Kingdom Hearts – Halfway There

I first became a fan of Kingdom Hearts in 2002 when the original game released on PS2. I still remember the commercial, back when commercials were the main way we learned about new video games. I was already a Disney fan and a Final Fantasy fan, having just played FFX for the first time less than a year before. The idea of playing a game that mixed the two things with real time combat blew my mind. I don’t think I ever could have even imagined such a game on my own. I preordered that game. Been in love with the franchise ever since. Two years later they released a spin off title, Chain of Memories, on the Game Boy Advance. I actually had a GBA at the time but I refused to buy the game. I refused to play into the predatory practice of releasing soft sequels and spinoffs on handheld platforms. So I skipped over Chain of Memories.

A year after Chain of Memories released, Kingdom Hearts II finally released. I of course preordered it even though I hadn’t played Chain of Memories. I assumed that, like most spin off titles of the time, it didn’t matter much. I was wrong. Two years after Kingdom Hearts II released, they ported Chain of Memories to the PS2. Because it was now available on home console and I could get it for $20, I bought, played, and hated Re: Chain of Memories. I should clarify that the gameplay is specifically what I hated about the game. Story wise, it’s really important to the franchise. The stuff that gets explained in that game ends up being key to Kingdom Hearts II.

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While I was angry about the fact that Square Enix had released a spinoff title with key plot information, I had hoped that like with Kingdom Hearts II, I could skip them and still kind of get the gist of what was going on by playing Kingdom Hearts III. In the time since I played Chain of Memories for the first time, it took Square Enix 12 years, four spinoffs, two plot relevant app games, and countless ports to finally release Kingdom Hearts III. And please note that Kingdom Hearts III was originally announced to be a PS3 title. In fact, it’s the main reason I ultimately wanted a PS3. I didn’t play a single Kingdom Hearts game after Re: Chain of Memories until I finally got a hard release date for Kingdom Hearts III.

As if by an act of divine intervention, Square Enix released the Kingdom Hearts All-In-One collection. Basically this is every Kingdom Hearts game ported to PS4 as a single purchase. That’s exactly what I had been asking for since they release 2.5 Remix. So I bought the collection and decided to start back at the beginning and play all the Kingdom Hearts games in order and finally get to play Kingdom Hearts III, and hopefully get a real conclusion to the story. I’m less than 20 hours into Birth by Sleep, meaning I’m about halfway through the series. Plus I’m caught up on Kingdom Hearts Union Cross, the app game which also affects the plot. It’s actually heavily tied to Birth by Sleep. So what I want to do today is not so much summarize the plot of Kingdom Hearts up to this point but rather the experience of playing them all back to back. I’m now somewhere between 130 and 150ish hours into the franchise and I still have a long ways to go. But for some reason I felt like I had kind of reached a milestone point because I’m now playing content that is completely new to me, so I wanted to write a post about it.

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I think it’s fair to say that of all the game franchises I’ve played, Kingdom Hearts is the most convoluted, confusing, and tied together. Many franchises spin far off from their previous games. Assassin’s Creed is one of the best examples of this. Many franchises assume you’ve played previous games. Metal Gear Solid does this in ways that I found excruciatingly annoying even though I played them all in order going back to the MSX titles. But really no other franchise I’ve played is as unplayable as Kingdom Hearts is when you haven’t played all the previous titles. There are so many important details scattered throughout these games that later matter a lot. Like if you play Kingdom Hearts II without having played both Chain of Memories and 358/2 Days, like I did the first time I played it, you go in missing extremely important plot details which make the first several hours of that game quite confusing. Mostly because the game starts you off by playing as a character that didn’t even exist during the events of the first game. You also spend more than three quarters of the game thinking the main villain from the first game has returned only to discover that not only has he not returned but that the person you thought was him was actually the main character’s best friend in disguise.

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Now if you play those two spin off titles first, you know all of this stuff. It all comes together fairly consistently, even though it is still kind of confusing to understand exactly what’s going on. Then when you finish Kingdom Hearts II and log back into the game to do the extras a special boss is introduced. A similar thing was done with Kingdom Hearts I. This special boss leads into the next game. But what you don’t realize if you skip the spin off titles is that the special boss leads into the next spin off title, not core game. So this special boss shows up coupled with an epic ending movie, if you have Final Mix and did everything to unlock it, and shows you a bunch of crazy shit that you cannot begin to guess the meaning of, even if you have played Kingdom Hearts Union Cross, which is directly tied to the next game, Birth by Sleep. I sometimes see people online saying they skipped some of the game or just jumped directly into Kingdom Hearts III and I genuinely feel bad for them. Because I assume trying to piece together that story from a vague opening movie and a bunch of random characters from Final Fantasy, Disney, and original Kingdom Hearts characters is probably more difficult than trying to understand the Arrowverse by starting with Legends of Tomorrow season 3.

If you do somehow stick with it and make it to Birth by Sleep, you get thrown for a loop in ways that I can’t even think of another example to compare it to. Like imagine if you watched the first five seasons of Game of Thrones and then the first episode of the sixth season was the first episode of House of Cards. That is what it’s like to start Birth by Sleep as someone who actually played all the previous games in order.

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Birth by Sleep starts with an epic opening movie, as all the Kingdom Hearts games do, but the music is the song used in Kingdom Hearts I and Chain of Memories. This is odd because there’s a different theme song for Kingdom Hearts II. The opening movie features three characters, two male and one female, which is reminiscent of the three main non-Disney characters from the previous game and the first game. But none of these three characters look like those original three characters. But one of them does look like a character from the second spin off and main game that’s sort of a spirit doppelganger of the main character so you think it’s him and that the other two characters are spirit doppelgangers of the other two main characters, which would have kind of made sense at that point in the franchise. Ignoring the fact that the female character already had a spirit doppelganger introduced. But that was an artificial one so it doesn’t count . . .

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So you think you’re about to start a game about the three main characters’ spirit doppelgangers until they start dropping names and you realize you have no idea who any of these characters are. You’ve never heard their names before. You don’t know any of the characters they’re talking to. You’ve never seen the world they live in. The one reference you get early on to the past game(s) is a name drop tied to a character that looks nothing like anyone you’ve seen before. Which is fine because they’ve already introduced the idea of spirit doppelgangers except they also said spirit doppelgangers look similar to their original forms. This guy doesn’t look anything like the previous version(s) of the character with the same name. Then when they finally introduce the enemies, you’ve never heard of them previously. By this point in the franchise, they’ve already introduced two “races” of monsters. Now you’re introduced to a third one. The first four games you’ve played by this point have nothing to do with this game other than the presence of key shaped weapons. Once you get about six hours in you start to realize that this is actually a prequel to Kingdom Hearts I. The main clues to this are you meet the original form of a guy you previously met the spirit doppelganger of and you meet a young Hercules. In Kingdom Hearts I, Hercules is already a grown man. In Birth by Sleep, he’s still a teenager.

