities. All you can do is walk around, swing a weapon, the default being a baseball bat, jump, ground pound from the air, and dodge roll. That’s the basic essence of the game. You move through procedurally generated areas that work just like floors in any roguelike swinging a bat until you die. I say procedurally generated because that’s what’s being reported, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see a lot of repeated areas. Not entire floor layout, but specific sections of maps seemed to be repeats. Maybe it’s procedurally generating a set of fixed islands, as all the levels are made up of disconnected island structures that are reached via bridges and warp points.

Your goal is to survive as long as you can and get past as many floors as possible, with each floor ending with a boss fight of some sort. There is an endpoint that you can reach, but I’m not sure if it’s a fixed or random number of stages that have to be beaten to reach it. I only reached the end once during the beta. It showed me one of multiple endings. You can also find and consume items to refill health or boost performance. Pretty standard roguelike fare. What makes the gameplay interesting is the leveling system. You do not level up in the traditional way where you get more HP and stronger attacks. Instead you gain mutations that grant you special abilities. These can be anything. I don’t for sure know the total number of possible mutations but according to the compendium in the game’s pause screen there are a total of 87.

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Primary mutations are active abilities that you use. Secondary mutations are passive buffs. Both are key to surviving. Your XP bar fills as you kill enemies. Every time it fills, you get another primary mutation. You can have a maximum of three primary mutations at one time. Each primary mutation is linked to a single button press. Once you’ve acquired three primary mutations filling up the XP bar causes them to develop further. The gain additional characteristics that enhance their usefulness. For instance, there’s a mutation that gives you ranged physical attack. When you level it up again the range increases by a considerable amount. Each time you level up after acquiring three primary mutations, a single mutation develops at a time going in order from left to right. Meaning that if your first mutation is at+1 and your second and third are at +0 then your second mutation will develop to +1 the next time you fill the XP bar again.

These mutations can be anything. I was very surprised at the variety of different capabilities players can get, and according to the compendium I’ve barely scratched the surface. Some of the things I gained the ability to do were short term flight, spawn mutant clone babies to fight enemies for me, throw my arm like a boomerang, enslave enemies for short periods of time, and protrude spikes from my body causing a lot of damage. The mutations were interesting, highly different from one another, and for the most part, easy to use. According to the compendium, there appears to be 56 total primary mutations. Though there are quite a few mutations available, I’ve already seen mutations repeated multiple times, having not yet gotten them all. In fact, there was one time where I got two of the same three mutations that I had gotten the round right before. There are also special landmarks in the game that replace one of your primary mutations with a random new one. You do not have to interact with these if you don’t want to and you can’t choose which of your mutations is changed.

20190526094238_1Secondary mutations may actually be more important than primary ones. These are not acquired through filling the XP bar. You get these by finding special mutation landmarks that automatically grant you an additional secondary mutation. The most I got at one time was eight, with all being constantly active for the duration of the round. I don’t know what the maximum number of active secondary mutations is or if there even is one. These buffs are just as varied as the primary mutations. Some of the ones I got were immunity to fire, longer range projectile attacks, an extra shield against toxic attacks, and increased movement speed. If you can find enough secondary mutations and manage to get the right primary mutations, all of which appear to be random, you can get some really strong builds. There appears to be 31 secondary mutations. These I did see repeat between playthroughs and they weren’t always useful or at least not at the time they were acquired. For instance, there’s a secondary mutation for improved range attacks. But often I’d get this when I didn’t have any ranged attack mutations active so it was a useless buff.

What’s very interesting is the fact that some secondary mutations are negative. I got one that made it so you couldn’t see where you’ve already been on the map. While this was annoying in practical terms, I like the fact that you can get negative mutations. Plot wise that makes perfect sense because it’s ridiculous to think that all mutations would be beneficial. While mutations of both types are meant to be considered and used individually, it’s the art of using them together that makes for truly effective play. Without a doubt the best run I’ve had was only possible because I was able to use my mutations as a collective. This includes both primary and secondary mutations. I had one primary mutation that gave me drastically higher and longer jumps, one that gave me a charge attack, and one that extended spike out of my body in mulitple directions for massive damage. By using the charge attack while jumping I was able to jump over groups of enemies. While directly above enemies I would use the spike mutation and damage them as I sailed right past them, inflicting damage and quickly escaping the line of fire. I was able to use this on pretty much ever type of enemy including bosses. When coupled with the various secondary mutations I had such as ground fire immunity, toxic pool immunity, and faster movement, I was able to inflict continuous combos and avoid pretty much all damage in most cases.

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The gameplay is very smooth. While I wanted to remap the controls, they were fairly accessible and easy to understand. It’s really just learning to use the mutations effectively that has any sort of learning curve, and it’s not a big one. While RAD is perma-death for mutations, it does have a few long term unlockable upgrades. Your main weapon can be changed every time you go back to the base, which you can do between levels and at the beginning of every new round. New weapons can be unlocked as a reward for certain achievements. I was only able to unlock two additional weapons so far but both were noticeably stronger than the previous one I was using. You can also unlock quirks. These are permanent buffs that you equip from the character selection screen at the beginning of each round. You can only equip one at a time. The only one I’ve unlocked so far grants a fire shield for one of your hearts. Another important long term mechanic is money. Money can be used to purchase a variety of things each round such as health restoring items, keys, and access to special mutations. These items disappear when you die. But you can bank money between levels so that if you don’t want to spend it at that moment you can bank it and then access it again later at the base. Vendors appear all over the levels but they all sell different things from round to round and don’t appear in the same locations.

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There are quite a few items in this game with many different uses. This is where the luck component of the game comes in. In my best round I just happened to find multiple instant mutation items in the first level. This allowed me to develop a full set of attacks much earlier than you normally can. This increased combat ability so early in the round allowed me to accomplish so much more than I had in previous rounds. Up until that round I’d never beaten one of the main bosses. In that round I easily brought down two before getting tired and saving the game to continue later.