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Basically I don’t actually know what’s going on anymore. I have ideas because of the app game and few clues that have allowed me to form theories, but I genuinely can’t say why I’m playing this current game, which has three playable characters with their own storylines, as far as the plot is concerned. I do expect it to all connect by the end of Birth by Sleep, but this is a spin off title so there’s a good chance that won’t happen. And it’s not a fun experience playing Birth by Sleep after Kingdom Hearts II. The other games, including Chain of Memories, centered on the main characters traveling with friends and working together to fight enemies and save the worlds. Birth by Sleep has you play alone. You don’t have a squad. You don’t get healing support. You just fly solo. It’s not impossibly hard but it is a lonely gameplay experience after getting so used to traveling with Donald and Goofy.

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The totally unrelated story isn’t the only problem I have with Birth by Sleep. The gameplay is a noticeable step backwards from Kingdom Hearts II. Which isn’t a surprise considering it’s a spin off title originally released for the PSP. All the spin off titles have garbage gameplay compared to the core games. The leveling and technique development system is better though because it allows the player to develop faster and in ways that suit their own play style and interests.

I hope I haven’t turned off anyone considering playing the Kingdom Hearts franchise, because that honestly wasn’t my intention here. The core titles are great games that truly revolutionized action RPGs in their time. And they really have aged fairly well. But it is definitely a demanding collection of games that many will get bored with or utterly confused by without being diligent. I will continue my journey to Kingdom Hearts III. I have waited more than a decade to play this game and I’m finally getting towards the finish line.

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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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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.

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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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State of Play(Station)

Last week, Sony debuted the first episode of “State of Play”. In short, this is the PlayStation version of Nintendo Direct. I think this is a great thing. It’s just another example of how E3 is dying, which I’ve been saying for years. Every year I do a blog post about E3 and in the last several years I have been very critical. I want to reiterate that my problem with E3 is not the general concept but the business model and execution. I think live gaming events for the public are a good thing. I think making them private events that only allow media while charging game companies a fortune to give the event content is preposterous and outdated. And I praised E3 for finally selling some public access tickets in my post last year. But really it’s too little and nearly too late. If drastic changes aren’t made to the model soon, the entire concept will be dead in the water if it’s not already. All that is to say that I happily support State of Play as a concept.

Let’s be honest, the content shown in this first episode was lackluster. It was a bunch of VR announcements that affect less than 10% of the entire PS4 user base, a remake we don’t really need, an indie Gauntlet clone with a minor PVP component, Concrete Genie, and footage from two AAA titles that we were already well aware of. Concrete Genie was probably the only part of that presentation that had any real value to the bulk of PS4 users. And please don’t try to tell me that presentation told you anything about Days Gone you weren’t already aware of if it’s a game you were actually interested in before watching the presentation. But the content shown isn’t why I already consider State of Play a success and ultimately a good thing.

5 Nights VR

Sony announced that they weren’t attending E3 this year months ago. They were very open and honest about the fact that they have very little to show for this year. Between such a strong 2018, with games like God of War, Detroit: Become Human, and Marvel’s Spider-Man, and the all but confirmed transition to PS5 coming in less than two years, they’re basically riding out the rest of this generation. Also remember that there are great third party titles coming out that Sony has no real reason to try to compete with directly this late in the gen when the largest user base is on their platform anyway. Games like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice put plenty of money in Sony’s bank account for a fraction of the work it takes for them to make the next God of War level project. And since they’re putting out a new console soon anyway while concurrently dominating the current generation, and have the largest console multiplayer base with games like The Division 2, there’s really no reason for them to rush out anything. I genuinely believe the only reason this first State of Play was released now is that they were trying to console people who have been complaining about the lack of announcements directly from Sony since the last E3. Remember that PlayStation Experience was cancelled last year as well. In a way, this is the ideal scenario though.

Sony and E3 BreakUp

When a company has nothing to show, it’s fairly common for them to say nothing, make up some bullshit, or show something way too far in advance. For whatever reason, a large number of gamers seem to be happy when the second or third thing occurs, but get livid when the first, the most honest of the three, happens. Yet Sony did none of these three things with this State of Play. They had nothing and they used it. Even with very little to show, they put together a 20 minute presentation about what was on the way, and in true Nintendo Direct style, they only showed things that will be out relatively soon. This level of transparency has never really existed in the gaming industry before from a AAA publisher and hardware manufacturer. I would much rather a company honestly tell me they have nothing than lie to me or show me stuff that may not even happen (glances at Scalebound). So for me State of Play was great even if the games shown were a combination of junk and information I already had.

scalebound
Still not over this.

I also really liked the format. I want all gaming presentations to be done like State of Play. No bullshit. No random people I don’t care about trying to make badly written jokes to transition between projects. Just a single faceless voice giving bare bones facts about upcoming projects over gameplay footage, with release dates in the not too distant future. They showed 17 games, all releasing this year, with gameplay footage, in less than 20 minutes. That’s amazing. The recent Nindie Showcase showed 18 games and took more than 25 minutes. The time of the long drawn out presentation is past. People watch these at work in a corner window or while traveling, on their phones and tablets. I don’t need pomp and drama in my games presentations. I need facts and footage in an efficient and informative manner. And there’s no resentment.

I won’t speak for everyone, but a large number of gamers are fed up with media and gaming personalities. Over the last several years, a lot of faux pas, bullshit, and disappointing moments have been perpetrated by the games industry and media, not to mention “influencers”. Much of this has been overblown, but there have also been many valid criticisms. People no longer want to see unqualified hacks or unknown randoms present games. Unless it’s an actual developer talking, I could personally do without a face at all. A large part of this comes from jealousy, and I include myself in that statement.

pewdiepie

Why does this random millennial get to present games while I have to work my boring job? Do they game more than I do? Do they have some degree in gaming that I wasn’t aware I could get? What gives them the right above all the gamers watching to have that job? This is the thought process that has developed over a generation of random unqualified media personalities with nothing to justify their positions except a social media following getting the privilege of working alongside the games industry. It has bread a lot of bad blood that has even often spilled into development as well. Many people are kind of just done with people, which is admittedly sad but not unjustified. I appreciate that Sony recognized this in how they formatted this first State of Play. Faceless voice presenting games with a minimum amount of marketing fluff. No one to get jealous of. No experiences to envy. No reason or target to hate. Just gaming. And really isn’t that what these presentations are supposed to be about?

AAA State of Play

I genuinely liked State of Play. The content was disappointing but the way it was presented was ideal. And this also showed that Sony is willing to do State of Play presentations even when nothing huge is in the pipeline. That’s great for indie games. There are so many great smaller titles that never get any attention simply because people don’t hear about them and they don’t have the budgets for marketing. But if Sony, like current Nintendo with the Nindies Showcase, will take the time to do presentations with no spectacular announcements, that gives indie titles a real chance to shine on PlayStation consoles.

I guess the point I’m making is that a lot of people have been complaining about State of Play but I think it showed a great amount of potential as a format and the future of gaming news. Slowly but surely we are breaking down the walls between the developer and the gamer with more direct access to information without the need for middle men, media companies, and elitist events that most of the gaming community can’t attend for one reason or another. In my book, the future of gaming information distribution is going in the right direction.