I’d say the gameplay works rather well overall, but I did encounter a number of bugs. While it’s not a genre I tend to favor, I did find RAD enjoyable in small doses. Thankfully you can save and continue games later. Rounds can be long if you can survive, but they can also be short. My longest round so far lasted more than two hours and was the only one where I reached an ending. I encountered two serious bugs that affected gameplay. The first was that I wasn’t able to claim the heart extension reward after the second major boss I defeated. While this wasn’t game breaking, it was very annoying and got me really angry. Like with Zelda games, defeating a boss fight nets you a heart extension. The place where it dropped when I beat the second boss was under his corpse, which never disappeared unlike with previous enemies, including the first boss I defeated. The game would not let me pick it up no matter how hard I tried. The second was that the game completely crashed on me once. I don’t know what caused it, but thankfully the game let me continue on the stage where the game crashed. I assume it’s an autosave feature.

20190526095022_1Visually, RAD is about what I’d expect from a top down roguelike. The camera is above and at a slight angle from the player. It’s about the same view as that in Bastion or Hyper Light Drifter. While it’s certainly not AAA quality graphics, it’s fairly decent looking for a roguelike game. It’s not trying to look realistic and thus uses a very animated style but with a large amount of detail. Lots of little things come together to make something fun and child friendly, but certainly not childish. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia filled with debris from multiple past civilizations, a number of highly differentiated enemies, and lots of plant fauna. But the real depth is in the small details. The rust on burned out cars. Tufts of grass scattered throughout a sandy wasteland or cracked roads and abandoned construction zones. Wooden planks placed over gaps as makeshift bridges. It’s these little things that set the tone of the world and they do an excellent job.

What I really appreciated most about the graphics was the mutations. As your character mutates, his/her physical form can change drastically in a plethora of ways. This is important for the tone and gameplay. Your physical appearance changes based on the mutations you unlock, ultimately connecting the player with each specific round on a more personal level than in many other roguelikes I’ve played. Enemies too come in mutated forms. You can find more than one version of an enemy as you progress forward. Obvious details like size and color differ between different versions of enemies. But also finer details like spikes can differ between different versions of the same creature. I also think it’s important to note that I never made it past the third level so I actually expect a great deal more in variation between enemies and types of enemies than I was able to access during the beta. But to be fair, the compendium only lists a total of 38 enemies, of which I’ve already found 17, and seven bosses, of which I’ve only faced one so far. So maybe there’s not as much variation as I hope as far as enemies are concerned.

20190526094256_1The HUD is simple, intuitive, and spacious. Across the top of the screen you will find the XP bar with HP, in the form of sectioned hearts, directly under it on the left side of the screen. On the right side of the screen under the XP bar, you will find the current level map and your counts for money and keys. I’m really happy with the map. It’s simple yet effective. It shows the nearby surrounding area and moves around the map as you do. But what works best with this map is how it tracks your past movements. The map is dark gray by default. As you walk in any direction, light gray is added to the map, exemplifying your specific movements. This makes keeping track of how much of the current level, or even just current room, you’ve already explored so much easier to manage and cuts the time to find the next place to go down considerably. The map also shows any items currently waiting to be picked up, since they never disappear, which is a good thing. You can only carry one item at a time as a default and then at least one more as a benefit from a secondary mutation. Currently carried items are shown below the HP meter. The bottom of the screen shows your mutations with primary mutations being in the bottom left and secondary mutations being in the bottom middle. I also really like that the HUD shows you which button to push for each mutation and items at all times without looking cluttered or ugly.

While I’d never say that RAD is worth buying just because of the graphics, they are absolutely not a hindrance. Double Fine has certainly made better looking games in the past, but this project looks exactly the way it should for what it is.

20190526003003_1The audio is solid in this game. It’s clear and quite detailed. Steps make a sound that changes based on the material you’re walking on for example. All effects are laid onto the gameplay perfectly. There’s no lag between the audio and the action. And each action has a matching effect. That includes the abilities gained from mutations. The overall mix of sound is great at default with everything set to 100. But you can control master volume, music volume, sound effects volume, voice volume, and ambient volume all separately and customize their mix levels from 1 to 100. I don’t know if I’ve played another game with five separate audio channels available to the player for mix customization. The one thing I did notice was that sometimes the music stops playing during normal activity. I don’t know if this was a bug or intentional, but I’ve seen it in numerous other games so I don’t assume it wasn’t supposed to happen.

RAD actually does have quite a bit of writing, both plot and dialog wise, as well as a ton of narrative commentary. The beta gives a lot of plot information right from the start. In my experience, roguelikes can go one of two ways when it comes to writing. Sometimes the plot is super important but delivered subtly once you’ve seen the opening sequence. Other times there’s a really flashy opening that makes you think the game is plot heavy but really it’s just for foundational reasons and then basically disappears once the game actually starts. I want to say this is the former, but really it’s a combination of both. This is kind of the issue with roguelikes though. When you can’t continue from where you died but the plot is contingent on getting farther into the game, there’s a good chance the player may never reach the end of the plot. Thankfully I was able to see one of the nine endings, but honestly the only plot given is the opening and the post final boss closing. Everything in between is just lore and world building, which is fine but it’s not necessarily accurate to call this a plot focused game.

20190526151414_1The game starts off by establishing that the world has suffered not one but two apocalypses and that you’re one of the few remaining survivors. As with most post-apocalyptic dungeon crawlers, you’re tasked with journeying into the wastelands for resources to aid your community. That’s the general plot, but it’s not lazily done. The game starts off with an opening cutscene to establish the setting, as well as an additional cutscene to specifically explain how you were chosen and how things work/will work in the game, as well as why. As you make your way through levels, you find artifacts that are accompanied by narrators, both a male and female used randomly, giving more details about the history of the world. In this way you get a lot of story, but not much development of the current plot. The game doesn’t do much in the way of discussing the future other than the initial establishing cutscene and the ending(s). The game’s compendium says eight possible endings are available but when I got one it said 1/9. At this point I can’t say for sure one way or the other. I don’t know how each of the endings compare, but the ending I got was kind of inconclusive. I was able to reach the ending after defeating three major bosses.

RAD has a lot of lore and written info in the compendium. This guidebook expands as you find and unlock more things. It gives you the ability to read about pretty much everything in the game including mutations, enemies, weapons, artifacts, and the endings you’ve seen. It will even replay narrations for you. It’s nice to see this level of documentation provided for interested players in a roguelike of this kind.

20190526094243_1There are also NPCs that talk to you. Many can be found in the base. Some of them say things that actually affect the game, but mostly it’s just décor. Most of them are scattered throughout the levels though. Some of these won’t talk to you, but many will. There are shop keepers, treasure hunters looking after chests, and random communities just hanging out. I found a hidden community of mutants just trying to avoid being ridiculed by normal looking people. I also found a cult waiting for their god to send them message through a projector screen hooked to an antenna. Some of the NPCs will even ask you to do small tasks that net money.

Some of the best writing in the game is the narrative commentary. The male narrator comments on what’s happening in the game sparingly. When you get a new mutation, he says it in a celebratory Halo style “Double Kill” voice. But that’s just one of the moments when commentary occurs. My favorite piece of commentary was when I switched to the stronger weapon I unlocked. The narrator screamed out “Chicken shit!” and it was subtitled on screen. This made me laugh really hard. Overall, the writing I witnessed was fairly good for a roguelike. But I’d have to reach later levels before I can accurately quantify its value and impact on the gameplay experience as a whole.

20190526101228_1As this is a roguelike, it’s inherently built for replay. But there are also a number of features that add legitimate replay value. As mentioned, there are several mutations, all of which have been quite interesting to try out so far. There’s also the fact that the mix of mutations you get is always different from previous plays. There are also a lot of things to unlock. Additional mutations, additional playable characters, and additional weapons are all available to unlock. There seems to be a total of eight playable characters. In the beta I’ve only managed to unlock four so far. I have yet to notice any performance based differences between them. There appears to be six unlockable weapons but I’ve only gotten one of them at this point. There are also 37 achievements for RAD on Steam and eight possible endings. The game also has daily challenges with special completion conditions tied to an online leaderboard. There’s a fair amount of stuff to do and reasons to keep playing the game. And with the procedurally generated levels, it will take quite a while before you get bored with the levels. I don’t know what the release price will be yet but if they manage to keep it to no more than $15 then I think RAD could absolutely be considered worth buying.

As this is a beta review, feedback to the developer is just as important as presenting the project to gamers considering buying the final release version. So let me clearly define what I’d like to see changed/added in the final version of RAD.

20190526161253_11. Continue by Stage

As this is a procedurally generated roguelike dungeon crawler, perma-death is kind of a given for the genre. Personally I’ve never liked that. I understand it, but I think it’s unnecessary. The important difference here though is that when you play a game like Overture, there’s no story. So it doesn’t really matter if you have to start over every time because you’re not really building towards anything. But when a game has a plot, which RAD does, albeit a small one, then being able to finish that story needs to be at least in the realm of possibility for a majority of normal players. Now I only had to clear like six levels to reach an ending. But that’s still six levels that not everyone will be able to beat consecutively. My point is that there needs to be an efficient way for bottom to mid-tier players to reach all the endings without having to take the time to get Dark Souls good. For me, the simplest solution is that you should be able to continue a new round at the farthest stage you’ve reached or at least at milestone stages such as after main bosses.

2. Button Mapping for Controllers

As with all games in 2019, you should be able to customize the button map to suit your needs on any controller you choose to play with. This should be the standard for any game released today. As I said, RAD appears to have this function, but it wasn’t working properly for me in the beta on either a DualShock 4 or a Wii U Pro Controller.

20190526150552_13. Primary Mutations Replay

The game appears to have 56 primary mutations. I’ve unlocked just a small sample of those so far. Some of them I really liked and others not so much. I found all of them to be quite creative though. At some point, the player should be able to gain some control over the mutations they’re getting in a round. Like once you’ve unlocked so many mutations it should give you the ability to start with a certain mutation of your choice or at least prioritize which ones you get. The randomness is part of the game’s shtick and that’s fine but once the player has put in enough hours to unlock all the mutations, they’ll then have a number of them they’ll want to avoid and others they prefer. And since the game requires you to start from scratch every time, getting to the ending will require you to get the right set of mutations to suit your style of play. But at random that won’t happen very often. Granting some level of control to the player would make a huge difference both for progress and enjoyment. This should not be made available to the player early on in the game though.

4. Cooperative Play

It’s very rare that I ask for multiplayer in a game. But RAD just makes sense to have a coop mode. Whether it’s local or online, I think this game would be so much fun to play with other people. In a way it kind of works like ToeJam & Earl, which absolutely doesn’t require other players to enjoy, but is enhanced by the ability to do so. As I was playing it, I was reminded a lot of games like Gauntlet and Metal Slug. The ability to play this cooperatively with friends could be really fun.

20190526153251_15. Lock-On Feature

This is your standard roguelike design where you’re looking at the game from a top down third person view. Enemies can come at you from any direction and you often face many at once. Currently you just attack in a direction by either looking in that direction for close range attacks and/or using the right stick to aim in that direction for ranged attacks. As with any multiple enemy scenario, prioritizing enemies in a specific order is key. But all this has to be done manually in RAD because you can’t lock on to enemies. There should be some way to lock on to a specific enemy to help you keep track of them in group scenarios and make aiming ranged attacks more effective.

6. Full Store in Base

Within the levels there are stores scattered about that carry random items. This system works fine. But the store in the base, which you can potentially visit every time you complete a level, is trash. When you first start the game, it only sells one lousy key which you don’t even really need because you can find them or buy them from most vendors in the levels. The base store should carry all available items in the game. Or at least the ones you’ve already found during play. There are key items that can totally change the outcome, such as an extra life item that I’ve only seen in one store and couldn’t afford at the time. The base store should carry everything, or at least more than just a single, fairly useless key. The game does imply that the store will grow as certain conditions are met but how and to what extent I haven’t figured out yet. By the time I finished playing the beta, two additional items were added to the store. It seems to me that you expand the store by making purchases.