What are your thoughts on State of Play and what this means for the future of gaming news?

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ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! Review – 8.8/10

When I was a young lad, back before the age of internet, always online, and microtransactions, we played many great games that made no sense but were tons of fun and super addictive in a healthy way. I can’t tell you why fat, Italian plumbers jumped on mushrooms or why blue hedgehogs felt compelled to collect golden rings, but I can tell you that the number of mushrooms I squashed and the number of rings I collected is much higher than the number of Fortnite bucks I’ve earned. One of my favorite games from my childhood was the original ToeJam & Earl (1991) for the Sega Genesis.

If I’m honest, I didn’t really understand the game as a kid. It was the original roguelike before that was an established genre. I played it often but never really knew what I was doing. I also don’t remember watching the opening movie so I don’t think I even knew what the premise of the game was back then. What I do remember is that it was one of the games that my father and uncles used to love to play and we all would play it together. I also loved the funky music and the fact that a character was named ToeJam, because that was and still is funny to me for some reason. So when I think about ToeJam & Earl, it’s always with great fondness. I eventually did go back and play the original game years later, actually watched the cutscenes, and completed it. I also completed the ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth (2002) for the XBOX. I tried ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron (1993) right after completing the first game, but I really didn’t like the different gameplay style. In any case, I have always cared a great deal about this franchise. That’s why I was ecstatic when I heard that someone was making a new installment after all these years. It is an honor and a privilege to be able to play a new ToeJam & Earl game in 2019. I kind of wish I had gotten the Switch version so I could round up my uncles and father and play it as a family once again.

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ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! is both a sequel and a remake of the original game. It is important to understand this going in because it informs a number of design choices that people who aren’t familiar with the original game might not like or understand. As I said previously, it’s a roguelike but it has a number of conventions specific to this franchise and not much else. It’s also important to understand this in the context of judging it. If you’re looking at it strictly as a game being released in 2019, then it’s obviously not going to stand up to most if any top tier games being released today. Or at least that would be the case if we didn’t keep getting dumpster fire AAA releases like Fallout 76 and Anthem. But if we look at this in the context of recreating a game from 1991, then it’s one of the most true to form remakes I’ve ever seen not based on a game from the modern era. That’s the context within which I played and ultimately chose to review this game.

Assuming you have played or at least looked up some footage from the original game before starting Groove!, the  first thing you notice as soon as the opening cutscene starts is that the graphics are vastly improved but true to the original style. It’s like night and day even though they’re both flat environments pretending to have three dimensional qualities. This new game definitely has a bit more depth to it with things like hills and the ability to clearly see the previous level floating beneath the one you’re currently on, but it’s still the same 2D style used in the first game. The vibrant colors stand out so much in this game. Compared to original, it’s like you were looking at a dirty screen and someone finally cleaned it off. Everything is brighter and way more detailed, including ToeJam and Earl themselves. Plus there are a lot of display options. You can play full screen or windowed play in 18 different resolutions.

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There is a literal hoard of earthlings in this game to interact with, both evil and good. The movement is fluid and diverse for all of them. The playable characters move very smoothly as well. There’s no skipping or lost frame rate issues, even when playing with multiple players on or offline. Not only is the movement smooth, but it’s also well animated. What I like most about the game’s graphics is the amount of variety. 68 earthlings, 67 different types of presents, 25 stages with random layouts, nine playable characters, and even multiple environments from level to level. Many of these assets are interactive as well. Even the trees and bushes can be directly interacted with. And this is all randomly generated depending on which mode you’re playing. You do see some repetitive stuff such as enemy assets reskinned in different colors in later stages. But overall there’s a lot going on in Groove! and the game handles it perfectly.

The HUD is simple but effective. You have the level counter on the top center of the screen, which also notifies the player when a piece of the spaceship is on that level. In the bottom right you have the mini-map. With the rest of the HUD being in the bottom left, showing the character’s avatar, the XP bar, the HP bar, and the power up meter. In local coop mode, the HUD for the second player appears in the top left corner of the screen. When playing with four players, the HUDs are distributed to each corner of the screen when playing in a single screen and to the top left of each box when in split screen mode. What’s really nice is you can turn the map and HUD off if you want an extra challenge. You can also make the map larger at any time by holding the map button if you need to examine it in finer detail. But really the mini-map, assuming you have a large enough screen like I do on my PC, is quite adequate. It shows you locations for special things, the entire grid of the current level you’re on, and environmental landmarks such as desert or water. I never once needed to use the enlarge map function during play.

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The menus are done very nicely too. A much better, clearer font than was used in the original game. The manual, which is quite comprehensive, is broken up into clear sections with small blocks of text, making reading through the whole thing very easy to do. It’s not an overwhelmingly graphic intense game. It’s more like an art piece that combines the simplicity of the past with some of the benefits of modern graphic development to make something totally new and beautiful but still definitively retro in nature. You’re not getting the bare bones Sega Genesis graphics but you’re also not going too far and getting something odd looking like ToeJam & Earl III. Ultimately I think it’s a wonderful looking game that delivered exactly what it needed to visually.

The first thing I want to say about the gameplay is that it’s buttery smooth. I was surprised at how smooth the gameplay actually is. Even when using a controller, a DualShock 4 in my case, the input works perfectly. There’s no lag. No input issues. This game works. I was very happy with how it instantly accepted my controller and gave me no issues. Now the game will not revert back to keyboard automatically if your controller gets disconnected during play. My controller ran out of battery in the middle of a game while running away from a group of enemies and I couldn’t pick up with the keyboard. My guy just stopped moving until I got the controller plugged in. The game doesn’t even pause when this happens. And since you spawn in the same spot where you died, I just kept dying until I got the controller working again. A bit of an oversight on the developer’s part, but nothing game breaking and easily fixed with a patch. HumaNature Studios is also really responsive on Twitter and is actively seeking out and listening to feedback for future patches, so this issue may very well be fixed in the near future.

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The gameplay is quite simple in practice. You have to traverse 25 levels in search of 10 spaceship pieces, which are scattered randomly throughout the levels. The 10th piece is always on level 25, as stated in the manual. You traverse these levels by walking around each one trying to find an elevator. You can walk normally or sneak to avoid being seen by bad earthlings. Different presents can affect your movement as well. You also have the ability to swim through water but you can only swim for an amount of time corresponding to your current health. Meaning the larger your life bar, the longer you can swim when you’re at full health. You always start a new game with three lives but can earn more as rewards and through presents along the way. While traversing these levels you can collect money, presents, and food which also all incurs XP. Money is used to pay for services from good earthlings and to use certain items like parking meters. Presents, of which there are 67 different types, can do all sorts of things, both good and bad. They can do things like refill health, give you special powers like flight and better jumping, or reveal parts of the map. They can hurt you as well by doing things like dropping all your items, damaging you, and lowering your rank. Some presents are broken when you find them and have a chance of exploding when opened. You can also drop presents you don’t want.

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You can only carry a limited number of presents at a time based on the character you choose and your current rank. Food can either restore or remove life. Rotten food, which always looks like the same types of food, hurts you while all other food helps you. Different types of food give or take different amounts of health. You can also gain XP. XP is used to increase your rank. Increasing your rank increases your stats like the size of your life bar, walking speed, and number of presents you can carry. There are a total of six stats with each character having their own strengths and weaknesses. You always start at the bottom rank at the beginning of a new game and can work your way up 15 ranks. You don’t level up automatically. Once you’ve collected enough XP, which can be gotten in many different ways, you then have to find a “wiseman” and he will increase your rank free of charge. You don’t have to increase your rank to beat the game. As soon as you find all 10 pieces of the spaceship you’ve won.

The gameplay is very simple to understand but that doesn’t make it easy. The many different enemy earthlings can be quite tricky and they often congregate in groups. Some will chase you or hit you with status effects like freezing you in place. Some will even drop you down to lower levels. Sometimes you’ll intentionally have to jump off levels to get away from enemies, causing you to have to back track and make your way up again. The map for each level always starts off blind and then expands as you explore the level you’re on. Presents are important. It’s necessary to use them often but strategically. The presents do many different things, but many of them are not identified until you’ve used them once. This means every time you find a new type of present you risk it being a bad present if you haven’t already used it previously to identify it. There is also a good earthling you can pay money to identify presents for you. I’m not 100% sure if this is true, but it seems to me that presents you’ve identified in past games will be identified in all future games. But there are also enemies and bad presents that remove your present labels and I’m not sure if this carries over to future games. It’s definitely something that I need to confirm with more research. It could also very well be completely random from game to game.

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The gameplay is always the same but there are three difficulties that can be played across three modes. The “Fixed World” mode has the map stay relatively the same every game. This is a good mode to learn how to play the game once you’ve finished the tutorial. But the real challenge is when you hit “Random World” mode. This is the same gameplay but the layout of the levels changes every time. This is the roguelike experience that was spawned by the original game. There is also “Random World Hard” mode. At the start you only have Fixed World mode and then you have to reach level 10 to unlock Random World mode. But you don’t unlock Random World Hard mode until you complete a Random World run. The Hard mode is harder but not by a huge amount, in my opinion. There aren’t necessarily more enemies but they do more damage. There are also fewer presents around. Or at least that was my experience playing it. I played it in coop with a total of three players so maybe that affected the experience as well. We did manage to beat it though. You also have to take into account difficulty level and character. You can actually change your difficulty mid game whenever you want from the pause menu, but you can’t unlock prizes and achievements unless you’re in normal mode, which is considered the hardest of the three modes. Because of this, I never took the time to play in either of the two easier modes because that would be a complete waste of time. Each of the nine playable characters has their own stats, so it’s important to understand all six stats and choose the character that best fits your play style.

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There are also two mini-games that you play within the game as special occurrences. The Hyperfunk Zone is kind of like a Sonic the Hedgehog style special zone. It’s a 2D side scroller where you continuously run from left to right collecting items until you run out of time or hit an exit portal. There is an ending, and an achievement for reaching it, but it’s quite a ways forward so it’s hard to achieve. It’s fairly simple to play and only requires you to press one button to dodge past exit portals. If you time it wrong then you leave the Hyperfunk Zone before reaching the end. You can also run out of time but picking up clocks extends your time in the zone. When you enter the Hyperfunk zone during coop play, all players are transported there regardless of where they are on the map. Each player plays independently but the running pace is the same. That means if you have two players and one gets out the other player can continue and the player who is out has to wait for all other players to finish.

The second mini-game is kind of like Guitar Hero but with buttons. You have to press corresponding buttons to a beat as they move down the screen. It works OK but the timing isn’t as clear as Guitar Hero and the feedback isn’t there with vibrations or anything so you tend to be too early or late sometimes because your eyes don’t agree with the beat, even though it looks like you were on time. This mini-game is played solo directly on the map so playing doesn’t affect other players during coop.

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Groove! supports both local and online cooperative play. When playing in coop mode, only one person has to be in normal difficulty to unlock prizes at the end. This is really convenient for when playing with younger children or amateur gamers. You can enjoy the game with them while allowing them to play at an easier difficulty without losing out on prizes. Local coop supports up to four players. Each HUD is added to another corner of the screen and the screen splits for local coop so having more than four players would get way too cluttered. Online coop, which doesn’t split the screen, also supports up to four players. You don’t actually see the HUDs for other players in online coop so technically there’s no reason it couldn’t support more, but four is the maximum and honestly that’s enough for the size and scope of this game.

I really like the way the coop works because it’s not limiting like most coop games. You are playing the same game on the same map, but you can work fairly independently of each other. You have your own lives and life bars, money, and presents. But present effects are shared. Or at least some of them are like invisibility. It didn’t seem like physical enhancement presents are shared like wings or rocket boots. When one player runs out of lives they become a ghost and can take a life from another player if that other player agrees to give one up. All players show up on the mini-map so you know where you are in proximity to each other. But if one of you falls down to the previous level the other player isn’t affected. The one limitation is that players can only progress to unvisited floors together. This means that if one player reaches the elevator to the next floor first then they have to wait for the other player(s) before they can progress to the next level, even if that player has fallen down to a previous level. Thankfully though, you are immune from all damage when inside the elevator so you don’t have to worry about dying while waiting for other players to get there. Even the fake elevators give you immunity when waiting for other players in them because they don’t reveal themselves to be fake until all players have entered them.

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During local coop, the game will instantly switch between shared and split screens depending on how close players are to each other. It will also split the screen if one of the players accesses the present or pause menu. The other players are unaffected. The screen splitting is dynamic so it constantly changes back and forth. It’s a horizontal split for two players, a horizontal and a vertical split for three players, and a 2×2 split for four players, all of which work fine for this gameplay. You do need a large enough monitor to play comfortably with that many players though. I can’t imagine trying to play this with four player split screen on the Switch handheld mode screen. The split can be set to dynamic or fixed. Dynamic means the screen will split based on location. The player farthest north on the map will inhabit the top screen in the event of a split. Fixed means the same player, player one, will always be on the top, or top left in the case of four players, whenever the game splits the screen regardless of your specific location on the map. This can be toggled in the pause menu at any time. There is a teleport option in coop mode that allows a player to join the rest of the group instantly but I haven’t figured out exactly what prompts this yet. I think it’s when all but one character is in the elevator waiting to move on to the next level, but I couldn’t recreate this in all situations.

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During coop there is a quick chat function which is fairly easy to use. It’s all preloaded text based comments that appear over the speaking character’s head. These can be used, whether online or offline, to give other players information like where to go or that you’re waiting for them. There is also a verbal cue to tell the other player(s) to look, but that’s only in local coop. In online coop, when characters are near each other, you can see the message appear over the speaking character’s head. When not near each other the message shows up at the bottom of the screen with the avatar of the character/player speaking. In local coop the quick chat message always appears over the speaking character’s head, requiring other players to look at that player’s screen if they’re not near each other and thus in shared screen view.