20190526100709_17. Dynamic Item Consumption

You can hold one item at a time as a default and gain the ability to hold an additional item with a secondary mutation. But you can’t control the order in which you use those items. You have to consume the first item you picked up before you can consume the second one. This is super inconvenient and comes up very often because the second item slot mutation comes up a decent amount of the time. Different items do different things, as per usual. The most common difference is the amount of health restored by healing items. Some items restore a full heart while others restore more than that. So if you have an item that restores one heart in your first slot, an item that restores two hearts in your second slot, and you’re missing two hearts from your HP you have to waste the first item to fully restore your health. Because you wouldn’t be able to use the item that restore two hearts until you’ve used the item that only restores one. Now yes you could just wait until you’ve lost that heart again, but there’s a delay to use items when not standing still so if you need to restore health during combat this could be the death of you. You should be able to use whichever item you’re carrying in whatever order you want. Even a rotate slots system would be better than the current system.

 

In general, I was very happy with this beta. I found RAD to be much more enjoyable than I thought I would after seeing the announcement trailer. It’s not the next big thing or Cuphead class indie, but it is a fun little roguelike that actually has some long term goals and reasons to keep playing. There seems to be an actual plot to discover, which matters to players like me. The gameplay is accessible but constantly changing based on the mutations you unlock in a particular round. While it wasn’t a perfect game, this beta build is pretty far along. While I did have a few issues it ran well for the most part. No lagging or other game breaking problems other than the one crash which cost me just a few minutes because I was able to continue the round from the main menu when I reloaded the game. The game has a few bugs, as I mentioned, and can still be improved but it already works quite well and it’s fun to play. I need to see a release price before I can make a final judgement but I could see RAD doing well for what it’s trying to be.

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Can We Be Done With Grinding?

I’ve been playing RPGs for a long time but not the longest time. My first serious RPG that I actually finished was Pokemon Red (1998) on the Gameboy. It’s important to note that as a handheld RPG the experience of playing it is/was much different than that of a home console RPG. It wasn’t until three years later that I beat Final Fantasy X (2001) on the PS2. While this was not the first console RPG I ever played, it was the first one I ever finished. The first one I can remember playing was Digimon World (1999) on the PS1. I put many hours into this game and enjoyed it quite a bit but was ultimately never able to complete it, which I actually blame on design flaws due to the nature of the generation style gameplay. Call me a noob if you want, but that’s not really relevant to this particular discussion. I had been aware of RPGs like the highly prestigious Final Fantasy VII, but I never completed any console RPGs before FFX. I consider this the true start point of my love for RPGs. And I still consider FFX the best FF after having now played FFVII, FFX, FFXII, FFXIII, and some spin off titles.

I would now consider myself a high level RPG enthusiast. I have and continue to play both Western and JRPGs such as SoulsBorne, Nioh, Elder Scrolls, The Division (I’d say it counts), Xenoblade Chronicles, Pokemon, Dragon Age, and of course Kingdom Hearts. This genre has evolved considerably since I first started playing it. Gameplay has changed from turn based to active and real time combat. The level of customization has evolved from a single weapon and armor to countless pieces of gear, accessories, skill trees, and even aesthetic appearance. Dialog has become dynamic and consequential. In a lot of ways we are kind of living through the golden age of RPGs. But one thing has remained consistent over all these generations of consoles and games. I’m of course talking about grinding.

FFX

Grinding, or training as we called it in my youth, is the process of battling enemies over and over again with no relevance to plot progression. It is merely a way to strengthen your character(s) in order to make combat easier. Often this occurs when you’re stuck on a boss or area and can’t progress forward in the plot. But often it’s just for the vanity of reaching the level cap. In any case, it’s the most mindless part of playing any RPG but is required to complete just about all of them, in some form.

Some games handle grinding better than others. The Division 2 did a great job of handling baseline grinding to the level 30 cap, in my opinion. It’s organic, as in you just play through the base game and by the time you clear all the missions and side activities you’re at or above level 30. You don’t have to really grind because you never have to replay any content to reach maximum level. But as this is a loot shooter, you will then spend an exorbitant amount of time replaying missions for better gear, which yes does count as grinding in its own way, but I won’t include it for the purposes of argument in the point I’m trying to make in this particular post.

Tom Clancy's The Division 2 Screenshot 2019.03.18 - 01.39.53.91

Some games meet you in the middle with grinding, where it’s not required, ignoring trophies, but can be used as a tool. Final Fantasy X is like this. You can grind to pretty much unlimited levels, amassing unnecessarily high strength stats, making all bosses a cake walk. But you aren’t required to do this. You can challenge whatever boss you’re at whenever you want. If you’re good enough, by implementing strategy, you can progress without grinding. You will almost certainly have to do at least a bit of grinding though as the bosses get progressively harder and you need better magic spells. In general though, the model used for grinding in the game is very balanced. You don’t have to do it, but you can, and when you do there’s no reason to try to fully max out your characters. You just do it enough to get to the strength level that makes you happy/comfortable.

Finally, some games just shit on the players by forcing them to grind. That doesn’t necessarily mean the game sucks as a whole. It just means that the implementation of grinding within the game is predatory in nature because it acts as a time sink to artificially lengthen the game. This is most often done in games with either level minimums to progress past a certain point in the plot or stat requirements for gear. You see this a lot in Soulsborne games. You find a piece of gear and it’s better than what you currently have equipped but you can’t use it till you reach a higher specific stat. But raising stats is tied to leveling. So you then have to spend a bunch of time grinding out levels just so you can equip a new piece of gear. This is burdensome and honestly pointless. It’s not a level threshold that defines any sort of skill level or ability to move forward in the game. It’s just a wall from content placed behind time played vs dollars spent. Such a system may have been passable back in the days where there were few RPGs and kids needed games to last longer because of cost issues. But the mechanic was never really a good thing as far as objective game design criticism.

Souls series

Making games arbitrarily longer with no ties/relevance to story is simply bad design. The saving grace of Soulsborne games in this instance is that you technically can progress forward without needing to use that piece of gear. Because of mechanics things like summoning help, you don’t actually have to take any time to grind in Soulsborne games if you don’t want to. So From Software took the time to balance their grinding system out, which is why I wouldn’t criticize those games overall on the issue of grinding, even though I’ve used them here to exemplify this predatory grinding mechanic.