The drop in and out nature of the gameplay works really well for casual and serious play. Even the online allows people to drop in and out at a whim without ending the game. You can create private and public lobbies and jump into and out of games of any difficulty, including those you haven’t unlocked yet, easily. It will also let you continue if you jump into a game and then the original host leaves for whatever reason. The only issue I experienced with the online was once I joined a game and got all the way to the end but then it disconnected me before I got to claim the prizes. I’m also not entirely sure if players can boot you or not when you join their games so that may be what happened. Normally when you get to the end of an online game, even when you joined late, you get to claim the prizes as you normally would. You do not however, unlock Random World Hard mode by completing it online. You just get the achievement and the prizes but it remains locked in your game until you complete the Random World mode first.

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Overall, the gameplay is quite good. There are a few minor issues that one might consider bugs, but I’ve yet to witness anything game breaking. The gameplay is challenging but fair. There are definitely some balance issues from character to character though. ToeJam is way superior to Earl for example because of his much faster movement speed. There is also some sort of issue I can’t quite figure out where certain player combinations are forced in coop. Like when you try to join a game certain characters will be locked other than the character the host is already using. I’m not sure why this is. It may just be a bug because in local coop I can select any combination of characters I want including both retro and modern ToeJam & Earl at the same time. In any case, it’s a really fun game and I look forward to spending more time with it.

The greatest compliment I can give to Groove! in terms of writing is that it has any at all. Most roguelikes have little to no story for some reason. This game has a full story as well as in game dialog. It’s not a fully immersive, plot focused game by any means. But the fact that HumaNature Studios took the time to actually flesh out an entire narrative is a treat in and of itself. It’s a simple story that’s comprised of only two simple cutscenes and some in game dialog, but it still bookends the gameplay experience in a way that offers the player a reason to start and closure at the end. Really that’s all a game like this needs. The in game dialog is funny and there’s quite a lot of it. It takes place on the elevator rides between levels as well as during gameplay. It changes depending on how many players are in the game and who they are. Even with only one player there is still elevator dialog. It’s mostly funny comments about the game itself. Speech bubbles are also used during gameplay to tell the player things like when you’ve reached your maximum number of presents. At the same time that this happens, audible speech is used by the characters to clue you in when a speech bubble appears. There’s not much in the game as far as writing is concerned, but I’m happy with what was included. As a side note, this game has possibly the most comprehensive in game manual I’ve seen for any indie game ever. It’s split into 12 sections and has a ton of information. Taking the time to read through all of it before actually playing will help you considerably. It’s also important to note that the game can be played in English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and/or Portuguese.

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As this is a ToeJam & Earl game, the music is not only important but top shelf. By my count, there are 32 songs in the game. You can actually access all of these in the credits whenever you want. The music is of course quite funky, as it should be. The sound effects and voice acting are good too. Very responsive with no lag and high quality. I was also very happy with the sound mixing. The sound effects are not drowned out by the music. You can set the volume levels of the music and effects separately in increments of 5 from 0 to 100. I keep them both at 100 and it sounds fine. I really don’t have any complaints about the sound in this game and I don’t think anything else needs to be said about it. It does not disappoint.

There’s a surprisingly large amount of replay value in this game. And not just because it has random world generation and three difficulty levels. That plays a factor, as does the fact that there are nine playable characters, three of which have to be unlocked. But really there is just a ton of content to unlock and interact with. Groove! has 49 achievements and 41 unlockable rewards, each having a different effect on the gameplay. Plus you can play with other people both on and offline. There’s just a lot to do if you really want to get your money’s worth. A single game takes about one to two hours maximum depending on the difficulty you’re playing at and your pace. At $20 I think the price is OK but not amazing. You definitely can get 20 hours out of this game if you want to do everything. But if you’re just playing to complete each difficulty once then it’s a four – six hour game at best. So either make of it what you will or wait for a discount. $10 would be more than fair for this game. I give it an A+ for replay value.

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It’s quite a mazing to be reviewing a ToeJam & Earl game in 2019 unironically. It took a long time to get this project started and then another four or so years to get it released after the Kickstarter campaign was successfully funded. HumaNature Studios definitely delivered. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! is exactly what it needed to be. It has a few small bugs but really it’s a perfect recreation of the original game with modern conveniences and improvements added in a non-invasive way. I really can’t speak highly enough of this game. I definitely recommend it for people who like games that are just fun. It’s not too challenging. It’s not too intricate and doesn’t require a huge time commitment. It’s just a fun experience worth having and sharing with other people. And that’s really what ToeJam & Earl was always meant to be.

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Devotion Review – 6.9/10 (But definitely worth playing.)

Red Candle Games is a small Taiwanese studio that focuses specifically on producing games that present realistic depictions of Taiwanese culture and beliefs in a narrative focused structure while applying elements of horror. What is so interesting about their games though is that the horror aspects, like everything else in them, are not original concepts. They are realistic depictions of actual Taiwanese beliefs. That’s one of the main reasons their games are so interesting to play and why they appeal to such a diverse audience within Taiwan. Their first game, Detention, appealed to people of all walks of life and ages in Taiwan. It was an excellent 2D point and click that also managed to be quite scary. Now they’ve released their second game, Devotion, and it’s being met with similar appeal. Already there are reviews and videos of the game all over the Taiwanese internet not just from gamers but from a completely random assortment of Taiwanese citizens. This is because once again they have managed to capture an eerily realistic snapshot of Taiwanese life and culture. Even as an African American living in Taiwan and ultimately experiencing the culture as an outsider, I was extremely impressed with how well the game depicts Taiwan. So before getting into the real meat and potatoes of the game review, know that as cultural snapshots of Taiwan both Detention and Devotion are top notch experiences that are informative, entertaining (for horror fans), and highly accurate.

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Gameplay (Left) – My actual tile (Right)

Devotion is a first person walking simulator style game that takes place in a single apartment building located in, I believe, Taipei. The bulk of the game takes place in a single two bedroom apartment but there are a few sequences that have the player explore other parts of the building as well as fantasy locales for sequences taking place in the spirit realm. The graphics are an incredible step up from their previous game. This is a highly detailed 3D environment that takes place across multiple time periods and realms of reality. While it is still an indie game, the visual quality rivals that of some low to mid-tier AAA titles. The atmosphere is a mixture of vibrant hues and gloomy shadows. As the story takes place across several years of a family’s life, there are many ups and downs depicted in the same 3D space. Some moments are happy and inviting while others are scary and induce paranoia within the player. What’s truly impressive about the graphics is just how realistic they are.

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Gameplay (Left) – My actual door (Right)

As someone who actually lives in an apartment in Taiwan, playing Devotion is a very unique experience. I wasn’t aware of just how similar most apartments are in Taiwan before I played this game, but apparently they’re all pretty much the same, otherwise Red Candle Games must have snuck into my apartment for inspiration. So many small details about the game’s setting are pulled right out of my apartment. The entire time I was playing the game, my girlfriend kept commenting on all the objects that look exactly the same. From the floor tiles, to the doorbell, to the doors, to the kitchen, it’s all a bit too real. This is especially stressful when playing a horror game because it’s just too easy to place yourself within the game when it looks almost exactly like the place you actually live in. I think this is one of the main reasons so many people in Taiwan are taken with the game. It would probably be too uncomfortable of an experience to play this game in VR for me because I might end up trapped in an Inception like state of confusion about reality.

Gameplay wise, it’s a slow paced walking simulator that focuses on developing the story and atmosphere rather than on exciting gameplay mechanics. You move, look around, and click on things to interact with them. Occasionally you are required to use a few other buttons to do specific things like pull up your item menu or complete a specific active task for effect, but mostly it’s just looking around and discovering things. There is a single chase sequence that requires you to quickly run through a maze of hallways. This is the only part of the game where you can die, which I did several times. The game quickly reloads to the start of that sequence and has you try again until you’ve finally succeeded. Though this one sequence is different from the entire rest of the game’s gameplay it works just fine and requires little to no adjustment from normal play. Honestly I could have used a few more sequences of this nature to make the overall experience more exciting and increase the fear factor.

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A large part of the gameplay involves reading. There are 33 different documents to find, many of which contain clues that help you figure out how to progress forward. I don’t believe you need to find all of them to complete the game, because there is a trophy/achievement for doing so and not all of them reference specific actions you need to complete. The bulk of them provide you with background information about the narrative as well as culturally specific traditions and legends. As this is a point and click, reading and interpreting clues is paramount to reaching the end. Chances are you will get stuck and have to look over things more than one time before you realize what the game expects you to do. I ran into this situation about midway through the game. This was not an issue of language limitations, as all the text is in English and the dialog, though in Chinese, is all subtitled in English. The roadblock I ran into was cultural. You had to complete a ritual that was probably fairly obvious to most traditional Taiwanese citizens, but as an African American I knew nothing about it. It was only after reading through all the documents I collected along the way that I found the clue I needed to solve the puzzle. Though it can be frustrating while playing, I really like this type of system because it really forces you to use your skills of observation and interpretation to solve puzzles rather than just handing you the answers to move forward. Chances are you will end returning to each of the available time periods more than once before you find and figure out everything you need to finish the game.

While the gameplay is fairly basic at a mechanical level, I highly recommend that you use a keyboard and mouse if playing on PC, which I was. The game supports multiple controller types but the amount of lag when using a controller with the default settings is unbearable. I tried both a Dualshock 4 and a Wii U Pro Controller and both performed unacceptably. The walking movement is laggy and looking around is extremely inconsistent as well. But as soon as I switched to a keyboard and mouse the controls were flawless. Movement is smooth and quick to respond. Commands are highly responsive with pretty much no input lag. You do have the ability to try to change the sensitivity of the controller to make it run better, but not to the standard that it should be running at. I was able to clean up the movement considerably but there was still quite a bit of lag and the movement kept stopping abruptly after raising the sensitivity to account for the lag. You just need to use a keyboard and mouse to play this on PC. At least until some patches are added. Really the only performance problem I had once I gave up on using a controller was that the game crashed once near the end. A simple restart of the application solved the problem and no other ones ever occurred. And with the game’s auto-saving function I lost a maximum of maybe 2 minutes of progress with the restart. The game is also broken up into chapters so you can easily backtrack without having to lose too much progress. You can also use this function post-game to replay specific sequences.

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There are only a few sequences where the gameplay is slightly different from the general experience. The chase scene that I mentioned previously, a few mini-game style moments involving some puzzles, and a storybook fantasy sequence that plays like a platformer. All in all, the gameplay was exactly what it needed to be, but I do feel like there could have been more sequences outside of the traditional point and click mechanics of the normal gameplay.

As with Detention, the writing in Devotion is very personal and culturally specific. The game follows a family, mostly through the eyes of the father but sometimes from the daughter’s perspective as well. The story mixes elements of horror, mystery, and drama to touch on serious themes including parenting, religion, financial insecurity, marriage, and ultimately guilt. Much of the plot is steeped in metaphors and cultural references that don’t all necessarily translate to the larger world. I was lucky enough to be able to play through the whole game alongside a Taiwanese person to explain things to me. While this lack of cultural understanding will absolutely not hinder your ability to complete the game, there are definitely some parts of the narrative that you most likely won’t understand or be able to relate to directly depending on your cultural and religious background. The ending is a good example of this. It’s sort of abrupt and not clear what actually happened. But my girlfriend explained to me that if you read the Chinese text of the game that it’s much more obvious what actually occurred. I won’t spoil that here though. In a way it’s not necessarily a problem for the ending to be vague as the game touches on supernatural themes anyway that can be left up to interpretation by each individual player.

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I was happy with the way the story was presented, but ultimately it was a hollow overall experience for me compared to Detention. The buildup is really good and the atmosphere is very scary. Within the first 10 minutes of the game my girlfriend and I literally jumped out of our seats and yelled because of a specific occurrence. This, along with much of the marketing materials pre-release, led me to believe that this was going to be a true horror game. Sadly it wasn’t. There are a few horror sequences, and they are done fairly well, but the bulk of the game is not scary. Instead the atmosphere is used to make the player expect something scary to happen but that rarely happens throughout the course of the game. The rest of the game is more sad and introspective than terrifying. And that’s not a problem, or at least it wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t been misled into believing I was about to play a horror game. So while the writing was in no way bad, it also lacked the impact I wanted it to have. It was very similar to playing Gone Home (2013), where the game comes off like a haunted house horror game but is really just an emotional journey about the main character’s family problems and learning to accept reality. I would love to see these same visual assets reused to make a proper horror game.

Because I was much more focused on reading subtitles and documents as well as searching for clues, I feel like the sound didn’t have the impact on me it probably could have had while I was playing. There are some great sound effects at times such as the use of knocking on doors to clue you in on where you should be going next. The sound quality of the voice acting was quite good, even if I couldn’t understand it directly. The music, though few and far between, was effective and really helped bring the daughter character to life.  Overall, the sound quality was quite good, but my need to focus on reading detracted from my ability to focus on and ultimately appreciate it. It’s important to note that you could technically play through the whole game with the sound off but you would lose out on the full impact of the voice acting, the music used as part of the narrative, and some of the of the better sound effects.

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I can’t really say that there’s any reason to replay Devotion more than once. You can easily get 100% completion in the first playthrough and if you miss anything it’s easy to load one of the chapters and backtrack to the achievement(s) you missed. This is ultimately how I got the only achievement I missed during my first playthrough. And the chapter load took me right to where I needed to get to complete that achievement. So while the first playthrough is quite good, I really can’t say that there is any real replay value in this game. I have already heard rumors that extra content will be added though. The whole game can be beaten in under 4 hours so I gotta say that the $17 price tag is a bit too steep. It’s definitely worth playing and can be beaten to a 100% completion in one sitting, which I did. But my advice is to wait for a price drop.