As I said, I’ve been playing RPGs for many years and still do. Recently I finished Kingdom Hearts II on Proud Mode. It took me 55 hours including all the bonus stuff I could be asked to do.  I maxed out all the drive forms, defeated Sephiroth, beat all the Organization XIII members/Absent Silhouettes, defeated Lingering Will, grabbed all the puzzle pieces, and solved all the puzzles. So it’s finally time to move on to the next game in the collection as I make my way to Kingdom Hearts III. One of the things I did was reach level 99. I always do this in main Kingdom Hearts games for a few reasons. Part of it is the trophy, part of it is that the amount of time it takes me to get all the materials to fully finish the synthesis list gets me close enough to make it worth going the rest of the way, and part of it is the difficulty of the Sephiroth battle. In the case of KHII, I spent an unnecessary amount of time grinding. Not a preposterous amount like I have in other RPGs, but more time than should have been wasted on mindless grinding. And if you count farming for materials as part of grinding then that amount of wasted hours balloons even more. But I did it because it’s just what you (I) do in these games.

Episode - Screenshot 2019-05-15 00-35-57

As I was finishing up the climb to level 99, I asked myself, “why is this still a thing?” Why are we still being asked to grind in RPGs? For some games, such as the aforementioned Soulsborne titles, you’re not really grinding because death is a key mechanic to the gameplay. So while grinding does happen, you’re never really able to say that you’re mindlessly grinding. And since there isn’t really a level cap, you don’t have any reason to grind other than the need to get stronger. So I don’t really include games like that in the discussion. But in normal xp focused RPGs I don’t see any practical reason for grinding to be a thing in 2019. If I’ve already killed an enemy 100 times, clearly I’ve mastered fighting that enemy. So at that point why not just allow me to automatically level up to wherever I want to be rather that making me refight the same enemies over and over and over again? I know what level I want to get to. I know why I’m leveling up. I’m not looking for any specific items. I just want/need xp to reach my level goals.

It seems preposterous in 2019 to have to waste time mindlessly killing enemies for experience points that you don’t need to progress forward in the game. The fact is that I didn’t need to hit level 99 to finish the game. I probably didn’t even need to hit level 99 to beat Sephiroth. So what is the actual value in taking the time to reach level 99? Or more to the point, why is getting to level 99 such a time sink? It’s just making the game take longer unnecessarily. Now KHII is a game from 14 years ago, so obviously it’s not fair to cast a blanket shadow over the RPGs of today based on that game. But has much about grinding really changed in 14 years? Not really. Some has been done to make the grinding seem more justified like trying to tie it a bit more into the story or gear in order to give it the appearance of legitimacy. But it doesn’t change the fact that in the bulk of RPGs players are still forced to mindlessly battle the same foes over and over for xp, past any point of actual learning. It’s referred to as grinding because it’s a real grind as opposed to an entertaining, educational, or relevant experience. So at that point, why are we still doing it? And note that I’m not asking why as in we as players should stop hitting the level cap. I’m asking why as in developers should remove or streamline this mechanic in games.

FF7 Level Up

I never played Final Fantasy VII as a kid. I played the PS4 HD port last year. And you know what, I’m fairly certain it was way better than the original. The PS4 port has cheats built into it. Not cheats that make the game easier. Just cheats that make the game faster. You can increase the speed of the game as far as how fast everything moves including battles, walking, and text. You can increase the accumulation of xp so you can grind less but level up faster. And you can increase the speed of special move/overdrive accumulation so that special moves don’t require you to go do a bunch of random battles to fill them up. And the best part is you can toggle these on and off at literally any time. This is not an easy mode. These are quality of life changes that the player has full autonomy over at all times. What used to take a hundred or more hours now can be done in under 50. The story isn’t affected. The gameplay isn’t affected. And unless you count the hours spent grinding as part of the difficulty, the challenge of the game isn’t affected. This was a great modern port and I’m glad I got to finally finish FFVII because of it. Which leaves me asking the question, why aren’t more RPGs like this?

I don’t mind farming for materials. It’s annoying but it’s a legitimate part of the challenge of the game. I don’t mind having a level up mechanic. That’s what an RPG is. But in 2019 with a huge backlog of games, many of them being RPGs, I just don’t want to spend tons of hours grinding. I don’t want to do it because it’s not fun and it’s not legitimately challenging. Grinding is not difficulty. It’s a waste of my time. Once I’ve killed an enemy x number of times, just let me pick the level I want to upgrade to so I can move on. Even if it just became an endgame mechanic in RPGs, that would be fine. Like once you hit that open world backtracking portion of the game and a certain minimum level or number of kills has been done, the game should just let you choose what level to upgrade to. Or at the very least let you increase the xp multiplier by a considerable amount. That was one of the things I didn’t know about KHII while playing the bulk of it. You can triple your xp accumulation if you’re using a certain keyblade, which I didn’t get until I was already in the high 80’s but could have gotten back at like level 50. That would have made the endgame way more efficient.

FFX Sphere Grid

As long as it’s fun, I don’t mind. Like if there are new enemies to tackle and rewards to find, then I’m fine with leveling up manually. But if I’m reengaging the same enemies in the same areas countless times for items I absolutely don’t need, like in the case of KHII, then what’s the point? When you don’t have any other games to play and no money, it’s fine. As a kid, spending more than a hundred hours on FFX, Kingdom Hearts I, and The Elder Scroll IV: Oblivion was great. It gave me something to do. But as an adult with The Witcher 2, The Witcher 3, The Surge, Dark Souls 3, Final Fantasy XV, World of Final Fantasy, and Kingdom Hearts III all on my “short” list with countless other games on my backlog in total, I don’t need to waste a single minute on throwaway gameplay. And I shouldn’t have to. I don’t want games to be easier. I don’t even want them to be shorter. I just want them to be meaningful for every minute of the game. If it’s not a meaningful experience or at the very least something I haven’t done before, then I shouldn’t be forced to do it more than a handful of times to reach my goal. This is not a discussion about making Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice easier. That shouldn’t happen. This is a discussion about how a Final Fantasy VII HD Remake won’t be a better game than the original if you still have to pour in countless hours to level up just to fight a bonus boss for a trophy. I guess what I’m saying is can we just be done with grinding?

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State of Play Episode 2

Last week PlayStation released the second episode of State of Play. For those who aren’t aware, State of Play is the PlayStation version of Nintendo Direct. The first episode released in March of this year. You can read my thoughts about that first episode and the concept as a whole in this blog post. This second episode was in many ways considerably less impressive than the first one but, like with the first one, I think it shows that there’s a really strong concept here.

The first State of Play was about 20 minutes and showed 17 games. This latest episode was only 10 minutes and showed six games plus an ad/announcement for a limited edition PS4 and “Days of Play”, which appears to be their replacement for E3 this year, if I had to guess. When comparing the two episodes it’s kind of hard. This one had much fewer games shown, but the caliber of games shown was considerably better overall. We got announcements for a serious DLC expansion for Monster Hunter World, actual gameplay footage of FFVII Remake, which we haven’t seen in like three years, and a lot more substantial footage of MediEvil. Plus three indie projects, one of which will most certainly crash and burn, one which could actually do rather well, and one that’s quite possibly gonna be a sleeper hit. In general though, half of the games shown were important titles with a great amount of quality content shown. And again, this was all kept to 10 minutes.

 

As I said in my post about the first episode, I think the State of Play format works really well. It’s short, no nonsense game focused content. Yes they did throw an ad in for a limited edition console, but I feel like that’s appropriate here even if kind of annoying. The larger take away from that is that PlayStation is using this platform to make any and all gaming related announcements, big or small. I think that’s a great thing.

Riverbond
Riverbond

Many people complained that the presentation was too short and didn’t show enough, but I think that opinion shows a lack of perspective. The problem with E3 is that it’s only once a year. Companies have to make long presentations that impress because they’re making an impression that has to last an entire year. It’s expensive, time consuming, and forces companies to make announcements way earlier than they often should.  And even after putting all that time, effort, and money into it they can still disappoint the crowd and have to deal with a year’s worth of anger and vitriol. Every E3 ends with a bunch of gaming journalists, YouTubers, and streamers doing “Who Won E3?” posts.  But with something like State of Play none of that has to apply.

MHW Iceborne

In a scenario where State of Play happens one to two times a year, both episodes were absolute garbage. Not enough games, not enough big announcements, and not enough details. But in a scenario where State of Play happens say bi-monthly, both episodes were great. And with that format kept to only 10 minutes, even monthly wouldn’t be that hard, time consuming, or costly to make. That’s what State of Play really could and should be. A short monthly update of any and all PS4 news, big or small. One of the games shown in this latest episode was Away: The Survival Series. This game has you play as a sugar glider trying to survive in a world post cataclysmic natural disaster. Honestly it looks great. I’m definitely biased because I have a pet sugar glider, but even if I didn’t I’d definitely consider playing it . . . If I found about it.

MediEvil
MediEvil

Away looks like something that would ultimately be a hidden gem. Or at least it would have been if there wasn’t a video presentation showcasing small indie titles coming to PS4. Few people would have heard about it unless it was like Cuphead impressive. And that’s a shame because an indie game shouldn’t have to be record breaking to be valued if it’s a solid game. That’s the true potential of State of Play. There’s not a huge list of big flashy announcements every month. But there are always indie games, new DLC, and other updates that players should be notified about but just aren’t. State of Play can be used to fix this. If it’s done fairly often, gamers will be trained not to expect bombs every time. Sometimes it will just be news of small titles and DLC. But that’s fine because we’ll know that the next State of Play is just a few weeks away.

Away

Nintendo Directs are rare because the production value really is fairly high. They’re fairly lengthy, have real people hosting them often, and go out of their way to create high quality graphics. State of Play, on the other hand, is the bare minimum of production value. And that’s not an insult. All the excess is cut away. It’s a simple blue background, panels, and straight gameplay footage. A bodiless voice reads a fairly simple script and there are no impressive visual or audio transitions. It’s the perfect fast and friendly low budget games presentation. And that makes it perfect for taking the time to focus on lower profit indie titles on a frequent basis.

Predator

What are being called flaws should be seen as improvements from the first episode. It’s streamlined to just 10 minutes to show six games. 10 minutes of gameplay footage spread across six games is nothing. Especially if you consider that most people can’t play six games in a month to begin with. I could produce that in my sleep. And if they make the developers write their own game descriptions and provide gameplay footage for the presentation, it’s a cake walk. It’s one voice recording session and maybe an hour of video editing. The original replay link on the PlayStation YouTube channel was 25 minutes long. It’s only a 10 minute presentation. More than half of that presentation video was a static banner. Now it’s been cut down to 13 minutes. It’s way harder for PlayStation to cut the video down to 10 minutes than it is to get a measly 10 minutes of gameplay footage.

FF7 Remake
FFVII HD Remake

I think State of Play has the potential to revolutionize the way console companies present games and updates to the public. Keep them short, sweet, low budget, and publish them often. No content is too small in this format. Little puzzle games, hidden gem indie titles, and DLC expansions all have a place there. They can even announce sales in the presentations just to bolster the time if there’s literally nothing else to talk about that week/month. I really like what I’ve seen so far from State of Play and I hope it continues and thrives.

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Do First Impressions Still Matter?

When I was a kid, there were no patches. There were no updates. There was no DLC. The closest thing you could get to additional content in a game, other than buying a sequel, was an expansion. And honestly expansions were usually just sequels on a smaller scale. They were bought and sold as separate games, but continued directly from where the base game left off and required an existing save file. My point is that games were static for the most part. When you bought a game, that was the final product. There was no additional development, no tweaks or rebalancing to the gameplay, and certainly no making a shitty game better or, as in the case of some developers, worse.

Today, the bulk of games seem to be using what’s known as “agile development”. Wikipedia defines this as:

. . . an approach to software development under which requirements and solutions evolve through the collaborative effort of self-organizing and cross-functional teams and their customer(s)/end user(s). It advocates adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, and continual improvement, and it encourages rapid and flexible response to change.