While I liked Detention more overall, Devotion was a great step up quality wise for Red Candle Games. The jump in graphics between the two games was mind blowing. The writing, though not as scary, was just as culturally significant and impactful while remaining a personal narrative about specific characters in the world. And the narrative is totally believable. The supernatural stuff is of course open for interpretation but the real life events could be about pretty much any Taiwanese family. The gameplay works, but they really need get the controller performance up to snuff. I’m kind of curious to see how the game will perform on other platforms when it’s inevitably ported like Detention was. While I gave it a 6.9, let me be clear in saying that this score is not because the game isn’t good. It’s because it has issues with controller play, no replay value, and a fairly high opening price point for the amount of actual gameplay. The score is in no way meant to present the game as a bad gameplay experience. I simply can’t in good conscience score it higher with those issues. If the game was at say $5, had more achievements, and no controller issues, we’re looking at something around an 8/10 rating. At the end of the day, I encourage you to try Devotion. It’s an interesting experience that’s much different from the walking simulators and point and clicks you see from Western developers. It’s a solid second installment for the company and certainly worth your time.

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The Division 2 VIP Beta Review

Let me start by saying that I did not preorder The Division 2. I did play the VIP beta, because I was fortunate enough to obtain a code. But I would never preorder a game in order to demo the game. For me, since demos are now almost completely dead (written as I currently download the Devil May Cry V demo), betas are the new demos. This is even more true when you consider just how little beta feedback actually changes the final game from the beta these days. Betas are the new way we try before we buy. And developers know that which is why they’ve started doing these closed betas that require most participants to pre-order the game. It’s a dumb system and dumb choice to fall into it, but lots of people do it so developers will keep getting away with it. That opening statement was not in any way, shape, or form meant to disparage The Division 2 as a game. It’s merely to comment on current business practices I disagree with while also stating my objectivity with this review because I haven’t spent any money on the game and thus can judge the beta from a neutral position.

The first thing that needs to be said about The Division 2 is that Ubisoft did not reinvent the wheel, and that’s a compliment. I really liked The Division. I liked the core story. I loved the gameplay. I loved the map. I loved the concept of the dark zone. I loved a lot, but not everything, about the gear system. For me it was a great game. The endgame was severely lacking at the start and then by the time it released I had no interest in jumping back into the game so I never really got to experience a lot of the later content. But in general I thought it was an excellent game. Really what I wanted from The Division 2 was the same core game with a lot more polish in a new locale with better endgame content. While I can’t speak to the amount of content in this sequel based on the beta, I can speak to the gameplay and basic mechanics and those are for the most part almost exactly what I wanted.

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Improvements have been made. One of the most noticeable is in the storage. It’s organized now. As soon as you open it, you notice the specific gear type categories. Thank God! So much more convenient. And managing your gear is streamlined as well. You can mark things as junk and leave them in your backpack or stash to return to them later still marked as junk. Or you can press “Deconstruct Junk” from the sub-menu and all your junk gear is instantly deconstructed. I will never go back to manually deconstructing again, because it takes longer to manually deconstruct one item than to just mark the one item as junk and deconstruct it through the sub menu. The gameplay is still really tight, but I think the cover to cover movement is even smoother than in the first game. The weapons and gear system is pretty much the same with the color coding, numbers, and special attributes. And that’s fine. The compare items system works much better than I remember it being in the first game. Maybe I’m just imagining that part though. But in general the gameplay feels better while not totally different. The crafting is still an annoying RNG system though.

The world is much more interesting. I know a lot of people were/are whining that it’s no longer set in New York, but that’s a stupid complaint. What really matters is how alive the setting itself is regardless of where it is. The world of The Division 2 is much more alive . . . with NPCs. There are many more animals in the map now. Not just dogs. There are dear, raccoons, rats, birds, dogs, and probably other things. Hopefully a bear appears at some point. And all the animals are interactive. You can even kill the rats, which I of course tested FOR SCIENCE! There are many more patrols of enemies as well as friendly NPCs roaming the map. You can call for backup from NPCs, which is awesome. You can take control points and then they get guarded and managed by friendlies, who you can then supply with resources to make them stronger. And these control points act as fast travel points so you have a lot more efficiency when traveling around the map, if you want it. At the same time though, the world outside the DZ seemed pretty devoid of other players. I want to believe this was just because it was a closed beta, but I saw plenty of other players in the safe houses. But outside I had very little contact, or even sight of, other players that I wasn’t personally grouped with. And honestly even the DZ wasn’t as populated as I expected/hoped it would be with actual people.

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Rat postmortem.

The lack of players was hopefully the cause of this, but I had so much trouble with the matchmaking. Really that was my only serious complaint about the beta. The entire matchmaking system outside of main missions is/was absolute trash in the beta. The first problem, which the game didn’t notify me about, was that your settings are defaulted to friends and clan members only. The problem with this is that it didn’t tell me which led me to spending over an hour trying to find people to join my group from the matchmaking station with no luck. Someone on Twitter had to tell me to change my settings. But that didn’t even really help. First, the game kept switching back to friends and clan only no matter how many times I set it to open. I’m not sure what was causing this. But even when it was set to open, I had no luck with getting people to join me. I’d sit at the matchmaking station forever and no one would join. I’d get tons of invites to join others but never got anyone to join me. Now usually I don’t care about being the group leader, but because of what I consider a content management flaw, being group leader when you’re actually trying to complete stuff outside of main missions is required.

The matchmaking in main missions works great. You go to the mission start point and the matchmaking station is right there. It works quickly and effectively. And when you complete the mission it’s done for you even if you weren’t the host. The same cannot be said for random map activities. Taking control points is challenging. It’s not impossible to do solo but it is hard. The final control point on my map was too difficult for me to solo with the gear I had at the time. So I opted to try to do it with other people. I joined a random group and we cleared it. Then when I returned to my session it was still unfinished, leaving me stuck still unable to finish it and still unable to get people to join my group. My main issues with the matchmaking come down to a lack of hard controls/customization options.

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First, why do I have to go to the matchmaking station? It’s 2019. This is supposedly a map full of players constantly roaming around looking for things to do. Why can’t I just initiate matchmaking from anywhere in the world and nearby players can just join up? In Destiny I you would see people running around the map all the time. You could easily work together without being in the same group and easily join up without having to change sessions or forgo your own game’s progress.

Second, why can’t I control specific details of the matchmaking process? I would get countless invites to other groups but no one ever joined mine. Why can’t I set that option in the matchmaking? I should be able to tell the game exactly what I’m looking for, whether or not I want to be the group leader, and what specific type of activity I want to do. The matchmaking station only had six categories: random activity, random main mission, open world exploration, answer the call, and random bounty and dark zone, both of which were not available during the beta. These matchmaking options aren’t specific enough. Random activity truly was completely random. It would just pick a task with no regard to what I actually needed to do on my map and try to toss me into some random group. Random main mission seems completely pointless until/unless you’ve already done everything and are just looking to farm XP. I hope I never need to use that. Open world exploration is too vague. Instead you should be able to choose from a list of available activities on the map like take control points, farm XP/gear, side missions, or any other number of things that can be done on the map. Random bounty gives me hope because bounties are a nice new addition. They’re randomly occurring hunt missions where you have to take down a specific NPC within a time limit for special gear and additional XP. Having a specific matchmaking option for this gives me hope that there will be tons of them constantly running on the map. During the beta I only encountered two or three bounties. A dark zone matchmaking system is of course necessary and will obviously be present in the final game. I just hope they put a matchmaking station in the DZ entrance, since there wasn’t one in the beta, in the final game because the safe houses aren’t near the DZ entrance, which you can fast travel to directly.

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The answer the call feature is the beginnings of a great idea that I hope works better and easier in the final product. While you can’t match make from anywhere on the map, you can call for help. This is not when you’re bleeding out and hoping for a revive. You can send up a call directly from the map or menu at any time. People can answer your call and randomly join your group to help with whatever activity you’re doing. This was the only time I was able to get someone to join my group. It took a while, but eventually a white knight answered my call. The nice thing about this feature is that you can leave the call on while still playing the game so you’re not just sitting around waiting like at the matchmaking station. And the game notifies you when someone puts out a call nearby. The problem is it doesn’t show you on the map where they are unless you answer the call so you never really know how far it is till you’ve already committed. Another problem with the feature is that I think you have to go to the matchmaking station and use the answer the call feature to help someone else. I kept getting random notifications via ISAC that someone was in need of assistance and had put out a call. And I genuinely wanted to join these players and help them. But I couldn’t figure out how to do that from where I was when getting the notification. I hope I’m wrong and just couldn’t figure it out because the feature will only be effective if at any time from anywhere you can just answer the call, join their group, and run directly to the location of the player in need. If you actually have to go to a safe house and use the matchmaking station first then it’s a wasted concept no better than the open world exploration matchmaking feature. The matchmaking needs to be heavily improved. Being part of the Division is the main crux of the game’s plot/concept. If you can’t easily and effectively team up and work with others then it’s a waste of what’s for the most part an excellent shared world shooter.

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The Dark Zone seems much improved in some ways and worse in others. There is no longer a single dark zone that everyone plays in. Instead, like the map itself, there are dark zone districts of varying difficulty levels, each with multiple entry points. This is a way better system. It allows players to choose the level of challenge they’ll be facing and better manage their DZ experience. I kind of hope there will be some sort of management controls from Ubisoft’s side that will ensure that super high rank players can’t just roll into the noob DZ and tear through lower level players. That’s the only problem I see with a system that actively tells you where the easy and hard parts of the DZ are. It’s essentially creating a shooting gallery for advanced players. The DZ otherwise works much the same as in the first game. But now there are more marked enemy spawn points and notifications to tell you when they’re occupied so you can better manage your roaming time and not just wonder around hoping to find stuff to do. I didn’t see enough other players in the DZ, but again this was a closed beta so I assume this won’t be a huge issue in the final game. My biggest complaint about the DZ was the frequency of valuable drops. There were not nearly enough air drops taking place. In the time it took me to reach DZ level 10 I saw only two or three total air drops. This is too slow for a populated DZ. They should be happening every five to ten minutes so there’s enough swag for all players to at least have time to get to and try to fight for. And the occupied landmarks weren’t dropping enough valuable stuff at all. Many times I would clear areas and not even get any contaminated gear. While I really liked the fact that you could get some gear in the DZ without having to do the extractions, this shouldn’t be happening at the rate it was compared to finding contaminated gear. And the contaminated gear I was finding was mostly complete trash.

Episode - Screenshot 2019-02-10 02-28-56

Since there was no DZ matchmaking available during the beta, I ran the DZ solo. I liked that I was able to do that effectively. I worked with other random players I found within the DZ without ever officially teaming up with them. The system works and people are able to coordinate well within the DZ without being in groups. I was also able to kill a rogue agent, steal his gear, and extract it solo. I only saw two the entire time I was in the DZ so a 50% success rate is pretty good. The DZ leveling system is nice. You can level up fairly quickly if you stick to farming landmarks. In The Division 2 DZ levels come with special perks that only affect the DZ. There are level tiers every five DZ levels and each tier grants you a perk. Some levels have only one perk and others have you choose which one you want to implement, sacrificing the others in that tier in the process. You can respec your DZ perks but this feature wasn’t available in the beta so I don’t know what the cost or process of doing this is.

In general, I really like how the map is broken down. Each area, including the DZ is clearly marked with level range recommendations/requirements. There are a fair number of fast travel locations in each area, once you’ve unlocked them. There are events constantly appearing to farm additional XP such as bounties, hostage situations, and broadcast hacks. Even if the endgame isn’t super strong, there seems like there will be more efforts to keep the game alive past the base game. But there is definitely going to be what seems to be a lot of end game content as well.

Episode - Screenshot 2019-02-10 02-45-17

Endgame is always the Achilles heel of these types of games. It’s especially difficult when they’re not trying to go the Destiny route of adding plot based expansions at additional cost, which I can’t say will or won’t be the case with The Division 2 at this point. What I can say is that the beta featured a number of endgame clues and teases. There is of course the DZ, which I already discussed. Each mission can also be replayed on a harder difficulty. But that’s not all there is. There are definitely going to be raids because they’re mentioned in the beta’s pause menu. But there are also invasion missions. Invasion missions are replays of old mission maps with completely new enemies and plot tie-ins. But these aren’t just the same enemies with new skins. These enemies are way harder, way smarter, and way different. I finished the final (second) main mission in the beta at level six. The maximum level you could reach during the beta was level seven. That’s regular level as opposed to DZ level. Upon completing the last available main mission you unlocked special access to an invasion mission. This gave you access to three specialty builds that were much higher level and had way better gear. This gear also included an additional (fourth) weapon with a special feature. Examples included a grenade launcher and a compound bow. This mission had enemies set to level 32, more than four times higher than the enemies in the regular mission. They were a special military group that was invading the area and presumably trying to conquer Washington DC. They had crazy stuff including literal attack robots. This mission was difficult. It took me, as part of a four man team, 58 minutes to complete. It was stressful, it was scary, it was exhilarating, it was satisfying as hell once completed. While I don’t love the idea of replaying the same mission maps over and over, calling these the same missions does a disservice to the people that designed them. It is a wholly different experience. In light of all this, I’d say it looks like there is going to be a fair amount of endgame. I just hope it’s available as soon as I reach the end of the base game.

Episode - Screenshot 2019-02-08 03-10-59

Finally, there seems to be a new PVP mode other than the DZ. The Conflict mode was described in one of the tutorial messages, but sadly I didn’t have time to try it before the beta ended. Hopefully I’ll be able to try it in a public beta before the game releases. Based on the little bit the tutorial screen tells about it, I believe it’s a PVP mode with multiple specialized maps and modes that nets rewards. It also has its own leveling system, making a total of three within the game I’ve seen so far. I could also believe that many people were playing this mode which might explain why the map felt so devoid of players to me.

Overall I was really happy with this beta. It showed me the things I needed to see and experience to want to buy the full game. Gold edition seems like it will probably be necessary, but without a content timetable, I can’t say if it’s the best decision for me, as I really didn’t make proper use of the season pass in the first one. I had a good time with this beta and I think this game will do very well. It’s the same core game from the first one with a number of noticeable improvements, added modes, and a new setting. I’m definitely looking forward to retaking Washington DC.

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