Agile Development

Through the magic of marketing speak and fancy packaging, agile development appears to mean that software is delivered to end users faster and then improved rapidly based on user feedback. This all sounds very nice. But what it actually means in practical application is companies release broken, shitty software that works enough to pass minimum functionality expectations/standards but ultimately needs a ton of work. This work is then done based on user feedback by prioritizing what customers, having already paid for the software, are complaining about the most at a given moment. In gaming terms that means bad games are released and then patched over time while it still seems profitable to do so.

In the olden days, reviews worked. Not just “professional” reviews from places like GameSpot and IGN. User reviews were equally valid depictions/critiques of a specific game’s experience. Reviews were timeless. A review about a game published on the day it released was an equally valid depiction of the game a year or even 10 years later. First impressions were valid judgments of games and honestly didn’t need to change, assuming a fair amount of time was put into playing/testing that game when making that first impression. But that is often far from the case today.

IGN OoT Review
IGN’s review of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is still completely relevant and accurate when judging the game 21 years later.

Whether intentionally or by design, we are seeing more highly hyped and marketed AAA games released in broken states than ever before. Examples like No Man’s Sky, Sea of Thieves, and the recent Anthem come to mind. We are also seeing lots of games as service titles that aren’t released necessarily broken, but certainly not in a completed and satisfying state as far as content provided. Examples like this include bother Destiny I and II, The Division 1, and from what I’ve read, the recently released Days Gone. While these two groups of games aren’t in the same boat quality/user satisfaction wise, they are both using some form of agile development. More importantly, all the games mentioned were/will be much different on day 365 than they were on day one. And more importantly, what they will be on day 365 will most likely be much better than what they were on day one.

On a previous blog post, I recently received a comment saying that they didn’t agree with my views on Destiny because I was ignoring the fact that Bungie had improved the game(s) over time based on user feedback. This is specifically what I want to discuss today. The commenter was factually correct in saying that both Destiny titles evolved over time and had been noticeably improved based on user feedback. That is a position that I cannot and would not try to deny. But I am equally right in saying that Destiny I was a huge disappointment at launch. I think most people, including that commenter if I understood him correctly based on that one comment, would agree with that statement as well. I preordered Destiny and purchased the Collector’s Edition. I invested $100 into the game and don’t/didn’t feel that I got $100 worth of content delivered to me. At the same time, if I had waited a year, I could have gotten a huge amount of content for less than $60 with The Taken King Edition. If you remember that time, then you will recall that many early adopters were angry about this. Because it was much more blatant and “unfair” than your standard GOTY edition release of a game. Since I haven’t personally played that additional content, because I absolutely refused to give Bungie another dollar for that game, I can’t say if I would have felt like I had gotten $100 of content or not. But based on what I’ve seen and read, I am of the opinion that I probably would have felt satisfied if my $100 preorder had netted me all the content of the Taken King Edition.

Destiny Pre order

So you have two people with two very different opinions of the same game because they played the game at two very different times and thus had much different experiences. But is one opinion more valid than the other? Is my take on Destiny a more legitimate critique because I judged the launch version of the game, which would rightfully be considered the most authentic experience? Or is the commenter’s take the more legitimate one because it was/is the most up to date and arguably better represents the intended experience that the developers had for the game? I don’t actually know if there’s a right answer. What I do know is that this question and how you answer it presents a real problem when it comes to reviewing, grading, and ultimately valuing games in 2019.

Anthem is a trash game. It is an objectively broken experience that does not live up to the BioWare name. 99% of gamers agree with this statement, 0.5% are lying, and the other 0.5% don’t know what Anthem is. That is the current state of the game and the reason the player base has declined so rapidly. In true EA style, it was released broken, lacking of all character, and not at all like the BioWare games of old that ultimately led to people buying a shared world shooter from a long established RPG dev to begin with. But that shouldn’t have surprised anyone. I predicted the game would be disappointing at release months before launch. I will admit that I didn’t see it being as bad as it ultimately is though. But I also believe that Anthem doesn’t have to remain bad.

BioWare Games
Things weren’t always the way they are now.

Anthem has a ton of problems and is missing a plethora of things to be a proper BioWare game. But the skeleton is fairly well made. I genuinely believe that Anthem in year two can and will be a great game if EA continues to invest in it and doesn’t shutter BioWare, as everyone, myself included, is worried about. In fact, that’s why I made a blog post called Anthem Year Two back in July of 2018. In the same way that Destiny, No Man’s Sky, The Division 1, and countless other games added a lot of additional content, made changes, and patched out bugs over the course of the first year to ultimately create a great game in the long run, I believe Anthem can, and must, do the same thing. The real question is how do you judge and valuate such a game?

Let’s say on February 22, 2020, exactly one year after the original launch of Anthem, BioWare releases an update that completely revolutionizes the game. Let’s assume they fixed everything. Loading times are lightning fast, story actually exists, decisions matter, romance is an option, gear is more consequential, and drop rates are drastically improved. Imagine that basically the game went from where it is now to Mass Effect 2 status for quality of experience while maintaining the balance between single player and multiplayer at the same time. Essentially GTA Online with much stronger writing. I’m pretty sure that we would all agree that such an improvement would be welcomed and revolutionary. But how would/should we value and grade Anthem as a whole in this scenario? Would we just ignore the original version and pretend it never existed? Would we average our opinions based on both iterations? Would we still condemn the game based on our first impressions? What exactly would be the right way to go about judging this new and vastly improved Anthem?

NMS MP

On one hand, you’d have a phenomenal game that everyone would be dying to play. But on the other hand you’d have, if estimates I found online are correct, somewhere between three and six million players (purchasers) who bought the game at/near launch who were ultimately disappointed and quit playing the game. While many of them would probably jump back in for this new version, many will have already been soured by the game, rightfully so, and would choose not to pick Anthem back up for all the patches and improvements in the world. This later group would be accurately judging the game on their first impressions. At the same time, anyone judging the game based on the new content would also be making a fair critique of the current product. This presents a number of questions that really haven’t been fully addressed or properly answered by the gaming industry or community. Also the pricing of this magical update would need to be part of the discussion as well. Would it be free like the improvements made to No Man’s Sky? Or would it be at cost like the way they’ve developed Destiny with periodic paid expansions?

What I’m most interested in discussing is how we as consumers should be judging games, and the companies that produce/distribute them, that fall into this situation. First impressions used to be super important. To me, they still are. Most people can name at least one developer or publisher that they absolutely do not trust anymore because of one or, in the case of EA, several projects that soured their feelings toward the brand. But in world where games are improved over time and often go from being some of the worst games currently available to some of the best games playable over the course of an extended period of time, how do we as consumers navigate that system? How do we judge games like this? How long do we give games to stop sucking? How do valuate games like this in terms of pricing? Possibly most importantly, how do we discuss games with each other on fair terms when we could literally be playing different games depending on when we started and stopped playing a specific title?

Destiny The Taken King

I think Destiny I was disappointing. I started playing day one and stopped after the House of Wolves expansion. I spent $100 total. Another player started playing after The Taken King Edition was released. He paid $30 for all the content I got plus a lot more. He thinks the game was phenomenal. In my opinion, we are both correct and both wrong at the same time. But how do we officiate those opinions in a useful, constructive way without having to precede them with three or more pages of explanation, a personal gaming history, and a notarized record of gameplay experience every time we try to engage with each other online? Obviously I’m exaggerating a bit but the point still stands, two players played the same game and yet didn’t play the same game and one felt justified in attacking the other’s opinion as a legitimate criticism of that opinion, and not just a troll.

For me, I think first impressions matter a lot. I don’t support the idea that a company can release a garbage game and improve it over time with no repercussions to their public image or the way we discuss that game in the long run. I think we should absolutely be mindful of the fact that a game was released unfinished and severely lacking for $60 or more in the case of AAA titles. I think it’s criminal for a developer/publisher to release a broken, unfinished game and then charge extra to repair it, even if those repairs ultimately turn it into a masterpiece. At the same time, I also think that it’s important to give a clear and accurate depiction of a game in its current form in order to help late adopters make decisions that will ultimately net them the best overall gaming experiences within their limited budgets.

Starlink-Crimson-Moon

I didn’t buy Anthem. I played the alpha and the beta and saw that it was going to stink to high Heaven. It was very obvious to me and ultimately why I published my previously linked post about it. But I also believe that Anthem has the potential to be a great game in the future if given the proper time, care, and resources it needs to evolve into something beautiful. So when/if I buy it, I’ll be getting a hopefully great gaming experience. And I will discuss it as such. But that won’t negate the bad experiences that the many people who did buy it day one first experienced before ultimately quitting the game. The gaming community needs to evolve to a new set of standards that properly address this point when discussing, judging, and debating games in the current landscape.

There’s a bigger issue at play here as well though. Let’s say BioWare really does improve Anthem. In fact, let’s say they completely fix it and really do ultimately deliver an award winning, GOTY level gaming experience. Would that make everything OK? Would it suddenly be acceptable that they released a steaming pile of crap, charged everyone who bought it day one or preordered it $60+, and made them wait a year before delivering a serviceable product? Should we then champion BioWare like in the days of old and commend EA for sticking with the game till it met the expectations they promised us? Now as an old school gamer who was gaming years before patches were even conceived of, I say no.

mass effect 2
A return to normalcy would be much appreciated.

I wouldn’t forget that release, the lacking content, or the fact that day one players were asked to return to a game a year or more after release, and possibly have to pay extra for the expanded content. Even if I did buy the game a year later and got something great, for me that wouldn’t negate the fact that BioWare and EA tried to pass off something terrible to the public. Because Anthem day one is what they wanted us to accept. Anthem day 366 is what we forced them to ultimately deliver. In my opinion, consumers shouldn’t have to strong arm studios or publishers to get quality games. There’s supposed to be a social contract where they deliver good products and we purchase them, and because those products were good we’ll purchase their next product as well, assuming it also looks/is good. That system falls apart when studios try to put out crap and then apologize by making patches. Yet many people today, especially younger gamers, see this as the modern norm. They’re fine with a studio releasing crap as long as they fix it in the long run, because they’ve been raised on patches. They don’t let first impressions define their perception of a game or studio.

In some ways this modern form of judging a game is kind of beautiful at the human level. The ability for a person to see the potential in something bad, trust the creators to evolve their work to its full potential, and then not carry any grudges or spite from the past is a quality that I think all people could benefit from . . . when dealing with other people. But we’re talking about multi-million to sometimes billion dollar corporations. We don’t need to feel any sympathy for them. A lot of people try to say corporations are the people who work for them, but that’s not really accurate for larger studios. That’s just marketing and PR over many years of inceptive messaging. Why should I pity a studio that puts its employees through 80 hour crunch weeks? Why should I feel sympathy for companies that are known to work their teams to the bone and then fire the bulk of their employees down to a skeleton crew once the project is launched? These corporations aren’t people. They’re heartless money making machines that care more about profits than the health and well-being of the creative minds that make their profits possible. So while I’m not actively calling for the gaming industry to reform itself, though I do believe it needs to, I’m also not going to look upon these companies with any sort of charity or sympathy. These is merely business.

Blizzard Fires 800
Corporations are not people.

Sell me quality products at a fair market price, take my money, and I’ll see you again for your next game. That’s the full extent of the relationship. So for me it’s a real issue if products being delivered are no longer being delivered at an acceptable standard. The fact that they’re getting improved down the road doesn’t negate that first impression. Especially if there’s an added price tag for those improvements. But as a whole, the gaming community is not in agreement on this topic. Many are fine with the agile development model. Many are happy to forgive a studio or publisher as long as the game is good in the long run. We even have review sites now updating their reviews over time to account for these changes to games rather than having projects deal with their troubled pasts for the entire duration of their tray life. And that’s not necessarily wrong. It’s not the way I judge games and the studios that release them, but it’s certainly a valid position to take in the current system. We really need to come to some sort of agreed upon system for how we as consumers are to judge and discuss games like this fairly and accurately. Because this model of development is here to stay, whether we want it to or not.

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As always, thanks for reading. Please take the time to follow my blog, leave a comment, and check out some of my other channels if you enjoyed what you read.